The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 10, No. 1


by Daniel Handler

It was the sort of day when people walk in the park and solve problems. "We'll simply call the taxi company, David, and request a large one, like one of those vans" is the sort of thing you would overhear if you were overhearing in the park. Hank was. He heard that one, and "Let's tell them six and then they'll show up at six-thirty" and "America just needs to get the hell out of there and not look back." Hank lay on an obscure corner of the grass, eyes closed, not moving, getting cold even in the nice day, and he overheard "Maybe we shouldn't move in together at all" and "If taxi companies don't take requests the company will rent you a car probably" and "The guests can gather out on the porch and then come in when dinner's ready" and "Oh my fucking Christ! Don't look, honey, don't look! The man is dead, honey, that's a dead man, oh God somebody call the police."
     It was not a mistake. It was perfectly natural, although it ruined the whole day in the park for everyone who was there. Certainly for Hank. It made all the other problems recede for a little bit, although soon they returned, which is as natural as the park itself. Grass, trees, flowers trampled by the paramedics, a few people sticking around to watch with the small wisdom that reaches us in such moments: It is all natural. Someday we will all be dead people but in the meantime we have these problems to solve.
     The police asked bystanders who did not see it happen, but there weren't any details. Only a body, what seemed like the end of a story to anyone who spoke to the police. "I found him, officer, but I don't know anything else and I must walk around the park and talk with my girlfriend about myself because after all I did not see it happen and I did not know him."
     Hank was all packed up, like a song about a man leaving a woman. A zipper closed across his dead face like he had never been there, only a duffel bag. Hank's life was over. He kept his eyes closed, slowly figuring it out and wondering how it would go—a bright light or what—surprised that, given that we all wonder it, you would have to wait to find out like anything else.
     An interval here, nearly indescribable.
     It happened. Hank got up while the morgue guy was signing a piece of paper. He saw his own body lying on the thing but to tell you the truth that wasn't what he was most interested in looking at. He had seen himself naked and so had quite a few other people, although some of them do not remember. Hank was more curious that he could walk through the rooms of the place, but even this faded almost immediately. Hank moved through this time and did not know what to do with it, those first few blank days at a new job. Where do I go? What do I do? What time do we meet and where do we go for lunch and where are the people who are nicer? He sat on benches and tried to get in a spooky mood. But all the things he could see were all the things you see anyway. People having sex, sure, a couple of times. But Hank had seen movies in which people had sex, and those people did not know he was in the room either. We do not want to be in a room and people not to know. Alive or dead this begins to hurt our feelings. We want to be seen. We want to haunt people, if they'll have us, and if they won't have us we feel as sad as we do in life.
     And yet it was nothing like life, this thing he was living through. It was as far from life as pizza served on an airplane is from Italy, even if the plane is flying over Italy at the time. People did not see him and so he grew hungry. He did not need to eat, but who does not go into the place anyway sometimes, and order a snack something, just for something to do and because you are not a ghost? The girl at the counter stood and looked at the mouth of a honey bear. It was a clear plastic thing, shaped in the shape of a real bear, somewhat, with honey instead of blood and organs and bones. The girl at the counter was young and named Lila unless the nametag was a joke too, and she was peering into a hole in the fake bear's head to see what the problem was. "It keeps sticking!" she called behind her. Hank overheard her call it as he stood there dimly hoping she would look up and give him a donut if he asked. The donuts sat there under a clear dome, covered in icing and sprinkles, waiting to be chosen and picked up by the pretty girl's tongs. But Hank felt the thin weight of ignored and left the place without his snack. Woe filled him at least halfway. He had missed his funeral because no one had told him when it was, and always this feeling of What if this is heaven and I'm screwing it up? What if I'm also screwing this up?
     Hank kicked a few things around in the street and floated through the door of a private home. A man was opening his mail, who cares. Down the block was the neighbor, an older woman who had sent the letter. There Hank found he could pick up pens, which is where they go when you can't find them. The cat saw him do it. "Mr. Mittens, what's that?" she said. "What do you see, Mr. Mittens, that you behave like that?" Hank gave Mr. Mittens the finger, not for the first time. He walked out holding the pens like a dozen skinny roses for no one he could think of who would see him.
