My Menial Job at the Anti-Fuck Factory

"The Raised Blade," an excerpt from TOAD by Katherine Dunn, recommended by Naomi Huffman

"orange ~ 30 paper cutter" by Upupa4me on Flickr

Introduction by Naomi Huffman

Unfulfilled desire runs and spills in the pages of Toad. At thirty-six, Sally Gunnar, who feels “ripped” out of time, “stranded” in her own life, is puddled in unrequited need, in blunted want. She is bound up in a fraught relationship with a man she calls Jack, her Beauty, who she worships; when she returns home from a shift fetching fried confections for customers at a doughnut shop, a job she needs because she already gave Jack all her money, she sits at his feet and tries to impress him with stories about her day. Jack is distant and self-absorbed, open about his attraction to other women, stingy with his affection. Even when he does touch her, he “stare[s] at the wall with a sick expression, yearning to be somewhere else.” He also can’t find her clit.

In the early 1970s, Katherine Dunn faced dire circumstances. She’d spent the previous few years traveling the world with her boyfriend Dante; they lived high, at least at first, on the money she earned from a pair of novels she’d published in her early twenties. Those novels were Attic and Truck, and they were mostly maligned by critics. In 1971, she and Dante welcomed their son, Eli, into the world, but soon afterward, the couple split. With all that disappointment and broken adventure behind her, Dunn and Eli returned to Portland, where she grew up. She was an impoverished single mother, and she wanted to keep writing novels. She made money however she could—waitressing at a diner, handling misbehaving drunks at a biker bar, wrapping sweets at a candy factory. She wrote late at night, while Eli slept, on a typewriter she kept on their kitchen table. 

The novel borne of that desperate time, Toad, is loosely based on the years Dunn spent studying at Reed, in the late 1960s. It was a decade during which American college students were seized by a rangy idealism that took on, among other things, the Civil Rights Movement, anti-war philosophy, and the women’s liberation movement, and fomented inciting protests and demonstrations on campuses across the country. It thrills me to think of how exciting it must have been for Dunn, a working-class girl with a rough past, to read and write and share ideas with new friends and try on new personalities, all in the midst of what was already being called a revolution. Maybe Dunn sensed the glory wasn’t coming; she dropped out of Reed before finishing her degree. We know now, of course, how the promise of these mid-century movements faltered. 

It makes sense that Toad, a book begun in the wake of tremendous disappointment, features a self-loathing narrator who has concocted an extremely isolating experiment in self-preservation. What impresses me is that Dunn wrings from this blight such profound insight about, as Karen Russell put it, “the human animal’s capacities for savagery, tenderness, loneliness, friendship, loathing, and love.” Still, when Dunn submitted Toad to publishers in the late 1970s, it was rejected by every editor who read it. Geek Love, by far her best-known novel, was published in 1989, and defined Dunn’s legacy. When she died in 2016, obituaries and tributes to her life mentioned only her incomplete novel, The Cut Man, which she began after Geek Love. Even people close to her didn’t seem to know about Toad. I’m glad that’s no longer true.

One last note: the original manuscript lacked chapter titles or breaks. I added them as I edited, composing from words and phrases from the text. “The Raised Blade” came easily. An actual raised blade gleams within this excerpt, but it’s also a metaphor for the conditions of life for women, in Sally’s time and ours—the threat of ever-present misogyny, the danger of a woman declaring frankly and exactly what she wants.

– Naomi Huffman
Editor of Toad

My Menial Job at the Anti-Fuck Factory

The Raised Blade by Katherine Dunn

There came a day I was in no way prepared for. Fifteen years had passed since I had seen Sam and Carlotta. I was thirty-six years old and living in Boston. Time had ripped me out of my holdings, out of my natural domain, and stranded me on my back looking at a horizon altogether too far away. I had blunted my mind beneath blossoming trees and written my little books in feeble defiance of mortality. I had spun exuberant lies and told crass truths, all to avoid pain and unpleasant incidents. I had dutifully loved and later settled for not loving. After years thick with colorful scenes and phantasmagoria, my life had gone gray, dull, and bereft of my own will, an abandonment of volition that carried me into the cold and out again, like a sand flea in the surf.

