Six Stories

Gangemi is the author of The Volcanoes From Puebla, a criminally underappreciated title that critics like to label “transfiction” when really it’s just a damn good book.

Dec 2 2008, 12:00am
In ’69 Gangemi wrote Olt, a 55-page speedball that you should be fined for not having read. He is also the author of The Volcanoes From Puebla, another criminally underappreciated title that critics like to label “transfiction” when really it’s just a damn good book. He sent Vice an entire unpublished, untitled novel made up of loosely connected short stories that are all amazingly funny and dirty and dark. If life were fair he’d be selling millions of books. As it is, he should be your new favorite author.

High School Girls

Story Read by: Comics artist Victor Cayro after drinking a bottle of Tuaca and two full glasses of gin.
Near Sixth Avenue a teenage boy was sitting on a stoop. He was reading a comic book, How to Eat Pussy. Nick smiled and stopped to write the title in his notebook. He wondered if a similar comic book existed for the boy’s female classmates, How to Give a Blow Job. He saw the boy look up to watch some high school girls walking past in their t-shirts and tank tops. They stopped so that one of them could light a cigarette. She wore a button that said, “I’m not insensitive—I just don’t care.” Nick looked at the girls, then wrote: “Perfect breasts softly bobbing.”

As they resumed walking, he overheard, “Poison ivy is worse than gonorrhea!” One of the girls reminded him of a couple he knew who had hopes and dreams when their daughter was born. But at school she chose the wrong friends, and now at fifteen was doing an outstanding job of destroying herself. For her unfortunate parents, every day was a nightmare. Their daughter was a cheap little slut, an emerging alcoholic, a punk rocker with piercings, and a high school dropout with track marks on her arms.

The girls were close to their peak. But too soon that saucy innocence would fade, metabolisms would slow, perfect breasts would sag and soften. He wondered if they knew how they were manipulated by advertisers and those who marketed to their demographic. The prettiest girl was snacking on a little bag of potato chips. Nick zoomed forty years into the future and observed a hospital scene: An unattractive woman on a gurney, no longer slim, was being wheeled in for a heart-bypass operation.

Nick felt a kinship with the teenage boy reading the comic book. They were both males tracking tits on a hot afternoon. They were both students of bobbing breasts and equally fascinated by the outlines of nipples under cloth. It was one of the reasons he loved the streets of New York City in the summer. When the boy looked up again, Nick asked, “Do you know the difference between parsley and pussy?” The boy shook his head and Nick smiled. “You don’t eat parsley,” he said.


Story Read by: Comics artist Victor Cayro after drinking a bottle of Tuaca and two full glasses of gin.
“What are you doing in midtown?” Nick asked.

“I just had a meeting with my landlord.”

“Have you been crying?”

“No,” she said, wiping her cheek.

Zoë told him that she was having trouble with her landlord and had to find a cheap apartment. She lived in a run-down tenement in the East Village. Nick had spent many nights there and knew it was a bad building. The intercom and the lock on the front door seldom worked. Drug addicts were found in the hallways and the mailboxes were sometimes robbed. Zoë had to worry about fires, burst pipes, falling plaster, blown fuses, inadequate wiring, low water pressure, and rapists or burglars on the fire escape. The boiler should have been replaced twenty years ago. When it broke down, as it frequently did, there was no heat or hot water. On some winter days she had to dress like an Eskimo in her own apartment.

Her landlord was a multimillionaire, but he refused to fix her plumbing or repair the holes in her ceiling. His office was on an upper floor in a luxury building overlooking Central Park. Zoë had described him as a greedy slumlord. “You can see the lying, cheating, and stealing right in his eyes,” she said. He wore shiny suits and a pinky ring. His face had the porcine quality of someone who always traveled first class. She said he was heartless, with the brain and instincts of a reptile. She hated dealing with him because he was so rude and ill mannered.

“I just talked with him,” she said. “He was in a good mood, too, and told me he felt all warm inside. He had just evicted a blind widow with two small children.”

