This barstool ain’t big enough for the both of us, my brother used to say. We were toddlers. I was into vodka back then because of all the spirits vodka most closely resembled water, which was what I really wanted. I couldn't speak many words, just grunted, pointing to the bottle of water behind the bar, croaking and banging my hand on the bartop for the bartender to bring the bottle and drip-drop it into my sippy cup. I got used to the flavor and grew to like it. Later I diversified, pointing to a different bottle, grunting at a shiny beer tap, choosing whatever I liked and nodding when asked if we wanted to charge the tab to our mom's room.
* The critics thought and wrote about him even through the years he wasn’t publishing his work. There was a fascination with him, an infatuation among his contemporaries. It wasn’t just the work they were interested in. They wanted to know about him, what he was thinking, what he was doing, what he was working on. He released nothing, but no one knew he was writing like always, tucked in his basement office as the seasons changed. Not even his editor knew. The dog lay there, her warmth curled around his feet as he sat writing away the time. His body did not change but the mind whirred, carving passages into realms present and distant. He disappeared from public following his wife’s death, gracious for the consolations but evasive, in retreat.
* He wrote his first story at age nine. The process electrified and elevated him, separated and dissociated him from himself. His identity shattered into pieces—a rivulet bubbled up, flowed, accelerated, eroded importance in everything else.
* When she presented the novelist with a local award, the mayor smiled for the cameras and shook the novelist’s hand without having read his work. She did not say from her prepared statement that the novelist had meandered into middle age healthy and productive, his name gathering readership worldwide. A drug habit sustained him when his work and marriage weren’t enough.
* He was born into a segmented world: subdivisions, suburbs, siblings. His parents had their lives and he had his. They left the novelist home with the other children to watch television but he read prodigiously and one day discovered his true self in the words he composed.
* His death occurred swiftly and without warning. Early on a Sunday with daylight breaking at his window, he lay listening to birdsong and thinking about his latest work, almost completed. His heart beat three times in rapid succession and then burst, a cataclysm in his chest. The thoughts about his unfinished work were his last in this world.
* Night provided his greatest inspiration. He climbed from his office to the backyard for stillness and quiet and to admire the sky. His wife often joined those midnight excursions when healthy. They held hands with the Earth churning beneath them, eyes fixed starward.
* He never had children of his own. He loved kids and made them laugh but secretly was terrified of them stealing time and focus from his work. His wife had interest in motherhood early in their marriage but the interest tapered with age. Before her death she regretted to the novelist that she’d never be a grandmother.
* All dreams point downward, he once wrote. They keep our bodies moored to the Earth. We would levitate and float away if we lay there dreaming our dreams up into the air.
* Public readings were a necessary evil, though he did enjoy traveling the world to greet his readers. They were passionate and dedicated. The majority of of them resided in his home country of the United States but his work was admired the world over, translated into 20 languages. His first trip to China felt to him like a journey on another planet and inspired his novel Red Sea Sleeping, a tale of conspiracy and psychosis written in the novelist’s signature style and use of language but set in Beijing.
* The first novel he wrote (An Unstable Game) became the third he published. His publisher asked him to revisit that first manuscript and add more to the story, clarify items and explain some of the novel’s mystery. The writer nearly re-wrote the entire manuscript in two months and returned it to the publisher, who, upon reading the new work, shivered and emailed the author immediately.
* Marriage isn’t for everyone but the novelist truly loved and admired his wife. They met in college, when the novelist was 30 and she 24. She played cello and sewed her own clothes. Her widowed mother invited him for Christmas and he accepted, telling jokes all weekend to counter the woman’s devastating sadness. The old lady’s misery extended to everyone in her presence, including her daughter. The malaise evaporated once back at college, and the novelist’s future wife returned to her customary easiness. The novelist proposed marriage as spring blossomed on campus and his time there ended. He wrote two unpublished novels while at school. His editor discovered the manuscripts on the novelist’s hard drive and published them to wide acclaim two years after the writer’s death.
* Cold Moon Below, the novelist’s fourth published work, won him the National Book Award and carried him to the highest levels of American literary prestige. The night he received the congratulatory call, he repeated to himself that he would only ever be as good as the last thing he wrote. He spent the remainder of the weekend in his basement, writing without sleep. He emerged from that chrysalis having finished a rough draft of The Magnificent Gaucho, which would later be published on three continents and catapult the novelist into international discussions.
