Welcome to Issue No. 11 of Prime Number:

Cover.jpg

A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose

Letter from the Editors (or jump to the Table of Contents)

Dear Readers,

We are delighted to present Issue No. 11 of Prime Number Magazine,  marking the beginning of our second year of publication. Prime Number fans will realize that this is our fifth issue (2, 3, 5, 7, 11), and we are in the process of selecting work from the first four issues for our inaugural print annual edition, due out later this year. (Believe me, you'll hear about it when it's ready!)

In any event, we're starting Year Two off with a bang. We've got short stories by Kevin McIlvoy, Corey Mesler, and Kim Church, among many others. Our poetry features Karen Donovan, Jon Tribble, Laura Lee Washburn, and Lawrence Wray. We're also loaded with non-fiction this time out, including essays by Michael Milburn, Sheila Black, Beverly Jackson, and more!.

We're also delighted to share with you a craft essay by the memoirist and teacher Michael Steinberg, as well as reviews of new books by Michael Parker and Carol Fisher Saller (a contributor to Issue 2). And, for the first time, we have a short drama. This one is by playwright Robert Moulthrop.

Did you see our cover photo? The lovely picture is by writer and photographer Cath Barton.

As we've said before, it has become increasingly difficult to turn down the wonderful work we are offered. If we have had to decline your work, please try us again! Now that we have five issues for you to look at, you should be getting a better sense of what we like.

A number of readers have asked how they might comment on the work they read in the magazine. We’ll look into adding that feature in the future. In the meantime if you are moved to comment I would encourage you to send us an email (editors@primenumbermagazine.com) and we’ll pass your thoughts along to the contributors. Similarly, if you are a publisher and would like to send us ARCs for us to consider for reviews, please contact us at the above email address. We’re especially interested in reviewing new, recent, or overlooked books from small presses.

Finally, we’ve begun reading submissions for Issue 13, scheduled to launch in October. We’d love to include your work, so please submit! We need short stories, flash fiction and non-fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, short drama, and cover art. To learn more, visit our submissions page.

One more thing: Prime Number Magazine is published by Press 53, a terrific small press helping to keep literature alive. Please support indpendent presses and bookstores.

The Editors

 

Table of Contents, Prime Number Magazine

Issue 11, July-September 2011

 

POETRY

Karen Donovan

Taking a Night Kayak Through Bullocks Cove

This Noon

Jon Tribble

Midnight Rainbows From Devil's Kitchen

Young Wife, Bathing

Blue Crabs

Laura Lee Washburn

Ode to the Unwritten Odes

What's What

Body

Lawrence Wray

The Disappearance of Outside

Schubert's Berceuse

 

FICTION

Jim Miller

Rx

Arthur Powers

Thorn

Marion de Booy Wentzien

After Roy

Gregory J. Wolos

Smooth

Kevin McIlvoy

Perfumery

Corey Mesler

The Day the Change Came for James

Maura O'Brien

Corpse Pose

Kevin C. Jones

Education

Kim Church

Cafeteria Lady

 

DRAMA

Robert Moulthrop

Back up to Fall River 

 

 

NONFICTION

Annette Gendler

Waiting in the Dark

Erin McReynolds

We Hit People

Michael Milburn

My Memoir

Sheila Black

Waiting to be Dangerous: Confessionalism and Disability

Beverly A. Jackson

The Wing Shed

Jeffery Hess

Nobody's Father

 

CRAFT

Michael Steinberg

The Person to Whom Things Happened: Finding the Inner Story in Personal Narratives

 

REVIEWS

Martha F. Brenner

Review of The Watery Part of the World, by Michael Parker

Kristen-Paige Madonia

Review of Eddie's War, by Carol Fisher Saller

 

COVER ART

Cath Barton

Eleven

 

Prime Number Decimals

Prime Decimals 11.2

Prime Decimals 11.3

Prime Decimals 11.5

Prime Decimals 11.7

 


Poetry from Karen Donovan

followed by Q&A

Taking a Night Kayak Through Bullocks Cove

Three strokes is all a paddler

needs to know to pull this craft

 

past Lavin’s and the jetty

rocks and reach the green

 

and red channel nuns,

the sweep, the brace, the draw,

 

but only mastery of wind

and tide and wave will try

 

the bay with no bowlight

on a moonless night.

 

Where bluefish run

and terns circle buoys by day,

 

a dark mouth laps laps

at the boat. Whatever nears

 

the surface might be imagined,

so passing over

 

anything in this thin skin, even

yellow weeds near shore,

 

lifts the blood above

its temperate habit.

 

Pilgrim, your wake

is a shadow, now paddle.

 

Up close, the blade flames

bioluminescence,

 

the stars in the sky,

the stars in the sea,

 

all wonderment between

the firmament and the buoyant

 

shell which the creature inhabits.

On this palindrome

 

of light and dark, we would

look the same coming

 

and going if it weren’t for

the straightness and length

 

of the body under the sheet,

the mileage on the tongue,

 

the history swirling off the lost

rudders of the hands.

 

 

This Noon

A dove called

invisibly

 

as I was reading about doves

real and imaginary,

 

their tendency to descend

on the wet heads of prophets,

 

so I went to the window to see

if this one had landed.

 

The sky was perfectly blue.

A breeze and the sound of a breeze

 

brushed the oaks, and close up

an hourglass-shaped spider

 

walked across the outside

of the wire window screen.

 

Next door my neighbor

was trimming the bittersweet

 

with her electric saw,

and when I stepped out, the dove

 

flew over me and over the roof

toward the lagoon. It was noon

 

and I thought I had captured

my subject, the cooing,

 

the accidental spider, the breeze

in oak leaves, a dove taking flight

 

from the roof peak,

my neighbor switching off the machine

 

and laying aside her work

to greet friends: Come in,

 

come in, let me make you

some lunch now.

