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In these gripping and intense stories, Richard Lange returns to the form that first landed him on the literary map. These are edge-of-your-seat tales: A prison guard must protect an inmate being tried for heinous crimes. A father and son set out to rescue a young couple trapped during a wildfire. An ex-con trying to make good as a security guard stumbles onto a burglary plot. A young father must submit to blackmail to protect the fragile life he’s built.
Sweet Nothing is an unforgettable collection that shows once again why T.C. Boyle wrote, “Lange’s stories combine the truth-telling and immediacy of Raymond Carver with the casual hip of Denis Johnson. There is a potent artistic sensibility at work here” (on Dead Boys).
“Now, gods, stand up for bastards.”
William Shakespeare, King Lear
Must Come Down
I’M PUSHING THE CART out of the supermarket, rolling through the automatic doors, when I decide I want a cigarette. Need a cigarette. I’ve been a good boy for six months, ever since Claire’s EPT came up positive. If she couldn’t drink or smoke, I wouldn’t either. The deal seemed like one a husband should make when his wife is carrying their baby, but suddenly, here in the Vons parking lot, I’m all, Forget that, got to get me one of those coffin nails.
The problem is, no one smokes in L.A. I’m there five minutes waiting for somebody to come out of the store and light up so I can bum one, and I finally end up paying a homeless guy fifty cents for a generic. He strikes a match with his filthy hands, and we talk about spy satellites as I lean on my cart, puffing away. He tells me they have this technology now that allows them to look inside your mailbox and peek into your windows from way out in space, and I’m wondering, Should I care about this? Because I don’t.
The cigarette gives me a headache, and the weather makes it worse. The kind of hot we’re having sucks the sweat out of you even if you’re only going to the mailbox. Walk down the hill to 7-Eleven, and you’re risking dehydration and death.
Also, Claire’s parents are coming. David and Marjorie. For the weekend. That’s why Claire sent me here in the first place, to buy all sorts of expensive stuff that we never spring for when it’s just us. Lox, shrimp, organic blueberries, fancy coffee. I didn’t put up a fight. I could see how nervous she was when I helped her spread clean sheets on the foldout couch this morning. And she’s so big these days, so unsteady on her feet with all that added girth. She always looks like she’s about to cry, like she’s shocked at how gravity has turned against her.
Because of this I find myself agreeing to things we’d definitely have gone toe to toe over before she got pregnant, even though a buddy of mine warned me against such retrenchments. He said that once you give up ground, getting it back is a bitch. But I’m not sure I trust his advice. He and his wife divorced three months after their baby was born, and everything is war to him now.
I smoke the cigarette to the filter, drop it to the pavement, and twist it out. Then, reaching into one of the grocery bags, I grab whatever comes to hand first.
“You like pâté?” I ask the homeless guy.
He grimaces. “Pâté?”
“It’s good,” I say, “here,” and give him the can.
“Don’t you have any beer?” he says.
“DON’T YOU HAVE any beer?”
This is from David, Claire’s dad, a couple of hours later. He and Marjorie have just arrived, and I’ve walked them out of the sweltering apartment and onto our little deck overlooking Echo Park. Claire has brought champagne for the two of them and sparkling cider for us. Truthfully, I’m with Dad. I’d kill for a beer right now, and another cigarette, but I laugh with Claire when Marjorie whispers, “David!” and I lift my glass of cider and smile when David makes a toast to family.
We sit at the table on the deck and dig into the imported crackers and twenty-dollar cheese that Claire has arranged ever so carefully on a silver serving platter that we argued about for three days when I happened upon the receipt. The conversation goes pretty smoothly, considering that this is only the second time I’ve met David and Marjorie, the first being at our wedding, a year ago. I don’t know much about them except that they’re rich and constantly on the move. Paris, New York, Singapore. Right now they’re en route to Hong Kong.