Nick had little sympathy for landlords, although as a boy he had built several birdhouses. He remembered helping Zoë fix up her apartment before she moved in. Mouse droppings were everywhere, along with the faint odor of ammonia. One of the first things he did was to plug up all the holes with steel wool and plaster. Then he bought her a live trap to catch any stragglers. He had a second lock installed on the door and fortified her windows against burglars.

Afterward he designed and helped her build a wall of bookcases from wooden wine boxes. She scrounged a set of cushions from her parents’ basement and he set an old door on some cinder blocks to make her a sofa. A lesbian must have rented the apartment before her. Behind the refrigerator they found the evidence, a dusty dildo.

Zoë certainly had a problem, but at least she could find her landlord. His friend Otto had a landlord, as Winston Churchill once said of something else, who was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Otto wrote checks to the Acme Holding Company, in trust for Jo-Ernie Enterprises, incorporated in the State of Delaware, and mailed them to a post-office box. He had never seen his landlord, nor had the superintendent, rental agent, management corporation, building inspector, or Internal Revenue Service. His landlord had been seen only once, by a Swiss banker.

Story Read By: Comics artist Victor Cayro after drinking a bottle of Tuaca, two glasses of gin, and four beers.
The Pet Store
Nick joined a mixed group of people looking in the window. They were smiling at a litter of dachshund puppies, only eight weeks old, tumbling and playing. He loved looking in the windows of pet stores. All kinds of people, total strangers, became captivated by the puppies or kittens and started talking to one another. He had read that psychologists used the term “primitive comradeship” to describe the phenomenon. It could happen after a movie, during the intermission of a play, in a stalled elevator or subway car, at the scene of a fire or traffic accident, when people found shelter from a thundershower, or in front of a pet-store window.

A young woman was standing next to him. She was enchanted with the cute puppies as they played and tumbled. Most of them were males. “Oh, I’ve just got to have one,” she said. “But what color? A black dachshund with red balls? Or a red dachshund with black balls?”

Nick looked her over. She was slender, wore no ring, had blonde hair and blue eyes, was somewhere in her twenties. She had a tanned, exercised figure, perhaps from tennis, and was dressed simply but in good taste. She wore a strand of pearls. Her understated appearance was just about perfect: hair, shoes, makeup, clothing, handbag, everything. Nick was impressed with her patrician good looks. He figured horses, country clubs, junior year in Paris, weekends in Newport, Palm Beach, and Southampton. A New York aristocrat, perhaps a socialite, from a wealthy family and exclusive schools, on her way to a lunch date.

“Do you know how to punish a bad parakeet?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

“You beat him with a wet noodle,” Nick said.

She smiled politely. He would have to do better. They talked about the dachshund puppies, the origin of the breed, their curiosity and intelligence, and what good pets they made. Then he accompanied her when she walked inside to inquire about buying a puppy. The pet-store clerk was a middle-aged man with thinning hair. He wore a short-sleeved shirt with a pocket protector and five or six types of pens.

The clerk was eager to make a sale. “We’ll give you a generous trade-in on your old dog,” he said. She had a boxer. Nick wondered if there was a breed of dog called a wrestler.

The young woman smiled and looked warmly at the clerk. She began to barter with him. When the clerk looked away for a few seconds, Nick saw her quickly open the top button of her blouse.

“Would you trade a dachshund puppy for a pair of mated horned toads?” she asked.

The clerk was resistant. “I’d have to see the toads.”

She parted her lips. “I’ll throw in a Gucci lizard carrier,” she said, “with his-and-her compartments.”

“Those puppies are purebred,” said the clerk.

“So are my horned toads,” she said. “They’re both registered with the American Lizard Association.”

Nick listened while the young woman bargained with the clerk. She was poised, graceful, spoke well, and had lovely manners. It figured that she would have blue-blooded lizards. When the clerk began to give in, Nick left them to browse the store.

He saw a cat owner looking at Klaw Kontrol in the catalog. Then he watched a dog owner reading about dog health plans in the dogalog. The rear of the store, filled with aquariums, was called “Planet of the Fish.” A customer who had a problem with low voltage brought in his electric eel. Nick saw a pair of black-and-white Scotties, the male named Midnight, the female Snowflake. He looked at the gourmet birdseed, a pen of dwarf rabbits, jars of ointment for wombat mange, electric “heat rocks” for lizards, dried pigs’ ears and lambs’ lungs, and a cage of piranha parakeets—a flock could reduce a man to a skeleton in minutes.