 

How simply the poem

assembles itself when it wishes,

 

how all the language ever invented

wells up around the eelgrass

 

to be spoken, and how impossibly

the tongue darkens

 

unless the breeze agrees

to stream through oak leaves

 

hypnotically green

on an ordinary day, offering

 

such ordinary tasks of decipherment

as the fact of a breeze,

 

the sound and the fact

of the sound, the lotus blossom

 

and the murky pool

from which it unfolds

 

in a move reminiscent of the final

inside-outing of origami

 

remarkable pink, the last color

anyone expects from a murky pool.

 

What is it then I am to attend,

and am I to understand

 

that one thing leads to another,

that this morning one woman

 

will drown all her children

in a bathtub like kittens

 

while another calmly trims

the bittersweet?

 

That simple addition compels

the leaves in their gestures

 

to estimate the final effect

of a breeze that moves them,

 

moves through and past

yet never passes?

 

Shall we ask about—

Is it necessary to—

 

A dove coos,

a spider wanders

 

over the grid

of the window screen,

 

a landscape everywhere

present but never apparent,

 

everywhere singular but never

unique, the sky in its changing,

 

a dove out there, cooing,

still calling from somewhere.

 

 

Karen Donovan’s first book, Fugitive Red, won the Juniper Prize for Poetry. For 20 years she co-edited Paragraph, a journal of short prose published by Oat City Press. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and now works in Providence.

 

Q&A

Q: What does the paddler have to teach the poet, and vice versa?

A: The momentary opportunities for weightlessness. The laws of resistance and give.

 

Q: What is your favorite literary spider?

A: Most vividly the one from “Writing Spider” in Dave Smith’s book Cuba Night: “No one sees me outrun the whiskered corn / or spill myself on the grass / or fall amazed under her silken staring,” and so on. Of course, all spiders are literary.

 

Q:  In these poems, you rely on the lean strength of the couplet. Would you discuss your use of this form?

A: I chose couplets because I wanted to structure the space in each poem without domesticating it. If possible. And to preserve uncertainty in the travel.


Poetry from Jon Tribble

followed by Q&A

Midnight Rainbows From Devil’s Kitchen

The lantern dims and sputters the little light

we need to wait in the dark for the lines

to pull, release, pull, and—taut at last—

 

set the hook and play the catch around

the other four lines waiting, their purpose

to weigh the night in against our careful

 

measurements and patience. A constellation

of baitfish scatter like some new universe’s

primordial moment, the crappie and shad

 

bumping the nearest poles slink into green

shadows beyond us, and now the headlight

floating in its foam ring illuminates the flash

 

and run of this twenty inches of muscle

straining against its life’s breath burning

up the blood. We’ll net and ice the fish

 

soon, cut the length and spill out what’s in

back to dark shelf of oxygen layered cold

below us in the table of the lake, but now

 

the splash and dash, the leap of color

our eyes can only hope to prism holds

us here until the limit, and brings us back.

 

 

Young Wife, Bathing

Her body is her own now

because it has been someone else’s,

the embraces no longer punctuated

with the hesitant comma, 

the question mark of the ’50s,

a decade before Bo Diddley’s 

then-present plaint “Who Do You Love?”

becomes a ’60s imperative, 

a picket line between the old and new.

 

But now her revolution 

is his hands the night before

on her unwrapped shoulders,

her hands tracing the line

of the curve of her breasts that was

the trail of his desire, lips and fingers

finding their way in the dark.

 

This morning she undresses

in the basement of the church

they’ve come to Des Moines

to raise back up together,

the black Hudson crossing

night and day on the highways

from the South, with the soaped-on

“Just Married” still a palimpsest

shadowing white the rear glass.

 

The sunlight slips no warmth

through windows more for letting out

the mildew and musk, but she needs

this shower despite the dank air,

she needs to know what washes away

and what remains. The shock

of the water from the jury-rigged hose

strung with baling wire above her

from the ceiling—there is a freshness

to the electric cold—it startles her back

to his hand taking hers, the ring,

the magnolias, and all those faces.

 

As she rinses her sensible hair,

she sees them above her.

Grimy-eyed boys peering

through the screens that keep out

skunks and other trespassers.

She does not want them to see

that she sees them, makes her own eyes

anything but available to theirs,

but she has caught their almost-smiles,

that look of need, a country

between desire and awe, an open

door into a dark and empty house,

an address their lives and scars

and calloused hearts won’t

allow them to inhabit for long.

 

And though she knows she should

feel something else—the expected fear

or shame or violation’s bitter tang—

what she recognizes in this moment

is the power to hold them

where they bend and crouch,

quiet supplicants before her

as long as she deigns to entertain

their audience, as long as she chooses

to not acknowledge their presence.

 

Finally, when she meets them

with her eyes, the blush is theirs,

not hers, and they scatter from her view

like wrens from her mother’s backyard

when a black dog would bound in

across the summer grass,

and, for a moment, she wonders

if they will return, she wonders if

they will look at a woman

in quite the same way ever again.

 

And then she thinks of her husband.

 

 

Blue Crabs

As we walk by the sandstone gate,

I admit you were right about this trip—

It seems we’ve gone too far again.

 

Goose Island long out of season,

its shore and pier empty except

for snowbirds from Wisconsin

 

and two teenagers working

surf rigs. The boys’ beat-up

VW sits right on the water,

 

its splotchy shell some great

sea turtle depositing its eggs

in the hard sand. No danger

 

of tide here and the boys don’t

stand a chance in this stagnant

lagoon, but they continue casting

 

into the black-green algae

clotting the water, cursing

when their sharp red and silver

 

torpedoes snag and drag back

a blooming mass. The couple

from Wisconsin has a better idea.

