An excerpt from Chapter 1, "A Day Late and a Dollar Short" from the novel The Company Car,
by C.J. Hribal, to be published in the spring of 2005 by Random House.
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NOTE: This excerpt follows a very long scene in which Emmie Czabek, the narrator, imagines his parent's wedding fifty years earlier. His parents were married on television, on a show called "It's Your Wedding," and they were hoodwinked twice by the show's producer and host, Billy Ray King. Billy Ray switched the order of the weddings performed on the show so his own pregnant daughter could be the "lucky 100th" bride and receive a ton of prizes, prizes that should have gone to Wally and Susan Marie. Also, Billy Ray lied to Wally and Susan about their wedding being officiated by a priest. He'd actually hired an actor to play a priest, so officially Wally and Susan weren't married on the first night of their honeymoon. They get married in a church the next day, which is where this excerpt begins.
Walter Charles Xavier Czabek (Xavier was his confirmation name, given him the afternoon of his faux wedding to our mother) and Susan Marie Caroline Hluberstead were joined in holy and legal matrimony on the second-to-last Friday in Lent at Holy Redeemer of Angels Church on Chicago's near north side. They got married before God, before a priest, before their parents and friends, a day after they had honeymooned at the Sheridan Hotel, unaware of the sham that had been committed against them by Billy Ray King and an actor named Joseph Clintsworth (nee Boleslawski), who later played a judge on both "Gunsmoke" and "Bonanza" (which once caused our mother to yell out, "There's the bastard who married us!" when he stepped off a carriage that had pulled up outside the Ponderosa). The bride on this particular Friday was giddier that a bride in Lent ought to be, but then how many brides show up for their church wedding just hours removed from a tumultuous and satisfying wedding night and wedding morning (this was 1952, remember), already initiated into the rites of connubial bliss, already a man's consummated bride, already, most likely, pregnant for eight or nine hours or so?
Perhaps it was not so unusual. Perhaps it was a Korean War thing, just as a decade previous it had been a Second World War thing. Lots of couples were having quickie weddings prior to the husband's shipping out, the friends in attendance with their university books stacked on the pew next to the them--a wedding, then Chem 001. It's just our parents got married on TV first, and exuberantly consummated their marriage a day early. As Billy Ray King might observe, So what? ("So," our mother would respond, "so we celebrate our anniversary on the day of the church wedding, although we really felt married the day before." It is testimony to our mother's discretion and sense of propriety that she would not tell us the complete story of their false wedding until most of us were grown and had children of our own.) After their own quickie church wedding, after what our mother came to call their "real" marriage, the bride and groom had finger sandwiches and coffee in the church basement with their parents and friends, and then they left in a borrowed car for a weekend-long honeymoon in Madison, Wisconsin, the Terraplane being too unreliable for such an important mission.
Back then Madison, Wisconsin was not much. There were the lakes, Mendota and Monona, a few supper clubs, a few lodges, some crafts people scattered about in cottages. The university was just beginning to be packed with soldiers in Quonset huts. Having saved the world and made it safe for democracy they were pretty eager themselves for the white collar union card that a diploma represented. Our father, squiring our mother about the lakes, looking at the bare trees and the lake homes and the ducks huddled in the reeds, kept driving by those Quonset huts as though they were a magnet. "I don't know what it's going to be like," our father said. "We could be living in one of those. You think you're ready for that?"
Said our mother, still giddy, "Wally-Bear, I'm ready for anything."
Our father found a gravel lane off county M and pulled into the woods.
One has to remember that one does not need much in the way of amenities on a honeymoon for it to qualify as a good one. Hoodwinked on their TV marriage, driving a borrowed car, possessing no cash to speak of, holders, if it could be said they were holding anything, of an uncertain future, our parents, young and in love and just discovering the wonders of each other's body, thumbed their nose at the universe, at fate, at their own limitations and foibles and said, "So what?" They had a very nice time. And while it is now the fashion to render such moments in all their breathy detail, let us leave them their privacy. Draw the curtains on that car in the woods, allow them their married pleasure. They deserve that much.
