the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night




Six Stories
Roy Robins


For years I worried that my sentences weren't shapely enough. I envied the prose in magazines like Glamour, Grazia, Cosmopolitan, Vogue. Those sentences were so much shapelier than mine, with outstanding cheekbones and ankles to die for. I was a flabby writer in a town where skinniness was a kind of currency. My sentences were chunky and clunky, and people bored of me quickly. The good agents refused to represent me, and referred me to fringe agents, fetish agents, who looked after larger writers. No amount of cosmetic surgery could conceal the stolid structure of my sentences. I studied shapely sentences and found them to be undernourished, stripped of sensation, indistinguishable from one another. At a party I met the editor of a popular magazine who gave me some advice: 'You have to examine your writing and ask yourself, Are my sentences fuckable?' I spent an evening in the company of my sentences and had to conclude that, no, they were not fuckable. You would not even want to get to first base with them. I tried a series of regimens, rituals, and routines. Nothing worked. My sentences were flabbier than ever. They were dull and dry-mouthed and foul-smelling and uninvolving. Worse, they were fraudulent. I stopped writing, stopped reading books and magazines, and moved out of the city. I took a job at a bank, put down money for a house. This is the first thing I have written in seven years.


I woke early and walked to the library. There was a book I badly wanted to read. I had been waiting for weeks to read it, with increasing excitement. I had not slept well in months. My friends said that I was acting irrationally, that I was not myself. It is surprising to discover that other people have such a sure conception of who you are, or rather who they would like you to be. When I arrived at the library I found it closed. I had forgotten it was a holiday. Because I don't have a job, I never know what day of the week it is, or what month we're in, or how old I am. I don't even watch television anymore. I am detached from everything and I like it that way. But that book I wanted to read. For a while at least I was attached to it.


When I was in my twenties I spent weekdays at a library a block from my house. All but one of the librarians was in her sixties. Her name was Penny and she had red hair and was attractive, although her skin was splotchy sometimes. She wore disposable plastic glasses on a string round her neck. She didn't talk much to the other librarians. She spent her free time reading. One afternoon we spoke for twenty minutes about our favorite books. I had never had such a long and passionate discussion with anyone. I came home with three books but could concentrate on none of them. I was so excited. I waited for three days so that she would think I had read the books. Actually, I did read most of them. I took them back and this time we spoke for half an hour. She said, 'You sure read a lot,' and I said, 'I sure do.' She got all intimate, and told me about her ex-boyfriend, who was in the army, and her grandfather, who loved to read, too. I was so nervous I could hardly look at her. I hoped she didn't see that my hands were fumbling. At that library, almost everyone who came in was very old or very poor or fumbling in some way. Some people came in just to sleep. I swore I would wait at least three days before going back to the library, but I couldn't help myself. I went back the next day and told her I had read all my books. I lied. I had promised myself I would ask her on a date. I thought it would be difficult but it was easy. It just kind of came up in conversation, because we were talking about movies and things we liked to do. And I said, 'Maybe we could go out sometime. I would really like that.' And she paused for a second and said, 'The thing is I live with my grandfather and he's very old and I need to look after him. I need to give him his pills and feed him and then give him his pills again. He has a carer during the day, but at night all he has is me. I'm sorry. Pills are not like library books. If you forget about them, it's more serious than just paying a fine at a later date. You do pay a kind of fine, but it's more serious.' I said okay, that I understood. When I came home I didn't care to read my books, or do much of anything. I did go back to the library a few weeks later, and Penny and I talked for maybe a minute, what I guess people call 'small talk.' I was happy. I mean, I had stopped thinking about her all the time. Then one evening I walked through the park, and I saw her with some man. It wasn't her grandfather. He was young — my age, I guess, which is around her age. They were holding hands. I pretended not to see her, or she pretended not to see me, or maybe she really didn't see me — I don't know anymore. After that, I still went to the library but only when I knew she wouldn't be there. I knew her hours and everything. One time I came in and she was on duty, even though she wasn't supposed to be. We didn't speak. She stamped my books but we didn't speak. It was funny. It occurred to me that I was a library book nobody wanted to read. I heard last week that Penny's getting married and moving out of town. I heard this from one of the old librarians. She said, 'Penny was never popular around here. Between you and me, I always thought she was trouble.'


