Kuhreihen : Preface

I write a lot about characters at odds with their past. Kuhreihen follows a group of people who are invited to join a game. The story is built on the idea that it’s the people who try the hardest to believe their past isn’t important that would go to the greatest lengths to recover all they tried to forget. The game begins when each contestant is presented with a showroom-quality copy of the first car they ever owned, and a map to a location where the next stage of the contest will be revealed.

The title is taken from a traditional Swiss melody, Kuhreihen, that gives some people a yearning for home that’s impossible to ignore. It’s played on the Alphorn, those long trumpets that Ricola Cough Drops made famous. The sounds are so strong that the Swiss military forbid it in the trenches, because soldiers hearing it would abandon their posts and head home.

Important Disclosure

This story is unfinished.

1. Shoot

My therapist got me to start shooting things.

“You need to find a constructive outlet for your hostility.”

“Why do I need an outlet? Maybe I like being hostile.”

He said it would be better to focus on something positive so that I would stop grinding my teeth and riding my clutch.

“How about dance?”

“How about not.”

“Cooking?”

“Pass.”

“Well, Katie, you need something.”

That’s my shrink, Dr. Sexist. I wore a boy’s blazer our next session to piss him off. I bought it at a thrift store the day before and it had the crest of a local catholic school on the breast pocket. One of the elbows was skidded out and grass stained. He didn’t notice. My therapist never notices what I’m wearing. I don’t have a complex about it. We had a productive session. When I got back to work-

“What’re you up to dear?”

-a creepster I work with named Calvin was waiting at my cubicle. He noticed the blazer. It was a great excuse to take longer than usual to speculate on my cup size.

“I’m not really up to anything.”

“You know what I mean.”

Yes I did, but I’m not a baby seal and you’re not a shark Calvin. I’m smarter and younger than you are, and they pay me less to do the same work. So if anyone needs to be watching their back for predators-

“Actually Calvin, I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t be that way. It’s early.”

My shrink gave me the stupid find-an-outlet speech again today and I could imagine Calvin delivering the same one.

“I don’t know Cal. What’re you up to?”

“Paint-balling this weekend. Want to come?”

It didn’t appeal.

“I don’t know.”

“Come on! A bunch of us are going.”

Of course a bunch of them are. They’re going to get all duded up in camouflage pants and run around in the woods shooting little swollen testicles full of red and yellow paint at each other.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s awesome!”

“Awesome Calvin?”

“Best stress relief there is.”

The thought of a highly pressurized projectile being under my command made the knots in my back go the tiniest bit slack.

“Paint?”

“Paintball.”

“Why don’t you take me down to the gun range.”

“Really?”

“Really Calvin. You do that don’t you? I’ve heard you guys talking about it.”

“Yeah, we- I do that.”

“So this weekend we go shoot some stuff instead of paint blasting or whatever?”

Calvin is not a catch.

It’s not that he’s a bad looking guy. He’s cute enough I guess, but too goddam chatty. And someone his age should know how to check someone out without being so gross and obvious about it. I wanted to shoot something though, and Calvin was the only person I knew that did that.

“Sure, sure. Let me just check with the guys if I can get out of paint balling.”

“Let me know Cal.”

We had dinner. I let him try to kiss me on the way to his shooting club and once we were there he let me empty a clip from his overpowered hand gun. It was exhilarating, firing the gun.

The kiss landed half on my mouth and half on my cheek. And there was still a little tongue involved somehow. It was not exhilarating.

But it was at the range that I met Clint. Army brat. Son of a sniper. Clint was there with a rifle, not a hand gun. And he only took a single shot. And his target was so far down the course I could hardly see it. Even with all that firing on either side of him Clint looked like a monk in the deepest meditation. If he’d had his eyes closed you’d have to shove a mirror under his nose to make sure he was still breathing.

As I was fending off another kiss from Calvin, Clint was just chilling. He stared ahead for what seemed like forever to me with both eyes open. And then, for a few seconds, with one eye open.

“Wow, that’s really something he has there.”