“So how are you feeling?” Marjorie asks Claire, reaching over to brush aside a lock of hair that has fallen across her daughter’s forehead.
“Fat. Ugly. Stupid,” Claire replies.
“What a thing to say,” David snaps. “Don’t you know how blessed you are?” He turns to me. “What a thing for her to say.”
I shrug and try to make a joke. “Well, she sure is hungry. A whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s in one sitting. This kid’s going to come out looking like a sumo wrestler.”
David ignores me, turns back to Claire.
“You’re not fat, and you’re not ugly,” he says. “You’re blessed.”
Back when Claire and I were first going out, I asked her what her dad did, and she said, “Something with diamonds, some kind of broker.” How he put it at the rehearsal dinner was “I’m a middleman, a person who knows lots of people. If you have a gem you want to sell, you come to me. If you want to buy a gem, I can also help you there. Nothing too exciting.”
This seemed sketchy to me, but then so do half the jobs our friends have: consultant, aggregator, brander. Not that I have any room to talk. I still tell people I work in production when all I ever did was PA on a couple of commercials right after I got out of film school. What I really am is a part-time substitute teacher. And Claire, for the record, is not in wardrobe; she owns a little thrift store on Sunset that would have gone out of business ages ago if David didn’t send a check every month.
“What are you going to do when the baby comes?” David says.
“What do you mean?” Claire replies.
He gestures toward the apartment. “There’s only one bedroom. You need a nursery.”
“The baby will sleep in our room. It’ll be fine.”
David turns to me and raises a wise finger. “Buy yourself some earplugs,” he says. “You don’t even know.”
My dad cut out before I was walking, moved to Dallas, halfway across the country. I saw him maybe five or six times growing up—a day here, a weekend there—and not at all in the past ten years. And my stepfather, he was the quiet type, let my mom do the raising. What I’m saying is, if this is an example of fatherly wisdom—buy earplugs—I guess I didn’t miss out on much. I don’t even like his tone. How does he know what I know? And talking about the size of a person’s home right in front of him—there must be a rule against that somewhere.
LUCIFER, CLAIRE’S CAT, won’t leave me alone. I’m on my iPad in the living room, playing this game I’m hooked on, where you maneuver a soap bubble through a narrow cavern studded with stalactites and stalagmites, and the goddamned kitty keeps butting me with his big black head and purring so loudly that he seems to be doing it just to be annoying.
The bubble pops again, and I give up and lie down on the couch. Lucifer sits on my chest and does that strange kneading thing with his paws. Claire and her mom are at Ikea, and David is napping in the bedroom. I can hear his snores over the noise of the fan I’ve got trained on me.
Okay, so this place is kind of a dump. The plaster walls are cracked, the floor feels spongy beneath your feet, and when the guy in the next unit takes a leak, he sounds like he’s using our toilet. But we’ve got the hills. We’ve got the trees and the lake and the park. I tried to explain this to David earlier, and he laughed and said, “And the gangs and the graffiti and the midnight gunshots.” That made me wonder what Claire had been telling him behind my back. I mean, having a baby was her idea, and so was the idea to have it here.
But I don’t want to be that kind of person anymore—blamers, Claire calls them—so I push the cat off and go into the kitchen. Maybe some dishes need washing. Sometimes giving myself over to ritual is helpful.
I’m up to my elbows in soapy water when David strolls in wearing boxers and a wife-beater and carrying a joint.
“Do you get stoned?” he says.
I back away from the sink, confused. I could answer his question in a couple of ways, and I want to choose the right one.
“Not in a while,” I say as I grope for a towel to dry my hands.
“I’ve got a prescription. Migraines,” he says. “But I hate to smoke alone. Come have a puff.”
“I don’t know about that,” I say, but at the same time I’m excited, like I’m in high school again, cutting shop with the cool kids to weed up under the bleachers.
“Who are you worried about?” David says. “Claire? Marjorie? Get with it, guy.”