He looked at a cage of white rats, one of them running in an exercise wheel. Clean, friendly, and curious, they made good pets. Above the cage of a tabby with kittens was a tabloid headline, “Swimming Cat Saves Drowning Child.” A Samoyed puppy had just been bathed. White and fluffy, he resembled a polar-bear cub. Nick stood beside a sad-eyed woman looking at a cage of capuchin monkeys. “I wanted to buy one,” she told him, “but I heard they jerk off all the time. So instead I got myself a boyfriend. What a mistake!”

He moved on, admired the plumage of a blue-and-gold macaw, then gazed deeply into the eyes of a sulfur-crested cockatoo. A litter of cocker-spaniel puppies looked at him with worried eyes. In the next cage were two English bull terriers, a breed called “the clowns of the canine world.” Nick smiled just looking at them. Then he saw a chocolate-point Siamese kitten with a note on its cage: “Desirable young female into petting seeks companion into same.” He respected the independence of cats. Once he read, “A dog comes when it’s called. A cat takes a message and gets back to you.”

Nick looked for the owner of the pet store. He found him leaning in the doorway, watching the people on Eighth Avenue, dreaming of a parrot on each shoulder.

A customer interrupted him with a question.

“Don’t feed your canary too often,” advised the owner. “You don’t want him to become fat.”

Another customer asked, “What should I do when a parrot bites me?”

“Let out a squawk,” the owner said.

Nick remembered the joke about the Frenchman who walks into a bar with a parrot on his shoulder. The parrot is wearing a baseball cap.

“Hey, that’s neat,” says the bartender. “Where did you get that?”

“France,” says the parrot. “They’ve got millions of them there.”

Nick went back into the store. He saw that the clerk and the young woman were finishing the deal, so he continued browsing. A man picked up an application for a rabbit permit. A woman leaving for Europe brought in her cat: She wanted an ID card, paw prints, and passport photos. Nick saw that it was a rare Norsk Skogkatt, or Norwegian forest cat. He took out his notebook and wrote: “Why so quiet, Kitty? Cat got your tongue?”

He moved on, looking at a twenty-pound Maine coon cat with kittens. Then he saw a pen of Arctic cats, as white as snowy owls and polar bears. He had always wanted a Cheshire cat, the kind that Lewis Carroll wrote about. It would be so nice to look up to the top of his bookcase and see that big smile.

A few minutes later Nick and the young woman left the pet store. She was smiling and talking to the dachshund puppy that she carried in her arms. Nick looked back. Through the window of the store he could see the clerk looking at a slip of paper. It was an IOU for a Gucci lizard carrier and two mated horned toads. They headed east on 57th Street. After they crossed Broadway she let him carry the happy, affectionate puppy.

Nick walked with the young woman to an expensive restaurant near the end of the block. It was known as a hangout for agents, editors, and publishers. She took the puppy and gave Nick a warm smile. “If he ever stops breathing,” he said, “give him mouth-to-snout resuscitation.” She laughed, said goodbye, kissed him on the cheek, and went inside. Nick could see the interior of the restaurant with its mirrored walls and white tablecloths. He watched her walk over to join a tall man in a dark gray suit. On her way she spoke to the maître d’ and handed him the puppy.

The Seafood Waitress

Story Read By: Comics artist Victor Cayro after drinking a bottle of Tuaca, two glasses of gin, and four beers.
Nick saw her at a nearby table. She had a slim waist and attractive hips. He remembered how witty and personable she had been while he was waiting for a table at the bar. He had to talk with her and get her phone number. But how? What would Harry do? Nick racked his brains for a plan, for some kind of opener. Order seafood! That was it! If he ordered seafood, then he would be able to talk with the Seafood Waitress.

He looked at the menu. First he considered the steamed flounder with ginger sauce, one of Allen Ginsberg’s favorite dishes. His birthday had been a couple of weeks ago, and flounder was in season. Nick then read about the shrimp Cartesian, which was served on graph paper. Finally he decided on squid. But which one? The Firestone squid or the BFGoodrich squid?

