The McSweeney’s Books
Preview of Adam Levin’s
BY ADAM LEVIN
Adam Levin’s debut novel The Instructions was one of the most buzzed-about books of 2010, a sprawling universe of “death-defying sentences, manic wit, exciting provocations and simple human warmth…” — Rolling Stone.
Now, in the stories of Hot Pink, Levin delivers ten smaller worlds, shaken snow-globes of overweight romantics, legless prodigies, quixotic dollmakers, Chicagoland thugs, dirty old men, protective fathers, balloon-laden dumptrucks, and walls that ooze gels. Told with lust and affection, karate and tenderness, slapstickery, ferocity, and heart, Hot Pink is the work of a major talent in his sharpest form.
Today we offer a peek at one of the stories from Hot Pink. To purchase the book, please visit our store.
The way I heard it, this guy, Donald, who was pathologically shy, wrote the world’s greatest love letter—four lines long, a mere seventy words—to a girl called Janet, with whom he’d made slightly longer than average eye contact on at least three separate occasions. (After what may have been the second, he went to the bathroom and discovered in the mirror a smear of red ink on the bridge of his nose.) Donald wrote the letter in flawless calligraphy on supple paper, then folded it into an origami duck, and at lunch the next day—Donald and Janet worked at the same office—he hung back a couple minutes till all of his fellow employees had cleared out, at which point he walked the duck across the room and mistakenly stood it on the chair of Chrissy’s cubicle, which shared a partition with Janet’s.
Just a couple minutes earlier, Janet, a secret origami enthusiast who was even shyer than Donald, lonelier too, and whose feelings for Donald were entirely mutual, had noticed, on her way out the door to lunch, that Donald had not yet risen from his cubicle. Janet thought that maybe if she could dally long enough to bump into Donald with no one else around, they might finally get up the nerve to speak to each other, or, failing that, they could make some more eye contact, maybe even within the close quarters of the elevator, and maybe, were the elevator crowded enough, she could brush Donald’s arm with a shoulder. So Janet lingered by the water fountain, fake-drinking water, and saw Donald place something on her chair. She was instantly sweaty. What could it be? She ran to the ladies’ room and washed her hands twice. By the time she returned, Donald was gone. She went to her cubicle, discovered her mistake. Her chair was empty. Donald’s gift was for Chrissy. An origami duck. Janet picked it up, turned it in the light. What beautiful work! Not a crease that wasn’t straight. Not the slightest hint of an unintended shadow. Under the wings and along the bill’s edges, words inscribed in impeccable calligraphy appeared between the elegant folds: love and eyes and bashful and you and glue and us and forever. Other words appeared on the sides of the neck and the webbing of the feet, but Janet, remembering they weren’t for her, chose not to read them, and, lest she obey her terrifying impulse to crush the duck against her chest and jump out the window, plunging to her death, she set it back down on the seat of Chrissy’s chair and left the building, as if in a trance. She walked a block, not knowing to where, then walked another block, still unknowing. In the middle of the third block, she settled on the lake. She would go to the lake and look at the waves, the sight of which always gave her comfort in summer. The lake was east and east was left. She took a sharp left, into the street, where she was struck by a bus and instantly killed.
For lunch, Donald ate some egg-salad sandwiches. He’d prepared the egg salad the night before, as soon as he’d finished folding the duck, and this morning scooped enough to make four sandwiches into a sealable plastic container. He’d carried the container, along with utensils and disposable napkins, in a thermal lunchbox he’d bought for the occasion. The first floor of the building in which he and Janet worked featured a bakery that made his favorite brioche rolls. After purchasing four, Donald brought them to the park across the street, and, sitting on the ledge of the fountain, in the sun, he sliced three in half, spread egg salad on them, and ate them with gusto. He waited until the very end of the lunch hour to make the fourth sandwich, in order to ensure that it would be as fresh as possible. He would, upon returning to the office, as long as Janet didn’t seem repulsed by his letter, give her that sandwich. His last girlfriend, Terri, had sworn his egg salad was the finest egg salad she’d ever eaten, and his friend had liked it, too. Donald, if he did say so himself, agreed that he made a mean egg salad, but he hadn’t once eaten it in over three years, not since just before Terri and his friend ran off to Connecticut together and became highly paid pharmaceutical representatives. A part of him had been worried that he might have lost his touch, but no sooner had he swallowed his first bite of sandwich than he realized he hadn’t.
He returned to the office a couple minutes late. Everyone was there but Janet.
Chrissy never realized the duck was a letter, but she thought that it might have been a gift from Janet, the dikey bookish girl she’d worked with who a bus killed—so sad—so she held on to the duck for sentimental reasons. Chrissy was lucky to be born with her genes and she knew it, too, so she was nice to everyone, including lesbians, just as long as they didn’t try anything creepy, since, first of all, lesbians were people too, and secondly she knew that no one stayed beautiful, you got old and saggy, and having a nice body was not a thing that lasted, but having friends was. Those were her values.