 

Lounging halfway down the pier

in their straw hats, they raise

and lower crab traps they’ve

 

tied to the aluminum chairs.

The old man cuts perch for

bait while his wife rotates

 

traps in and out of the water,

depositing the catch in a green

ice chest situated between them.

 

When we reach their spot, exchange

pleasantries, the man lifts back

the cooler’s lid and offers us four

 

from the squirming tangle

of brown-white-turquoise claws.

He says they have far too many

 

despite his wife’s glares; but

we have nothing to hold them

so we thank him and decline.

 

The pier stretches out toward

the lip of this shallow bay

and we follow it past herons

 

and egrets flanking the wooden

pilings with stoic reflections,

gulls shimmering down and back

 

in the bright wind. A fisherman

left a ray drying on the planks

and we must step carefully over

 

its bedeviled leather. Crab shells

litter spots we pass, green bottle

flies swarming around the eyes,

 

jaundiced organs and deadman left

behind. You speak of softshells

your father would boil back in

 

the Bronx, steam whistling from

them like a warning. We find

ourselves far from home on this

 

brackish South Texas shoreline,

no sense to the migrations that

have brought us here, jobs no

 

better than the traps the blue crabs

scuttle into—some scraps of food,

an illusion of security. Our single

 

consolation comes from being

together—more than your parents

had when they left warm islands

 

for the chill of England. The rocky

land in Jamaica, cattle and goats  

on the hillsides of Carriacou

 

offered little promise for a future,

far too late now to second guess

if Britain, Canada, America made

 

better choices. My parents crossed

state lines, not oceans; leaving

the red clay of Alabama for Iowa,

 

Nebraska, Arkansas. Our journeys

might go short or long; it doesn’t

matter. Beyond us, in the open

 

water, two pilot whales breach and

blow spouts of sparkling mist into

the sunlight. Their dark backs

 

break the waves before diving, and

we know as we imagine maps

and routes they wander, wherever

 

they head toward is home. As

we stand against this constant

wind, we still know the way.

 

 

Jon Tribble is the managing editor of Crab Orchard Review and the series editor of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry published by Southern Illinois University Press. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry, Crazyhorse, Quarterly West, and The Jazz Poetry Anthology. His work was selected as the 2001 winner of the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize from Sarah Lawrence College. He teaches creative writing and literature, and directs undergraduate and graduate students in internships and independent study in editing and literary publishing for the Department of English at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

 

Q&A

Q: Tell us more about fishing…

A: I have fished almost all my life, though mainly I grew up catching channel catfish in lakes and ponds in Arkansas. When I moved to southern Illinois, a friend, Rodney Jones, introduced me to night fishing for rainbow trout. You had to wait for nighttime since the heat in July and August keep the fish very inactive during the daytime. We would lower our lines to measured depths and try to find the cool, but not too cold, water the trout will feed in at certain times through the night.

 

Q: Seems like most states have a Devil’s Den, Devil’s Hole – in North Carolina, we have the Devil’s Stomping Ground. Where and why is Devil’s Kitchen? 

A: Devil’s Kitchen Lake is a man-made lake created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It was the result of damming Grassy Creek in a steep valley about 8 miles south of Carbondale, Illinois, and is part of the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, the Crab Orchard Wilderness, the Panther Den Wilderness, and the Shawnee National Forest. The lake reaches depths of ninety feet and is extremely clear water. One explanation for the name is there was a black rock ledge overlooking the valley and cooking fires set up on and around the ledge by hunters and pioneers gave it the name “Devil’s Kitchen.” Perhaps, the year-round cooling effect of the steep valley with the creek at the bottom also created a mist that might have looked like smoke from above, giving settlers the feeling of a connection to an underworld from the place.

 

Q: “Young Wife, Bathing” is such an evocative moment captured in the midst of a great movement - would you discuss the genesis of this poem, and is it part of a larger historical work? 

A: This poem grew from a story my mother told me of her experience upon moving to Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950s. She and my father had not been married for very long and they had begun to work for the United Methodist Church as home missionaries providing social services in communities with the U.S. Her background was as an elementary school teacher and he was in the process of training as a social worker. I have been working on a family historical work that would explore my parents’ experiences during the late 1940s through the early 1980s. My mother also worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama.


Poetry from Laura Lee Washburn

followed by Q&A

Ode to the Unwritten Odes

You are handknitted, hours of color

gliding across knuckles, blunt points

seesawing air. Your wrought verbs

are the V&A’s iron, the balconies of New

Orleans. You’re the hip or the knee

bending without notice, no wince.

You’re no honest mistake anyone

will ever know. Crinoline, Indian summer,

velvet drapes in the darkened theatre,

the second chair tuning the violin,

the white cake whose name no one

remembers long, the green satin shoes

of the men in Saracen costume, the myth 

of earthworms split living into two beings,

something anyone could understand, clarity,

the majorette’s golden tassels, her magenta 

fringe, the first serve, crack of bat,

breaking glass or the ocean’s smoothed

corrections. No. Never a correction,

just simple sane perfections.

 

 

What’s What

Sometimes I don’t know where I am

or who’s in the house, but that’s just sleep

not quite worn off. Pretty soon

I’ll figure out if I’m facing west

 

or south, if the kids are here

or in Oklahoma and which language

they speak in this country. If the rooster

is going to crow (home) or a jackhammer

 

will bust the street, if the TV’s 

already on or the folks are all 

gathered with warm mugs in their palms,

if I’m going to roll over or lean down to the dog,

 

if I’m going to wander in with a bed jacket

and a sleepy grin, if the sun’s come up,

if breakfast and a paper sit outside the locked door,

if the snow clouds have rolled through

the night, if it’s dark, if I just need to pee.