You didn’t convince me. That’s what I want to tell David as I follow him out onto the deck. I decided on my own. That’s what I want him to understand, but no nice way to say it comes to mind.
He lights the joint with a green plastic disposable and takes a long drag. He’s about sixty, a little taller than me, a lot heavier. Not fat. Beefy. He still has muscle. He passes me the joint, then reaches up to smooth his fringe of white hair, lips pursed as he holds in the smoke. His already ruddy face flushes even redder.
I go easy, take in a lot of air, but still double over coughing.
David exhales with a loud whoosh and shakes his head. “You’re kidding, right?” he says.
My wife’s father egging me on. And just the other day I told myself that everything strange that was ever going to happen to me probably already had. David makes me hit the joint again before he’ll take it back. I feel the high in my feet first, then it begins to move up my legs.
“The Respighi tonight should be something,” David says.
We’re going to the Hollywood Bowl, a box down in front courtesy of one of Marjorie’s old sorority sisters from UCLA. I’ve only been once before, with a group of friends from a bar I used to haunt. We sat in the cheap seats and drank too much wine. The ushers kept shushing us, and Mikey B puked in the bushes on our way down the hill. I woke up embarrassed the next morning and swore again that I was going to change my life.
Respighi. Pines of Rome. With fireworks. “I’m looking forward to it,” I say to David, as if I know something about classical music.
Without consulting each other, we sit at the same time at the little table on the deck. The heat isn’t bad here, tucked away in the shade as we are, but my body is running slightly behind my brain. I know this because I think about taking my pulse for a good five seconds before my right hand actually moves over to discreetly grasp my left wrist.
I needn’t be so stealthy. David has forgotten all about me. He’s staring down at the park, at the paddleboats on the lake, humming a four-note tune over and over. My fingers locate a throb, but I have no idea how many beats per minute are normal.
“This is good stuff,” David says.
I nod, then wonder if he saw me. “Great,” I say, to make sure.
A noisy black bug flies in out of nowhere and circles us twice. David pops up out of his chair to swat at it.
“What’s that?” he says, his voice rising toward panic. “A bumblebee? A cockroach?”
The bug veers off into the bushes. David smooths his hair again and says, “Let’s go for a walk. I’m claustrophobic.”
I glance at my watch. Two p.m. I last checked at 1:55, what seems like an hour ago. A walk. Sure. We need to get things moving again.
THE LAKE IN Echo Park isn’t a real lake, but on the right days it’s as pretty as one. Today isn’t one of those days, however. Today the water lies there, black and viscous, not a sparkle, not a ripple, and McDonald’s cups and Doritos bags founder in the shallows, where a few greasy ducks make gagging sounds as they struggle to stay afloat. The tall palms scattered around the park sport more dead fronds than live ones, and the downtown skyscrapers in the distance have been eaten up by the smog.
David and I sit on a bench and suck Mexican popsicles. Watermelon, with seeds and everything. The vendor who sold them to us was a short, round man with a cowboy hat and gold bridgework. A puff of cold air escaped from his pushcart when he opened the lid, and I wanted to crawl inside and never come out.
The initial jolt of the weed has passed, and now I’m just plain stoned, so the popsicle tastes great, but I’m still paranoid that everyone knows we’re wasted. I sit up straight and make sure I don’t stare at anything too long. David obviously doesn’t have the same worries. He slouches on the bench and keeps removing his sunglasses to reveal his bloodshot blue eyes.
The park is crowded with people in search of a respite from the heat. Women push strollers, drunks snooze openmouthed on the grass, and teenage couples in black hoodies and spiked belts work joylessly at giving each other hickeys. The song blaring from the nearest radio is a ballad in Spanish about a man who misses a river.
“It’s like Tijuana down here,” David says. “Like Mexico City.”
“You’ll probably see more Guatemalans,” I say. “Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Filipinos.”
David waves away this comment. “You know what I mean,” he says.
