Paul Lisicky

Four Stories


Whenever he felt dead to his paint­ing, Theodore went shop­ping. Not down the street, but out where the grass strips still bub­bled and oozed. Ten min­utes atop the brown­fields and Theodore would feel alive again, he’d need to rush home. His can­vass­es, once stalled, had nerve, torque, solutions. 

But the solu­tions were slow in com­ing today. The store assis­tant in the aisle ahead of him seemed to take notice of him, but not as much as he took notice of her. The woman had col­ored her hair in three ver­ti­cal waves: marine blue, fawn beige, porce­lain. It seemed to Theodore that if some­one of her dis­tinc­tive­ness could work in a place like this, then we might be okay, all of us okay.

Can I help?” she said.

Oh, I’m just look­ing for some­thing to want.” Theodore’s laugh was that of a per­son who hadn’t had an extend­ed con­ver­sa­tion in days. Sometimes he could make peo­ple laugh with him when he was in this state, and some­times? Well, her face turned against itself and she actu­al­ly drew her head back.

On the shelf beside Theodore sat a tiny cycad, spry and archi­tec­tur­al, green-gray leaves, pinked stem. Rooted in sphag­num moss, twist­ed to the left, a square stone pot. He picked it up.

I’m guess­ing I could find the care instruc­tions online?”

You’re jok­ing.”  She smiled, but it was the dead­est smile, the smile of some­one about to play a trick on him.

No, I’m real­ly quite serious.”

Something was wrong. Theodore pic­tured the plant thrown out the win­dow of a speed­ing car, the ani­mals in the desert gone silent.

Really,” she said, not as a question.

Was it nec­es­sar­i­ly a sign of failed char­ac­ter when one could not detect a fake? She, of course, couldn’t have known that Theodore knew a thing or two about plants, that he was in the busi­ness of paint­ing plants (their leaves, mur­der­ous and mag­is­te­r­i­al), and loved his own plants with such inten­si­ty that he couldn’t entrust their care to any­one else.

If she had known any of this, would that have made her laugh harder?

He kept hold­ing onto the false plant, as if to demon­strate that even a fake wasn’t disposable.

I feel like a fool right now and I think I hate myself.”

There was that dead smile again, just teeth.

Theodore didn’t hate himself—certainly he did not—and she could not tell a joke from a cher­ry turnover in the road. But Theodore felt as if he’d wok­en up at five AM to the roof of his mouth grow­ing fur. To get rid of his feel­ings, his ter­ri­ble feel­ings, he walked. He walked and walked, heart­sick that human cul­ture wouldn’t know a par­ty if it hit it in its teeth. It could have been daz­zling but no one want­ed to go there. Theodore walked past peo­ple try­ing so des­per­ate­ly to have fun that they went about it in all the wrong ways. These were young peo­ple, in shorts, with hard legs, mus­cles for days. They hopped about their dri­ve­ways, blar­ing music they couldn’t have liked, all their props bought cheap from some joy store.

By now Theodore’s feet were sore and hot, so much loose sand toss­ing around inside his shoes.  He looked for the near­est half-wall and sat down, not real­iz­ing he was but two feet from a chip­munk, up on its hind legs, grasp­ing a pine nut between its paws. How long had Theodore been lone­ly? There was such pre­ci­sion to the chipmunk’s nib­bling, such excel­lence and con­tent­ment. He took up as much space as a teacup. If Theodore stopped look­ing at the chip­munk, he’d fall through a hole in the earth, and who knew how deep he’d fall, or what exist­ed at the bot­tom, lime­stone, marl, or warm min­er­al spring. The chip­munk wasn’t look­ing toward Theodore, but toward the brawny man across the street with the uproot­ed shrub in his arms. The chip­munk looked toward the brawny man as if he were not some preda­tor or the chief exec­u­tive of his species, but a fan­tas­tic con­trap­tion that had the capac­i­ty to move his arms and legs and neck and feet. The chip­munk took the pine nut from its mouth and appeared to con­sid­er putting it on the ground. Seconds went by, and the dead flashed through that space.


