Tom Paine wrote the story collection Scar Vegas, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a Pen/Hemingway Award finalist, a Village Voice “Writer on the Verge” pick, an Esquire “Hot List” book and was featured on NPR. His stories are published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Playboy, The Boston Review, the New England Review, Zoetrope, and The Oxford American and in the award anthologies The O. Henry Awards and The Pushcart Prize (twice). His novel The Pearl of Kuwait was featured on public radio and was recently optioned. His new collection of stories, A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns, was published in October. His poetry is upcoming in The Nation, Fence, and The Green Mountain Review. A graduate of Princeton and the Columbia MFA program, he is an associate professor in the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire.
From “The Hotel on Monkey Forest Road”
When he was gone I looked down at the grass in my hand. At first I thought nothing about it, but then I looked again and held the grass up to the fluorescent lights. The thing is this: That clump of grass was still emerald green. It was more than two years old and still hadn’t dried out. You could put it to your nose and close your eyes and your head was filled with the scents of Bali. I showed it to the other engineers in the Rangoon bar that night, and they all cheered and toasted old Sherm for his “bloody good prank.” One of the men took the grass, looked at it for a full minute, and then as he handed it back said, “He must of kept it in his refrigerator.” I sat there in the bar looking down at the moist grass in my open palm, thinking how impossible it was still so fresh, and then remembered one of my last days on Bali, back at the close of my wandering twenties.
I had been surfing the pipes all day at Kuta. That night at a bar called the Topi Copi I met this woman who had until just recently been an ornithologist back in the States, working for Du Pont to prove a certain species of warblers was not in crisis. She told me how she had banded warblers in Massachusetts and then moved down to the Caribbean, and the first bird she captured on Tortola was the first bird she had banded up north. She added another red band to his leg, and when she went back up to New England a few months later, she was sitting at her kitchen table having a morning cup of coffee when she looked out the window at her bird feeder, and there was a doubly red-banded warbler cocking his head back and forth at her. She asked if I thought she was crazy for quitting her job, and I said at the time, “A lot of ornithologists probably use red bands.”
From “Ceausescu’s Cat”
The Romanian Revolution then began in the city of Timisoara. Pavel showed little interest as I listened on CNN to the few reports. The revolution was started by a priest who must have been a friend of Pavel’s. I assumed some of the dead were once friends of my brother, but Pavel would not talk to me of the revolution.
And then the dictator Ceausescu is gone from power. He and his wife are executed. At the time I tell this news to Pavel he shows no outward reaction but begins going inward, he never leaves his bed, and then he starts going out at night and coming back drunk and stupid. He clearly no longer has the dream of becoming a millionaire American thief.
From “Will You Say Something, Monsieur Eliot?”
The sun burned through his blind eyes. There were yellow spots on the backs of his eyelids. The yellow broke up and scattered into a thousand small suns, and Eliot saw ideas whipping around his head as if in a hurricane, taunting him and then fading. A woman’s voice was in his ear. There was a cloth and warm water, and she was wiping his eyes tenderly. The woman was singing a lullaby. The others were quiet while she sang in his ear and wiped his eyes. Her breath steamed on his ear. The boat creaked, but there was no motion on the deck.
Eliot tried to get up on his elbows. There was a clamor of voices, and he lay down again. Water was poured into his mouth and it curled warm down within him. Eliot felt a thumb on his eyelid, pushing upward. His eyelid opened and Eliot saw a yellow eye.
Monsieur, parlez-vous français?
The thumb held his eye open, and Eliot saw a black face with cracked red lips and broken teeth. Eliot moved his head to the side, releasing the thumb, and blinked. He rubbed his eyes with his aching hands and he could see dozens of black faces crowded over him, waiting silently. A man in a torn light-blue shirt dress shirt with dirty white ruffles said, Parlez-vous français?
Eliot opened his lips and said, I am American.
The faces turned to the short man with the ruffles and he waved his hand like an impresario and pointed at Eliot and said triumphantly, U.S.A.!
The faces, open-mouthed, looked down at Eliot, and the man in the ruffles nodded like a king and pointed at him and repeated, U.S.A.!