When the maître d’ heard his question, he immediately sent for the Seafood Waitress. She smiled at Nick, recognizing him from the bar.

“Forget the domestic squid,” she said. “Go for the imported, either the Pirelli or the Michelin.”

Nick would not order the imported squid. He was too patriotic to do anything to help foreign competition and contribute to the trade deficit.

“What are the fish specials?” he asked.

“We have porgy and bass.”

Nick looked at the other seafood dishes on the menu.

“Why are they called shrimp scampi?”

“Because the shrimp are still alive,” the Seafood Waitress said, glaring at him. “And they scamper all over the plate.”

Nick winced. Maybe she had caught him looking at her Neptune t-shirt. He asked about the blackfish and this time she gave him a straight answer. She told him it was also called tautog and was related to the wrasses. He asked about the word scungilli on the menu. She said it was a dialect corruption of the Italian word conchiglia, which means “shell.” It was the interior meat of the whelk, a large gastropod.

Nick swallowed and took a deep breath. It was now or never. “Seafood,” he said, “the bartender told me you’re completing your doctorate in marine biology.” She nodded. “Would you like to play with a walrus?”

“What do you mean?”

“My friend Pete is a marine biologist at the New York Aquarium. Last month he gave me a tour behind the tanks, the areas that visitors never see. The best part was the walrus, a 1,200-pound female with the personality of a puppy. She came splashing over, happy to see him, blowing water through her whiskers. She loves Pete because he raised her since she was a pup. Every day he fed her minced clams and heavy cream.”

“Is it a Pacific walrus?”

Nick hesitated. He did not expect that question. “I don’t know,” he said. “It was rescued by a fishing boat, an orphan they found on an ice floe. It was just a walrus. It was peaceful, if that’s what you mean.”

“You probably saw Odobenus rosmarus divergens,” she said, “which is native to the North Pacific. It is also more numerous. Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus is found in the North Atlantic.”

“They’re different?”

“Yes,” she said. “The tusks measure about 17 percent of the body length, as opposed to 12 percent for the Atlantic walrus. Odobenus rosmarus divergens also has a jutting chin, a deeper muzzle, and a squarer snout. Its nostrils are higher on the head, and it is much larger. The bulls can weigh up to 3,700 pounds when carrying maximum blubber.”

“The scientific name is Odobenus?”

“Right,” she said. “The plural means ‘those that walk with their teeth.’ It’s a contraction of the Greek words odontos and baenos, meaning literally ‘tooth-walk.’ The walruses use their tusks to jab into the ice and haul their bodies out of the water.”

Nick saw that Seafood was very interested. “Would you like to go to the aquarium next week?”

“Will I meet your friend?”

“Yes, of course,” Nick said. “Pete will take us behind the tanks and give us a tour of the entire aquarium, including the seals, penguins, sea otters, and Beluga whales. You’ll see a baby manatee, held carefully in the curve of a flipper. And an octopus with only seven arms. Pete says it either lost one to a predator or has an undescended tentacle.”

She asked if he was also a marine biologist.

“No,” said Nick, and told her what he did.

“You don’t look like a poet.”

“I express myself in my writing,” he said. “I have no need for wild hair, bizarre clothing, or outrageous behavior.”

She seemed to be satisfied with his answer.

“We can also visit the trained dolphins.”

“The ones that jump out of the water and pass through hoops?”

“Yes,” he said. “Because they perform daily before an audience, Pete says they have a sense of porpoise.”

She smiled, wrote her phone number on a slip of paper, and gave it to him. “Don’t call when I’m taking a bath.”

“I won’t,” Nick said. He put the slip of paper into his pocket. “Thanks, Seafood.” The bartender had told him that nobody knew her name, and that everyone called her Seafood.

She looked at him warmly. “My name is Alicia,” she said.