I had spent the past many months pursuing a young man. A poet. Jack. He was beautiful, and he despised me. First, I had given him money. When the money ran out I went to work again at odd jobs that seemed to separate me from him more than the hours accounted for. While I was away he took long walks or visited old girlfriends. He spoke well, too, and was a loyalist—novel after all my years with revolutionaries. He disliked my name and changed it. “Sally” he refused, and referred to me, when necessary, as “Miss Gunnar.” For months I had tailed him. Eventually I moved in with him and ignored his talk of previous affairs and his sick, hungry staring at slim women. I was fat by then. No longer just round, but thickening and clumsy.

We lived in a large room with high ceilings and an elegant blanked-out fireplace in one wall. We had moved the hot plate into the closet and dined at a small table in a corner. In another corner was the bed, narrow and too soft, where we smothered each other nightly. And two hunched, high-backed chairs stood near the table on which he wrote late into the night to avoid climbing into bed with me.

It was hot in the old house. The lady on the ground floor, bleary with glaucoma, watched four square inches of her television screen through a magnifying glass, and left her door open to hear us as we passed. She answered the phone in the hall when it rang, and shrieked the number up the stairwell: “Forty-one!” if it was for the pale cleric, “Seventeen!” if it was one of the countless faceless girls who called my phone for the pleasure of hearing his voice.

I told him once that I didn’t care if he kept girls hanging on strings from the window ledge as long as I was one of them. It was not true, but it would have taken a lot of damage to mar him for me. I chose to accept his faults and keep him near.

I always thought of him as pacing, but in fact most of the time he sat very still. He was starkly beautiful with his feet up and the blank pain of boredom on his face. His jaws and lips and nose were so delicately cut that sometimes, as he slept, I would examine his face, marveling at its perfection. I was weakened by my love for him, and he was utterly miserable, stuck with me and by the small degree of comfort I could offer him with my money, my willingness to work for him, the cloying amiability of my devotion. He was not proud to be with me. I was too fat, my laugh too coarse. My occasional melodramatic weeping—“You can’t love someone like me . . .”—all too easily explained what we both felt. He responded by dutifully patting my head. He was unable to say what I needed to hear, due to a lack of facility or his inclination toward lying, which only made him more appealing to me. Even as he patted and stroked my hair, he stared at the wall with a sick expression, yearning to be somewhere else.

Most nights, tired after working for hours at the small table with the lamp, when his poems had sucked him dry, he would slide in beside me. As he lay, breathing softly, looking up at the ceiling, I would be woken up by the pain plucking at him. So we both lay, unspeaking, until finally he would turn to me and work himself to sleep. I was grateful for this evidence of the strength of his will, if not affection.

Now, all those years I had never had an orgasm that was not self-induced. Fifty-seven men—I had counted, too many for comfort, and only a few of any interest—had come with my cooperation but made no dent on my pleasures. The exercise was necessary for my sanity. It reassured me and let me sleep. I sought it out with ravenous energy, but on just as many nights, when my desires were urgent and specific, I rubbed myself into quick peaks of relief.

But this fellow, the fifty-seventh—it is definitely unseemly to have kept count—had a quality of pride and a knowledge that the others had not. He was the first to rouse me, to make me run between the legs, even with only a look. One night he had been fooling with me for a while and stumbled upon the right place, the place, and set me off. I was surprised, and then I was wild with anticipation. I cried out, this time for real; I had pretended thousands of orgasms in my time, arched my back and trembled and rattled my heels, moaned, laughed, raked my nails—all to simulate the only models I had, from literature. But at last I was undone; my orgasm was real. I gave in. I grabbed his hand to keep him from losing his place. I gripped his hair, my hips stiffened. He went on for some time and my hands slid down to keep him there.

But he was insulted by my obvious enthusiasm; he must have realized I had been performing before. It disgusted him.

“Do it yourself, then!” he said, his bitter voice a bludgeon, and rolled away from me, furious.

I began to weep, my sobs puddling, coagulating, until snot and tears ran into my ear. I crept out of the bed, crawled over behind the chairs, choking and grunting with pain. The moon or some streetlight spared me nothing; my great white mounds of flesh spread out on the floor, in the periphery of his view. Though I might have bawled that he had never managed to bring me to orgasm, not once in all those months, that he was too ignorant of my anatomy to do so, that all that time I had been pretending, that all along he had been using me for masturbation—and likely any other woman he’d ever slept with as well, no matter what they may have said at the time—though I might have managed to screech this out through the snot, it would not do. It was not in my nature, not with him. He was my Beauty. To clearly explain myself, I would have also needed to describe the comfort that warmed and softened in my lungs and chest, the indescribable pleasure of his face above mine in the bed, sensations we have traditionally called love.

