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Fiction #145
(published July 31, 2003)
The Last Souvenir
by Ben Stroud

Joseph had been an enthusiastic fan of Stark's ever since he had picked up a dog-eared copy of Waiting in the Dark ten years ago. After that he read everything. Even that satire on European politics that no one ever mentioned. And so, being such a fan, he was an avid collector and memorizer of Starkiana. He owned one of the writer's old mugs and on his bookshelf was a pen Stark had supposedly used as a child. Even more dearly bought was his head full of facts, dates, and names pertaining to the author's long life. Of course, Joseph had never met Stark. Never seen him in person nor had a letter answered by him. But he had read every biography, and every day he came home from his job in the accounting office at the plant, where he was referred to by the office ladies as literate, and read at least a line of Stark. He had traveled through the author's mind for the last ten years and felt a connection to him like a son to a father. So when Joseph heard that Stark had died at home, in a city only two hundred miles away, he called in sick and traveled to pay his respects.

It rained most of the trip but soon enough he drove out of the mountains into Flaxson, where Stark's body lay. Outside the writer's house a few fans had gathered to light candles and hold readings. There were tears. There were hugs. There were cups of stale coffee that the rain dripped into. Someone brought donuts and half of the crowd chuckled when they remembered the part they played in the end to Burberry Drive. Joseph joined the small group and lit a candle of his own under the cardboard awning that someone with an engineering mind had fashioned to protect the tiny flames from the rain. An hour later, Stark's daughter came out of the house and with a diplomatic tone thanked them all for their show of support then asked them to please leave. She had been watching them from the house for some time, a gray sliver of a face pinched between the velvet curtains of an upper story window. Stark's only child, she had never been very healthy and throughout her life felt a distance between her and her father that made her concerned now at his passing. There were grumbles in the crowd when she told them to leave and a donut was nearly thrown, but another mourner gripped the primed wrist and snatched the donut away, leaving only a sticky glaze on the would-be assassin's thumb and fingers. The crowd left the candles and wreathes and reconvened at a twenty-four hour cafe three blocks away. A red and blue neon sign said "open all hours" and inside there were only two customers—a man in a dirty sports jacket eating a danish and another, younger man who sat at the counter, sipping a coke and rifling through papers. The place seemed to inflate as the mourners came in, the walls stretching out like the inside of a balloon to contain them, while the cook and two night waitresses watched in disbelief at this sudden flood of customers.

Joseph took a seat near the window, away from those who were pushing tables together under the direction of one man's raucous commands and excited gesticulations. Probably the same guy that built the cardboard awning. Every crisis has its loud hero, ready to take over for the incapacitated others. Eventually a long row was formed, hurting the feelings of one mourner who preferred a U. Sleet had begun to fall and Joseph reflected silently on the "melting daggers of ice falling like great Thor's frozen semen specimens," as the great Stark had once put it.[1] Then a girl brought over two cups of coffee and sat at his table. She set one of the styrofoam cups in front of Joseph and motioned for him to drink. He looked at her, then blushed—she must be at least fifteen years younger than he—then took a sip. The hot liquid burned enough so that in the morning the tip of his tongue would be white and tasteless. She didn't say anything, seeming to wait for him to begin. Finally, after his tongue cooled, he did so.

"You liked Stark, huh?"

"Yes," she answered in an even tone. Joseph wondered at the stupidity of his question. Who else but admirers would come out in this weather to mourn the man? The roads were expected to ice over before morning. Joseph wondered what she thought of him now, with a question like that. He thought about the way she answered "yes" and decided the tone's evenness displayed a generosity. He pressed on.

"Are you from here?" he asked.

"No. I'm from Axon," she said, " a town about thirty miles away." She took a sip. Her small wire-rimmed glasses slipped half a centimeter down the bridge of her nose. "What about you?"

"I'm from Haughton. It took me a few hours to get here." Joseph paused to watch the girl nudge her glasses back into their former place. "But it's worth it, y'know?" Especially to meet you. Joseph thought about adding this but decided against it just before it reached the burnt-white tip of his tongue. He wondered what might come of their meeting. He hadn't slept with a woman, much less kissed one, in eight years.

"Yeah, it is," she said.

Joseph admired the girl's brown eyes and even teased himself into finding the few spots of acne on her cheeks attractive. A sign of youth. He imagined she had breasts beneath her billowing sweater, but he could not be sure.

"The man traveled all over the world to find his stories," Joseph said over his coffee.

"For him, no place was too hard to get to," the girl countered.

"He spent five months in the Delhi slums."

"He spent a year on the Mosquito coast. Nearly died of malaria."

