Geoff Wyss


Geoff Wyss’s book of stories, How, won the Ohio State University Prize in Short Fiction and was published in 2012. His second novel is forthcoming from Brooklyn Arts Press. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Image, Ecotone, Tin House, and others and has been reprinted in New Stories from the South and the Bedford Introduction to Literature. He teaches and lives in New Orleans.


Black and White

The doorbell, a knock: two police officers in the morning sun.

Gary Wellman? the one in front asked, looking doubtfully at her clipboard.

Yes, ma’am, I said. The ma’am felt off; she was twenty years younger than me, her face as lineless as a baby’s.

Mr. Wellman, my name is Officer Norris, Community Policing and Outreach. This is Officer Slattery. May we have a few moments of your time?

Absolutely, I said, trying to hide my eagerness. I hadn’t been getting anything written and was thankful to escape the hum of the computer.

The gorgeous lawfulness I felt as they stepped in—I was a person who had so ordered his life that he could throw open the door to the authorities, I was really spotlessly good—was exactly equal to my embarrassment over the filth of my house: its drifts of dusty books, weeks-old junk mail, strewn Kleenexes, other inexplicable jetsam Slattery had to navigate on his way to squint at a photograph of my cats on the wall.

Norris placed half her butt on my couch.

Mr. Wellman, have you heard of predictive analytics?

I have, I said brightly, recalling a Harper’s article.

The New Orleans Police Department, she recited with semi-memorized formality, has instituted a pilot program with the aid of federal monies. The mission of this program is to diagnose and prevent violent crime through the use of data. Algorithms are being utilized to locate citizens most in danger of homicide, either as perpetrator or victim.

I was by now in love with Norris for her tidy hands, for the youth that allowed her to believe what she was saying. She smelled several kinds of clean. Then this:

We would like to talk to you about your activities and any difficulties you may experience in the neighborhood. We also want to inform you about our job-training and mentoring programs. Mentoring is a key component of the program.

Wait. I’m on the list?

Are you Gary Wellman of 7901 Cohn Street? She liked her clipboard, and it pained her to distrust it.

I am, I said, though it felt like a lie—I’m always jarred outside myself when I hear my name aloud. How many names are on that list?

I could tell the question was unusual. But I was a middle-aged white man with a wall full of books. Slattery finally couldn’t resist a peek over his shoulder.

Five hundred, she said.

I savored that idea for a second, that I was one of the five hundred most dangerous people in New Orleans. Then I said, trying to keep the regret out of my voice, Well, that’s got to be a mistake.

Computer’s infallible, Slattery said to the shelf of literary criticism.

Do you own a gun, Mr. Wellman? Norris asked.

My wife does. But it was a gift. It’s never been out of its case.

I felt conflicted: I wanted to be good for Norris, but I wanted Slattery to see me as someone who needed to be handled with more than irony.

I have violent thoughts, I offered.

Any gang affiliations? Norris asked.

I’m a high school teacher! I exclaimed.

Slattery thumbed his belt and made for the door.

I petted my porch cat as she walked circles around the plants. Slattery leaned against the cruiser, his red scrape of hair aimed at a cell phone. Norris sat inside typing on a laptop.

This analytics stuff is bullshit, isn’t it, I asked Slattery.

Don’t sell yourself short, he said, eyes playing it as straight as his voice. You might be a killer.


There were so many stories in the world that all stories felt fake. My writing had withered under the panic of narratives on television, online, at the movies, in literary magazines, on tablets and phones. I would start a story with a more or less promising sentence—I bought a drone—and then lose faith that anyone was listening, that my little drone could share the air with Flight 370 and Walter White, Katniss Everdeen, ISIS and Jay-Z. Those were stories for morons, yes, for people who thought story meant things happening; but plot is like an arms race; when everyone else is firing rounds in the air, the only way to be heard is to grab a gun.

I bought a drone, kitty cats, I said. They had come out of the bedroom to smell the air now that visitors had gone. I bought a drone. Then what?

I could never resume writing once the real world had intruded. I shut down the computer and called my wife.

Need anyone knocked off?

My boss.

Looks like I’m your man.

I told her about Norris and Slattery.

That’s got to be Nate, she said.

Oh. I bet you’re right.

Nate was my cousin and the sweetest guy in the world underneath his addictions and the things he did to maintain them. He had stolen both of our bikes and, the last time we let him in the house, my wife’s credit card. The only time I had ever been arrested was with Nate. We were on our way to a Pelicans game, and he said he wanted to stop and talk to a friend. I knew roughly what that meant, but I liked the sensation of being whisked along into Nate’s gray life. Even when ATF agents came through two doors at once, it didn’t completely ruin my fascination at having watched humps of cocaine weighed on a scale—it wasn’t my drug deal, I reasoned stupidly. By the time I got clear of the charges, it had cost me fifteen thousand dollars, and my fascination had turned to shame. I hadn’t seen Nate in two years; some drug-idea had put him in a car and taken him to Houston.

