In eleven expertly crafted stories, John Brandon’s Further Joy, out today, gives us a stunning assortment of men and women at the edge of possibility—gamblers and psychics, wanderers and priests, all of them on the verge of finding out what they can get away with, and what they can’t. Ranging from haunted deserts to alligator-filled swamps, these are stories of foul luck and strange visitations, delivered with deadpan humor by an unforgettable voice.
The New York Times praised Brandon’s last novel for a style that combined Elmore Leonard and Charles Portis, and now Brandon brings that same darkly American artistry to his very first story collection, demonstrating once again that he belongs in the top ranks of contemporary writers.
Today we offer an excerpt from “Palatka.” To purchase Further Joy, in which the full version of this story, as well as ten others, appears, please visit our store.
Pauline awoke to Mal’s voice outside her window. Mal was the seventeen-year-old girl who lived by herself in the next apartment. She was always talking on her outdated cordless phone, always helping some far-off person navigate a problem. Pauline went out to their shared back balcony in her bare feet and snuggled into a camping chair. Mal, standing with her weight all on one hip, grasping a big cup of iced tea, winked at her. She was as skinny as a rail; her fingernails were painted in stripes, and her elbows were raw. Pauline never saw her come home with groceries. The girl had a look in her eye sockets like she didn’t get enough red meat, or enough green vegetables. Pauline felt a mothering urge toward Mal. She had never gone through a wild phase herself, and so Mal’s carelessness fascinated her—her carelessness about things such as nutrition and education, but more so her general carelessness with herself. She didn’t seem to realize that a cute young girl shouldn’t treat her body and soul like they were rented.
Mal hung up the phone and chugged enough of her tea that she had to recover her breath afterward. She hoisted herself onto the banister. Pauline asked what the call was about and Mal said she had a friend who, when she met up in person with a guy from online, always felt too guilty to bail if she didn’t like the looks of him.
“She feels bad about wasting the guy’s time, after they got gussied up and used gas in their tank. And she’s like, what if that happened to me? I said, nobody’s going to be walking out on you because of the way you look. She’s like, yeah, they walk out later for other reasons.”
Pauline was only six years older than Mal, yet the dating world Mal inhabited seemed foreign to her, insane. There was no normal dating world anymore, she knew. A guy wasn’t going to approach Pauline with his hat in his hands and ask if that seat was taken, then give her an elegant little compliment and ask if he could have her phone number for the purpose of asking her out on a date that weekend.
“I’m telling you, you gotta try it,” Mal said. “It’s a hoot. Why not put up a profile and see what happens?”
“It just seems dangerous,” said Pauline. “I need to do something, but not that.”
“Dangerous? I’ve stopped keeping track of what’s dangerous. It’s tiring.”
“There’s a bunch of perverts in their underwear leering at your picture, Mal. Thinking God-knows-what.”
“I just want to go on a few dates. A girl used to be able to do that. Anyway, the picture I use is tasteful.”
“I’m sure it is,” Pauline said.
“It’s fun browsing through the guys. You get a bunch of likes and dislikes and hobbies. Then sometimes they’ll brag that they have a job.” She smiled. “Rick couldn’t brag about that. He bragged about his dad’s boat.”
Rick had been Mal’s most recent semi-steady guy, a man easily older than Pauline, way too old for Mal, with a tattoo on his neck and a hairline that had begun to recede. Pauline hadn’t seen him in a week or so. “What ever happened with Rick?”
“Yeah, that.” Mal ran a palm down her cup, wiping it dry. “His friend called and asked me out and I said no way, then I told Rick about it and he says, ‘I know, I told him to. It was a test.’ I was like, these fuckers are weird.”“Did you have to lie about your age, for the site?”
Mal spit ice into her cup. “Been doing that all my life. Sometimes I forget how old I actually am.”
Mal pulled her hair back and bound it with a rubber band. It was a light shade of brown and always looked a little greasy. Though Pauline talked to Mal most every day, she still knew almost nothing about the girl’s childhood. She’d been raised a couple counties away, Pauline knew, in a place she’d said was even more raggedy than Palatka, by an old woman she called Granny who wasn’t really her grandmother. The old woman had passed away a couple years back. Pauline didn’t pry; Mal was the type who would tell you everything she wanted you to know.
“What have you eaten today?” Pauline asked her.
“Eaten?” said Mal. She tipped off the banister stiffly toward Pauline, as if falling, then shot her feet down and landed like a gymnast. “I don’t know. I eat biscuits every morning, then I don’t get hungry again.” Mal gave the ice in her cup one sharp shake, then swished inside, the screen door swatting behind her.
Pauline rose and climbed into Mal’s spot on the banister. She pressed her back against the beam and gripped the railing under her legs. The balcony felt solid enough, though its planks were discolored and warped. After several minutes Pauline grew comfortable with her balance, though she knew she didn’t look at ease, like Mal had. She didn’t look like a wise stray kitten.
Pauline hadn’t had sex for over a year now. She was too picky, was the problem. There was a certain type of guy she was comfortable with, and that often liked her in return—guys who were nowhere near handsome but were cocky anyway due to some offbeat talent they possessed, who were gentlemanly without overdoing it—and that type of guy existed in college towns, not in regular Florida. Those were the guys who hadn’t minded entertaining and winning Pauline, guys who spoke useless languages and played outdated musical instruments. Pauline remembered what it was like to be with one of them, how each hour had seemed unique. They’d been so sweet and honest. They’d been boys, she supposed, not men.
The last night Mal had brought Rick home, Pauline had turned her seldom-used TV up as loud as it would go, blaring a news story about a museum burning to the ground. The noises Mal made were like giggling. His were like someone getting burned by a cigarette.
Mal burst back onto the balcony. “Believe it? I’m officially one hundred percent out of tea. How do I let these things happen?”
Pauline lowered herself from the banister and curled back up in her chair. The heat of the day was taking hold. She could feel sweat trickling down her neck. “Mal, how many friends do you have?” she asked.
Mal’s face went blank a moment. “No close ones, I don’t guess. None like when you’re a kid and you’re friends with someone. Friends like me and you, maybe seven or eight. If I have a friend long enough, I get in a fight with her.”
“Why? What do you get in a fight over?”
“Different things. Usually their boyfriends come on to me. This one dude, I threw a candle in his face, then my friend took his side. Says I could have blinded him.”
“A lit candle?”
“Hell yeah, a lit candle. She said I was jealous of her because she had this great guy, so I was trying to ruin it for her. Meanwhile he’s got a crossed eye. He was part-owner of a roller rink.” Mal crossed her arms. She was wearing a tank top that revealed the flat bones of her chest. “She said I was always flirting, even if I wasn’t trying to. The way I bop around and, you know, look at people. Maybe she’s right.” She bit the inside of her cheek. “Do you think she’s right?”
“I don’t know,” Pauline said. “Look straight at me.”
Mal arranged her face over-seriously and rested her eyes on Pauline. It certainly wasn’t flirty. Mal wasn’t blinking; she was waiting for some sort of verdict. And as Pauline looked back at her, thinking of what to say, she began to suspect that the face Mal was making was Pauline’s face, that she was unconsciously mirroring Pauline.