Instead I lay on the floor, hidden behind the chairs, snuffling, shaking, tears streaming. I did think of all these things to say, and also of the vanity and ignorance of a certain class of male. Since then, numerous books and articles have bombarded men with the truth—surely by now they must know. But in those days they all seemed to think that women needed some apparatus to masturbate. “Coke bottles!” “I couldn’t figure out why she was so wild about zucchini. . . .” A thousand snickers, jokus interruptus, the despairing female entering the room just in time for the punch line and flushing red or going pale—not with embarrassment, but rage. Men fancied that, since we lack our own, women must require a mock substitute for their equipment. “Not true,” we could have said. “We do it just like you do, by rubbing ourselves.”

They would have responded, “Rubbing what?”

Or else, they’d ignorantly bluff about the clitoris: “Oh, well, it’s just this little bump. Nothing much comes of it.”

And I see, from his perspective, how it would be disgusting to discover that this mooing, gyrating, strenuously passionate mammal on which you had been relieving yourself for some time had only been pretending to like it.

But I didn’t say anything. To confess, admit, or announce seemed too dangerous, impossible, because I could see it would have given him an excuse to leave. It would have degraded me to tell the truth after all those months. And I see, from his perspective, how it would be disgusting to discover that this mooing, gyrating, strenuously passionate mammal on which you had been relieving yourself for some time had only been pretending to like it. Rather like emptying a very full bowel into an immaculate pot and discovering that it doesn’t flush, it blows back on you. Truth must begin on the first night, or a woman must forever hold her peace and rub herself to orgasm in the bathroom afterward—while he’s back in bed doing the same, probably.

One day I brought home two dozen donuts from the DoNut Shop, where I worked. He could not take one but watched, expressionless and still, as I ate them, ate them, and ate them. Soon after that I took to hiding them in waxy bags in the closet: in the suitcase, behind the laundry bag, beneath the sweaters piled on the shelf.

He never said hello when I came back from work but went on reading or staring at the wall as the record spun out on its wheel of sound. I would come in as softly as my bulk permitted, kick off my broken shoes, and cavort cautiously to plant a kiss on his troubled brow. He would pat my head as polite as anything, and then I would seek out my hidden treasures while hanging up my coat. I’d rattle open the wax bag, take a bite, change my clothes, munching all the while. Then I’d flush the crumbs down the sink and rinse the sugar off my cheeks before going back to sit at his feet and ask what he’d like for supper. As often as not, he would say, “Nothing.” He seemed to live on red wine, dried apricots, and the odd salt binge. Then I would tell him tall tales and resort to my caches repeatedly during the evening. In the morning I would wait until I got to work where the donuts would be hot and fresh.

One day when I returned home, the donuts were all gone. “You . . .” I began tentatively, “you haven’t done anything with my donuts, have you?”

He swiveled his lovely head toward me with a chilly glitter in his eye: “They’re out there.” He nodded at the fire escape. “I pissed on them.”

“Hee hee,” I said, trotted to the window, and leaned out. He had always been amusing, perhaps he was joking. We kept an old five-gallon paint bucket on the fire escape as a garbage can. I pulled it toward me; it grated over the steel platform. Inside, melted sugar ran down, a shining syrup, and chocolate frosting was crushed into the donut mush. I also whiffed the stench of his urine.

I gasped, pushed the pail away, and whirled round on him, where he sat in my wing-backed chair. I was outraged. I unleashed the unadulterated anger I’d been holding in for months: “Why did you do that?”

“Because you must weigh two hundred pounds already. I pissed on them all day.”

I was burnt by grief, rage, frustration—not, at that moment, by shame, not at all, but because the donuts were no longer edible.

I tried to stop eating them. The shame took hold and festered long after that particular hunger had evaporated. Shame was not new to me and had only been held off, like the remission of a terminal disease. Thinking about how he was shamed by me, brought low, as it were, by my very proximity, fills me even now with misery.

