“Biting the Moon” by alum Joan Frank (fiction, ’96) has been released as part of Ploughshares’ digital-first series of individual long stories called Ploughshares Solo. Here’s an excerpt
One afternoon, during our colony time, he told me that he knew when he was going to die.
He’d been drinking, of course. White wine, middle of the day. Sprawled along the couch in his studio toying, on his chest, with a pack of Lucky Strikes. Long corduroyed legs crossed, sunlight a soft dust over everything. In my mind, reviewing these scenes, it’s always autumn: that breathing pocket, warm and soft but excitingly pine-needle-scented, before the big smackdown, the opera of winter. Later, when I walked to my own cabin, the wind was a madwoman in the pines, humming and singing, bending down to stroke my arms, my cheeks.
Felix wore an olive-drab t-shirt, which for once fit him well, his upper arms muscled in the old-fashioned way, not the gym-cultivated way. In the center of the room stood a baby grand piano, its polished top wing open like a space ship ready to lift straight up. This, I could not help thinking, is where he does it. Against the music holder several scores lay open; behind the hand-notated sheets, I glimpsed the instantly recognizable yellow of the Schirmer’s Library sheet-music books beloved from my own childhood lessons: the composers’ names and the composition titles outlined in a frame of intertwined, green laurel leaves. Schubert, Scriabin. Beside the piano, on a wicker chair, lay a fine bouzouki, a large one of polished bark-colored wood, mandolin-like barrel, long neck, face and fretwork inlaid in what looked like mother-of-pearl, with an intricate pattern of twining stems, leaves, flowers. He told me, as I touched its shining curves, that the instrument had been bequeathed him by an uncle he’d never met, his father’s brother Felike, for whom Felix had been named, who died—crushed in a collapsed building in the Athens earthquake of 1999. His widowed aunt brought the bouzouki to New York with her, visiting the also-widowed Sofia. It might have been that same afternoon that, having drunk still more wine, Felix told me, slurring, the thing mos’ people don’t realize is, consciousness is bliss.
At the time, I said nothing. (I can’t drink during the day.) I only stared at him. How could I, or anyone, answer such a claim? But I remember later (and for years afterward) thinking about what I should have said:
If that is really true, then why do you drink till you can’t speak?
It was the momentousness of Felix’s pronouncements, their self-importance, their fluffed-up, now-hear-this auguring, that made me want to burst out laughing, though I was far too unsure of myself then to do that. I’m from the West, where buildings vanish and remanifest like popped toast; where people and businesses and marriages reinvent themselves around the clock (often into bigger fools, but at least different ones). I think, looking back, that it was Felix’s Old World shtick—the immigrant background he resented and boasted about—that I couldn’t yet fathom. (Feckless, polio-inoculated, hamburger-fed American that I was.) But I understood enough. When Felix spoke of knowing when he would die, he was implying it was a knowledge given, like hemophilia, to those destined for greatness. Simple as that. Borges, Rodin, Hadrian—the list is long. His own foreknowledge, by Felix’s reckoning, was a kind of preordained sign, a marking-out of the chosen.
When he intoned what he did about knowing the date of his own death, looking at me with those eyes lit with that woo-woo, entre nous significance, slightly bugged out—I remember thinking oh for fuck’s sake, please say you are kidding me. I changed the subject quickly. It wasn’t the first time he’d given me reason to think that, and it wouldn’t be the last.
He never had an inkling he was being cartoonlike.
And I never had an inkling—may heaven and earth forgive me—that he might actually have had it right.
Here’s a link to Ploughshares, where you can obtain the rest of the story: “Biting the Moon” is available on pshares.org.