Of course it wasn't going to last. Nothing does. A weekend is not a life, after all, and squeezing from a weekend every possible moment for romance, mystery, and happiness only confirms its exquisite finiteness. They returned to Chicago, returned the borrowed car (it was loaned to them by Arthur, who thought his daughter ought not to take a bus for her honeymoon) and headed out for San Diego in a new Buick Roadmaster, a drive-away vehicle that our father had contracted to deliver to a doctor in LA.
It is perhaps fitting that our father didn't even own the car he and our mother drove out to San Diego. He sold his interest in the Terraplane to Ernie Klapatek, and the next car he owned outright was the one he got after he retired.
The plan was for them to continue their honeymoon on the drive out, then our father would drop our mother off in San Diego and he'd motor up to LA alone and take the bus back, reporting for active duty just hours before he was due. They took Route 66 most of the way, following the song's route except for when they dipped into Mexico for twenty-four hours of international nooky.
While it's widely believed in our family that Sarah, the oldest, was a consolation baby, the product of our mother and father administering solace to each other for not scoring the TV dowry, Sarah herself maintains she was conceived a day or so later, fully within wedlock, either in the woods ringing the shores of Lake Mendota, or during one of those festive rest stops, perhaps even--she'll waggle her eyebrows at the romance of this--in another country entirely. We don't believe her because our mother already knew she was pregnant while they were driving across the Southwest. Fast-acting hormones, according to our mother. She says she must have thrown up on every cactus from New Mexico to Arizona.
Some of the rest stops were more festive than others. At the Arizona-California border, the guards took one look at our father--a geeky-looking guy with lamp black eyes and scoops of hair already missing from his forehead--and another at our mother--a curvaceous brunette with the lips of Betty Grable and the eyes of Lauren Bacall--and they knew what they had were a couple of newlyweds. They recognized the look of a newly-married woman when they saw one. A woman dazed with sex, which wasn't quite the case--she was dazed with pregnancy--but you couldn't expect these border guards to know that. They ordered our parents out of the car, asked them to please open their suitcases. When our father protested he was told they were looking for contraband fruit from either Texas or Mexico. They had to search everything. And though they said they were sorry, they certainly didn't appear to be. Our father's suitcases received a cursory glance. Our mother's ended up all over the highway. Her entire trousseau was scattered across the car's hood and over the roof and trunk, our mother's unmentionables toyed with, then dropped. Our mother went scarlet as the guard in charge held each item up for his compatriots, one after another, then passed it on. Each guard pinched each new item between his fingers like he was holding up a skunk, only his grin showed he knew better. "And what have we here?" and "What's this?" the head guard kept saying as he examined slips, half-slips, teddies, tap pants, stockings, garters, nightgowns, negligees, bras, panties, silk stockings, camisoles. You name it, they held it up to the stark Arizona sun, then let it tail away from their fingers in the hot Arizona breeze. "What are you doing?" our mother screamed.
"Checking for fruit," they replied. "You can't take fruit across state lines."
Four years later, driving back with two squalling kids in the backseat and her tummy rounding with what proved to be me, our mother got even. Besides Sarah, she'd had Robert Aaron, another leave baby (I've often wondered if Sarah's melancholy nature might be attributed to the circumstances surrounding her conception), and I was clearly on the way. I was a welcome-back-to-the-States baby, conceived on their fourth wedding anniversary. Besides the two squalling kids, who were turning a high pink no matter how much flesh our mother tried to keep covered--she had put diapers on their arms, pinned to the sleeves of their blouses, and tied bonnets onto their heads--our mother had a load of fruit with her. Three pineapples, a sack of oranges, and bunches and bunches of bananas--big stalks of them--were piled in the front seat and between her legs. Just to see, our mother said. Just to see.
She got the same border guard, puffier now, but unmistakably him. He took one look at Sarah and Robert sunburnt and screaming in the backseat, another at our mother, still pretty but obviously far gone into motherhood, and waved us through.
Taken from The Clouds in Memphis
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Janie comes home most evenings eager only for a light beer and something non-threatening on TV. For Janie, comfort is a major issue. It disappeared completely when Stephen left and she has been years scraping herself and her family back into the middle class. At one point, right after Peter, she thought God was punishing her for trying to be comfortable. For merely wanting it. But then she thought, given what her clients make, her prices are fair and life isn't. So they're not connected. Bad things just seem to happen to her. It's a little the way she is--scatterbrained--and a little the way the world is. She locks herself out of her apartment, out of her car, leaves her car's lights on till the battery's dead, leaves money at the automatic teller machine. The machine she uses is called "Anytime Annie," and sometimes this so infuriates her that as she's walking away she leaves her keys, her money, right on the tiny aluminum shelf they provide for just such stupidities. Later she'll find her keys are being held by a security guard inside the bank, but her withdrawal has vanished.