     But it turns out someone did. Back at the park, Hank was revisiting the scene of the crime in the hopes of haunting maybe. He walked down to the stables where the girls look at the horses and the boys wonder if it's time to go home. Hank steered fairly clear because you never know with horses. He stood on the lawn and cast a shadow over a woman eating cookies on a blanket. The cookies are a favorite of my wife's, dull biscuits with a chocolate picture on top, of a boy eating one of the cookies. The boy on the cookie sees the cookie on the cookie, so why wouldn't the woman see Hank? And she did and said, "Hey."
     "Hey yourself," Hank said, very happy.
     "You're in the light is what I mean," said the woman, but she was smiling. "Do you want to sit down so you're not blocking my light?"
     Hank got on the blanket and the sun shone on both of them. "Do I get a cookie?" he asked.
     "I don't think so," the woman said. "For years my husband ate more than his share of cookies. This is the first time I'm in the park without him. I told myself I'm going to eat all these cookies myself and Joe won't have a single one."
     "You'll get sick," Hank said.
     "That is the trouble," the woman agreed. "When the marriage is over there's no one to hold your head when you're sick in the toilet. But there were other reasons, you know. It wasn't just all the cookies."
     "Of course not," Hank said.
     The woman sighed. The joking part with the cookies relented a little, and she stared out at where the horses were living in individual pens. "It was sad, actually," she said, "and it's sad that I'm talking to a stranger in the park about it."
     "I guess you don't remember me," Hank said. "I'm Hank Hayride."
     "Hank Hayride?" the woman said. "That's your name, or are you the king of a hayride company?"
     "I'm no king," Hank said. "We went to high school together. You're Eddie Terhune."
     "High school?" the woman said.
     "Go Magpies!" Hank said. "You were in Ms. Wylie's class."
     "Hank Hayride?" she said. Eddie looked up for a moment like Hank was still blocking her light. "Hank Hayride? That can't be right."
     "It's right all right," Hank said. "I had a crush on you the whole time."
     "In Wylie?" Eddie said. "It was her with the chivalry, right? And old poems about love?"
     "You didn't even know I existed," Hank said.
     "That much is clear," Eddie said. "What was I doing in that class while you were crushing on me?"
     Hank looked over at the horses too and watched a bird land on the fence and then drop to the ground, dead or clumsy. "Fiddling with your hair," he said. "You would take this pen you had that was red with the gold type of a company across one side. The cap was a strange shape like the edge of a pier. I could draw it for you now from the memory of it. You would chew on this thing like a bone and then reed it through your hair, and your hair would curl over it in sort of a waterfall way and you never even noticed."
     "Tell me," Eddie said. "Tell me you haven't loved me ever since and followed me here or something scary."
     "No no no," Hank said. "I used to look at you and think of that song where it says it's not the way that you smile or the way you do your hair, even though it was probably both those things."
     "You're not putting me at ease," Eddie said, "in terms of are you in creepy love with me since high school?"
     "The answer is no," Hank said, "because the point is I don't like that song anymore. It's stupid, the song, and anyway I graduated high school, you know."
     "And?" Eddie said.
     "And," Hank said, "I've been in other kinds of love. My life has been hard though, I guess you'd say. But I didn't come to the park to find you. I haven't been here in a while because I got beat up here real bad, like with a knife."
     "Oh my God," Eddie said, "but you look fine. You look okay. I guess you didn't die."
     Now was not the time to tell her. It never is, right when you meet someone, slap them with a big secret when they're trying to enjoy themselves. It is natural to let the worst parts of ourselves hide in the shade, while the sun shines down on our features like shimmering hair. "I guess not," Hank said. "I guess you brought me back to life."
