SUPER PRIZE SURPRISE YAY!
Every successful writer has one. No, not a spouse with health insurance, but that one story he or she cannot seem to place. There are only precious few writers, even amongst the Big Names, who can truly publish at whim. When you see a book by a favorite author that contains his correspondence with Dick Cavett, or some doodles she drew on a notepad in an airport, or when your idol finally publishes a gift book-sized volume of short essays on "the writing life," you know that he or she has finally unloaded the albatross story somewhere. (In fact, the book you just found probably contains it.) The rest of us, on the other hand…
Now that story may be good, or it can be very very bad. The vision may be too utterly personal, or just too damn silly, for anyone to take seriously. The submission of this beloved but awkward tale may bring the first rejection slips a writer has seen in years. While publishing big names can bring status and income to a publication, publishing their wonky nonsense makes everyone involved look bad. Fans tsk-tsk about what a tedious old whore their hero has become, editors smile and suck their lips against their teeth at conferences and when explaining the matter to publishers and critics, and perhaps, finally, even the writer herself spends a night staring at that tumbler in front of her that was once, twice, three times filled with whisky and thinking, "Christ, why am I such a miserable shit?"
Well, frequent readers of this column have probably figured out why I am such a miserable shit; I can’t even afford whisky! Have you ever tried getting drunk by sucking the cheapest vodka they make (the kind with potato hunks floating in it) through a Britta filter? It actually works, but it’s not that languid, soothing kind of drunk. It’s more that "I’ve slipped on some black ice and ate a mouthful of my neighbor’s Lincoln Town Car and it has one of those WHOOPWHOOPWHOOP-weeeeeeEEENNN alarms and I’m choking on my own goddamn teeth and can’t move my left leg and nobody ever comes out to check on the alarm because it goes off three fucking times a night" drunk.
But I do have this little column here, and it is my solace between street spills. And I also have a story I can’t seem to sell. (Not that I’m all that successful, but hey, you’re here, aren’t you?) And Tim and Heather have this lovely but awful habit of doing whatever I tell them, so here it is. And it’s also a contest! After reading the following story, "Solidarity Forever", send your guess as to the most common reason it’s been rejected, along with your name and address, to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send the first person with the right answer a present!
Ariel Dahlen, acting in solidarity with the mothers of the Ivory Coast who were convinced by a Nestlé advertising campaign to feed their newborns formula rather than breast milk – leading to an increased risk of infant staphylococcal infections, dehydration, pneumonia, botulism, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome – took her coffee black. Her boyfriend, River Hamilton-Shevin, ground the beans – his own blend of beans from the Maya Vinic Coffee Cooperative (Chiapas, MX) and Ethiopian Yirgacheffe – each morning in his KitchenAid KCG200BU Classic-Series Model A-9 Burr Coffee Mill. Ariel always wore earplugs to bed because of the apartment’s proximity to the Smith and 9th Street F Train stop, so it was the smell of the coffee, not the horrid sound of River’s machine, that woke her each morning.
It was over coffee and a spread-out copy of the Sunday New York Times one morning that Ariel and River decided that their project should be to identify and locate the single poorest, most oppressed human being on this planet, and have sexual relations with her.
River was wary at first: "Heterosexual sex is by nature rape, ergo an oppressive mechanism," he said, and he believed this. Indeed, in the bedroom his job was to watch Ariel masturbate to completion while he played the recorder. River himself didn’t masturbate; instead he assumed the eagle pose, or Garudasana, and concentrated on the yonic void until he either achieved orgasm or got a cramp and had to stop. Ariel would rub his calves. "Perhaps we should fuck the world’s poorest, most oppressed" – he dreaded completing the sentence, so made it a question – "…man?"
"No." River knew he was wrong then, as Ariel didn’t complete her utterance in the form of a question. Then she appeased him. "A man, well, that would still be heterosexual sex for me? And wouldn’t that further problematize the power dynamic as I’d be engaging in a heteronormative performance on your suggestion in order to perpetuate your privilege to choose your sexual partners and the genital-mix of our ménage?"
River agreed. Having achieved consensus, the pair started their research. River sketched out a quick formula on the margins of the essay section in the New York Times Review of Books. The most oppressed person, he reasoned, would be a female, HIV+, and in prison in the most oppressed country on Earth. The most oppressed country would have to be the poorest, or at least amongst the poorest, politically unstable, and the site of postcolonial struggles. In a fit of pique and vestigial social-patriotic masculinity, River decided to swap out "victim of American imperialism" and replace it with "victim of French imperialism."
"Comoros?" River asked Ariel. "It’s a Muslim state, and divided by French claims on one of their islands? It’s ruled by a colonel, so that’s always awful?"
