Last Stories and Other Stories

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9780143127567: Last Stories and Other Stories

Supernaturally tinged stories from William T. Vollmann, author of the National Book Award winner Europe Central
 
In this magnificent new work of fiction, his first in nine years, celebrated author William T. Vollmann offers a collection of ghost stories linked by themes of love, death, and the erotic.
 
A Bohemian farmer’s dead wife returns to him, and their love endures, but at a gruesome price. A geisha prolongs her life by turning into a cherry tree. A journalist, haunted by the half-forgotten killing of a Bosnian couple, watches their story, and his own wartime tragedy, slip away from him. A dying American romances the ghost of his high school sweetheart while a homeless salaryman in Tokyo animates paper cutouts of ancient heroes.
 
Are ghosts memories, fantasies, or monsters? Is there life in death? Vollmann has always operated in the shadowy borderland between categories, and these eerie tales, however far-flung their settings, all focus on the attempts of the living to avoid, control, or even seduce death. Vollmann’s stories will transport readers to a fantastical world where love and lust make anything possible.

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About the Author:

William T. Vollmann has written nine novels, three collections of stories, six works of nonfiction, and a memoir. He has won the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction, a Whiting Writers Award, and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

LISTENING TO THE SHELLS

 

1

In the dimming living room they were drinking slivovitz and water out of fine crystal glasses, and everyone was laughing and smoking American cigarettes until a shell fell twenty-five meters away. The women jumped. Another shell fell slightly closer and the women screamed. Then the people sat silently smoking in the last light, their smoke nearly the same color as the drinking glasses, and presently began to laugh again, leaning over their hands or spreading their fingers; they stubbed out their cigarettes in crystal ashtrays, and the poet who loved Vesna even suspected that finally he had found life. But Enko the militiaman sat glaring. Now it was dark, with echoes of the last light fading from the bubbles of mineral water just within the glasses and from the women’s pale blouses, and they sat in silence, listening to the shells.

When a shell approaches closely, you may well hear a hiss before it strikes. Once it does, you will be deafened for a minute or two, during which time you are not good for much except to wait for another shell. Meanwhile you see what they call the big light. After that you can hear the screams of children.

Vesna’s best friend Mirjana had had two little boys, and a shell killed them both. A shell had sheared away the tree in front of Vesna’s apartment; the smash had been so loud that she was certain she must be wounded.

Mirjana said: Marinko has a car but no petrol. Do you know where he can get petrol?

Ask Enko, said Vesna.

Enko said nothing.

Smiling brightly, Mirjana tried to light another cigarette. The match-flame trembled between her fingers and went out. Vesna leaned toward her, so that they could touch their cigarettes together. People still had plenty of tobacco at that time. In a couple of years they would be smoking green tea.

Vesna said: It’s quiet now, thanks to God!

In the corner sat Enko with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and his police ID clinking on its neck-chain. He had pulled off his bulletproof vest, which was leaning against the wall in easy reach. Every now and then his hand touched the grip of his gun in the holster; then he swigged from the crystal glass and took another drag; finally he pulled off his now ridiculous sunglasses, his head turning rapidly as he listened to his comrade Amir, who leaned forward as if anticipating something, all the while touching his moustache with a ringed forefinger. No one else could hear their conversation. Enko’s cigarette burned steadily between two fingers as he raised it again, tapping his foot, and his face was young and hard.

2

Amir rose, gazed out the window into the greenish darkness, then went out.— He knows how to get American whiskey, Enko explained.

Vesna said: Enko, can you tell me where Marinko can buy some petrol?

Who’s Marinko?

Didn’t you meet him? I thought you did. He’s Mirjana’s cousin.

Enko locked his bleak eyes on Mirjana. He said: Where are you from anyway?

Look, I’m Sarajevan, just like you.

Great. Now what part of town are you from?

Her children are all killed, Vesna explained. From now she has none.

Who the fuck cares? said Enko. What do you need petrol for?

My cousin wants it. I don’t ask him his business.

Enko laughed.— Sure, he said. I can get him as much petrol as he wants.

He’ll be grateful to you.

Gratitude doesn’t do much for me, said Enko.

3

When Amir came back with the whiskey, he informed Enko that there was a lost American journalist at the Holiday Inn.