Calvin was right. I was staring at Clint when he fired. To me, there was drama. It was like watching a ghost come to life and spring out of him. When the shot came he was as still as he had been before. Like a leaf stripped by the wind from its tree coming to rest on the ground. But he was a different person somehow. It was like some part of him had left with the bullet. He was no less for that. Just two people. For a few seconds.

He took a deep breath, and sat up and was one Clint again. That’s the part that’s hard to explain.

Sometimes there’s this thing you seem to create when you fire. If enough concentration goes into a shot, something comes out of you. This ghost.

Clint pushed a button to make his target come back to him on this long motorized clothesline. He’d spent the same twenty or so minutes I had there. Me with this weekend warrior’s hand gun, popping off shots without any thought or connection to what I was doing. I had destruction on my mind. Clint wasn’t there for that.

After that single shot he looked as carefree and relaxed as I wanted to be. And the first thing he looked at when he looked up from that target was me. Calvin just sort of dissolved into my backdrop. I don’t remember saying good bye or thanks to him. I remember approaching Clint and asking him,

“Can you teach me to do that?”

he said,

“Hell yes.”

2. Joe

A couple of years ago Joe lost a job he’d had for over a decade.

He didn’t let it ruin his supper. Sometimes when you asked him about investing a third of his life in a company that traded him in for a newer model he’d get a little melancholy.

“I gave them fifteen years.”

He wouldn’t stay down long.

“But the economy. What are you going to do?”

If you’re Joe you’re not going to waste time thinking about a huge company that doesn’t need you anymore and can’t be held accountable for throwing away good people.

It’s just plain silly. Dry your tears and pick up some odd jobs. When you’re stuck at home finish those projects your wife has been nagging you about for years. Send out rèsumès. Make a few cold calls. Never wait around for someone else to save the day.

“Anything come today Joe?”

“Nothing yet.”

“Well. Things will work out. We won’t be out on the street.”

He did finally find something. It was no dream job, but it was work.

“Hardly half as much as I was making before.”

“It’s something babe. It’s a tough time. We’re really lucky you know?”

“I know sweetie.”

“Really lucky Joe.”

Comparison is a bitch.

To keep his head clear Joe kept watering the lawn and fixing the shelves and unclogging the drains and reading the paper. He and the wife had sex once a week and dinner out twice a month. Sometimes in places that required reservations. If the budget permit. Their life, he knew she was right, was good.

“Right?”

Joe’s going to be 47 this year. He and his wife never had kids. They tried once and when things didn’t work out neither one of them spent too much time beating themselves up about it. They were comfortable and they loved each other. A sincere love. It wasn’t edge of your seat love anymore, but they were happy. Happy enough.

“I talked to your mother today Joe.”

“Yeah?”

“She’s glad you found something.”

“She’s always a mother.”

“She just wants what’s best for us Joe.”

“I know baby.”

Happy enough is another way of saying that Joe was just unhappy enough to fall into this story.

He was just the kind of masculine restless that comes from passing middle age and somehow avoiding a catastrophic mid-life crisis. He just had a little one and his wife had helped him avoid a system failure. She gave him the kind of steady love and encouragement that helps a man to find the things he loves outside of work.

“You don’t have to be defined by your job.”

“Was I ever?”

“You’re a hard worker. That’s something I always loved about you.”

“And now?”

“You’re not any less of a hard working man.”

“Thinking of trading in the Town Car.”

“The Lincoln?”

“Thinking about it. Is that a bad idea right now?”

“Doesn’t have to be.”

He knew a new car wouldn’t change the facts, but cars had raised his spirits before. This happened weeks ago. They didn’t have the money really, but he still wanted a new car. It didn’t have to be assembly line new. Just new to him. Something other than his ho-hum sedan.

“I don’t look silly on it do I?”

He ended up keeping the Lincoln and buying a broken down bike, an old Triumph. It spend as much time running as being tinkered with in the garage.

“Of course not babe. How can a motorbike make you look silly?”

“I just don’t want to look like a guy having a mid-life crisis.”

“So what if you are? I don’ think there’s anything wrong with having a bike at your age. Enjoy it.”

The Triumph was a lot more fun than his Lincoln, when it was running, but it wasn’t the kind of fun he remembered from his youth.