I live in this really old apartment block that used to be cheap. I have a lot of books in my room and not much else. I mean, sure I have clothes and basic appliances and I used to have a cat. Not that any of that stuff matters, really. I get benefits and that covers food. I'm not expected to work, which some people think is sad but which I'm used to. I wouldn't know how to work or what work is. I'm writing a couple of novels. One is a horror story. The other is a love story set on Jupiter. It doesn't sound too good, I know, but I didn't write it for other people. I can write a novel in a day. I really can. I'm very quick. Some of my novels are only four pages long. Others are seven hundred pages. Most are unfinished. Some reside in my head, where they are read by millions and turned into movies. Some are pornographic; all are artful and sincere. I design the covers myself and do all the illustrations. Sometimes I hand them out on street corners or try to sell them in the park. One time I wrote the world's shortest book, then rolled it up like a cigarette and set it alight. Next time I'm going to write a book-shaped book, but huge and hollow and empty inside, and climb in and curl up and get someone to close the covers. I might ask one of the tramps in the park to do it, to bury me in it, set it on fire afterwards, keep us both warm.


This woman who lives above me is a receptionist at some law firm I've never heard of. Her name is Denise and she's always telling me what a big deal this law firm is. 'It's a big deal,' she says, 'which means I'm a big deal, even though all I do is answer the phone. And my boss keeps trying to look up my skirt.' She talks like this all the time. She's good-looking, to be honest. She has lots of hair and smells of vanilla lotion and cigarettes. Even in winter she wears tight white sweaters or black dresses that expose her back and reveal her legs. She has a child, too, but living with his father in a different country — she never said exactly where. I only know her from seeing her on the landing when the elevator isn't working, which is most of the time. 'You're sweet,' she says, 'one night you should come up. We can talk. Have a drink.' No woman ever asked me for a drink before. I don't really drink. I mean I can, but I shouldn't. One afternoon I was coming back from the library and I saw Denise and she said, 'You look so smart carrying all those millions of books. What do you do when you're not reading? When are you going to come up?' I keep meaning to go up. I know where her apartment is and everything. I sort of want to go up. But I sort of want to stay where I am, which is warm and comfortably dirty. It's really very dirty, but comfortable to me. One day, maybe, I will go up. I'll see. I'm waiting for the right time. Last night I saw her on the landing and she told me that she's leaving the city. She got fired from her job and she has to take care of her son again. 'Pity you never came up,' she said, 'we could have had some fun.' I asked her what she meant and she said she would very much have liked me to read to her. 'I could come up now,' I said. 'No,' she said. 'Why don't you come down?' I asked. 'I don't go down,' she said, 'and you never come up.' I realized then that I was incapable of going up and that I would be unhappy forever.


My agent said that no publisher would take my book, that it wasn't saleable, that the book business was in turmoil, the economy in crisis, the world in thrall to things larger than literature — terrorism, mass murder, the internet, pornography, what-have-you. I told him that he could have mentioned this in the last eight years, when I was writing the book. He said that he had tried. Also, the world had changed in those eight years. He said that he couldn't bear to break my heart. I chastised him for never taking me to lunch at a decent restaurant, for giving me short-shrift. It wasn't like he had a respectable list; it wasn't like he had a list at all. I said that I was his client, not his lover or his son. He said that, oddly, to him, I was like a son, even though we were around the same age. He said he was quitting the agency game to go back into editing. 'I've gone round in a circle,' he said, 'and now I can lie down, like a dog.' 'You are a dog,' I said, 'you are just another agency son of a bitch. Everyone I know on your list — all four of them — is unhappy with you and is waiting to get a better agent. But they can't, because no one wants to represent them, because they have no profile, because you're a terrible agent. It's a Catch-22.' Because I had mentioned one of the great bestsellers of the twentieth century, it seemed to make our mutual failure more resonant, and we stopped speaking and I left. I went home and faced the manuscript. After eight years I was ready to admit defeat. I knew I would never write anything that would sell, or finish anything good. I knew that the responsible thing would be to concentrate on something else. But I had no other passions, and it was too late to muster interest in anything. I went down to the street where my agent parked and slit his tires with a pen knife and scratched his hood with a broken bottle of beer. I keyed up his car but good. I did a Booker-winning job on it. It felt brilliant, better even than finishing the book. After that I avoided every bookstore — the chain, the independent, the specialty store, the damp and dreary den of the used and abused, books bloated and buckled and bent out of shape, the bargain bins and remainder racks, the vendors and traders and hustlers and hacks — envious and afraid to look in the windows, even. Instead, I came up with routes that took me nowhere near writers or readers of any kind. I'd share with you my non-literary map of the city but the truth is I lost it months ago, and besides I'm tired of this story and you shouldn't be reading it anyway.


Roy Robins is a writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. He writes regularly on politics for South African newspapers. His articles and reviews have appeared in Foreign Policy, The New Statesman, the Observer, Rattle, and Poetry International. His fiction has appeared in various anthologies. He was formerly an editor at Granta magazine.