When she got home from work on the day Janet died, Chrissy set the duck on her knickknack tray’s edge, where it stayed till the first chilly night in fall, when the heat kicked on and the vent blew the duck all over the tray till its bill wedged between a pair of porcelain gorillas in T-shirts, hugging. Then, on the first warm night of spring (by which time Donald had long since hanged himself), Chrissy threw a party which got so fun that a dancing drunk guy fell down hard, knocking the knickknack tray to the floor. With the exception of the world’s greatest love letter, all the tray’s contents exploded on impact.
“You broke my knickknack tray,” Chrissy told the drunk guy.
“You sank my battleship,” the guy told Chrissy.
“You broke my knickknack tray,” Chrissy said.
The guy said, “Knickknack paddy wack, can’t you see that I love you?”
He worked the broom and she held the dustpan. The duck looked like garbage and they swept that up, too. They fucked all night long, fucked well for being drunk. The next night, sober, they fucked even better.
When you and I were young and in love, Tom and I would go to a twenty-four-hour diner in a basement at Western Avenue and Augusta. We’d sit at the counter there and eat fried eggs on small croissants nearly every weekday morning before work. Because we were regulars, the cook would occasionally surprise us with cheese squares melted on our sandwiches, gratis.
I still type all my letters and address the envelopes by hand. I still feel about origami the way I feel about mimes, unless you insist Harpo Marx is a mime. Harpo Marx I feel great about.
You were the person who introduced me to the Marx Brothers—you had everything on tape—but I pretended I knew their work to impress you, and dismissed it on the grounds that the Three Stooges were better. That was Tom’s opinion and I looked up to Tom. He was a couple years older than me and full of answers. One time I asked him when I’d stop hating my father. (“As soon as he stops being a cock about your friends, or you become a cock and ditch them like he wants you to.”) One time I asked him to explain, in plain language, the difference between signs and symptoms. (“You can observe others’ signs, like their swollen labia, but not others’ symptoms, like the butterflies in their stomach or their tingles or whatever.”) Another time, right after I’d sent you the one I’d written, I asked him what he thought about love letters. (“This poet called Don who my cousin used to know wrote the greatest one ever, but he gave it to the wrong girl—some dumb, heartless cunt who wasn’t even that hot—and she didn’t respond and he killed himself.”) Then one time I asked him if he thought gay men pretended their penis was someone else’s when they masturbated. He said that he didn’t know for sure, but the question was a good one, and he supposed that they probably tried to pretend at one time or another. Then he told me that that was like the Stranger.
“You wind a rubberband around your wrist so your hand falls asleep.”
“Oh,” I said. “Does it do the trick?”
Tom wished to God he knew, but there were never any rubberbands around when he needed one.
I’d been out with you the night before. I took you to see an action movie. You were still an athlete. You were training for U.S. swim team tryouts and I smoked a lot of cigarettes. I had parked on the roof of a four-story lot and, after the movie, you said we should race back up to the car. You thought it was funny to make me run. The race wasn’t close—you spared no effort. You were still hunched over, breathing audibly, hands on your knees, when I finally got there. Your hair was tied back with a cloth-covered rubberband the color of a robin’s egg. I pulled it off your head to announce my arrival—I could hardly breathe, much less speak—and you spun around and grabbed me, both-handed, by the ribs, and you pressed me to the wall and I pulled you to the concrete and… I’m sure you remember. But you forgot about the rubberband, never asked for it back. Probably because you had many such rubberbands. They come in packs of ten, twenty-five, and fifty, these rubberbands. They tend to have a gold or silver thread running through them. You know the kind I mean. The one I’d taken meant nothing to you.
It certainly meant more than nothing to me, though apparently not enough, or too much to admit. Maybe some combination. I don’t know anymore, I probably never did, but Tom was my friend, and I was young and in love, he was older and not-so, and your rubberband was wrapped around the lighter in my pocket. I handed it over.
“Stranger, here I come,” he said.
“Wait,” I said. “Actually…”
“What?” Tom said.
“Never mind,” I said. “Nothing. Let’s invent the religion.”
We’d often talked, at the diner, about inventing a religion, but we never got the chance. We’d be too hungover or wouldn’t have a pen or by the time we’d get enough coffee in us to begin we’d have to head out for work. That day was no different.
“Tomorrow,” Tom said. “We’re already running late.”
That night I met you for sushi on Division where before me was set a miso soup I hadn’t ordered. You insisted I try it, but I didn’t understand how to eat soup with chopsticks, so you showed me how to drink it straight from the bowl. A beige drop on your lip became a line on your chin and you wiped it away with the cuff of your hoodie, your thumb hooking through a tear in the seam, its chewed-looking nail and bright pink quick.
“Come on,” you said, tilting your face to my bowl.
Through the broth I saw the tofu. White cubes of paste, flaking. Mealy chunks of wet cadaver. A substance I’d managed to dodge for years. I hefted the bowl to my mouth and I drank until there was nothing left to drink.
The cubes stayed stuck to the bottom, a blessing.
I asked you if you’d gotten my love letter yet. I asked roundaboutly, weenieishly—how else would I have asked? No one ever accused me of being too direct. I said, “How was your experience at the mailbox today?”
You told me my letter had arrived, that it was typed.
