In the Heat of the Night
“I don’t care,” Frank uttered into his hand, talking into the warmth pressed against his face. The air that escaped through the cracks of his fingers appeared in front of him a wispy fog. A familiar sting hit the corner of his eyes but he refused to cry, sliding his hand across his eyes to prevent release. He looked up to see a passerby staring in his direction, scoffing at his apathy.
He knew what he was thinking. Frank’s now bloodshot eyes didn’t lend him any favors.
But how this stranger could look into the dejected eyes of a boy and see a degenerate was a complete mystery to Frank. He figured maybe it was his baggy clothes or the dirt that lodged itself under his fingernails that appalled the new crowd in the city.
They’re kids born of the same time as him but who learned little of the streets, they’re baby-faced adults who seldom wander at night, ignorant to the happenings of the very town they live in. They couldn’t imagine the countless lives that pulsated every night, occurrences that Frank could track down from miles away. He was especially attuned to this, as it was almost as automatic as instinct he could tell you if there would be activity on his block or not.
From his spot perched on the bottom of a set of old cobbled steps he could clearly feel the vibrations of the Earth below him, shaking so vigorously that a distant bottle of malt liquor rattled itself about in its brown paper bag. If he was to be a degenerate he would be a damn fine one.
Frank approached the origin of sound with the empty bottle, descending and then stopping in front of a large door decorated in graffiti and stickers. Propped open with a wooden plank, the door echoed with sound that beckoned him to come nearer, this was the hearth of life for the night.
George Saunders’ prose is a rare thing: It’s deftly funny while deeply perceptive about human nature. Start here with Saunders. His Pastoralia collects a series of stories set in a vague future that could pop up years from now or tomorrow, a place where consumerism and corporate culture account for nearly all human interaction. It could be kind of a drag, or it could be the latest failed spin on Orwellian fear-mongering, but somehow, in Saunders’ hands, it all becomes hilarious before it becomes despairing. Saunders sees the end of the world in the way we’ve been overrun by a corporatism that creeps like kudzu, and his stories offer hope only in that their protagonists, against all odds, somehow remain human and capable of cracking jokes about it.
Best story: The title tale situates two people in a zoo, where they must act like cavemen.
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Excerpted from Pastoralia
I have to admit I'm not feeling my best. Not that I'm doing so bad. Not that I really have anything to complain about. Not that I would actually verbally complain if I did have something to complain about. No. Because I'm Thinking Positive/Saying Positive. I'm sitting back on my haunches, waiting for people to poke in their heads. Although it's been thirteen days since anyone poked in their head and Janet's speaking English to me more and more, which is partly why I feel so, you know, crummy.
"Jeez," she says first thing this morning. "I'm so tired of roast goat I could scream."
What am I supposed to say to that? It puts me in a bad spot. She thinks I'm a goody-goody and that her speaking English makes me uncomfortable. And she's right. It does. Because we've got it good. Every morning, a new goat, just killed, sits in our Big Slot. In our Little Slot, a book of matches. That's better than some. Some are required to catch wild hares in snares. Some are required to wear pioneer garb while cutting the heads off chickens. But not us. I just have to haul the dead goat out of the Big Slot and skin it with a sharp flint. Janet just has to make the fire. So things are pretty good. Not as good as in the old days, but then again, not so bad.
In the old days, when heads were constantly poking in, we liked what we did. Really hammed it up. Had little grunting fights. Whenever I was about to toss a handful of dirt in her face I'd pound a rock against a rock in rage. That way she knew to close her eyes. Sometimes she did this kind of crude weaving. It was like: Roots of Weaving. Sometimes we'd go down to Russian Peasant Farm for a barbecue, I remember there was Murray and Leon, Leon was dating Eileen, Eileen was the one with all the cats, but now, with the big decline in heads poking in, the Russian Peasants are all elsewhere, some to Administration but most not, Eileen's cats have gone wild, and honest to God sometimes I worry I'll go to the Big Slot and find it goatless.
This morning I go to the Big Slot and find it goatless.
Instead of a goat there's a note:
Hold on, hold on, it says. The goat's coming, for crissake. Don't get all snooty.