"Oh good?" Ariel said, though she kept up the pleasing-to-River coo of phrasing everything as if it were a question, as to be definitive was to be reductionist, and reductionist thinking made River so upset he’d get a stomachache and sit around all day frowning, face obscured by his blond dreds, with one palm on his belly, drinking lapsang souchang (even though that tea has caffeine and no reliable fair-trade source) and flipping through that one fucking issue of Clamor that had a picture of him in it over and over again. "Because I minored in French, and I know a woman who is heavily involved in the lemur issue in Madagascar, which is right by there, so we have some contacts?"
Ariel made the phone calls and finally got a name from her friend who had actually forsaken the lemurs to take up the issue of Mayotte independence. Charline Abdallah, educated in Paris, now a political prisoner/pickpocket and in line for execution, had written several letters to international friends and political observers describing conditions in the prison. The prisoner in the cell across from hers, known only as Goat as she had been found guilty of attempting to steal goat cheese, lay languid in her own filth, weak from AIDS, and able only to cough for mercy during the beatings regularly administered to her.
She was perfect.
Greetings! I hope this letter finds you whole. I would ask you to read this letter through first, before reciting it for Mother. Be wise in your excisions, dear cousin, for this shall be my last letter.
The conditions here had continued to improve for me thanks to the support from the activists. I was told that nearly fifty letters arrived on my behalf from France and the United States. However, I can no longer in good conscience accept help from the West, nor will I fight my fate any further.
One week ago the tier was disrupted in the early morning hours by the entrance, with a guard, of two whites, a man and a woman with pale skin. Not tourists; too serious-minded, and they had not a trace of a suntan between them. Their clothes and crinkled faces betrayed them as Americans instantly, as did the rounded accents of their English. They were let into Goat’s cell by a smiling guard and stepped carefully around the offal and filth that had collected on the floor. The woman produced a cheap blanket from a sack she was carrying and draped it not over Goat, but directly onto the floor, then knelt down on it. The man began to undo his pants and fondle himself, quickly growing stiff.
The woman, a pinch-nosed blonde, slid her hands through the few wisps of hair Goat had left, then raised her head. The woman guided Goat’s head, ignoring her coughing, to her own breast, and then thrust her shoulders back in a sexual manner. "Come to me," she said, "come to Ariel." Goat twitched and tried to jerk away, but her body was weak, like bones wrapped in paper. The woman kissed Goat, not how a saint would kiss a dying woman, or even how a lover might kiss another, but the way in which a whore might kiss the Devil were it her only chance to get out of Hell.
From then on, it was a frenzy. The man kicked off his pants and pushed his erect member into Goat’s mouth, while the woman bit down hard on to the flesh of Goat’s breast, then tore and yanked at the deflated organ like a dog worrying a bone. They started screaming, the couple, in English. I wonder still if they were so free with their profanity because they believed that neither I nor anyone else in the tier of cells knew English, or because they believed that we must. The man bellowed, "It’s like fucking a dry cunt! River likes to fuck!" and the woman seemingly responded by pushing her hips between Goat’s legs to open them, then punching Goat around the pelvis.
Pardon me, Cousin Moinesha, but you will understand, I hope, why I relay all this graphic information to you, by the end of this letter. The couple never touched one another; Goat was a conduit for their appetites. The woman produced a bright pink phallus from her sack and with a complicated harness attached it to her own mons pubis. She penetrated Goat’s anus while the man licked and chewed his way down Goat’s neck, throat, and breast. There was blood on their mouths, Cousin, like beasts. Goat could not defend herself, but could scream for mercy, though even had the couple understood they clearly would not have complied.
Do you understand, Cousin? Goat screamed. Even the worst beatings of the embargoes could not raise a scream from this woman, who was more corpse than living flesh and had been for all the three months I’ve been imprisoned with her. But for these Americans who raped her, she screamed. They tossed her about like a bundle of sticks, phalluses both flesh and plastic penetrating her mouth, vagina, and anus. They did not stop when Goat finally went limp, but rather began licking out the wounds they’d left on her, and speaking again. These words I too knew: "privilege…solidarity…unity…" They urinated on her, then seemed to pray or meditate together, then waited, sitting in a glassy-eyed ecstasy.
As the sun set, the guard came again. As the prisoners had been fed the day before, I knew he was coming to retrieve the Americans and perhaps collect the second half of his bribe. Upon seeing the pair, disheveled, bloody, and matted with sweat, filth, and the fluids of their generative organs, however, he gasped. Cousin, I have never heard of an embargo gasping. Then his face turned to stone and he left them.
