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Friday, December 16, 2005

4-Piece Dinette Set $799.99 by Rennie Sparks

I live in the part of the city where the pay phones all hang broken and the sidewalk cracks are filled in with beer bottles and lottery tickets. My doorway is recessed from the street and is the perfect place to pee or vomit or just take a nap.
It’s a forty-minute drive west to my job, but it’s impossible to find work downtown. This city is bankrupt. The skyscrapers are all empty and the buildings are being torn down, replaced by weedy lots full of broken glass and lost shoes.
Everyday I inch through the traffic until liquor stores and pawn shops fall away into strip malls and then finally nothing but fields of pussy willow and swamp water stretching out to the grey horizon.
Sometimes I see prairie dogs standing on two legs in the waving grass along my exit. I used to think this was cute until I read somewhere that prairie dogs only do this when they’re terrified and trying to signal other prairie dogs, “Run!”
There’s a slight grade to the parking lot at work and so the far spaces are always covered in water. Sometimes I se ducks gliding along these gravely puddles or waddling between cars, leaving muddy, wedge-shaped prints.
At the end of the day when I head back out to my car, there are crows lined up along the telephone wires and sometimes deer clattering off across the asphalt in the orange dusk.
But, there are deer everywhere now. There’s an outlet mall just south of the city where they sell everything from discount vitamins to raspberry cappuccino. They had so many deer tearing away at their graceful, curving flowerbeds, they offered coupons for frozen yoghurt to anyone who shot one. Then a girl who worked at an ear-piercing booth ended up shot in the leg and they had to call it off.

My grandfather Morris tried to kill himself in 1946 after reading an article in some newspaper about the town in Poland where he had been born. They’d found a mass grave behind the train station full of Jews and their empty suitcases.
My mother came home from the beach, a seven-year-old girl with a bag of paper dolls and she found my grandfather sucking on the gas pipe in the basement of their suburban split-level. So, my grandfather ended up living to see his son killed in Korea and my grandmother put away in a mental hospital and my mother married off to a pharmacist before my grandfather slipped on a bar of soap and smashed his head against the toilet seat.
I inherited his office furniture – heavy steel chairs, a rickety floor lamp and a wooden desk rolling with pencils and crammed with typewritten lists. Lists of every vacation he’d ever taken and what he’d paid for coffee. The Niagara Falls list reads, “39 cents for a cup of lukewarm espresso and the prime rib was not tender.” Below that in parentheses, my grandfather had felt obliged to note, “All the restaurants here are run by Chinamen.”

I work in the sign department of a large corporation. We make pricing signs for a chain of furniture stores. You’d think furniture stores could make their own pricing signs, but that’s not the big business way. Everything must be produced in its proper department. I’m not even allowed to pull a paper jam out of the Xerox machine. We have a number to call in the maintenance department. My job is making signs. Nothing more.
I’ll spend four hours printing out sheets of paper that say, “Brown leather recliner, $499.99,” hundreds of sheets that say this except down in the bottom right corner there’s a twelve digit store code that gets changed on each one. When I finish, I start over again with another sign, maybe, “Sleeper/loveseat $399.99” or “4 piece dinette set $799.99.”
I work on a floor that stretches endlessly, one identical cubicle after the next, underneath ghostly, fluorescent lights. These lights keep you feeling slightly seasick all day but plants love them. Tiny potted sprouts grow vine-like, out of control – winding up cubicle walls, stretching out green, hungry tentacles toward those glowing, buzzing tubes.
I’m a good worker or at least no worse than the rest except for Post-its. I like to steal them. Everyday I grab a pad or two off someone’s desk as I head out to my car. Driving back to the city, I toss Post-its out my car window and watch them through the rear-view mirror, skidding and rolling in the dirt. I don’t know why I do it. I guess I don’t really want to know why.