Some people are just singled out, it seems. Major griefs and minor inconveniences: it's only by size that you can distinguish them. In the year after Peter was killed Stevie had his truck wrecked by a couple of drunk teenagers in a car that turned out to be stolen, Nikki had her car stereo stolen, and Janie herself had backed into a light pole and sideswiped a neighbor's car while parallel parking. There'd also been a break-in at her studio and her cat had been run over right in front of the house. Renting in a block where everyone else owns she already feels singled out. Now she's becoming known as "the catastrophe lady." The people in the apartment upstairs, a history professor and his wife, talk about her. She was backing her car out of the curved driveway--she had snapped the mudflap off previously, and was now smashing in the wheelwell--when a deadfall from the pin oak in the front yard landed smack on the hood of her car. The professor's words to his wife and guests (they were having drinks on the front porch before the Memphis State-Old Miss game) floated out to her. "Some people," the professor said, "just aren't born to luck."
The boy who killed Peter was a quarterback for Presbyterian Country Day. That's how she thinks of the blond boy in the blue suit and the blue and maroon foulard. When they pulled him from the car he had long strings of blond hair hanging in his eyes and a chin beard of black and blond and rust-colored wires. He reeked of alcohol. She knows this because Peter was struck by a car going sixty-three in a thirty-five zone. And he was not alone. William, a friend, was with Peter when it happened. They were trying to cross Poplar Pike. They were on the curb chatting and there seemed to be a gap in traffic and Peter stepped off the curb. William started, then stopped, then made a grab for Peter's shoulder. The car--a '59 candy apple red Plymouth convertible, boat sized, with a white interior and fins--spun Peter over the front grillwork and up the windshield and spat him off to one side the way you might send a penny spinning off a table. Only this penny--these were the words her attorney used in court--only this penny ended up dead.
William said he couldn't remember anything. Pieces only. He remembered the car, its looming grillwork, its shriek of brakes, the thud, like the sound of cars colliding, you know? Only it wasn't cars colliding. It was Peter. Peter and the boat. Peter with his cheek bruised and scratched, his legs bent up under him in a way that didn't seem natural unless you were a little kid playing Army and pretending you were dead. Kids die in poses like that. When Janie paints in her sunroom she sees across the street the children with their sticks and toy guns. The elaborateness of their death throes is appalling. They clutch their chests, stagger, throw wrist to forehead as though in a faint, then collapse to the ground, knees first, then shoulders, then their bellies slump, they twitch once, twice, an arm gets thrown out, they lie still, they jerk, they roll over, they fake electric shock, they throw out the other arm, and then finally, finally they lie still, crucified on their parents' front lawn, their heads tipped to one side.
Peter just had a little dirt on him. His t-shirt and pants were stained and smudged, his cheek was scraped and there was some grit in his hair. He'd come in sometimes looking worse after working on the car. Surely--
Janie doesn't want to talk about it but she can't not. Every day she goes to the trial and watches a parade of human beings she doesn't know or only vaguely recognizes all claiming to know her son or the boy who killed him. There are photographs, diagrams, calculations that remind her of high school trigonometry problems. If Fig. A is traveling from East Memphis at fifty-nine miles per hour, and Fig. B is a stationary object on a curb near Sound Warehouse, what will the velocity of impact be at 3:38 pm, Central Standard Time, given dry road conditions, a clear day, and six empties clinking about the floorboards behind the front seat? ....
Her attorney tries explaining due process to her. He is a serious young man with tortoise shell granny glasses and a neatly trimmed mustache and only the hint of second chin forming underneath an otherwise handsome face. He is married with two children and lives in her neighborhood. She sees him sometimes tossing an orange Nerf ball at his three-year-old son, who tries batting it with a monstrously huge banana yellow Nerf bat with an outsized blue handle. The swings are clumsy, the father relentlessly encouraging. The ball travels maybe three feet. In his offices he tries explaining reasonable doubt and jury of your peers and she's screaming, Jury of your peers? Jury of your peers? How about Peter's peers? How about a jury of people hit by automobiles? How about a row of bloody corpses, huh? Huh? Huh? And her attorney, the mild young man with the round face and the tortoise shell spectacles calmly lets his blue-suited chest and shoulders absorb her beating.
