Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Mole


(from Enchantment, Counterpoint Press, Best Books SF Chronicle 2012)



The Mole

He noticed the mole the only time they ever made love, a light blue mole, nestled on the inside of her thigh. It was delicate, translucent, and when he touched it, it felt fragile, like a mushroom.  He was an ear, nose and throat specialist, and hadn’t thought about moles in many years, but later, when they were sitting on his bed talking, it occurred to him that it might be cancerous. The mole was blue, and, from medical school, he remembered that blue moles were often malignant.  And so he looked at Sharon, sitting opposite him on his bed, wrapped in his shirt, her hair falling over to one side, wondering how to broach the subject.  She was a medical-technician–certainly she knew about such things and surely she’d be angry if he presumed she didn’t.  Also he had a feeling she didn’t like him very much:  She was a tall restrained woman of about twenty-eight, with a sense of smoldering inner heat he’d been unable to release, even for an instant.

“This is my kid,” he said, by way of entering into certain softness with her, a softness that might allow him to mention the mole.  He reached over to his bedside table and showed her a photograph of his son in his Little League   outfit.  “I’m divorced,” he said as he handed her the picture.  “My kid is eight.”
“Oh,” she said, lifting the picture, and looking at it without much interest.  “I guess I already knew that.”

After a while, she left, pausing by his collection of geodes, the only bright thing in his sparse apartment, and refusing his offer of a taxi.  He was glad he hadn’t mentioned the mole, but later, around midnight, he began to worry again.  He had never been interested in diseases of the skin—he preferred what was hidden, accessed through apertures and tunnels–but now he pulled out his old medical-school textbooks and looked at photographs of moles.  None of them looked like her mole: they seemed darker, larger, less fragile.  He went to bed reassured, yet the moment he woke up he remembered.  The mole was dark in his memory, almost black.

“For God’s sake,” said a dermatologist friend,  whom he’d cornered at the hospital, “she’s probably had it for ages, and if she’s a medical technician, she knows all about it.”  They were in the doctor’s lounge and he’d  told her the entire story.  “How old did you say she was? Twenty-eight?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t bother to ask.”

“You don’t know how old she was, but you noticed her mole—Dennis, you’re distraught. I bet you’ve been sleeping around too much.”  The friend laughed, and added: “It’s your divorce.  You should stay out of circulation for awhile.”

The conversation relieved him, but later that day, he went to the medical library.   Moles are like hieroglyphs, he thought, walking through the stacks like a sleuth–hard to decipher, crudely beautiful.  As soon as he opened the books (he did so secretly, with the sense of seeking forbidden knowledge) he felt sucked into a universe of moles.  Horribly, a small purple mole on the thigh of a young woman had turned out to be fatal, but eleven black moles on the back of a middle-aged man were benign. The more he looked at the pictures, the more Sharon’s mole changed shape and color in his memory.

“Did her mole have a hair on it?” his dermatologist friend asked,  when, for a second time, he cornered her at the hospital.  They were at the cafeteria, having coffee, and she looked at him with concern.

“I don’t remember. Why?”

“Because moles that have hairs on them are almost always benign.”

He closed his eyes. “I can’t remember.  It’s just a blur.”

“Why don’t you call her then?”

“She’d think I was stupid.”

“I think you’d live.”  She reached over and patted his hand.  He noticed that she was wearing an indigo scarf that looked lovely against her blond hair.  Also, she had a mole on the right side of her nose, a small brown mole  he hadn’t remembered seeing.

“Is that new?” he asked, touching it

“No, I’ve always had it.  Anyway, almost everyone in the world has a mole somewhere on their body. You, too, Dennis.”  And she touched a small brown spot on his wrist in a way that moved him.  He asked her to dinner, but she shook her head.  “You’ve just gotten divorced. Give it some time.”

It was too cold to walk home, so he took the subway, and as he stood there, being jostled with the others, he began to see  moles everywhere–erupting on faces, and on hands that weren’t wearing gloves.  Their owners seemed calm, impervious, yet as he looked at the moles,  he began to wonder if he had a moral obligation to speak to these people.  His small amount of knowledge felt like a burden and that night he dreamt about Sharon’s eyes staring past him towards a fixed and finite point–just like the eyes of certain terminally-ill patients who are able to see ahead to their very last moment in time. He woke in a sweat, and decided to call her, but the next day he changed his mind, and wrote her a letter instead.  He signed his full name–Dennis Gaviola–and he used plain white paper, not his doctor’s stationery:

Dear Sharon: I hope you won’t think me untoward if I mention to you that the other night I  happened to notice a mole on the inside of your thigh.  It was a small blue mole, and I only bother to write, because I know that blue moles can sometimes be dangerous. Although I’m sure you probably already know about it, I couldn’t walk around in good conscience without mentioning it to you. By the way, I really enjoyed meeting you and I hope we’ll see each other again.  Sincerely, Dennis Gaviola.

 He wasn’t sure about the phrase I hope you won’t think me untoward.  It had an oddly formal quality, and he decided to consult an old friend,  an editor, who lived in Boston.

“I think it’s ridiculous,”  the friend said, when he read him the letter on the phone. “For god’s sake, don’t ever send it.”

“But what if I took out that phrase?”

“It would still be ridiculous.”


“Because.  There’s nothing wrong with her. ”

His friend sounded remote, safe in a happy marriage.  “Terrible things can happen,” he continued, “but they’re never the things you worry about in advance.”