Those first few beat up cars he owned were like being thrown down the Grand Canyon on roller skates. Fast and rough and not all that safe. But the bike was good enough. He was happy enough with it. He kept the faith.

“Thanks darling.”

“Just be careful on it.”

Faith is a tricky mother. It’s sometimes the thing that points and laughs at what a gullible schmuck you are. Joe had it anyway and good sense too. If he allowed himself a motorcycle he told himself he’d stop eating so much red meat, would drink less coffee, and get more exercise. Because what’s faith really but your bargaining strategy with God?

3. Drive

Joe is one of a handful of people who have been under casual surveillance for years.

What his shadows have determined is that Joe is remarkably predictable. Even in the immediate aftermath of getting fired Joe kept to a daily regiment of small tasks and rewards and activities. He woke every morning at seven. He stepped outside for his newspaper a few minutes later. He picked it up and read everything above the fold in the time it took him to make a cup of coffee and throw two slices of Wonder Bread in the toaster.

“Hello. Whose are you?”

This morning he is newly employed when he reaches down to pick up his morning paper.

He doesn’t notice that it’ a foot closer than usual because it’s at rest on a small box. He doesn’t notice because the first thing to catch his eyes is a 1977 Pontiac Firebird pulled up in his driveway. It’s so close to his Triumph he can’t believe it didn’t fall over (he’s had trouble with the kickstand lately).

“Wonder who left that beauty there?”

For those unfamiliar with bad-ass American cars of the past this Pontiac was very much like the one Burt Reynolds made famous in Smokey and The Bandit. The one in Joe’s driveway is cherry red and not black, and there’s no firebird painted on the hood. More significant to Joe is that a cherry red 77′ Firebird was the first car he ever owned. His was always in rough shape, but the one in his driveway looks as if it rolled off the line in Detroit yesterday.

“And whose are you?”

He looks down from the paper and notices the box. The box has his name written on it and no postage.

He can’t decide between the strange box and rushing over to inspect the car before whoever mistakenly parked it there moves it. He heads back inside with the box because he’s an adult and still in his pajamas and what would the neighbors think? Besides he needs to read the paper before work because his new boss thinks current events are especially important.

“If a man can’t be bothered to know what’s going on in the world he can’t be trusted to do a thorough job on anything!”

He opens the box.

“Keep your head in the game Joe.”

The game isn’t in his head yet. It’s in his hands. Joe is barely to the kitchen to make coffee when the mysterious package stops him cold. He drops the paper. He reads again over the single sheet of paper from the box. There are other items inside the box, but only one of them interests him now. He grabs that item and sprints in pajamas to the Firebird. According to the letter, and the set of keys in his hand, this car is his if he wants it.

“Hell yes I want it!”

He brushes past his bike and the tiniest bump trips the kickstand and the Triumph crashes over. He leaves it there.

“Damn bike!”

He lets himself into the car and takes in its leather. Everything about it looks and smells new. He feels a few tears in his eyes and laughs, awkwardly. There’s a full well of emotion and he is deeply confused at the same time. he reads the letter again.

You are cordially invited to take part in a transcontinental contest. At each stage of the competition you will have the opportunity to win prizes. The first prize is the car attached to the keys included in the game package. The car is yours to keep. All you have to do is follow the directions on the map provided, in the time provided, to claim the car as your own.

Three other items are in the box. There’s a map leading to a marked point 800 miles away, a running timer counting down thirteen hours, and a business card with a single word printed on it:

Kuhreihen

Joe will be on the road for almost an hour before he realizes he’s still in his pajamas and that he left his cell phone at home.

“Shit.”

He won’t look at the timer, only his tachometer. He won’t turn back. He’ll drive on. There won’t be time to go back. He doesn’t know a single phone number. They’re all in his phone, but he’ll keep driving, feeling the RPMs and the adrenaline become one thing. He’s caught up. He wants the car more than he’s wanted anything in years. Kuhreihen is supposed to work this way. And Firebirds too.

4. Encore

Charlotte didn’t start her life as a car owner with something as cool as a Firebird.

