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Prose off: Madeline ffitch's story, "The Stump of the World," in The Paris Review v. Fleming story written this morning before the sun came up

Thursday 1/25/24

You know how this works, but we'll mix it up a bit this time. This morning I wrote an entire story. It's not half past six yet. These people don't like that. I'll use this thing I just wrote today, before the sun has come up, with these people still being asleep right now, and we can pit that against a story that is terrible in The Paris Review.

Again, this is supposed to be the best fiction in the world, what you see in The Paris Review. Are you ready for some of the best fiction in the world? Are you excited? Do you think you're about to be thrilled? Much moved? Blown away? Staggered by someone's brilliance? Helped along in your journey as a human by an outstanding work of art? Feel that blood coursing on account of the sheer entertainment quotient? Not bored out of your fucking skull?

Or do you think you're going to be that kind of bored and want nothing to do with what you see here, in this story called "Stump of the World," by Madelin ffitch. And yes, that is how she renders her name. That's not me doing something. Here we go:

At the stop sign before the library, Emma saw Gallo painting his yellow line as he had painted it for thirty years. The line highlighted a ten-foot-long crack in the road, a rogue speed bump that, unpainted, might do some damage to your car or your neck or your teeth or your coffee. The crack had been there as long as Emma could remember. Gallo had too. Emma had watched Gallo from a young man to an old man painting his yellow line. She had watched him reletter his sign when it became tattered: DONATE TO UPKEEP THIS OUR ROAD. Gallo had a son Emma’s age, and Emma had watched Gallo teach him to paint the yellow line, to fly the sign, to approach each car’s window with his cashbox. But Gallo’s son was grown and gone. Emma hadn’t seen him since her own sons were small. Now only Teddy, her youngest, still lived at home. Emma drove him to the library Saturday afternoons because he had been caught skipping high school and shoplifting again. At the library, Teddy helped unwilling children learn to read. If he helped enough of them, he might still be allowed to graduate. 

Emma rolled down her window and handed Gallo her ones. Gallo had a boyish face gone liver spotted. A banana is too green to eat, until one day it’s overripe. Traditionally, Emma and Gallo exchanged grave nods as neighbors watching each other age but this time she said, “Where’s your son these days?” 

Gallo opened the cashbox and slipped Emma’s bills inside. He locked the box with his tiny brass key. He leaned against the car window. “My son,” Gallo said, shaking his head. “Where is anyone’s son? Where is your son?”

“Here,” she said. “Right here. This is Teddy.” Gallo shaded his eyes. Teddy was slumped in the back seat.

“Hello, Teddy,” Gallo said.

“Teddy,” Emma said. “Say hello.” Teddy mumbled something and didn’t sit up.

“Teenagers,” Emma said. Gallo waved and Emma pulled the car forward.

“Pathetic,” Teddy said, a word he used for everything lately, especially himself. “If he actually wanted to fix the crack in the road, he would do it.” 

“He’s not trying to fix the crack in the road,” Emma said. “He’s trying to warn people about the crack in the road.”

“Then why doesn’t he use better paint, and only paint it once? Or once every few years?”

Teddy didn’t ask why Gallo didn’t call the city. There was no city. 

“That’s not his goal,” Emma said. “His goal is to make a living.”

“So it’s a scam,” Teddy said.

“Have you ever considered how you might make a living?” Emma said.

“No one makes a living,” Teddy said. “Uber, envelope stuffing, pyramid scheme.” 

“No one makes a living?” Emma said. “What about me and Grandma?” 

“Grandma can’t even afford to live in her own house,” Teddy said. “That’s why she lives with us.” He pressed his inflamed cheek against the lock button to make it click back and forth.

Teddy had the unreasonable teenage belief that he should not be interpellated, which Emma had to google to learn that he felt he should not be collected into a humanlike image by the rods and cones of others. Emma worked in produce, always had. Teddy’s skin was like the skin of an avocado or a Seville orange. 