 

Soon I’ll know what’s what, what’s not.

I’m pretty sure rolling over is south

and that my day comes in from the north.

If I can figure all this out, then I’ll know.

 

 

Body

Something is in my body

like the North Pacific trash heap

too far away to clean up or to bother.

 

I am trying to stay asleep

because it is not yet my morning.

Something is in my body

 

organ-deep, crawling up toward skin.

Not cancer, I fear, just pain.

First under my rib, the ocean

 

crawls with its dangerous plastic.

I turn and the tortoise turns

into my kidney, into my lung.

 

Body, don’t pleurisy me. Body,

don’t pain. Let the albatross

die on mistaken lunches,

 

let the vortex keep 

what can’t spit up. Pain

recycle your own pain.

                    

Pain insists, but the planet

is more subtle.

                    

Live on this ocean’s indelible lump

when you die. When 

the continents long fail, this.

                    

One of these won’t be ignored.

 

 

Laura Lee Washburn is the Director of Creative Writing at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, an editorial board member of the Woodley Memorial Press, and the author of  This Good Warm Place: 10th Anniversary  Expanded Edition (March Street) and Watching the Contortionists (Palanquin Chapbook Prize). Her poetry has appeared in such journals as Carolina Quarterly, Quarterly West, The Sun, The Journal, and Valparaiso Review. Born in Virginia Beach, Virginia, she has also lived and worked in Arizona and in Missouri. She is married to the writer Roland Sodowsky.

 

Q&A

Q: Your poems show an intense interest in how we position ourselves in connection to the landscape. Can you talk about the landscape you currently inhabit, and how that compares with one(s) from your earlier life?

A: I came from the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. Under the green waves I felt at home looking up toward air. This fish fantasy made me, from an early age, want to literalize evolution. I believe in the ocean as home, and when I see water, I want to be inside it. I walked or biked the trails of Seashore State Park as I child. In the Blue Ridge Mountains, I camped in tents that smelled of vinyl and wood smoke. Moving to Arizona, in my early twenties, I got out the Atlas and calculated the distance to the nearest large body of water.  The apartment’s communal pool sufficed. Each day I rode my bicycle through the automatic sprinklers, drying, it seemed, within a block of the water’s spray. I learned loquat, mimosa, olive trees, palm. Kansas sends up tall trees. The neighbor’s sycamore litters our lawn with bark. I recognize pine, magnolia, and the dreaded sweet gum from home. Osage orange is new to me. We don’t go to the lake. We curse the puddle by the back gate after heavy rains.  We hide in the basement when the sirens go. I don’t know this place like the back of my hand, but I dig in the earth and watch what grows. Vines crowd in around us. The infernal cicadas buzz their deafening buzz.

 

Q: The images in “Ode to the Unwritten Odes” are specific and yet oddly assorted, like an attic or chamber of curiosities. What brings these elements together?

A: Muriel Rukeyser’s idea that American poetry exists on a continuum with the great poet of possibility Walt Whitman at one end and with the poet of outrage, Herman Melville, at the other, got me thinking about where I fell on this continuum. I realized that many of my poems were poems of outrage, like perhaps “Body,” but that many of my favorite poems were poems of possibility. I have since tried, occasionally, to write the poem of praise and possibility. “Ode to the Unwritten Odes” attempts in one fell swoop to capture the subjects of many odes I might have written or might yet. These are the curiosities of my mind: those Shriners parading at their Virginia Beach conventions, my aunt afraid of them in her white majorette boots, and what is the name of that cake we had at our wedding?  And then there’s this note I found on the poem, “Roland says, ‘only the unwritten, unsculpted, unpainted is perfect . . . .’”

 

Q: What direction do you face when you write?

A: East, of course.


Lawrence Wray.jpg

Poetry from Lawrence Wray

followed by Q&A

The Disappearance of Outside

And how I dreamed of my bath and how

the water was black and soapy then.

~Gerald Stern

 

The disappearance of outside began long ago

the way a window mists over after hot water

is drawn for a bath. Following half reflections,

part or opaque images of familiar scenes,

a pane clears. It quavers, pares back,

the way sight in a damaged eye milks the road

on which a girl in leg braces returns from school:

her head slowly bobs over a vanishing dirt crest.

 

The object impermanence on the road of I, me, mine.

There were the trees. There was the gravel

that reminds, and the dust, of people who’ve gone.

 

It began in the 30s, or it began a generation before

that and had become, by then, irreversible,

a loosening in the nervous tendrils that branch,

billow, wave, a decomposing light.

Its disintegration milked the bus stop, the market, 

the spring-fed cistern, and in the halo of street lamps,

back door lights, damped the woods out back

and the passage where old man Vance in a trailer

thrashed with his cane at a wall when he wanted 

something: and always a child was sent out.

 

Cats scurried there. Lovers shoved into a door

by their own brute need kissed and pulled away 

to go inside there. A bag of groceries spilled, 

winter oranges and chicken legs and a loaf of bread 

on the grass. Whitewash flaked off the frame.

All this, until the dark became its own kind of sight

in the hungry months, then hungry years,

when it was not possible to speak anymore

about how cruelty became normal.

 

When even a loaf of bread on the table, otherwise 

a sign of abundance, a meager eternity,

and bath water warming in the bins on the sides 

of the stove in the kitchen, a pepper of wood ash 

on the water in the tin tub and flecking the bread,

became for a short time part of one’s skin.

 

 

Schubert’s Berceuse

For a whole week that music 

returns in the afternoon. 

