Fractured fairy-tales

By JAMES PARKER  |  January 23, 2008

Spoiler Alert: I’m about to tell you what happens in his masterpiece, the short story “Sea Oak.” I’m going to “give away” the ending. Ready? Here we go.

Zombie libido (unsatisfied)
Troy works at a porno/aviation restaurant called Joysticks, shaking his flight-suited ass for tips, and lives with his two sisters, their babies, and his spinster aunt Bernie in a bleaker-than-bleak housing development called Sea Oak. The sisters squabble over the TV remote, the babies suppurate unattended in the background, stray bullets whang into the couch, everyone’s eating something called Stars-n-Flags out of the microwave, and all is crapola — except for Bernie.

A holdover from a less selfish age, Bernie lives her meager life humbly and without complaint, staggering home from her minimum-wage job at DrugTown with a smile on her face. “You know what I do if something bad happens?”, Bernie says. “I don’t think about it. Don’t take it so serious. It ain’t the end of the world. That’s what I do. That’s what I always done. That’s how I got where I am.” But one day somebody breaks into the apartment and literally scares Bernie to death: she is found sitting stiff and lifeless on the shot-up couch. Surprised by grief, Troy and his sisters — on heavy credit — spring for an Amber Mist funeral, which includes a double-thick balsa box, two coats of lacquer, and a one-hour wake.

Bernie, however, cannot rest. Reanimating herself, the old lady rises stinking from the grave and returns to her family. And this time she’s taking no shit. “Sit the fuck down,” she snarls at the speechless youngsters. Then: “You, mister,” she tells Troy, “are going to start showing your cock. You’ll show it and show it. You go up to a lady, if she wants to see it, if she’ll pay to see it, I’ll put a thumbprint on her forehead. You see the thumbprint, you ask. I’ll try to get you five a day, at 20 bucks a pop.” She additionally commands one sister to get a job and the other to start cooking, with a view to improving the circumstances of their children, and begins — even as her undead ears drop off — to fulminate about her own erotic prospects: “I’m going to get my nipples hard standing in the breeze from the ocean, eating shrimp from a cup, you sons of bitches, while my lover watches me from the veranda, his big shoulders shining, hard for me.”

He’s the greatest dancer
“Sea Oak” is a fairy tale. By the end, Bernie is just teeth and mildew (they scoop her into a Hefty bag), but her work is done, her master plan is in effect: Troy is profitably exposing himself in the back rooms of Joysticks, and has picked out a new place for the family at a slightly less awful housing development called Swan’s Glen. Happy ever after? Not quite. Bernie, in a haze of Lazarus-smell, re-dies with a question on her black lips: “Some people get everything and I got nothing. Why? Why did that happen?”

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