There is a problem with the boy who struck and killed her son. (She can't think of him any other way.) He's the son of an appellate court judge and is a star quarterback. The policeman at the scene recognized this. Eight hours elapsed before they gave him a breathalizer test. There seems to be an unspoken agreement among all present--judge, jury, spectators, courtroom personnel--that this was a terrible accident but not, repeat not, a criminal offense. The defense attorney, a florid man with iron-gray wavy hair and a propensity for double-breasted suits, fosters this view, repeating over and over that the freshly barbered boy in front of them should not pay a lifetime's worth of guilt and sorrow--he is already sorry--and certainly should not be criminally liable for a single moment's lapse of concentration, especially since that stretch of Poplar Pike--a commercial street of strip malls and dry cleaners and florists and restaurants with funny names like the Halfway House and Ben's Lobster Supreme and the Normal Barbecue--has neither a consistent sidewalk nor a crosswalk.
It could, the defense attorney concludes, have happened to anybody.
Janie cannot believe what she's hearing. Why hasn't her attorney leapt to his feet? Why isn't he riddling that flimsy argument full of the holes it's so easy to poke? Why does he seem to be cooperating, even acquiescing in this clean, clinical discussion of what this one boy has so carelessly, remorselessly done to her son? And to talk of that barbered boy's suffering! Twisted, grievous mess--that's what her attorney said in his opening argu-ments, and after that Janie could barely bear listening, but she did, she did, and now it's come down to this calm reasoning, this weighing and sorting of testimonials and pitches for leniency. It could not have happened to anybody. Even the way he says the word is a lie. He says anybody, not anybody. Body body body body! Don't they see? Don't they feel it? The cold rush of metal into one's abdomen, the whoof! of air dispersing, disappearing? The internal blossoming of organs loosed in blood?
It's a conspiracy of concern for the living body over the lifeless one. The boy in question is a prettified drunken quarterback who had the good fortune of being born into an appellate court judge's household. What matters most, it seems, is how to dispose of the evidence and not muck up the future for the guilty when what's done is done for the innocent.
Taken from The Boundaries of Twilight
Excerpt from "Irony, Tolerance, and Memory," the introduction to The Boundaries of Twilight: Czecho-Slovak Writing from the New World, edited by C.J. Hribal Click here to order this book online.
...You will find in this volume a number of stories and poems about sex, about death, about sustenance--physical, psychological, moral--about the irretrievable past. Sex and death, death and sex. Inextricably, obliquely, the procreative act is linked to life's cessation; it is the obliqueness that no doubt fascinates writers. Family histories (and novels) are frequently chock full of stories about such and such a child being born on the anniversary of or the actual day of death of a grandparent or great uncle, as though for any one family a certain number of souls are allotted and strict accounts are kept. If you cannot duplicate yourself or the past, you strive to create an approximation. This is true equally of writing and children. It's the same with the other great themes of existence. You connect with your past through those things that gave you sustenance. Things which are passing away. Even the food, which I mentioned earlier. My wife, a first generation American via Poland, worries with her siblings that once her mother, who came to this country in the mid-fifties, is no longer able t make the traditional meals at Easter and Christmas, they will be hard-pressed to recreate those rituals that for nearly forty years have bound them to the country of their origin. The food will still be there, but not quite the same, not quite right. And it's not something you have any control over.
Nor should you. The danger in writing about your forebears is that they tend to get lionized. In writing about the past, everything tends to be seen through a rose-colored wash. Truth gets obliterated by good-intentioned, well-meaning revisionists. The writing here avoids that. The various forebears and fictional selves presented here are not presented as icons, calcified in their purity and goodness, nor are the various pasts invoked here invoked for their nostalgic simplicity. Rather the people are presented as the stubborn, foolish, bewildered survivors and louts humans usually are. And the past is the past, not some revered holy land of perfect time. Saints are not endearing. People rife with foibles are. And you do more to honor what's been lost or left behind by presenting not what is noble and heroic but what is tragic and enduring. The writing here bears witness to the complexity, the contrariness, the inherent contradictions of being human. The horror and the humor of the everyday nightmare married to a deep and abiding willingness to believe, with tolerance as the maid of honor and skepticism as the best man--this is what is at work here, this is what these writers have lovingly, painstakingly achieved.
