Contemporary short stories often present, in present tense, a slice of prosaic life with a psychological insight that's not unpredictable. Carla Sarett's stories astonish you with the extraordinary in contexts you thought familiar. Readers, like complacent aristocrats in a story in Roald Dahl's classic collection KISS KISS, tour a manicured garden suddenly halted by Pan's primal savagery, Sarett's world, like Dahl's is both genteel and primal, Both expose the fantastic behind the prosaic, poking holes in hypocrisy with cool wit. Sarett surprises with a tender feeling for human suffering, though she skewers human idiocy .
For instance, in "Kindred Spirits" from her Art Collection stories, a young artist looking for inspiration in the Catskill Mountains, finds a painting in a Curio Shop that uncannily transforms her work and life, though fame has a peculiar price. In "For Better or Worse" from Crazy Lovebirds, a woman makes herself "perfect" with technology,convinces her partner to match her--with devastating results. In Chopin for Igor from Spooky and Kooky Tales, a "cat person"chosen by her feline little realizes the true nature of her adored pet. In "String Theory Valentine"from Strange Courtships, a high school couple's romance dissolves as they go off into the world, but through a strange quirk of a parallel universe, are forever linked. In" Stand-By", when a man's on-line date stands him up, his notion of himself enters another world of values. Both these stories and the enigmatic "Mandolina" are in Strange Courtships. This story is below.
So, who is Carla Sarett? Carla Sarett began writing stories in 2010, after careers in academia, film, TV and market research. She has published short stories in over twenty magazines, literary and humor, as well as in anthologies. Recently, she finished two novels, Closet Feminist and The Captain's House. The first is a comedy about a brainy, clothes-obsessed 20-something who chases after her dream guy, only to find her dream career instead. The Captain's House is a literary mystery in which a historical re-enactor discovers the secret of Philadelphia's Underground Railroad.
Whether Carla Sarett is writing comedy or mystery, investigating metaphysics, theoretical science, history or art, her subject is the human dilemma. Outrageous, subtle, funny or tragic, Sarett's stories are completely original. Her books are in the Kindle store.
Audio Clips: "The Library Girl" https://clyp.it/klnngcmt
"Finding Your Church" http://www.birkensnake.com/birkensnake7voicegallery.php
For me, there’s no film like Vertigo. What scene can top the one in which Jimmy Stewart rejects one suit after another, yearning for the perfectly tailored gray suit, the one that his beloved Madeline wore? It’s the scene in which the saleswoman knowingly says, "The gentleman certainly knows what he wants." The irony is perfect—we know that Madeline was a fake, her death was faked, but the man has no clue.
But he’s right about that suit, isn’t he? That suit has style. I’ve learned a bit about style from Lucia Forrest—she is now well-known in museum circles. In college, Lucia seemed the pinnacle (at least to me) of old money, high spirits and a certain kind of Southern decadence. She used a cigarette holder, she wore dark red lipstick, she even quoted Baudelaire.
Like many friends, we lost touch after college and then found one another though Facebook. And after a hiatus of many years, we got together at the Algonquin Bar, in midtown Manhattan—at around three in the afternoon, it’s empty. She was instantly recognizable, despite her shapeless plaid dress which seemed straight off the farm. With her blond hair primly tied back, Lucia’s new style seemed to be country woman in town for the day.
As it happened, Lucia Forrest did live on a farm a few hours from the city. “I don’t understand how I’ve ended up single, all alone with just the horses to keep me company. I thought I’d make a perfect wife,” Lucia said, sighing. The horses and the farm seemed about right, but the wife part was jarring. At school, Lucia had been linked with a tallish woman from Maine. “You two walked hand in hand, like lovers,” I reminded her.
“That was to attract the boys,” Lucia laughed. “I heard all the boys liked lesbians.” She said “the boys” the way Southern girls do. It seemed a misguided strategy. But, maybe lots of girls did wild things to persuade an ordinary fellow that they would make a good housewife. You never know.
"Perhaps men aren’t so eager to marry a woman who wants to have sex with other women," I suggested in my married voice. "Perhaps they only want to have sex with such a woman, but not marry her. Because sex and marriage are different, sex and love are different." Lucia nodded, as if my statement were a novel and original insight. This fit in with Lucia's idea of me as a brilliant Jewess from her past, although Jews were hardly scarce in New York.
