This year four illustrious writers – Susan Faludi, Russ Rymer, Jaed Coffin, and Sarah Braunstein – have joined Professor of English Brock Clarke to teach courses in fiction and creative nonfiction at Bowdoin. Below is an excerpt from Clarke’s upcoming novel The Happiest People in the World.
Matty was in his office, even though it was Friday night. Outside, it was dark, dark; inside the overhead lights were flickering like there were small animals up there, chewing on something important, or just running back and forth, enjoying their Friday night, having a good time messing around with the long fluorescent tubes.
“I’m not even supposed to be thinking about you,” he said into his cell phone, “let alone talking to you.”
“So don’t talk,” she said. “Just listen.”
So Matty did that. She talked for a long time, long enough for him understand that after he’d ended their affair seven years earlier she was so angry at him and at Broomeville and at the fucking world that she decided to go work for the CIA, long enough for him to understand that—in her capacity as a CIA agent and his capacity as an American citizen—she wanted him to do her a favor, long enough for him to get up out of his chair, walk out of his office, out of the building, out into the parking lot. He kept turning in circles while he listened to her talk. Way off to the west was the big dark nothing of the lake; to the east was the big dark nothing of the mountains; a half mile to the north was the town, the little square which was actually more like a trapezoid, the gazebo, the monument, the diner, the bar, the other bar, his house which–before they died–had been his parents’ house, the river that eventually ran into the lake; right in front of him, to the south, was the Broomeville (NY) Jr. Sr. High School. But from where was she calling? What direction was she?
Anyway, when she was done talking, Matty said, “You have got to be kidding me.”
“You sound different,” she said. “Are you outside now or something?”
“The CIA?” he said.
“I bet you’re standing in the parking lot.”
“How does someone just end up in the CIA?”
“The old Broomeville Jr. Sr. High parking lot.”
“The sky is full of stars here,” he said.
“The sky is full of stars here, too,” she said.
“Are you outside?”
“No, but I’m just guessing.”
“What exactly did this guy do, anyway?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
She didn’t say anything right away. The only thing he could hear was breathing, and he wondered, why is it that when someone breathes in your ear on the phone it’s either sexy or sinister, but when someone does it in person it’s mostly just annoying? “Because I don’t want to,” she finally said.
“Fair enough,” Matty said, and immediately wished he hadn’t. She had once accused him of saying that—“Fair enough”—way too often, and in response to things that weren’t fair enough at all, and then they’d gotten into a fight about it, his gist being did she have to be such a bitch, and her gist being she wouldn’t have to be such a bitch if he didn’t say “fair enough” all the time.
“There are no jobs,” he said.
“Then fire someone. There has to be at least one person there who deserves to be fired.”
“There’s no one,” he said. But too late: he was already thinking of someone. “I’m not giving your buddy a job,” he said anyway.
“Any old job will do,” she said. “And he’s not my buddy.”
“No,” Matty said.
“Let me just make two points.”
“He’s an internationally wanted criminal.”
“He’s not a criminal, Matthew,” she said, “unless being clueless is a crime.”
“But he is internationally wanted,” Matty said. “People are trying to assassinate him. And you want me to give him a job in a school. A school full of children.”
“But that’s one of my points,” she said. “People are trying to assassinate him here. People get assassinated here all the time. But no one ever gets assassinated in America.”
“What about Martin Luther King, Jr.?” he said. “What about Abraham Lincoln?”
“Well, there are obviously exceptions,” she admitted.
“What about the Kennedys?”
“Fair enough,” she said, and then they both laughed.
“I have missed you,” Matty said.
“That’s my other point,” she said.
Brock Clarke’s The Happiest People in the World will be published by Algonquin Books in November, 2014.