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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Contributor Spotlight: Matthew Baker


– As a young child, the author was raised by a single mother, who, when she needed to go to the supermarket, had no choice but to bring the author with her. The supermarket was a sprawling labyrinth of racks and aisles. And, once, she lost the author there. The author, at the time, was obsessed with cereal boxes—the bizarre designs, the colorful images, all of that illuminating text—the author could stand there forever, in that seemingly endless aisle of seemingly endless boxes, just gazing, awed. One night, after letting the author choose several boxes of cereal, and then giving the author several additional minutes just to stand and gaze, the author’s mother said to come on, and pushed the cart off toward the aisle’s end. The author began following, then stopped, distracted by a box of rainbow cereal. The author’s mother turned the corner, calling back, warning the author to keep up. Jazz music played over the speakers, quietly. She, the mother, found a bag of rice in the next aisle, selected a jar of marinara. She inspected a jar of alfredo. She turned—to ask the author to quit making kapow noises—then saw that the kapow noises did not belong to the author. The kapow noises belonged to a different child altogether, following another cart. The author wasn’t in the aisle at all. Annoyed, she pushed the cart back to the cereal aisle, to collect the author—but the author was not in the cereal aisle. The aisle was empty. The author was gone. She checked the neighboring aisles. This one, that one, empty, empty. Her heart began pounding. She raced with her cart from aisle to aisle, searching for the author. The author was not in the dairy aisle. The author was not in the spice aisle, or the aisle of jams and jellies, or the aisle of detergent and mops. The author was not in any aisle whatsoever. A kidnapping. She abandoned her cart, raced toward the exit, faster, faster, faster, until, suddenly, the jazz music cut out, and she heard her name being paged. Her name, over the speakers. She was being asked to come to the deli. Had the author taken shelter there, to report a missing mother? Yes, she found the author at the deli, in the care of the butchers, eating a slice of salami.

– The author’s first job was in a deep-dish pizzeria, scrubbing pots and larding pans. The pizzeria was attached to a gigantic suburban shopping complex that was centered around a movie theater. Now, listen: at the back of the pizzeria, just past the sinks piled with dirty plates, there was a plain white door. Where did the door lead? Out of the pizzeria—but not outside. Rather, the door led deeper inside—deeper into the complex—led into a deserted hallway, with no windows and no furnishings, just vivid bright carpet and plain white doors. All of the businesses in the complex were connected, secretly, by this maze of deserted hallways. The author liked to wander those hallways, sometimes, through all that empty space. The doors had no knobs, but if you knocked, someone was sure to answer. In the pizzeria, any leftovers, any messups, the author was given to eat. There was a stereo, with scratched discs of pirated songs. There was a server the author was in love with, who didn’t love the author. The author had all the teenage essentials: pizza, music, unrequited love. Some doors in the hallway opened onto shops with ice cream, who would trade for pizza. Some doors in the hallway opened onto shops with iced coffee, who would trade for pizza. Some doors opened onto cinema screens. There was a shower, were washing machines and drying machines, adjoining the conference rooms above the movie theater. It was actually never necessary to leave.

– Once, in the food court of a shopping mall, the author snuck aboard a carousel.

– Every day, the author wears the exact same outfit. This year, the outfit is: a dark blue sweater with light brown buttons; a threadbare gray shirt found lying on the dirt at a reservoir in the mountains; and light blue pants that turned light pink in certain places after once hiking through snowdrifts without the proper gear. The author does have other clothes—but, still, every day, that is the outfit the author decides to wear. Sweater, shirt, unintentionally pink pants. The only real exception to this is costume parties, which the author attends as often as possible, which is not often enough. The author does own one coat, which can be seen in the included picture.

– The author once stole a gray wool coat from the basement closet of a sorority house that the author had been hired to paint. The author wore the stolen coat every winter for three years until the inside silk lining was ripped and buttons were missing and the seams of both shoulders had been torn clean through. The next winter—still wearing the stolen coat—the author went to a giant department store. The author tried on several coats in a changing room. Then the author chose one to buy. Before heading to the checkout counter, however, the author found an empty hanger, and hung up the stolen coat—on a rack of new coats—as if the stolen coat were for sale. The author can explain this only by saying that it felt like the right thing to do.

– The author was born in a very, very, very cold state, where winter lasts about seven months, and there is snow, and there is ice, and there is sleet, and there is a murderous windchill. Thus, the author, who walks everywhere, invented a method of travel called buildinghopping. Here is what buildinghopping is: instead of walking from your location to your destination via the sidewalks like everybody else, whenever possible you cut through buildings, which are heated. This method takes much longer than traveling exclusively by sidewalk, but is much warmer. Thus, every day, that is how the author traveled. Now, one of the buildings along the way was a fancy hotel—the author would cut through a side entrance, down a very long hallway, through the lobby, down a very long hallway, out a side entrance—and, every morning, as the author passed through the hotel, the author would stop where the continental breakfast was set out, and would drink a cup of tea. Sometimes, also, the author would eat an orange.