I do, but I enjoy busting his balls.
“Talking about Guatemala, I was there once,” he continues. “I drove an RV from Phoenix to Costa Rica back in the seventies, passed through all those Central American hellholes. The police pulled me over in Guatemala for driving without a shirt on.”
“Without a shirt?” I say.
“Apparently it’s against the law there, or at least it was that day. One of the bastards wrote $20 on a scrap of newspaper and handed it to me, and I went nuts. ‘Fuck you!’ I said. ‘I’m not giving you anything.’ I started the RV, put the pedal to the metal, and left them standing there with their dicks in their hands. Last I saw, they were laughing so hard they could barely stand up.”
I don’t say Liar, liar, but I’m thinking it. Or maybe the dude is actually crazy, pulling a stunt like that. I start laughing because I can’t think of anything else to do. David laughs too.
“I had hair down to my ass back then,” he says between guffaws.
What the hell, let the man spin a few yarns. That check of his hits the mailbox like clockwork the first of every month, and Claire and I would be sunk without it. I only worked five days in June, barely enough to pay the interest on our Visa.
I bite down on my popsicle, tear off a big chunk. A toddler breaks free from his mom and makes a bowlegged dash for the lake. Stand up, I tell myself, do something, but David is already there. He grabs the kid’s arm just as he’s about to tumble into the water and then swings him up into the air.
“Careful, Panchito,” he says.
The boy’s mother is more upset than she should be. She’s gasping for air, practically weeping, when David hands the kid back to her. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she says.
“De nada,” David replies, patting the kid on the head and returning to the bench.
He’s looking at me and wondering what kind of father I’m going to be if I couldn’t even rouse myself to stop that kid. I don’t blame him. I worry all the time that parenting is an instinct some people have and some don’t, and because my dad didn’t, I might not either. Claire tells me I’m being ridiculous, assures me that I’ll do fine, but that’s only because she’s so unsure of herself. Look around you: parents fail every day, and half the people you meet were ruined by the time they were twelve.
“Koreatown is near here, isn’t it?” David says.
“Not too far,” I say, happy to move on to something else.
“I’m supposed to have a drink with a friend. He’d probably get a kick out of meeting my son-in-law.”
“You mean now?” I say. “I’m kind of—” I put my fingers to my lips and mime a joint.
“You’re okay,” he says. “A drink will straighten you out.”
A church bell rings somewhere, and I lift my foot to warn away a strutting pigeon that’s getting too close. This is the first time David has referred to me as his son-in-law, and I feel I owe him something. It’s a feeling I’m not sure I like, but nonetheless I say, “Yeah, cool, let’s go.”
I WAS NERVOUS about meeting David and Marjorie that first time, at our wedding. They were Jewish; I wasn’t. They had money; I didn’t. Claire had gone to Yale; I hadn’t. “Relax,” Claire said. “They’re not like that.” She and I had been dating for a year, and she’d visited her parents only once, flying over to spend a week in Switzerland with them. I hadn’t seen my own mother in ages, but I’d always thought rich families were different.
Marjorie was great, a little ditzy but sweet. As long as Claire was happy, she was happy, and will someone please bring me one of those crab things being served right now, and another glass of wine while you’re at it?
David, however, was a different matter. I sensed disapproval, but he didn’t actually say anything disapproving; I don’t know if he’d been told to keep it to himself or if he’d decided on his own that he shouldn’t comment on his daughter screwing up her life when he’d pretty much checked out of it years earlier, when she’d left home for college.
Our one extended conversation was about Clint Eastwood. David had met him at a golf tournament and been very impressed. “You should make a film with him,” he said. When I went to shake his hand after Claire and I exchanged vows in a friend’s backyard, he put his arms around me, hugged me tightly, and said, “Give love to get love.”
“Is that a song?” I asked Claire later.
“A sucky one, if so,” Claire said.