Her bowing lightens 

to a faint breath, a mother’s,

a father’s as it closes,

which is how it joins me:

a sigh entering that stilling 

interval, that leaving off 

space, the fifth, 

in which the hand lets go

of the cradle 

and the child, unaware, sways 

into its own dream. 

It brushes through rooms,

the red chair, empty, 

a jig-saw puzzle on the floor, 

begun on a recent Sunday,

that won’t be finished.  

And mostly in pieces, drifts, 

whenever I see her 

sitting with her dolls, 

it visits with its loneliness.

 

Her hand, which is small still, 

opens from the cello’s shoulder.

And before the bedroom door

is pulled to—a seam of light

from the hall that edges

a bank of dark, 

the child’s cheek just kissed,

a child Schubert might have

sung to if he’d lived— 

the tip of her third finger 

reaches that final harmonic,

a whispering voice,

which sounds like a gentle keen. 

Toy horses stand in a corner.

 

Whose innocence is exposed, 

whose tenderness and passing

time together? In pictures 

a few years old, she is 

younger than I grasped then, 

and watches something slip 

by, flush, lithe, frank, that 

has taken more than my own life 

to hear. What parent in me

expects to lose everything 

by morning and waits quietly

beside the child for sleep?  

That longing in a cradle 

song never is a brief, simple

parting or belief in the safety 

that comes at morning.  

But once we hear it, early

and as we leave our bodies

each night—the far off 

crickets, the stir of a breeze 

in the plane trees—

it rocks us into other people’s

beds for the rest of our lives.

 

Does she see a rabbit in brush 

at the dusky edge of a meadow

or a child, whom she can’t name 

anymore, climbing the ladder 

of a long bright slide? 

That quiet disconsolance, 

ours in the middle of the night

when we turn to a lover’s shoulder,

and already it is hers too.  

It comes back—I hear it 

downstairs lay bowls on the table 

for dinner and climb the stairs.

And once it drew back curtains 

and lingered in a white open 

window as if it came to 

tell me there was a child, 

from a love of years before,

whom I didn’t know was living.

 

 

Lawrence Wray’s poems have appeared in Cider Press Review, The Dark Horse, Sentence, Paper Street Press, and The Indiana Review. Online, his work can be found in Emprise Review, Frostwriting, the Pittsburgh Quarterly, and Blood Lotus. He is involved in the Pittsburgh Homeschooling community with two young daughters and is currently at work on a memoir project about child-prodigy pianist Dr. Charles Brindis.

 

Q&A

Q: Do you have a memory of a cradle song, or is there one you use with your own children?

A: My earliest memory is of waking in a high chair in a dim room. The television is on, the door ajar and gently lit with yellow light. My mother is in that light, down a short hall, in the kitchen. She spoke in a sing-song voice when she lifted me, as she did for my daughters early in their lives. Some mornings, when I was a kid, she sang the Cream of Wheat jingle. I remember hearing rhymes and songs, “There was a fine lady from Banbury Cross…” My wife and I sang “Ali Bali Bee,” a Scottish song, to the girls. They sing all the time.

 

Q: Your poem “The Disappearance of Outside” speaks to economic dislocation. Would you like to elaborate? 

A: I look to tent cities and for the ways people live in and among ruins in urban spaces; I look out for Dorothy Days and Dorothea Langes, and for blankets under overpasses. A man in my neighborhood lived behind cardboard walls under the low limbs of a fir tree until someone cut out the limbs and took away his chair, his clothes on hangers, and his bedding.  I listen for people’s family stories. My father was hungry as a kid. He wore his grandfather’s green jacket with a zipper pocket for a winter coat, bathed in a tin tub in the kitchen, and shoved cardboard in his shoes to plug the holes.

 

Q:  How do you use poetry in your homeschooling?

A: My daughters put to memory lots of poems. They started with Langston Hughes, The Dream Keeper. One daughter especially loves William Blake; the other often likes to recite Lewis Carroll. Emily Bront , Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti—they read and learn to recite whatever poems come along and strike a chord. In the process, we talk about rhythms, images, and the rest.


Rx

by Jim Miller

followed by Q&A

Bryan woke at 1:21 a.m. for the 116th straight night, and he knew he would not sleep again until 4:07 a.m.—not a minute before. Grief is what the good doctor called it on his first visit to the strip-mall shrink. The good doctor described it as an episode—as in “What do you do when an episode occurs?” 

“I watch TV,” Bryan said. “I get up, go to the den, and watch football.”

“Football, at that time?”

“I watch a videotape of a football game.”

“What else?”

“That’s it. The 1991 NFC Semi-finals game.”

“You only watch that one game.”

“And the commercials.”

On Bryan’s second visit, the good doctor called it a cathartic release and wrote him a scrip for sleeping pills. He said, “Try not watching TV—break the ritual. Try classical music or buy one of those nature disks with chirping crickets and rain.” He gave Bryan a reassuring smile and handed him the small piece of paper. “Chirping crickets can be very relaxing.” 

Was it a ritual? Bryan wondered. He didn’t think so, at least not in the sense that going to church was a ritual. Ritual was sacrament. Ritual bestowed grace. No, this was more like habit, as in a creature of. The same room. The same videotape. The same gun. But then, the good doctor didn’t know about the gun. Every episode started the same. Every episode ended the same. No, not a ritual, he thought. Cathartic, maybe. Torture, probably. But a ritual, definitely not.

Bryan threw back the blanket, stood, and walked to the den. The room was a tribute to circa 1982 with its plush forest-green carpeting and faux-wood paneled walls decorated with yellow brass light fixtures, seagull wall art, and dark-wood shelves displaying shiny trophies and chrome picture frames of Andrew and Amy. 

