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From Brancusi's Back
by Linda Janakos

A New Direction

There's someone in a green shirt, zipping down, his ears flushed; on fire with desire, some unfamiliar loud woman in skinny shoes and wearing a cross on her head, unbuttoning her blouse, rushing behind him-for a moment I think it's-no, it's not Felix. Relieved, I keep going. I like to start where the rose garden begins. I like to let the fragrance work on me. I like the yellow best today. Last week it was the red. I don't keep track. I only know desire can change. On the way, the untamed ants and worms burrow in while people traffic into or out of bushes and dogs wipe their asses on-. The air here is still fragrant with the roses and doesn't smell of piss. I step over the slugs. I pass the rotting branches and petals, the flies and sparrow carcasses, and I slip through the mud and into the water. Yesterday they carted away a man and a woman washed up on the shoreline, still embraced.
     In polarized glasses, I look through the river water at the rocks on the bottom and the plants and debris in the sand and mud. Somewhere nearby a radio announces a distant chemical spill. More news on the recent piss stink; it has gotten into the water coolers in the Federal Building. More news on the race, another presidential candidate enters. Yet, why don't I have a dog? What happened to my dear little dog? What ambivalence pushed me to give her away just like that!? How I miss her! I do like the little beagle over there. But why don't they take it off the leash? What harm is a beagle unleashed to us? Enough. I hear regret breaks down the teeth.
     I head straight for the smallest island, the one in the shape of a foot. Up to my waist in water. Pulled this way and that, the undercurrent strong. Behind me the path, benches, roses. Beyond the roses, the city and its rising, continuous dust; its manufactured betrayals; its justified thefts; its unfinished, undone, unrealized jobs, marriages and affairs. Geese fly over to one of the nearby vacant islands. The ducks stay on, keeping an eye on me. Still, I'm a little sick of everything today. I keep the best part of my sandwich, the turkey and pickles, and toss the rest to the ducks. Then I sit in the sand and pick at it with the branch near my leg. It's always the rotting away we fear most.
     Do you have the time? I want to know, ashamed of everything.
     But the duck isn't interested.
     Now what? Over there. Is everyone in bushes? Another man coming out of the bushes, zipping up. If only the passions were truly loosened. Look, he wears the same shirt as Felix left the house with this morning. What are the odds?
     Felix is probably in mourning. Yesterday after I bemoaned a building emptiness while standing at the window, Felix suggested I find something to mourn. But I can no longer think up anything to mourn, nor find something for Felix to mourn for me. Not even the hedge, which is dying, overlooking the manufactured hills. But what does Felix mourn? He likes to mourn daily, just before lunch. He can't sleep at night unless he mourns before sundown. Just last week I found him lying flat on the roof chewing on Ritz crackers covered with cheap caviar from those small tins. I stood on the ladder for over an hour, watching him tied up in his whimpering and sucking on his crackers while that stray cat licked his ears. Why should nothing ignite the unnamable shift Felix and I are waiting for? What plots against us?
     What's this? A small duck behind me, pecking at my foot? A skinny little one, having gotten lost or having escaped from the brood, now pecking at the sand. We peck together. We've escaped; we've gotten lost. We've escaped; we've gotten lost. We've escaped; we've gotten lost. I let it decide. We peck, taking in small grains of sand while I wait for the duck's decision. Sand flies buzz under my tongue, ants rush away. I don't let slip in the rotting cigarette butts, broken glass. Swallowing slowly, I try to make meaning; I try to pick up one grain at a time, to see if each one feels like a beginning in itself, or at least its promise. I crawl over the twigs, the clumps of grass growing in the sand, the broken off brush, covering a large surface before my neck begins to hurt. I don't strain. I lift my head and pause looking around at the shoreline. There's always the hope it's another country, and the regret that it is, or worse, that it's the same old place, where you must act in the same old way. Sweating, I remove my favorite Vitelli and Vitelli hat-yellow, sun stained, leaving the gun strapped to the band around my head. I won't get military about it. I won't go that route. No left, right. The duck follows. We peck together. We've escaped. We've gotten lost. We've escaped. We've gotten lost. We've escaped. We've gotten lost. I wonder what I would be doing if the geese had stayed? The tongue and lips, the whole mouth, sore. The sand sticks to the insides of my cheeks, under my tongue, the roof of my mouth and on my tongue itself. I'd like to get rid of her once and for all, this whore of judgment.

