The red plate on the green table has a loaf of lemon bread on it. There are blueberries on top of the loaf. You know it smells freshly baked even though you can’t actually smell it. Your nose is broken and doesn’t work anymore. You do not know when your nose became broken. You love blueberries and lemon bread. Your grandmother used to make it on holidays. The Old Gray Man in front of you looks down at the bread with blueberries. His pointer finger is serrated, like a knife, and he cuts two slices of bread. You know he wants you to eat some. You know it is not the right moment to eat.
This short story delivers a captivating surrealism that is both wandering and abrupt. The single coffee-house scene in which the story revels in is coloured with marvelous sensory descriptions, sending the reader on a journey of uncanniness and startling familiarity. A Bargaining is a treat which, after being initially devoured, can be luxuriously savored again and again.
The distance between what is being described by the narrator and what is happening to the narrator is what makes the story so captivating. Tenhouse’s sentences are taut and precise; simultaneously, they capture ambiguity and mistrust. The writing style allows for layers of interpretation in an uncomplicated fashion, almost feigning realism but not falling prey to it. Tenhouse masterfully writes of an otherworldly bargain steeped in the comfort and routine of contemporary reality.
Reading this story, therefore, becomes a deeply sensory experience which contrasts the mundanity of a night spent in a coffee house. The simplicity of the setting is what makes the story’s resonance with readers so efficient. I have spent countless hours in coffee shops, as I’m sure many of us have, to get some work done, catch up with friends, or to simply unwind. It is a space for conversation and contemplation. The main character’s deep personal reflections about their past and observant surface interactions with the god-like presence of the Old Gray Man both coincide to deliver a scene which is so realistic in its physicality but richly emotional and internal.
The combination of second person and present tense narration has a variety of effects on the reader. The story becomes direct and intrusive, showing the reader so overtly what is happening but refraining from giving the reader any ease. As the coffee-house scene is happening to “You,” – the reader – the surrealism becomes wonderfully confronting, the story lifting right off the page and scooping the reader, without warning, into action. These techniques call into question our relationship with memory, familiarity, and nostalgia. Are we truly connected to our own lives or does routine just create this illusion? Do we exist, then, in our reminiscence of the past, in our hopes for the future? The story ends teetering on existential ideas but is reigned back into a new reality. It is ordinary, but also, completely surreal. Reality, now, has endless possibilities.
A Bargaining is a memorable read that has the power to effortlessly lure the reader in again and again. Tenhouse’s experimentation with craft and voice is highly successful and, ultimately, very fun to read!
Bruna Gomes, Fiction Editor
This short story has been published in the Winter 2022 Issue of Spellbinder. Read more about it and purchase a digital or paperback copy here.
Read this blog post on the Spellbinder Medium page here.