Bryan looked at the VHS tapes stacked 15, 20, maybe 30 high—three leaning towers of plastic. He thought, in those piles are tapes filled with dancing purple dinosaurs, blue cartoon dogs, and a yellow sponge with an ear-piercing voice and a fondness for tighty-whiteys. There are tapes filled with made-for-TV melodramas where former child actors (now grown up) and has-been sitcom stars kill TV fathers and husbands with axes and butcher knives and gasoline. And then there are the tapes filled with playoff football games. Old games from ESPN Classic—games from ten years ago, last year’s games, and the so many in-between. All those tapes and not one containing his family.

They’d talked about redoing the room, he and Amy, tearing down the paneling. Throwing a light paint on the walls, maybe a tile floor. A new leather couch and some plants—maybe a silk bamboo tucked in the corner. They planned to get rid of the tapes and the old TV. Replace them with a flat screen and TiVo. But then people die—Amy dies, Andrew dies—and suddenly the color of the carpet isn’t all that important. The comfort of a couch is trivial. TiVo is pointless.

Bryan crossed the room, opened the side-table drawer, pushed aside a pile of small white sheets of paper, took out his gun, and placed it on the TV table. He sat on the couch, a loose spring jabbing him, and with the remote he pushed play. 

The good doctor had asked, “Why do you only watch that tape?”

“I like the game,” Bryan said. 

He hated the game. He hated everything about it. The cold fans uselessly cheering, then booing. He hated every player and every coach. He hated the color commentary most, with all those statistics and trivia. He didn’t need to be told that the snow was really falling now and it was wreaking havoc on both teams. He could see that. Just as he could tell by the score, the defense stayed home that night. 

But he had to watch this tape. This tape was his punishment, his penance because he recorded over his family. He knew they weren’t there anymore, but still he put the tape in the VCR, wanting to see his son and his wife full of life again. Instead, he got this game. 

Bryan told the good doctor, “I like that I know what’s going to happen.”

“You should try a warm bath? Try warm milk?” He handed Bryan a new piece of paper. “This one is a little stronger,” he said. “But I think a warm bath might help too.”

In the den, on the TV, muted, the replaying of that football playoff game on a snow-covered field—a late-night classic. Bryan watched as the players tried to warm their hands on the sidelines. Thousands of fans were wrapped in red blankets—losing team colors—a 31-0 blowout in the second quarter. He thought, it won’t be long before the stadium clears out. Another good kick—34-0. Bryan scoffed and shook his head. 

Bryan thought about the images, the lives that were on this tape before the game. He could almost see Andrew doing homework while his mom off-camera narrated, “Aw, look at my smart boy.” Bryan couldn’t remember what she was wearing, but he could see her messy hair when Amy was caught walking down the hall early one morning, no coffee and no patience, and Andrew, offstage, said, “Say something for the camera, Mom.” 

“Something.” 

“Seriously, Mom,” Andrew had pleaded. 

“I need some coffee, please, Andrew, not now.” But the camera stayed in her path. 

On the screen, Amy looked puzzled, then said, “Today is a good day. Everyone is alive and healthy and the sun is shining, point the camera toward the window. Show your audience the sunshine.” She pushed the camera toward the kitchen window.

“Mom.” Andrew’s voice teetered on a whine. 

“I don’t know what to say. Why don’t you go point that thing at your dad. Go on, I want to have a cup of coffee and read the paper.” 

From the time Andrew was born, Amy talked to Bryan about buying a video camera. She argued that it would be great to have a movie of him growing up. 

“But they’re really expensive.”

“These times are priceless.”

“Can’t you take still pictures? You never use the camera anymore.”

“It’s not the same.”

It took years, but Bryan broke down. He bought a used VHS camera at a garage sale. It was big and clunky and old—its battery held 15 minutes of charge time—but it recorded movies. And it was fun. For a few weeks, the three of them took turns pointing the camera, trying to capture life. The first few days brought moments of self-awareness—that awkward feeling of not knowing what to do or say when the camera was recording. But that feeling faded and life with the video camera was normal, until they sat and watched their movie.

The camera captured Bryan sleeping. 

“You didn’t believe me,” Amy said. “Always in denial.” 

“I guess I scratch my butt when I sleep too,” Bryan said as the tape continued to play.

“That’s not all you scratch, Dad,” Andrew said. Bryan could see that Andrew was proud of his camera work. He was proud to record real life. But still. 

“Yeah, let’s erase that part,” Bryan said.

“Absolutely not. These are great memories to keep,” Amy said. “We won’t be erasing the things that embarrass us.” 

With a man down on the field, the TV screen cross-faded from vintage grainy film to the modern-day Technicolor and Bryan squinted. Beautiful, large breasts strangled in red lace invited him to call. Her lips murmured something like “lonely” and “call me.” Bryan picked up the gun, opened the chamber, and counted the bullets out loud, breaking the silence of 3 a.m.: 1,2,3,4,5,6. He flipped his wrist, snapping the chamber closed, and spun the reel with a sheeezzzz

The good doctor asked, “What are you afraid of?”

“Forgetting.”

“Forgetting what?”

“Them. Us.” 

Each night Bryan tried to remember different scenes of their life together. He’d get a fragment here or there, but he always came back to that last day. Bryan had worked in the yard all morning and the last thing he wanted to do was drive to her dad’s house. What he wanted to do was sit down on his shitty couch and watch a game. He wanted to fill his wobbly tin TV table with pretzels and a cold beer. 

“Can I stay home with Dad?” 

“No,” Amy said. “You need to visit with your grandparents.”

“I wanna stay home with Dad.” 

“You get to hang out with me all the time. Go spend time with your grandpa and grandma.” 

“But they’re boring and I’m not even allowed to sit on the couch.” 

“Get your things,” Amy said.

“But Dad, can’t I…”

“Listen to your mom.” 