There I lay, naked on the floor, snuffling in the moonlight, feeling already the pain of his inevitable departure, my tears running wetly. Dawn arrived; I could just make out the cheery contours of the furniture. My limbs ached; pain ripped my head slowly, jaggedly into two. Tears and mucus crusted my face and neck. All night he had been still and silent in the bed, while I, on the floor, made noise.

The sheets hissed as he stirred. I watched as he rose, strode to the closet, and took out the largest suitcase. His legs were all that were visible to me—his long, slender legs, graceful ankles, smooth hip, agonizing thigh. He emerged, all in view, but the dried mucus on my eyelids made it difficult to see. His face was, as usual, so still. He took his books from the table; his papers he laid on top of the clothes in the suitcase. He crossed the room in silence and leaned over me, looked directly at me for the first time since the night before. He so seldom looked at me.

“I have to go now.” His face was as if built in some ecstatic vision. His fine, pale hair softened its planes slightly. “I have to go now. I cannot stay anymore.”

I could have spoken, reached out, and grabbed his foot. Instead I listened to his soft footsteps, the door as it closed, his feet light and quick on the stairs.

I died without death at the end. No end for my pain. “Gone!” roared my blood. “Gone!” shrieked the air in my lungs. “Blank! Empty!” Each hollow cell of my brain echoed a tinny chorus.

I felt a cramp in my lower intestine and then a sudden gush as my bladder emptied over my thighs. I waited to collect myself to sufficiently to carry out my plan: get into the closet, stand up, turn on the light, and find a knife. I lay facedown in the mucus and dreamed of his laugh, rare and treasured, and the incredible length of his rib cage, how the bones sweetly bent toward the delicate beads of his spine. Then pain returned—memories of him buying gifts and taking taxis for his other girls, paying for it with my puny money all these months. I conjured images of my sagging plump body, the postures I assumed to seduce him but likely only repulsed him. He must be walking on air now, I thought. The relief he must feel! Had last night been engineered to trigger his escape? Or had he, too, experienced a sudden revelation: that not only was I not pleasing him, but that he was not pleasing me? All of his heroically polite efforts in vain, my devotion to him revealed to be impure. Or had it been my long, fluid honking throughout the night? He despised hysteria, was driven to nausea by the sight of weeping, and consigned to melodrama all professions of emotional discomfort. He only liked me when I was cheerful.

Then the manager of the DoNut Shop knocked on the door. I had forgotten she had promised to wake me up for an early shift. It was already five thirty.

I sat up. For fifteen seconds, I was sure he had come back to make peace, recover our life together . . . I scrabbled at my face, pulled on the door.

“Are you sick?” the manager asked when she saw me.

Yes, very sick, dead in fact. Especially now that she had killed me again simply by not being him. She was a small person, thin. I had managed to keep her from meeting him. The thought of them together had made me wary. She claimed to be intimately acquainted with the singers of the day, to have lived for years on the wit of her own songs and the stage name of Tiger Lily. She couldn’t have been more than nineteen, and she was vastly ambitious for the salaried glory in the back room of the DoNut Shop.

I banged my face hard against the doorframe. I could feel my face hitting the wood, and I knew there should be pain, but I could not feel it. My nose felt wet again.

“What’s wrong? Are you drugged?” She was worried. “Your nose is bleeding.”

I didn’t answer.

“Hey. Are you hungover, Sally? Can you come to work? I have to make deliveries and there’s nobody else to work out front until after lunch. The bakers can’t go out front and serve, you know. It’s the union.” Her soft, young face was grim with disapproval, the anxiety that I might inconvenience her, and the disgust at what seemed to be the aftermath of a problem with drink or drugs.

I let the door swing open and turned to find my yellow uniform. She leaned in the doorway, tapped her own elbows, and watched me. I was tousled, smeared—the alcoholic slut.

“Don’t you want to . . . wash up?” Pat was her name, I think.

We walked down the grimy posterior of Beacon Hill toward the corner. Prime location for a donut shop, directly across from Massachusetts General Hospital. I had managed to put on shoes, and by some miracle, my hair was out of my face.

“No more cheese rolls,” I rasped to a customer from behind the counter. Tears rusted my vocal cords.