"He claims to have walked from Baghdad to Jerusalem back in the days of the Protectorate."

"He drank with Hemingway at a young age in Cuba."

"He met Faulkner once in Rome."

"He had a fistfight with Vonnegut at a conference in Iowa."

"He won."

"He hated Mailer. Loved Cheever. Couldn't get enough of Nabokov. Despised Barth. Was indifferent toward Chevigny."

"He once called Oates a bitch behind her back."

"He always felt bad about it, too, after he met her."

"He abhorred namedropping."

"He adored his readers."

"He never answered my letters."

"Nor mine, either."

Joseph took another sip of the coffee. It was cool enough now that he could tell it tasted bad. "You know your Stark," he said.

"Thank you," she replied in two quarter notes, piano.

They continued to sip their coffee and she joined him in watching the sleet, which was now turning to snow. Joseph felt a desire to reach across the table and grab her hand. But instead he said, "there were so many unanswered questions."

"I heard he died leaving three manuscripts."

Joseph turned to face the girl and said, "I would hate to have to spend this sad night alone."

The girl then noticed a slight pressure on her knee. There was a quiet pause as if something had been breached, as if the cook had just come out and admitted to urinating in the tall steel coffee pot from which everyone drank. Stark's works were full of such pauses. Byrony and his mother had such a pause when their fighting had upset his father's ashes onto the floor in Kumquat Dream. Nancy and Paul had such a pause when Paul pulled his draft notice from the mail in Many Were Called. Perhaps the most famous pause in Stark, though, was when Elaine and Elisabeth fell silent just before the realization of their mutual yet latent homosexual feelings for each other in Waiting in the Dark. Indeed, Joseph felt that same tingling as he waited for the girl to say something. But she said nothing. Not a thing at all. Joseph assumed acquiescence and started to move his hand up her thigh. She grabbed her styrofoam cup, still half-full with coffee, and moved to another table without once looking at Joseph's face. Joseph turned back to stare out the window, feeling not unlike Harold when Jennie leaves him to find herself in India in The Return. He finished his coffee and decided to leave.


The next morning Joseph returned to the cafe. It had become the unofficial meeting point for Stark mourners, who were being continually driven from the late writer's fence by his harried daughter. Joseph was working his way through an omelet, still alone, when he overheard the gossip. Stark's family had sent the author's body to Smith Brothers funeral home over on Fifth. The funeral, which was to be a small service for family and close friends, would be held in two days.

The girl whose hand he wanted to hold was there that morning, too. She sat at another table, speaking in confident tones with two older women wearing shirts that said "Canada" in red print across the chest. They looked like twins and Winnebago owners. They were nodding in tandem to the things the girl was saying and, in her excitement, the girl's wire glasses kept slipping down the bridge of her nose so that she repeatedly had to push them back up with a mechanical motion. Joseph thought about going over and tapping her on the shoulder. Give her a hug. Apologize and try again. But she never glanced at him. Instead he decided to drive over to the funeral home and stand outside its lobby to pay some more respects.

It had stopped raining that morning but the sky remained covered with a smooth layer of "dirty, thick cotton that looked as if it might weep at any moment."[2] School buses picked up mobs of children at every other street corner and reminded Joseph that time still ran, even if he was away from work. Last night he had stayed at a motel on the interstate that cost $29.95 for the night. There time seemed like an amenity skipped over by the management. The carpet was peeling up at the edges and the bedsprings felt as though they were boring through the top of the mattress like some medieval torture device or haute cuisine cooking utensil. The television set only got channel 2, though you were free to twist the Zenith's UHF dial, with most of the numbers rubbed off, for futile amusement. The window looked out onto a graffittied pylon and the cars passing overhead rattled the pane all night. The bathroom had not been cleaned in weeks and when Joseph went to piss he looked down into the small trashcan beside the toilet to see several spent condoms. He wanted to jerk off in the bath tub—the only place it seemed he could these days—while thinking of the young breasts that were probably hidden under that teenager's sweater, but the tub was too filthy, wearing several rings of dirt around its rim like neckties. Still, he tried several times while lying on the bed and watching the Channel 2 news, but his penis refused and each time descended like a mocking cobra returning to its basket.