A proposition: If there is a Czechoslovak national character on display in these pages, it is to be found in the whimsical epigraph I've borrowed from Josef Sudek. There is joy in that little sentence, yes--the music is most certainly playing. But no small amount of irony, either--the music is far away; you can barely hear it. But you tolerate distance because the music is cheerful, and because you remember it from when it was near.
Taken from Matty's Heart
the title novella of Matty's Heart, a collection of short fiction
I've done things from necessity that hurt others just to hear. But that's changed now and for twenty-one years I've been Augsbury's town clerk, working in the back of the town hall, in an office at the end of the short corridor which has the police station on one side and the volunteer fire department on the other.
I don't like my position here, tucked away from everything but paperwork. Augsbury has no mayor. It's ruled by a town board consisting of Frank Buss, of Buss's Foods, Joe Morley of Morley Insurance, and Art Butler, Dick Bradka and Henry Dorffman, all farmers. The board drinks beer two Wednesdays a month and I do the work. Leona Griemerts is my assistant, a plowhorse of a woman capable of everything but independent thought.
We're doing tax assessments. Augsbury Township has a tad over 5000 people (1700 in town proper), and we have 1400 envelopes to stuff, address, and mail. I'm a fifty-seven-year-old postal machine and Leona, thirteen years my junior, has aspirations to be what I'm tired of being.
I give Leona a look she puts her emery board back in her purse, flips to M in the tax records, and we set to. Alice Mumphrey owes six hundred and thirty-seven dollars; John Mumster eight hundred and thirteen. All the while Leona rattles on. Chatters about her garden, planned, her children, unplanned, and her husband, whose lack of plans upsets her. What is there in the reel of sound that keeps her at it?
"You know, Matty, Howard hasn't come home from Poachers' lately till nearly closing. It used to be he'd go down there once a week, maybe twice, and have a few. I didn't mind that. Let them have it out of them, I say. A little here and there and they feel they have free rein. But that's the problem. They really get to thinking it. Howard's there nearly every night now after milking. And yesterday he didn't get up till half past eight. He's beginning to be like your Ben--"
Your Ben. As if I ever owned him.
"--And have you heard any more from Frankie? It must break your heart. Myself, I couldn't believe it when he up and ran off like that. What are those kids thinking of, anyway? Is it true he went to Australia and ate dog meat?"
Taken from American Beauty
It's not as if my mother mattered. I tell her I should be spending time on the Lake Street Beaches, not talking with her. I know it's the wrong month, October's not good for anything. But Milwaukee? I couldn't tell her that over the phone. I have always said Chicago. For it not to be Chicago now--she'd laugh. Ha, ha, minimum wage in Milwaukee--you see what I told you? She wants it, too. Envious. I got out. Stick around for what? For a plain man to take care of me? That would be true defeat. What's a man want? Mount you like a horse, children, fixing dinners, wash, the old hi-yoo at night without washing his hands first. Mama got lucky, at least my father's not a pig. A respectable man, honest, loves her even though he has no chance of understanding her. He wants things to work out, the vision of life he gets at church: man wife children farm, all things growing together, reason in the world as dependable as spring rain. He truly believes that--that things make sense. I was thirteen when I first wanted to laugh at him. Mama was getting me dressed up for one of those dances the school sanctioned, girls dancing with girls, the boys standing with thumbs through belt loops or arms folded, surrounding us like a cage, and he came in from chores, the barn smell ripe on him and said, Aren't you Daddy's little girl, and that's when I wanted to laugh. I didn't even know what ludicrous was bu even so I knew I wanted to laugh. I didn't, though I think he knew I was capable of that--laughing at honest intention. I love him with a special sort of pity.
Not like Mama. Mama tells me I did right in getting out. All the men here are the same, she tells me. I tell her men are the same everywhere. It's just some places they expect to pay for it. Men understand commerce. Mama wants drama.