But how fucked up are those analytics? I said. There’s got to be five hundred people between here and Dante Street more likely to kill someone than I am.

They said kill or be killed.

Wait now.

I’m just saying.

My conception of myself raised its arms in protest as if to say, Who would want to kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?

Are you going to the store today? she said.

I can.

Bananas. Pita chips. Apples.

My wife has an ill-named piece of furniture called a hope chest; that’s where I found her gun, removed it from its case, and carried it to my car wrapped in a reusable net grocery bag. I didn’t bother with the bullets; I just needed something to wave around in traffic if it came to that.

Contemporary narration is the account of the manufacturing of the work, not the actual work. I agreed with David Shields about that, but I had this drone and needed something for it to do. I let it follow me to the store, as good a place as any to fantasize about whom to kill. We fictionalize to kill. All characters move toward death. This woman blocking the bin of tomatoes with her cart; the couple with matching ponytails tonging salad-bar items: Everyone in range entered my sights and prepared to die. My drone captured my thoughtcrimes frame by frame. Fire is black in black and white.

In the example sentences I use to teach ninth-grade grammar, people are often going to the store because, I realized as I backtracked for pita chips, I so often go to the store; it’s one of the changeless circles my life walks in; but today the circle had opened to a spiral because of my gun and drone. A gun in a story is an aesthetic idiocy. A gun in life is a cheat. But a gun in imagination—brandished to create a path down aisle ten—gives your mind an equal chance against the ugliness you subject it to. I laid the gun on the conveyor with my groceries. When the checker looked at me and laid her hand on it, the air between us turned to sex.

In the car I took out Norris’s card and dialed.

I think I might take that mentor, I said.

We’re looking you back up. This wasn’t you who did these robberies, was it?

I just walked out of a grocery store where I fantasized about killing everyone, I said. And I felt absolutely no remorse.

That’s not good.

I agree.

The dash clock read 10:40. It seemed like an ominous time for it to be. The world was revealed as a ticking machine.

The mentors are for helping people enroll in community college and so forth. Why aren’t you at work today?

This question was gratifying—that Norris would expend her powers of detection on me.

We get the whole week after Mardi Gras.

Oh, she said, losing interest. Before she rang off, I said, Look up my parking tickets if you want a shock.

The mentor I imagined for myself was a black minister, Southern Baptist or A.M.E.—no postmodern mega-church types for me. He would study me with his heavy brow and re-pack my contents into their original box. The word person would mean something definite to him. I could follow the arrow of his voice toward the future.

I would prefer, I had almost told Norris, if literally almost everyone were dead. That was a heavy thought, so I drove it around for a while. There was almost no one whose death would bother me. Bother is the word, I thought as I went through the photo-enforced stoplight at Carrollton and Earhardt, exactly right for its lightness and smallness. Except for my wife—whom I excepted because she agreed with me, because if everyone died we would sit on the couch and comment on the justice of it—there was no one whose erasure would disconcert me more than, say, spilling coffee in the kitchen or misplacing a set of student quizzes. The only death I could not survive was my own. The only death from which I could not stand up and walk away unaffected, I wrote on the notepad I keep in the car, imitating Thomas Bernhard, was my own. It is in fact one of my most cherished beliefs that people deserve to die, and I have no intention of relinquishing it. I might have once said, I wrote, that I regret being someone who holds human life at so low a value, but I have stopped exhausting myself with good intentions.

At home I put a book in my lap. I turned on the TV. A half hour of “Caught Red-Handed,” shoplifters swiping booze and batteries and getting tackled in parking lots. Then I asked the world for a Katy Perry video and turned to VH1 to watch a Katy Perry video. The book in my lap—Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin—could not hope to say as much about the world as Katy Perry. Katy Perry’s artificiality asks more questions about the real—is therefore more real—than the most seamless realist novel. McCann’s frantic assertions of verisimilitude were a thousand times more fake than Katy Perry, every sentence collapsing under the weight of its need to be believed. Colum McCann is that dead thing called art; Katy Perry contains art, the way discourse contains museums.

