Table of Contents
Also by Robert Olen Butler
The Alleys of Eden
Countrymen of Bones
On Distant Ground
A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
The Deep Green Sea
Had a Good Time
From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction
(Janet Burroway, Editor)
Copyright © 2009 by Robert Olen Butler
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, or the facilitation thereof, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Any members of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or publishers who would like to obtain permission to include the work in an anthology, should send their inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003.
Stayin’ Alive (from
Saturday Night Fever
) Words and Music by BARRY GIBB,
MAURICE GIBB and ROBIN GIBB © 1977 (Renewed) CROMPTON SONGS LLC and GIBB BROTHERS MUSIC All Rights for CROMPTON SONGS LLC Administered by WARNER-TAMERLANE PUBLISHING CORP. All Rights Reserved Used by Permission You Should Be Dancing Words and Music by BARRY GIBB, MAURICE GIBB and
ROBIN GIBB © 1977 (Renewed) CROMPTON SONGS LLC and GIBB BROTHERS MUSIC All Rights for CROMPTON SONGS LLC Administered by WARNER-TAMERLANE PUBLISHING CORP. All Rights Reserved Used by Permission
Too Much Heaven Words and Music by BARRY GIBB, MAURICE GIBB and ROBIN GIBB © 1978 UNICEF MUSIC All Rights Administered by UNICHAPPELL MUSIC, INC.
All Rights Reserved Used by Permission
All By Myself Music by Sergei Rachmaninoff Words and Additional Music by Eric Carmen Copyright © 1975 ERIC CARMEN MUSIC, INC. Copyright Renewed All Rights Controlled and Administered by UNIVERSAL—SONGS OF POLYGRAM INTERNATIONAL, INC. All Rights Reserved Used by Permission
Proud Mary Words and Music by John Fogerty Copyright © 1968 Jondora Music Copyright Renewed International Copyright Secured All Rights Reserved
A portion of this work originally appeared in
Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America
eISBN : 97-8-080-21989-3
Grove Press an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc. 841 Broadway
New York, NY 10003
09 10 11 12 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
for my son, Joshua
wherever we end up, let’s order the tasting menu
How comes it then that thou art out of Hell?
Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it.
“From Broadcast Central in the Great Metropolis where all rivers converge,I all storms make a beeline, and all the levees look a little fragile, it’s the
Evening News from Hell
. And now here’s your anchorman, looking a little fragile himself, Hatcher McCord.” The voice of Beelzebub, Satan’s own station manager, mellifluously fills Hatcher McCord’s head from the feed in his ear. He squeezes the sheaf of papers with both hands, and he knows even without looking that they’re blank by now and he’ll be on his own—the last thing he wants is to rely on the teleprompter, though he will be compelled to try—and yes, he’s feeling a little fragile—and the three dozen monitors arrayed before him burst into klieg-light brightness with his face pasty and splashed with razor burn and dark around the eyes.
“Good evening,” Hatcher says, from the teleprompter. “Good evening, good evening, good evening,” he continues to read. “Poopy butt, poopy butt, poopy butt.” And he wrenches his eyes from the scroll that is about to drop its baby-talk irony and get into some serious obscenity. Hatcher has been allowed to keep his anchorman ability to improvise, though even in his earthly life when he had to do this, which he did most every night—to cut or to expand to fit the time hole—we’re eleven seconds heavy, we’re twenty seconds light—he churned with anxiety at the grasp of every phrase. He understands, of course, that this anxiety is why he’s allowed to keep the skill. And Satan does indeed seem to want the news to be the news every night. Hatcher knows he gets to pull this off, though that doesn’t lessen his worry.
“Tonight,” Hatcher says, “a follow-up to last night’s lead story: is Hell expecting a Heavenly visitor? Will there be a new Harrowing? Also, a tsunami on the Lake of Fire temporarily incinerates fifty thousand. We’ll have an exclusive interview with some of those immediately reconstituted on the beach—Federico Fellini and a dozen fat Italian women in diaphanous gowns carrying parasols. Later, in our ongoing series of interviews, ‘Why Do You Think You’re Here?’, we speak to the Reverend Jerry Falwell and to George Clemens, inventor of the electric hand dryer for public restrooms.”
With this, Hatcher suddenly has no more words. He is struck utterly dumb and he stares into his own face arrayed before him six screens high and six screens across, frozen in wide-eyed silence. He started this feature himself—the Why-You’re-Heres—and he knows Satan was pleased—the Old Man copied his laudatory e-mail to the “allhell” list—though of course Hatcher also knew that his own personal interest in the feature was transparent. But it serves Satan’s purpose to keep everyone worrying and regretting and puzzling, keep them torturing themselves. Hatcher as much as anyone. So he watches his own faces now, and all that cycles in his head is the same question—why the fuck are you here?—and he has no further words to say, even though there’s only dead-air going out to all the TVs in Hell. His brow and cheeks and nose before him are suddenly glistening bright with sweat. He opens his mouth and shuts it. He waits and waits, and then he knows he can continue.
