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  MY AMERICA was created in the "exquisite corpse" tradition by the Fiction for the Rest of Us authors exclusively for Doubleday. Started and finished by Aimee Bender, the authors wrote their portion of the story with only the section immediately preceding it to use as a reference. In the end, each author was able to weave his or her own creative writing style into a cohesive and unique tale.

[Aimee Bender]

The explorer came back from his exploration of strange lands. He had in his knapsack a jar of blue water and several beetles stapled to index cards and some whiskey made underground on a full moon by men with guttural accents. He went to see his lady who now had several children and had married somebody else.

"What's this?" said the explorer, at her door, holding the blue lake water towards her, his offering from the farthest corner of the world.

She had different hair color now, and a quieter smile and a new pull to her walk but he saw in her anyway the teenager he had fallen for and wanted to douse her in the water and take her to the movies and make out. She saw in him wrinkled eye lines and odd muscles and a new hardness to his jaw but she thought of the way he had pressed her shoulder in the car to bring her closer. Her husband came out of the back room, wiping his hands on a dishtowel, and when he saw the explorer he asked what was going on.

"I've come back," said the explorer.

"Darling," said the woman, to the floor.

[John Ed Bradley]

"Darling?" asked the husband, who'd been outside on the patio feeding live crawfish to a large pot of boiling water. It was Carnival time in New Orleans and all the kids were in from college with friends for the parades. You couldn't walk the living room floor without stepping on one of them. They slept way past noon on pallets made from Army-issue blankets and old love-stained sheets and the whole house stank of beer and cigarettes. "Did you just call me darling?" the husband said, accidentally driving a foot into the groin of one of his sleeping guests as he made his way to the door.

"How come I'm darling all of a sudden?"

The woman didn't answer and the husband said again, "What's going on here?"

He'd never met the man at the door. In fact, except for his knapsack the man looked more like a traveling salesman than an explorer of strange lands.

Those crawfish out back had been hard for the husband to find this year. With fields starved for rain mudbug harvesters couldn't produce supplies large enough to meet demand, and now the things sold for $4.50 a pound, nearly double what they went for just last spring. The husband had driven all over town looking for them, finally finding a sack at a place across the river.

"My tail meat!" the husband cried now in a panic, remembering. He turned and hurdled bodies on his way back to the patio and the boiling pot. And the explorer, with a stink about him like something dead in the woods, dropped his jug of water and his beetles and his knapsack and brought his mouth to the woman's mouth. She tasted bad, but so did he. Neither of them noticed.

[Myla Goldberg]

"Don't mind Clyde," Flora whispered to the explorer. "He's a sucker for anything with claws." Another time of year and she'd have been suspicious of a man toting water and bugs like some kind of walking vivarium, but during Carnival, all bets were off.

"In Haiti," the bugman answered, "at just this time of year, the Kleptoporus beetles emerge from their chew holes and swarm the southern beaches, hungry to mate. The sand becomes a writhing mass of electric blue sparks as the sun glances off their azure shells. There's a little Kleptoporus in you, Flora. I see it in the blue of your eyes."

"Thank you." Flora said, fighting the urge to swoon. She was not a swooner by nature, but the explorer had the kind of late night radio show voice a body could navigate to in the early morning ether, the kind of voice to lead a body home.

Flora was about to revisit the bugman's mouth when her path was blockedby a pair of metal tongs.

"Crawfish?" Clyde said, the tounged creature steaming an angry red, freshfrom boiling. One of its claws had been torn off in the heat of battle, a sack of over-priced mudbugs tearing at each other in their attempt to avert something so much larger and indomitable than their shelled-in selves.

[Aleksandar Hemon]

It was then that the Carnival parade became visible to Flora. She saw: Jesus Christ dragging his feet, burdened by a rolled-up carpet instead of a cross; a throng of three-year old boys with hairy chests and erected peckers, followed by a mob of buxom three-year old girls; a choir of scruffy, mongrel stray dogs singing "There Is a Spy in Our Shelter" to the melody of "The Star-Spangled Banner"; a flock of seagulls with a hundred-yard wing-spread, floating over the parade, pendant on a silky thread coming down from the depths of the sky; a black flamingo, standing still on a platform, blinking reluctantly, occasionally; a herd of tap-dancing bison; the entire cast of the United States Congress wearing nothing (flaccid fruit between their legs) but T-shirts reading "Bucky"; a furry giraffe, the size of a high chair, cackling like a desperate stand-up comic; a swarm of big black flies forming different shapes in the air: a globe, a Cadillac, a picket fence; Bob Zabolotny, a car-mechanic from New Lenox, Illinois, with his wife Candice, his son William and his daughter Zuzu, dragging a dead, half-rotten Rotweiler on a leash.

[Elizabeth Stuckey-French]

But Flora had another matter to attend to first. As the parade dispersed she waved to Molly P., who was dressed up as one of the tap dancing bison. Molly P. limped across Main Street, cradling her bison head in her arms. One heel had broken off her tap shoe. "Did I dance good Mama?" she said. It was 103 degrees and Molly's round face was dangerously red.

"No dear," Flora told her daughter, who was eighteen and too old for this nonsense. The other tap dancing buffalo were in elementary school. "You can't dance a lick. It's time to go. We'll miss your grandfather's funeral."

Flora steered their old Lincoln into Live Oak Cemetery just as the men in suits were lowering Delphi's coffin into the ground. The only graveside mourner was a woman Flora didn't recognize, a tough cookie wearing a pink suit who stood watching impatiently, hands on her hips.

"Grandpa, Grandpa, come back," yelled Molly P., pounding on the car window with her hairy fist. She'd refused to take off the rest of her buffalo suit.

