Greetings from Below
From "The Last Thing in the World"
All afternoon he thought of her, eagerly imagining the details of her body: her height, her weight, the color of her skin, the curves of her legs, hips, breasts. Now, as Nick walks west through the Tenderloin, nearing the corner of Taylor and Eddy, he feels a prick of anxiety at the back of his throat. Brief but dispiriting— always causing him to second-guess himself—it’s a familiar sign that he’s doing something he knows is questionable. A cool breeze picks up, heralding the coming autumn, but Nick feels sweat surface on his forehead. He’s unsure if he should turn back or carry on. Each building he passes is a liquor store or a Laundromat or a bedraggled old flophouse with a neon Vacancy sign. He hurries by them, late to meet My-Duyen, the Vietnamese masseuse he telephoned by way of the yellow pages, a call girl who refers to herself as the “Asian Sensation.”
The address is 155 Golden Gate Avenue, between Leavenworth and Jones. When he spoke to her earlier today, she told him to call her from the curbside pay phone at a quarter past eleven. “Generous men only,” she said, as if he weren’t aware that her repertoire extended beyond the domain of benign, legal massage. “Full service,” she added. He stared at her photoless ad in the fluorescent light of his kitchen. “I’m Jack,” he told her, giving her his father’s name, whispering into the receiver as though someone were around to hear him. “My-Duyen,” she replied. She mewled and moaned. When he asked her what her name meant, if anything at all, she paused before answering. “Beautiful,” she said, and Nick hoped the name was appropriate.
At the pay phone, he digs a scrap of paper from his back pocket, dials the number he copied from the telephone book. The building is a handsome brick Edwardian with a big stone portico—the kind of building normally found in the Western Addition or Pacific Heights—out of place in the Tenderloin, as though it’s lost or slumming. The block is alive with people: walking in twos and threes, loitering in doorways, slinking in and out of a corner bar down the street whose windows have been painted black. After several rings, My-Duyen picks up. “You’re late,” she says. It’s eleven-twenty-five. “Second floor, apartment seven. I’ll buzz you in.”
Ascending the stairs, he finds it difficult to lift his feet, his legs solid with apprehension, and the climb to the second floor seems to take an eternity. For all his unease, Nick is shuddering with excitement, hardly able to believe that he’s finally going to lose his virginity. At twenty-three, he considers himself a misfit—an anomaly. Most people spend their college years partying, having sex. Nick spent his reading books in the university library, or else playing Tetris, The Legend of Zelda, Dragon Warrior, adrift in the fictive worlds of novels and video games. He reads less these days but plays Nintendo more than ever, an hour or two every night. Of his small group of friends, he’s the sole virgin, a word he repeats so often in his mind that it sometimes bears no meaning, the two syllables bouncing hollowly off the walls of his consciousness, morphing into other, similar sounding words: burgeon, sturgeon, Virginia. It’s a Saturday, and most of the people he knows are out on dates, spending time with boyfriends and girlfriends. Nick himself has had only one girlfriend—the German exchange student he took to his high-school prom, a thick-ankled Protestant who was saving herself for marriage—and despite his every attempt to negotiate at least a one-night stand, he wakes each morning alone. That he’s resolved to pay for sex only magnifies his long-established feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing.
The door is ajar, a black number seven hanging upside down above the peephole. He steps into the apartment, clears his throat.
“Close it behind you,” My-Duyen says, drawing curtains across a giant bay window. Music is playing softly on a stereo, a jazz composition he doesn’t recognize. She turns to face him. “You must be Jack.”
Mullins . . . threads the narrative of a single character through a hole of paternal loss, watching carefully as he passes through early boyhood up through adulthood (and we’re talking real adulthood, not the delayed adolescence so common in the culture today), uncovering in each story something about the mystery in the connection between loss of a father and the formation of a sexual identity. The originality here is not the loud kind––stylistic high jinks, flashy explosive plots––but rather the quiet kind that comes from deep thought, from an impulse to tweeze apart the experience found in the life of a character named Nick.
—from the Foreword by David Means
“Whether he’s writing about teenage boys and a fort in the desert composed of stolen highway foliage, or the desultory boredom of a Christmas Eve swingers’ party, or a grieving mother losing herself in shopping-mall binges, or a fight in a strip club and a cache of stolen casino chips, David Philip Mullins flat-out nails what it is to be young and lost in the West. There are echoes of Raymond Carver here, with wide-open spaces and scrambled lives, and Denis Johnson, too––touches of lyrical and hysterical squalor. But the voice is a new one––distinct, generous, and knowing. Read this book and you’ll agree, David Philip Mullins is a writer to watch.”
—Charles Bock, author of Beautiful Children
“At the heart of this thoroughly contemporary collection is Nick Danze, an aspiring writer whose sexual preferences take him to various little-known corners of the psyche. Mullins writes about these journeys, and about sex and the desert, with a wonderful, edgy lucidity. Greetings from Below is a remarkable debut.”
—Margot Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street
Every few years a writer comes along to tell us new stories about a place we thought we knew. David Mullins is that writer. Las Vegas is his world. Gone is the glitter and the glamour. Revealed are the jarring effects of a massive city in the barren desert landscape. These wonderful connected stories examine the universal themes of family, loss, sex, and the yearning to communicate. Carefully written in beautiful prose, True Love Versus the Cigar Store Indian is a moving and stunning debut from a natural writer.
—Chris Offutt, author of Kentucky Straight