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Daniel Clausen
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campbells.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan 2014

Campbell Soup Stars Shine Bright on Heavenly Pianists

 

A short story by Daniel Clausen

                  

                                                         

 

Chris vomited a universe of stars onto the pavement. They swirled around him as he contemplated the cause of their existence. The stars were similar to the stars he had eaten as a child—the ones that came from Campbell soup cans his mom had given him. The stars were probably leftovers from earlier years, he thought: a present perhaps from his younger self, even though they reeked of vodka.

          His friend patted him on the shoulder and asked, “Are you all right?”

          He couldn’t answer for a moment. His eyes were still transfixed on the stars, surrounded by chunks of bread, and the smell. They were majestic, he thought. He tried standing up, but collapsed onto the sidewalk.

          “Chris…” he heard his friend say. But his head was still swimming in the noises of the street. He heard others approaching, laughing. He felt alienated from the people and their world.

          “Oh Chris, are you okay?” He felt arms wrap around him and indigestion rise again, he wondered briefly what his mouth would emit—if it still held the stars of cheap canned soup and his youth, or perhaps the sounds of his brothers playing in the yard. Beth hugged him, squeezed him until he spat out yet another of the universes in his mouth. This time, however, no stars went forth; all that was left was the thin slime of a night’s confusion.

          “I’m sorry baby…I didn’t mean…”

          “Goddamn it, Beth. Can’t you see Chris is sick?”

          “I’m sorry Chris…I’m sorry….”

          Chris looked beyond the slime and tried to find the stars. The slime was thick with nebulous clouds that blocked out the night sky and the universes beyond. Chris became desperate to find those stars. They were important, he told himself over and over again, although he couldn’t remember why.

His friends led him back into the hotel. Chris was too weak and dizzy to put up a fight. They were still drinking and laughing. They put him in a stool at the bar. All he could think about was getting back to the pavement and looking for soupy, vodka-ridden stars, whose presence might prove the existence of a God.

Beth was crying, and Chris was reminded of the times when he and his mother had talked about things during lunch: you shouldn’t play with those boys, they’re trouble; when you grow up you’re going to marry a nice girl Chris; finish your dinner and then you can go outside.

          Somewhere Chris thought he heard an orchestra playing, but it was only a single pianist. The rest he remembered from a concert he had attended when he was in high school. He had gone with his first girlfriend, who played the flute. The pianist reminded him of her.

          He looked at the pianist for a long time while Beth was crying and tried to figure out why the man had such a heavenly face. He decided he must be on a threshold, closer to death than life. The pianist played a symphony with his hands and looked Chris’s way.

          “What are you looking at, Chris?” a distant voice asked, over the crying Beth.

          “He’s staring at the pianist,” another voice said.

          The person’s voice reeked of that other worldly smell, which could not reach the pianist, who smiled at Chris and nodded.

          He and the pianist conversed on a landscape of soupy stars.

          “Don’t lose heart, kid. Some people are born kings. They eat their stars with a silver spoon, while others chase them down with vodka.”

          “Play me a song, pianist.”

          The pianist played a song Chris had never heard before. In the background, Beth’s crying had turned to a whimper, and her voice took him away from the pianist, whose hands created a symphony of universes, which Chris vomited again and again in his mind.

 

 

 


japan2.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan 2015

The Other Side of the World


Short Fiction by Daniel Clausen

 

 

 

Brother calls me in the middle of the night and says, “Naw man, naw, all those damn oriental people scare me. And I ain’t never been on no damn plane before.” Without prologue he starts. His epilogue is short and sweet, “Gotta run, bro. Gots work tomorrow.” He finishes and leaves me wondering if it was all a dream.

 

Six months in Japan and I ain’t never coming back. That’s my mantra. I repeat it to myself in my sleep, in my waking hours, and with food in my mouth, I repeat it. Shall we rewind the time and discover why reader-man.

 

So I woke up yesterday morning with this strange feeling, like it’s my first day in Japan again. It’s all new again, for better or for worse. The smallness of everything is new. The smallness of people, food, cars, shops. I’m the adult on the Small World ride in Disney World. And you see those strange symbols everywhere. You’re illiterate again. Fresh out of your mother’s womb. Your legs, eyes and fingers aren’t used to seeing, touching, and walking. And sometimes at the supermarket you have to cry and whine to get your way. But the energy from this day’s newness just kind of washes over you. It’s the wonder of being reborn, I think.

 

For one week sleep came to me. I get an email today from this girl who moved back a month ago and she says, All of Japan was like a dream. All the shit back home just froze for her while she was away. She lives in a nice neighborhood, I think. And her parents have money, so that ain’t no worry to her…that’s no worry at all. But I think that’s some pretty scary shit for me. I have that damn man on my street who likes to stand around holding a bottle of his own urine, preaching about Jesus, middle school kids prodding him to “Drink the Kool-Aid! Drink the Kool-Aid.” We called him Kool-Aid man. 

