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Tremendous Machine


Spindling, white Fjóla Neergaard, in dun wool slacks, her marble face perched on a whorl of scarves, drove her father’s Mercedes through a trash-blown lane of reupholsterers and auto-body shops in a Krakow suburb. She was looking for a sofa.

Her breakfast — a soft-boiled egg, a slice of tomato, two gherkins, and black tea — was over. The morning squall was over, and the attendant downpour was over, and the little flood had drained into the sewers. Her childhood dread of crossing bridges and her allergy to cashews were over. She had vanquished them. But that period when we have the strength to kill dragons by merely throwing a rock at them was also over: the early adult years when our powers are perfect and we either find the work of our prime or we don’t. Fjóla Neergaard had not found it. Dieting did not qualify as a vocation. Her dogged attempts to turn it into one had failed; she had not landed a shoot in more than a year. To feel disappointed or to object that fate or fashion had mistreated her was cheap. She might go on treating her body like the sarcophagus of a virgin martyr if she wanted, but its market value was zero.

For most of the spring, she had been living in torpid exile at her parents’ vacant Polish country house, in a state of tedious hunger that, lacking the prospect of an interested camera, served no one and nothing. She read Danish, French, German magazines in the cavernous salon, neatly tearing out the pages as she absorbed the pictures with compulsive jealous agony, and feeding them to the fire, which went green in flickers from the glossy paper. For weeks, her bones luxuriated in the aches and stabs of napping on the hearth rug. Physical discomfort was so often the cost of her little achievements as to have become their reward. Then she got a wild idea: why not employ her father’s checkbook to buy a sofa and read her magazines on cushioned furniture? Beyond this ambition — as she cruised the puddled streets, struggling to decipher the Polish exclamations on the signboards — she had no plans.

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’s novel The End (Graywolf) was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. His story “The Hidden Person” appeared in the January 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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