A Stranger in This World

BOOK: A Stranger in This World
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Acclaim
for
KEVIN CANTY’s
A STRANGER IN THIS WORLD

“Cool, clean, and devastating all-American realism.”

—Joy Williams

“This striking debut collection maps the territory between disillusionment and salvation.”


Vanity Fair

“Kevin Canty is a storm of talent and this book of stories lingers in the mind as only the best fiction does. His imagination is a dark wood with wildlife in it. I cannot remember when I was so impressed by a first book by an unknown writer.”

—Harry Crews

“The depth of feeling and the tense compression of Canty’s language illuminate this fiction noir like a bolt of lightning in the darkness.”


Elle

“Memorable … beautifully developed. These stories stand out for their range and the surprise Canty manages to evoke with each. Good stuff. [This is] fiction with staying power.”

—Detroit Free Press

“A darkly nuanced, exquisite first collection of stories. Canty navigates the many gulfs and eddies of skewed relationships with unflinching concentration.”


Entertainment Weekly

“Kevin Canty writes with quiet, honest surprise and an unflinchingness that is not proud of itself. In a world where genius is discovered every two and a half weeks, he just might be it.”

—Padgett Powell

“Canty writes wonderfully about the people who live at the edges of our culture, giving them voice and life, but, most importantly, respect.”

—Chris Offutt

KEVIN CANTY
A STRANGER IN THIS WORLD

Kevin Canty’s stories have been published in
Esquire
and in
Story
magazine, among other places. A teacher at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, he divides his time between North Carolina and Montana. He is currently at work on a novel, the opening chapters of which won a
TransAtlantic Review
award from the Henfield Foundation.

Copyright
©
1994 Kevin Canty

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover by Doubleday, New York, in 1994. Published here by arrangement with Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

These stories are works of fiction. Any references to historical events, to real people, living or dead, or to real locales are intended only to give the fiction a setting in historical reality. Other names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and their resemblance, if any, to real-life counterparts is entirely coincidental.

King of the Elephants
was originally published in the
New England Review
’s Summer 1994 issue. © 1994 by Kevin Canty.

The Victim
was originally published in
Esquire
magazine’s July 1992 issue. © 1992 by Kevin Canty.

Moonbeams and Aspirin
was originally published in
Story
magazine’s Winter 1993 issue. © 1993 by Kevin Canty.

Blue Boy
was originally published in the
Missouri Review
’s Winter 1994 issue. © 1994 by Kevin Canty.

Great Falls, 1966
was originally published in
Cut Bank
’s issue #41. © 1994 by Kevin Canty.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Canty, Kevin
.
A stranger in this world/Kevin Canty
,
p. cm
.
eISBN: 978-0-307-82616-9
1. Manners and customs—Fiction. I. Title
.
PS3553.A56S7 1995 95-6780
813’.54-dc20

v3.1

for Lucky, of course

KING OF THE ELEPHANTS

THE THIRD TIME WE PUT MY MOTHER INTO THE HOSPITAL
,
MY
father and I had already moved to Florida, to Jacksonville Beach. A cop called from D.C. at eleven o’clock one Friday night, said they’d found her sleeping on the subway, drunk,
with a broken arm. Broken for at least two days, the cop said; she couldn’t remember where or how. I remember looking at the wallpaper in our kitchen, just staring: gold diamonds with black flowerpots in the middle of them.

“When will we see you?” the cop asked. I heard the accusation in his voice, as always.

“We’ll either be there tomorrow or we won’t,” I told him. “My father isn’t here right now.”

“Look,” he said, losing his patience, but I hung up on him. I didn’t feel like being scolded by a cop. In a minute the phone started to ring again and I let it.

I went out on the patio and sat there, resting, trying to get my energy up for whatever was going to happen next. I was filled with this enormous lethargy, as if my arms and legs all weighed hundreds of pounds. It was like being filled with water. I should have had some big emotion, shame or sorrow or guilt, but I didn’t, maybe because this wasn’t the first time or even the second. In some ways this wasn’t even as bad as the second time, when she’d cut a man, a stranger to her, with the neck of a broken bottle.