I said, “Yes, but how was it?”
“Typed,” you said.
“I signed it by hand.”
“There’s no other way to sign a letter,” you said.
“Would you have preferred a duck? Should I have given it to your buxom office-mate instead?”
“A duck?” you said. “I don’t work at an office.”
You didn’t get my meaning—how could you have, really? I didn’t feel like explaining. Doesn’t matter, I thought. Had it been the letter you deserved to receive, it never would have gotten to you—you were not the wrong girl.
The following morning, at the diner, Tom reported on the Stranger. “The first few times it works pretty well,” he said. “I think after a break it’ll work well again. For now it’s lost its charm.”
I asked him for the rubberband.
He gave me a pink one.
I said, “This is pink. It’s not the one I gave you.”
“The color,” he said, “doesn’t make any difference. After work the other day, I tried the one you gave me—the blue one. Then I went to the drugstore and bought a twenty-five-pack. I tried green and red and orange. The best time was with red, but only because I’d learned the trick of it by then and I wasn’t too chafed. It was my first exercise in mastery, and so it was the best.”
“And after that?” I said.
“I tried yellow this morning. Yellow was good, exactly the same as red, really, but not as good as red. Tomorrow or the next day, for the sake of science, I’ll try the rest of the colors—there’s still purple and black and white and pink—but I’m sure they’ll be the same as the red, and just as good. The mind does not forget the mind and the hand does not forget the hand, but the mind forgets the hand and the hand the mind or some shit.”
I told him to give me the blue one.
“The blue one’s gone, dude. I threw it away. I’m telling you, though—the color doesn’t matter.”
I explained why it did.
He said, “Sentimental value. You should have told me that before I jizzed all over it. She must really be something, this girl,” Tom said. “A firecracker, huh? Atomic pussy. A real hot number. A whip-cracking piece. I hope I’ll get to meet her.”
“Come out with us tonight,” I said. “I think we’re going bowling.”
“I’m in,” said Tom.
Then I asked him for a pen to invent the religion with.
“Okay,” I said. “I think first of all it’s good to come up with a fetish because—”
“A fetish?” Tom said. “Like sucking on toes?”
“Like a totem,” I said. “Some kind of object to worship.”
“Oh,” Tom said. “You know, that’s not bad. The religion catches on, we could get rich selling them.”
“Selling them?” I said.
“The totems,” Tom said. “Trademarked totems. Little keychain totems. Idols sewn into the garments of every last worshipper. Make a fucken mint.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I—”
“No. It’s good—totems. It’s a great idea. But so the first thing we need is to come up with the bad guy. The guy who the totems protect you from, right? Yeah. That’s good. Let’s start with the bad guy.”
We didn’t start with the bad guy. We didn’t start with any guy. All we had to write on were paper napkins, and the only pen Tom had was a floaty pen: there was a flat ski-slope in the water cylinder and when you turned the pen to write with it, a flat man in a flat ski cap descended the slope in slow motion. The pen was intended to be a souvenir of some place mountainous and fondly remembered. It was never meant to function as a writing utensil. Its cheap ballpoint would roll only under a heavy hand. I tore through the napkin, scratched a line into the countertop. The cook skipped the gratis cheese squares that morning.
That evening, we all went bowling together. We bowled four games, then Tom noticed how late it was. All of us had to be up for work early. Of the three of us, I lived closest to the lanes. Tom, who was driving, mentioned that to us—I’m sure you remember—and he said it made sense to drop me off first. I wasn’t sure it made sense, but by then we were only a block from my apartment.
Today, at my mailbox, square envelope in hand, staring down at my many-seriffed, hand-addressed name, I needed a cigarette like never before, and was digging in my pocket with my free hand, blindly, in search of my lighter, when I underwent a sudden, whole-body spasm (I’m fine), and the hand in my pocket closed on everything in there—keys, receipts, change, etc.—then upwardly jerked and dumped it all on the floor.
I didn’t find the souvenir pen among the spillage—why would I? it’s been years—but I thought I should have. I thought it would have been nice to kind of round things out.
I guess I’m probably too old to invent a religion now, too. But thanks for the invitation. I’m regretful, can’t make it, best of luck to the both of you.
To purchase Adam Levin’s Hot Pink, please visit our store.
SUGGESTED READSMcSweeney’s Books Presents: Author Adam Levin and Porn Star Kayden Kross in Conversation (Part I)
by Adam Levin and Kayden Kross (4/2/2012)
McSweeney’s Books Presents: Author Adam Levin and Porn Star Kayden Kross in Conversation (Part II)
by Adam Levin and Kayden Kross (4/3/2012)
An Oral History of William Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down
by Gideon Lewis Kraus (3/17/2004)
RECENTLYI Feel Like NPR Doesn’t Like My New Radio Show Idea
by Dan Kennedy (4/24/2015)
How to Find Love: Lessons from an Old Maid: Letter to Adults Who Are Also Having Zero Sex
by Connie Sun (4/24/2015)
Open Letters: An Open Letter to the Former Owner of My Queen-Size Bed
by Catherine Tung (4/24/2015)