When she spotted the pristine 1986 Renault Encore in her driveway her reaction wasn’t the kind of excitement Joe had. The car surprised her, but not greatest-birthday-ever levels of surprise.

“Those are still on the road?”

That was her first thought and she spoke it aloud. Her next was who left that piece of shit in my driveway? She kept that to herself. She was in a mood this morning, but talked herself back from the vitriol. She was a lady and a professional and had the poise to prove it.

“Nice to see one of those old girls still around.”

The Encore hadn’t been a great car. About the only thing she remembered fondly was the gas mileage.

She’d been broke and in graduate school and although ugly as hell the Encore had come cheap. She sold some of her nice clothes at a consignment shop and was able to buy it and a decent dinner out. She remembered it smelled a little of fish when the AC was running and that it’s ragged clutch often refused to reverse. The one in her driveway was the same algae green, but looked nicer.

“Hello?”

She walked around her property and looked for anyone who could explain the presence of the car.

“Is there somebody out here?”

Her game package sits on the Encore itself, perfectly centered on the hood. A package, like Joe’s with no postage and no address, just her name. She reads the invitational letter and goes back inside her house to think.

Charlotte is a therapist who specializes in treating people with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or BDD. She is attractive, smart, sometimes charming, and unmarried. She doesn’t have pets, exciting hobbies, or date anymore.

She reads a lot, but if it’s not a professional text she forgets the contents of any book as soon as she reads another. She feels there is only room in her head for one recreational book and her delight in reading is the sensation of erasing the previous book with the present one. It is a peculiar and self-imposed form of amnesia. Her knowledge of her field is encyclopedic.

She allows herself one friend much in the same way that she allows herself the memory of one book. His name is James. He picks up the phone on the first ring.

“Why are you calling me this early?”

“Are you sleeping?”

“Yes. I won’t remember talking to you. Is it important?”

“Yes. And time-sensitive. Can you wake up?”

“Give me a minute.”

“Be as quick as you can.”

A great deal of background noise and foreground screaming is heard. Charlotte also hears what she assumes is the sound of her one friend slapping himself several times.

“Okay. What is it?”

“I need you to take a couple days off from work”

“I’ll just quit.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I was joking Charlotte. I’m on vacation this week.”

“No plans?”

“None yet. Where are we going?”

Charlotte reads James the letter. He asks how many hours are left on the timer and the two determine they have time enough for a nice breakfast before leaving town.

“Do you think this is legit?”

“I think it’s a legitimate car.”

“You hated that car.”

“Yes, but I’m a curious person.”

5. Give

Daisy Bell never liked her name.

“Daisy?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

Then too often, in a sing-song:

“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer-”

“Don’t.”

All through grade school her peers didn’t know the song. It was always a parent or teacher who sang it to her. All the adults got a kick out of it, clapped her on the back, laughed and treated her like a special child. She didn’t feel special. The kids regarded her with distrust and disgust, like some sort of grammar school Uncle Tom. She was universally hated and all because of her name.

“Oh look. It’s Daisy.”

“Oh, Hi. What’s everyone doing?”

“Come on. Let’s get outta here. My mom sings to her.”

Throughout her childhood it made her forever the slightest bit sick to her stomach. She was skinny as a result. By high school she was as tall as her father. She was five foot eleven before graduation and had a radiant head of blonde hair, with a tick of red in it. So she kind of looked like a Daisy.

It lead to BDD. She was Charlotte’s last appointment before she set out in the Encore. Daisy was having a particularly difficult week and was not happy to hear that her appointment was cancelled.

“Where are you going?”

Charlotte lied to her and told her that the sudden departure was job related. That she had research to do for a book she was writing. That her editor had pushed up the delivery date. That she had to drop everything for the foreseeable future.

“You mean you’re not going to be here next week either?”

“Possibly longer. I can put you in touch with someone.”

“Someone?”

“Another therapist.”

“What other therapist? No one specializes in, ah, my condition, other than you.”

“I think you’re doing very well Daisy. You’ve been self-regulating for a while now correct?”

“A few months.”

“And how many years prior to that were you engaging in compulsive behavior?”