“I’m too tired to get you any more coffee. Go away,” I snapped at a sassy intern.

“You are too fat,” I muttered, glaring at a big-butted college girl holding a Rollo May book in a library binding under one upper arm.

“What?” she said. “I want a dozen maple bars.”

“You are too fat!” I shouted, my throat aching. “Don’t you know nobody will share your bed if you are too fat? Go away. Don’t eat for six weeks and you’ll be fine. Go away.”

Mr. Chesbrough, the head baker, emerged through the swinging door from the kitchen. He’d been watching. I always called him sir. He liked me.

“What are you doing?” He spoke to me softly as I scraped the donuts from the display trays straight into the garbage. Sugar, glazed, chocolate, and butterscotch donuts slid into the big plastic garbage pail.

He stuck his arm out, blocked me from grabbing more. “Better lie down,” he said as he led me along.

“You are an anti-fuck manufacturer,” I said to him. “Too many donuts—no more flesh because there is too much flesh.” I giggled. “You’re a goddamn Nazi, handing out poisonous anti-fuck treats to innocent children.”

He deposited me in the chair inside the office. Mr. Chesbrough asked for the name of my doctor. He was kindly, but worried.

“You seem to me like you’ve been smoking marijuana, but if you say not . . .” I hardly listened. “You were throwing my whole night’s work into the garbage, and I am telling you that you are either stoned or drunk, drugged solid it looks like . . .”

There was a big office paper cutter on the desk. The long, machete-like blade was up, waiting. I hadn’t noticed it before. Had no idea it was there.

I had calmed and was now slumped silently in the wooden chair. Dully, feebly, I was aware that I had just lost my job. I felt a certain relief.

“How could you get yourself in such a mess?” Mr. Chesbrough pleaded to understand. “I always thought you were such a lady.” His face was dark with reproach. He was right. I had been so polite at the shop. I never laughed too loudly, I kept my head down, I sympathized with the poor quality of the equipment and the danger of walking to work at two o’clock in the morning. Hadn’t I also admired photographs of his strange children? Wasn’t there something about a diabetic wife? “Miss Gunnar,” he always called me, and did not despise me or ignore me for my sweetness.

He leaned on the desk and peered closely at me. His sympathy melted me.

Tears—I didn’t feel them until they hit my chin. The middle of my face felt shut off, shorted out.

“Gu-blug,” I muttered, nonsense. My throat was full of mucus. I stood up, I tried to speak. “It wasn’t—” I started to sob. The enormous ugliness of my face was distinctly tangible. I wanted to explain that it was a lost love that had made me behave so wildly, that of course I knew it was foolish for one such as I, hardly above slime, to presume to love. I wanted to tell him I had always been a sucker for a pretty face.

I wanted to explain that it was a lost love that had made me behave so wildly, that of course I knew it was foolish for one such as I, hardly above slime, to presume to love.

“It’s not drugs! It’s . . .” Pain, I was going to say, and to aid my credibility I employed a half-remembered tool of rhetoric, the downward swoop of the palms to the podium—in this case, the back office desk. But instead I fell onto the raised arm of the paper cutter blade. In fact, my not inconsiderable weight pressed the long knife straight down onto Mr. Chesbrough’s right hand. It crunched.

“Yahhh!” Mr. Chesbrough screamed. His mouth opened so long I could see his quivering uvula.

I looked down at his hand, saw a flash of white bone, and jerked the knife up again. There was a sound in my ears that went on until I realized it was my own voice, squealing, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

Mr. Chesbrough’s falsetto screaming continued. “You cow! You stupid cow!” And then he fainted to the floor. Blood pumped from the cut, gently and quietly, onto his white apron, and pooled in the folds of the cloth before slipping off to the floor.

I dropped down beside him and grabbed his wrist tight in my two hands, squeezing, trying to keep the blood from escaping. I whispered, “I’m sorry,” as a kind of tourniquet for my conscience.

The office door opened.

“Christ!” said Pat. She swooped down beside me, reached for his hand, then stopped. “Is he dead? Or is it just his hand?” “His hand,” I said.

“Can we lift him? Between us?” she asked me, and we were tugging at his shoulders when he came to and began to cry. We helped him through the public serving area. Thankfully only a few tables and two stools at the counter were occupied.