– Once, in a foreign country, the author was accused of shoplifting. The incident occurred in a massive grocery store. The author was—yes—wearing the unintentionally pink pants, and the shirt, but not the sweater, because the weather in that country was absolutely sweltering. The author was shopping for rations for a very, very, very long journey. After paying, the author was met at the exit by a pair of gigantic men employed as security. One was the boss; one was the backup. What did you take? the boss guard said. I paid for this, the author said, waving the bag of rations. I don’t mean that, the boss guard said. Oh, the author said. I was watching you on the cameras, the boss guard said. Oh, the author said. The boss guard hesitated. Then the boss guard said, I saw you put something into your pants. The boss guard seemed ashamed to say this—like he had been hoping to resolve all of this without having to bring up that the allegedly stolen goods were now allegedly somewhere in the author’s pants. What? the author said. The author actually had heard what the guard had said, but wanted to make the guard say it again. I saw you put something into your pants, the boss guard said, seeming simultaneously to grow both bolder and even more ashamed. Do you want to see? the author asked. The guards took the author to an isolated corridor, possibly for the sake of privacy, possibly anticipating a disorderly arrest. Okay, let’s see, the boss guard said. The other guard seemed to be bracing himself for whatever was coming next. The author smiled. It’s a secret wallet, the author said. The author reached into the unintentionally pink pants, rooted around, and then took out a canvas wallet—the canvas wallet was attached to the author’s belt, and could be tucked into the author’s pants, to be hidden there from thieves. Within the wallet were a passport, a train pass, and about nine hundred euros. The boss guard looked shocked, and confused, but mainly embarrassed. The other guard, however, seemed impressed—like he had never realized how much he wanted a secret wallet, before, but he really wanted one. A secret wallet, the other guard murmured, as if memorizing wisdom from a sacred text. That was that. The guards led the author back to the exit. Thanks, the author nodded. Sorry, the boss guard said, still embarrassed. The author walked to the train station and ate a loaf of bread.

– The author was accused of shoplifting another time—not just in the author’s homeland—but even in the author’s hometown. The author was trying to buy a glass bottle of root beer from a wine shop. However, at the checkout, instead of ringing up the root beer, the manager accused the author of shoplifting. The author was wearing a gigantic coat with innumerable pockets. Search me then, the author dared the manager, but the manager refused to search the author. Then here, the author said, waving some cash, but the manager refused to take the money. The author resorted to making a threat. This is the last time you’ll ever get my business, the author said. We don’t need your business, the manager said. The author was kicked out, and apparently the manager wasn’t lying, as that wine shop is still in business even today.

– In college, the author lived with a pair of freegans: people who subsist solely on food that has been thrown away. Each night, sometime around midnight, the roommates would bundle into hats and mittens and then leave the apartment to go forage through local dumpsters. Much later, the roommates would return to the apartment, wearily, smugly, lugging plastic garbage bags loaded with bagels. Bagels—yes, bagels—that’s what the roommates liked. There was a bakery in town with a strict policy: bagels could be sold only on the day that those bagels had been baked. So, each day, after the bakery closed, all the unsold bagels got tossed out. Hundreds, typically. Then the roommates would raid the dumpster. Upon returning, the roommates would gorge themselves on the bagels, and salvaged tomatoes, and salvaged yogurts, feasting happily, urging the author to partake. Now, once, the author did try a bagel—no, not sesame—no, not pumpernickel—no no no, absolutely never onion—yes, that there, cinnamon raisin walnut, that’s what kind the author chose. And how did the bagel taste? Dry. The bagel would have been better with butter. But, that night, the harvest had yielded none.

– In college, the author was not a freegan, and whether the author is now will not be included in this account.

– The author has never been marooned on an island.

– The author sews poorly, but can sew.

– But here is a thing the author did do in college. In college, on weekends, what did people do? Some people liked to party. Some people went clubbing. As for the author, the author would hike through the snow to an enormous chain bookstore, and then read books there. Fantasy novels, usually. For hours. The books were meant to be bought, but employees would not stop you from peeking, or even reading through. There was a cafe, where you could buy a drink so you at least had paid for something, but the author never did. Perched in a plush armchair, headphones tinkling with koto, the author read stacks of books and paid for nothing. The author loved that. The author could have done the exact same thing at the public library, but, on weekend evenings, the public library was closed.

– Sometime after graduating college, the author’s mother gave the author the startling news that—regardless of how convinced the author may have been of the contrary, regardless of what intuition may have been telling the author for years—that the author’s birth had not involved a fetus in fetu: that, while in the womb, the author absolutely had not absorbed the body and soul of an unborn twin brother.

– Once, in an apartment, the author and a roommate lived in tents. Each set up a tent in the bedroom, on the floor, which was carpeted, and slept in the tents, in down sleeping bags. One tent was bluish; one tent was yellow. For about five months, the author and the roommate lived that way.

– The author is amazed by hummingbirds, and dreams of someday owning a birdfeeder.

– The author has never had a mortgage, or loan, except once did borrow thirteen francs from a friend, in a country that for some reason believes in francs.

– The author has never understood coupons.

– The author has never worked retail.

– The facial markings are not permanent.

– The author has spent exactly one night on the street, and has always regretted not spending more.


Matthew Baker translates the interlinked novel The Numberless, the randomized novella Kaleidoscope, and the intentionally posthumous Afterthought. Although a story writer by day, his primary medium is the crop circle. He lives in Peoria, Illinois, but was not born there. His story "Goods" can be found in HFR53.

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