They all stood near the ocean as if they were now afraid of the ocean, hang­ing back, not look­ing at it direct­ly, hold­ing them­selves in at their waists. I imag­ined they’d dri­ven down from the city for the day, laugh­ter punch­ing the soft air inside the car. I imag­ined them eat­ing on the beach, doz­ing on their tow­els on the beach, maybe slip­ping a few beers from the blue cool­er, and now here they were, mak­ing phone calls in voic­es too qui­et to be heard. Out on the shore­line, the search and res­cue team trudged through cold water. They wore their yel­low uni­forms. Their motions lacked urgency, as if they’d prac­ticed them from a guide­book, which is what you do when too many hours have passed and you know you’re not going to find someone.

How many hours had passed before the town opened the beach back up again? The sun was still up, the tem­per­a­ture still nine­ty-five degrees on our shoul­ders.  I walked across hot sand, burn­ing the soles of my feet and try­ing not to make a show of it. It would have been wrong to make a show of it: every­one was try­ing so hard. A woman stepped into the water in a tiny black cock­tail dress, glam­orous. She pushed the shal­lows about with her foot, turn­ing the wave over her instep and she looked out until a sec­ond woman joined her. They sipped clear drinks. A boat trolled back and forth just beyond the waves. Should I go in too? I looked back at the boy’s friends on the board­walk. They were in a hud­dle now. Their bod­ies fold­ed for­ward, as if their backs were under too much stress to stand up straight.

I pulled out my phone: Do I go in? I wrote you in a text. I filled you in on all the details: the inten­si­ty of the hour, too extreme for noise; the silence of the gulls; the hun­dred eyes still trained to a sin­gle spot.

Baby, stay until they throw you out – sub­merge – how is it dis­re­spect­ful? If some­one dies on the street, u still got­ta walk. Think of it as the Ganges, death, life, laun­dry, sewage, etc. You are one with it.

I’d already been stand­ing in the water, and I would have gone in whether you’d said this beau­ti­ful thing or not. It would be just like me to turn this page into a lament for the end of us, and to assign too much blame to myself. Somehow I don’t think of that as fair to the drowned boy, and it might not be fair to you, who respect­ed truth.  Do you know what I think? I can feel you imper­son­at­ing some­one wis­er than you. You were let­ting me know I’d be all right, when you’d prob­a­bly decid­ed you were already gone, gone to the friends who loved your laugh, your readi­ness to be a goof­ball, a smar­tass, Mister Hollywood.  In my mind I’ve made a lit­tle movie of you stand­ing at the end of the pier one night, a lit­tle woozy on your feet from smok­ing too much weed behind the bro­ken-down hotel. We were hav­ing the best time and you had to break it. Wouldn’t it be great to walk out into that water and just keep going? You turned to me, still laugh­ing, expect­ing me to say yes, and I couldn’t get my face to be any­thing but blank.

What is it like out on the burn­ing sands of Nevada? Is a desert just anoth­er sea with plants in it? Laundry, sewage—have you found them there? Is it okay to watch your own body on the screen so much? Do you still like fuck­ing in hotels? The boy’s friends might be quick to say that they’re okay. I’d like to think that’s most­ly true, but I wouldn’t believe them if they told me they nev­er woke up to see him, every now and then. It’s you, they say, my man, so hap­py he’s come back to see them. And then his face dissolves.


She told her­self it was the restau­rants, board­ed up with ply­wood after the storm surge. Or it was the kind of peo­ple who lived in town, loud, aggres­sive peo­ple, whose music buzzed her fur­ni­ture, which prompt­ed her to coin a word so foul and ugly it made her con­sid­er pun­ish­ing her­self. She said it was the under­lit streets. She said it was the long, long dri­ve to work. She said it was the guys who idled their engines along the curb out­side her house, eyes fixed to the neigh­bors’ sec­ond sto­ry win­dows, as if drugs or breasts were to be found up there. She said it was her bow­el move­ments, which had start­ed to have a leafy scent. Or the veg­etable taste of the water: she thought that too. She said it was because no one ever talked to her, which was the sto­ry of all six towns she’d lived in over these past two years, in the longest two years of her life, in the longest life in the world.

