Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, August 8, 2015

"Negative Reservations" by Michael Alenyikov (A Short Story by the Author of Ivan and Misha)

"Negative Reservations" was first published in the spring 2015 edition of The Catamaran Literary Reader and is republished here with appropriate authorizations.  

I really love this story.  It has an old world feel I find deeply appealing.  

My Post on Ivan and Misha  November 29, 2011)

I first encounter the work of Michael Alenyikov when I read his wonderful collection of interrelated short stories Ivan and Misha.  I liked this collection a great deal.  Here are my opening remarks: 

Ivan and Misha by Michael Alenyikov is an interrelated set of short stories about two fraternal twins, one bi-sexual and one gay, and their father, Lyov. The first story is set in Kiev (the largest city in the Ukraine) in Russia, where they were born.    In the brief prologue (set in the 1980s at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union) we learn that the wife of Lyov and mother of the boys died before they were six.   The father is a doctor.   We learn he only received one year of medical training and was sent out into the horrors of WWII in the Ukraine to remove limbs from soldiers,  without anesthetics.   They live in a large apartment complex in the style of the times.   The father keeps promising his sons a better life, a new mother, a new apartment, but nothing really happens until he moves the family to New York City and the stories start in the late 1990s"

Today I am very honored to be able to publish one of his short stories.

Bio: Michael Alenyikov is the pen name for the author of Ivan and Misha, which won the Northern California Book Award for Fiction and was a Finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction: He was awarded the 2013 Gina Berriault Award and was a MacDowell Fellow. His work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Descant (Pushcart Nominee), The James White Review and other publications. He has worked as a bookstore clerk, a clinical psychologist, and an interactive media writer. A native of New York City he now lives in San Francisco.

Negative Reservations 
Michael Alenyikov

What to say?  What to say?”  Catherine asked.
Should I write that down?”  Emily replied.
“No, of course not, you ninny. I’m thinking,” Catherine replied.
They were alone in the restaurant but for two sharply dressed businessmen at a window table and a young couple sitting near the kitchen. Emily had noted earlier their entwined fingers; how he then spilled his coffee, soiling the ivory-colored tablecloth, she mopping up the mess with one of the restaurant’s thick linen napkins; their shy smiles.

Emily doodled hangman figures and dollar signs, making pictograms of her initials, EGS, while she waited for Catherine to speak.

Catherine​'s  chair was slightly elevated, providing her not so much a view as the look of someone noble, a queen or countess, Emily imagined. She wore a large white bib, streaked red and green from pesto and tomato sauce; a queen, Emily decided, from the days of Henry VIII who could eat with her fingers and make a mess as she pleased. 

Emily sketched a woman with wild hair, on her knees, neck resting on a block; above her a man, face masked, a raised axe clenched in his meaty hands. Off with her head, she wrote in tiny letters.
“I’m not feeling inspired today,” Catherine said, slopping up the last strands of the pasta. She wore a black shawl. Today it covered her head, but it might just as well be worn over her shoulders, depending on her mood. Combined with the whiteness of the bib, she could have been a nun from Emily’s Catholic childhood.

Emily thought that even when she was disgusting, Catherine was fascinating. It wasn’t just that she was blind or that she was a poet—quite a brilliant one, everyone agreed—or, when properly dressed and made up—which she wasn’t, today—still beautiful; well, maybe it wasbecause she was blind; maybe that was it, after all—or maybe it was her brilliance. Emily had no idea how Catherine could tolerate being alive and not see the world. Wasn’t she terrified when she was alone? If she was, she never let on.

She had her memories, Emily supposed; she hadn’t always been blind. Maybe she screened them like home movies  or  videos  and  lived  in  a  world  of  images  long vanished. 
The young couple paid their bill. They smiled at each other, conspiratorial smiles. Emily thought: they’re having an affair; they’re both cheating on someone who trusts them.
“Would you like dessert?” Catherine asked.
“No thanks.”
“You’re starving yourself, Emmy: thin as a rail. Won’t do. I like my women with flesh on their bones,” she said, with a laugh that was like the braying of a horse. She always spoke a bit too loud—well, really, sometimes embarrassingly loud. It must be wonderful, Emily reconsidered, to not see anyone, to be blind to raised eyebrows of disapproval, people staring daggers of hate at you, or people not seeing you at all: that was the worst for Emily, not being seen.

I’m full, Cat,” she said.  Emily had a whiny voice. Catherine had told her so. Catherine was, as she often said, exquisitely sensitive to sound, to taste, to touch.
Emily stared out the window.  Light snow was falling. Across the street, another restaurant had left on their Christmas lights, strings of small bulbs that flickered on and off like a piano keyboard, unseen fingers playing a sultry jazz riff on—she could almost hear it—These are a few of my favorite things. If she were blind, what might she hear that she otherwise missed? She closed her eyes. To her surprise, she heard the soft scratching of her pen on the paper, and Catherine breathing, shifting in her chair; the rattle of dishes somewhere in the restaurant—she couldn’t place where, exactly; footsteps clicking on the hardwood floorthe closing of a door—and a moment later she felt a chilly draft. She opened her eyes: the businessmen were gone.

