‘What Have You Done?’ by Ben Marcus

What Have You Done? by Ben Marcus, 2011

The magic trick:

Starting with a weird, almost unbelievable, scenario and slowly filling in the explanatory details while still retaining the weird vibe

We’re off to my homestate of Ohio. Not my hometown of Cincinnati, though. Cleveland will have to do.

Paul is returning home in “What Have You Done?” to Northeast Ohio after a decade away from home. The question, What have you done?, rings among his family, though they maybe don’t actually want to know. The reader wonders too, though it’s in a different context. What have you done to create such an odd, fractured family life?

The story is stingy with answers. We get details here and there. But like all good weird stories, the details only make the bigger picture seem more distorted. And like only the rarest weird stories, the weirder “What Have You Done?” gets, the more believable the situation and the characters become. And that’s quite a trick on Marcus’s part.

The selection:

At dinner that night, the questions came, and Paul tried to suck it up.

“How’s business, Paul?” Rick boomed. Everyone else at the table shrank, as if someone were throwing up and they didn’t want to get splashed. Probably Rick hadn’t been at the family meeting where they’d decided to go easy on Paul, lay off the hard stuff. Like, uh, questions.

“Let’s not set him off,” his father had probably advised. “Let’s nobody get him going. It’s just not worth it.”

His mom and Alicia must have nodded in agreement, and now Rick had thrown them all off the plan, going for the jugular, the crotch, the fat lower back. A full-body tackle.

“I don’t know, Rick,” Paul answered. “Business is fine. You mean world business? The stock market? Big question. I could talk all night, or we could gather around my calculator and do this thing numerically. Huddle up and just go binary.”

He wished for a moment that he belonged to the population of men who asked and answered questions like this, who securely knew that these questions were just a gateway for nonsexual statistical intercourse between underachieving men.

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