Andrew ran off and Amy cozy’d in next to Bryan on the couch. “You sure you don’t want to go?”

“Let me think about it—dinner with Howard and his going on about how Social Security is bankrupting this country, how the death tax is un-American, how the immigrants are trying to steal the legacy that he wants to leave to Andrew. No, I think cold pizza and rerun TV is a better option.” Bryan nuzzled Amy’s neck. “You sure you don’t want to cancel?” He playfully nudged her with his elbow. “Huh? You know? You can give them a call. Tell them Andrew has a book report or a 110 fever.” 

“Mom’s been cooking all day.” She kissed Bryan. “I’ll leave early, though, I promise.” She squeezed his leg, stood, and left. Each night Brian tried to remember what Andrew was wearing before they left. He tried to remember if he told them he loved them.

Bryan told the good doctor, “I’m afraid of the black shadow over their memory.”

“Try exercise before bed? Muscles release endorphins that relax the body, alleviate stress. Try some push-ups or sit-ups. Take a long walk or masturbate.” The good doctor took out his little pad. “Don’t underestimate the exhaustive power of an orgasm.”

Bryan pointed the gun at the perfect television breasts, then at the VCR whirring in the silence, and whispered gun-shooting noises. He placed the gun down on the TV table and a new commercial took his mind away from the red lace and sexy taunts—away from the gun. 

An anguished mother in the kitchen with her son—blurry—she takes weary hands to her head. Large yellow words streak on the screen, pause, and vanish. Headache? Stuffy nose? Irritated eyes? Sinu-gone eases your burden. A lens slide and the boy is instantly clear. The boy, much like his Andrew, with wavy brown hair and a pre-teen swagger, says something to the audience, to Bryan—something he cannot hear. 

Bryan first noticed Andrew’s swagger at the mall while they were looking for a birthday present for Amy. A swagger that ebbed and flowed as they walked in and out of the shops. When Andrew ran into his guy friend he exuded confidence, but when he passed by a gaggle of girls a year or two older, he seemed to shrink. Even so, his eyes were glued to them—curious, borderline hungry. Bryan knew he would need to talk to his son about growing up, soon.

“He’s cute,” one girl said as they passed.

“Who is he?” asked another.

“He’s in my sister’s class. She has a crush on him.”

“They’re talking about you,” Bryan told his son when they were safe from earshot.

“So.” 

“Do you want to go back and talk to them? I can go grab a Coke.”

“No, what would I say?” 

Bryan ruffled his hair. “It’ll come natural.” Bryan thought, The talk can wait, you still have time. 

When the auto insurance commercial appeared on screen—a car driving with a woman looking in the rearview mirror putting on lipstick, another car swerving across the yellow line—Bryan turned off the television. 

He watched the scene every day in his head—a looping film reel—over and over. Not the TV cars with reckless actors. He watched his car, his wife driving carefully. He watched a teen in a pick-up truck, messing with his radio, or playing with his phone, or lighting a joint. He watched this guy cross the yellow line. An ocean-blue Camry, a black-and-rust pick-up, a swerve, a pothole, a blowout, brake lights, Camry airborne sideways into the rear quarter panel of the pick-up, setting off a twirling tango that left the two vehicles wrapped around a 100-year-old oak. 

In the dark, Bryan opened his mouth and wrapped his lips around the barrel of the gun. He pulled back the hammer. 

The good doctor had asked, “What do you think about when you’re watching this football game?”

“I think about death.”

“Specifically?” 

“Her death. His death. I think about the death I want to deliver.”

“Do you think about your death?”

The first time Bryan tasted the barrel of his gun was the day of his family’s funeral. He drove home, sat on his couch, and stared off, wondering what was next. After nearly two hours, Bryan looked at the media shelf that housed their collection of VHS tapes. Where is the tape we made? he wondered. 

One at a time, he inserted a tape into the player, pressed play, stop, fast-forward, play, stop, fast-forward—looking for his wife and son to appear on TV. When he reached the end of each tape, he said, “One of these has to be the one.” He placed the finished tape on the pile and inserted the next, whispering, “It has to be here.” 

When he reached the last tape, he sat in a heap on the floor and decided he’d had enough. He stood, walked to his bedroom, and removed his .38 from the lock box high in the back of his closet. He sat on the end of his bed and put the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger. 

Hot urine ran. He looked at the unloaded gun. Bullets. He went to the closet, found the box of shells, hidden behind Amy’s shoeboxes. He loaded the gun, sat on the bed, and stared down at the weapon. After an hour, he set the gun on his pillow, stripped off his wet clothes, showered, and dressed. He took the gun to the den, sat on the couch.

His mind raced with delays. A letter, he thought. I should write a letter. Why bother, he countered. It’ll be obvious. Not here, the mess. I’m not going to clean it. The camera. What about the camera? The tape is in the camera. There is one more tape. It has to be in the camera.

Bryan put the gun on the TV table and went to the coat closet. Inside the camera there was a tape. It’s here. He grabbed the tape and nearly tripped rushing it to the VCR. He sat on the couch with remote in hand and hit rewind. I’m not going to miss a minute of this. He listened with giddiness to the buzz of the tape rewinding. When the tape stopped, his chest ached and he hit play.

Their movie-making grew into a game. Each player was looking to catch on camera something even more embarrassing than the last gotcha. For a few weeks, the camera could be anywhere at any time. Andrew captured bed hair in the morning, snoring and butt scratching during naps. Amy captured drinking from milk jugs, belching, and farting. Bryan caught more than one extraction of a wedgie, and then there was the shower invasion. Most likely trying to catch Bryan by surprise, Andrew snuck into the bathroom one morning, video camera recording. He jerked the shower curtain back and found both his parents in the shower. The game ended abruptly.