“Do we have to call it that?”

Daisy disliked therapists in general and Charlotte specifically.

Charlotte though had been the last in a very long string of them and was the only one who had gotten any lasting results.

“Yes, we do have to call it that.”

“Okay. Denial and all that. Fine. I understand.”

Daisy was blessed with an abundantly lush head of hair. This helped conceal her BDD because she had Trichotillomania, or a compulsive need to pick at, and pull out, her own hair. Everyone growing up just thought Daisy’s hair was much thinner than it actually was. That she was a meticulous groomer of eyebrows and that her arms were naturally hair-free. She had no noticeable bald-spots, so even Charlotte had to ask when she first began treatment if there were any compulsive behaviors she could think of. She said no at first, but the truth came out in the second session. Charlotte was fine with it.

“It’s expected Daisy. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Daisy hated Charlotte’s maternally-charged clichés.

She accepted them without protest now because Charlotte had made the picking and pulling stop where dozens of other therapists over twelve years had not. Daisy didn’t even believe that Charlotte liked her or regarded her anymore favorably than a waiter or dry cleaner. But distracted and possibly even uncaring as she might be, Charlotte helped. Daisy’s hair was as thick as it had ever been. Thicker actually. Bigger to a point where people who had known her for years asked what she had changed to get so much body.

“I started using horse shampoo.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Not really. But the answer was just crazy enough to be taken as gospel.

A friend of hers even started shampooing with the stuff herself. Good old Mane and Tale. Daisy knew the stuff. Used the stuff. And it probably had helped a little all the years she’d been yanking it out.

“Where do you buy it?”

“You can get it at KMart.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

She never mentioned to anyone that it made your ears a bit fuzzy, and never told Charlotte that she still allowed herself to pluck those.

A few minutes after the phone cancellation from Charlotte Daisy went from mild anxiety to a full-blown panic attack. She even felt the return of her Trichotillomania. Those itching desires to tug and sort and pop out little bits of herself. No. She wanted to pull her whole head of hair out with both hands.

“Really. Take it easy.”

But, bitchy or not, Charlotte had done a good job. Daisy kept her hands from herself.

“Just breathe Daisy. Deep breaths.”

After a few yogic breaths her hair was safe. But not because she was rock solid. She was definitely more stable than she’d been in the past, but at the moment when the desire to separate and remove strands of hair hit its peak she stepped out of her apartment and saw something bizarre parked next to her car. And a strange package. And in a few moments there was the inevitable surprise of discovering that the 1982 Honda Civic hatchback parked behind her current car was in fact her past car. It was more than enough distraction to save her beautiful head of hair.

6. Firearms

I really like shooting but can’t imagine shooting living things.  I haven’t been at this long and the whole enterprise is still abstract for me.

There are different things going for different armed people.  It’s like the difference between a portrait or house painter.  It’s not that you can’t find art and utility in both, but there’s more art in one and more utility in the other.

So I’ve developed an interest in the history of firearms.  Guns are fascinating.  They were always meant to kill, but history makes the unsavory aspects distant.  If I wait long enough the practical application of an object becomes part of its romantic allure.  If I saw antique dental equipment in use at an office I would run out of there screaming. But the same equipment on display in someone’s home might be beautiful.  It would be so far removed from its originally intended purpose that I would only see the design.

To feed my interest Clint and I try different old weapons when we go out.

This morning we’re firing a reproduction of an arquebus. The great-grandfather of the rifle.

It’s a very heavy weapon by today’s standards. It requires custom shot to be made and fires at a very low velocity. Even in its own time it was incapable of piercing suits of armor at practical distances. I’ve only been handling it for a half hour and I already feel that if it came down to self-defense I’d prefer a stick.

“Don’t be afraid of it.”

“I’m afraid I’m going to break it.”

“It’s a replica, so don’t worry about that.”

“Why don’t we work with longbows?”

“We will.  Just see what you can get out of it.”

I’d be happy with getting the shot out of it. An over-sized pellet serves as ammunition for this thing.

