The Cafe Irreal: International Imagination 

Issue Twenty-Two

Chess and A Fairy Tale by Andrzej Bursa
from Dreams of the 1990s by Michael Ruby
Flights by Phil Richardson
Hole in the Ground by Laurence Klavan
Maternal Aorta by Girija Tropp
Good Neighbors by Bruce Holland Rogers
A Word From Our Sponsors by Andrew S. Taylor


irreal (re)views


Hole in the Ground
by Laurence Klavan

losed for Renovations." He had always thought it one of the great and unappreciated lies, up there with putting things in the mail and not in your mouth. Was he alone in thinking it? Barry Bumgardner felt alone, standing before the shuttered Steen's, which had been his local green grocer for the past—how many? twenty?—years. Sometimes it was "Under New Management" but always recognizably Steen's, the aisles never altered enough to look like any other store, the new owners always too lazy to change the name, the identity of the original owner of no interest to the new Asian, Latino, and now Albanian owners, as unimportant as the meanings of expressions one used every day—"Break a leg!" "Down the hatch!"—and didn't question.

This time, however, was different—brown wrapping paper was taped on all of Steen's windows, though not well enough to prevent his peeking through. Today he saw a dark, abandoned interior, with paper boxes strewn about unassembled, and a few steel racks fallen over like robbery victims, the Terra Chips and Pirate Booty and low-fat pretzels gone from their shelves. Unopened mail lay in a small pile near the front door—bills, Barry figured, and the real reason for the owner's rush away.

"Closed for Renovations." The sign would probably stay there until a new store showed up; at some other places it had taken years, time definitively exposing the lie of the sign, which nobody believed in the first place, the way time caught people in lies nobody ever bought—"My wife is visiting relatives" (for ten years)—but was too polite to challenge.

Still, pondering the future didn't change his present quandary: where to buy milk now that Steen's was gone, and the organic kind, without the cow hormones or whatever was bad. He turned, his feet feeling heavy, and walked at the pace of a man twice his age (forty-five—his age, not twice his age) to, well, he guessed Green Harbor was the nearest place now, though the milk was hormonal, the bananas were always brown, and he saw a mouse in there once.

Barry's head throbbed. The four blocks seemed to take forever—because, of course, he didn't want to go, Steen's had been just fine with him, and so his resistance increased time, and not in a good way. (Other people might not mind as much, Barry thought, because they didn't work at home, they only passed Steen's on the way to and from their jobs, whereas he actually entered the place three or four times a day, since he never shopped in bulk—where did he live, the suburbs? what did he have, kids?—and went in for one item at a time: salt, a sponge, this morning milk. Truth be told, he liked to leave his apartment, which sometimes seemed suffocating and where he spent all day writing freelance brochures for U.S. stamps, and, besides, going up and down the stairs was the only exercise he got, being somewhat plump and pasty, so why not spread it out?)

Then something cheered him on the way to Green Harbor and distracted him from the endless length of the trip.

He realized he would be passing Elegamento's, his usual newspaper store, and that today was the second week of the month and so the time for new magazines to come in. He rarely if ever bought magazines, preferred to just stand and read them right there in the store, but he always bought something—usually a single small pack of tissues—to pay Elegamento's for its time. (With irony, he thought that tissue packets represented free-market capitalism at its best, since their price from one end of town to the other ranged from twenty-five cents to a dollar; and Elegamento's, at sixty cents, was right in the comfortable middle, another reason he liked the store.) If the owners seemed to witness his behavior with something less than pleasure, they always recognized him, and that was all that mattered.

But when he reached it, he read the sign, dumbfounded: "Coming Soon: A New Drugall's."

There was no prevarication, no pride; there was no brown wrapping paper either; Elegamento's was simply closed, shut, kaput, he thought. Inside, the place was dark, but he could see that all was in suspended animation, the magazines—last month's, not new—candy and paperbacks just sitting there, like those recreations of parts of Pompeii he had seen on TV, only without any ash. A small pile of mail lay on the floor near the door, apparently the universal symbol for an absconded owner.

Barry was more than dismayed; he was mad. Where would he be known for reading magazines for free now? The nearest place was News Buddy, six blocks over, and it was so narrow you couldn't move your arms enough to open a magazine, let alone read one!