 

I can see that. I can see that. My neighborhood frozen, being exactly the same when I get back. If I get back. Oh, God. Oh, God. You think a festering corpse of a neighborhood would start to decay after a little while. That the rain would do its work, wake up the maggots and get them eating the decaying corpse, shoved behind the arras. Polonius, Polonius. But no, it hangs around like bad dinner guests do: neither friend, nor food. And I have to ask myself: Did I come all this way, did I climb out of the rat- infested gutter, just to crawl back? Did I walk upright for one year just to find out how to be less than that? To stoop, and stoop, to become a short Japanese man, or old grandmother obasan, with her back crooked?…oh, God…to go back.. To go back?

 

Panic sometimes gets me. I walked to work two weeks ago with this panic gripping me. Hitchcock shit, like. I felt like someone was following me. I thought I was back home for a second. And soon I’d have to fight off three of them. But no, I got to work just fine. Middle class life in Japan suits me just fine. Slick Japanese salarymen with generic suits and ties and laughs and wives don’t bother me. They’re not the slick hustler cats you see walking around the streets of my neighborhood, with too much style. And there’s no man holding a bottle of Kool-Aid. There are no Kool-Aid men in Japan.

 

Japanese men are mostly little men. Small. My brother calls me “little man” in a loving way sometimes; it wasn’t too long ago that in a not so loving way he used to call me a “little man” too. I was quite tall for my age, but skinny. I’d look stupid with blood running down my face. And my glasses always had tape. That’s where my littleness came from. I got beat up a lot when I was younger by my older brother and his friends. Recently he said, “I’m coming to visit you.” But then he calls up and says, “Naw man, Naw man, Naw man, naw, all those damn oriental people scare me. Naw man, Naw man.” I figured this would happen and it suits me just fine, little brother. Little, little brother.

 

A day or maybe three weeks before the day before yesterday, (I can’t remember, time doesn’t exist the same way here) I woke up with the strange sense that Japan was closing in on me and that soon I would be too big for this country—a Godzilla amongst frightened people. If I was a little man in my old neighborhood, here I am too big. I need two helpings of everything in this country just to satisfy my appetite. I bumped my head for the first time in a long time today. This makes me think I can pick up small Japanese cars and people and throw them like footballs thirty yards— touchdown. It doesn’t help, all those damn Japanese people being humble to me and all. Their kindness makes me too big.  

 

My boss asked me when I’m going back. When, When, When? Soon, I think. Soon as my brother comes to visit. Soon as two or three big bad Mathra’s come to fight me. Soon as I have to kick a robot Godzilla’s ass. Soon my man, oh too soon. When the crust of the earth melts off and people ride dolphins to Mars on roads of magic rainbow candy…it’s all sooner than you think, maybe sooner than never, maybe; or maybe I never have to grow up. Like Peter Pan, except I don’t have to hang around with no little boys because truth is Japan has some fine honeys.

 

What is this “seems” that people talk about? My stupid roommate says, “Everything seems different in Japan.” “Seems, madam?/ Nay it is./ I know not “Seems” (Hamlet 1.2, line 76). It seems this and it seems that. Seems are for fairy tales, and I will fight to keep in my mind this dream of all dreams that here, here, now is a reality, and that it was that other place that seemed. Seems, seems, seems!!?

 

My mom raised me on the Bible, so I picked up Hamlet. Sometime around my first year of high school, I think. You got to believe there is nothing less popular in a boy’s mind than the stuff your mother tries to raise you on. It all takes on a kind of cartoonish vibe when your mom starts yelling out “Church!” in her sleep and “Jesus saves!” like some crazy woman. But some of it stuck. It didn’t occur to me till sometime in college what a spiritual guy this Hamlet was, and how a lot of his internal struggles were with the Lord. He’s a damn righteous dude. So yeah, I guess momma did alright.

 

I raised myself on a dream that if bound in a nutshell, no one in my neighborhood would know I existed—and though a nutshell still be a nutshell, at least I could claim myself the sovereign of one space, however microscopic, and say with my only breath (perhaps even the saying of it would elapse the sparse amount of air in this nutshell, so the very saying of it, of course, would be as important as my life—I would be, ironically, both King and assassin): “I am the King of this space, and I have nothing to fear but my own words.” And with that, in all likelihood, I would die. 

 

“A population of people with degrees in P.E. and English Literature, but they all call us sensei, like we should be respected. English teachers in Japan, what a joke.” Awww, the things my friend says when he drinks. He’s right, though. Every country should have a punch line as good as us. 

 

Hood rats would think this place is Disney World. I don’t want to say it too loud, lest I bring the festering corpse to Japan. Let it rest “Not where he eats, but where ‘a is eaten” (Act IV; Scene 3; line 19), out of sight, out of mind, out of sight, out of mind, out of sight….

 

I got beat up about once a week in middle school. That ain’t too bad. I knew this one kid, it was like everyday or something for him. Damn. That’s fucked up. And his parents didn’t even say anything. Kid kept coming to school too, like everyday, just to get beat up. Even my teachers didn’t know what the hell to do. He must have been retarded or something. I wanted to put a helmet on him for his own protection. He was like the world’s punching bag or something.