Just then, a pretty woman entered the bar. She seemed to be in her thirties or older, dressed hippie style, with gold hoop earrings, a gauzy Indian-tunic and long flowing hair. She approached and asked politely if we wanted our cards read. Her voice was educated-- she might have been an actress before ending up in these sad straits. I imagined her as a little girl, unaware of a future in which she roamed bars seeking tips for card-readings. I sensed that Lucia was in the mood for frivolous entertainment. “Sure, let's do it, it's on me, Lucia."
“I need you to focus on a problem in your life,” the Tarot woman said, with a touching gravity.
Having none, I thought about a business contract, which I felt confident about winning. I have learned to wish for things that I know will come true.
The woman spread the cards for Lucia. I have no knowledge of the cards, but they looked invitingly bright and bold. “You are going to start a new business-- perhaps, something with computers.”
I had assumed that Lucia, like me, viewed the cards as a childish game, but she gazed at the Tarot woman with intensity. Perhaps Lucia was becoming a New Age woman.
The bright cards were laid out again, this time on my behalf. I’m thinking of business, I said. Her beautiful eyes met mine. She asked, “Have you met someone from a strange place, maybe a foreign country?
“No, I’m sorry, I haven’t.”
“Pay attention, you will,” the Tarot woman said, disappointed. “This is important.”
Taken aback by her sweetness, I handed her a generous tip. "I'll pay attention, I promise!" I waved to the pretty Tarot woman as we left.
Lucia and I next met at The Arts Club in Gramercy Park—Lucia’s a member there. Perhaps in honor of the club’s famed Gothic ornamentation, Lucia had resurrected some of her former elegance and even had a new hairstyle. I myself had worn a wonderful grey vintage jacket, asymmetric and stiff.
Lucia admired the hand-sewn silk lining of my jacket. “This type of construction, it’s too complicated and detailed for today’s factories. No one knows how to create things like this anymore,” she said, with her enthusiasm for all things old.
After dinner, Lucia confided about her new online relationship. The man's name was Henry Oliver --he was a professor of American history at a small liberal arts college, somewhere in New England. His expertise was the history of the Salem witch trials. He had responded to Lucia's profile, which highlighted her interests in American antiques, the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School, horses, and, also, modern witchcraft. Lucia showed me his picture-- a distinctive face, craggy and dark-eyed, handsome.
"Sounds promising, you two have a lot in common. It’s a good start," I said.
I meant it. Lucia and Henry were both scholarly types. It was comforting to imagine them engaged in this almost nineteenth century correspondence. Besides, Lucia might even admire Henry's academic writings. Those who toil in museums must read the books that most of us do our best to avoid.
She smiled. “We’re planning to meet this summer at Olana. That will be our first meeting.”
"Olana is amazing. It’s like a fairy tale. It’s the perfect place," I agreed dreamily since Frederick Church’s Olana is one of the most beautiful of the estates along the Hudson River. Although, it occurred to me, driving to Olana was a lot of work for one date. Why not go to a nice restaurant in New York, instead? But I kept quiet--no one ever takes advice anyway.
In hindsight, I should have spoken up. Poor Lucia had made the trek to Olana, and waited until the gates closed. Henry’s e-mail arrived the next morning. He claimed to have met a new woman, unexpectedly—he hoped Lucia would understand.
"Why do men think women should understand? Why am I supposed to understand?" she said, tearfully. Henry is a moron, I thought. He didn't even have the sense to trot out the usual tale of the insane ex-wife swinging an ax or the suicidal ex-lover. All he could invent was a new relationship, of all things."There's nothing to understand. A lot of men are lunatics, this happens a lot. It's happened to lots of my friends."
In fact, my other friends were nothing like Lucia, although maybe they too chased men like the neurotic handsome Henry. I wondered which of Lucia's many photos Henry had seen—she had hundreds of pictures of her younger glamorous self. But with men, who knows?
Soon after, Lucia's new online identity was born. With considerable artistry, Lucia digitally manipulated the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting by the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti – its actual title is La Mandolinata. Lucia was now Mandolinata, an exquisite beauty with long wavy hair and soulful eyes.
Mandolinata described herself as a “spirit girl”—a student of Wicca and the occult. She was intent upon exploring her deeply spiritual voyage with a man who, like her, longed for freedom, longed to explore his inner self. Mandolinata lived in a remote part of upstate New York, not far from Olana, as it happened. I wondered how many hours had been wasted on this silly invention, and to what end?
I asked, "What kind of man would want a woman like Mandolinata? I mean, the name alone."