At least Elegamento's was honest about what had happened: its landlord had obviously jacked up the rent, and a chain was taking over—no wonder they'd blown off that month's bills, they were mad as hell, as mad as Barry. How many Drugall's were there in the neighborhood now, anyway, ten? (The stores had originated ninety miles north of New York and were spreading everywhere, like an illness or an awful catchphrase.) Each one was alike—how much eczema shampoo and imitation aspirin and scented toilet paper did one neighborhood need? (And why were the interiors always heated to what seemed a hundred degrees? And why was there always a long line, even when you were the only one there?!)

He bet Steen's would be one soon, too, or some other national outlet for clothes, coffee, or whatever else. In the twenty-odd years he had lived in the neighborhood, he had seen individuality and small ownership dwindle—and who knew in what homogenized hell it would all end up? What had happened to his little microcosm of Manhattan, the two or three blocks around his apartment house? Who had stolen his little city?

Barry's vision briefly blurred and affected his balance. His fingers scrambled in his pocket for a pill but found none. These fits of anxiety, depression, and paranoia—other people's words, not his—were eased but not erased by the prescription. He resented having to take the pills in the first place: he was only being honest, after all, chain stores were taking over everything, it was true! Still, not even having the option of ingesting a pill unnerved him, especially since he'd been chastened by losing his job at the Philatelic Society a year before and going on disability. He would have to go home and find the small bottle he had left—intentionally? arrogantly?—in his other jeans; and the prospect of returning to the tiny room increased the unhappiness that now left him leaning limply against the wall of the new, upcoming Drugall's.

The search for the pills soon gave Barry hope, however. In the pocket, his fingers felt a small piece of paper, stuck deeper down. It was a ticket from his dry cleaners, where he had left his one good shirt. It would be ready today, that's what the man said (he was pretty sure) and retrieving the shirt would give him a positive new chore to perform and take his mind off the appalling industrial encroachment he seemed to encounter at every turn today in, as he thought of it, his little city.

The dry cleaners were, what, up two blocks or over one? Were they on Second and not Third? The pills, regardless of their effect in other areas, had always focused his attention, snapped him to, so now—in addition to the extremes of emotion he was pinballing back and forth between—he groped for simple surety as to the way he should walk, at last reaching the dry cleaners by instinct only, like a dog whose owner has uprooted him and finds his old home from many, many miles away.

The balloons outside the store were the first indication that something was awry, their merry aspect a kind of awful harbinger. The name was still the generic "Dry Cleaners" but that gave Barry small comfort when he took out his ticket inside.

"That was from the old owner," said the man behind the counter—Asian like the last proprietor but male, tall, and young, not female, squat, and old. "Sorry."

"What do you mean?" Barry said, surprised by the sudden sound of his own voice, since he had been silent for days at home. "What about my shirt?"

"I don't know what to tell you," he shrugged, regretful but only a little.

Barry had no answer; he just kept crumpling the ticket until it was a small ball in his hand. It had always been a guarantee, a laundry ticket, a way to get things back that had been so close to his skin they were almost a part of it, a way to get them back better. He was the one who had to worry about losing it; if he had the ticket, he was home free. What happened to his things when it didn't work that way, when no one cared if he kept his part of the bargain? Had he left the shirt there too long? Or had someone rewritten the rules here, too, as they were doing in the rest of the neighborhood?

This was the worst yet, for it upended Barry's assumption that big business was all to blame; this was a small shop owner. And it wasn't enough that his places of convenience and ritual were being withdrawn, now his stuff was being abandoned, lost and forgotten, along with everything else! How had a piece of him disappeared with the old dry cleaners, like water down a dirty drain?

"Where is my shirt?" he kept asking. "Where is my good shirt?"

He was in danger, he had to escape—and that meant travel, the only way he knew how. He had to reach the garage in which he kept his mother's car, a 1991 Volvo which had been his only inheritance after her death two years before, along with enough money in carefully stipulated installments to keep it housed, cleaned, and filled. Sometimes Barry felt that the car was his mother's real survivor, not he, so lovingly did she allot the money and spell out the method for its upkeep. "At least the car works," she once told him.

While he rarely drove it, Barry made to do so now, nearly sprinting the ten blocks to the garage, which bordered the highway, and so allowed easy access to getting out of town.

