4.12 / December 2009


A cover of a story written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The first children who saw the orange speck bobbing in the distance let themselves believe the sun had dropped from the sky, as their parents had warned would happen if the sun ever dared show itself in their cold northern clime. The children watched eagerly, waiting for flames. There were none and so they thought maybe the orange speck—which by now was closer and much smaller than they’d originally thought—was a paper sailboat fashioned from a junk mail flyer. Maybe a page ripped from the Sears Catalogue announcing their annual Back to School sale. But there were no pictures of just-so handsome people dressed in Wranglers and so the children let themselves believe the speck in the distance was nothing more than an Orange Crush soda can. When it finally washed up on the beach, they removed the oil, the trash and the castoff rubber from the nearby tire factory—only then did they see that it was a drowned man.

They had been playing with him all afternoon, taking turns holding him in their laps and imitating Kermit the Frog’s voice when someone happened upon them and then ran to town to tell everyone. The men who carried him to the nearest house noticed at once how little he weighed, less than any dead man they’d ever known.   When they laid him on the floor they said he’d been shorter than all other men because he took up less space than their own dogs; he appeared to be shrinking even now. His skin exuded the dead-fish stench of the lake and was covered with a thick crust of oil sludge. They did not even have to clean off his face to know that the dead man was a stranger.

The town consisted of only a handful of cookie cutter houses with asphalt yards, huddled together in an unremarkable but efficient clump that allowed the townspeople to visit with one another, share food and firewood during the thirteen months of winter. But they lived there because they remained so dazzled by the third coast, a place where dreams were safely held in check by a watery horizon holding only the promise of hope, and not hope itself. As such, they poured all their energy into making their surroundings beautiful and prosperous, planting blueberries and tulips in the snowbanks, sledding down cliffs and fishing in the lake when it froze over. They had managed, all things considered, to build a rather charming little town.

After the men left, heading up the lakeshore to see if anyone knew the identity of the drowned man, the women started scraping at the dry, hardened sludge caked on the man’s skin. They used brillo pads. As the layers started to come off, they noticed that the rubbish was unlike any they’d ever seen: a fast-food hamburger wrapper, a soggy pack of cigarettes, an empty whiskey bottle. They supposed the man had traveled from a sordid place before landing on their shore, cities they had only heard of but never seen: Houston, Atlanta. That filthy city Chicago, which someone had once said was just on the other side of the lake. That person had been laughed at to painful embarrassment for his obvious blunder and nothing more was said of it. There was simply nothing on the other side of the lake; everyone knew that.

When the women had finished cleaning off the dead man they reeled in horror—he was the most repugnant man they’d ever seen: bright orange hair that stuck straight in the air like a battle flag; thin lips sneer-curled as if he’d hurled an insult just before his death—at someone innocent, of course. The women then knew that his death had been justified.

He had, as they say, asked for it.

With washcloths the women swabbed at his closed ears, knowing now that the drowned man had refused to listen to anyone. The women grew even more repulsed, imagining the terrible things he’d said when he was alive, and all that he’d refused to hear. They recalled the times in their own lives they’d been scorned: bullies on the playground, a mother’s rebuke, a harsh word from their husbands. They found the man’s tiny arms and legs utterly laughable. Someone took to the corner and started sewing, and in a minute they’d dressed the corpse in tiny denim overalls. The women started giggling, hiccupping with laughter at the sight of him. Soon they had tears in their eyes and they began tossing the drowned man through the air.

Over here, one woman yelled. No, over here!

The women imagined what life the drowned man had lived, being so small: purchasing his clothes in the toy section of department stores; shouting at the supermarket cashier, “What are you, deaf? I said plastic, not paper, you asshole!” The women realized at once the hidden anger of the drowned man, the dark bitterness of his soul. They thought of their own husbands, who were not as small and mean as they had once supposed but strong, handsome men whose booming voices were a result of exuberant personalities. They were thinking of this and feeling such surges of love for their husbands that the oldest woman in the group suddenly grabbed the drowned man and spat,

“He has the face of someone named Stanley.”

The women agreed. A name befitting someone whose diminutive size matched his small heart. They started up their game of toss again, this time covering Stanley’s face with a handkerchief so they no longer had to shudder with disgust when their eyes met his. Before long the women’s husbands returned. They rushed into the room, shocked at the sight of their wives tossing the dead man between them. Since the men knew nothing yet of the man’s sneering lips and closed ears, they assumed him a man of honor and couldn’t believe the depth of callousness their wives possessed. What are you doing? they cried, snatching the corpse. Have you no respect?

The men were determined to give the drowned man a dignified burial and this meant a special sized coffin had to be constructed, as even the ones used for infants were far too large for such a small man. The men began constructing the coffin out of leftover kindling but the women kept getting in their way, interfering with their work so that the men grew annoyed, saying What are you doing, woman? Give me back that wood! Get out of the way. Why must you be such a pest? Angry at being surrounded by such uncaring people, the men yelled, how dare you defile the reputation of this poor man! and the woman who had bequeathed the name Stanley leapt up and removed the handkerchief from the dead man’s face.

The men gasped. He was a Stanley, all right.

It was unnecessary for the women to announce it, the men already knew by the arrogance of his tiny upturned nose, dark ominous eyes and impossible sneer. If they’d been told that he was a Troll and could be purchased for $1.99 at most toy stores, they would have been impressed. But there could only be one Stanley in the world and there he was, stretched out like a vienna sausage, wearing denim overalls with no shirt beneath, that bright orange hair sticking up in the air. The men had only to see the handkerchief removed from his face to see that he was arrogant, that he relished in bestowing bad luck and misery upon others, that it was his own fault he was so short and stupid and if he had known this was going to happen he would have hurled insults at them with his filthy little mouth, seriously, I hate you people, you backwards, meat and potato eating assholes who live here in this stupid town where the sun never shines and it snows all the time and most of all I hate that big dumb lake that has no salt water, no waves, no promise of escape. If I’d thought about it I would have drowned down there in the Bahamas, that’s right, the Bahamas. There was such spite in his manner that the men’s anger at their wives evaporated and they hastily covered up that hateful repugnant face with the sneering lips and angry eyes. And they ran through town, tossing the drowned man between them like a football, Go long! Go long! they chanted, aware as they passed through town how silly their tulips and blueberries looked, sticking up in snowdrifts, and how drab the sky overhead was with the permanent, low-hanging clouds blocking the sun. With a shout they tossed the drowned man back into the lake, watching as his orange hair bobbed in the distance like a question mark. They followed the orange speck until they saw for the first time the remarkable slim shadow of the Sears Tower, a long finger beckoning from across the lake. They knew everything would be different from now on, that they would leave this place in search of sun and salt, a place where dreams were not held captive by the empty promise of a third coast. And people who occasioned by after the townspeople had fled—sailboaters and kayakers skimming the cold lake water—would look to the abandoned shore, whispering, I hear it was quite a place until that bastard Stanley showed up.

Yes, quite a place.