When Joseph arrived at the funeral home he found that he was the only one who had thought to come. The other mourners had gotten complacent, remaining near the cafe's cenotaph of arranged chairs to offer their hecatombs[3] of burnt coffee and moist toast. Since no one else was around, Joseph walked into the funeral home to see what he could see. The floor in the foyer was covered in a plush cream carpet that almost took your mind off the dead with its richness. A rosewood veneered chest covered with impressed flower patterns sat against the wall with a sign-in book on top of it. Joseph signed his name and looked around but saw no one. He came to the end of the foyer and peered into the well-appointed chapel with two rows of pews and called out:


His voice filled the funeral home for two seconds like breath running through a large instrument. A tuba, say, or a bassoon. No one answered. Alone in the funeral home, he felt as if he was violating something, some rule or social norm. He wondered where the people were. What Joseph didn't know was that the staff had gone to lunch, and Gloria, the receptionist, had forgotten her assigned task of locking the doors. The funeral home was completely vacant save Joseph and what cadavers might be in the back, waiting for the show. Joseph called out again. Again no answer, so he explored the rest of the small funeral home. He poked around the chapel, but nothing had yet been set up. Then he noticed the white door in the back corner where they rolled in the corpse-filled coffins like giant eclairs Joseph glided along the wall as if trying to slip silently by a chapel full of mourners, and turned the door's knob. On the other side the beige paint, cream carpet, and cherry-stained wainscoting dissolved into cement floor and brick walls. But then—there. On the metal table. Joseph nearly fainted when he saw it and almost rested his hand on the blade of a scalpel some careless mortician had left on the counter.

The body of Philip Stark was laid out, dressed in a tan and black cashmere hound's-tooth jacket[4] with a yellow collared shirt. In the jacket's front pocket was a paisleyed maroon and blue handkerchief. On his feet were brown leather shoes and argyle socks. The brown leather reflected the large work-lamps of the morticians, a reflection no shoeshine boy or cobbler ever imagined. The body itself was untouched: the morticians had not yet begun their work, perhaps planning to start when they returned from a lunch of pastrami and root beer.

Once Joseph overcame his shock he forfeited all thought for movement. He tried picking up the body in his arms, but it was too heavy for him, so pushed it on the floor and then grabbed it around the chest, letting the leather shoes drag on the cement as he carried it out. Were it not for the fact that the body came out of a funeral parlor, someone might think that Stark was simply drunk. Joseph shoved the body quickly in his backseat, then looked around the parking lot again, saw no one, and pulled out. He didn't stop at the deli, or at Stark's house, or the motel, but drove his prize straight home. For the several hours of the ride, longer now for the treacherous patches of ice that had gathered on the road overnight like earthworms crawling out in a rainstorm, Joseph never noticed a smell, but instead thought of where this body had been and what it had done.


"I read somewhere that you liked oranges, so I bought you some." Joseph ripped open the plastic bag of California navels and emptied them on the table. He picked out the ones with too many bruises or brown, scabbed scratches and threw them away, then arranged the rest around the body. Two at the neck where they wouldn't roll away, a few along the right leg where there was space. He thought about putting one in the mouth like an apple in a roasted pig's, but he decided that would be too disrespectful. This was the second day of Joseph's private wake, with the apartment's thermostat set to 55 degrees to augment the outside's cold. Joseph had returned to work but he stumbled through the day, mismarking files and forgetting phone calls, the whole time his mind on the fact that he actually owned Stark.

"I never did get to meet you, but I always wanted to," Joseph said as he replaced an orange that had rolled onto the floor. "I always felt like you and I would really connect. I mean, we already did, through your writing. You were like a hero to me and I always dreamed of meeting you in a bar sometime, you know, to just share stories. Laugh and carry on." The room was lit only by the glow of the hall lamp, another way Joseph was doing his best to preserve the body. Joseph's arms were covered with goosebumps, but whether they came from the low thermostat or his nearness to the great body, even he could not say. He continued his conversation.

"You were a great inspiration to me. I mean, really, the things you said. The things you saw." Joseph hugged himself for warmth as he sat on a simple chair of wooden poles and slats. Everything in his apartment was simple. All of his furniture had come from thrift stores—a carpet-covered couch, a card table in the kitchen, a wounded wicker coffee table, and so on. The only decoration in the entire apartment was a colored garden gnome that Joseph bought on a whim when he found it on sale at K-Mart several years ago. He meant it to signal a new point in his life. A point from which he would become more interesting and hip. The gnome was only the beginning. But that had all been forgotten a week later, and now the gnome stared out the living room window into the cement courtyard with a lonesome look on its face, and never once put down the smokeless pipe its plastic lips nursed. "The places you've been," Joseph said as he reached out to touch the body's cold hand. Feeling the thin ice of metal, Joseph realized he had an extra piece for his collection. The writer's wedding ring. "I have a question for you," he said, and then he leaned forward to whisper into Stark's ear. Stark remained silent after Joseph finished, staring at the ceiling as if tired of the two days of one-way conversation, but still Joseph nodded silently with his ear close to the mouth of the corpse like he was receiving a reply from the cold lips. After Joseph nodded for the final time he got his favorite Stark novel, Waiting in the Dark, and brought it over to the body. He grabbed Stark's hand and put a pen in it, then opened the book and moved the hand so that it inscribed the book with the message: "To Joseph, my dearest friend. No one will ever be able to take back the adventures we shared. You were an inspiration and my greatest fan. I wish you well, thank you, Philip Stark." Joseph pried the pen from the stiff fingers and returned the hand to its resting place on Stark's chest. He blew on the ink to hasten its drying then set the book on his coffee table in a prominent place.

