The Uninnocent: Stories

The Uninnocent: Stories

by Bradford Morrow

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Overview

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

Bradford Morrow’s stories have garnered him awards such as the O. Henry and Pushcart Prizes and have given him a devoted following. Now gathered here for the first time is a collection of his most darkly comic, masterfully written tales.

A young man whose childhood hobby of collecting sea shells and birds’ nests takes a sinister turn when he becomes obsessed with acquiring his brother’s girlfriend, in “The Hoarder” (selected as one of the Best American Noir Stories of the Century). An archeologist summoned to attend his beloved sister’s funeral is astonished to discover it is not she who has died, but someone much closer to him, in “Gardener of Heart.” A blind motivational speaker has a crisis of faith when he suddenly regains his sight, only to discover life was better lived in the dark, in “Amazing Grace.”

In all of these stories, readers will find themselves enthralled and captivated by one of the major voices in contemporary American fiction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781605984032
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Publication date: 01/09/2013
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Bradford Morrow's novels include The Diviner’s Tale, Giovanni's Gift, and Trinity Fields, and co-edited with David Shields The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death. The recipient of numerous awards, he founded and edits the literary journal Conjunctions and is a professor of literature at Bard College. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

The Uninnocent

Stories


By Bradford Morrow

Pegasus Books LLC

Copyright © 2011 Bradford Morrow
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-2609-4



CHAPTER 1

THE HOARDER


I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN a hoarder. When I was young, our family lived on the Outer Banks, where I swept up and down the shore filling my windbreaker pockets with seashells of every shape and size. Back in the privacy of my room I loved nothing better than to lay them out on my bed, arranging them by color or form—whelks and cockles here, clams and scallops there—a beautiful mosaic of dead calcium. The complete skeleton of a horseshoe crab was my finest prize, as I remember. After we moved inland from the Atlantic, my obsession didn't change but the objects of my desire did. Having no money, I was restricted to things I found, so one year developed an extensive collection of Kentucky bird nests, and during the next, an array of bright Missouri butterflies preserved in several homemade display cases. Another year, my father's itinerant work having taken us to the desert, I cultivated old pottery shards from the hot potreros. Sometimes my younger sister offered to assist with my quests, but I preferred shambling around on my own. Once in a while I did allow her to shadow me, if only because it was one more thing that annoyed our big brother, who never missed an opportunity to cut me down to size. Weird little bastard, Tom liked calling me. I didn't mind him saying so. I was a weird little bastard.

When first learning to read, I hoarded words just as I would shells, nests, butterflies. Like many an introvert, I went through a phase during which every waking hour was spent inside a library book. These I naturally collected, too, never paying my late dues, writing in a ragged notebook words that were used against Tom at opportune moments. He was seldom impressed when I told him he was a pachyderm anus or festering pustule, but that might have been because he didn't understand some of what came out of my mouth. Many times I hardly knew what I was saying. Still, the desired results were now and then achieved. When I called him some name that sounded nasty enough—eunuch's tit—he would run after me with fists flying and pin me down, demanding a definition, and I'd refuse. Be it black eye or bloody nose, I always came away feeling I'd gotten the upper hand.

Father wasn't a migrant laborer, as such, and all our moving had nothing to do with a fieldworker following seasons or harvests. He lived by his wits, so he told us and so we kids believed. But wits or not, every year brought the ritual pulling up of stakes and clearing out. His explanations were always curt, brief like our residencies. He never failed to apologize, and I think he meant it when he told us that the next stop would be more permanent, that he was having a streak of bad luck bound to change for the better. Tom took these uprootings harder than I or my sister. He expressed his anger about being jerked around like circus animals, and complained that this was the old man's fault and we should band together in revolt. It was never clear just how we were supposed to mutiny, and of course we never did. Molly and I wondered privately, whispering together at night, if our family wouldn't be more settled had our mother still been around. But that road was a dead end even more than the one we seemed to be on already. She'd deserted our father and the rest of us and there was no bringing her back. We used to get cards at Christmas, but even that had stopped some years ago. We seldom mentioned her name now. What was the point?

Like the sun, we traveled westward across the country all the way to the coast, though more circuitously and with much dimmer prospects. I'd made a practice of discarding my latest collection whenever we left one place for another, and not merely disposing of it, but destroying the stuff. Taking a hammer to my stash of petrified wood and bleached bones plucked off the flats near Mojave, after the word came down to start packing, was my own private way of saying good-bye. Molly always cried until I gave her a keepsake, a sparrow nest or slug of quartz crystal. And my dad took me aside to ask why I was undoing all my hard work, unaware of the sharp irony of his question—who was he to talk? He told me that one day when I was grown up I'd look back and regret not treasuring these souvenirs from my youth. But he never stopped me. He couldn't in fairness do that. These were my things and just as I'd brought them together I had every right to junk them and set my sights on the new. Besides, demolishing my collections didn't mean I didn't treasure them in my own way.

