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Flash Reprint: Christine Stocke’s IN A FOREIGN TOWN

In a For­eign Town

by Christine Stocke

In a for­eign town it’s dif­fi­cult for a stranger to know you’re just tired, not crazy. Espe­cially if, at the moment he meets you, you’re nearly naked and snor­ing loudly in the bot­tom of his flat-backed canoe. It’s four a.m., and he intends right then to set off fish­ing. The sun is already paint­ing the east­ern sky pink over dark peaks of many moun­tains when he grabs your shoul­der and says, Señorita, no puede estar aquí. You say Sí but do not move. And so he says again, Señorita, your per­son, your body, you must move it. Sí, you respond. He says he will call la policía and you nod. He doesn’t know it hasn’t been your strong healthy body for weeks, as he does not know many things about you. Some, how­ever, he senses.


He will only hear your story, this man, if he finds you to be crazy. Hear it and indeed call the policía. But that is not what you want. You want him to lis­ten. You want to tell your story until a tear appears in the cor­ner of this tough fisherman’s eye, and until he brings one large tin of cof­fee for the two of you to share, which, even­tu­ally, is exactly what hap­pens.


You begin the story in a way you think he’ll under­stand, some­thing of the Latin magic that hangs in the fog about your head this morn­ing. My abuela, you say, es de Argentina. It is a lie, but the old man nods. He knows Argen­tine women. Your grand­mother, how­ever, is not that woman. It was the same day, you con­tinue, that a thou­sand Red-Winged Black­birds fell from the sky. Ah, he says, I see. Por su puesto. He leaves to go get the cof­fee.


You stare at the water as you put on your only sweater and wait for the man to return. All lakes are the same. Pic­ture any you know. Not so small that swim­ming its length would be com­fort­able nor so large that one would never try, but of a man­age­able size, that your legs and shoul­ders numb with cold water and exhaus­tion stop mov­ing just seven-eighths the way to the other side. A buzzing white com­muter boat in the dis­tance car­ries twenty pas­sen­gers and a big brown crate of baby chick­ens on its roof throws a wake of water that catches your open mouth. You can see that the old man returns with a large tin wrapped in a yel­low towel. Runs with them both to the end of the pier. He screams that you are loca and then soft­ens. That the water is cold, he says, that there is no way you can swim to the other side.


As you sit in your only soak­ing wet sweater and shorts on shore, he does not speak at first but sup­ports the tin’s bot­tom so that you can drink from the top. I’m not crazy, you say. Quizás, says the man. Maybe.


No química, he says, hay azu­car, claro, pero no química to indi­cate that his wife made the cof­fee from beans in their back­yard. Beans sim­ply set out in the sun to dry and then roasted in their tiny wood oven. He shows the height of the oven from the ground with his free hand. The cof­fee is so good it almost does not taste like cof­fee, and it cer­tainly doesn’t bring the slight sense of suf­fer­ing one should always have when drink­ing any cof­fee at all.


You don’t own quite as many Span­ish words as you’ll need to tell the story, but the lapses will be made up in some­thing the man must already know. Por su puesto, you think. When the cof­fee is fin­ished, he rinses the tin at the shore. You climb into the canoe once more to retrieve your back­pack and pair of shoes. The man car­ries up a small bucket of bait and says me voy. Nods. He is going fish­ing now but does not ask you to leave his boat.


The canoe is small, and so you’re happy when he con­tin­ues to stand. You take off your shirt and sweater which are heavy now and wring them into the water. The man does not once look down. When he fin­ishes pad­dling, how­ever, he sits, and the two of you are closer than you would choose on any dry land. Knees nearly touch­ing. He smells darkly of cof­fee and does not seem at all uncom­fort­able.


You know enough about fish­ing to under­stand that it is about fish­ing and not much at all about talk­ing. But in this early morn­ing moment child­hood ques­tions become again your own. Per­haps it’s more accu­rate to say you become her, as much as a twenty-some­thing young woman can again become a curi­ous six-year-old. The fish, you ask, what do they like around here? And so, the voice is not exactly yours. In the elo­quence of early Span­ish lessons, the girl would have said, Abuelo, que comen los peces para el desayuno? Que les gus­tan mucho mucho, Abuelo? And she would have said it quicker than you and with much brighter eyes than yours in this moment, but the man responds any­way. The fish, they eat any­thing, he says.



Note: First pub­lished by Structo Mag­a­zine.


Author’s Note

The piece was inspired by a trip to Lake Ati­tlán in Guatemala, which Wikipedia will con­firm is the deep­est lake in Cen­tral Amer­ica. I was wearily sit­ting on the win­dow ledge of a packed and speed­ing pas­sen­ger boat, cling­ing with white knuck­les, when I glanced at the boat’s roof to notice car­tons ofchirpng baby chick­ens. Every moment of the trip there was some­thing mag­i­cal just around the cor­ner.


I was so impressed by the mag­a­zine Structo that orig­i­nally pub­lished “In a For­eign Town” that I con­tin­ued to fol­low them and now work as their online edi­tor.


Christine PS Stocke.jpgChristine PS Stocke grew up fish­ing on a small lake in Wis­con­sin. She didn’t become an archi­tect, because some­one told her it involved cal­cu­lus. So now, she observes. She takes notes. She asks inap­pro­pri­ate ques­tions. Christine received her bachelor’s degree in Eng­lish from Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity- St. Louis and her master’s from the Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin-Mil­wau­kee. Other works by Christine can be found in sev­eral lit­er­ary jour­nals, includ­ing Rio Grande Review, Wis­con­sin Peo­ple & Ideas, Structo, and the Best New Poets anthol­ogy. In 2013, Christine was nom­i­nated for a Push­cart Prize. Fol­low Christine at www.christinepsstocke.com. She lives and works in The Nether­lands.


FF.Net Edi­tor Com­men­tary (Ran­dall Brown) 

Second-person–I’ve always found–is tricky. Is it a nar­ra­tive gim­mick? An affec­ta­tion? To make it seem otherwise–to make it seem lit­er­ary and functional–is some­thing that I’ve often failed it. Here, I think it works. Why? Because the idea of being a stranger, estranged, for­eign, some­how removed from your­self seems to be mir­rored by the sec­ond per­son nar­ra­tion. Don’t you think?

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