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The Clearing


The Clearing Cover





On Thursday, a man comes into the store and asks me how to kill his wife. I know, because it’s my business to know, that what he really wants to ask is how to kill his wife and not get caught.

The man wears a short-sleeved button-down shirt and dark blue Dockers. His face is cratered with acne scars. It looks like the surface of the moon. I know without being told that this man works at one of the tech firms that have sprung up in the last year or so all along the road from Albany. He has never lifted a weight in his life. He has probably never been in a fight. He has never even been paintballing. But for some reason I feel sorry for this poor, bony fool and so I ask him whether he has a gas furnace.

I explain how to drill a hole in the main line that will allow a tiny stream of gas to trickle into his basement. The emission is so gradual that his wife is unlikely to notice. This is less detectable than disabling the pilot light on a gas stove. Also, it’s more controllable than blocking the return-air vents and filling the house with carbon monoxide. Then I tell him that he’ll need a spark.

The spark can come from anything. The static electricity of shoes scuffing a rug, the momentary discharge from the flipping of a light switch, the red power light on a clock radio that usually clicks on when the alarm sounds, a lightbulb that has been filled with gasoline and then screwed back into the socket—each can become a trigger that will turn out all the lights, if he knows what I mean. He does. He buys the Taskmaster Tool Kit (Deluxe Set), $179.99 on sale.

In the afternoon, I tell a nineteen-year-old in a fatigue jacket how to make napalm from gasoline and frozen orange juice concentrate (just mix equal parts—diet cola and gasoline works also) and then he buys a superthin Maxi-Grip C-series folding knife ($124.99)—which can be concealed in a boot or even inside a shirt collar for easy access—and a telescoping graphite police baton ($64.95). I tell him two stories about my time in the SEALs and show him my tattoo of Freddie the Frogman and then sell him The Mercenary’s Guide to Urban Survival ($19.99, paperback), and he leaves smiling and even salutes me, almost dropping his new baton.

The tattoo is temporary (I got a whole box of them two years ago at a novelty shop in Jersey City) and I’ve never been in the Navy. I’ve never even been farther than Philadelphia. And I can’t swim.

My name is Logan Bryant. I sell sporting goods. Actually, I sell sporting goods, hardware, athletic equipment, patio furniture, barbecue grills and hobby literature.

But don’t get me wrong: I’m not just some wanna-be. Truth is, I could have been a SEAL if I’d ever bothered to learn to swim. I hold at least a green belt in several fighting disciplines and am nearly a black belt in Thai kickboxing (I just haven’t had time to take the test). I am the uncontested star of what is generally acknowledged to be the fourth-best paintball team in the tristate area. (We were scheduled to compete for the national title on ESPN2 but were scratched at the last second. Politics.) I have a full collection of green and brown face paint in various shades. I was All-Conference at middle linebacker my junior year of high school and would have been All-State or maybe even Honorable Mention All-America the next year if I hadn’t quit. I used to have subscriptions to Soldier of Fortune and Guns and Ammo until Barry told me that no one reads those anymore. Also, I am confident in my willingness to take the life of another human being.

And I can almost bench-press three eighty-five.

Barry arrives as Lou and I are totaling Thursday’s receipts. Lou nods to him and Barry swaggers around a standing rack of catcher’s mitts and ducks under the counter. Barry is wearing a lime-green New York Jets warm-up jacket.

“The average American,” I am telling Lou, “has an IQ around seventy-three. At that level of intellect, even basic functioning requires considerable effort. Decisions that you or I would consider simple border on impossible for Joe Citizen. That’s why people are so easily swayed by celebrity pitchmen and Oprah Winfrey and demonstrations of the new-and-improved Spic and Span. That’s why a presidential candidate can give the same speech over and over—they’re all talking to five-year-olds. People are just like children.”

“But all people were children at one point,” Lou says.


“So, if they’re children now, what were they then?”

I sigh. “I’m trying to illustrate a point.”

“And what is that?”

“What is what?”

“The point, guy, the point.”

“My point is that people, for the most part, have no understanding of the realities of the world. That’s why it’s so easy for guys like you and me to get ahead.”

Lou finishes with his receipts and lays them down on the counter in a neat stack. “Isn’t that the same point you made on Monday?”

“No,” I say, exasperated. “My point on Monday was that college degrees are meaningless and that the only useful intelligence is street smarts. And that guys like you and me should really be running this country—and would be if we had little pieces of paper that said we’d gone to Princeton. Also, my point on Monday was based on the figure they released over the weekend, which put the average national IQ around seventy-six. In light of the most recent data, the conclusions must be even more extreme.”

