Thursday, April 5, 2012

"The Bones" by Henning Koch (Pt. 3)

The Quivering Pen continues the exclusive 9-part serialization of a novella by acclaimed short-story writer and novelist Henning Koch.  "The Bones" is a funny, frightening vision of an unspecified future in which America is a wasteland society whose currency is oil.  Mad Max would be right at home in Koch's neo-Western Apocalypse.  Read Parts 1 and 2 here and here.

The Bones


Some people always have to give you the run-around. They reveal a few things, then back off, gloat at you, tell you it’s meaningless anyway.

It’s a way of making themselves feel important.

People want to be cornerstones – not stepping-stones. But when you think about it, what’s a house without a staircase? You’d be better off not building it in the first place.

The life of a journalist is a misery from start to finish. You go out there to get the story, but the story grows and in the end it’s bigger than you; it would take your whole life to tell it properly, the way it deserves.

And that’s why she always ended up telling her editor she needed time off. She had to cool her heated mind, she had to immerse herself in silence, sit in the moonlight for a few weeks, let her thoughts settle back into some kind of fermenting harmony. And smoke good cigars.

Wyre was right, it was like a barrel of maturing whisky. The men she’d had were all bad, one of them had been toxic, and her instinctual drives were all enemies that came whispering in the night; enemies such as the myth of the child, the myth of the milk in her breast, the tinkling waters of the river, the oasis, the soft bed guarded by a fierce man who loved her.

Lies. All lies.

Henrietta had never got the distillation process right.

The whisky came out smelling like an old shoe.

Later, she went to a small boarding hotel and asked if she could pay for a shower. The gummy man behind the counter grinned as if it was funny and took her money, but when she turned on the shower and stood there trying to clean herself, the water came out all grimy and full of small globules of black tar, which melted against her skin and left her sooty as a chimney-sweep. She dried herself, went back and roared at the old man, then went back to the camper van and wiped herself down with wet tissues.

Afterwards, while smoking a cigar outside, she decided that when investigating a town of shits, one had to go to the stomach sack and greater intestine, where the shit was made.


She saw Arty Simpleton as soon as she stepped into the bar that evening. He was unmistakable. What was it Wyre had called him? A tub of blubber with pork-fat eyes?

It wasn’t a bad description.

He was sitting on a tall stool at the bar, apparently engrossed in conversation with the barman, but not so engrossed that he stopped himself from turning round and giving her an invasive stare.

She ignored him and ordered a cranberry vodka. The barman was vaguely hostile, everyone in there was hostile and they were all men.

She couldn’t help turning her head slightly, and shooting out, in her best New York voice: “If you have something on your mind, buddy, keep it to yourself.” It was a good ploy, she had found. If you really wanted someone to talk, the first thing you had to do was tell them to shut up.

Arty did not wait long to open his ugly mouth: “Oh, not much, thanks. I’m not big on unpacking myself, and I don’t go to other folks’ homes and make them unpack themselves, either. I have some scrupulosity about that…”

“Fine with me, I only came for the truth.”

“Yeah,” said Arty Simpleton. “The truth about nothing.”

“An empty cemetery? You call that nothing?”

She let the cold vodka dribble down her throat, and momentarily enjoyed the feeling of watching him squirm on the end of her skewer. But she had not figured on the way his rampant stupidity rose up like a one-armed zombie. “A few old bones, who gives a damn about ’em? If all I can say in two hundred years is ‘Hey, these are my bones and you better go to my grave every week and holler out your prayers’ – then fuck me what a sad man I’ll be. ’Cuz when you gone you gone. See?”

Arty nodded at the barman, who brought him another large hot chocolate smothered in clumps of whipped cream. “I don’t drink, lady. And I ain’t no Muslim. That’s a double negative.” He burst into strenuous laughter. No one else in the bar made a sound, though she heard a chair scraping in a corner and a drawling voice: “Shut the fuck up, Arty…” After that, the bar went back to its usual state, which was rather like the recovery room of a psychiatric ward, where the patients were brought to recuperate after their hysterical outbursts had passed.

She decided to change tack, for the moment. “What about the robberies?” she said. “You issued a statement in the local press.”

“You bet,” said Arty.

“I was confused by it,” she said, deviously. “On the one hand you’re saying to any robbers out there that if they come back you’re all willing to fall on your swords rather than hand your money over. That’s passivity, in my book, Mr. Simpleton. But on the other hand, you’re telling them you’ve bought enough weapons to start a small war…”

Arty stood up and his stool scraped agonizingly against the floor. “Come on guys, let’s show her the real story!”

A couple of semi-intoxicated amalgamations of dirt held up by their trousers stood up and flustered along beside Arty and Henrietta, as they went to a door at the back. Arty flung it open with some pride and flicked on the lights.

Inside was a long gun rack studded with carbines, pump-action shotguns and semi-automatics; even a long sniper’s rifle.

There was a long exhalation from the Oilers, as if they were looking at their pride and joy, which in a real sense they were. Guns were like jewels to them or chronograph watches, intricately made; precious status symbols.

The colour had risen into the congealed fat of Arty’s cheeks. “We got night patrols set up.”

“And day patrols too, right Arty?” someone added in a squeaky voice.

“Night, day, noon, you name it,” said Arty. “Any robbers come out here again we’ll blow ‘em away.”

“So you all got together and paid for this? To protect yourselves…”

“You bet we did,” said Arty, flicking the lights off again and closing the door.

Henrietta sat down and waited for him to recompose himself before she threw another pebble into the pool.