“Thousands,” was Lucia’s answer. “They want to join her on her spiritual journey, they want to climb mountains—she’s the girl of their dreams.” Lucia cracked up as she read the e-mails: "Oh, spirit girl, I must meet you!"—that was the general theme.
Of course, it was not thousands that Lucia cared about. It was only one. And sure enough, Henry Oliver took the bait. Lucia had judged her man correctly. Mandolinata was the spirit girl of Henry Oliver's dreams, too.This was when I expected Lucia to reveal all and teach Henry a good lesson. That's the romantic storyline that I imagined. Henry would lament his shallowness. He and Lucia would have their date. She would wear a beautifully tailored suit. They would drink martinis, maybe at the Carlyle, jazz piano playing softly in the background. They would laugh at their middle-aged follies.
But Lucia had a different plot in mind. She started to write to Henry as Mandolinata. Their second online correspondence was more intense than the first, but with a twist. Lucia Forrest by this time knew exactly what would excite Henry’s imagination. So the tale of Mandolinata was tinged with a sense of the Gothic. Lucia read me some of it:
"I spent my early years on one of the remote islands in the Gulf of Maine-- we were completely cut off from the modern world. The island's beaches were solitary and rocky. I often walked hours without seeing a soul. My father was a boat-maker, well-known for his designs. My mother taught me how to play the mandolin, read me the poetry of William Blake, and introduced me to the ancient ways of white witchcraft. I remember her sweet voice. But then, for reasons that no one understands, my father drowned my sweet-voiced mother at sea. Terrified, I escaped from the island, helped by a kind fisherman and his wife. I now live alone. I can only speak to you when I meet you- please understand."
She paused. "I think I got everything in there -- the mandolin, Blake, boat-making, even witchcraft."
"Hmm," I said, "Isn’t it a bit much? I mean, he's a clever man, he's got to know this is a joke."
Although come to think of it, I had no evidence that Henry was clever. In fact, given his interests in modern witchcraft and now, spirit girls, he probably was not. Lucia shrugged, as if to agree with my thoughts.
Inevitably, Lucia/Mandolinata probed Henry's romantic history-- was she Henry's first cyber-love? And so, Henry described his "callous" deception of Lucia. Now that Mandolinata had made Henry "a better man," he confessed he had never intended to meet Lucia at Olana. At Mandolinata’s insistence, Henry wrote Lucia a hand-written apology on lovely parchment paper.
“Not bad, surprisingly grammatical,” Lucia said, after she read the letter to me.
"So, he screwed up, so what? If you told him the truth, you'd be even," I argued, frustrated with this revenge theme. "A neurotic man is bound to screw up at some point." But I guess I do not understand high style -- and I should have remembered, no one ever takes advice.
The elaborate charade continued. Now, the spirit girl and Henry arranged a meeting at the Algonquin Bar, after which they would spend a magical evening in Manhattan. This time, according to his e-mails, Henry arrived early and waited hours. Naturally, Mandolinata did not show up – and she vanished. Tired of the time-consuming game, Lucia had deleted Mandolinata's profile. Henry Oliver now bored Lucia, although, interestingly, he had moved to New York.
Lucia rattled off her accomplishments: Henry had been punished, he had apologized to Lucia, and he had told the truth about what happened at Olana, or what Lucia imagined was the truth. My own opinion of Olana differed, but I kept it to myself. Lucia joked about Henry’s yearnings for his imaginary spirit girl. "You have to admit, Mandolinata is far more interesting than Henry, especially after her vanishing act."
"I guess so, but deception's not my style," I said.
Months later, I returned to the Algonquin Bar to meet a client—my first visit since my encounter with Lucia and the Tarot woman. I checked off what had happened. Yes, I won a business contract, and to my amusement, my client was Pakistani. Lucia Forrest's digital spirit girl might be considered a new venture --it certainly had involved a computer. And, in a sense, I suppose it was fair to say that Mandolinata came from a “strange place.” Perhaps, the Tarot cards had been in touch with something, after all.
Just then, I noticed the pretty Tarot woman sitting with a dark-eyed handsome man. Now, I did pay attention. It was not a card reading. Two glasses of white wine were on the table. The man gazed at the Tarot woman, clasped her hand, and smiled. Today, she wore pearl earrings and a tailored dove grey jacket. It was only a matter of seconds before I recognized the man as Henry Oliver. I looked at the pretty Tarot woman with her long wavy hair and her beautiful eyes. For all I know, her name really could be Mandolinata.