Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Deb Olin Unferth. Her new novel Barn 8 is available from Graywolf Press. It is the official March pick of the TNB Book Club.

 

This is Deb’s second time on the program. She first appeared in Episode 178 on May 29, 2013.

Unferth is the author of six books, including Wait Till You See Me Dance and Revolution. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and three Pushcart Prizes, and was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Her work has appeared in Granta, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and The Paris Review. She lives in Austin, Texas.

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Area woman and aspiring writer Jodi Tannenbaum, after a third attempt at getting published by the literary website McSweeney’s (in its “Lists” section), found herself “totally in the middle of that scene from Swingers.”

“You know that famous scene,” she said, “where the guy, not Vince Vaughn… the other guy…he calls a girl he likes and says something embarrassing on her answering machine, so he calls back again to explain, and then again to explain that—wait—what do you mean you didn’t see it?”

Where I used to live, there was no coast. Where I live now, there are seagulls and a ship-studded grayness called the Long Island Sound. In my neighborhood, there are crosswalks that don’t make sense, and a hospital supply store, and a Missing Kid poster that shows a dingy security-camera photo of a little boy with Asperger’s. He’s marching down the street with a briefcase. Where I live now, things happened in sixteen-something. Persecuted lawmakers hid in caves. They found safe haven. People say New Haven isn’t quite safe but It’s Better Than It Used To Be. French troops once camped in our park on their way to defend Yorktown. Buildings on my block have little plaques saying they are historically significant and any fool can see they are beautiful. One is salmon pink with blue trim and jewel-toned windows. Mostly they are brick, with archways and strange circular portals and hidden balconies. My own building has a Mansard roof and I never knew that word before but I love how they look anyway, like attic steeples, or dark square hats on the deep red bodies of our brownstones.

  1. Fish Tricks
  2. Pork Swaps (or Lamb Swaps)
  3. Counter-Pig’s-Feit
  4. Steak-Believe
  5. Pretenderloin
  6. ReproDUCKtion
  7. Sleight of Ham
  8. Scam Chowder
  9. Not Roast
  10. Cheatloaf
  11. Beef Psteu
  12. Filet Mignone
  13. Shamburger
  14. Chicken Pot Lie
  15. Salmock
  16. Leaf Stroganoff
  17. Beef Fauxganoff
  18. Don’t-Go-Against-Your-Beliefs-Stroganoff
  19. Chicken Noodle Spoof
  20. Pep-parody Pizza
  21. Gypped Beef on Hoax
  22. SubstiTuna Salad
  23. ArtiFISHal
  24. Sashimitation
  25. Bluffalo Wings
  26. No-Killbasa
  27. Venisn’t

Thanks to Amanda Pounds who made me do this.

Jazz Hands

I worked on a cattle-breeding farm in central Virginia for one summer during college. My first week involved long hours of bush-hogging—hauling a sort of heavy-duty lawnmower though pastures of shoulder-high brown grass, so that the cows could access the sweeter green shoots beneath. The tractor was top of the line, with an air-conditioned cab and tape deck. I’d listen to audiobooks and entertain myself by beheading black snakes and watching their decapitated bodies spout blood and slither in circles through the rear-view mirror. In the mornings, I’d often rouse families of sleeping deer that had bedded down in the tall grass. Spotted does and spindly-legged fawns would bound towards the trees like Olympic hurdlers.

Victor and I sent our grandchildren an early Christmas gift of a tank containing two bright green frogs, contrasting pink gravel, a year’s worth of frog food and other assorted frog-related paraphernalia. Our son-in-law was home alone when this package arrived.

He ate both of the frogs, basted with olive oil and fresh rosemary, and lightly grilled.

Now, do not be so quick to judge.

You would forgive him this momentary, seemingly inexplicable indiscretion if you knew all the facts in play here.

Victor and our son-in-law are both ardent carnivores. As a result of this, they exchange virtually identical gifts every birthday and Christmas: meat. Styrofoam containers bypass each other in the mail each holiday, containing, for example, steaks or varieties of salami. The surprise, naturally, is exactly which remarkable type of meat is included under the dry ice each time.

When our son-in-law opened the package, which was addressed to both him and my daughter, he made the assumption that he had received his meat gift. It was a misunderstanding that we should have foreseen.

You should also know that our son-in-law, due to medical restrictions, has been on a severe sodium restricted diet for almost two years. During this time his diet has consisted of the same exceedingly boring and tasteless foods, day after day after day, containing especially low levels of sodium. Serendipitously, these particular frogs happened to be appropriately low in sodium content.

This strict regimen has affected his culinary, parental and conventional judgment. The bright green frogs were irresistible. Who among you would begrudge him this soupçon of diversification in his tedious diet?

Fortunately, our grandchildren were gamboling in the park when this act of extraordinary, but erroneous impropriety took place. Their father, after swiftly despatching the two lightly grilled frogs, immediately realized his horrible misunderstanding. He went about putting right his blunder.