Emma’s mother worked part-time at the library. When they arrived, she was distributing reluctant kindergartners to delinquent teens. Candace (fistfights), Bryson (selling cigarettes to middle schoolers), DeAndre (running a plagiarism business in the locker room). Emma watched Teddy turn on his music so he wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. “Teddy.

Headphones. Now,” his grandma said. He took them off. There was no city, but there was just enough of it left to punish people. “Reading is not punishment,” Teddy’s grandma said. The kindergartners and the teens let her say it. 

Well. It's the usual, isn't it? The usual nothingness. Her writing has appeared in--ready for a shock?--Granta! Because of course it has. It sucks. She's connected. She's one of them and bad at writing. That's how this works.

And now we'll do that obliteration thing, which exposes these people for what they are, what they are not, what they're all about, and what they're up to, really as much as anything possibly could. This is from a story of mine called, "Why I Hate My Friends."

If there was a rule that you couldn't hate your friends and still carry on as a person who was able to tell themselves they have friends, I'd have a real problem on my hands in life.

With the hands of life? No, not the hands of life. That sounds like something that reaches out and squeezes breasts as if trying to pop them, then laughs like a snide teenager who hasn't learned yet that he can't get away with it all. That’s not what I’m saying.

But I hate each of my friends. I actually hate them. I don't communicate this information to them or anyone, or try to nudge anyone in a given direction with a friend we have in common. That is, I don’t say to Jeff, “Do you ever, you know, find that maybe you really hate Wilson?”

Nor do I share what one might call a feeling. It's not a feeling, though. I don’t just feel as I do. I've accumulated information and experiences as raw data and vetted all of it. Examinations and evaluations have been conducted. I hate with reason.

What I end up thinking after having sifted through all of the empirical results and processing the evidence is, "He's not a good person," or "That's not how anyone should wish to be," and "Goddamn, this man sucks."


Then I need to think about myself as worse than any of them, because they're my friends and this reflects back on me, hypocrite that I am. I remain their friend. Whatever that means. I don’t denounce. I don’t break off the friendship. Rarely do I raise any objection. I go along.

We would help each other out, me and my friends, in emergencies of life and death, I figure, though this hasn't been tested yet. My friend Rich who screams at his kid at her basketball games did help me when I was out of town and my wife Martha was sick and snowed in. Got a buddy of his to plow our driveway and dropped off some groceries.

Life is the emergency, though. It just fools you because most of the time it looks calm enough. Regular. You go into Tuesday knowing more or less what you're going to get, but that's not necessarily a good thing. You actually need something from people pretty much every day. They need something from you. But when everyone can get away without giving anything, that's what they tend to do. Is that being a friend? Because if true friendship is just about emergencies, then you only need a friend ten times or whatever between the time you meet them and when you kick off.

I think of it that way, too: getting kicked off. Kicked off the earth. People talk about firing the people they hate into the sun. I could see it being like that, especially with people who also hate part of themselves, and there I am, moving through space, helping my own flight along by moving my arms like I'm swimming. I picture the view accompanied by a feeling of overwhelming remorse that I could have seen and known wonder like this back in the life that is now over if only I had lived it better.

I try to hope that peace will descend upon me then, and wash away my guilt. That I won't louse up the moment with fear. Waste it. You only get the one chance to die. Presumably. Or maybe as you're swimming along through space God intervenes if you're freaking out too much and depriving yourself of both the view and peace such that he puts an enormous hand down, stopping you, and says, "You're not getting the most that you can out of this. Let's start over."

And you think, "I'm going to live again, hot dog!" and God, being God, laughs, but not cruelly—it’s that form of gentle, knowing laugh—and says, "No, that's not what I mean. The dying thing is what we're talking. Trust me, you want to make the most of what’s happening. Don’t waste the view."

Then you get put back in the cannon, as it were, that launches you towards the sun and into death. And maybe you do better. Or maybe you don’t, hope the hand comes down again, but it doesn’t, and that’s that.

Oh, yeah. That's close. Nothing a like a prose off, is there?

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