I know he means what I can get out of the process of learning to use it. It’s tedious and bulky and inefficient, but that’s just the sort of thing that Clint claims forces concentration at the highest levels. I hunker down, steady and slow my breath, and focus on the target.

“Remember what you’ve got there.”

“I do Clint.”

“Remember how much power it has.”

“Or how little.”

“Same thing.”

He and I fired a few pellets earlier just to get a feel for the old gun’s dynamics.

The explosion of the matchlock mechanism is loud and produces a momentarily blinding cloud of smoke, but the recoil is tame.

It’s mostly bark. The bite is a nibble. We are out in the boonies and were shooting at a barn (its broadside, actually) from about twenty feet away. The shot knocked tiny holes in the wood most of the time.  I hit a load-bearing beam that was all of a four by four and the shot bounced back towards us and landed in the dirt with a thud. Like a small stone thrown by a small girl.

“What use is a gun that can’t get through wood?”

Clint just looked at me and pointed down at the weapon.

“Pay attention.”

I get it.  My target now is a tomato balanced atop of tree stump.

“Think about how it felt before.  Don’t think about shooting in general.  Just shooting this.”

I take my time and graze the tomato.

“Good?”

“Good.”

7. Oscar + Norton

Two contestants come in a pair.

They’re both in their sixties. They were married in California before the state backtracked its stand on same-sex nuptials. It’s an uphill crusade, but at least these two adorable men can stay hitched. They were grandfathered in. I think there’s a pun in there somewhere, but you’ll have to find it on your own.

The mysterious benefactor skipped over the cars Oscar and Norton owned as individuals. Skipped over the cars they owned together. In fact, they found a perfect copy of a car they never owned. Their dangling carrot for the game was a car they rented for their honeymoon. The rental was itself a perfect copy, but not nearly as nice as the 1952 Morris Oxford sitting in their driveway.

“Is that him Oscar?”

“Unmistakeable.”

“Beautiful.”

“And ours apparently Norton. Do you fancy a drive?”

Oscar grew up poor. But happy. His family were all good people. God-fearing, but fun-loving too.

He was one of three boys and his mother always knew. Always knew. His father knew too. And pretended there was nothing to know. His mother pretended on her own, but with a different, and more creative, brand of delusion. She imagined her little Oscar as the neighbor’s child. She loved him better that way. She was always so happy to have little Oscar in her home and never for a moment had to worry about what the world would think of the neighbor’s gay son who was actually her gay son.

“His hair is so fine.”

“What?”

Her husband thought she was a little bonkers. She wanted to tell him it was the neighbor’s child. It was the neighbor’s child that had hair like spun silk that reminded her of staring at the rain.

“Nothing my darling. Dinner?”

The neighbors of course had no children. None of their own. Oscar played over there often. Most behind the wheel of the neighbor’s car. A Morris.

Norton grew up with a little more money and far more misery.

His parents knew. They knew. And they tried their hardest to make the most of their child. Norton’s father loved him, but also kept a distance. Treated his son as if he had some sort of exotic disorder. And his mother cried often. Whenever she found him wearing something of hers or opting out of something she felt was respectably masculine.

“He doesn’t get dirty with the other boys.”

“He plays with them.”

“He’s out there. But he won’t get dirty. What’s wrong with him?”

Norton did get dirty. In private. At the end of his block was another man who also owned a Morris. Norton loved the car and learned all about how to maintain it from the friendly neighbor. He did not know. He didn’t. He thought Norton was a little strange to not want to play with kids his own age, but he was helpful around the garage, and affable, and funny. The neighbor was a lifelong bachelor and had never taken a shine to children before Norton. Norton always washed up before returning home. He didn’t want his parents to know he’d been working on cars. They’d be too excited and for all the wrong reasons.

Oscar and Norton associated the Morris with their youth. They loved the car. Growing up they both recognized it as unique and themselves as unique and it was a secret they kept from the world so they could keep other secrets from the world. In time it was their only secret, a forgotten one until they were looking at luxury rentals for their honeymoon.

“Oh my. Do you know what this is Oscar?”

“I do, but do you?”

“How do you know?”

“Morris? Morris was the first man I ever loved.”

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