Plans for a summer apartment/cat-sitter situation in Madrid went awry and I wound up basically a squatter in a rough neighborhood, with African temperatures, no electricity, cold water, a mattress on the floor and a cement table out in the overgrown abandoned garden.
Luckily, being comfortable isn’t the best circumstance for getting stories written.
The stories I like to read usually induce discomfort, unless they’re also the funny, sort of dirty kind I like even better. Disturbing ideas came fast and furious, one of them about a diabolical machine that allows newborn infants to speak. That story, written in a weirdo inteview form, got published nearly right away. This one, I held onto for a long, long time.
Long ago, while uncomfortably between jobs in New York, wandering around in search of something to do in order to not feel even more completely useless, drawn by carefree childish laughter perhaps, I strayed onto a school playground. The school cop, instead of getting busy with pistol or cuffs, escorted me into the handsome-but-delapidated building and upstairs to a classroom, where a harried young lady somewhat desperately had over forty kids spellbound over an esoteric point of geography. The interruption brought a shower of regard: who is this guy? The looks made me wonder too: who is this guy I supposedly am? The same fellow these happy, curious, hopeful kids might like me to be? Which led to ten years as a volunteer teacher. Grade school became writing school for a scribbler who’d pretty much given up.
Story Day became a once-a-month feature for the whole class.
The teacher who took me in had a problem with two girls who were stealing stuff, a classic means of getting attention when things are so bad that even the negative kind seems desirable. Teacher didn’t want troubled kids to get stuck with a larceny rapsheet, was also leery about alerting their parents, who were notoriously of the I’ll-beat-some-sense-into-your-thieving-little-head school. She asked me to deal with the situation.
Best I could come up with was a story about a non-gender-specific Kid who steals things because it’s oh so shockingly easy, feels bad about the new career in crime, discovers that repairing mistakes is difficult but definitely possible and worth the trouble. A free candy bar is the pay-off, a present.
The kids asked if I’d ever stolen anything. They didn’t want to hear hoary adages about amateurs who borrow. I confessed, spilled my guts on childhood heists. Maybe I felt better about the criminal past.
Another story, they wanted to know whence came the idea for a kid who kicks a girl in the ass because he’s secretly in love with her and she plainly doesn’t feel the same.
Think about it for about two seconds, I said. They got it.
One of the boys in the class was also a sixty-year-old woman named Esmé. He shared this slightly spooky metaphysical info with his classmates on Story Day in a delightful, totally matter-of-fact style. Because he felt he really was a divided soul. A little girl who was born in South Africa wrote about prenatal surgery she underwent. She said she remembered the hole in her heart, and the pain.
Can’t make this kind of stuff up, according to the old truth-is-stranger-than-fiction trope. The truth is, strange fiction’s usually based on something equally strange or even stranger that happened for real.
‘Across the Kinderhook’ is the most painful story I ever wrote. And I didn’t make it all up.
My gypsyish parents got jobs in a small college town in the northeastern USA. Another, more settled, professorial couple invited them for a kindness-to-new-people dinner. My mother, a sort of flesh-and-blood maternal machine, bonded with the couple’s daughter, whom she didn’t know was practically locked-in autistic. For some reason, the little girl responded to the woman who acted naturally. But their communication only lasted a few weeks, or until the little girl became aware my mother knew something was wrong with her. Maybe. Nothing’s terribly clear, in such cases.
The disturbed girl became an artist. She draws faint, gnomically complex geometric worlds and washes dishes in restaurants to support herself. She seems to enjoy her work.
Quite a few narrators in my stuff find jobs washing dishes. They claim to like it too. I was a pro dishwasher, for a happy while, in a hamburger-suffused jazz joint on Broadway. The chef had a sideline dealing psychotically strong weed. We all got along great.
It used to bother me that practically everyone I knew had careers, lived in houses, enjoyed family life. Always felt I’d missed some ineffable signal or opportunity to begin the real business of life. Didn’t occur to me that there were hideous downsides to most of life’s nice, normal stuff. Then, when it was more or less too late to change courses, it was driven home that it’s not even possible to miss out on real life’s nightmarish aspects by not participating. I guess that’s where this story came from. I felt particularly uncomfortable while I scribbled it down, and it wasn’t because the bench at the cement table was so hard, or that it was so incredibly hot there in Madrid that summer.
— Matthew Licht