But you can’t put that in a story, my drone watched me watch TV, so I got the bullets from the hope chest and loaded the gun for a walk around my neighborhood. I didn’t want to shoot myself in the nuts from a pocket, so I put the gun in a fanny pack with the barrel pointing outward through the zipper and set off down my block. Though really, since I lived on a corner, either of two directions was my block, and I realized that I had been thinking of this one as mine because the people on it were white. So the gun was already teaching me things. . . . I disliked white people for their whiteness, but now that I could shoot them, they looked silly instead of evil. The man across the street with four fishing boats in his yard: It was a petty kingship he practiced behind his fence, a pageant he staged at the cost of his life. The woman two doors down with leather wrist cuffs and a bull ring in her nose: jailing herself so she could hold the keys. A sixty-year-old man named Kip. It was their ridiculousness more than their whiteness that made me one of them.

A left turn: a black block. The gun awoke and engaged. My drone flew support. This was the block where kids wouldn’t move when I drove down it, moved only after they had slowed me to a crawl. The disturbing part wasn’t being slowed—I never had anywhere to go—but that they would not look at me even as my fender brushed their legs, that there was no way to appeal to them about the pointlessness of the game we played. But the gun would give me language. When, in moments, I reached the trio of men blocking the sidewalk with the sails of their white T-shirts, the gun would be the preamble of an overdue dialogue. I teach The Autobiography of Malcolm X, yo. Like Albert Murray I believe that black people are the omni-Americans. I can do all three verses of “Tha Shiznit.”

But when I got to them, they were busy discussing how somebody was a motherfucking bitch. The tape shows Whitey stepping into the grass around them and continuing on his way.

A left turn: a white block. I bought a drone. I sent the drone aloft from the command center of the family couch. But each thing I thought of for my drone to do felt false. I sent my drone away, but it kept coming back; I was the person of interest. The line my drone flew through the story would be the plot, but plot kills story. First we apply the “hook”—a barb through the lip of the story—then we drag it to its death dressed, as Virginia Woolf says, in the costume of “reality”: well-appointed villas, railway carriages, coat buttons, door bells. Solidity, probability. It had taken a hundred years, but American fiction had chased itself back to the moment before the Armory show: locked inside the obedient known, matter and physics intact, fiction about danger that presents no danger to the reader. A series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged.

A final turn onto Fern Street: a block of sigh-sunk houses whose insult was the reminder that your life was contingent. A drive-by shooting had happened here, an apocalypse of blue lights and bullet cones that I had introduced casually into conversation for the next month. I could see this block from my front door, but I knew none of the people on it, even by sight, it was as darkly unknown to me as the Belgian Congo, heads on stakes and a currency of brass wire, bodies wasting under a tree . . .

Something ran at my legs, and I reached for the gun: It was Noopy, the neighbor’s cat. Noopy is a poly, halfsize calico with dirty feet who looks you in the face during conversation. She felled a hindquarter against my leg and waited for her spanking. When it didn’t come, she looked over her shoulder and called for my attention.

Mr. Gary can’t pet you right now, Noopy.


I know, but see Mr. Gary’s fanny pack?


That’s Mr. Gary’s deadly force.


Oh, I see a cat belly. I see a very silly belly.

I stood there in the sun of a finally warm day. Noopy’s tiny paws made me think everything was going to be OK.

For ten days during Mardi Gras, you know what comes next. There’s a schedule, but it’s a schedule of whimsy: sequence without consequence, time turned into a toy. Not that it’s easy—there’s a costume to assemble, parades every night and the drinking and shivering you do at them, and then, the next morning, dragging yourself to work with a sore throat and fuzzed eyes—but the labor you put into Mardi Gras is a parody of work that holds real work at bay. On Mardi Gras Day, I had drunk until I couldn’t see the numbers on my money, and the release of that, of looking up at my friends from a puddle I had fallen into, was so complete that the only fitting second act was the iron-gray stillness of Lent. I had given up alcohol, but since I didn’t believe in anything, I was the devil to my own resolutions, so here I was making a drink to fill the hour before my wife got home. Gin was my personal Jesus. I raised the glass to check its mystery against the light.

Everything I read when I drink is about reading. Words shed the dirt of their mishandling and once more, cleanly, mean. A few pages of Werner Herzog’s Conquest of the Useless, the pleasure so intense I had to put it aside in favor of a Harper’s essay about the self-diagnosis of medical conditions; then the chapter of A Fan’s Notes where Exley meets Frank Gifford in a diner; then a few pieces of the earnest, useless advice about writing in Glimmer Train’s Writers Ask; and then I pulled the brick of Harold Brodkey’s Stories in an Almost Classical Mode from the shelf. These are the fragments my brain has been turned into by being forty-six in a world that is nineteen. Gin doesn’t solve this problem, but it does dull the anxiety by turning the fragments into aphorisms. The hum of my drone in powersave mode could not be heard above the central hum of self.