“And who,” Lou says, “is compiling this data?”

I stare at him. “What do you mean? It’s a study.”

“By who?” He smiles. “Who’s ‘they’?”

Before I can answer, Barry says, “Do you doubt what he’s saying, Louie?”

Lou shrugs. “I just don’t know if people are so dumb.”

“Don’t know,” Barry says. “Look around you, man. We have the corrupt, liberal media. We have unchecked and unquestioned federal power. We have suppression of the First and Second Amendments, babies being murdered, kids’ shows that promote homosexuality, twenty-four-hour music videos, political correctness, celebrity magazines that promote homosexuality, celebrity talk shows, school shootings, celebrity profiles, celebrity political campaigns, celeb- rity fund-raisers for homosexual causes. This country is in the midst of a moral, racial, political, economic, social, sexual, military, environmental, educational, moral, fiscal, ethical, moral, class-based, moral crisis. We have forgotten our morality. We need a leader with character, who can provide moral stewardship and protect our kids from nudity and foul language and violence in the media and from entertainment with a homosexual agenda and who will institute a foreign policy to keep the ragheads in check and who has the compassion necessary to phase out the welfare system that lets fifty million unwed, teenage black mothers live lazily in the veritable lap of luxury by sucking on the overtaxed teat of real, hardworking Americans. Instead, we get these goddamn midwestern smooth talkers, chosen—by fifty-three percent of voters according to the most recent statistics— on the basis of height, for Chrissake. And you don’t know if people are dumb?”

I watch Lou triumphantly.

“That’s quite a speech,” he says.

“Damn right,” Barry says. “I always have one ready for you goddamn bleeding hearts.”

Lou frowns. “Are you sure there are fifty million black girls on welfare?”

“Sure I’m sure,” Barry tells him.

“I’m tired of losing,” Barry says.   “At paintball?” I say.

“That’s right.”

“We don’t lose too often.”

“Often enough.”

We’re at our gym, which is called Size, and Barry and I are taking turns on the leg press. He is wearing a tan leather weight belt to support his lower back. I pull the pin out of the weight stack—it was at two hundred, the weight Barry uses—and slide it into the hole marked four twenty-five.

There are only a few sluts in the weight room, stretching on the mats in the corner or else working on the lat pulldown, all of them dressed in spandex and string-strapped tank tops. I wait until a few of them are done with their various sets and then I lie back on the red-padded machine and set my feet shoulder width on the dimpled metal plate and push hard against it. The rack I am on slides away from the unmoving metal plate, and next to me four hundred twenty-five pounds of Bodysmith Nautilus weights creak upward in a quivering pile.

I can’t see anything but the white plaster of the ceiling, but I know the sluts must be looking. Even if they hadn’t already noticed me, the sound would have gotten their attention.

The ideal weight-lifting sound is never very loud. If you scream, you look like you’re trying too hard. The sound should combine the moan of sex with a muted angry roar. It should grow louder with each repetition, ending at about the same volume as a normal speaking voice.

When I am finished with the set, I sit up with my legs hanging off the edge of the machine and blot my face with a towel, looking out the side of my eye at one of the wall-size mirrors, inspecting the veins on my arms and the bulges of my chest and shoulders under the T-shirt.

I stand and Barry lies down for his next set.

“I’ve decided to bring in an expert,” he says.

“What kind of expert?”

“You know—an operator, a specialist, a mechanic.”

“Like a mercenary?”

He glances around us to see if anyone heard and motions for me to lean toward him, and when I do, says, “Like a mercenary.”

I keep my breathing normal. “Where’s he from?”

Barry smiles, our faces still close together, and says, “Israel, I think.”

“Why Israel?”

“Because they’re experienced.”

I groan. “But they don’t even lift. He probably has skinny little arms.”

Barry stares at me.

“Also,” I say, “what does some yid have to teach me about being hard?”

“He might know more about it than you think. And don’t say ‘yid.’ ”

“Sorry, but this all comes as quite a shock.”

“He’ll be here for our morning session on Saturday.”

He waves for me to move away from him and starts his set.

In the locker room, after we shower, Barry and I examine each other’s bodies and give constructive criticism. I know this sounds bad, but I just want to assure everyone that I’m not a fag. In fact, I would hate fags except that I read somewhere that hating fags meant you were a fag yourself. So I don’t hate them. I’m just not one. Really.