At the Holiday Inn, journalists were smoking quietly around marble tables in the dark. Across the river a machine gun chortled like a night bird. Enko found the lost American and quickly uncovered his particulars: He had no idea what he wanted, and he could pay a hundred fifty Deutschemarks per day—not nearly as much as any television reporter, let alone a sexy anchorwoman such as Christiane Amanpour, but whatever they could get out of him would be easy money, and his pockets might be deeper than he said. Amir, who had recently inherited an almost new Stojadin automobile, would be the driver, billing by the hour; while Enko would babysit the journalist at, for instance, a hundred fifty Deutschemarks a day. Amir and Enko knew that everything is negotiable, while the journalist knew that when one might be killed this very hour, all money is play money. So the three contracting parties quickly achieved agreement, Enko staring into the American’s face while Amir drummed fingers on the tabletop as if he knew of more lucrative projects elsewhere, which indeed he did.

A man in a flak jacket and helmet strutted by, with his tape recorder’s light glowing red. At another table, some functionary from Municipality Centar was assuring a French journalist: Everything will be solved by winter. Everything must be, or there will be hundreds and thousands dead.— The Frenchman nodded delightedly. Now he could file his story.

The American journalist was encumbered by a pair of binoculars for which he would never have any purpose. Enko told him: I sure could use your binoculars.

We’ll see, said the American vaguely. Maybe at the end . . .

Eight-o’-clock, said Amir to the American. Goodbye.

See you then, the American said. Well, Enko, can I buy you another drink?

Sure. By the way, I’m counting on those binoculars.

This building across the street, are there snipers in it? asked a very young British journalist in a worried voice.

Oh, no, they’ve cleaned it! his handler assured him.

Enko knew the handler, who was a sonofabitch and had once stolen away from him a very pretty Swedish correspondent. He therefore leaned across his enemy and explained to the British journalist, as if out of helpfulness: But there’s a sniper shooting at the other entrance. You don’t use that.

Now the lost American was looking even more lost, just as Enko had intended. He needed to be reminded that Enko could ditch him at any time. As a matter of fact, Enko was a man of his word. He would never do less than he had contracted to do, and often he would do more. But it was bad business to reveal that at the beginning.

The light continued to fail. Looking out the front windows, which happened to be lacking a few ovals and triangles, the journalists stared at blue sky, and at that silent building across the street.

Another drink? said the American.

Enko began to feel sorry for him.— There’s a party if you want to come.

What time?

Now.

How will I get back?

No one expects you to go out by yourself, said Enko contemptuously. He rose, pulled his bulletproof vest down over his head and strapped it tight across his sides.

4

In the windows those shards of bluish twilight sky were already colder, and now the clouds swam in.

The lights had come on in the parking garage. All was noiseless. They emerged into the grey light, which was dulling down with dust and a little rain, Enko already half flooring the accelerator as they screeched around the protected corner and into the sniper’s reach. Across the street, the journalist glimpsed a building with four rows of windows visible, grey and black like ice against the pale tan façade. Metal was chattering, but not here. Almost biting his lip, his shoulders hunched as if that could somehow diminish his vulnerability, Enko wrenched the car around another corner; now they were rushing past yellow walls into the Stari Grad; there was dust, chalk and broken glass on the sidewalk.— That’s from right now, explained Enko, perhaps enjoying himself.— Just then, more glass departed windows, smashing on the street. The journalist sat quietly in the passenger seat. He excelled at being calm when he was powerless.

Enko demanded: What do you think about those fucking Chetniks?

Murderers, said the journalist.

Temporarily satisfied, Enko said: A few days ago a man was killed in front of the President’s palace. We tried to help him, but he was already bloody. The trail of blood went more than a thousand meters. Here’s where she lives.

Who?

Vesna. When you get out you don’t need to run, but I’m telling you, pay attention and move your ass.

All right.

Wait a second. Inbound. Shut up. Shut up. No, we’re fine.

As they trotted away from the car, they heard the shell explode.

In the dark landing between the first two flights of steps, Enko said: How about a cash advance?

Sure, said the journalist. How much?

Give me fifty.

Just a minute. Here it is.

Fine. Now, Vesna, she’s open-minded. She won’t care that I brought you. And there’s chicks galore, hot chicks. Not that they’d be especially interested in a guy like you, but maybe you’ll get lucky.

Okay.

Another thing. Anybody asks what you’re paying me or if you’re paying me, that’s only my business.

I won’t say a word.

I wish you’d have brought those binoculars. I wanted to show them off.

Vesna’s door was open. As they entered the apartment, which was foggy with cigarette smoke, they heard many people, and far away a machine gun fired three bursts. A woman laughed very loudly.

Look! cried Mirjana. I was wondering when you’d get here. Who’s that?

Just some American, said Enko.

And this is from my cousin, for the petrol. You’d better count it.

I don’t need to count it. If he shorted me, that’s his problem.

Thanks for helping him.

Well, he owes me. Who’s that girl over there?

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