He had been actually standing in the garage for several minutes before he realized where he was—and how could he have known when it had been so utterly transformed, as totally shifted in shape as a balloon animal, one minute a dachshund, the next a giraffe?

It was a city park now, covered in fake grass and featuring gay green benches, swings, and slides, a distinct improvement over the old gray garage, but a change so drastic that it almost made him unconscious and have to sit on one of those swings, the leather slingshot kind that sinks along with you.

He knew it was possible that he had not heeded the warnings, that he had discarded the letters that told him to remove his mother's car or else—he often tossed out envelopes unopened that seemed official and might mean he owed money. But now, along with his locations, routines, and clothes, his past was being dumped in the junkyard, in the form of a car that, hated rival or not for her love, was all he had left that was tangible and touched by his mother.

And who could object to how it happened? Who didn't like a park? This was a pro-public civic gesture, not some crass commercial grab by a corporation or an individual. This was a good thing, even he knew that; and the fact that he couldn't blame anybody caused him to cry tears of bitter and lonely helplessness.

Barry cried until he could cry no more. The discombobulating process seemed complete. There was only one place to go now: home, which while small enough to entomb him was also familiar enough to embrace him. He would bring back to it no milk or shirt but it might not matter; his dusty, cluttered, and overheated studio would at least allow him—or force on him, with the entrancing fumes from its radiator, the moderating knob of which had long since ceased to turn—the protective sleep he felt was his last, best, and at this point only possible action.

Drying his tears on a coffee-stained napkin—from the old Steen's?—he found in his back pocket, and averting his eyes from a child who now stood staring at him, horrified, at the base of the slide, Barry stood and started for the sidewalk. His Metro Card had fifty cents too little on it for the bus.

He stopped a few blocks from his home, panting from the effort, though he had walked at a reasonable rate. Unable not to, he pulled a little cell phone from his pocket, one which needed repair, one which for some reason was stuck on speakerphone and so blared his business to the world at large—which was most often the ringing of his home phone, as he checked for messages that were never there. Then he pressed in his personal PIN.

This time, there was a message—and Barry turned to muffle the booming voice from any nosey passerby.

"This is Dr. Hagel's office. Please call at your earliest convenience. Thank you."

That was all the woman, clearly a receptionist, said, in a tone neither comforting nor alarming, with a neutrality she had been trained—or with which she was naturally gifted and hired in the first place—to perform.

It was, he knew, the results of the tests he had taken, since he'd complained of having horrible headaches and dropping things during dinner, the kinds of symptoms ignored by others when you're the nervous type, and that you even hope yourself bizarrely are just more mental problems, more maladjustments, and not something worse, something in your brain that little pills can't cure.

It was the call, Barry admitted to himself, that he had left the apartment to avoid; his milk would have lasted until tomorrow.

Now he felt the cold touch of fear. Wouldn't the doctor have left a message himself if it was nothing? Wouldn't he feel that leaving bad news on a machine was too blunt, too callous and, most of all, too cowardly? Of course, Barry thought—and his fingers trembled so much he had to struggle to put the phone away.

Then, suddenly, uncharacteristically, he caught himself. Why was he jumping to conclusions? Calm down, he thought, see it clearly. There were other opinions to get, other tests to take. Hadn't his cousin contracted something bad and survived? Mightn't he improve his diet, eat more greens, add more exercise? All was not lost; there were things he still could do.

Bolstered by this unique bucking up of himself, he started to take the few steps left toward home to return the call. He turned the final corner, his heart beating more from weird—to him impressive—hope than panic.

His building was gone.

All that was left was a giant hole in the ground, as wide and deep as the building itself had been. The residences to the right and left remained; it was as if the one between had simply been pulled out, as cleanly and completely as a tooth from a person's mouth.

Barry went to the edge and looked in, looked hundreds of feet down to a floor of solid earth, looked into the emptiness. Then he looked back up and stared without fear straight into the raging sun.

He had no doubt what was about to happen to him.

Laurence Klavan lives in New York City. His novels, The Cutting Room and The Shooting Script, were published over the past two years by Ballantine Books. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for "Mrs. White," published under a pseudonym. His graphic novels, Germantown and The Fielding Course, both co-written with Susan Kim, will be published by FirstSecond Books. He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics to "Bed and Sofa," the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York. His one-act play, "The Summer Sublet," is included in Best American Short Plays 2000-2001.

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