O-Murphy Starts at Hamm's Dream

Hamm was there because he was superstitious. He came right out and asked her if she had put a curse on him because he had hired his last dishwasher from Best Dressed. O-Murphy, he complained, was showing up nightly in his dreams. And never for the good. If the dreams continued, he threatened, I'll spread the word about Dorsala's candidates.
     Do what you want, Dorsala said. My clients know me. But if I were you, I'd get in on the ground floor with this dishwasher.
     Hamm was standing arms folded in front of Dorsala, a large, black woman from Bolivia, who ran her employment agency as if it were a dating service and she the city matchmaker. Hamm had gotten most of his help through her. And since all employees were guaranteed, he kept going back. Besides, she told him he had been a Swedish King in a past life. He liked her having that kind of inside news. He was waiting now to find out who he was before that.
     Anyway, Dorsala laughed. I don't have to put a curse on you. You got your own system going.
     Hamm looked around at the masks on the wall suspiciously. How long you been in America? he asked.
     She rolled her head back and closed her eyes. Free will is free will, she said. Sometimes it's better than success. Maybe that's your fate. Having to slurp around the big guys with your free will. There's a lesson. Opening her eyes, she put a coda to it: I don't usually give free readings, she said. Then she sent Hamm away with her new business card. Three weeks later Hamm got a flyer introducing Dorsala's latest business venture, her twenty-fifth: Get Somewhere Hiking Agency.
     Always some variation of the same dream. Hamm, whistling it up, heads straight into the kitchen for a free glass of milk. With the light going on, the alarm goes off, along with an I knew you'd come look. O-Murphy is sitting tied to the white vinyl chair next to the dishwasher, both now in the front window. Hamm sizes the moment up quickly: You're trespassing, he says gunslinger-like. What are you doing here, chaps? (a word he has never used). Then he heads toward the door to hit the button directly linked to the nearest precinct. With milk bottles running down a conveyer belt, O-Murphy's lasso increases in size and the door multiplies. Everything else begins to grow as well, including the lights, which increase toward a blinding intensity. Both men now running nowhere in place, increase in size also. A crowd, orchestrated by Dorsala, takes bets for the showdown. But when Hamm reaches for help, O-Murphy's arm grows faster, now a spinning lasso, captures a stunned Hamm, and in a moment of abject passion or cruelty, he pushes Hamm, face down, onto the butcher block, to screw him in the ass. At least that's the story Julia tells.
     Next time give this O-Murphy a try, Hamm's doctor encouraged Hamm. Can't lose any real money in a dream. If it doesn't work out, fire the displaced asshole. And hire him before not after he lassoes you. Timing's important.
     But Hamm left his hat and the doctor's advice in the waiting room on his way out and spent the next five months on six troubled dishwashers from Best Dressed as well as on the nightly dreams. When Hamm finally shot O-Murphy in the head, Hamm took it as moment of personal triumphant and bought himself a new pair of shoes, expensive as hell. But when the real O-Murphy walked into the deli two days later, still looking for work, just as Hamm was throwing out another dishwasher, Hamm sensed some kind of transcendental experience and put O-Murphy to work.
     As soon as the dishes are loaded, Hamm said, you hit the start button. When the dishwasher shuts off, your job is to hit the pop-open button. Start. Pop open. Start. Pop open. Got it?
     What about sitting in the window?
     You start by sitting next to the dishwasher, Hamm told O-Murphy, feeling the power of having shot O-Murphy in the head. If it works out, I'll put you in the window. Right now I need a dishwasher. Everyone starts at the bottom. You can sit in the chair as long as you push the buttons.
     The compromise started eating away at O-Murphy right away; he sat defeated in the white vinyl chair. There was no real money sitting next to the dishwasher. And now he'd have to waste his time pushing its buttons. Three times he almost got up and walked out of the place. Plenty of places to try. But he couldn't stop watching Julia make salads. She had looked up and smiled at him while Hamm was giving O-Murphy his duties. Now the two of them kept exchanging smiles. Soon he and Julia were sighing together. At least we're working, she shrugged over at him. Yeah, he gave in. I know what you mean.
     No Cowboy hat, though, Hamm said. No one wears hats in the kitchen. Bad luck. And no stains on clothes or shoes. Doesn't look professional. And no dates among the help.
     O-Murphy was responsible for five buttons, color and name coded. Each button represented a stage in the cycle, and since efficiency and timing were of major concern to Hamm, O-Murphy was given an extra nickel per button for being prompt. If he was late-and the video monitor was on twenty-four hours a day-he'd lose his extra nickels from the previous cycle. It was the wrong way to begin, he knew, and the compromise made him want to smoke again. He started borrowing cigarettes. Marlboros. He liked the advertisements.