We found ourselves in a small, pleasant, nondescript ocean-side town just south of the palm-lined promenades of Santa Barbara and the melodramatic Spanish villas of Montecito, where the Kennedys had spent their honeymoon a few years before. By this time I was old enough to find a job. Tom and I had both given up on school. Too many new faces, too many new curricula. Father couldn't object to his eldest son dropping out of high school, since he himself had done the same. As for me, having turned fifteen, I'd more or less educated myself anyway. It was a testament to Molly's resilient nature that she was never fazed entering all those unknown classrooms across this great land of ours. My responsibility was to make sure she got to summer school on time and pick her up at day's end, and so I did. This commitment I gladly undertook, since I always liked Molly, and she didn't get in the way of my schedule at the miniature golf course where I was newly employed.

Just as California would mark a deviation in my father's gypsy routine, it would be the great divide for me. Whether I knew it at the time is beside the point. I doubt I did. Tom noticed something different had dawned in me, a new confidence, and while he continued to taunt me, my responses became unpredictable. He might smirk, "Miniature golf ... now there's a promising career, baby," but rather than object I would cross my arms, smile, and agree, "Just my speed, baby." When we did fight, our battles were higher pitched and more physical, and as often as not, he was the one who got the tooth knocked loose, the lip opened, the kidney punched. Molly gave up trying to be peacemaker and lived more and more in her own world. It was as if we moved into individual mental compartments, like different collectibles in separate cabinets. I couldn't even say for sure what kind of work my father did anymore, though it involved a commute over the mountains to a place called Ojai, which resulted in our seeing less of him than ever. The sun had turned him brown, so his work must have been outside. Probably a construction job—so much for his touted wits. Tom, on the other hand, remained as white as abalone, working in a convenience store. And Molly with her sweet round face covered in freckles and ringed by wildly wavy red hair, the birthright of her maternal Irish ancestry, marched forward with patience and hope that would better befit a daughter of the king of Uz than of a carpenter of Ojai—which our dear brother had by then, with all the cleverness he could muster, dubbed Oh Low.


The change was gradual but irrevocable, and would be difficult if not impossible to describe in abstract terms. To suggest that my compulsion to hoard shifted from objects to essences, from the external world's castoffs to the stuff of spirits, wouldn't be quite right. It might even be false, since what began to arise within me during those long slow days and evenings at work had a manifest concreteness to it. Whether my discovery of glances, fragrances, gestures, voices, the various flavors of nascent sexuality, the potential for beautiful violence that hovers behind those qualities came as the result of my new life at Bayside Park or whether it would have happened no matter where I lived and breathed at that moment, I couldn't say. I do know that Bayside—that perfect world of fantastical architecture and linked greens and strict rules—was where I came awake, felt more alive, as they say, than ever before.

The first time I laid eyes on the place was early evening. Fog, which seasonally rolled in at dusk, settling over the coastal flats and canyons until early afternoon the next day, was drifting like willowy ghosts. I wore my best flannel shirt and a pair of jeans to the interview. My head was all but bald, my old man having given me a fresh trim with his electric clippers, a memento filched from one of his many former employers. Even though it was late June and the day had been warm, I wished I'd brought a sweater since the heavy mist down by the ocean dampened me to the bone. I could hear the surf, once I crossed the empty highway, and started thinking about what questions I might be asked during my interview and what sorts of answers I'd be forced to make up to cover a complete lack of experience. There was a good chance I'd be turned down for the job. After all, I was just a kid who had done nothing with his life beyond collecting debris in forests and fields, and reading comics and worthless books. If I hadn't been so bent on getting clear of our house, pulling together money toward one day having a place of my own, unaffected by my shiftless father and moron brother, I'd have talked myself out of even trying.

As I approached the miniature golf park, I was mesmerized by a ball of brilliance, a white dome of light in the mist that reminded me of some monumental version of one of those snow-shaker toys, what on earth are they called? Those water-filled globes of glass inside which are plastic world's fairs, North Pole dioramas, Eiffel Towers that, when joggled, fall under the spell of a miraculous blizzard. What loomed inside this fluorescent bell jar was a wonderland, a fake dwarf-world populated by real people, reminiscent of snow-globe toys in other ways, too. The fantastic, impossible scenes housed in each, glass or light, were irresistible. I walked through a gate over which was a sign that read BAYSIDE—FOR ALL AGES. What lay before me, smaller than the so-called real world but larger than life, was a village of whirling windmills and miniature cathedrals with spires, of stucco gargoyles and painted grottoes. A white brick castle with turrets ascended the low sky, its paint peeling in the watery weather. Calypso's Cave, the sixth hole. A fanciful pirate ship coved by a waterfall at the seventh. And everywhere I looked, green synthetic alleys. All interconnected and, if a bit seedy, very alluring.