“Well, I’m having the mousse,” Catherine said, looming above her—a crazy lady, anyone might think, the way she waved her hands wildly. Emily touched Cat’s thigh. 
“Let me get the waiter.”
“I hate it when I’m not inspired to write. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it.” Cat looked piercingly at Emily, as if she could see. 
“You’re not being a very good muse today.” She laughed, so Emily couldn’t tell if she were angry or joking. After their first night of making love, she’d said, “Be my muse,” laying her head on Emily’s breasts. “I need a new one badly.”
“What happened to the old one?” Emily had asked, timidly curious.

“I fired the wench!” Cat had brayed.
Emily had signed on to be Catherine’s assistant one long year ago—a terrific honor, she’d thought at the time. Catherine’s poetry, famed for its errant, unexpectedly perfect adverbs, full of images of caves and shadows, rain-speckled lakes, streams quiet and raging, and dreams of violent birds that ripped the flesh of tormented lovers, had won Emily’s heart well before they’d met. And to be her muse—the words, the request, was an erotic shiver—delight slow-dancing with fear. Emily clung to Catherine that night as if she were the one who was blind and Cat the one who could see.

They ate an early dinner here at New York’s Union Street Café four, maybe five nights a week. They never called ahead, as Catherine had a “negative reservation”: she’d bought a place at the table, so to speak, for two, for any time she’d want to show up. She was, after all, blind and rich and an admired, envied poet among people who counted. She’d won coveted awards, several of which came laden with cash. There was an ex-husband, too, from when she was young.  He bestowed upon her more money than she knew what to do with: to support the arts, he’d said; but there was guilt, too, as he’d been driving the night of the crash and had been at her bedside during the coma, from which she awoke, all her senses primed but one.

Chocolate mousse,” Emily said to the waiter, who smirked at the mess that was Catherine. “For one.”
“For two,” Catherine boomed to the large empty room. “Too skinny, I say,” she then declared, turning towards Emily, poking at the air with her fork.
It pleased Emily that across the street Christmas lights were on well into January. In the space of that thought the restaurant began to fill, people milling in, in groups of twos and fours, a single person here and there.
“Too skinny, I say,” Cat hissed.
“Write it down, Emmy.”
“Why? What is it exactly that you want from me?” She felt the eyes of people staring at them, their oddness.
“It’s the first line of a poem, dearie: Too skinny, I say. She kissed the top of Emily’s head. “My muse, I love you so, so much.”
Emily hurriedly finished her sketch, the queen’s head fallen onto the rough ground, a crowd of onlookers gaping.
Spine erect, Cat’s muse wrote the words “Too skinny, I say,” then froze.
“But I’m not, I’m not,” the muse retorted.
“You are, you are,” said Cat, all flustered, her preternaturally pale face reddening.
“Mere words,” spat the muse, “Mere, mere words.”
That’s good,” said Cat, “Very very good.  Are you writing?”

And so a poem was written that night—poet and muse, each in turn, alternating lines. Their magic: the alchemy of poet and muse. “Mere Mere Words, Ma Mere,” Emily titled it that night as Cat snored fitfully; then the muse slipped into bed and curled up under Cat’s arm. Emily felt herself to be one of the smallest of God’s creatures, but blessed, truly and completely. Mere words: the magic that rekindled, extended their love for one more night.


This story is protected under international copyright law and cannot be published in any format without the author's approval.  

I offer my great thanks to Michael for allowing me to publish this.  I hope to read much more of his work going forward.

I would like to share my concluding thoughts on Ivan and Misha:

Alenyikov does a great job of creating a sense of physical place, not something a lot of writers do well.   This ranges from the small apartment of Ivan to New York City.   We also get a very clear sense of how everyone lives.    I confess when I read a story about a person I like to know what they eat and we do in Ivan and Misha.   

Alenyikov's  treatment of the sexuality of the brothers is simply brilliant.     I liked that there was no discussion at all about how the two brothers "got that way", no suggestion that there was something wrong with them.       It is just who they are and everyone in their lives accepts it including them.   There is one very shocking scene that took a lot of real daring to write.  

There are some really wonderful minor characters in the work. There is the handsome as all outdoors young Mormon missionary in the big city for the first time who does not know he is gay until Ivan seduces him and there are madmen right out of Howl.   There is an elderly lady with a very mysterious past who goes from Ivan's cab customer to one of his closest friends.     I liked her a lot and I think you will also as you try to figure her out.

There are tragic elements in the stories.   There is death, serious mental illness and Aids in these stories.    There is also a sheer love of life that comes strongly through.   Readers of Russian literature will love all of the references and will have fun deciding if they agree with what  the characters say about the various writers.   

Mel u

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