THERE ARE SO MANY unborn tales. Oh, those sad lamenting choruses among the roots, those stories outbidding one another, those inexhaustible monologues among suddenly exploding improvisations! Have we the patience to listen to them?
Bruno Schulz ~ from Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass
ABOVE THE DESERTED STREET the red cloak of evening was slowly giving way to a starless night, the dying sun throwing down its last bands of fire onto a retreating landscape. A light wind swept the empty pavement clean, as if preparing for someone’s anticipated, yet uncertain, arrival. A lone man of slight build and stature, seeming perhaps unsure of himself, paced up and down on the narrow front porch of a two-story frame house. In the shaded darkness his face revealed no expression. His behavior, on the other hand, suggested that he could be someone who was walking that thin line between nothingness and death. He shook his head—eager to expel the sound of the helicopter that was presently passing through his brain, a flying machine which had been with him for years, and one that did not just make ordinary rotor noises, but produced a medley of tunes as it went on its never-ending way.
The house in the picture was not a fine structure, but in fact rather modest and old, in the bungalow style, built in the 1930s perhaps, its wooden siding worn thin by the winds of passing years. Unlike the other houses on the street, it had not been covered over with aluminum siding when that conversion was popular back in the 1950s. It had also been spared the modernization of having its front porch disappear in favor of the flag-stone steps and wrought-iron rails that had infected the neighboring houses. But where were the other houses that the pacing man recalled as having once lined this street? They apparently were no longer there—he had recently been surprised to discover. Had they once truly stood on both sides of this road or were they merely the vestiges of his dreams, a fiction of the time when he last walked through the front door of this house many years ago, and into the hidden alcove of his lost youth?
The porch, as well as the exterior of the house, appeared to the man as though they had not been well maintained since last he passed this way. Although he was not quite sure, the pacing man supposed that this was his house and porch now, and his problem—up until three days ago, as best as he knew, it all had belonged to his mother.
Shifting his gaze through the balustrades and out to the empty street, the man slowed his movement. He shuffled his feet, almost marching in place. No not marching, the thought of this, once an activity he had been required to participate in, was too unpleasant to remember, the memory of a time in his life that he wished had never happened. He preferred to think that he was sleepwalking. That the man was a little uncomfortable and not too sure of himself was as might be expected of someone who had not been outside of this house for more than three decades.
In order to understand his fears and reservations, we must turn our attention to the man’s evasive and doubtful character. His past thirty-three years had been quite unlike that of any of the other inhabitants of this town, long years filled with boredom and impatience and pale with waiting for what he did not know.
The man, who once answered to the name John Acorn, a name that he had almost forgotten, was standing in the shadows, trying to decide whether or not it was safe to cross the street that he had been so cautiously observing ever since this morning. It was a rather ordinary street, two lanes, narrow, and with cracked and rutted pavement, not the wide interstate highway that he recently discovered wound around in back of his house, where the cars continued to traffic night and day, passing in a discontinuous clamor of threatening, rolling noise. He certainly wouldn’t think of trying to cross that busy thoroughfare.
Whether he showed it or not, John was tired, and quite afraid. There was a time when he was sure that he would die without ever seeing this street, or any other street, again. But his fortune had changed drastically, and here he was. He had been studying the street from the security of inside his house for most of the day, considering if and when he could safely cross—a decision not yet fully resolved in his mind when he had stepped out onto the porch at dusk, reconciled to his fate.
Controlled by some means unknown to him the street lamp at the corner suddenly began to glow; bringing joy to the blackly spreading gloom, but startling John as it did. He stepped back into the small safety of his doorway. The man had never seen this lamp lit before, and wondered why it had turned itself on now, or why it was there at all as now there were no other houses on his street. Had the lamp come on just to brighten his way? Or did it always turn on at this time—only he had never seen it from his place deep inside this house?
Anxiously John Acorn surveyed his goal, the slightly tilted mailbox on the other side of this quiet, now dimly lighted road. John did not know why, but he was sure that there was something waiting inside this box just for him; if only he could make himself go there to get it. He was nervous, the misery of a creature not accustomed to crossing streets. He had not done so, except in his dreams, for such a long time. Deep inside this weathered house, up two flights of stairs, and through a secret door that opened into the attic; that was where he had lived for so long.
