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My novel Flicker in the Porthole Glass was published by MAMMOTH Books in 2002. The Review of Contemporary Fiction observed that, “…the achievement here is Desautels’s prose, an aural event both jagged and elegant, assaultive and inviting, that moves with the clipped, dangerous, urgent kinesis of hard bop jazz.” Seven years down the road, I’m going to publish Flicker here on Maximum Fiction in serial form. Look for a new installment every Friday. Enjoy!


I
A ROOM IN THE HOTEL VENDIG

Hotel Vendig, Philadelphia

Seagull Beach just might squat on the rusted launch pad of my memory, a point from which to blast off, trace a history; but—when I look at this photograph of a boy for whom hope still bristles, there in the goose flesh of a windy lost Cape Cod afternoon—I have to wonder if the eyes with which he mocks the camera have anything to do with my own. So many incarnations lie between mine and the boy’s silent face, stark and ironic in the murky rotogravure of childhood. It could be he’s blond. Flushed cheeks round and smooth with puppy fat, there is, in his eyes, a suggestion of the latent haggard biding his time. Impatient and shivering in the Atlantic wind, towhead ruffled and wet with that brackish gust, he stands arms-folded on a Cape Cod beach the likes of which never bore the confused footprints of Kennedy’s tragic touch football. Even now, so many years away, retired to the Hotel Vendig of my decrepitude, I feel for this boy a chill spreading over those early years, the ones I’m urged to dub “The Cape Cod of My Youth.” The things some people will suggest.

Evidence, I suppose, this faded snapshot fluttering in the shaky pinch of my forefinger and thumb; unsure, forgetful fingers that nowadays even have trouble getting the buttons right on my cardigan. Without trying, I find myself a geriatric frump: misbuttoned, untucked, disheveled. It doesn’t matter. Nobody sees me on nights like this, sitting on the edge of my bed, puzzling out the familiar in a loose collection of old snaps, wondering if this evidence adds up to a me. Memory’s steam shovel is what I wish I had, its relentless spoon scooping out the strata of my life, dumping its contaminated ore onto a conveyer belt of language that might shake loose the dross on its way to my personal machinery of refinement. If only the task of refining history from memory were as simple as bringing a pot of water to boil for my tea, as in the gutted aluminum percolator I use and just now starting to rock on the electric coil of my Pullman stove. The steam wisps not only from its pour spout, but from the hole in its lid meant to receive a long-gone glass knob. More often the task of memory is like my cooking: difficult and sloppy. Sure, I have no problem opening a can of Great Northern beans, dumping them in a pot, heating them up. But I always loose a few beans, or whatever canned goodie, in that transfer from tin to pot. They’ll sit there for days and dry up beneath the electric coil, as will the uneaten contents of the pot. Daunting, for me, is the task of washing the implements of respite. Much better to let them crust over than find myself moved to mystifying tears at the sink, hands limp in soapy water. Funny, what will send you into a tailspin. I don’t even bother to rinse out the mug I use for my tea, so its inside is now a rich comforting brown.

Not unlike the deepest shades dusking the photograph of Seagull Beach. Or the leather sheath of mother’s Brownie camera, the instrument with which this snap most likely was made, its two lenses dead eyes stacked vertical on the hand-held box. One lens was the viewfinder, I suppose, one the arbiter of the image passed back to the wide strip of film. What you saw, with that Brownie, did not exactly match what you got: the two views were impossible to reconcile. So many chopped off heads there were. Or feet. Mother got used to it, I suppose: none of us in the Seagull Beach portrait were victims of a motherly photographic amputation. Claire, the sister, stands to my right; Francis, the brother, to my left, his arm around my shoulder. Big Jack, the father, crouches down in front of us, smiling wearily at the camera. Say “cheese.”

Read all of Part I (PDF).

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