Preface: Section on Rosemary's Job

Without thinking, Rosemary presses ABRACACA on the pink and purple buttons, waits for the pink door to swing open, steps inside and walks down the dirty pink hallway leading to the women's lounge. She changes into a pink and white stripped toga, scooped for cleavage view, slits for thigh view, and puts on brown fudge lipstick under the theatrical makeup lights.
     It's hell in here today, says Julia, the rotting air conditioner is broken. Hurry and take over; I'm starting to stink. And you know I look bad when I get self-conscious. Anyway, my cousin died and I can't afford to fly back home for the funeral. My whole family has cursed me. How come the Kennedy's never have to worry about getting back home for funerals? Jesus, Rosemary, don't you ever sleep? You're getting bags under your eyes.
     Were you close? You and your cousin? Rosemary wants to know.
     Julia shrugs, Once.
     The problem with Julia is development. I can't decide whether she's tragic or comic. Commonplace, yes. She's a million women in one, one of those commonplace markers, a real rider of her time: Aerobics, crystals, lotteries, small stocks, biannual visits to Spago, mud baths, best sellers, shoes that turn heads, designer labels over car insurance, massage over health insurance, three coffees a day, her own Web site, credit cards up the ass, lies about all her beginnings, hateful of her endings. Born again and again and again, a real TV ad for the consumer culture. God loving, fear machine, she loves her weekend dates, soaps and church. In fact, Julia's so ordinary, it scares Rosemary that they ended up at the same job, and Rosemary takes it as a warning. Julia is the goal. As for me, I always end up crippled with a Julia, unable to take off, with any enthusiasm, on the obsessions and compulsions that broke her down. A female body etherized on a short walk. So she's hollowed out. Who isn't? Julia talks to keep from worrying about her future. Who doesn't? Even when she stands there I imagine she must watch people coming and going only in comparison or-she must spend her six hour shift working at her pose, blinking at the right time, shifting her weight between five appealing poses, watching the eyes of people judging her: pretty or not, sexy or not, special or not. You see how tedious, uncolorful-oh give it up. Who hasn't been Julia? Nevertheless, I'm the only one who thinks of Julia as just an ad. Can't kick it. If you ask me I ought to get into this worry about the future attitude. It haunts her, follows her into everything she does, even her daily prayers. And yet- Julia has quit her marketing class and gone into stand up comedy. There's an attempt! Still, paralysis is paralysis. Poverty is poverty. For gods sakes, no one is ever just tied to the podium! One thing is clear, a mute hostess, in a toga, tied to the podium, is a mute hostess in a toga tied to the podium. And that's where Rosemary comes in. O-Murphy didn't like having to watch the dishwasher go through its cycles. But he did like Julia. In no time he and Julia were talking with the crisp tongue that goes along with fresh love, and she made a point of bending down every half hour to give him long looks at her cleavage. By the third week, he could close his eyes and imagine Julia's breasts exactly as if he had been touching them all along. In turn, Julia was so impressed with his mastery of the dishwasher that she agreed to go to the movies with him.
     Soon O-Murphy began observing the condition of each dish and other eating utensil going into and coming out of the dishwasher. He began to see a clear correlation between how Chet, the loader, placed the dishes and other eating utensils into the dishwasher, and how clean they came out-By the eleventh week O-Murphy was able to calculate for Julia how Chet should rotate the dishes more efficiently in order to preserve them as a unit. . . .