Only hours later did sensibility return to the Americans. Then they began to talk: chirping, giggling, asking one another questions. "Are you hungry? Can you see the hands on your watch?" They slept for a long time and the next morning were not fed. The guard had brought nothing for them, but they slept through the meal anyhow. Not until that evening did they awake. The man pounding on the bars with his feet and hands, and the woman screeched and screeched like a dying goat, and used her prosthetic phallus to beat against the walls of the cell. They chanted "Set us free! Set us free!" and when others on the tier joined in, they changed their slogan: "two-four-six-eight / the U.S. will re-tal-ee-ate!"
Mercifully, that evening, the tetanus began to set in. The woman’s jaw stiffed first, and through it she seethed. "See!" she hissed. "…needed vaccin-ay-shuns." The man shook his head. "No, they’re made with mercury. Third World children are poisoned by mercury. This was all to be an expression of our ultimate denial of First World white privilege. You lost control! It was you who brought this upon us!" And the woman declared him a patriarch who believed in the myth of Eve’s sin. Finally, his jaw began to lock as well. They just clawed at each other weakly then, aiming for eyes and genitals but ultimately simply embracing and weeping.
Goat’s body began to smell. I called for the guards in French, as sometimes they respond well to that tongue, and the one who had led the couple in two nights before called back that he was waiting. He fed us surreptitiously the next morning, tip-toeing comically to avoid rousing the couple, who would spasm and twitch so violently, even in their delirious sleep, that I was sure I heard bones snapping under their clenched screams.
Finally, they died.
I am ready to be executed, dear Mother and dear Cousin Moinesha. This decision is a sudden one, I admit, and comes no doubt as a bolt from the blue to you both. But understand that I shall never give up the struggle for independence. However, I no longer believe that I and my few allies in the West can best uphold the struggle. I–
Cousin Moinesha stopped reading there, interrupted by Mother’s howl. Moinesha had been startled five minutes prior when Mother had shoved Charline’s letter into her hands and demanded that she read it aloud, as always. Mother was illiterate, but there was something in the length of the letter – a whole page covered in tiny, frantic scrawl, on front and back – that made her nervous. Moinesha tried to skim ahead, but only managed to leave out the part where Charline asked her to censor the letter during her recitation. She’d read the whole thing, rapt and even aroused, her knee jiggling and mouth cottony, forgetting Mother entirely, until the scream and the slamming of the screen door.
Mother ran through the streets of the city, the machete she used to harvest wild fruit in her hand. The embargoes saw her rushing toward the market, but did nothing. This was interesting to watch. And it was probably nothing anyway; some man must have fucked and impregnated another daughter out of wedlock. There are ways to handle that sort of thing.
The marketplace was nearly a mile away and Mother was no athlete. She felt skewers in her throat and lungs. An older man carrying kindling on his back called out to her and she answered with a sharp "Allah!" and a wave of her knife. Then, the marketplace. Women in their little booths sitting before fruit and flowers and bolts of fabric. Children in the street, playing with pebbles and yelping as they chased one another. A café with Western tables and large umbrellas emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo dominated.
The first white man she saw. The first white man she saw! Rainger Vioget was it. He was in IT, and working with a non-profit to protect the coral reefs around Comoros by setting up wireless webcams offshore so that people could check out the flora and fauna with their web browsers, donate money, buy important T-shirts, and even write their authorities and the United Nations to express their pro-coral reef opinions. He was enjoying an Orangina and thinking about buying a nine year-old girl for the evening later when Mother stamped up to him and planted her machete in him, cracking open his nose and skull.
Blood geysered from Rainger’s head like water and steam from a cracked pipe, coating Mother as she sputtered and screamed. Then from the wound spilled rainbows and the song of a thousand ocarinas. The red mist expanded into pink clouds, rising and swirling above the marketplace. Mother raised her arms high and ululated, the blood on her face evaporating, following the howl into the sky. The clouds split open and it began to rain Euro coins and crackerjacks. The children whooped with glee, and slid into the mud of the square to grab as much as their hands could carry, to shove the coins in their pockets and shoes and pants. Mother kicked Rainger’s carcass and guzzled the rest of his Orangina.
From the tall trees at the edges of the forests beyond the marketplace flew armies of lemurs, now all with cartoon angel wings. They swarmed to the roofs of the low kiosks of the market and tap-danced, chattering and singing in their own special language, which sounds just like happy cooing infants. A few had teeny banjos. The sun, a smiling yellow face with high cheekbones and bright blue eyes, broke through the clouds and with two scoops in his flaring flaming hands, poured massive numbers of AK-47s and plenty of ammo down onto the island. The guns floated like dandelion seeds into the hands of ready little girls with flowers in their hair.
It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw.