In 2009, we reprinted George Saunders’ FIRST published story. This story originally appeared in 1986, in Volume 24, Number 2 of The Northwest Review. If you’re a George Saunders fan, you’ll love this story. It’s beautiful, raw, funny, and heartbreaking, and it takes place in the George Saunders dreamworld of meta-reality and unconventional kindness. When we first ran this story at Hunger Mountain, we included an introduction by Tobias Wolff, who had been George Saunders’ graduate creative writing professor, about first reading this story as part of George’s application to the Syracuse MFA program. We hope you enjoy the story and Tobias Wolff’s commentary. –the editors
It’s like this, and it is no dream: First off, a plastic palomino and its stiff-armed rider float above a toybox. The rider is a dyed Custer, and everything’s red. I mean boots and kerchief and holster and eyebrows even. He is one ruined and reduced cavalryman, he was poured and solidified with horribly bowed legs, simply because his only reason for existence is to straddle the palomino. Denied Comanches. But the horse and rider float and revolve anyway, on the lookout for marauders. They rotate at about a revolution a minute, as per specs. Also: a velour basketball, half the size of a real basketball, hangs mid-aired over a crib. In the closet, the arms of tiny jackets and sweaters wave and salute wildly. The threads of the carpet flatten out like grass under a helicopter, and then circular waves run outward from the middle of the room. When the waves die down, it’s just a regular carpet again. The whole cycle takes three and a half minutes. An empty rocking chair rocks faster than any mortal granny could.
Out the wide window across the room, it’s a crescent moon in bough-crook kind of thing; caramel lights through sectioned panes in houses of white wood, trees blown and slanting like smoke. Windows and doors of the houses wide open with Trust. Children breathe pillow air. Hills roll away behind the row of houses in a fairly pastoral manner. It is a kind of smooth blue Ireland. And the blue is in the room too. It is the blue of night scenes in animation. The cloak of night and all that. It is very much like the nights when little kids point at the moon and say odd things. There is the smell of very clean carpet. There is no sound of bugs and no sound of rocking chair or wind or of anything scraping the windowpane. But you can hear the air conditioning. I rub my window clean and enjoy a soft drink.
Here’s something, basically the abuse of an elderly couple. Watch: when they first step in, I’m not worried. They stand in the doorway. He pushes back his baseball cap. She goes for the camera and says, “Cry Pete, woudja lookit all this…” All is well. His hands are behind his back and he steps in, to figure out how it all works. She inspects the finish on the dresser. That she can touch. I have no problem with that. He gets closer and closer to the window (and the village of the caramel lights) and, by gar, it still looks real. It even looks real when his toes touch the crib. Which sits protectively in front of the window. But then he puts his dusty boots on the crib, and his hands on the window frame, and pulls himself up, leans in close to the pane. I cannot have that. I key the mike: “Please refrain from interaction with the components, sir!” Is that any way to talk? Still, it’s a living.
He jumps down like he’s been pinched on the inner thigh and chunks his elbow on the crib and loses his hat in the plastic birds of the mobile. He has acquired a hot and red face, with awkward strands of white hair plastered across it. They stand in the doorway for a long time. He breathes hard. They don’t want to look like they’ve cut and run.
I opt for the Juarez at the Hollo-Chick Haus. It’s a South of the Border Taste Riot. A Hollo-Chick is a kind of chicken conglomerate, the size of a football and hollowed out. You can have whatever you want in there, croutons or sweet-and-sour pork or a light salad even. The Juarez is the one filled with sour cream and refried beans and some little sliced black things. I opt for extra sauce packets.
Hollo-Chick Haus is national. Everyone knows Hans the Hollo-Chick. In the TV ads he strolls along an alpine trail, steam pouring from his beak. One enormous and multi-colored wing is draped over some kids. They look pleased. The voiceover says, “The chicken with the inside as big as all outdoors – and better tasting!”
I finish my Juarez and return the extra sauce packets to Annie, my girl. She used to work at the Haus by the storage units. But then she got transferred in. She says the food set-up is the same, but in here, atmosphere is imperative. At the counter she tells me she has to stay late. This is an Employee Objective Assessment Evening. I forgot. I hang my head and thumbprint the stainless steel counter.
Bart the Manager squeezes between Annie and the heat lamps, in the unit’s Hans suit. That really hacks me off, that squeezing. He puts his left wing on her and tells me he’ll get her home, not to worry. At least that’s what I think he says. It’s muffled through the beak. He squeezes back the way he came. I wonder how much he can feel through that suit. Annie sneaks me a free Coke and I drink it in the tunnel, on the way back to the Room. You’re nuts if you think I’m making any of this up.
I shut it all down manually and come out. Everything floats slowly down and the lights come on in the room. It’s bright enough to see the paint strokes on the white furniture. The window has gone blank and looks like a movie screen, set up in someone’s living room and waiting for films of Uncle Pete’s trek across the Mojave. Overall, it feels like morning in the real room of a real kid, though it’s actually just after midnight. I vacuum the carpet and scrub the baseboards. I check the wiring in the Palomino Quadrant. I remake the bed and dust the dresser. When it’s like this, it’s easy to believe that Employee Parking is behind the window. Which it is. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tried to grind against Annie down there, at my car. Even in her brown polyester uniform. And rust vest. And hair net. And lederhosen. I just can’t help it. I’m a man.
On the phone, Annie tells me about last night’s dream: Bart the Manager, in an ill-fitting tuxedo, picks her lock and compels her to don odd lingerie. He looks almost svelte, out of the Hans suit. He kisses her with his overly red mouth and his wispy mustache. Again and again, and with the TV on. They make popcorn, he keeps kissing her. She tastes the butter and salt on him. He tells her a pitiful story from his youth, something about his bathing trunks and a schnauzer, and persists in the kissing. She begins to warm to him. And on and on. It gets mildly kinky; some kind of strange submission scenario where he forces her, at butter-knifepoint, to carry the TV down into the parking garage and back up again. They reach new heights. “I swear, it seemed so real!” she tells me, in a tone of wonder. I tell her it’s interesting.
The couple is young. Their eyes adjust to the dark and she says, “Hot Damn!” He looks around coolly and says, “Shout down Babylon.” She says, “Still, there’s something about it,” and he says, “Ay, ‘tis dreamlike, lass,” and squeezes her breasts from behind. He slinks around in front of her and faces the same way she does and takes her hands, slides them down over him. He pushes her back against the wall, beside the picture of Mother Goose in the sensitive garden. For a while I think it’s going to be okay, but then she actually opens his pants. I have my finger on the mike button but then they move so fast and fine, there is a flurry of clothes and his buns shine globe-like in the light from the caramel village. They really start moving then, together. Above the waist she is dumplings on tramps. I do not key the mike. I do not say anything. And it is not mere voyeurism either. And it is not just the idea they are fucking, standing up, in the Floating Object Room. It is their talking. They have each other kind of by the ears and they’re staring at each other hard and bucking wildly too. And the talking never stops. There is something about a time by some train tracks. Wild geese, seen from a porch. He says he will tomb with her. But first Mexico, and all that implies. God, what are they talking about? It is a foreign tongue. I want it.
I still just stand there, even when, at the end, he reaches out with some kind of broad and calloused hand and whacks the basketball out of the air and across the room. It jangles the metal trash can in the corner, that which has never been jangled before. I let them finish. Boy do I.
He is breathing hard after, with his face down in her hair. He says, “Babylon has been shouted (gasp), in a sense…” and I hit the mike button without thinking and say, “Damn right!” For just a second they’re as stunned as the old couple and it makes my stomach hurt. But then they’re themselves again and he says come out come out wherever you are and I do, grinning like an initiate. He beats my ass from here to Topeka. He wipes my lip-blood with the velour basketball. The room is a mess.
I feel them help me up. I see the tidy, coyote-less hills of the night scene, and the trees still appearing to blow in a fictional wind. I smell her next to me, her sweat and what’s left of her perfume and the smell of them on her. He is saying some things. At first I am just waiting for the words to stop but then I start to hear them. They sound a little like an apology, or at least an explanation. He says I violated something. He says a lot of things. The words sound like instructions and then finally they sound like an invitation.
We drive in a fine and maniacal desert. We drink cheap wine and mine tastes bloody. But I don’t care. We see pink stars over glaring mesas and delicate red and white mini-marts and a hitchhiker dressed like Bing Crosby. The desert is all prophets and loam and rusty gas tanks, if you see what I mean. I’m sitting between the two of them and our knees touch. He keeps calling me bud. We’re singing obscure songs I didn’t know I knew. Dusty folkloric ballads and oddball songs from the sixties, songs about unions I guess, and simple blond girls on next-door porches, freightjumpers, that kind of thing. We’re having a hell of a time. We sing them loud. We rollick.
After a while I ask to be left in the desert and they leave me in the desert. They give me a bottle of wine. I drink it on a big rock. The rock has little pits in it and a smashed Mountain Dew can. My lips hurt a lot but I keep drinking and starting up those songs. I sing them as far as I know them. The foreman said well bless my soul. Everything in the black and hacked desert is twinkling like mad and I throw red rocks like arrowheads into the dark, and sit in that desert and think, think, think.