Why was the mailbox painted red, white, and blue, and in an American flag pattern? John wondered. He did not recall that his mother had ever been very patriotic. Or was it all false—a counterfeit show of hope? They told stories of her son who had departed long ago for the military and never returned: run away, they said; wanted by the FBI, they said; in hiding, they said; probably dead, they had said.
John Acorn was a man who had bowed out of reality a long time ago, languished. Forced to do little but hide, he had become his own artificial world, his own theater and his own audience. What did he have to do with life? His boredom had numbed him. But now, it was as if he had come to the end of an infinity. Driven from his attic shelter by things he could not control, John felt as if he had been driven from his very soul.
In his secret attic hideaway John Acorn had aspired to nothing. Life gave him no pleasure, but there was no place else he could think of being. Living by himself—but not alone—he had had a world of friends, all inside him, each with their own real and imperfect lives. There were days when the people he met, especially the ones he had daily contact with, became symbols for the elements that were missing from his life. These shadow people had filled John with a sickening awareness of his own emptiness, exiled as he was among the spiders and the detritus of his hidden existence. He could not forgive himself for making these people so happy, when he himself was condemned to such a permanent unhappiness. Nothing he could do was ever useful, but he could have done nothing differently.
Of all his imaginary friends John admired the salesman the most. They had had many stimulating conversations together. John longed to go traveling with the salesman, to all the towns he told him that he visited on his rounds. But it was a wish that alas was unattainable. John’s only activity had been false action. He would forever get up and lie down in the same place, his movements determined by his own whims, ignoring, of necessity, the occasional prodding of the faint glimmer of sunlight that managed to penetrate through the surface of his small, frosted, window that did not open, and was the only window into his dim, cramped space. Through all those years John’s waking hours had been spent trying to experience tedium in such a way that it did not feel like hurt. What good was dreaming of the outside? There had been nothing he could do about it. He had postponed everything, never going today where he could go tomorrow, and in fact never going anywhere at all, neither yesterday nor today.
Only recently flushed from his attic refuge, the pacing John Acorn was clearly rattled by his present situation. A dark expectation hovered at the edge of the road, so that even his psyche felt intimidated. He started down the stairs, and then stopped in place. Fear had taken possession of John yet once again.
Suddenly, with a scream bursting from his throat, he ran down the rest of the steps and bolted across the cracked asphalt. Eager, ignorant, and rasping with desire, John reached the mailbox. He hung on to it as if it were about to go somewhere. Gaping back at the porch in awe, John Acorn heaved a sigh of relief at what he had just accomplished, and then froze in place, caught in the yellow arc of headlights as a solitary car turned down the road. His mind felt confounded. Was it a mistake to do what he had just done—to come outside? But he was running out of options.
John stood motionless. The passing car was a strange new shape, some make and model that he had never seen before. The driver blew its horn. John was frightened, but then he saw the person inside wave. Before he could decide whether or not to wave back the car was gone. John shivered with nostalgia for his life before it had fallen into ruin. Images of past moments of happiness filled his mind as his eyes followed the fleeing car until it vanished into the distance.
He counted this as only the third vehicle that had come down his road since the mailman this morning. Close up the car had been much bigger than he remembered cars to be, looking almost like a delivery van designed for people to ride inside. But it was too round, too bulbous, not stately and elegant, as a car should be. And its misshapen headlights had looked more like bug’s eyes. His mind was wandering. John Acorn told himself that he must finish his errand before the vehicle came back, or another one appeared. He told himself to be calm, and tried to breathe easy, to ignore the sounds beating in his head, yet he knew that he was still a sick man, the paranoia not having gone away with his coming downstairs.
Quickly, but very cautiously, John reached into the mailbox for his anticipated message of good tidings—or perhaps a special announcement of the unlimited possibility of being. He took out the contents, his hand grasping a bigger pile of mail than he had anticipated. He did not know when the box was emptied last, not since he had come downstairs anyway, which was only twelve hours ago. Clutching his prize, but not truly convinced that he had retrieved everything, John stuck his free hand back inside and tapped around in the metallic darkness, but found nothing more.