On the third day Joseph could no longer deny the fact that changes were occurring in the body and soon he would have only a pile of muck and bones. Stark's skin looked like papier-mache stretched over a metal frame. His fingernails felt loose and Joseph feared opening the eyelids lest he discover the eyeballs had rotted away. He took another sick day from work (tripping up and telling the receptionist he had measles before he quickly corrected it to the flu), fingered through the yellow pages, made his call, then drained his savings account from the First State Bank over on Hooper. An hour later he carried Stark gently into the taxidermist's, doing his best to avoid scuffing the body or piercing the thin pale skin. He gave the taxidermist ten thousand three hundred and eighty four dollars—all the money he had saved over the last ten years—to do the job quickly and keep it quiet. The taxidermist took the job with an alarming nonchalance and warned Joseph it would take time for certain chemicals to set and dry, but that he knew a few ways to speed up the process though they might hurt the quality of the preservation. Joseph said at all costs hurry. While the man worked in the back—touching up the skin, scraping out the quickly rotting innards, glazing the fingernails—Joseph paced the showroom, stopping at short intervals to observe the quail in mid-flight, the grizzly slapping at a salmon, the beaver chewing on a log for a dam he would never finish, and all the other mortified animals caught for eternity like furry snapshots.

As he waited, Joseph felt again the unbidden tickling in his penis, just as he had the night of the vigil. He looked around for a place to answer the urge, but there were none. Finally he took a chance at standing in the corner, between a raccoon and a woodchuck that looked up at him with expressions of reproof as their lacquered claws clutched fallen branches. Joseph had just reached in through the slit of his boxers when the taxidermist returned to the showroom. Joseph quickly zipped up.

"What're you doing?" the taxidermist asked, arching his feet to look over Joseph's shoulder.

"Oh, just checking out this woodchuck over here," Joseph said as he turned. "That's fine work you did." He patted the animal's empty skull.

"Yeah," the taxidermist brimmed with pride, "that's one of my best. Anyway, you're friend is ready, do you want to come take a look?"

Joseph followed the man back into the work area. Stark was laid out on a metal table, much like at the funeral home. He wore the same clothes and his face looked healthy again.

"He's about eighty pounds lighter now," the taxidermist said.

Joseph stood over the body, arms akimbo like a judgmental schoolteacher. "It took less time than I thought." The taxidermist answered plainly, not defensively, "It was a straightforward job. Didn't have to build any setting or display box, didn't have to cover any gunshot wounds. Just a simple job, that's all."Joseph looked over the body and touched it in certain places. Finally his wary scowl turned into a grin. "He looks great, thanks." He shook hands with the taxidermist then picked up the author, putting him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. He was lighter now. He carried the body to his car, positioning it to sit in the front passenger's seat. He thanked the taxidermist again and drove away.

Joseph's lonesome gnome looked on as the blue and red lights of a police car cast their bright colors through the slits in the living room blinds. Two policemen, partners who resembled each other, stood at the door and pounded on it with their clubs. "Police! Open up! We have a warrant!"

There was no answer and finally they beat the door in, but the apartment was empty.

Meanwhile, several hundred miles away, a young man in his thirties was driving along the coast with an older gentleman friend. They both seemed to be enjoying themselves as the drove along, a smile on the driver's face, the older man's hand hanging playfully out the window. But up close, if you looked, you could see that one of the older man's eyeballs was chipping, and that his pinkie fingernail was dangling from its cuticle.

1. Stark, Philip. Many Were Called. p. 212.
2. Stark, Philip. Twelve Nights in Northumberland. p. 78.
3. Cenotaph and hecatomb, two words which Joseph learned from reading Stark's novels. Other such learned words include: occlude, ambulate, tryst, perfunctory.
4. Stark always referred to this as his "Today Show" jacket since he bought it for his interview with Katie Couric when his final novel, Onsoggle Marsh, a barely publishable work pecked out in the penultimate years of his dotage, was released.

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