     There is an interval here too, and it is also nearly impossible to write about. A short version would be, Eddie Terhune gave him a cookie. But this is not the description I mean. Something closer is, my wife and I once were in an automobile. We were not married but had moved to New York and were driving someplace where inexpensive furniture might live. We were very quiet in the car, for no reason, and the land outside the car window bobbed by us, flat, unnoticed except for the landmarks that told us where to turn. We were quiet, quiet, quiet, just the engine humming us toward a sofa we might afford, or lamps, and in the quiet my wife spoke up and said something suddenly.
     "Cookies," she said.
     Why did she say this? We did not care. We laughed the rest of the way, because the point of this story is, it is not the cookies. It is the love. My wife could eat all the cookies and it would not change the love, and if she ate all those cookies I would hold her head while she threw them up, and this too is part of the love. It does not matter if Eddie gave Hank a cookie or not. The cookies do not matter. It is not the cookies that matter, or the donuts suffering under the dome, or the horses in the pasture or the honey in the bear or the duffel bag that will close around us when our day in the park is over. There is only the laughing across the land as the car moves you along, on your way someplace with love in the car. It is not the things; it is the way the things are done, and Eddie and Hank fell in love in the way it is done. Naturally they went to restaurants and naturally they went to bed, and they were comfortable in the bed at the end of the evening. Eddie even stood up from the bed without a sheet around her body to get a glass of water. She was thirsty, but what mattered was her body, not shy, in the doorway of the bathroom as they looked each other over again.
     "You have a handsome face," she said, "and you haven't let yourself go in the ass department, Hank Hayride."
     "No," Hank said. "You're thinking of another guy. Remember Keith, from the swim team? He even had a handsome name."
     "Your name is handsome enough," said Eddie. "Are you hungry? Do you want to go out someplace? It's past lunchtime now, or an early dinner. Around the same corner I live on is a magic Chinese restaurant. The Lantern something. Something Lantern. I haven't been there since Joe, when we had a fight. It was a big fat fight, but I feel like I lost that weight, so we could go and have the fried dumplings."
     "Sounds good to me," Hank said, "and maybe a sesame something. Chicken."
     "Did you really go to high school with me?" Eddie said. "Because I still don't remember you from then, and I could check around."
     Hank stared at the ceiling and sang the song:
     We're the Monteverdi Magpies,
     And we're here to win the game,
     From coast to coast we win the most,
     And you'll go down the same.
     Ev'ry team is beaten,
     And ev'ry player dies,
     You stupid geeks will feel the beaks
     Of the pow-er-ful Magpies!

     By now Eddie had joined in and flopped down on top of Hank in his sheet. "It's a terrible verse," she said to his cotton stomach. "That second verse with every player dies. I can't believe they allowed it like that, yet we all sang it with glee. I was even in the glee club."
     Hank remembered her in the sweater they made you wear. Back then her lips were all with the singing and now they were kissing him like a miracle. The miracle was, she could see him, Hank, after all this time. "I know," he said.
     "I guess death was nothing then," she said quietly. "When I married Joe it was, you know, until we part. But we parted in a Chinese restaurant."
     "I'm not sure we should go there," Hank said.
     Eddie lifted up the sheet and let it fall parachuted over her like a ghost costume. "Sorry," she said. "Here I am trying with you like a fresh start, and I keep bringing in the ghost of Joe. It's a good restaurant. I won't mope when I'm there."
     "It's okay," Hank said, and he knew this was maybe the time to tell her about himself and that day in the park. But he did not want to, which was natural. He could picture the heartbroken scene if he admitted what was known only by Mr. Mittens. Why do this? Why behave this way? There are so many of these ghostly scenes already, the trails of things that did not happen quite. I was in the building days before it collapsed, I walked across that street hours before the accident. I almost married him and now look. I dumped her and look what happened. I'd be rich now, dead, married, happy, run over, covered in lava. I have a dream of what would have happened if what happened instead hadn't. Hank looked at Eddie and dreamed up what would happen if she learned how he was, that instead of blood inside his heart he was only a ghost, slain on the lawn like a dead bird. She would think less of him once she knew there was less of him. Instead he suggested a diner, but Eddie was asleep, her face thick with a nap of dreams. He floated away from her and looked through her stuff. It is natural to do this and natural to stop yourself so the person will not be angry when they awake. Hank did not stop himself. "Dear Joe," the letter said.