She set the alarm, locked both locks on the front door, walked to the car. Snow coat­ed the ground. The car was a cab­in, a cave. The wind­shield was fogged up from inside.  She steered away from the curb, not even both­er­ing to rub the fog with her fist. She turned on the defroster. Air wheezed from a slot on the dashboard–or was that down by her feet? The car crawled through the slush. She stopped approx­i­mate­ly ten feet from where she thought the stop sign might be.

She still couldn’t see.  She passed the house with the X’s taped over the win­dows, the bowl­ing alley with the sid­ing torn off. The side win­dows were clear but straight ahead? She might have been dri­ving through a tidal wave. Her tires skid­ded. She stopped where she remem­bered cars parked at an angle, where in bet­ter weath­er, kids hung out on the porch­es laugh­ing and smok­ing, hunch­ing into their jackets.

That’s when the police car passed by.  She imag­ined it slow­ing, hang­ing back, the cop inside look­ing to catch some­one. Surely he’d think she was up to no good, parked out­side a room­ing house at four thir­ty on a win­ter after­noon, a half hour before dark. She drove for­ward again. The defroster roared, but the breeze of it did noth­ing for the car.  She cranked the win­dow. The air was so cold. She put more pres­sure into the accel­er­a­tor, pick­ing up speed now, just so the police would­n’t won­der why she was dri­ving so slow.

Somehow she made it to the busi­ness dis­trict.  She wiped her hand over the glass. Again and again she worked the glass while the car crept ahead. She knew there to be park­ing spaces behind the restau­rants. She swerved right, pant­i­ng. She flexed her foot on the brake. She thought she’d stay put for a while until a wail filled the air. A car alarm? A siren? For her? Well, there was no one else in sight. She need­ed aspirin, a stick of gum. She backed up again, dizzy now, spent, not even both­er­ing with the cha­rade of look­ing over her shoulder.

In the side­view, she saw how close she’d been to the line­up of cars. She’d almost torn off six bumpers, or worse, not to men­tion wreck­ing her own car, which wasn’t even hers final­ly, but bor­rowed from a friend. The late sun shone direct­ly in the cen­ter of the street, inside the chan­nel between the stores, glar­ing off the snow piles, blind­ing her. The wind­shield went opaque, gold­en. There was no hope for her. She braked. Then as if watch­ing some­one she wasn’t sure she knew, she threw open the door and start­ed walking.


In Briefest Boyfriend’s place of work, our hug goes on and on. His eyes are so warm.  That smolder—is it as much for his fel­low bar­bers as it is for me? How could it not be: he knows they’re watch­ing as he pass­es the sweater into my hands. Man, how I’ve missed that sweater, the char­coal wool of it, the twelve leather but­tons, left behind on a hook as I left his place in a hur­ry. Two weeks ago, three?  The bar­bers look over their client’s heads. They beam their approval as they lift and snip. No mat­ter that Briefest Boyfriend end­ed us just as we were get­ting close: an awk­ward din­ner, a bed with a space left down the middle—that’s for anoth­er page. For now we’re in the place trans­formed, the the­ater of lust: fea­tures get­ting sharp­er, the weight of past weeks drop­ping to the floor, to be swept up and tossed away. They can see the good sex on us. We are all lov­able, all of us in this house, and that should be enough to lift the day.


Paul Lisicky is the author of Lawnboy, Famous Builder, The Burning House, and Unbuilt Projects. A recip­i­ent of awards from the NEA, Yaddo, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, he teach­es in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden. A mem­oir, The Narrow Door, is forth­com­ing from Graywolf Press in January 2016.