* His editor worked alongside attorneys and against the wishes of publishers and others vying for the writer’s library and estate of papers. The editor fiercely protected the novelist’s works and honored his own arbitrary estimation as to what the novelist may have wanted. He quickly became overwhelmed with mounds of rewardless work and grew disgruntled with the late novelist for not properly securing his estate during his lifetime.
* Our time here, the novelist once wrote, referring to our time on Earth, is limited only by our flesh and bone, our blood. What we create between the bookends of birth and death immortalizes us.
* The editor secured the novelist’s library of work at a nearby university, thereby absolving himself of most of his responsibilities. He shrugged away the burden with relief but also regret, for it was his last lifeline to the dead writer, whom the editor admired, loved like a brother. He cried in his car in the university parking lot, having never truly mourned the novelist’s untimely death. The vast majority of deaths are untimely, he thought, and he started his vehicle and drove into another sunlit afternoon.
the poet, pt. I
The poet is born in a house on a mountain. His father built the house just as his father built his house on the mountain, and his father built his, and so on. The poet’s young parents have two concerns: their community of like-minded people on the mountain and their only child, the poet. Neither parent knows their child is a poet.
The boy’s father is paid meagerly to dig graves for those who have died on the mountain. The mother looks after the house and watches over her son, the poet, though he doesn’t yet know he is a poet.
The poet lives on the mountain all his life but decides for his 18th year to live completely at sea, with just a few scattered days ashore for essentials. He vows this as a personal challenge despite his mother’s horror. She watches and waves from the dock as the small watercraft disappears from her.
Several times during the journey he considers abandoning it, returning to the mountain to forget the whole thing. Nausea, illness, cold, boredom—until he discovers he’s a poet.
He returns home forever changed. He carries a notebook and no longer wants to live on the mountain. He yearns to be close to the water. His mother watches and waves as her only child disappears from her again toward something unknown to her.
Apartments are expensive near the water. The poet quickly finds work but hates it, changes jobs, adds another. Soon another. It’s worth all the work to live here, he writes. He often falls asleep writing.
He refines the poems he’s written and sends them to an editor, who tells him to send them to an agent. Quickly and to the poet’s surprise a large collection is published (titled Announcement). It receives excellent reviews and three award nominations. The poet is suddenly attractive. He retreats to the water in a rented dinghy to disappear from himself, from the world. He writes his best work the further he travels from shore.
He works three jobs and scribbles in his notebook. The poems are as scattered as the poet himself, who is compelled, after an indiscriminate period of time, to take the poems in the notebook and unify them, liquefy them, position and reposition them into a complete manuscript that will ultimately be published into a collection (titled Ascension), earning him accolades and the much-coveted assurance that his craft can now financially support him. The poet publishes two more collections in the next 18 months (Atlantis, Carnival), vaulting him to literary fame and prestige. On a private jet one afternoon from Europe to Manhattan he meets a famous Canadian actress and the two connect immediately. She’s read his poems, she says. I’ve seen your movies, he tell her.
They marry within the year, an extravagant event in the Maldives in which global celebrities mingle with intellectuals and politicians. Everyone wants something from the poet.
His sudden rise to fame leads him inland to readings and signings and speaking engagements across the globe but he yearns to be close to the water, on the water. He sells his beach house for a houseboat, a vessel for he and his wife to live on.
She is gone after just six months at sea, having disembarked in haste at San Francisco and looking like a madwoman in her tattered dress and swollen luggage. The poet tends to the boat by moonlight, he prepares food beneath the relentless sun, he fills notebooks with ease—flooded with inspiration. He regrets the wife’s departure, their sudden inexplicable violence toward one another. She’s gone and he’s never felt more alive. He returns ashore once again a man forever changed.
The next day his doctor finds a troubling mass on the poet’s neck during a routine appointment. More tests reveal a cancerous growth. The poet is told he has one year to live, his final year on Earth, in which he will visit the mountain of his youth one final time to say goodbye before living the remainder of his days and nights writing poems on an ocean of oblivion.