I went over it in my head for weeks, wondering if that was the best he could do or if he wasn’t even trying.
THE BAR IS called the Alps. It’s shoehorned into a crowded mini-mall at Sixth and Berendo, between a dry cleaner and a tofu restaurant. David parks his rental in the lot and checks himself in the rearview mirror. He’s wearing a black polo and pressed khakis. I asked if I should dress up, and he said a shirt with a collar would be fine.
We’re the only non-Asians in the place, which is decorated to evoke a mountain cabin, with skis and poles and snowshoes hanging on the knotty-pine paneling next to large photos of snow-covered peaks. A fire is burning in the circular fireplace in the middle of the room, surrounded by couches. The air conditioner is turned all the way up to compensate for the heat of the flames.
The place has lots of customers for so early in the afternoon, mostly well-dressed middle-aged men drinking in groups of three or four. They watch warily out of the corners of their eyes as David leads the way to the bar and motions for me to sit. The bartender is a beautiful Korean girl in a tight red dress. She ignores us, polishing wineglasses until David calls her over.
“What’ll you have?” he says to me.
“I’m not really drinking these days,” I reply.
“Get something so you don’t stand out,” he whispers, then turns back to the bartender. “Two Johnnie Walker Blacks on the rocks.”
While the drinks are being poured, he nods to a little man with a complicated comb-over who is sitting by himself in a booth. The man nods back ever so slightly, then pulls out a phone and makes a call. Signals are definitely being sent and received in here. I can hear them whizzing through the air around me. Some kind of work is getting done.
The bartender sets the scotches in front of us, and I take a big sip and try to look hard. David downs half of his in a gulp and says, “I should remember, I know, but how did you and Claire meet again?”
It’s a filler question, one he presumes I’ll have a long answer to that’ll eat up the next few minutes. He wasn’t even looking at me when he asked it; he was watching the man in the booth. Him thinking I’m such a chump that I can’t see right through him should make me angry, but it doesn’t. I get the idea that he’s counting on me to play my part in whatever he’s got cooking, and I don’t want to let him down.
Of course, the story I give him about Claire and I being introduced by a mutual acquaintance and gradually growing closer during a series of dinner and movie dates is complete crap. In reality, we met at a downtown bar, and I fucked her standing up in an alley two hours after I bought her a drink.
A couple of buddies who’d done her and dumped her in the past warned me that she’d get too serious too quickly, but I was coming off a string of psychodramas starring women who’d left me feeling like I’d been beaten and robbed, and a bit of stability sounded appealing.
Turned out Claire was as sick of her life as I was of mine, and that’s where we connected in the beginning. We teamed up to build our own thing, us against the world, carving out a new space and tossing aside any junk from our pasts that didn’t fit. We lost friends, we burned bridges, but we told ourselves it was the price of progress.
And now, here we are. Mission accomplished. Married, baby on the way, cool apartment in a cool neighborhood, eating right, no more binges, no more soul suckers, no more morning-afters, yet I still wake terrified some nights and spend long, lonely hours in the dark conjuring up demons and disasters and torturing myself with the knowledge that everything we have could be snatched away from us as quickly as the wind blows out a candle.
David says, “That’s how it usually goes, I guess,” when I finish giving him the sanitized version of how Claire and I came together. Then he continues: “Marjorie and I fought like wild animals for the first few years. We almost killed each other before we learned to get along. I’m glad you two had an easier time of it.”
He finishes his scotch, bouncing the ice off his teeth. I’m halfway through mine, and it’s gone to my head. This is dangerous because I’m a mean drunk. A few belts, and I get a mouth on me. The mirror behind the bar is covered with that spray-on snow you use on Christmas trees, and someone has scrawled something in Korean on it. I have to stop myself from calling the bartender over and asking her what it says.
“How do you like teaching?” David asks, another question he’s not interested in the answer to. Before I have a chance to respond, the man in the booth stands and walks over to us.