My apartment looks onto a grassless soccer field and the abandoned hulk of a paper mill and then onto the bright gray surface of Route 90, stretched out between banks of rust-colored trees, separated from the soccer field by a chain-link fence.

I turn on the television and slouch, sore-limbed, on the sofa. I drink a ready-mixed vanilla Met-Rx. The light from the television flickers across my face as I prepare the hypodermic and line up the bottles of pills—Dianabol, Nolvadex, Maxibolin, creatine phosphate. After I swallow the pills, I give myself the injection of B-12 and, so that doesn’t keep me up all night, follow it with two Seconal capsules the color of velvet-red cherries. I take four chalk-white zinc pills to keep the steroids from putting zits on my back and then I lie back and watch the bright gray screen.

The champion has teased hair and a sequined dress. She sings “I’m Still Here.” She is seven years old. She would like to thank God and her parents. She smiles all the time. The judges give her three and a half stars.

The challenger is an eleven-year-old boy with blond hair that flops over the sides of his head. He smiles wider than the girl. He sings “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” marching energetically in place. Suddenly, I have a vision of this boy in fifteen years, bruised, crying, track marks all along his arms. He is curled in a ball on the floor grabbing at the ankles of a V-bodied stud in leather pants. The big stud is saying, “It’s over, Julian. It’s . . . over.”

The judges give the challenger two and three-quarters stars.

The Seconals take hold and I am drifting and my chin sags to touch my chest. My eyelids droop closed and then pop open and droop closed again and do this over and over until finally they do not open anymore and I am asleep and the television is saying, “Kill, kill, kill.”

On Friday morning a blond slut in a purple tank top comes into the store and asks me about recumbent stationary bicycles. I am wearing a dark blue T-shirt with the Navy SEAL crest over the heart and united states navy seal teams across the back in white. The sleeves hug my biceps. My jeans are dark and boot-cut (I never wear a taper). My boots are tan Timberlands ($59.99 with the staff discount).

The slut stares at me hungrily. I lift up my T-shirt, using the bottom to wipe some imaginary grime from underneath my eye, showing her the cobblestone abs and the striations of the obliques.

“Are you an athlete?” she asks.

“I’m captain of the store paintball team.”

“Are you any good?”

“Bill Cookston said I was almost the best he ever saw. He said I could make any team I wanted, including Shockwave.”

“What’s that?”

“You’ve never heard of Shockwave? They’re only the winningest team in the history of the World Cup of paintball.”

“So, were you guys ever in that tournament on ESPN?” she says.

I snort. “ESPN.”

“I thought those guys were the best.”

“That’s what a lot of people think,” I say. “But for the serious MilSim competitor, that stuff is a sellout. It dilutes the purity of the sport.”

“What’s MilSim?”

I look at her for a few seconds and then say, “Military Simulation. What do you think we’re talking about?”

“I thought it was called war games.”

I can feel the muscles tighten in my shoulders. “It’s not a game.”


“Don’t worry about it,” I say, teeth clenched.

To calm myself, I put my hand on the seat of the Ergometer 9000 with optional heart-rate monitor and reading rack ($1,499.95).

“The recumbent feature,” I say carefully, “is particularly important if there will be any men riding the unit. Studies have shown that the upright models tend to promote impotence.”

“How do they do that?”

“Excuse me?”

“Promote impotence. The upright bicycles. How do they do it?”

“Well . . . I believe it has something to do with”—I look around for Lou, but I don’t see him anywhere—“with the ah . . . the heat of the testicle walls.”

Stevie is the only other salesman on the floor. He is showing a Merry Men compound bow ($334.99) to a fat-body in jungle camouflage complete with bush hat. I catch Stevie’s eye and he says something to the fat-body and walks toward me. The fat-body lays down the bow and begins fingering various arrowheads and stroking his thick mustache.

“Hello,” Stevie says when he reaches us.

“Hello,” the slut says. She is looking at Stevie with the same expression she had when I showed her my stomach. Stevie is taller than I am, but thin, and I wonder whether I am misreading her reaction.

“I was just explaining how upright bicycles cause impotence by overheating the testicle walls,” I say.

“Well,” Stevie says, smiling at me, “of course, that’s part of it. Also, the pressure restricts blood flow and damages the soft tissue.”

He walks the slut toward the displays of upright bicycles.

When erect, my cock is nine and a half inches long and as thick as some men’s wrists. A year ago, Stevie started working at the store and I heard from some slut we both know that he was packing almost eleven. Since then I have been seriously considering the experimental penile-enlargement surgery, which has been performed (I understand) with great success by two doctors in Sweden.

