In this installment of Page 69,
We put Jacob Appel's Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana to the test!
Set up page 69 for us, what are we about to read?
This is the second page of the short story, Boundaries, about two American border agents who are assignment to guard an obscure Canadian border crossing on Christmas eve--only to find themselves confronting unexpected cases of love and smallpox.
What’s the book about?
On the surface, this is a quirky short story collection featuring a minister whose dead wife is romantically involved with Greta Garbo, a landlord antagonized by a rent-delinquent mime and a diplomat's wife who attempts to seduce her chimney sweep through Norwegian lessons. Of course, at a deeper level, its a complex cryptogram whose solution reveals both the Pentagon's nuclear codes and the locations of El Dorado and Atlantis.
Do you think this page gives our readers an accurate sense of what the book is about? Does it align itself with the book’s overall theme?
No. This is the weakest page in the book by leaps and bounds. My agent and editor, upon reading the initial draft, both said. "We loved your book. It's a masterpiece to rival the best writing of Shakespeare and Tolstoy. Pure genius. Except for page 69. What drivel! What sentimental bunk! What blasphemy and obscenity! We both strongly recommend skipping straight from page 68 to page 70." I didn't follow their advice, and here is the result....
COULROPHOBIA & FATA MORGANA
Jimmy Durante accent. “Maybe it’s acute global cooling,” he adds. “They say the Nineteenth Century Minimum came on without warning.”
I don’t know much about Little Ice Ages or Nineteenth Century Minimums, but I’m willing to trust Artie’s opinion. He’s not only a first-rate border agent, but he’s also the most talented art-glass blower in Franklin County, as well as head docent at the local historical society, so he knows more about most things at thirty-four than I know about anything at forty-seven. If he told me we were actually slipping back into the nineteenth century itself, I’d probably believe him. The truth is that, except for the security cameras mounted on the eaves, our little colonial-style headquarters has hardly changed since my French-Canadian grandparents migrated south. Last year, Chief Crowley even found a sheet of unused three-cent stamps at the back of her supply closet.
“You’ve outdone yourself, Phoebe Laroque,” says Artie, surveying the bowls of green beans and candied yams and chestnut stuffing crammed onto the folding bridge table. “This is truly a feast fit for royalty.”
Artie offers this same praise every year—and every year his words flush warmth through my cheeks like a pitcher of red wine. “Merry Christmas, my dear heathen friend,” I say, grinning, raising my mug of fake eggnog. “Bon appétit!”
“To the chef!” answers Artie. He taps his mug against mine—gently, like Eskimos nuzzling noses. “To the Julia Child of the North!”
He’s not drunk, just enthusiastic. I wish I had one-tenth of his energy. Even when I was thirty-four and happily married to Neal—or when I thought I was happily married to Neal—I never loved life like Artie does. Not with that much gusto. I suppose if I’d been born beautiful—externally beautiful, like my sister, Valerie—I might have found
Jacob M. Appel's first novel, The Man Who Wouldn't Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Award in 2012. His short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, won the 2012 Hudson Prize and was published by Black Lawrence in November 2013. He is the author of five other collections of short stories: The Magic Laundry, The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street, Einstein's Beach House, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana and Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets; an essay collection, Phoning Home; and another novel, The Biology of Luck. He practices psychiatry in New York City. More at: www.jacobmappel.com