For a while I thought of driving down to Anastasia Island—I could smoke some pot with the surfers down there, sleep on the beach. I didn’t need this. I wondered what would happen if I didn’t tell my father at all. There was nothing we could do anyway, nothing that would keep her out of trouble. I thought about what it was going to be like to see her. My mother always cleaned up nicely. A doctor had told me that once, and it stuck with me, because it was true. By the time we saw her the next day she would have paid an attendant to buy her a decent nightgown, and some ordinary clothes to leave the hospital in, blue jeans and a sweatshirt, something like that.
She would have had a shower, would have combed her hair and cut her nails and washed behind her ears. She’d smile at my father when he came in, but especially at me, would hold her arms out and wait for me to fill them, and she would hold me close and she might cry, and my mother would smell of shampoo and water and deodorant soap. If you saw her on the street you would see an ordinary woman, or slightly more interesting than ordinary: one of those well-off, independent women who approach their fifties in sneakers and naturally graying hair. You might suspect her of bird-watching, of having a
VISUALIZE PEACE
bumper sticker on her station wagon. You wouldn’t imagine her naked on the bus, inviting the driver to fuck her. You wouldn’t think she had a knife in her purse, defense against a conspiracy she wouldn’t name, afraid to say the words.

After a little while I’d had enough of thinking. It wasn’t going to make any difference. I threw a few clothes of mine and a few clothes of my father’s into a gym bag, searched out a couple of hundred dollars in twenties from between the pages of my big yellow Babar book, king of the elephants, the only souvenir that I had left from my childhood. I knew he kept his walking-around money there. We were living like soldiers, my father and I, men thrown together without any secrets. I decided to drive over to the Tally-Ho, though it was only five or six blocks; it would save our coming back here, the endless fussing of my father when he was drunk. I knew what he would want to do.

I spotted his suit at the TV end of the bar, watching a ball game with a couple of other men, listening to a story. These suits—he had five or six of them, in green and tan and gray—were his invisible uniform, urban camouflage, and when we
used to live in Washington they worked. He could just disappear into a crowd of suits, bald men with briefcases, but here in Florida he stood out like a pigeon in a crowd of peacocks.

“Dad,” I said, taking the stool at his elbow.

He looked up, tired-looking, and saw my face in the mirror behind the bar. He started to smile but my face must have tipped him off. His smile vanished. He said, “It’s Ellen, right? What is it this time?”

You see how it worked. We passed her around like the black queen in a game of hearts, the cops to the hospital, the hospital to my father, my father to me. I was the one who could not pass her on. I laid out the situation for him, as painlessly as I could, but the hard parts of the story could not be avoided: the subway, the two-days-broken arm. “They’re holding her in St. Elizabeth’s now,” I told him, “but she can leave anytime she wants. There’s nothing they can charge her with.”

“She’ll leave tomorrow,” he said, turning from the mirror to look into my real face. But I kept my eyes on the mirror, watched him turn. “She’ll go, don’t you think?”

“She did before,” I said.

“Then we have to get her,” he said, and in this sentence everything was decided. He brought us to Florida, not so much to start a new life as to get away from the old one, and now the old life had caught up with us again. We both knew it would, I think. Maybe everything had already been decided. My father turned toward the mirror, smiled at my reflection in a resigned way, shrugged his shoulders. But it felt like this was a canned look, something he’d been practicing, I don’t know.

“Let me finish my drink,” he said softly. “We have time, I
think. Do you want anything? A Shirley Temple? I bet Karl would give you a beer.”

“That’s all right. I’ll have a Coke.”

“A Coke!” he said, like it was the greatest idea in the world. “Karl! Bring Raymond here a Coke.” He turned toward me and dropped his voice. “You’ll take the first shift driving, won’t you? I’m a little sleepy. I’ll catch a little shut-eye in the back, be good as new in a couple of hours. There’s a game on—you can listen to the game.”

The bartender set a Coke on the bar in front of me and a fresh gin and tonic in front of my father. I never saw him order it—a tilt of his head, a raised eyebrow, some signal the bartender understood. He drank gin in the summer and Manhattans in the winter. His glass looked clear and inviting, and it seemed to give off a faint phosphorescence, a glow, like a picture of a saint. We turned to the game but I couldn’t hold my interest in it, the Padres and somebody else, one of those late West Coast games that don’t even seem to matter to the players. I looked around the bar, curious. It was the first time I’d ever been in one of my father’s places for any length of time. Everyone seemed friendly enough, and the darkness of the place was pleasant, but I didn’t understand what would bring people out of their houses to come here. It was a comfortable, quiet kind of a bar anyway, with a jar of pickled eggs on the counter, Slim Jim sausages, potato chips and those little foil packs of aspirin. A few couples scattered among the tables, a knot of men at the back drinking beer and laughing, jet-butts from the naval air station most likely. I sat on my barstool, sipping my Coke, wondering why my father chose to spend his life here.

After a minute or two, a surprisingly short time, his glass was empty and we were saying good night. In the air of the parking lot was the damp salt kiss of the Atlantic. This part of town was all asphalt, strip malls and three-story apartment complexes, but you always knew the water wasn’t far.

My father said a strange thing when we got outside. He looked around at the night, at the low, dull clouds in the sky, and said, “I wish I knew who you loved, Raymond.”

BOOK: A Stranger in This World
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