He didn’t mail the letter, but kept it by his bed, in its envelope, reading it over and over, trying to imagine that he was Sharon at the exact moment of opening it.   He always saw her reading the letter fully clothed, except for once, when she was wearing his shirt, and her reaction was always the same–contempt.  The letter became creased, began to look like a map, and twice he had to snatch it from his eight-year-old son.  Finally he stuck it in his dresser drawer, and read it only occasionally.   He never could decide about the phrase I hope you won’t think me untoward.

Later that spring he met, and had an affair with, a woman who had no moles.  Her name was Corazon Martinez, she was from Argentina, and an interpreter for the State Department.  He had vowed he would never mention moles in her presence, but one day, to his own amazement, he said to her: “You have no moles!” and she answered, solemnly: “I know.  I am completely unmarked.”  They were lying on her bed and Corazon sat up and looked at her skin as if trying to see it from a distance.

“Do you think moles are important?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” she said. “Very. They’re like keys to unknown cities. I’ve always wanted one.”

That night he came home and tore up his letter to Sharon, bit by bit, piece by piece. It was like tearing up a love letter, written to him by someone else.  When the letter was shredded, he burned it on the stove, and finally, mercifully, Sharon receded in his mind. He forgot about her, forgot about her mole, and was surprised when  he saw her on the subway, about eight months later near Christmastime. It hadn’t occurred to him that she would still exist, living an ordinary life, yet here she was opposite him, holding packages, wearing a dark blue coat–still with that smoldering sense of unavailable inner heat.  She was staring into space and looked abstractedly, quietly happy.

The instant he saw her he remembered her mole.  Indeed he had a graphic image of it, nestled on the inside of her thigh, a hidden eye, a secret pearl, surprising other lovers or–maybe she was married now–her husband.  Sharon didn’t  notice him, didn’t even look his way,  and when she came to her stop, he waited for her to disappear.  But as soon as the doors opened, he found himself racing to catch up with her.  He reached her at the top of the stairs.

“Are you okay?” he said,  when she turned to face him. “I’ve been meaning to call. I’ve been thinking about you.”

“Oh, I’m okay,” she said, smiling. “Even though I’ve been to hell and back.”

“Was it your mole?” he blurted out, “was there anything wrong with it?”  He looked at her eyes, and noticed, to his relief, that they didn’t look like the eyes of a terminally-ill person at all.  They were relaxed, somewhat dreamy, and seemed to stare ahead towards an indefinite, undefined point on the horizon.  Now they turned to him, puzzled.

“My mole?” she said. “Is that all you can ask me about after all these months? Jesus.  No.  I mean I’ve finally gotten my divorce.”

“I didn’t know you were married.”

“You didn’t ask.”

“But you didn’t tell me!”

She smiled again, wryly, that heat still locked inside of her, and then she walked away, leaving him over twenty blocks from home.  He began to walk–quickly, fiercely, with the sense of some new and unnamed burden, having nothing to do with her mole, or with anything else he would ever be able to decipher.







The Customs Station of the Imagination


reading to dogs

These dogs have been drafted into a story called Reading to Dogs. But before 
they agree to be in it, they question customs officials about what they will have to
declare and surrender if they are in the story. 

Often when I give a reading or teach,  people ask me: Where does your material
come from?

Questions from students are usually about material in general. These are the easiest questions to answer because everyone has their own access to the pneumatic tube of the imagination–that  free-box of innovative language and untold. I find it staring out the window or walking down a city street or seeing a headline. Everyone finds this free-box a little differently.

But this doesn’t explain the details of the stories: How did the trunk in a corner of one story become a main character in another?   What happened to make one character drop out of the story and another character start to write letters? And where did you get this character?   These are the questions people at readings want to know. And my most honest answer is that I can’t tell them.  


I’m sure that if a story were on a real map, I could walk into it and find any one one of the parts  and remember something about its origin. But these parts got to stay in the story only because they belonged to the whole.S cenes, phrases, characters, plots—nothing is safe from being thrown
in the landfill.

In one sense,  I’m relieved that I can’t answer the question. This partly comes from a sense that
once a story is written it’s best to not analyze it,  release it to the world, and not analyze it.  The imagination works on what we call reality and redefines it. 

And yet the demands on the imagination are rigorous. They come from the “real” world, from the
writer and  from a sense of the potential reader.  In fact, I have a definite sense of a customs station at the border of writing where I have to surrender what I think already know–about myself,  my life, and what I think fiction should and shouldn’t be.  Then I have to bring in elements that I think are part of the story and will probably change to suit the demands that the story itself beings to make. And once something gets through customs, 
I don’t want to drag it back across the border into a linear (and made-up) explanation about where it came from.

Strangely–or maybe not so strangely– I notice that concrete answers to this question are rarely  satisfying. So when I say:  “I got this idea from here and this image from there,” there’s often a  slight sense of deflation in the questioner. The answer is like going to the back of a puppet show and watching the strings. It doesn’t touch on the elusiveness of the imagination.

Recently I wrote a story called Reading to Dogs. The passage through customs was rigorous:All the The dogs wanted to be in the story.  But they didn’t want to surrender important aspects of  dog-ness, like smelling the history of sidewalks or hearing extraordinary sounds.  They reached a negotiation with customs that I never understood.  I simply was grateful for their exuberance and their presence.