Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Convalescent

by Jessica Anthony

“Jessica Anthony has given a voice—wry, sad, and arresting—to the wounded little homunculus that lives, largely ignored, in all of us, a creature that wrestles with a guilt and grief that is as historical as it is personal. The Convalescent is a melancholy delight.” —Chris Adrian, author of The Children’s Hospital

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 256
  • Publication Date July 13, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4495-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date July 13, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9700-9
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

The Convalescent is the story of a small, bearded man selling meat out of a bus parked next to a stream in suburban Virginia . . . and also, somehow, the story of ten thousand years of Hungarian history. Jessica Anthony, the inaugural winner of the Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, makes an unforgettable debut with an unforgettable hero: Rovar Ákos Pfliegman—unlikely bandit, unloved lover, and historian of the unimportant.

Tags Literary

Praise

“Jessica Anthony is a writer possessed of mind-bending talents. Inconceivably, she’s written a novel that’s innocent and wise, grave and hilarious, bleak and hopeful, fast-paced and meditative, heartbreaking and heart healthy, evanescent and concrete. Reading it, I felt as though I’d stumbled upon a magical text that might, at any moment, disappear from my hands. The Convalescent is that kind of special.” —Heidi Julavits

“A blissfully nutty, brainy, ribald, brilliantly imaginative ode to human loneliness, oddity, and persistence.” —Francisco Goldman, author of The Long Night of White Chickens

Awards

An ALA Notable Book — Fiction 2010

Excerpt

1 — JUNE 15

On June 15, 1985, at 3:42 p.m., a six-point-seven magnitude earthquake hit Puebla, Mexico, destroying two hundred and ninety churches, three hundred schools, and four thousand houses, leaving fourteen people dead and over fifteen thousand homeless. Among the living was a young girl named Adelpha Salus Santino who, after digging through rubble at the old Vehiculos Automotores Mexicanos factory to find both of her parents suffocated, picked up a dusty knife, held it to her middle, and then stabbed herself quick in the stomach. She was rushed to the emergency room by paramedics who, when they could find no identification, asked the girl “Como te llamas?” to which Adelpha Salus Santino replied, “Mariposa,” which means butterfly

At the exact same moment, a team of astronomers at L’Observatoire de Paris witnessed the birth of a star ten times the size of our sun. The star was located in the center of a nebula formerly obscured by dust and gasses, but when winds produced by the newborn star cleared the debris, its unusual shape could be seen for the first time. At 3:42 p.m.

, one of the astronomers excitedly observed that the nebula possessed two round, adjoining clouds instead of the regular single cloud, and named it Papillon, which is French for butterfly.

Back on earth, a thousand miles north of Mexico, Ms. Mary Pierce, a single, middle-aged woman with an acute case of agoraphobia, was standing at the front door of her two-bedroom ranch home in a suburb of Youngstown, Ohio, wringing her hands to keep them from shaking. She was trying to summon the courage to open the door and go outside when the mail slot flew open, and through it the mailman shoved a promotional copy of Explore Other Galaxies magazine. At 3:42 p.m., trembling, Ms. Pierce opened the magazine. A brown butterfly spun out from underneath the pages. Specifically, the butterfly was an Adelpha salus, which is known only to remote regions of Mexico. Lepidopterists call it “Lost Sister.”

Also on this day in history, on June 15, 1985, at 3:42 p.m., my parents, János and Janka Pfliegman, drove their car into a telephone pole on Back Lick Road in Front Lick, Virginia, dying on impact. They didn’t own the car; the car they owned was a 1963 Rambler American station wagon, assembled at the Vehiculos Automotores Mexicanos factory in Puebla, Mexico. The Rambler had given them transmission trouble, and they’d left it, abandoned, by the side of Back Lick Road. The car they were driving was a shiny red Ford Mustang that belonged to a nearby rental agency called Galaxy Car Rentals, which had opened its doors on the cool morning of April 8, 1973, the day that I, Rovar Ákos Pfliegman, was born.

I have no life. I have no known relatives, no known friends. No church, no office. No warm and embracing community. No formal education.

Other people, who have lives, seem to live their lives pretty well. Achieving, aspiring. Whatnot. Other people are always busy doing big and important things like running for president or voting for president, or thinking about running or voting for president.

I sell meat out of a bus.

I consider myself to be a Hungarian. My grandfather, Ákos Pfliegman, was born in Szolnok, Hungary, in the county Szolnok, and the name Ákos is a Hungarian name. It’s pronounced AH-kosh, and it means “white hawk.” My last name, however, is German. It’s pronounced FLEEG-man, and comes from the German derivation fliegendenmann.

That means “flying man.”

As a Hungarian, there are times I would prefer a Hungarian last name,but my ancestors were given the name a very long time ago. The closest Hungarian translation of the Pfliegman name that I’ve found is “Csupaszárnyrepülgépemberi.” That’s pronounced TSOO-PASH-SAHR-ny-RE-POOL-IR-dee-EHP-EHM-BEH-ree. It means “flying wing human.”

So Pfliegman works just fine for me.

Besides, for centuries historians have bickered about where the Pflieg-mans actually come from. If you want to be technical about it, technically I’m part Hungarian, part German, part Illyrian, part Celt, part Mongol, part Turk, and part Ugrian. As Grandfather Ákos once said, “To be a Pfliegman is a collective neurosis.”