The window rattles without you, you bastard. The trees are the cause, rattling in the wind, you jerk, the wind scraping those leaves and twigs against my window. They'll keep doing this, you terrible husband, and slowly wear away our entire apartment building. I know all these facts about you and there is no longer any use for them. What will I do with your license plate number, and where you hid the key outside so we'd never get locked out of this shaky building? What good does it do me, your pants size and the blue cheese preference for dressing? Who opens the door in the morning now, and takes the newspaper out of the plastic bag when it rains? I'll never get back all the hours I was nice to your parents. I nudge my cherry tomatoes to the side of the plate, bastard, but no one is waiting there with a fork to eat them. I miss you and love you, bastard bastard bastard, come and clean the onion skins out of the crisper and trim back the tree so I can sleep at night.
I met a man, Joe, but he is a ghost of a boyfriend compared with you. He will not treat me well, you bastard, and he is already made of lies. He says he went to my high school. He says he's Hank Hayride when I say I could check. But I don't need to check, Joe. I know Hank Hayride died like they say in the paper, like I know how to mix that drink you like, with the gin and brandy and lime and sugar and bitters and you fill it with ginger ale and you slice a cucumber if you have one in the crisper. It's a Suffering Bastard, you bastard. I must have made up my new boyfriend so I wouldn't be alone in this room. I must be desperate sad, all without you. Come back to me, you prick. You took all the pens except this one and you left me all the cookies and none of it matters without my Joe. God I hope I never send this letter. I'm going to go to bed now and lose a lot of sleep over you.
     Hank shut the drawer and reset things the best he could so that he'd be undetected. He leaned his forehead against the creaky window and watched people walk by without noticing him. A damp policeman. Two girls returning from someplace, rolling suitcases in a hurry. A guy looking for a newspaper that could work as an umbrella if you were desperate enough. No one.
     "Cookies," Eddie said, and opened her eyes. She could still see him, and for a minute they were both still happy. "I had a dream," she said, as if there aren't enough supernatural elements in here, "that I had another boyfriend who I think filmed things with a camera. We were making love in the woods," but something happens when you die. You are no longer interested in other people's dreams. "And so the other guy reached in his backpack and I thought it was a weapon, but then I saw it was the same kind of cookies . . ." Her voice evaporated into Hank's disinterest. He stood in the doorway and wrapped the sheet tighter around him like an angry king.
     "How long have you known?" he said.
     "You bastard, you read the letter," Eddie sighed, and dabbed a fingerprint swipe underneath her eyes like she might cry later. "It was in a drawer," she said. "It was a secret for a reason."
     "How long," Hank said again, "have you known?"
     "As long as you haven't told me," Eddie said. "You think I don't read the paper, Hank Hayride?"
     "There are five newspapers sitting on your stoop still in plastic bags," he said.
     "And," Eddie said, "you were holding my pen in the park. It was part of the whole handful of pens you were holding, a red pen with gold letters, and you put it in that story you made up. How could you do that, when I said first thing that I was already sad, and with a broken heart? You took me for a ride, Hank. I thought we were going someplace and all the time I knew we were going someplace else, to answer your question."
     "Don't look at me, please," Hank said, "like I'm in your light. I know a place with fancy drinks. Let me buy you one, Eddie, and we can sit together."
     "A drink won't matter," she said.
     "Then have one," he said. "We learned things about each other, Eddie, but couldn't we go out anyway?"
     "You weren't what you said you were," Eddie said. "Story of my life, it wasn't what you said." She ran her hand down the wall sadly, like it was the last of the house. "I suppose it never is," she said, "and I'm hungry."
     "They have food there too," Hank said. "Great music and food and fancy drinks."
     "No no no," she said. "It's raining. Let's break up at the diner, Hank. It's around the same corner. Put your shoes on, baby."