Flora pulled into the shade and cut the engine. Molly P. began to sob. "Did Grandpa go to live with the angels, Mama?"

"No dear," said Flora. "He went straight to hell." But this was only wishful thinking. Delphi was probably sitting on a bar stool somewhere, because the body in the coffin, she knew, did not belong to him.

"Mama!" said Molly P. "That lady in the pink dress! It's Hillary! It's Mrs. Clinton!"

[James Welch]

"Oh, hush up, Molly P. Last week it was Clifford Irving. Now it's Hillary Clinton. Next it'll be the reincarnation of Pliny the Elder." Flora dusted her sweaty face with powder, then spritzed a little Evening in Missoula on her nose. God, she loved that pulpmill smell. "Now, come along. And put that buffalo head back on."

The lady in pink glanced at the newcomers and offered a small, enigmatic smile. She did look like Hillary, but Flora had read an article on the business page just two weeks before about a celebrity look-alike shop in a run-down shopping mall on the west end of town. It was the only business left in the mall. The article said for twenty dollars an hour one could rent Joe Dimaggio, Bob Newhart, Gertrude Stein„even Ed, the talking horse. Flora glanced over at her daughter, who was listing quite dangerously on her broken heel. I wonder if anybody needs a buffalo, she thought. Twenty bucks was an awful lot of cabbage.

Just then she heard a tapping sound. No, it was more like a rapping sound.

"What's that noise, Mama?" Molly P. swivelled her great buffalo head around.

"Probably just a woodpecker, dear. These live oaks are full of them."

"I want to see."

"Don't be silly, dear. I don't want you looking for no fool woodpecker on such a solemn occasion."

There it was again. That rap, rap, rap. Rap, rap, rap. Flora inexplicably thought of an old song. Something about rap, rap, rapping on heaven's door„or was it gate? Then she heard another sound that caused the hair on her back to stand straight up. Creeeaak. What the heck was that?

Suddenly the Hillary look-alike screamed and backed away from the edge of the grave, only to fall over the big pile of dirt on the edge. She lay there without moving.

"Nice gams," said one of the undertakers.

"Little chunky," said another.

"Mama, can I take this buffalo head off? It's frightfully hot."

"Not yet, dear." But Flora was glaring at the men. Men, she thought, as she walked around the grave to the dirt pile. The Hillary look-alike's skirt had hiked up during her fall, exposing her pantyhose-clad thighs. Flora squatted and began to tug the skirt back down, and that's when she saw it„the perfect crescent-shaped mole on the inside of the left thigh. She felt the blood rush to her head and everything went dim for a moment as a flood of half-formed memories washed over her„Delphi sitting at the pool bar, drinking curacao, the turquoise water surrounding him, the woman in the pink sundress, the dazzling sun and the "Vote for Bill" banner behind her. It was all too much.

"Mommy, what's this?" Molly P. was standing at the head of the woman, holding a purse in one hand and a heavy metal object in the other.

"It's a Colt Python .357," Flora said, with a catch in her throat. Dear God, the memories . . .

Just then she heard a familiar, cruel laugh behind her.

[Aimee Bender]

It was the explorer.

Dear God, the memories.

"Flora," he said. He held forward that blue jar of water and several new index cards with beetles stapled to them. His face was a cavern of longing.

"Excuse me?" she said. "Do I know you?"

He laughed his familiar cruel laugh, but when it was attached to his face, the laugh now seemed neither familiar nor cruel, but more like a gentle sneeze.

"Shall I shoot him Mom?" asked Molly, waving the gun around, while rifling through the purse for some gum.

Flora shook her head. Truly, there was only so much you could take in one day. She was ready for a shower and maybe some flan. She'd had a taste for it all afternoon.

The explorer held out his callused hands, but Flora pushed him aside.

"Molly," she said, "come."

The explorer, however, had now spied the girl, and he recognized himself in her knees, the same baubly knees that had tormented him years ago when he was a kid, and had to wear shorts to play sports.

"Wait," he said. "This is Molly?"

Molly's jaw stopped chewing gum; the buffalo head stopped jiggling.

Flora nearly spat with distaste.

"Dad?" Molly murmured.

The explorer reached out his hands.

But just at the moment when she was to run into his arms, when his heart was to spill over with fatherhood, when he was to find the end to all his explorations, Flora found a button by the gravesite with a big B on it. This was an ordinary button in the middle of the lawn and it's rare that you find buttons in nature like that. Others might fear an undesignated button, but not Flora. She was desperate. When she pressed it, they heard a whirring sound, and then a screech, and the Hillary look-alike, absorbed in playing solitaire on the dirt heap, was the only one who didn't see the buffalo skin on the buffalo head stretch down over Molly, transforming the girl into a buffalo, all in the space of one fast minute. Complete with hooves and hair.

Flora stared at the button with the big B on it.

"Oh," she said. "Huh."

So that was the reason they hadn't yet gone extinct.

Molly dropped to all fours. Flora jammed her hands in her pockets and sped off to the nearby cafe.

"Shit," she muttered. "What the hell am I going to do with a buffalo for a kid."

The explorer, unphased, was whispering into Molly's shaggy ear about his intercontinental adventures. But Molly, who would've loved to hear all of this a mere minute ago, now had new priorities. The plains were wide and inviting. She stepped away, and held up a hoof in goodbye.

Then she walked into the horizon, slow, a tribute to all the songs.

The cafe didn't serve flan, so Flora just had a cup of coffee.

Hillary Clinton won her game of solitaire.

The explorer emptied his jar of blue water inside the grave, where it shimmered, a thin puddle. Then he looked all around him.

"Ah," he said. "My America."


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