Wednesday, June 1, 2016

I Spy With My Little Eye: Surveillance Stories at Catapult

We like to watch.

That’s the consensus of the contributors to Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt and recently published in a new edition by Catapult (long-time Quivering Pen readers may remember when the anthology was published by O/R Books last year). To celebrate the book’s release last month, our editor asked if we’d be interested in conducting a little experiment. Our assignment: “engage in an act of surveillance of some kind. Something super simple and not illegal” and then write about it for the Catapult website.

I said, “Sign me up! I already have a trench coat, fedora and dark sunglasses.”

For my clandestine operation, I chose to people-watch at the Perkins Bakery and Restaurant here in Butte, Montana. It begins like this:

This place bakes in the midmorning heat, and smells like our various coats. The sun, aslant through the plate-glass windows, weighs heavy in the maple-flavored air, blankets our heads with Sunday torpidity. A hostess guides me past tables filled with heathens who have skipped church this morning (as well as those who went to the early service and now stare in judgment at those who probably did not). I’m led to a sticky booth at the back of the restaurant. I sit, order coffee, water, pancakes, and something called the Big Country Smasher®. I open my notebook, unpocket my pen, and begin my observations.

A young girl walks her littler sister around the perimeter of booths on a leash. They both wear sweatshirts in varying shades of pink and purple: The older sister’s has a large white pony on it, rearing and clapping its front hooves; the leash-bound sister goes by too fast for me to be certain what hers depicts. A flower? A monkey? SpongeBob? She skips, happy as a puppy, while her sister keeps the leash taut. They do several laps until, somewhere on the other side of the restaurant, a wail rises like a siren and then here comes the big sister carrying—trying to carry—the younger girl, hurrying back to their parents at their table, narrating the whole way: “She was running and hit her head on the corner of a table. I told her, I told her! But she wouldn’t stop running!” The mother takes up the girl, smothers the sirens in her land-o-plenty bosom. The older sister waits for a word of thanks, appreciation, approbation—anything. Getting none, she glares at her mother, then throws the leash to the ground and stomps back to her seat.

My fellow Watchlisters had some terrific stories to tell. Here are excerpts from those essays published at Catapult.

     The plan was to go to Columbus, look at some houses, maybe rifle through some homeowners’ personal things while my real estate agent wasn’t looking—an underwear drawer here, a medicine cabinet there—and report back. An easy way to fulfill my surveillance assignment for Catapult. Something that wouldn’t get me in too much trouble, but also a complete invasion of private space. What kinds of antidepressants do Midwesterners use nowadays? Do they prefer boxers or briefs? I was excited to find out.

Dirty Laundry by Bryan Hurt

     I had more success, once night had settled, in smoothly tracking a silver pickup as it swung to join the 101. I tried to maintain speed in a separate lane, though it wouldn’t be long before I had to pass. I hastily merged and allowed a third motorist between us. A few miles later, the truck swerved across the entire freeway to exit.
     Alarm split my brain. I sped into Universal City after them. The two men in the truck were arguing, I thought, and I may have locked eyes with one or both when they glanced up into their rearview. We slowed at an intersection so wide and desolate it struck me an invitation to murder.

Follow That Car by Miles Klee

     We were in another Starbucks. Antwerp Train Station, I think. We’d ordered in Dutch then, but otherwise it could have been here, in suburban Marietta. Georgia, East Cobb, where sports shorts are a staple and English words float around, bits of conversations sent into the air like ghosts. And Jan’s name is never spelled right. He has had Yan. And Yarn. Once, the barista wrote Juan. Or, if he spells it out, it is never pronounced right, so he doesn’t realize when his own name is called out. Often, he is called Djan? Djan? Once, a barista decided that Jan was short for Janet. That made me laugh. Now he has taken to calling himself Tom.

Overheard at Starbucks by Chika Unigwe

     I was there, in the café, as hours passed. I worked. Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing; I love having written.” Yes, I don’t always love writing, but I love having been to the café.
     Plus, the café is the ideal spot to do what writers always tell themselves is their job: observe the human condition. Or, you know, spy on people. Young lovers making out in the back corner, old lovers breaking up at the center table, a dozen not-yet-jaded twenty-somethings pounding out their individual artistic visions on identical Apple laptops: It’s all here. An infinite number of distractions to watch and to pretend are “research.”

A Baggie of Ice and the Human Condition by Lincoln Michel

     A pile of large kitchen knives (carried to register in an Easter basket. Basket was not purchased.)
     Cashier: “Don’t mess with you on the wrong day!”
     The man buying the knives, who has a Chicago accent, tells the following story: When he was young, he sold Cutco knives door-to-door. He did this in “the neighborhood.” He put on a good show, cutting pennies in half for housewives. He would dice up tomatoes real fast, like this. He was the top salesman in his district. This won him a trip on a riverboat cruise, where he gambled away his earnings at the blackjack table—oh no, right?—but he met his wife at the Spirit of the Mississippi bar while drinking away his sorrows so, hey, it all worked out.

Items Purchased at Abbott’s Thrift in Felton, California, from 11:10 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 24, and What the Editorializing Cashier Said While I Sat in a Rocking Chair by the Front Door by Kelly Luce

     Two months ago, someone moved into that house across the way. I discovered this one night while casually pulling a sweater off over my head in our bedroom. When my skull was loosed from the neckhole, I realized that not only was the room that faced us lit up, it was occupied: a white, narrow-shouldered, dark-haired man sitting at a desk.
     I dropped down to the floor like I’d been shot, army-crawled half-naked across the hardwood, and pulled myself up to the sill. There he was, typing in an unhurried fashion, the blue-white, luminous glow of the apple at the back of his laptop staring at me like an eye. Keeping low, I slid toward our hallway—my hand snaking up to the dresser to locate my pajamas—and finished undressing there.

The Novelist by Carmen Maria Machado

     Within an hour, the boy’s Twitter profile was gone. Then his Facebook page. I clicked back to the friend, and by lunchtime he was gone, too. Not a sign of either of them, their existence obliterated, the ball games and goofy meals at Sonic and prom pictures submerged without a ripple.
     The father, on the other hand, whose idea it was to go to the rally, emerged unscathed. As far as social media goes, he is still with us. And in a few hours the outrage had moved on to the next target—there were more Trump rallies, other folks to go after.
     By evening I felt queasy, as if I’d spent the day drinking red wine and eating Cheetos. My fingers were stained with grease. I was not pleased with myself. I hadn’t done any writing, or anything useful. Just stayed riveted to a sneaky look into a few lives and an online battle that clarified very little.

The Rule of the Mob by Katherine Karlin

Unlike the essays at Catapult, our stories in Watchlist are all fiction. They involved, to some degree or another, spying, surveillance, watching (and being watched), and the accompanying feelings of lust, curiosity and paranoia. I know I’m biased, but I think it’s a pretty damn good collection of short stories.  Shelf Awareness had this to say about the book: “In this diverse and daring fiction collection, writers of all stripes deal with the act of watching and being watched, subverting and challenging surveillance’s obvious connotations and raising questions about our intricate dance with privacy and transparency.” To order a copy of the book directly from the publisher, go to this address, then leave a briefcase of unmarked bills at the appointed time and location. We’ll be in touch to arrange delivery. And don’t forget to wear your trench coat.

Author portraits by Tyler Boss

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