 

Pictures work great in class. I brought some in one day and my students were really excited. It was the: “Describe your hometown lesson?” They love the ones of me at the beach. Then I show them the ones of me during childhood. See, I’m the one with tape on my glasses. “Mmmh,” they say in surprise. “Mmmh.” It’s just a short puff of air with your mouth closed from the back of your throat that comes out your nose. (Try it one time reader-man. “Mmmh.” Got it. One more time. “Mmmh.” Ok. Let’s continue). So this noise, it’s enough to make me think there’s no intelligence in my classroom. My students never say: “I don’t understand.” They can’t admit they don’t understand out loud. They just say: “Mmmh” “Mmmh” “Mmmh”. The pictures look kind of ghetto. In some of them I look happy, but in some of them you can see the ghetto. It’s in the background, on people’s faces, it’s everywhere. “Mmmh.” They all look kind of uncomfortable and confused. Everything in Japan is sterilized and safe. But my pictures haven’t been sterilized. They made it past customs and are going to infect Japan. They smell like that festering corpse. I keep shoving the pictures in front of their faces. “Look, motherfucker. You want to see my hometown? Look motherfucker. You wanted to see where I come from? What? Don’t like what you see? Well, wake the fuck up? That’s where I come from?” I wake up in cold sweats and thank the Lord I didn’t bring any pictures. When’s my brother coming? Never. Never come! They wouldn’t want you here. The ghetto’s not safe for Japanese people.

 

Why did I travel to the other side of the world? Why? “Mmmh?” “Mmmh?” “Mmmh?”

 

A month after the day before I had that dream I woke up with the decayed smell of my own breath hanging like a rain cloud over me, and oh that this weak, weak flesh would melt away forever. How old was she? Do I want to remember? I came all this way to forget. But how can you forget yourself, when you’re always right there?

 

Sometimes I can still smell trash around me. It follows me from the old neighborhood. “Trash on the street, trash in the river, trash.” That’s how I always explain pollution to my students. I should tell people about my neighborhood in the same way. That stinking, festering pit where I grew up. Millions of taxis in my city, in Japan. A working poor is much different than a jobless poor, remember that kids. There is no trash on the streets of my city, in Japan. And if there is, it doesn’t stay there long. 

 

Three months ago...maybe four months before the day I thought about taxis, it was raining on the beach. It was coming down to sink the yesterday. Wake up the maggots to eat any of the remaining corpses. No corpses last in Japan. Everything is sterile. Even the rain obeys the law in Japan. It’s a productive worker, with a black suit and tie like a salaryman. But when me and her got off the bus, it had suddenly stopped. We were left with dew on the grass and this oh so good view of the ocean. But the day still had that rainy darkness. Could this be a real day or did it just “seem”? On the other side of the world, did things still exist the way they existed elsewhere? Was the girl I was with real? We walked forever. She never complained.

 

I said to her, “I killed a boy. When I was fourteen. The kid tried to steal my lunch money, and I sucker punched that motherfucker in the stomach, I hated him I was worried he would tell his friends, so I started punching him with his head against the pavement, and his blood started coming out of his head, but I didn’t stop punching him, and I stumbled home, and I ran a fever for one week, and everyone thought I was delirious, and I was I hated the smell of trash on the street, I’m never going back, but I don’t know if I can stay here, you know? It’s just that trash smell I hate it, and here, I’ll never have to kill anyone, but I can’t get away from what I am, and I can’t leave it in Japan, damn, that fucking festering corpse Polonius, he stays with me, you know? He doesn’t go away, in the ground worms eat at him, but there are no worms in my mind, just that fucking Ghetto. You know?”

“Hmmm,” she says in reply. A nice variation on “Mmmh?” “Worms. Fucking. Worms.” She just repeats these words over and over again in exasperation. And then finally: “I’m sorry. I don’t understand English well.” An epiphany. She said she doesn’t understand. A breakthrough really. And admitting you don’t understand is the first step toward healing, right? I can heal these Japanese people, with my special foreigner powers—hot damn--that voodoo shit must run in my family. 

 

“Thanks for listening,” I say. 

 

Do I believe my old life was real? If I go backwards enough can I see that boy’s head bleeding on the sidewalk, his blood flowing into a sea of trash…do I have to go back or can I fall off the edge? Can I crawl into a miniature Japan where I keep getting bigger? Can I assassinate myself with my own breath? And will a diligent rain wake up the worms and maggots in generic suits to eat all the trash of the world? Thanks for listening reader-man.






Daniel has wanted to be a writer ever since he was in elementary school.  He has published stories and articles in such magazines as Slipstream, Black Petals, and Leading Edge Science Fiction (among other journals and websites). You can read his short story collection, The Lexical Funk, here for free:  http://issuu.com/danielclausen/docs/lexical_funk_2014_-_issuu/1

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