NINE STORIES (1953) is a collection of short stories by J.D. Salinger
12/01/09 | Novel

Nine Stories

by a Titular Collaborative

A PERFECT DAY FOR BANANAFISH

The hospital tubes torture his veins. Adjacent to him are machines, one counting his heartbeats, another temperature and blood pressure. Monitor machines that keep track of every small change, every anomaly.

He can hear and feel the thud-thud of his heart through his chest. He thinks about Emily Dickinson and that damn fly buzzing.

They told him, “You’re badly hurt. You’ve been stabbed.”

He said, “A perfect day for bananafish.”

“What’s a bananafish?” they ask.

“A knife.”

A girl sits cross-legged in his peripheral vision.

Who am I? He thinks.

Now I remember…

I was on a train and someone asked me if I was I. Yes I said. Then a metallic shimmer and I was holding my stomach’s blood in my hands.

He was on a train going to visit his sister. He wonders if the girl next to him is her daughter, if his sister sent the girl to take care of him. He’s bad with the grandchildren. Never cared much for kids. Not even his own. “Lousy son” he would say.

“Old man,” the girl next to him says as she stares at his gray hairs combed over his forehead. His chest expands in sycophantic rhythm with the breathing machine. The doctors said, “Comatose.”

Legs crossed she watches the beeping of the monitoring equipment. Plastic buds in her ears lightly pump Bob Dylan. Her shirt is scissored to her belly and her jeans cut to her knees.

“Buddy,” she whispers leaning her maroon-puff lips to the old man’s ear. “Can you hear me?” He doesn’t respond, not so much as a blink. A smirk crosses her tan face.

Her phone beeps; she flips the top up opening to a full keyboard. She received a text that read poetic: Is he yet? She plucks the miniature keys with manicured fingernails, types: Soon.

One of the machines beeps faster. Kissing his wrinkled cheek left the faint oval impression of her lips.

UNCLE WIGGILY IN CONNECTICUT

Arthur Gurgenfeld’s cupboards were empty. He blinked. One eye opened before the other. It was not a conscious decision. The left brow rose. The right remained unaffected and drooped. The wall thought Arthur was blinking at it. It nodded. There was nothing noticeably different about the wall during this act.

Arthur had been walking home once. He passed a friendly woman in sweatpants. She smiled. Arthur thought of his lips. He wasn’t sure if they smiled. He thought it over as he walked home. When he got home there was another letter from Connecticut, but nothing else.

The mailman almost accidentally gave Arthur’s mailbox an issue of Good Housekeeping. Arthur did not know this. It would not have solved any of his problems.

Arthur blinked at the thought in his head that said, “There is nothing in my cupboards.” He blinked at the telephone off the hook in the other room. There were more letters from Connecticut next to the phone stand. He blinked at the thought that he should do something. He blinked at the idea that he’ll probably do nothing to resolve this situation.

There was an ant. He blinked and it died. His index finger created death while his eyes were closed. He looked at the cupboards. Killing the ant did not resolve the situation. His eyelids would not be able to resolve the situation.

One night he walked into the kitchen and flicked the lights. His whole body blinked. The dead ant was still on the empty shelves. He did not unblink his eyes for a very long time. He thought, “When I get out of this I’ll begin reading those letters.”

Instead Arthur went to bed and mumbled things to himself like, “Oh,” and “This isn’t good.” It sounded like, “Mmmemmbeltish…”

In bed he blinked at the thoughts of the empty cupboards. He blinked again. He blinked three times. He paused, thought about when he would blink next, and blinked before his mind was made. He thought, “I will blink again… maybe… ” He fell asleep. “Or maybe not.”

JUST BEFORE THE WAR WITH THE ESKIMOS

I fastened the children’s gasmasks firmly over their faces—Emily first and then her brother—while Third Wife poured the numbing mixture into tumblers. Emily fidgeted, but her brother stood at attention. I took the four plastic tubes, which sprouted from the gasmasks like ladybug antennae, and plunked them into the tumblers. The children snarfed the numbing liquid: Emily easily, but her brother gagged.

First Wife, dusting off twenty-dollar bills, checking serial numbers for matches, noticed the boy. She pointed and screamed, “Are you going to let him get away with that, Henry?” The swollen open sores on her lips, black scabs on her cheeks, and bruises around her eyes made her no longer resemble herself. “If we shoot him now there’ll be more mixture left for us,” she said.

From the corner of the room, where she sat squat like a catcher, Second Wife adjusted her oversized headphones and shouted, “I’ve got it! I’ve got the signal.”

Emily finished her portion of the mixture, but the boy gave up with two gulps left. I touched his shoulder. “Look at me,” I said. “Look me in the eyes.”

And so he did.

“Should I shoot you?” I asked.

Second Wife interrupted, “Listen, listen, I’m getting the signal now.”