Closing the rusty mailbox lid, John looked back up and down the empty street. The car had not returned. John wondered where it had gone as the road now seemed to lead to nowhere. Was that a feral cat he spied running across his porch? His mother had no cat, at least not one that he knew of. He looked left and right again. The accidental encounter with the car had left John Acorn rattled, as he had observed that cars rarely came down this road. He had no neighbors that he could see, only a bridge, or more accurately a highway overpass. John’s house stood alone, a battleship moored in the barren harbor of a traffic circle.
Unknown to him, some years ago all John’s neighbors had been moved away; their houses torn down to make way for the new highway and the overpass. He tried to remember the old neighborhood. He had not seen the houses dismantled, nor the overpass built. His attic refuge had no windows on the sides, and his little window in the front was frosted over with a decorative pattern of birds in a tree that he could not see through. But John had heard the noise from the construction. And the shaking caused by the heavy trucks passing on the street in front of his house invaded even his secret refuge. His mother had told him what was happening. Her house was to be torn down too. Without doubt he would be found hiding. She had fought the eviction notice to save him. In the end the road builders had decided her property was not worth the trouble—it wasn’t really in the way. So it was left standing, on a small plot of land next to a traffic circle, near an exit that really didn’t go anywhere, but might some day if the suburbs of the City of Wilbender continued to expand as they had been expanding in recent years.
His fearful mailbox task completed John Acorn sprinted back across the road and up onto his porch. Leaning on the railing catching his breath, he looked out at the silent street. The return trip had been not quite as frightening as his first crossing. He decided that he would brave the journey again tomorrow.
The whitish-blue glow of the light shining through from the kitchen greeted John as he pulled open the front door. This was the luxury of living downstairs now; he could have the lights on at night. But how many lights should he keep lit, and how late? He had no way of knowing how well lighted his mother had kept the place. A thought entered John’s mind that made him tremble. His temples began to pound, the helicopter roared. Had the driver of the passing car, the person who waved, taken notice of him? Did the driver, the only occupant in the car, observe that the figure at the mailbox was not his mother—who he may have known lived here all alone? Should he have taken the precaution of covering his head with one of her scarves when he went across the street? Would he be found out?
The idea worried John Acorn, but also gave him a sense of relief. There were emotions in John’s soul that surpassed all anxiety and pain; emotions known only to those persons who had eluded contact with other humans for so many years that anxiety and pain had ceased to exist. Reduced in this way to being armored against the world, it was no wonder that at this point in time John would suddenly find the weight of this armor too much to bear and consider being rid of it. The last thirty-three years of his life having been lived in a protective half-sleep, there was nothing more John wanted in life now than to know that he was fully alive.
Seated at his kitchen table, John slowly picked through the stack of material that he had retrieved from the mailbox. The pile was disappointing, delivering up mostly catalogs, bills, and the free local weekly newspaper. Then, almost at the bottom, John discovered a correspondence clearly addressed to him: John Acorn. Holding the envelop with a shaking hand, he read the name several times just to be sure, then said it out loud: “John Acorn.” He tried to recall when, if ever, his mother had brought a letter for him up to this secret refuge below the eves. Had there been other letters that the woman hadn’t given him, things she didn’t want him to know? This was his first time out of the house, the first time he had checked the box himself, in more than three decades. His mother always got the mail, as well as his food and his clothes; John had to stay in the attic. He wondered at the strange circumstances that had forced him to come out for the mail today? Everything in his life had become mixed and crisscrossed. As far as he could tell, reality for the person named John Acorn existed only so far as he dared to presume it to.
Acorn's Card Review
Stephen Poleskie, Acorn’s Card. Ithaca, NY: Onager Editions, 2011. 116 pp. $12.00 Paper. ISBN 978-1-60047-558-0
The blurb on the back of Stephen Poleskie’s Acorn’s Card declares the collection, a novella and two short stories, “out of the ordinary tales of living in America.” Yet after reading Poleskie’s work, “out of the ordinary” seems less than apt. Rather, Poleskie presents the incredibly ordinary – a reclusive man struggling to accomplish the tasks associated with everyday life, a Polish immigrant working to support his family, a suburban couple suffering from the flu and innocuous household worries. With sharp images and frank, direct prose, Poleskie transforms this “ordinary” material into captivating stories that draw readers into the characters’ worlds and leave them there to contemplate their own lives long after the tales have come to a close.
