Mike Corrao is a current student at the University of Minnesota, where he is studying English and Film. When he isn’t working on writing or film projects, he enjoys playing strange boardgames with friends or watching old foreign movies. His work can be seen in publications like Potluck, Ivory Tower, 365tomorrows, Thrice, Eureka, and Pop Culture Puke.
Across from each other, comfortably sat in rigid coffee house tabling, the room empty around them, spaciously immaterial, faded into purgatorial abstraction where their physicality dissipated slowly and torturously, boiling to the point of overwhelming apathy, Man and Oh Man smoked out of the same ashtray, took long drags, and flicked the butts at one another as unverbalized microaggressions.
—What if there’s actually a bull in the china shop?
—Then you say so.
—If I say that there’s a bull in the china shop, it’s a metaphor. How do I make it literal instead?
—Why would there be a bull in the china shop?
—Who’s to say how things like that happen? I’m sure they do every now and then. If not, then where would the metaphor come from in the first place?
—Because bulls are clumsy and china shops are full of fragile things.
—It’d be in the second place. The bull comes to the china shop in the first place. Then someone writes it down in the second place.
—Yeah, yeah, yeah.
—Yeah, yeah, yeah, yourself.
—Maybe the bull oughta be the china shop instead. If you say the bull is the china shop, then who would bother to correct you? It’s different enough to step away from the confusion, but close enough to stay attached to the phrase.
—I don’t want to be tied to the phrase, I just wanna be a surrealist.
—Fuck off then.
Man, Oh Man flicked their cigarette butts to one another, not bothering to dodge one another, flickering the matches to light, and returning to the status quo courtesy of long therapeutic drags, one whistling randomly formed collages of music while the other coughed into his sleeve.
—What if I want the bull to own the china shop and the whole thing to seem just mundane and typical, like this is his everyday life?
—Then don’t just say there’s a bull in a china shop.
—The china shop was owned by a middle-aged bull, handed down to him by his parents.
—What if I want it to be a young bull who took the initiative to start up the shop?
—You’re an ass.
—Farm-raised or luxury?
—The young bull owned a china shop, which he had purchased after graduating from school.
Floating in and out of obscurity, stacks of books, varying in edition and quality, stacked around them, always blurred by some unaware medium, only presentable as opened manuscripts that the two would look through, cutting out selected images, leaving the rest in the ashtray where they would put out their cigarettes, turning the covers into lepers, unphased by shadows that permeated around the edges of the room, seemingly attached to the floors and wallpaper.
—If the man is annotated, do we keep him around or do we set him on fire?
—We keep the parts without the annotations.
—Can we just cut out the annotations?
—No, the whole thing is tainted once it’s annotated. Imagine if you knew what Shakespeare was talking about, just let the man talk and don’t bother with the rest.
—You’re increasingly and nauseatingly eccentric.
—Leave the Kenosha Kid. Take out the rest. Man, Oh Man ran the scissors through the book, excluding the lone scene, throwing the rest into the ashtray, where they spit on the binding, and burned holes into the cover, grinning quietly and separately as they moved on to the next.
—If the book is split in half do we keep one half entirely or do we take a piece from each half?
—In the case now, leave the second and keep the first. The poem means nothing without the analysis, so it’s useless, but if we take the analysis without the poem, then we get to piece back together some literary phantom.
—What’s the difference between annotations and analysis?
—The analysis is fake here. The annotations were real there.
They cut appropriately and discarded the lackluster remainder, the cover became paler as it curled into ashes, the name worn away, no longer present even as a blur, the two continued to act regardless, avoiding eye contact with one another, mechanically moving through the predetermined tasks, wearing some false kind of omniscience.
—What do we do if the whole thing is gibberish? Do we still have to cut it apart?
—Gibberish isn’t perfect, it’s just harder to critique.
—What do we take out then? The play or the prose?
—The play is part of the prose. It’s not annotations or analysis. We can’t treat it differently.
—Cut out the middle, then toss the rest.
—Why the middle?
—Why anything else? If there’s a story to walk through, we’re already in the midst of it, if there isn’t a story, then it doesn’t matter what we cut out.
The paperback flopped onto the pile, loose pages slipping, the page numbers emboldened by some external force, contemplatively scattered against the wood grains, writhing painfully before fading into the tabletop as some kind of tertiary code.
—When do we know if we’ve burned enough of the books?
—It’s not a matter of progression. The point here is to do the task at hand. The pile will always be there and the scissors will always be cutting the pages and there will always be enough cigarettes to burn the book covers.
—I think a good piece of art, or specifically literature, ought to be a piece of abstract expressionism. Any other style would be deceptive and false.
—Which works are abstract expressionist? This one? I don’t think so.
—Maybe it is. Who’s to say?
—I’d think, if it was abstract by any means, we wouldn’t be using words or language at all. If it was what you say it is, then I imagine that it’d be a bunch of jumbled chaos all thrown together as if it meant something.