By lying about my age, background, and whatever else, I got the job. When asked at dinner to describe what kind of work was involved, I told my father I was the course steward. In fact, my responsibilities fell somewhere between janitor and errand boy. Absurd as it may sound, I was never happier. Vacuuming the putting lanes; scouring the acre park and adjacent beach for lost balls and abandoned golf clubs; tending the beds of bougainvillea and birds-of-paradise; spearing trash strewn on the trampled, struggling real grass that lay between the perfect alleys; skimming crud out of water traps and ornamental lagoons; retouching paint where paint needed retouching. If Bayside was a museum—and it was, to my eyes—I was its curator. The owner, a lean, sallow, stagnant man named Gallagher, seemed gratified by my attentiveness and pleased that I didn't have any friends to waste my time or his. Looking back, I realize he was quietly delighted that I hadn't the least interest in playing. What did I care about hitting a ball with a stick into a hole?

That said, I did become an aficionado, in an antiseptic sort of way. Just as I had about the classifications of seashells or the markings of dragonflies in times past, I read everything I could about the sport of miniature golf in the office bookcase, surrounded by framed photos autographed by the rich and famous who had played here long ago. The history was more interesting than I imagined. In the Depression they used sewer pipes, scavenged tires, rain gutters, whatever junk was lying around, and from all the discards built their Rinkiedinks, as the obstacle courses were called, scale model worlds in which the rules were fair and the playing field—however bunkered, curved, slanted, stepped—was truly level. Once upon a time, I told Molly, this was the classy midnight pastime of America's royalty. Hollywood moguls drank champagne between holes, putting with stars and starlets under the moon until the sun came up. One of the earliest sports played outdoors under artificial lights, miniature golf was high Americana and even now, though it had a degraded heritage, was something finer than people believed.


My favorite trap in the park was the windmill, which rose seven feet into the soggy air of the twelfth green. Its blades were powered by an old car battery that needed checking once a week, as its cable connections tended to corrode in the damp, bringing the attraction—not to mention the obstacle—to a standstill. One entered this windmill by a hidden door at the back, which wasn't observable to people playing the course, indeed was pretty invisible unless you knew it was there. Gallagher had by August learned to trust me with everything except ticket taking, which was his exclusive province when it came to Bayside, and about which I could not have cared less. So when, one evening, a couple complained to him that the windmill blades on twelve weren't working, he handed me a flashlight, some pliers, a knife, and explained what to do. The windmill was at the far end of the park and I made my way there as quickly as possible without disturbing any of the players.

Once inside, I discovered a new realm. A world within a world. Fixing the oxidized battery posts was nothing, done in a matter of minutes. But then I found myself wanting to stay. What held me was that I could see, through tiny windows in the wooden structure, people playing, unaware they were being watched. A girl with her mother and father standing behind, encouraging her, humped over the blue ball, her face contorted into a mask of concentration, putting right at me, knowing nothing of my presence. One shot and through she went, between my legs, and after her, her mom and dad. They talked among themselves, a nice, dreary, happy family, in perfect certainty their words were exchanged in private. It was something to behold.

I stuck around. Who wouldn't? Others passed through me, the ghost in the windmill, and none of them knew, not even the pair of tough bucks who played the rounds every night, betting on each hole, whose contraband beer bottles I'd collected that very morning. It became my habit, from then on, to grab time in the windmill during work to watch and listen. I found myself particularly interested in young couples, many of them not much older than I was, out on dates. Having avoided school since we came west, and being by nature an outsider, my social skills were limited. The physical urgency I felt, spying on these lovers, I sated freely behind the thin walls of my hiding place. Meanwhile, I learned how lovers speak, what kind of extravagant lies they tell each other, the promises they make, and all I could feel was gratitude that my brand of intimacy didn't involve saying anything to anybody. The things I found myself whispering in the shade of my hermitage none of them would have liked to hear, either. That much I knew for sure.

One evening, to my horror, Tom appeared in my peephole vista. What was he doing here? What gave him the right? And who was the girl standing with him, laughing at one of his maudlin jokes? He had a beer in his pocket, like the toughs. His arm was slung over the girl's shoulder, dangling like a broken pendulum, and his face was rosy for once. They laughed again and looked around and, taking advantage of being (almost) alone, kissed. At first I stood frozen in the windmill whose blades spun slowly, knowing that if Tom caught me watching, he'd beat the hell out of me and back at home deny everything. But soon I realized there was nothing to fear. This was my domain. Tom could not touch me in my hideaway world. Much the same way I used to trespass his superiority with those words lifted out of books, I offered him the longest stare I could manage. Not blinking, not wincing, I made my face into an unreadable blank. Pity he couldn't respond.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Uninnocent by Bradford Morrow. Copyright © 2011 Bradford Morrow. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents

The Hoarder,
Gardener of Heart,
Whom No Hate Stirs None Dances,
Amazing Grace,
The Uninnocent,
Tsunami,
(Mis)laid,
All the Things that Are Wrong with Me,
The Enigma of Grover's Mill,
Ellie's Idea,
The Road to Nadeja,
Lush,
Acknowledgments,

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