Gamboa on democracy
Why are the votes of those who don’t have standards or education or culture worth the same as the votes of people who do have them? Why is a vote obtained with a revolver to the head or by brainwashing people with advertising or buying them off with fifty thousand pesos worth the same as a vote expressed freely? Ask the defenders of democracy. That’s the great perversity, but we’re not allowed to say that. If everybody had education and the variations between high and low, in terms of culture, democracy would be universal and we’d be in Sweden, but that’s not the way it is. In Africa people vote for those in their own tribe and that’s why the party of the biggest tribe always wins, and you know the only way a tribe has to reduce the number of voters for another tribe? The machete. In many countries in Africa, it isn’t dictatorship that’s led to civil war, but democracy. The small tribes hate the system that gives power to the biggest clan, and what is power? The right to take control of a country. Here, it’s different because there are no tribes, but there are clans, and lately, tyrants. […] The [candidate] who wins has the most money, or the one who has the most arms and is stronger. The alpha male wins, because democracy, in terms of sexuality, is a masochistic relationship: power is given to the strong man so that he can exercise it over the weak man, who adopts an attitude of submission that consists of turning his back, lifting his hip, and offering his anus in order to avoid confrontation.
Gamboa, Santiago. Night Prayers, a novel. Translated by Howard Curtis, Europa Editions, 2016: 222–223.
Third novel out to alphas
My third novel is out to alpha readers (many thanks to them). It took four years and four months to research and write with a 19-month hiatus in the middle. That’s nearly double the time it took to write the others. I’m grateful to all the places I sat writing in the notebook, usually at a bar or bookshop somewhere in the city (before COVID-19). I’m especially grateful to the following people for their inspiration: Ricardo Piglia (specifically Target in the Night), Esperanza Marie, Esther Vigil, Chris Dire, Roberto Bolaño (specifically The Unknown University), Chris Ransick, The Ancient Mariner, and the town of Salida, Colorado.
The books you sent
lie on the shelf
I don’t read them
Austen and Maugham
books on old films
furry with dust
lies, all of it
histories of French kings
by church-going luminaries
not to be gifted or donated
sentenced to a life unread
dandies and rich bitches
dogs in human form
biographies of propagandists
revered by some but
books not worth the flame
not worth time
lying books to lie decoratively
(like all lies)
as long as I control
The investigator asked me questions into the evening, trying to dismantle my story. He leaned in over the table between us. We were almost friends. Friendship is all about time.
It was supposed to be a simple bank robbery, I said again.
Sunlight smothered the city. People convened, they shopped, they walked and ran. It was normal. Vehicles cruised past with music blaring, impatient. This was before the pandemic. Children played, fountains splashed.
It was the perfect morning to rob a bank.
My partner and I walked in waving pistols and shouting for everyone to get on the ground. We both wore masks, back before it was common.
A woman screamed, then another. The three customers in the place raised their arms above their heads. They were all senior citizens. Four workers stood frozen behind the counter, all of them like spooked deer, watching me.
It should have been an easy job.
My partner hopped the counter and grabbed the bank manager by his hair, pulling hard.
Open the vault, he said, and bullied the man downstairs to the vault. I cursed and waved the gun around and shouted for everyone to shut up and lay flat. They complied.
This will be over soon, I said, pacing, spacing out my words.
Think of your families.
No one gets hurt.
It was the only time of week the bank had no armed guard on site. Still, we had to assume an alarm was tripped. Every job you do, that’s the understanding. Two minutes and the cops are there.
I waved the gun aggressively but it wasn’t necessary.
A guy tried to enter the bank entrance but saw me with the mask and gun and ran back out the door, stumbling.
I clicked off seconds in my head. Pop music played from speakers somewhere. I should have already heard a shout of some kind from my partner downstairs.
I counted five cameras in the room.
Two of the customers had walking canes lying next to them. The place smelled of wet carpet and bleach, as if the floors had been cleaned overnight. I breathed deeply from my abdomen, forcing air upward and out through the mask.
My partner took too long downstairs and I activated Plan B. You have to plan for contingencies. You can’t overthink. You’ve got to act quickly.
All right! I shouted through the mask. Everybody out! Everybody out now!
The employees and customers rose to their feet slow and uncertain, confused, afraid. But people move when you point a gun at them.
Out! I shouted, cursing. Move it! Out! Out!
I waved the pistol and shouted until they were gone, then I flipped the deadbolt on the entrance door and sprinted downstairs to uneven concrete beneath my feet and old brick to each side of a long hallway. A single bulb hung from a string, swinging softly. I heard no music — no sound at all.
Hurry up! I shouted into the darkness. What’s taking so long?