Acorn’s Card, the novella for which the collection is named, hinges upon extraordinary circumstances – John Acorn, a young man who enlists in Vietnam and then goes AWOL after his helicopter crashes during training drills, emerges from his mother’s attic after thirty years of hiding. In a close third-person narration, the novella follows John’s return to a changed world and his struggle to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, the loss of his mother and perhaps most strikingly, the challenges and freedoms of living out of the attic and in the everyday world. The story begins with John warring against his fears as he contemplates taking his first steps out of his mother’s house in order to retrieve the mail from across the street. Poleskie describes the challenge in painstaking detail: “He had been studying the street from the security of the house for most of the day, considering if and when he could safely cross – a decision not yet fully resolved in his mind when he stepped out onto the porch at dusk, reconciled to his fate” (3). John’s trip to the mailbox consumes the first nine pages of the eighty-eight page novella, yet at no point does the narration grow tiresome. Rather, Poleskie’s careful combination of sentiment, imagery, and flashback makes this ordinary task of fetching the mail seem like a feat of great import: “Suddenly, with a scream bursting from his throat, he ran down the rest of the steps and bolted across the asphalt. Eager, ignorant, and rasping with desire, John reached the mailbox. He hung onto it as if it were about to go somewhere” (6). From his first errand to the mailbox, to his calculated trips to the grocery store, John’s attendance to everyday chores reveals his pain and alienation and ultimately, highlights him as a man grappling with life as much as death.
“A Loaf of Bread,” the next story in the collection, details the plight of Polish immigrant, Jan Lesnachevski, who came to America to escape persecution for his role in organizing the Solidarity shipyard strikes. As in Acorn’s Card, the story focuses on Jan’s life long after this major turning point has passed. Now in the New World, Jan works long nights as a plumber, watching his children become more Americanized as he and his wife lose touch with their Polish roots yet fall short of becoming “true Americans”: “And while they worked hard to improve their knowledge of their adopted country, its history and its culture, they were forever circling outside, making the rounds, jostled and shoved, polite novelties, in demand until Poland’s plight had faded from the headlines” (91). “A Loaf of Bread” follows Jan on his way to work one night, after he buys a loaf of pasty white bread for his family’s breakfast and then proceeds to get lost on the wrong side of town. The loaf of bread, mass-produced and tasteless, becomes the emblem of the real American dream – for Jan and his family, it is undesirable but better than their other options.
The final story in the collection, “Flyer Bag,” truly highlights Poleskie’s ability to bring characters to life by immersing them in ordinary details. This short tale is set in the manicured backyard of a couple’s suburban home. Suffering, albeit mildly, from a late spring flu, they are revealed as quintessentially middle-class Americans, sitting “on a bench in their garden enjoying the sun with a resigned calmness – the way older people often do” and fretting over trivialities – their housecats, germs on shopping carts, and a plastic bag carried off by the wind. But once again, this story of the mundane is anything but dull, as Poleskie brings the scene to life with frank insights into the characters’ minds – “Realizing that their afternoon was already almost gone, wasted John supposed, they stood there breathlessly waiting for the white plastic bag to descend by itself” (113). Ultimately, the story becomes a commentary on middle-class, modern American life, where responsible citizens function as stewards of their own plot of land, chasing “the dozens of other bags, foam containers, pizza boxes, and soda cans” out of their front yards (112), but at the same time are immersed in privilege, revealed through their concerns with grocery store germs and a single, plastic bag caught up by a breeze.
Delving deeply into the lives of each of his characters, Poleskie presents three fast reads that satisfy on the page as much as they do hours later when the strikingly real images return to the mind to reveal their depth of meaning. Through these tales of the ordinary, Acorn’s Card reminds us that truly good fiction resides in the craft, not in extraordinary feats of plot.
- Jill M. Neziri, Fordham University. Jill M. Neziri, Ph.D. is a teaching fellow at Fordham University. She has published book reviews with Jacket. She is co-editor of the anthology, From the Heart of Brooklyn, and her poems appear there as well as in several literary magazines.
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