Copyright© 2003 by Benjamin Cavell

Product Details

Cavell, Benjamin
Vintage Books
Short Stories (single author)
Stories (single author)
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Vintage Contemporaries
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8.02x5.18x.61 in. .49 lbs.

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The Clearing Used Trade Paper
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Product details 208 pages PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE - English 9781400030354 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Rumble, Young Man, Rumble had me up until the wee hours. This book is dynamite, pure TNT! Cavell's take on the American musclehead culture is perfect, and he writes about it with hilarious irony, mercifully unfettered by the bounds of political correctness. A great new voice in American literature."
"Review" by , "Benjamin Cavell's stories are air-tight meditations on American masculinity: both celebration and critique, sometimes manic, always precise. Like early Thom Jones; a great find."
"Review" by , "So good I almost passed out; I knew I was in the hands of a major artist. Cavell's men are comic masterpieces of our times. They're funny when they're dumb, and brilliant when they're funny. You'll read these stories and hear them resonate like the best unbridled young male roar."
"Review" by , "Understatement is Cavell's game, and in its best moments his spare, confrontational prose reminds us of the young Hemingway....This Rumble is a spectacle not to be missed. You'll want a ringside seat."
"Review" by , "Astonishing....Cavell gives us modern men as action figures, and each story brilliantly bends them into yet another bizarre pose....Cavell — in these pungently original stories — has made himself a legitimate contender."
"Review" by , "Neil LaBute couldn't have written a colder, funnier or more brutal collection of stories than this....But it's Cavell's style — practically naked, muscular and tense — that might be the most male thing about this book."
"Review" by , "[T]he literary equivalent of a right hook....Reading Rumble, Young Man, Rumble is like going 12 rounds with a prizefighter. You're battered and bruised by the time it's over, but you've never felt more alive."
"Review" by , "Cavell's writing is lean and mean....It's also perhaps too stripped down to earn the early comparisons to more narratively expansive writers like...Thom Jones — let alone Hemingway and Mailer....Rumble is a promising first round. (Grade: B)"
"Review" by , "Benjamin Cavell comes on like gangbusters with a set of tightly coiled stories...[A] number of the characters here have bruising experiences...but not all of the slyly satirized machismo here is physical....[An] expert collection."
"Review" by , "Cavell's artful characterizations and pithy descriptions make for a rewarding read. Imagine Thom Jones writing about Chuck Palahniuk's characters, and you've got Cavell."
"Review" by , "Razor-sharp stories....Benjamin Cavell writes with the kind of hip tone that is a pleasure (if you get it, you're hip, too)....Engaging, funny and heartfelt, a provocative take on the new generation."
"Review" by , "A forceful debut collection....Though Cavell occasionally comes on too strong, the collection is filled with dead-on, often hilarious dialogue and offers a thoughtful meditation on masculinity and class."
"Review" by , "Cavell pushes his ordinary people to extremes that lift their stories out of the ordinary. Some pieces in the collection...stay closer to home, but all this writer's stories convey the urgency that prompts him to tell them."
"Review" by , "Out of this epidemic of testosterone poisoning emerge a few tales of touching tenderness....Other stories all but freeze the blood — or would if their hair-raising depictions of men overboard weren't so deliciously witty."
"Synopsis" by , In nine remarkable stories, Cavell exposes the darker side of being a "real man." Along with the macho comes a heightened sense of mortality, and a deeper need for something, or someone, to rely upon.
"Synopsis" by , In this widely acclaimed literary debut, Benjamin Cavell stalks the male ego, unleashing a ferocious volley of nine sharply written and deeply penetrating stories.

In Balls, Balls, Balls, we are introduced to Logan Bryant, the star member of the "fourth best paintball team in the tristate area." Despite his knowledge of napalm recipes and his skill during Military Simulations — MilSim, for short — Logan's armor shows fractures with every move he makes. In The Death of Cool, an insurance adjuster has come to realize much too clearly the range of threats that surround him. "Tired of trusting in the other guy's morality," he embraces his paranoia and leaves as little to chance as possible. The Ropes opens in a hospital room after Alex Folsom has sustained a devastating concussion. With both college and his boxing career behind him, he reunites with his father on Martha's Vineyard to assess the damage — both physical and emotional. Rumble, Young Man, Rumble is a ground-shaking announcement of the next heavy hitter in American letters.

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