Nick decided on the grilled king salmon with Pinot noir sauce. Alicia recommended it, saying that it was flown in from Alaska that morning. “Oncorhynchus nerka,” she said, “is one of the best of the six species of Pacific salmon.” Dessert came in a chilled metal dish: French vanilla ice cream topped with coffee liqueur and shaved chocolate. Everything was delicious! “Would you like anything else?” she asked. Nick shook his head. What he wanted to eat next wasn’t on the menu.

When he had finished he left a generous tip for Alicia, then took his check and the Free Lunch voucher to the cashier. She accepted it with a big smile and asked for his autograph. Nick paid the tax on the check. He turned around for a last look at Alicia, but his view was blocked by a fat woman in slacks talking on a cell phone.

The Two Feminists

Story Read By: Comics artist Victor Cayro after drinking a bottle of Tuaca, two glasses of gin, four beers, two shots of whisky, and another couple of beers.
As Nick was crossing 37th Street he heard a woman cursing. He turned west to see what was happening. Near the middle of the block he came upon two women struggling to change a flat tire on an old car. They were sweating, had dirty hands, and one had skinned her knuckles.

Nick stood behind them and watched for a minute. Because they had hairy legs, sloppy clothing, and grim-faced expressions, he figured they were radical feminists. One of them looked up and glared at him. Her blouse was beginning to stick to her back, and she was about to pop her bra strap. She probably attended a women’s support group. Nick thought it odd that she needed support to be a woman.

He wanted to help, but was faced with a dilemma. If he offered his assistance, the implication would be that the women needed help because they were weaker than men, and not as good with tools. He might provoke their feminismo. Maybe they would yell at him, accuse him of sexism, call him a male chauvinist pig. He looked closer and saw that the problem was the lug nuts were rusted, and one of them was stuck. They needed either more muscle or a short length of pipe to increase the leverage of the wrench. But they wouldn’t do anything with their weak, skinny arms. They had arms like Olive Oyl’s.

Nick regretted that he could not be their Popeye. If they were lucky, they would be aided by a passing bulldyke. Although no beauty, she would provide the needed muscle. So far they were unsuccessful in changing the flat tire. But he observed how they worked as a team and tried to rally their spirits. “Sisterhood is powerful,” he said, and walked away.

Nick headed back to Fifth Avenue. He turned south, thinking of the two weak feminists. They had barely enough strength to be pallbearers at a cat’s funeral. He wondered what they did for a living. They could not be editorial cartoonists: It was not a gender-specific occupation, but for some reason editorial cartoonists were all male. They could not be inventors, for a convention of female inventors could be held in a telephone booth. If human beings had to depend on women for inventions, we would still be in the Stone Age.

He was relieved that he had no trouble with them, for some feminists were violent. His friend Otto had told him what happened to Andy Warhol. A crazed feminist once entered his studio, waited until he got off the telephone, then shot him four times in the chest. At the hospital he was declared dead, but managed to survive. Otto could not understand why the woman who shot him served only two years in prison.

The tune “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man” ran through his head. At home he ate lots of spinach, for Popeye was one of his heroes. Nick noticed that he was walking strongly. The encounter with the two radical feminists had somehow energized him. Did they go to meetings that used Roberta’s Rules of Order? Nick was a feminist, too. He strongly believed in equal rights for women.

But he had wondered about the correlation between lesbianism and radical feminism. What were the statistics? It sounded like a worthy article for a men’s magazine, if the editor had the balls. But unfortunately they had balls the size of sesame seeds.

Why not a feminist neighborhood, with names like Carrie Catt Road and Susan B. Anthony Drive? Carrie Catt: what a name! Why not Debbie Dogg? He imagined a province in Canada for women only. It would be named Womanitoba, and the motto on the license plates would be “The Pussy Power Province.”

Nick thought again of Otto, whose sister Ursula was a German feminist. Otto said that she was writing her femoirs. The consciousness-raising meetings that she went to opened with “The Ride of the Valkyries.” Otto had told him they wore uniforms to their meetings, and also about a Hairy Woman Olympics that Urusla attended. Gorillas were ineligible. The gold medal was won by a radical feminist from Armenia. Her legs were so hairy they cast fuzzy shadows, and her underarms looked like she had two men in headlocks.