“Idiot,” Mr. Chesbrough said, nodding at me. “She did it. Miss Gunnar did it.” It occurred to me he didn’t know my first name.

“Call me Sally,” I said.

It was slow that day at the emergency ward and they took him right away. I sat down in the green waiting room.

“Are you being helped?” asked a nurse.

“I’m waiting for someone else,” I said.

“But it looks like you have a broken nose. You’d better have it treated,” she said.

A little later, a doctor asked me to count backward from one hundred while he administered anesthetic. I relaxed on the paper-covered table and smiled at the white cone a nurse had slipped over my mouth and nose.

Sometime later I awoke and felt acutely nauseous. I managed to turn my head just in time so the gush of half-digested donuts arched out onto the tile floor rather than over me. Some reassuring activity began on that side of the table almost immediately, so I lay back and relaxed, calmly confident that I would never have to face that particular mess, no matter how much I deserved to. At first I was pleased that it had not been odiferous vomit, but then I remembered that my nose was not operating at full capacity, so it might well have been a very odorous puke, very disgusting for the aide or nurse or whoever did the cleaning to deal with. By the time I turned my head to look, he or she, and the vomit, were gone.

They were able to save Mr. Chesbrough’s fingers. “Just a few stitches,” a nurse told me when I was released the next day, and sent home with orders to rest. I wanted bed and a murder mystery. Doctor’s orders.

The old woman downstairs was shelling peas into a bowl as I went by. The stairs and the door, the key itself, were such incomprehensible obstacles that I sat quietly for a moment on the bottom step. A final, enormous effort carried me up and into my room. My cheeks were beginning to itch from the bandage.

I leaned toward the mirror and smiled at my face and the big, white A-shaped bandage spread over my nose and cheeks.

I breathed deeply through my mouth. With an unusual deliberation, I rooted out my tobacco and cigarette papers, a saucer and matches. Carried them to the unmade bed and deposited them on the floor in reach of the pillow. As I smoothed the sheets and removed my uniform, a gentle fatigue began to sneak up the backs of my calves. It felt so good to lie down, to notice the small nagging pains of my body only as they were fading.

It seemed incredible that I should feel so empty and clean so short a time after I had been overcome with that lunatic misery; perhaps I was careful to edit my thoughts to only what I wanted to remember. As I lay in bed, I told myself time would begin again after some sleep. There were plenty of years left for bad thoughts, for replaying Mr. Chesbrough’s bleeding hand, my indiscreet, self-indulgent maundering, and the events of the night before. Morning could bring the grief and shame again, but not before I had rested. I did not even smoke, but slid off wondering, with a grin, if everything had happened because I had so nearly managed an orgasm at some other hand than my own.

In that night of peace, those hours of necessary indifference, the possibility of solitude occurred to me. Lying sprawled there, unwatched, was so very comfortable. I did not feel mortified by the width of my thighs, the size of my buttocks, the thickness of my wrist, the flab beneath my arms and chin, the odor of my feet. If only, I thought, I could be sure of never going hunting again, of never being driven out into the night by my own desires. No more rooting and scavenging for listeners, no more posturing, no more clumsy experiments meant to attract. I mourned all the energy I’d spun away in my futile attempts to secure a back to hug for a night.

I thought of myself as a spider quivering in the center of a web while swearing off flies. I was harmless when I was only chasing and dreaming, but in those few terrible cases in which I had snared some poor prey, made them captives of my cross- eyed, ravenous devotion, the consequences had been strangely poisonous.

Now, on clear mornings, after coffee and an undisturbed hour with a book, I am able to confess that the injury I have produced has been mainly to myself, that those I have afflicted with my heedless acts or stupid talk have bled for longer in my reflections than they ever did in reality.

On other mornings I am visited by a prickling suspicion, haunting the periphery of my mind, that perhaps this self-harrowing is a distraction from some true, instinctive beastliness. I vowed to form a structure for my retreat, fold my tents and creep into my ecumenical shelter, conjure up some idol powerful enough to hold me to it: silence, abstinence, and solitude. I hoped some gift of strength would enable me to remain there.

But even then, at that hour of epileptic misery, fifteen years after my last sight of them, if Sam or Carlotta had knocked, would I not have leapt up, told them my tale with humorous fugues, and then taken them out for a drink to hear their tale in return?

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