All I can say is that I was born in a town called Front Lick, and my parents were also born in Front Lick, and I’m probably more Virginian than anything anyway, though that has yet to be officially decided: for if to be a Pfliegman is a collective neurosis, to be a Virginian is a quite singular neurosis, and neither leaves much hope for me. After all, I am a man who lives in a bus. A bus in a field. A field by a river—

There are wolves.

The bus used to be called PFLIEGMAN’s TRAVELING MEAT BUS. I’d drive to people’s houses and offer them large-quantity discounts, until one day the engine coughed and sputtered. I veered off the road, into this field, and painted over the TRAVELING. So now people come to PFLIEGMAN’s MEAT BUS to buy their meat. They come because my meat is very fresh. The freshest in the state. I’ve turned over the horsefields behind the farmhouse to the cows, pigs, and sheep, which I raise to slaughter. I am thirty-four years old. A self-made man.

I have an awning.

Sometimes the Virginians will stand beneath the awning and look at the bus. They’ll pinch their faces. They’ll turn to me and say, “You live here?”

Which is fine. The outside of the old school bus is not impressive. It’s got four flat tires, busted directionals. The headlights stare off in one direction, like a person with a broken neck—

But the inside of the bus is pleasing: it’s warm and dry, the color of hospital gowns; the ceiling is low, divided into several dome-shaped panels; a clean gray corrugated rubber flooring runs the length of it, all the way from the driver’s seat to the Emergency Exit door; and the windows are all perfectly functioning, eleven on each side.

Underneath the windows I added some wooden paneling to give it a classic look, like I saw in the magazine This Bus Is My Home. The magazine said that today one in every three hundred people live in an RV. It also told me that many people live in refashioned school busses like mine. All in all, it’s a “perfectly normal life-choice,” said the magazine, and nobody who lives in a bus should be made to feel bad about it, like it was a socially awkward thing to do.

To prove that bus-living isn’t socially awkward, the magazine had all these pictures of people in their homemade busses, standing in the center of their accoutrements, smiling amidst the here and there: the toaster ovens and microwave ovens, televisions and stereos, heating devices, cooling devices, and staying-the-same-temperature devices. “See?” the magazine said. “It’s all portable. Just imagine being able to take your whole life with you, from place to place.”

But my bus is not an experiment in an efficient, portable life; it’s an experiment in stasis. There’s a less sophisticated assortment of here and there: a sink attached to a rusty drainage pipe that keeps the water going where it’s supposed to go, an electric stove with one working burner, and a tall white meat refrigerator for storing the meat.

I’ve looked for a magazine called This Broken-Down Bus Which I Inhabit Like a Small Woodland Creature Is My Home. I haven’t had much luck.

But after seeing how the Bus People color-coordinated the interiors of their busses, I was inspired. I bought some bathing towels from an Indian when he was passing through. He was wearing a cowboy shirt and loafers, and a long black ponytail swung down his back. His grandmother, he said, was in textiles. He reached into his bag and handed me two blue towels with yellow pom-poms. “They’re slightly stained,” he said, and looked around. “What’s with the bus?”

I didn’t answer.

When I didn’t answer, he just shook his head and said, “White people.”

What else—

I have a few pots and pans, a wool blanket half-shredded from the moths that come scouting at night, and a big pink sweatshirt that says Disneyland. The sweatshirt was given to me by a Virginian who was buying some meat. She was wearing the sweatshirt, and she was with her family, and they were also wearing sweatshirts. First she thought I was charming.

“Look at how little he is,” she said.

“Hairy too,” said her husband. “Get a load of that beard. What is he, a midget?”

The woman peered down at me, suspicious. “What are you?” she said. “Are you a midget or what?”

Which is fine. I am small and hairy. Fetid-looking. I’m so small, sometimes my meat customers will ask me if I am a midget, to which I respond in my brain, “I’m not a midget, but I’m probably about as close to a midget as a person possibly can be without actually being a midget.”

“He’s a dwarf,” said the husband. “Dwarves are hairier than midgets.”

“Whatever he is, I think he’s just charming,” the woman said.

I remain bewildered that someone like me could be considered charming by anyone, but she placed one hand on the side of the bus and whispered in my ear that she had just come back from Disneyland and I was more charming than Disneyland.

I brought out my writing tablet. Am I more charming than your husband? I wrote.

She pursed her lips. (Midget’s got a fresh mouth.)

How about clouds? I wrote. Am I more charming than clouds?

A magnanimous look filled her eyes. “He must be a mute,” she said, and clucked her tongue. “Poor thing. How sad. Isn’t it sad, George?”

“God’s got a funny sense of humor,” said George.

The woman thought that it was very sad. She took off her sweatshirt and gave it to me. She patted my arm. She whispered, “Here you go.”

Which is fine. The Virginians will often take one look at the hairy little man living out of a bus in a field, at the mountain of meat that surrounds him, and then there’s no holding back the magnanimity. I’ve been given many items over the years: boots without laces, a stained coffee carafe. A brand-new silver towel rack, still in its original packaging. Virginians are big on magnanimity. They practically bathe in it.

I bathe in the river behind the meat bus. It’s called the Queeconococheecook. My side of the Queeconococheecook is covered in long green grasses; the far side is covered in mud. I bathe in the river with the Indian’s towels, and then hang them to dry on a clothesline that runs from the top of my bus to a nearby pine tree. The pine tree has wide, swooping arms, underneath which I keep a bucket for the containment and removal of bodily fluids and other unsavories.

These I deposit into a hole in the ground.

What am I, the Virginians all want to know? I live in a bus. I cut up animals. Je chie dans un seau—

I am the last remaining descendant of a line of the worst sort of losers on the planet.