The Young Actress

Story Read By: Comics artist Victor Cayro after drinking a bottle of Tuaca, two glasses of gin, four beers, two shots of whisky, and another couple of beers.
At a mailbox Nick saw a beautiful woman with a copy of Back Stage visible in her shoulder bag. She dropped a 9x12 envelope into the mailbox. He figured she was an actress sending a résumé and a headshot to a producer. She had a perfect ass, so perhaps she also enclosed a tailshot. He imagined all the men who had wanted a piece of her. What a life! If she took off her clothes, she might go to summer stock. Directors and casting agents were notorious for trading sex for jobs. In the play Kennedy’s Children an actress traded sex for free hairdressing. And it was not uncommon for struggling actresses in Los Angeles to trade sex for dental work and auto repairs—perhaps a blow job for a valve job.

Nick wondered if she was already working under a big producer. He thought of all the showers she had taken. The young actress was dressed for a hot day, wearing a designer t-shirt and a skirt that barely reached the middle of her thighs. She had the lovely tanned skin of a summer blonde. But what was her real hair color? Only her boyfriend knew for sure. He thought of Raymond Chandler, “A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” The Nathanael West character in The Day of the Locust would say, “What a quiff! What a quiff!”

His friend Harry would pick her up easily. He would ask, “Who handles you?” Then he would mention a couple of big-time agents he knew in show business. Nick was intimidated by women of such beauty. But Harry was not intimidated at all. He knew that beautiful women were often lonely and unsatisfied with their lives. If they did have men, they were frequently bored with them. He had once quoted Alphonse Karr: “If men knew all that women think, they would be twenty times more audacious.” Harry would hit a home run with the young actress, but Nick wouldn’t get to first base. He thought of the Mexican poet José Juan Tablada: “You women who walk on Fifth Avenue, so close to my eyes, so far from my life.”

Did she keep in shape by running or by exercising at a health club? The young beauty had firm arms, a flat stomach, and a complexion that money could not buy. Nick wondered if her acting was any good. Perhaps Dorothy Parker would say of her performance, “She ran the whole gamut of emotions, from A to B.” He remembered a scene from an old movie. A Broadway producer says to a beautiful young actress from Indiana, “You stick with me, kid, and I’ll make you a star.” Later in the movie he takes her to the window of his penthouse and together they look down at the sparkling lights of the city. He puts his arm around her waist and says, “This is my town, baby, and if you play your cards right, it can be your town, too.”

An hour later Nick was in a restaurant a few blocks away, sitting at the bar and waiting to be called for a table. He saw a number of men staring at someone who had just walked in. It was the beautiful young actress who had been at the mailbox! Was she unemployed and looking for a job? The young woman spoke briefly with the maître d’ and then walked directly to the manager. The heads of the men all turned as they tracked her. Gratified by the attention, she was reminded of her days as the leading actress at Cuyahoga Community College. Nick was unable to see her. His view was blocked by a fat slob talking on a cell phone. But he heard the actress ask the manager if he needed any waitresses.

He looked her over, then gave her a special Manager’s Application. She went to the bar to fill it out. Nick saw that the application had two questions: 1) What is your marital status? 2) How do you feel about the ozone layer and the environment? As the young beauty filled out the application, Nick looked at her and thought of Shakespeare: “Ripeness is all.”

He knew that she had only a few precious years to make it as an actress. Meanwhile the clock was ticking and she was getting older. Every week her breasts sagged by another thousandth of an inch. Unless she worked out like a demon and restricted her caloric intake with iron discipline, her ass, hips, and thighs would slowly and inexorably become more ponderous. Eventually she would be too old, her freshness gone, with facial lines showing in close-ups. A new crop of young beauties from Chicago and Kansas City and Minneapolis would catch the eyes of the directors and casting agents.

When she returned the completed application, the manager saw that she was married. About the only principle he had was not hitting on married women. “We have no openings,” he said, lying as usual. “Besides, your feelings about the ozone layer and the environment are unacceptable. They run contrary to our corporate philosophy. We believe in a dirty planet because a dirty planet is a profitable planet.” He turned her away. “We cannot hire a radical environmentalist. You may even be a Communist!”

© Kenneth Gangemi, 2008