The boy whispered, “Yes, please.”

“It says…” She paused. “The outer gates have been compromised. They’ve been secured by the opposition. They have new mukluks and ulu knives. Our military is disappearing.”

I could tell that Emily and her brother wanted to climb back into the cellar and hide, but the numbing mixture was taking effect; their eyes became foggy glass.

I looked at the children and then at First Wife. “Bring me the gun,” I said. First Wife wasted no time, hobbled to the bureau and subtracted the pistol.

I slid the four remaining bullets into the chamber and raised the gun. The boy continued to stand at attention without flinching. Emily closed her eyes.

As I pulled the hammer back, I could hear the enemy approaching.

THE LAUGHING MAN

When Marcel Duchamp began thinking ‘haha’ instead of ‘dada,’ he suspected his art career was over. He held his pawn above f5, itching for the ever dubious Jaenisch Gambit. In chess, as in art, one needs to fuck dat shit up. The opponent takes Marcel’s pawn at F5.

“Haha,” Marcel says.

“Why are you laughing man?” his opponent asks.

“Dada,” he says, then flicks his king over with a bony finger and places a centime in the mitre of his white bishop. “For you, you win.”

The opponent, angered by Marcel’s premature conceptual concession, takes a pitcher of sangria and pours it on the table then abruptly leaves. “Haha,” Marchel says.

Why are you laughing man? I just wanted to slide my rook off the board, off the table, into your shoe. I wanted to see you limp with a rook in your shoe. “There’s a rock in my shoe!” you would scream and you would be wrong! It would be a rook.

Of course, Marcel only imagined his opponent saying this. Meaning itself was something imagined by the Bishop and his crowd. His hat, slanted, aimed towards a blank target with a violent futility that spotted the sky. We were all royalty — the phallus of the king, the crown of the queen — in our heads, but actually pawns in this world, grabbed by the neck over that f5 by a much larger and sarcastic artist.

“Haha,” Marcel says, the tips of his fingers sticky with a shapeless sangria whose contours thinly expanded to meet a shapeless room.

DOWN AT THE DINGHY

It was my job to console Lionel when, a month after Christmas, one of his presents died. The present, a Grow-A-Frog, had arrived in the mail courtesy of our absentee mother. Lionel spent Christmas and the days following captivated by the egg and its aquarium, asking, How long until it hatches? What will it look like? Does it really grow into a frog? How big will it be? What kind of frog is it? When’s Mom coming back? Does she really have to work on Christmas? My father and I exchanged shrugs, not wanting to spoil the holiday with the truth, that it would just be the three of us from then on, so we distracted Lionel with questions of our own: Where should you keep it? In the window or by your bed? Do you think it will be a girl or boy? Don’t you want to try your new bike? What are you going to name your frog? It was this last question that proved worthy enough for serious consideration. Finally, after A Charlie Brown Christmas, Lionel announced, “His name is Tannenbaum.”

“O Tannenbaum,” I cried, standing beside Lionel on the bank of the river. “You were loved.”

“O Tannenbaum,” he repeated. “I’m sorry I failed you.” Although only seven, Lionel was a smart kid, and failure was both a concept and phrase he understood well enough in reference to our mother that it broke my heart to hear him say it again: “If only I hadn’t failed you, Tannenbaum.”

Lionel poured the contents of his aquarium into the river—water first, then Tannenbaum, who had by then hatched and grown hind legs, the left a bit larger than the right, and finally every last multicolored pebble. As they plopped, I couldn’t help but think that it wasn’t Lionel who had failed Tannenbaum but my mother who had failed us all. It was the first of many such realizations to come during those next days, weeks, and months while we adjusted, but as Lionel and I stared together at a dinghy in disuse bobbing in the distance, toes freezing in our rubber boots, offering our prayers to a tadpole named Tannenbaum, I felt also, for the first time, like the woman of the house, and I thought it quite possible we would be better off without her.

FOR ESMÉ — WITH LOVE AND SQUALOR

Princess Diana, made of clay, won’t float. I made her at night. I was ashamed. I put her in my backpack, brought her here and threw her from the bridge.

If I have to go to war then I do. Somehow I’ll write you.

Princess Diana, made of clay, is something to be ashamed of so I have thrown her in the water. If you saw her you wouldn’t love me, still. Princess Diana, made of clay, wears a crown.

You on the corner in flip-flops in the rain, shaking and bending over for cars as I drive past. If you blow a kiss then I don’t know. I remember you there. Maybe that was the only time. If your name is Esmé then I have to go to war.

Princess Diana, made of clay, sinks. If she could speak, she’d say something great and I would feel bad. Her head, left shoulder, left arm, right shoulder, torso, waist, left leg, right leg, left foot sinks until only her right foot remains. Her right foot sinks. The toes on her right foot.

