New England Review - - Testimonies - Brock Clarke

Iwill never read another novel about a sub­ur­ban mar­riage,” a man was say­ing to me. We were in a book­store. I was as­sum­ing the man was say­ing this to me be­cause I’d writ­ten sev­eral nov­els about sub­ur­ban mar­riages, and in fact was in that book­store, which also hap­pened to be in the sub­urbs, be­cause in a few min­utes I was sup­posed to give a read­ing from my latest novel about sub­ur­ban mar­riages. We were both look­ing at a poster on an easel, advertising my read­ing. On it was the cover of my book, which was ti­tled Love and Sub­di­vi­sions. The cover was a photo of a se­ries of iden­ti­cal white houses with black shut­ters, and in front of the houses stood a se­ries of cou­ples, their faces art­fully blurred, all of them hold­ing hands, hus­band, wife, hus­band, wife, off the cover and on into eter­nity, I guess. The man made a scoff­ing noise at the poster, and when he did that I felt like he was at­tack­ing me. Be­cause not only had I writ­ten the book, but the cover was in fact a photo of me and my wife and our friends in front of our houses. That was us on the out­side of the book, even though the sto­ries of the peo­ple in­side the book were not, in ab­so­lutely ev­ery case, our sto­ries, ex­actly. “Well, why are you here,” I said, “if you hate these nov­els so much?” “Oh, I’m not here for the read­ing,” he said, and waved dis­mis­sively at the sec­tion of the book­store where I was to be read­ing. There were twenty or so fold­ing chairs set up in front of the podium. The read­ing was to start in five min­utes, but only three peo­ple were sit­ting, wait­ing for it. Two of them were read­ing books, to kill time, but even from where I was stand­ing I could tell that they weren’t my books. That felt like an at­tack, too. “I’m here to buy a book.” “What kind?” “Any kind, as long as it takes me some­place far away. I like to be trans­ported.” “But where?” He thought about it. “The Mid­dle Ages,” he said. And then sud­denly we were in a muddy field. There was smoke ev­ery­where, but through the smoke I could see men wear­ing hel­mets, furs, thick leather ar­mor. Some of the men were on the ground and some were stand­ing. The men on the ground were head­less; the men stand­ing were car­ry­ing a fancy kind of axe. A bat­tle axe, I guessed, although I also guessed that that was just a generic term for any axe used in bat­tle, and that there was a more spe­cific name for this spe­cific axe. If I’d writ­ten nov­els set in the Mid­dle Ages, then maybe I’d have known the proper name for it. But I didn’t. Like­wise, the men with heads were shout­ing at each other in a lan­guage I didn’t know. It wasn’t English, and I’d taken Span­ish in high school and I was pretty sure it wasn’t that, ei­ther. But

what was it? French? Bre­ton? Was Bre­ton even a lan­guage? Or was it just a place? Maybe they were yelling at each other in Por­tuguese. But did Por­tu­gal even have the Mid­dle Ages? I didn’t know, and that I didn’t know such a ba­sic fact as whether Por­tu­gal had the Mid­dle Ages felt like an ac­cu­sa­tion, too. All these ac­cu­sa­tions were start­ing to make me feel like there was some­thing se­ri­ously wrong with me, that I was lim­ited, stunted, and that I would never get more ex­pan­sive, would never grow. In fact, my wife had said sim­i­lar things to me— that I was stunted, that I would never grow, that I would never grow enough to write a novel that didn’t have barely dis­guised ver­sions of me and her and our friends and our sto­ries in it—and she had said these things to me right be­fore she left me, but right af­ter she posed for the photo of her, and me, and our friends, that would end up as the cover of my latest book about sub­ur­ban mar­riages. Sud­denly I very much wanted to kill my­self. On the ground in front of me, next to the body of one of the head­less men, was a bat­tle axe, or what­ever it’s called. I bent over, picked it up, with the full in­ten­tion to use it on my­self. This is the end, I thought, and turned to the man who’d been trans­ported with me from the book­store, be­cause ev­ery­one knows that noth­ing is truly the end un­less you have some­one wit­ness it. The man was smil­ing hugely. “You see what I’m talk­ing about?” he said to me, in English, and then yelled some­thing at the stand­ing men in their own lan­guage, and they yelled back and cheer­fully raised their bat­tle axes over their heads in cel­e­bra­tion of their kin­ship with the man, and then I changed my mind and used the axe to cut off the man’s head. Im­me­di­ately I was trans­ported back to the book­store, right be­hind the podium. There were now five peo­ple in the au­di­ence, whereas be­fore there were only three. The two new­com­ers were my wife and our ten-year-old son. Our son no­ticed the weapon I was hold­ing and said, “Hey, Dad, where’d you get that cool bat­tle axe?” So maybe that was the proper name of the thing! Mean­while, my wife smiled at me. It wasn’t a real smile, more of an “I think I’ve missed you but I’m not sure so no prom­ises let’s just take it slow” kind of smile. Still, I felt a lit­tle bet­ter about us, and my­self, and my book, although I de­cided to hold onto the bat­tle axe, just in case.

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