Fiction: Referential

Read More: A brief interview with Sean Bernard


Middle night the bathroom water line – water main, valve, whatever the hell – was still dripping. Which wasn’t a problem when you couldn’t hear it dripping but then winds kicked up in advance of the next day’s storm and the curtains clackclacked so Kevin got up and shut the window and soon the room became stiflingly loud. In the silence of the drip-dripping. The problem, Kate realized, is that you begin to wait to hear the next drip coming. Anticipation: no friend of sleep. And plus she had asked him not to even bother attempting the installation, I’ll call Penny Plumbing, she’d said that morning, and she had called, and they were scheduled to show the next morning. This morning. In six hours.

But still: Kevin had gone ahead with it.

Yeah, you were right, didn’t work, he’d said shrugly when she came home.

Now the ghost of Hemingway appeared at the end of the bed. Kate sat up and considered him. Was it young Hemingway, thin, sharp, impatient? Or old, mythic, vain?

The old one, he muttered, and I’m not a myth, I’m a man. This crumbdump all you have for a toolbox? he grouched, opening the tiny plastic bin into which they’d shoved their motley of wrenches and screwdrivers, a bin that still reeked of itself, that oily plastic stink. Adjustable wrenches, you shitting me? Hemingway said, peering in. No wonder!

Kevin, she said, poking with voice and elbow, Kevin, Kevin. She knew that Kevin found a soft beauty in Hemingway’s early prose, in the man’s seemingly casual imagery. Of course Kevin would want to see the author’s ghost puttering around their bathroom, fixing the leak in the water whatever. But Kevin was a deep and happy sleeper, and he only burrowed deeplier into his pillow, so alone she lay listening to the grunts of an old dead sad man, wondering if she should cancel the appointment with the plumbers. Was Hemingway even a good plumber? Once, Kate remembered, someone had told her that she looked like Hemingway’s wife. Yet another cocktail party with yet more writers more successful than she. Which one, which wife? She’d wondered this aloud – but what she’d really wanted to know was if it meant she looked like Mariel, the only female Hemingway she could picture. Haddie, Addie, anyway the one who lost everything, the woman’s husband said in agreement, eyeing her thoughtfully. Dead ringer, too.


It was worrisome, the moment they saw the aged Chilean leaning insouciantly against Kate’s wardrobe. Not only because he was smoking – indoor smoking violated their rental agreement – but also because it followed several awkward attempts at finding entry in a new sexual position Kevin had recently read about. This had led both to Kevin feeling momentarily frustrated at his sexual ability and Kate just guiding him in while wishing that everything didn’t have to be so graphic. Kevin had just barely begun thrusting in time with Kate’s shifting hips when then they saw him, Bolaño, smoking and staring at them with his distant arrogant sadness, jacket collar popped, tiny drooping eyes behind his black-framed glasses. Bolaño didn’t say anything – after several moments watching their love-making, he vanished and never returned – but they felt ashamed that they hadn’t put on a better show, that they hadn’t, for the author, made really great love, the kind of love-making Bolaño wrote about in his novels, hours and hours of the stuff followed by a shared cigarette and tequila and then even more hours of love-making.

For a few days, moping. Kevin tentatively reaching out to Kate, Kate turning his hand away. No intimacy; they felt disappointed with each other, with themselves. Finally after an extended week of awkward interactions, Kate grabbed a bottle of tequila, took her clothes off, and waited for Kevin to come home. In here, she said. It’s now or never. Because Kate knew they were faced with a choice: did they despair in their non-magnificent love-making, or did they persevere with their good enough if usually less than twenty minute love-making? Kevin undressed. Kate sipped. Kevin sipped. They kissed tenderly, and they chose, stolidly, to persevere, and as the years passed, they came to appreciate the strange apparition, Bolaño gazing at them as they made so-so love, the great poet sent to them from some literary place of death, like that Greek place with the blind man that they could never remembered the name of.


Immediately after the all-too-familiar-looking older woman delivered their standard tomato-and-olive pizza the second Friday in a row, they rushed to the internet to make sure that A) Alice Munro was indeed still alive and B) she’d been recently seen not here in southern California but far, far away, in the colden climes of Canada.

So it can’t be her, Kevin said, frowning at the computer screen.

Kate said, But? and again they watched the video Kate had made from the side window. […]

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Sean Bernard’s first novel, Studies in the Hereafter, was published by Red Hen Press in 2015, and his story collection Desert sonorous won the 2014 Juniper Prize. A recipient of an NEA grant, Sean teaches in and directs the creative writing program at the University of La Verne, where he also edits the journal Prism Review.