At five my wife struggled in with her ballast of gym bags and book bags, and I grimaced up from the Brodkey as if I were engaged in a painstaking task so she would be less likely to hold my pleasure against me. There was a very fat, very lonely woman in my wife’s office who had been meeting men online and then in cars and hotels to do desperate, dangerous things, and I heard the latest details of that—a portrait painter’s dick sucked, his failure to return her calls, her plaints to the support group she had started online to collect sympathy for her amorous misfires.

You’ve heard about this strangers-kissing thing? my wife said.

I raised my eyebrows and waited; I resented being made into the chorus of these reports.

It’s this thing where people walk up to strangers in public, she said, and kiss them without warning. Except not really because it’s an ad for some clothing company. But Tara is so dumb, she thinks it’s real. She quote can’t stop thinking about it and wants to go out and try it.

From the drone, hovering now, my head-shake of disbelief looked more or less convincing. The co-worker did in fact sound noisy and awful, a language criminal, a broken carnival ride waiting to injure someone. But she had lit her lights and was spinning, and however we made fun of her, we could not stop watching. She represented nothing less than the most absorbing interest in my wife’s life.

He made her do it through the zipper.


He didn’t want her to see his body.

The phone rang. I ignored it. A man too embarrassed to expose his body in the dusty light of a studio where paintings of Clint Eastwood lay stacked against the wall: This was life in its everyday brilliance overwhelming the bounds of what art could hold. The scene filled in for me as the caller hung up on the machine: Tara tugging the painter’s belt and the wrestle of their hands. The business casual she knelt in, knees paired below a skirt. The echo of the studio as the world went by outside: these details made pathos on paper, but in life they made humanity, made the people real to me.

Clint Eastwood, you said?

Clint Eastwood, Katy Perry, that kind of shit. He sells them to tourists.

The phone rang again.

Come on, I complained. It’s the dinner hour.

Mr. Wellman?

Hey, Officer Norris. Sorry, we screen. We’re the last people in the world without caller I.D.

I was being talky, but I wanted her to know this me: yes, the guy who wanted everyone in the grocery store dead, but also the guy who halfway through a drink remembered that the way people deserved life was by being alive.

Mr. Wellman, we have reviewed your case.

Before you say anything: You know what I did today? Walked around the block with a gun.

That isn’t wise.

That’s what I’m saying.

I’m calling to inform you that an error was committed in dispatch. There is another individual possessing your same name.

That’s the quantum me. That’s stuff I did in the multiverse.

We’re sorry to have disturbed you. Have a nice day.

I lowered the phone and crossed my arms.

You were a killer for a day, sweetie, my wife said in fake consolation.

I got the White Pages and splashed them into my lap.

The black you doesn’t have a landline, she said. He’s got a prepaid cell phone. And an actual gun.

She turned on the “Colbert” re-run—Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who had known he wanted to be an astrophysicist since he was a child. I tossed the White Pages and was trying to beat Tyson, through the gin, to the things I knew about Giordano Bruno when the air cracked open at a knock from the front door.

My wife muted the TV. My glass held halfway to my mouth. We were giving the knock a chance to go away. We both hated the outside world and imagined it out of existence as soon as we closed our door in the evening. But the knock repeated: urgent blows with the side of a fist.

U.P.S.? I whispered. But when I edged the curtain to peek out, it was Nate. Nate, and with him someone I had never seen before, a tall man with feathered hair and athlete’s thighs in tight jeans, three steps behind on the sidewalk. High-top sneakers snug and clean.

It’s Nate, I mouthed. But then I wasn’t sure. I flew my drone out to confirm what I’d seen and found darker hair than I remembered, a flatter, emptier face. Instead of a genial squint ready for the next laugh, his eyes were rocks seeking a target.

Let us in, he said at conversational volume. He knew I was listening through my single-pane window. We heard the TV. We know you’re in there.

Who am I? I said.

Don’t play games, cuz.

I’m calling the police, my wife yelled through the door.

Tell them not to do that, the man on the sidewalk said in a voice so exaggeratedly gruff it had to be fake.

When my drone circled around this time, Nate was a light-skinned black man, his hair sharpened to corners at the temple, one hand edging toward his crotch.

I’ve got a gun, I said and pulled it from the table by the door.

What the fuck? my wife whispered.

We ain’t got to do all that, Nate said.

We just want to talk to them, the man on the sidewalk said.

We just want to talk, cuz.

My drone was gathering an ecstasy of information. It dived in to note the brand name on the tall man’s jeans—Jordache—and traced tight orbits around not-Nate’s head. It was panting above the sidewalk, waiting for the next bit of fun, when the door flew open and I followed my gun into the street.

I wrote this story in the midst of my frustration with contemporary fiction (mine included). I'm trying to think myself outside the box of realism.