     She looked at his shoes and this is when she cried. Hank floated toward her. He knew this must be what she had said to her husband, about the shoes, yet what else could he do but put them on? Her gentle blouse was on the chair with her tossed keys, and they went out under an umbrella Eddie had bought yesterday so her hair would survive the season. Outside people hurried. A newspaper came in handy, but not as handy as the guy would have liked, and a little boy was crying on the corner with the wailing you can never console. It is natural, this heartbreak, which arrives first when you are young and never leaves your house no matter where you move, but still everyone wants the kid to stop the fussing and shut up.
     Inside at least it was dry, although ugly. Hank and Eddie walked past a thirsty-looking woman they did not know and a lonely boy at the jukebox and sat down as far as possible from the windows, where old Christmas paintings waited to be scraped away. It was not a good day to eat at the diner, dead or alive. Nothing on the menu was tempting, and a neglected chalkboard in the corner suggested that today's soups were nothing. No soups. They unfolded their napkins and, I'm sad to say, they bickered in the back.
     "I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier," Hank said. "We met in the park and talked immediately, and I guess I didn't want to. I never meant, you know, to hurt you."
     "That," Eddie said, "is the oldest line in this book."
     "Lines get old because people say them over and over," Hank said. "It's the same story—we all lose our charms in the end. I knew when we met with the cookies. I want to love you and take you pretty places. Yes, I have things wrong, but also I can walk through walls if you'll let me show you. Don't abandon this here. Don't find some other boyfriend and leave me alone with only the cats for company." He looked at her and there it was, the panic of screwing up heaven and earth if you say the wrong thing and seal the envelope. Someone can break your heart, leave you dead on the lawn, and still you never learn what to say to stop it all over again.
     "I don't think so," Eddie said, and this wasn't it either. "I thought you were nice and I wouldn't be alone, but I must have been dreaming. I should have my head examined, wishing you into my life. Someone should peer into my head for letting you into my house."
     "You could have told me you knew," Hank said. "If you think you can find a man who doesn't have secrets, then you're still dreaming."
     "You're a ghost!" Eddie cried. "You're empty and you have nothing inside you. I'm tired of men I have to shape into something."
     "I'm tired too," Hank said, and he said no more. He thought she knew what he meant, but the biggest mistake you can make is thinking they know what you mean. If you mean that you are also exhausted and feel dead in the park, and that you ache for a love to pull you to your feet and make you human again, then you must say so. If you have soup to sell, you must write it on the chalkboard or no one will buy your homemade soup. Otherwise they think you mean, "I'm tired of arguing and I give up on you." Naturally they will think this, and naturally they will give up on you, and you will give each other up in a grimy diner. Hank was tired and Eddie was tired, and if they were both tired they should have gone to bed, but instead Eddie said nothing too, just sat and watched her boyfriend vanish from her eyes.
     So, the same old story, they decided not to see each other anymore. Hank felt himself fall away as the decision was served up on a sticky plate. He could see through his own body barely, the curl of a napkin through his hand on the table, and the sticky floor through his legs like he was a clear shell, something shaped in the shape of Hank, as Eddie looked up at him and slayed him all over again. He felt the last of him slip away. He would not reappear, Hank Hayride. He was dead to the woman in the diner. He was dead to her.
     But there was more, as there always is when the love goes. She was haunted, naturally. Otherwise what is the point, why leave your rickety house, and why this yo-yo world giving us things and yanking them back? Hank Hayride haunted her. Naturally he haunted her and he should haunt her, for what good are the dead if they do not haunt us, what is the point of these lives? Read instead the names of people who died before I dreamed they would: Amanda Davis, Jacques Hymans, Phil Snyder, Samy-Leigh Webster-Woog, with his odd and agile dancing like a very bad figure skater on the ice; read the names you think of when you are in bed losing your own sleep, for the names don't matter. What matters is how they haunt us, when the love has floated away and we're alone in the diner. Over by the windows, the lonesome boy and the thirsty woman were all in a commotion in another story, and Eddie would have another one too. Perhaps she would drive a taxi, or pilot a plane, and once again feel the land shaking happy beneath her. But now Eddie just sat in the back, all the fight drained out of her, and she felt the haunting, and she sipped the bad coffee, and at last in the roar of the rain she gave up the ghost.
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