My voice echoed. I waved my gun like a fool and stepped beneath the bulb further into the shadows.
Hello? I said.
Hello, said a man nearby.
The bulb above flashed and burned out. I stood in complete darkness.
Hello? I said again.
I put the gun up and staggered, one palm on the brick wall at my side. Silence and darkness overwhelmed the hall. The damp air thickened and I moved through it gasping with arms out before me, each step a step into oblivion.
How is this happening? I thought.
I stopped walking, feeling the pulse race beneath my skin. My head floated off my shoulders — a balloon in the void. I kneeled to the ground to keep from losing balance and falling over. I blinked but couldn’t tell if my eyes were open.
I stood and stepped slowly to feel with my palms out but met another wall. My breaths quickened, drumming from me. I counted them: thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three. I heard breathing nearby.
Hello? I said.
I reached to my right, disoriented.
Hello? I said again, whispering, eyes wide. The pistol trembled in my hand.
The wall to my left met a right angle of brick in front of me. I reached out and touched brick to the right of, then behind me.
I shouted and fired a round into the ground and saw in a flash of light that I was surrounded by brick, entombed. The bullet ricocheted into my left calf and I cried out, slinking to the ground with my back against the brick.
I cursed, shouting into the tiny space. My echo stretched to an impossible distance. I reached up to feel brick just above my head. Sweat poured from my face.
How long until I suffocated? Am I hallucinating?
The bulb sparked back to life, swinging above my head. I blinked at the brilliance of it. The familiar brick wall appeared before me with shadowed hallway disappearing away to my right and my left. I pushed myself up onto one leg, gasping painfully.
Hello? I said, my voice absorbing echoless into the air. I shouted again and heard nothing, deafened. The ground beneath vibrated.
What’s happening to me? I thought.
I began limping down the dark hall. I didn’t know from which direction I’d come. It didn’t matter — I had to get out. The cops were probably upstairs looking for me. I took 20 paces from the bulb that became 30 paces as I staggered deeper into the shadows. I stopped and turned around, walking back to the swinging bulb, a small wavering point of light in the absence. I hobbled past it another 80 paces before stopping again. It was pointless. The hallway stretched infinitely into shadow in both directions.
Hello? I shouted, my voice ricocheting like a bullet and repeating into the distance.
I shouldn’t have taken this job, I muttered to myself, cursing. I should have trusted my instincts. I knew it was bad.
I realized I still had my mask on and I pulled it off. Suddenly I could breathe easier. I heard a scream through the brick, as if from a nearby room. It was a man.
He actually wasn’t my partner at all. He was just a guy on a bank job. I didn’t know him.
He screamed again and I shouted his name.
HELP! he shouted. HELP ME!
I heard a crack, then silence. He stopped screaming. It sounded like the crack of a club or baseball bat smashing into bone.
I muttered to myself, trembling.
Another crack echoed through the brick and another and another and another until there were no bones left to crack. Then I only heard the precise rhythm of blunt instrument smashing into inert cadaver, blasting and blasting but also increasing tempo, crushing and echoing in the hall, building feverishly to satisfy some alien murderousness.
Wow, said the investigator. Descriptive.
He stood and paced behind his metal chair, then around the table. His shoes clicked on the concrete. I watched him and glanced at the two-way mirror. I counted two cameras in the room.
He had no hair on his head. No eyebrows, no facial hair. He stopped pacing next to me and leaned into my ear and whispered, cursing: Liar.
My next decision is difficult to explain. I was afraid and not thinking clearly.
I just wanted it to be over, to be done, and I didn’t care how.
I took off running on my one good leg down the hall past the dangling light with the pistol in hand and I continued lurching forward, fearless of falling into the depths or smashing face-first into a wall in the darkness growing suddenly cold with my breath pluming crystallized before me, my arms pumping, good leg pumping, heart pumping. The hallway widened though I couldn’t see it to confirm. I felt that I’d entered a giant space but still indoors, sheltered from the sky. The grade increased and I struggled uphill, slipping on sand yet stable enough to hold my churning leg.
A faded line of horizontal light appeared over the summit and I climbed to it, struggling through deeper sand. The moonlight swelled and cleared with each upward step until it appeared in full, the glowing face of an ancient friend. I marched up with lightning snapping overhead, powering my way upward toward a sense of remoteness, alienness, as if in a sea, surrounded by water.