“And tomorrow,” Hatcher says, “our newly arrived homemaking specialist will show you how to prepare organ meat. Your own. Eat your heart out with Martha Stewart. She’ll eat hers.”
“Commercial!” Beelzebub booms in Hatcher’s earpiece. “Now!”
Hatcher does not flinch. In his gravest evening tone he says, “But first these messages,” and he waits and he watches his own face waiting and waiting on the screens, going out like this into every corner of Hell, and just as he has become accustomed to the pain of Beelzebub’s shouting in his ear, he has come to wait out this inevitable delay of the cut-away with his lips set in a thin, knowing smile, his eyes steady. I’m learning, Hatcher thinks. I can control this. Because it’s trivial. Because it just gives me false hopes.
Finally the red light goes dark on his camera and his face disappears from all but the central four screens, replaced by the “Your Stuff” logo. Hatcher sees it written on lined tablet paper in Prussian Blue Crayola in his own hand as a child. The commercials are tailored for each viewer, reselling everyone all the stuff they ever owned in their mortal life, one piece at a time, but the toll-free order number turns out to be a litany of their childhood sorrows and they can’t hang up and they can’t take the phone from their ear. Hatcher forces his eyes away from the screens as his complete collection of Marx Toys Presidents of the United States comes up on the screen, all five series of two-and-a-half inch white plastic figures. He delighted in Series Five especially, Ike and his immediate predecessors. Hatcher had them all meet every day to discuss the previous day’s news, Ike and Truman and Hoover and Coolidge and FDR, who stood erect and unaided, his legs miraculously restored. And Mamie was there too, to serve coffee. But Hatcher keeps his eyes averted now because he knows about the toll-free order number firsthand. The last time, he tried to buy a book from his childhood, a Wonder Book about a magic bus that could fly, and he heard an hour riff on his father.
Hatcher swivels in his chair and pops his earpiece. His cell phone is vibrating in his coat pocket, the phone bouncing around fiercely, banging the bruise on his thigh from where he walks into the corner of his kitchen table each morning. He grits his teeth at the inordinate pain and he stands up, trying to dig for the phone, which bounces on, briefly touching Hatcher’s crotch and initiating what will be an irreconcilable priapismic erection lasting way more than four hours. At last he drags the phone out of his pocket, and the vibrating instantly ends, and he sees from the missed call list that it’s Anne. His Anne. She’s hysterical still, he knows. He also knows he will never get a signal to call her back. Yet his hands move on their own, trying and trying to return the call, though he has never been able to get through to anyone. And still his hands try. Stop now, he tells his thumbs, which are pushing “end” and “call” over and over.
The phone also shows an unanswered voice mail. This is Satan. No one can get through to voice mail but him. Hatcher tells his thumbs to retrieve the voice mail, and this they finally obey.
The voice is smarmy smooth. “All right, McCord. Your latest e-mail persuaded me. This should be amusing, though I can’t promise what I’ll let you do with the thing. But tomorrow morning at dawn someone will pick you up at your place.”
The Prince of Darkness has never appeared on TV and may still resist—he’s notorious for staying out of direct sight—but at last he will do a one-on-one interview. The only unknown is when tomorrow morning will actually get around to occurring.
Hatcher’s mind slides away, full of worry about Anne, when the Fellini spot begins. Perhaps she caught sight of Henry in the street again. It’s always from a distance and he’s never the king she married, he’s always the young prince she first saw when she was in the care of Margaret of Austria at her palace in the Low Countries, when he was tall and still lithe and smooth of skin, and Hatcher holds very still not to cry out from the thrashing inside him, made more acute by his cell phone erection, as he thinks of Henry’s hands upon her and how she pants and lifts her eyes when she speaks of him even now, even though he had her head at last, and surrounding the four central monitors showing Hatcher close his eyes against his retrospective jealousy, thirty-two Fellinis are saying:
“The beach was full of the women I adore, the women of the variety shows on the street where I lived when I first came to Rome, San Giovanni, and they’d show films but afterwards there were the live variety acts and it was the women I waited for, the beautiful fat women with their naked thighs and their breasts flushed and moist and swelling out of their clothes, promising unseen nipples—I could only imagine how sweet—and I found them today beside the lake, these very women, the corpulent chorines of San Giovanni, and I arranged them on the shore, and the sea was saturated red, and then the wave came and my flesh and my bones dissolved even as the flesh and the bones of these women dissolved and we howled together in pain, the women of my past and I, and that felt very familiar: the way it feels to make a movie.”