“Hello, Mr. Song,” David says.
“Hello, Mr. Friedman,” Mr. Song says in heavily accented English. “So nice to see you.”
“This is my son-in-law, Haskell,” David says.
“Pleased to meet you,” Mr. Song says to me.
“Pleased to meet you,” I reply, feeling like we’re reciting a dialogue from a language class.
“Can I buy you a drink?” David says.
“No, thank you. I must attend to some business,” Mr. Song says. “However, I do have the information you requested.”
He passes David a slip of paper with an address written on it.
“Thank you very much,” David says. “Are you sure I can’t get you something?”
“I’m sure,” Mr. Song says. “I must be going.”
We finish up with handshakes and bows, and Mr. Song takes his leave, waving to the bartender and shouting something in Korean on his way out.
“What was that?” I say to David after another sip of scotch.
“What was what?” he replies.
I tell myself to slow down, think things through, but, as I mentioned, I get mouthy. “I’m not an idiot,” I say.
The only sign that David is irritated is a quick tightening of his jaw. It’s enough to back me off.
“Mr. Song is the friend I was telling you about,” David says. “I’m sorry he couldn’t stay longer.”
“Me too,” I say.
David reaches over and flicks my glass with his finger, a strangely menacing gesture. “We should get going,” he says.
I nod and down my drink, finally accepting that I’m just along for the ride. And you know what, something in that is immensely freeing.
- "Richard Lange's stories are a revelation. He writes of the disaffections and bewilderments of ordinary lives with as keen an anger and searing lyricism as anybody out there today. He is Raymond Carver reborn in a hard cityscape. Read him and be amazed."—T.C. Boyle, author of San Miguel
- "Beautifully crafted . . . Beckett is Lange's major writing influence, but judging from the casual eloquence of his stories, Lange has already earned a place close to Beckett's elevated company."—Jack Batten, Toronto Star
- "You know you're in the hands of an expert....The author creates poetry from the simplest of words and moments....This is the kind of book you'll want to savor."—Lisa L. Kirchner, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
- "For me the best stories are rabbit holes. You read the first lines, maybe a page, and you're down there. Somewhere else. Another life. Richard Lange is one cwazy wabbit."—James Sallis, author of Drive
- "Lange knows how to inhabit the skin of his protagonists and breathe life and vitality into them with his minimalist prose....Sweet Nothing is an intense, darkly funny collection from a writer who is working at peak form."—Keith Rawson, Lit Reactor
- "With his lyrical yet matter-of-fact prose, Lange drills straight to the center of society's fringe....Lange's sense of isolation laced with desperation pervades this collection by the former Guggenheim fellow who has been compared to short-short auteur Raymond Carver."—Angela Lutz, Kansas City Star
- "What makes this collection a wonderful read is that it's only marginally akin to anything else. Swift, gut-wrenching, and sometimes cleverly disarming fiction by a master."—Joe R. Lansdale, author of The Thicket and Edge of Dark Water
- "An outstanding set of stories, told in Lange's eloquent, almost poetic, prose....I could keep quoting from Sweet Nothing all day, but instead will implore you to pick up your own copy. The architecture of Lange's writing alone is worth the price of admission."—Malcolm Avenue Review
- "For all the darkness that runs through the stories, Lange maintains a disarmingly light touch. . . . These tales are not far removed from the classic stories of O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant."—Kirkus Reviews
- "These stories traffic in the vagaries of the human heart, those wants and needs that push us down dark paths. His vision is steely-eyed, yet you sense that Lange loves his characters-even the worst of them."—Craig Davidson, author of Cataract City
- "These 10 stories will have broad appeal because of Lange's accessible style and fine characterization."—Ellen Loughran, Booklist
- "Utterly believable postcards from the edge; for those who like their realism not so magical but right there at street level."—Library Journal
- On Sale
- Feb 10, 2015
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Little, Brown and Company