I reached the summit with my chest heaving and stood atop a giant dune beneath the pregnant moon with lightning attacking dangerously near —on a sand dune in an ocean of sand dunes.
Clouds like dirty snow sprinted overhead as if in time lapse. White veins lit up the alien landscape and I gazed over the endless rolling hills of sand with hot wind whipping my hair and clothes, a conqueror atop his endless spoil, absorbing the immensity and perilousness of his journey for the first time.
Lies, lies, lies, lies, lies, said the bald investigator.
A sand crab rose to the ivory surface near me.
Black and slick in the moonlight it dashed toward me and I kicked it tumbling into the wind.
Dark imperfections began spreading across the sand in the distance and I smelled them on the breeze, acrid and menacing.
Soon all the desert was alive with them, each distant crest and valley rolling outward like waves began to flower in black and the ground below bubbled porous and chaotic with the crabs climbing up from the depths, surrounding me, shrieking with snapping mandibles when I confirmed with my eyes that they weren’t crabs, they were larger and faster, more aggressive. They weren’t anything I’d seen before.
Quickly they struck and seized my ankles, biting and clawing with hot pain like liquid up my spine. The monsters dug into the meat of my thighs and continued up to my torso, slashing at my clothes and skin, overtaking my arms as I tried to slap and peel them away. There were too many of them and I struggled against the sensation of falling. I shouted pleadingly at the moon, stone-faced and indifferent to my cries.
The creatures climbed to my neck and pierced the skin, bounding onto my face with tentacles searching and I tasted them as they pulled me down into the sand with their poison coursing my brain.
Soon my lower half melted beneath the sand and I screamed with sand filling my mouth and eyes.
Then the world disappeared.
The investigator paced the interrogation room with arms folded, nodding, a smile on his face.
I don’t know how much time elapsed. I woke atop a pile of sand in the middle of a blacktop intersection in the Chicago neighborhood where I grew up.
It was a moonless night and the whole place was empty of people. Orange streetlamps lit the sidewalks and I eased myself down from the sand pile to dust myself off. My bad leg had healed and both were good again.
I looked up to the façade of my childhood apartment building. My old bedroom window on the third floor was the only window lit.
In the light I recognized the silhouette of a figure, unmistakable and familiar. I shivered in a way I hadn’t since I was a kid.
Dreamlike I wavered toward the building feeling sand in every part of me, inside me.
Across the empty street I navigated the familiar brick, concrete and asphalt panorama of my youth and entered the building past the broken elevator to the stairs as if routine, as if blindfolded and half-conscious up the threadbare staircase to apartment 303.
My hand floated to the door. Slowly it creaked open, alighting the small cluttered landing area and bookshelf. I heard my mother’s voice — she sang while cooking and I smelled the emotional aroma of her inventions there in the third-floor hallway of our project housing complex. I pressed the door and it was no longer my childhood apartment door but the vault door in the basement of Community Street Bank in Philadelphia, a summer morning in the year 2020.
The bank manager lay dead in his cheap shirt, shot twice through the chest.
You’re late, said my partner, a duffel slung over his shoulder and his pistol trained on me.
I’m sorry, he said, meeting my eyes.
We both had masks on.
He pulled the trigger but his pistol jammed. He ran past me up the stairs to the bank lobby and I looked around, incredulous and panicked. The sound of pop music melted down the stairs like syrup. I saw the dead manager on the vault floor and scuff marks on the tile around him. The gun was molten steel in my hand.
I finally shook myself awake and ran upstairs just in time —
I paused and looked at the investigator.
Just in time to meet your … people. The cops swarmed in.
The other guy wasn’t my partner. Just a guy on a bank job.
He must have got away.
The investigator sighed and nodded his head.
So here we are, he said.
He scratched his chin and looked meaningfully into the two-way mirror. He smiled.
Here we are, I said.
He sighed and sat in the chair opposite me and leaned over the table, glaring at me. He smiled.
I did not smile but watched as his grin widened. His face melted up and back and his cheeks somehow made room for the hideous growing discolored teeth. His eyes bulged and his lips squeaked like plastic as they stretched, his mouth a giant lightless cavity from which a sand monster spilled onto the steel table, its insect legs flailing in the air before it righted itself and stood, watching me.
The investigator licked his lips like a salamander and winked one mad balloon eye at me. He leaned back in his chair and looked up to the fluorescent lights laughing, laughing.