“Let me get this right…you buy guns and even go out on patrol to protect your property. But someone comes in the dead of night and digs up your cemetery and steals the bones…the bones of your fathers and mothers…and all you have to say about it is ‘fuck that’ and ‘nothing happened.’ Am I right?”

“That’s right,” said Arty Simpleton, slurping his whipped cream. “You know what I do, lady? I drill oil and I tap it and I salt my money away, that’s what I’m about…”

“Okay, that’s understandable,” said Henrietta. “You don’t care about your ancestors, but what about your kids? What are they going to do in this place after you’ve gone, what are you leaving them?”

“Well I’m leaving them a shitload of dough to start off!” said Arty, slamming down his cup. “We Simpletons have been in this place for five hundred years, lady, so don’t you come here telling me I don’t care about my ancestors, though I tell you I do not care a barrel-pin for a sack of old bones…”

He stared into the gnarled wood of the bar, then added laconically: “Anyways, what fucking kids you talking about? Ain’t no fucking kids round here last time I looked, all I got is a nephew and he’s lucky enough not to be born here.”

“So Oil Town’s not such a great place, then?”

His red-rimmed eyes grew heated. “Oil Town is the best fucking spot on earth! I wouldn’t change it for nothing!”

“The heat, the desert, the flying sand…the lovely filthy water…you love it all, do you?”

“That’s right. It’s my home; I love it.”

Henrietta smiled, filling up with pity. “Oh you’re a sorry collection of instincts, aren’t you, Mr. Simpleton?”      

“Now hear me good, lady journalist. You think you have something to say about a place you know nothing about? You think by writing it down it’ll change anything?”

She thought about it. “Yes. In the long run.”

“Oh, Jesus, in the long run we’re all dead. And then some asshole comes and takes your bones. Just so you’re clear about it, if I saw the folks what did this I’d take my gun off the wall and have a pot-shot at them ’cuz they deserve nothing but lead. But I won’t see ’em because they take care I don’t. And I’m not going to let them take my composure from me, ’cuz bones ain’t my core area. I’m a driller and an oiler and that’s all that counts for me.  Anything else is decoration.”     

Henrietta felt, for the first time, a sort of despondency creeping into her system; an area of glum darkness with a whispering voice inside it, telling her it was all futile. These men are right, said the voice. Everything is gone, everything is broken, nothing can ever be whole again, nothing works and nothing ever will work.

She sat on her stool, breathing the glutinous air with difficulty.      

“Hey Arty,” someone piped up from a table at the back. “You gonna tell her about the spruce-jumpin’?”

“No,” said Arty. “No I ain't gonna tell her.”

“Tell her, Arty, or I’ll tell her,” said the barman.

Arty seemed to waver, or maybe it was just the hot chocolate and cream making him oozy and pliant. “Go ahead, I’m not stopping you, if you want to talk about stuff that don’t make no difference no more.”

The barman’s face split into a big grin and then, while wiping glasses and bustling about, he started talking. “You know, lady, this guy here, Arty, he got the mind of a true original. He don’t care about a thing, not even his own skin, and he won’t stop at nothing to prove a point.”

Henrietta tried to show interest, but her mind was swaying.

“Why is that?” she said.

“Oh ’cuz he used to stand on a tall rock and jump off into some trees and catch hold of a branch and then hang there like a damned tree-rat twenty metres off the ground. Know what I’m saying? And he did it for dares, he did it to prove stuff.”

“Once he jumped to prove to Daisy Lopez that he loved her.”

“Shut the fuck up about that!” said Arty, his face turning livid.

“I already know about it, Wyre told me,” said Henrietta, who knew the only way to get one’s story was to stir up the hornet’s nest.

“I’m not saying nothing about Daisy Lopez. She’s history…”

The bar was jumping now. Everyone was laughing, tears running down their cheeks. Some were banging their tankards against the tables. This was a highly specific kind of steam-letting going on, she knew. Depressed people used laughter to let out their anger and disappointment, and nothing could be sadder than the sound of a roomful of broken souls.  

Henrietta’s head was spinning terribly now. She wondered what kind of screwy vodka this was.

The barman’s poison-ivy face loomed close again. “We can’t do the spruce-jumpin’ no more, ‘cos they cut down the trees forty years ago or more. They’re gone…like Daisy Lopez.”

The laughter intensified.

The barman continued.

“The timbers ain't all bad. I used them for roof-beams on my extension, and every time I look at them I think of Arty here, he was still a slim stripling in those days, fit as a bug he was, you should have seen him throw himself off. Hey Arty, you should have joined the army and killed yourself some Chinese, you would have made a General for sure and then you’d have yourself a nice little wife who appreciated your killing ways and your pot of gold and garden full of grass and Oil Town wouldn’t have been in your compass, you know…you’d be free of it…free, know what I’m saying, man? There’d be grass under your feet and cold water to drink without no fucking ice machine…”

Henrietta had a final lucid moment.

She saw the barman standing before her, his shoulders hunched up to his ears, wiping his glass so energetically that it broke in his hands and sliced his thumb open. 

The bar went silent again, as he wiped a rag round the gash, cursing as he did so.   

“I don’t fucking care about no goddamn grass under my feet. I’m wearing my fucking boots anyways,” said Arty. “What fucking difference does it make?”

And then Henrietta passed out.

Henning Koch's writing started with screenplays.  Between 2002 and 2007, he worked as a translator and dramaturge for Yellow Bird Films, makers of Henning Mankell's Wallander series for television/cinema in Scandinavia, Germany and the UK.  In 2005, Koch moved to Sardinia, off the coast of Italy, where he spent three years writing the short story collection Love Doesn't Work and the novel The Maggot People (forthcoming in September from Dzanc Books).  Follow him on Twitter: @henningkoch

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