—Words don’t exist outside of context. They have a history, therefore they can’t be abstract. The whole point of abstract images is to make things that exist outside of history and context. You want them to give off their own meaning.
—How about this. What if we forgot about the whole presentation aspect of it and instead just made something that tries not to make reference to anything. Take out the story and setting and characters and all that jazz. That might be enough. I know it’s not what we have here, but it might be something to consider now and again.
—Why bother tying ourselves onto something. Isn’t the whole project of trying to make abstract expressionist literature inherently not? We’re tying ourselves to a historic moment. The whole thing needs context then. Why not just make something of yourself.
—I don’t get you.
—I’m not the confusing bit here.
Man, Oh Man exchanged glares, struck by morphing colors, distorted from the shadows that had geometrically hung against the edges of the room, now melted and soaked into the floors and furniture, where Rothko blocks formed as ubiquitous mosaics.
—If the piece doesn’t have any characters, then who’s telling the story?
—There isn’t a story.
—Then who’s speaking.
—I don’t know, some narrator. Maybe it’s just some disembodied voice that functions exclusively as descriptive blocks. If there isn’t a story or characters, then I imagine we’re just watching either something or nothing happen inconsequentially.
—What’s the point of that?
—Honesty in mundanity. I’m not sure.
—Is there a reason to entertain people? Why not torture them instead? Make them do something painful or typical. Things should be legitimate. Stories aren’t legitimate.
—What are we then?
Man, Oh Man flickered in and out, briefly tied around images of skeletal figures and rotting wooden beds, they continued to smoke, crush their stubs against the ashtray, and throw them at one another, disregarding the surreality that loomed around them.
—I think we’re two men, no two specifically, having a friendly discussion. What else is there to know?
—Are curious at all about status?
—I’m not, neither are you. This is how things are. Coffee and cigarettes can only be reduced to useless speech and apathy. If you have a different endgame, you’re imbecilic.
—Have you ever been so bitter?
—I’ve always been so bitter.
—The bull has owned the china shop since he was twenty-two.
—Now he’s thirty-four and he wakes up to night terrors where he sees his mother making out with Marcel Duchamp and his father getting handsy with Walter Benjamin.
—Why do you do this?
—If he isn’t in some kind of agony, then how can I pretend he’s real?
Man, Oh Man again together, now less alone than they had been before, sitting on the table between them, where the ashtray used to be, George Eliot, wheezing and elderly, leaned against a wooden cane and smiled at the two, her eyes moving between the two like a ticking metronome.
—When you wrote a book was your goal to make the reader fall asleep or did you want it to read more like a hand-drill?
—Do you ever have wet dreams of Mr. Deronda? Maybe back when you were in your coffin or something; or was he alive in the coffin. I don’t know the conversion rate between real and fake people.
—Mr. Deronda wasn’t real. That’s a secret. I don’t tell people.
—We’re honored to know for sure.
George uncrossed her legs, slowly lowering herself off the table and down onto a seat, still between the two men, guiding the descent via wobbling cane, now seated and smiling, her eyes still moving in cadence between Man, Oh Man.
—People call me George, it’s not my real name. Another secret.
—You’re full of secrets, Mary. None of them mean anything and none of them have any use, but nonetheless you’re still full of them. I admire that about you.
—Do you hate her or do you love her? I don’t understand.
—Things can be more gray than that. I can hate the book and love the person. If your mother wrote erotica, she’d still be your mother. I like the parts of her that don’t make sense and hate the bits that want to be profound.
—What about as a person?
—What does that have to do with anything?
—A name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name is a name.
Man, Oh Man glared at one another, Mary’s eyes split, catching the passing gazes that pressed against her temples while her body faded into obscurity, whether it be by way of dust and age, or by way of the inevitable blur that soaks up the room, leaving only combative voices.
—Do they serve lunch here or is it only coffee?
—They don’t serve coffee. They don’t serve lunch.
—What if a young well-to-do man like Mr. Deronda walked into the china shop and didn’t mind that it was owned by a bull?
—Then you’d have what you want.
—I don’t know what I want. Maybe I want the bull to be an outsider or I want Mr. Deronda to be a racist. Who’s to say what should come out of the whole interaction.
—It oughta be mundane.
—Mr. Deronda was such a beautiful man. He wasn’t real, but still he was beautiful.
Man, Oh Man ignored the woman as she continued to disappear, no longer associated with the physicality of her grave, instead somewhere beyond that, sitting between abstract beings, bickering with one another infinitely, needlessly stuck to one another, evading time itself, yet still confined to infinity that forces the conversation to perpetuate.
—She was nice.
—Or she was trash and we didn’t realize it. Sometimes I don’t know if the things we do are legitimate or if they’re just there to waste time.
—We aren’t capable of it. There’s no time around here. There’s never a means to an end.
—She was nice.