Their father is renowned for his ingenuity.

He drove to a near-by Dollar Store and purchased miniature Christmas ornaments, each water-resistant, and strung them on silver and gold threads in the tank of water with the bright pink gravel. He even found waterproof colored lights to light up the water. He always does a superb job with everything to which he sets his mind, so the frog-free tank was transformed into an elaborate and aesthetically pleasing Christmas decoration.

Our grandchildren are quite young and naïve, so they were easily convinced that their grandparents had sent them an extravagant Christmas decoration, which, though not actually animate, required monthly feedings for a year.

The night after each monthly feeding, when his children have gone to sleep, their father strains the adulterated water and replaces it with Perrier, which he has on hand since he formerly loved to drink it, but now cannot, due to its high sodium levels. This keeps the water pristine and lovely, even somewhat bubbly for a short time.

You might have thought that the impropriety of consuming your children’s pets would result in their psychological harm, but you forget! They never knew about the existence of the frogs to begin with.

In fact, this rejuvenated tank of inanimate, yet hungry, Christmas ornaments has turned out to be their favorite Christmas gift, a win-win, so to speak, (except for the frogs, of course.)

 

 

(Gentle reader, if you were truly appalled by this tale, I humbly beg your forgiveness. Most of this story is true. Occasionally, the total truth vexes me, when, with just a tweak, it becomes more palatable, if you will excuse the pun. I will, charitably, reassure you, gentle reader, that said frogs are in good health. One has been named “Hug” and the other “Kiss.” They live in their rather ordinary tank on an ordinary kitchen table in our grandchildren’s house.) (Ho hum, ho hum, ho hum.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dessert

By Matthew Gavin Frank

Travel

In Alba, Italy, rain and a market. In my hands, the white greased paper that once held an entire rotisserie rabbit. Its bones clack together as hooves, a horse in the distance. I clutch this paper coffin to my chest, as if for warmth, and scan the piazza for a garbage can. My hunt for refuse carries me into the covered pulse of the marketplace, and I have to blink to focus. Now unburdened by my desire to eat a whole animal, I am able to assimilate this lovely and special chaos. There are hundreds of vendors—fruit stands, fish stands, meats and cheeses; rounds, bricks, entire civilizations of cheese, octopus, persimmon. I toss my trash in a can beneath a string of blood sausage.

“Hey! Hey!” I hear someone shout.

The voice opens like the lid of an ancient hope chest, rides its dusty remnants and long dead dreams on the rain. If I were to look inside this voice I’d expect to find centuries-old taxidermy, owls with shellacked eyes and sawdust in the feathers. I hear it again, this time in triplicate.

“Hey! Hey! Hey!”

I have no reason to think it’s directed at me, but I turn to face a tiny knuckle of a man, dressed all in white, head so perfectly circular it could have been designed with a compass.

“Hey! Viene qua!” the frump calls from behind his fruit stand.

I turn and point behind me, my forehead certainly a mess of wrinkles. People cascade in circles, not one of them standing still. I turn back and touch my chest.

“Io?” I ask.

“Si, si,” he creaks, “Tu.”

I move forward and, as if stepping on a hidden button in the cobblestone, I activate this man to produce a baseball-sized fig from his fruit pile, bust it in half with his thumbs, and shove both bowled sides into his mouth at once. As if a magician waiting for applause, he, less than a second later, waves the cleaned purple fig skins at me as theatre curtains.

“Wow,” is all I can muster.

He holds a fat palm open to me. I freeze into position. He turns and retrieves another intact fig, this one even larger. Again, with his cigar-stub fingers, he breaks the fruit in two, its swampy sweet cilia waving yellow at my nose like a sea anemone. Soon, his hands are in mine, wet with warm rain, rolling the fig halves into my drenched palms.

“Prego,” he offers, but it could easily have been, “Abracadabra.”

I want to match his magic, so I shove both halves into my mouth. The music of the fruit shrieks soprano with cherry and yeast, the texture of limp comb teeth. This is a fig to resurrect the dreams of a great-great-grandmother. This is a fig to make her a little girl again, stretch her hair from stiff gray to blonde braided pigtails. I think of the tango and pull the stripped skins from my mouth. The frump actually applauds, laughing.

“Bravo! Bravo!” he bellows.

I laugh knowingly with him, having shared in his secret bag of wizard’s tricks.

I reach into my pocket, expecting a string of scarves, but produce only my wallet. When I flash a few coins, he shakes his head, a bowling ball on shoulders, and turns to help another customer, a middle-aged woman with a faux-snakeskin umbrella.

I feel large, and somehow filled-out, rounded, fat-handed, aged and neckless. This is a market without illusion. The magic here is real. Over the reptilian umbrella, I watch the man hoist a watermelon into the air.

 

This piece originally appeared in Brevity and was reprinted in Creative Nonfiction (The “Best of Brevity 2005” issue).