     Still it took another three months before O-Murphy got his way. Not that Hamm gave in. It took Dorsala sending Hamm on a six-week hike through the entire state of Rhode Island, in order to find his higher self. Meanwhile, he left his wife in charge of the deli. Not interested in supervising anyone from her country club activities, she hired a temporary manager to oversee the crew. By the time the manager arrived, O-Murphy was in the window tied to his chair, with several scarves of Julia's. When no one seemed interested enough to notice, O-Murphy got depressed and worried he'd end up without health insurance at fifty. He may have if an accident hadn't intervened in his favor. One afternoon he had been sitting in the window tied to his chair when his nose started to itch. Ordinarily, he would have endured it or meditated to forget it, but this time-maybe the force of the itch pushed him to it-he tried to relieve himself, first with a shoulder and then with a knee. But in bending over, to reach his knee, he lost his balance and tipped over in the chair, head first. Lucky for him the back of the chair was taller than his head or he might have smashed himself good. The customers applauded and people walking by stopped to look at the man tipped over in the chair. As uncomfortable as it was, O-Murphy insisted Julia leave him in this position, and the next day, they had a carpenter saw off an inch of leg off the chair and restructure the chair, so O-Murphy's head wouldn't be too far bent away from the rest of his body. It was a pose it took some getting used to. But it worked. By the time Hamm walked in back from his hike through Rhode Island, the press was there, doing a story, and just like O-Murphy had predicted, Hamm became an overnight celebrity in the deli biz.
     Rosemary never met the real O-Murphy. She started working as a mime hostess at Hamm's Deli-O after it had been renamed O-Murphy's Deli-O and O-Murphy had disappeared one day without even picking up his last check. Rumor had it Hamm never gave O-Murphy his 20 percent of the profits. Now Murphy look-alikes took his place in the window. Sixteen had come and gone over the year.
     Rosemary pulls the braided cord shut, enclosing herself and Julia inside a black silk curtain. It's at least a stink hole to think, reassess, rekindle, remember. It's at least a place to do the minimum-the only amount of anything an artist should give to a shit job.
     You got any musk on you? Julia asks. I got to pass table six. From around her waist, she unhooks the braided rope and hands it to Rosemary, who hooks it on the small loop on her own belt. The other end of the rope remains hooked to the podium.
     Who's at table six?
     He's been staring at me since he walked in.
     It's just a feeling. You know how I get.
     Rosemary pulls out a thumb-sized bottle of musk from her pocket for Julia.
     Heard from Brancusi since-
     I like being alone enough of the time.
     Bastards drive us to it. Dick Crapy show said Brancusi got caught digging in K-Mart's garbage.
     Dick Crapy mentioned Brancusi? What else did he say?
     I didn't hear. Something about the pathological something. The guy I was with was talking over Dick Crapy. I hate that. I tried to listen for you. Dick Crapy was praising whatever Brancusi was doing. I heard him call the owners of K-Mart psychotic assholes. Literally. For real. Anyway, you look pale. Are you sick again? Or just tired?
     I'm always sick.
     I envy you. It'd drive me nuts. Oh, I forgot to tell you. I met this guy who collects shoes. I swear he's got over three-hundred pairs in a linen closet -from the 1950s and before. I think he stole half of them. Cool, huh? Julia pauses here and crosses herself religiously. A habit. The whole family Protestants. He said he's going to start a shoe museum once he reaches five-hundred shoes. That's his goal, he said. I started laughing. I mean I couldn't stop. It's like something snapped inside. Who'd ever think a guy like-Then I started making jokes about the shoes. He was rolling on the floor. It seemed sacrilegious. Like we were going against our religion. Course he's Catholic so he's got more at stake.
     What were the jokes?
     Julia shrugs she doesn't remember. That's how people get famous, isn't it? They write it down. He'll remember. He's that kind of guy. I'll ask him.
     I really need a change too, a few months off of work.
     Then what?
     I don't know. Maybe by then the earthquake will have happened.