Kenneth sits next to me at work. His cubicle is decorated with pictures of animals he’s killed – bobcats lying bleeding in the snow, dead trout held dripping over his head, strings of broken geese slung over his shoulder. He also has a picture of himself shaking Willie Nelson’s hand in front of a McDonald’s and Willie has the same expression on his face as the dead animals: defeated, surprised to find himself suddenly caught in Kenneth’s meaty grip.
Sally sits across from me. She’d decorated her office in what she calls “Country Kitchen” which means wooden ducks wearing bowties, stuffed pigs wearing wire-rim spectacles and red gingham contact paper lining her in-ox.
Our boss is named Ida. She’s been here thirty-five years and still hasn’t even hung a postcard in her office. For lunch she eats five saltines and a mug of hot water.

At the end of the day Monday, I get in my car. I hug the right lane even though the highway is empty. I drive fast. Faster. I’m thinking about what I’ll watch on TV when I get home. I’m thinking about what I’ll defrost in the microwave for dinner. Then there’s a thump. My car bucks toward the shoulder and I stop and get out. There are no other cars in sight, but back about twenty feet there’s something, a dark shape rising up from the black pavement.
I walked closer thinking maybe its just a carpet remnant fallen off a delivery truck, but then I see that it’s a dog – a poodle with neatly clipped white fur and a pink collar with a tiny metal disk hanging from it.
I lean in but all the metal disk says is “Scamp.” No phone number, no address.

Once upon a time there were wolves along this road, back before the buffalo disappeared. I think about this as I lean in over the dead dog, seeing its insides pulled out in pink and yellow layers of fat and skin. I think about wolves and buffalo and about my brother Michael and how once, when we were young, I watched my brother Michael kill my mother’s green and orange parakeet while my mother was outside planting a gardenia bush.
There was no good reason for it. We were bored on a Sunday afternoon. Michael pulled the bird from its cage and smothered it inside a Wonder Bread bag. The parakeet barely struggled but I remember feeling this horrible presence, a terrifying void, as my brother pulled the limp bird from the bag.

Crouching down at the roadside I can’t resist the urge to lean it and touch the dead dog. But when my fingers graze its fur, the dog’s eyes open and it rears up and bites my hand so that I fall back hyperventilating, blood dripping down my wrist. The dog goes slithering off down into the woods at the edge of the road, dragging itself on two legs, leaving a trail of blood like an oil slick.
It’s dark out and I do not have a flashlight but I take a few steps down into the silent trees. My fingers are throbbing, wet with warm blood. After a minute my eyes adjust to the darkness and I spot the dog, wedged against a rotting tree stump, staring up at me with frightened, crazy eyes.
The dog’s breathing in short, panting gasps but each time I make a move towards it, it rears up again, snapping and spitting and making this strange, high-pitched noise that sounds like a human baby crying.
Finally I just stop. I sit down in the dark woods, crushing pine saplings under my ass. I just sit there in the cold listening to the dog’s ragged breathing and watching blood drip down my fingers to the ground.

“Words that in their everyday surrealism have no parallel in contemporary writing…music that mines the deep veins of fatalism in the Appalachian voice”- Greil Marcus on The Handsome Family.

Rennie Sparks, along with her husband Brett, is a member of the alt-country duo The Handsome Family. Together they have created a succession of highly acclaimed albums including Milk And Scissors, Through The Trees, In The Air and Twilight. Their music is a multitude of things from dustbowl gothic tales of madness and murder to country laments for ghosts and dropouts. It is Americana tempered with dark romanticism, songs where The Bible and the tales of the Brothers Grimm seep into the everyday world. The thread running through them all is Rennie’s poetry. That same strange and haunting near-fairytale poetry, all the more beautiful and unsettling because it mixes the most everyday images with the most surreal and otherworldly.
Rennie described their last album Singing Bones as being intended, “to rip holes between this world and the next with its songs of haunted Wal-Marts, lovers who chase the fire in streetlights, the madness of very deep holes, a lake that can only be visited in dreams and the shadows that whisper inside a modern office building.”
She and Brett live together on a quiet street in Albuquerque, New Mexico where they are currently recording their next album. They also appear in the film Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus, which follows the musician Jim White on a road trip through the churches, coalmines and bayous of the South.
She has kindly allowed Laika Poetry Review to reproduce two short stories, "Web Of Gold" and "4 Piece Dinette Set $799.99," from her short story collection Evil (Black Hole Press).
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Copyright Rennie Sparks 2001