When I go to war I will always remember you on the corner, your knees working in predictable ways in the rain. Your short skirt and a cigarette. If you blew a kiss then I always wish I’d stopped.

I made her for you. If your name is Esmé. I don’t know. I made her.

PRETTY MOUTH AND GREEN MY EYES

I think my feet move slowly on the floor, barely leaving. When there’s carpet somewhere I’m there, perhaps you also, barely leaving. If I’m giving you a bath then you’re naked and a fire’s nearby, a kettle and warm water warming. Too much soap can ruin things like a dead bird down the chimney at Christmas. Or later, hungry, you eat meat like crowds want to gather. Your lips greased now with flecks of lamb when you curl up to nurse a cup of tea. Your eyes, my eyes, like shy wildlife in grass.

From the middle of the earth all of this sounds the same, everything, like an old trunk being dragged.

DE DAUMIER-SMITH’S BLUE PERIOD

With my pencil I scratch and pierce you. Red marks unfurl across your naked flesh. Don’t move, please. I am trying to get the curve of your spine just right.

In the country of other flags mustachioed men live in bunkers carved into sandstone hills. They wear berets and chain smoke. I live in a country with a blue flag. I know this even though I’ve never left this room.

For years I composed letters to you in tones of increasing desperation. Please deliver my letters, I called through the chink as I pushed the envelopes through. Until now, I never realized you received them.

My sketch is looking more and more like you. The red is turning into a dusky grey on the paper. Meanwhile screams echo from distant rooms. I recognize a pattern in their tones, spelling out my name in musical notes. I’ve learned to ignore such things.

Some believe that this place is an illusion and that they need only tear the veil. They smear the walls of the rooms with excrement. Not long ago there were incendiaries in my room trying to incite a rebellion. I dared them to find something more real, more dazzling, than this place. I sketched them as they chased their shadows in infinite bewilderment. If asked what I am doing here, I simply shrug. I know on which side my bread is buttered.

I resist the urge to see your face. I would have to roll you onto your back and warm your face with my breath. The memory would be irrevocable. Now the wind (what wind?) has disturbed the delicate placement of your hair. My sketch flutters to the damp earth, hopelessly smudged. Your skin is cold and plush, swallowing my fingers. You moan without moving your lips. The hand underneath your hip concealed a dozen knives. I never knew you could move so fast. As I fall I tie myself to you with an unbreakable knot. There are many holes to choose from when linking our hearts’ blood. The pencil has rolled out of my reach. It’s your turn now.

TEDDY

All anybody can say about Stuart Studartmoore is that, not only is he a stutterer, he’s dyslexic. His imaginary friend Eddie is—according to our profile—a ‘nice very guy.’

“What’s so nice about a guy who never shows up?” I say.

“T-t-t-t-eddy is my friend,” he says.

“Shouldn’t you be saying E-e-e-e-eddie?”

“T-t-t-eddy is my f-f-friend,” he says. His drool hits my shoe. Who can argue will such a charmer?

I started working at the Society for Mentally Handicapped Children last year as part of the community service requirements of my parole. Why the state would let crooks near retard kids I don’t know, but I kind of grew a soft spot for him.

I take him to the park twice a week after dinner for a game of catch. I pop the balls way up into the air where they usually land deep in left field. Stu hangs out on the benches, clapping wildly.

“T-t-t-t-t-lemme catch ball,” he says.

“They will kill me if your skull gets cracked.”

“T-t-t-t-eddy catch for me.”

It’s not my job to tell him there is no Teddy. “Ok,” I say.

The lies we lend ourselves, the imaginary effigies poking over the horizon as imperative spiritual zits. Let the fanatics argue about belief until eternity, just save the retards from such delusions.

A ball goes deep into the air, punctures the dusk sky.

“T-t-t-t-eddy!!!!” Stu says. “T-t-t-t-eddy!!!!”

It can be embarrassing. “Settle down Stu.”

“T-t-t-t-eddy!!!!”

“Stop it Stu or we’re going home.”

The ball finally lands (it was that high). Stu launches off the bench running towards the ball, but passes it, and keeps running, towards a blur that gets closer and closer. The blur becomes the shape of a man. He’s running to Stu.

It was only a jogger, some stranger irritated that no one was controlling the freak slobbering kid. He looked at Stu, looked at me, and looked away.

Stu comes back happy as ever, unable to assess the disappointment. He runs into my chest and I hug him, running my fingers over the bumps of his small spine. A knife runs through my heart. Teddy, for a jewel second I thought it was you.

A Perfect Day for Bananafish by B. Spivey | Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut by K. Abrahams | Just Before the War with the Eskimos by C. Higgs| The Laughing Man by J. Chen | Down at the Dinghy by M. Gaudry| For Esmé – with Love and Squalor by C. Best | Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes by C. Best | De Daumier – Smith’s Blue Period by L. Norlie | Teddy by J. Chen