     How Zen! Speaking of-Julia exclaims. She opens her mouth and begins sucking her finger. Fresh idea, huh? I've been practicing for three days. I'll bottle it.
     Is this one of your jokes?
     Rosemary can feel Hamm off in the shadows, holding a stop watch, timing how long it takes them to make the shift change. Three people in the deli are wearing buttons: Students SHOULD get Stipends From Big Business. The button belonged to that radical candidate for President. They'll kill him for sure, she thinks.
     Rosie, it's good to see you, Hamm says and pinches her cheek. You got here on time. Shows you're getting a little class. Stick around long enough and I'll make you first rate yet.
     Rosemary feels the discomfort of the mud in between her toes as she shifts into her work pose. The forced discomfort isn't a religious thing, she believes; it's the fear of settling for success at the lowest level of existence. Brancusi didn't buy it. He didn't think the discomfort could save her-even if she knew the first game rule: End up in someone else's dream, remove your authenticity and leave it in the hat room or at the register. He worried the mud left on her foot went against the essence, the wilderness, of Rosemary, that part he loved desperately, kept coming back to meet with. But Rosemary insisted the mud protected her. She starts humming. Standing there mute gives her the chance to watch people's backs, unseen, usually through the mirrors, she believes. A back comes alive if you watch it long enough. It twitches, hunches, lies, desires, even attacks. If she were to go on a talk show, she'd say unused nobility rots in the back.
     Don't call me Rosie, she says.
     I'd like to stick my pecker up the ass of the video market, Arktaker was saying. Get
     myself in there and never come out.
     Spectacular. This is truly a coup de grace.
     We ought to let the rats loose in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. That's one way to get rid of the weaker among us. Let the strongest survive. That's the only way to save this country from too much surplus labor.
     Think small. One, two, three.
     Too many steps for most people.
     On that matter we talked about yesterday: Let them have their 1 percent.
     Put the Simpsons on three times a day.
     Air the muther fucker Howard Zinn again-It'll make us look good.
     How do we insure the invisible?
     I want to know one thing, Freddie. Will this screw help us empty Los Angeles? Practically speaking, that's our major focus over the next ten years. If we can empty Los Angeles, we got the globe.
     What is it a liquid?
     I'm not against genocide.
     We got to get retail on-line. Keep them off the streets.
     We're scheduled to relocate our first 10 percent of workers right after the elections.
      What in hell is Swanson's Way?
     It's a game, Hyde says, over an intercom. Just a game. Isn't that right, Freddie?
     Is that you Hyde?
     There are no glasses.
     If we need, we manufacture.
     I say push the muther fuckers off the cliff. It's our job to make money. That's the democratic way. If you make it, it's yours.
     I'd like to see an invisible plane. Be great for seeing who's trying to escape up there. What do you say, Freddie? Can you get one to us by next year?
     The group laughs.
     I'd like to watch a porno plane.
     How does it screw?
     Gentlemen, gentlemen, order, order. Let's begin our business for the day, says Hyde. We're all busy men. There is money to be made. Operations to be clarified. I call this meeting to order.
     The men rush to the table and begin singing their theme song:

All for one and one for all
We are the real American men
Heroes in the right way
Heroes as a group
We are the Real American Heroes
We manufacture this and that
Congress is our plaything
The President our front
We are the real American heroes
Rah Rah, Rah Rah, Rah Rah.

     Anyway, I like it, Freddie. It's the potential to scare the shit out of every overseas' market.

Awards include a Bumbershoot Literary Award for Fiction and a University of Oregon Fiction Award. Varying kinds of finalist awards for fiction include Chesterfield film fellowship, Fiction II Collective, Italo Calvino, Heekin, and Plover Nivola Press.


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