When the bathroom door re-closed, Amy said, “You’ll want to erase that.”

“Yep. Consider it done.”

The good doctor asked again, “Do you think about your death?”

“Why would I? I’m not dead.”

“Is that a problem?” The good doctor took out his little pad. “Try this. Lie on your back and wiggle your toes up and down twelve times, wiggle the toes of both feet at the same time. It’s very relaxing. Try to visualize something peaceful or something boring.” He handed Bryan the small sheet of paper. “Imagine a jellyfish in the ocean. Jellyfish are both peaceful and boring.”

Bryan took the gun from his mouth, released the hammer, and set the gun back down on the table. He licked his lips and tasted the oil. Bryan turned the TV back on. 41 to 0—20 seconds left of the third quarter.

He got up from the couch. He grabbed a couple of the good doctor’s little sheets of paper from the side table drawer, walked out the front door, and stood on the porch looking out to the neighborhood. Four blocks up the street was a 24-hour drugstore. He could walk there in 20 minutes. Be home in less than an hour with the pills. He couldn’t force his feet to move. He listened to the wind through the trees. He listened to a lonely cricket nestled in the yew and remembered it was that time of year when Andrew would beg to set up his tent in the back yard so he could camp. 

Bryan walked to the back yard, looked at the area where Andrew’s tent would be if… 

If.

His son had tried every year since he’d been eight to sleep out in the yard by himself, but it was too scary and Bryan found himself dragged out by 10 or 11 to sleep on the unlevel, unsoft ground. Except, he remembered, last year Andrew did make it. Bryan remembered sitting on the couch at 10 waiting for Andrew to come in. At midnight, his son still had not come in to ask for company and there was a moment of fear that something bad had happened. He walked outside to check on Andrew, bare feet cold from the dew-covered grass, only to find him fast asleep in the tent. Bryan remembered the feeling of relief that Andrew was safe, the feeling of pride in his son’s bravery, and the pang of sadness because it felt like Andrew didn’t need him anymore.  He remembered.

Bryan wiped his eyes and went inside the house. In the den, he placed the papers and the gun back in the side table drawer. He lay down on the couch, propped his head on the armrest, and stared at the ceiling. Shadows from the TV roamed the room, filling it with the chaos of a pretend life.

When the room lit bright again, Bryan knew that the red-laced woman was back to further tempt him. He knew that the next commercial would be for Bud Light and the next for Burger King. He knew that in about three minutes the visiting team would score for the last time, giving them a 48-point advantage over the home team. And he knew it was time for a new ritual. He pushed eject, shut off the TV, and stared into the pitch dark. Bryan imagined the Sponge Bob cartoons that Andrew was so fond of. Tomorrow, he thought, if I can’t sleep, I’ll watch cartoons. He visualized the yellow sponge chasing jellyfish with a butterfly net. He looked toward his toes and wiggled. One, two, three…

 

 

Jim Miller was born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit. After several years of working in advertising and joined by his wife and children, he moved to Florida. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida. His work was recently published in Midwestern Gothic, Stymie, Prick of the Spindle, Alligator Juniper and is forthcoming in Palooka. He is the Graphic Nonfiction editor for Sweet: a Literary Confection and holds editing positions with The Mailer Review, and Black Market Review. He teaches creative writing at USF–Tampa and Eckerd College.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the genesis of this story?

A: Rx was discovered in another story where the protagonist must come to terms with the death of his girlfriend—a car accident caused by his best friend. As I worked out the accident, I started to think about the dead mother and son in the other car. At the time, these two were extras I knew nothing about—collateral damage. But then I wondered why the dad wasn’t in the car with his family? The answer was clear…someone had to live to tell about it.

 

Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be? 

A: Drums—a five piece set—with drums you can have a peaceful rhythm or complete chaos or a little bit of both.

 

Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences? 

A: I draw inspiration from my literary heroes—ranging from Virginia Woolf, Fitzgerald and West to Mailer, Vonnegut and DeLillo to contemporary writers such as A.M. Holmes, T.C. Boyle, Junot Díaz, and Sam Lipsyte—all of which have their own unique voice entrenched in the American life. 

 

Q: Where is the perfect place for writing? 

A: If the words are flowing, if the story is coming together, it doesn’t matter if I am in a loud coffee shop, stuck in traffic, in line at the grocery store, or in my cozy office the place is perfect.


Thorn

by Arthur Powers

followed by Q&A

(Chicago, 2001)

 

1.

The Big Day was one of those blockbusting novels about World War II that came out during the 1950s. It’s about a platoon fighting its way across Europe, and the main subplot deals with a character named Marty Scherer. As the novel unfolds, the platoon and the narrator—who is one of his fellow soldiers—gradually discover that Marty Scherer is a homosexual. They are appalled and—without ever mentioning it—back away from him, isolate him. But as the novel continues, with their lives depending on each other, they begin to realize that he is one of them, part of the brotherhood. In the end, Marty is killed saving the lives of two fellow soldiers, and his death is grieved by the group as that of a hero.

It’s been years since I read the book—it isn’t the kind you’re likely to reread. As I remember, it is pretty well done—the tension well developed, the issue handled thoughtfully, the characters believable. But it would now be considered old fashioned. Its attitude toward homosexuality is clearly negative—indeed, the development depends on the other soldiers’ (and perhaps Marty’s own) abhorrence of his homosexuality. In any case, by the late 1970s, sales of the book—which had been a best seller in the 1950s—trickled down to the point where we backlisted it and never thought of reprinting it. It is difficult to imagine who would be its audience today.

The author, Daniel Morgan Gray, came out with a couple of other books in the early ’60s—not published by our house—and then dropped out of sight. That is, until a few weeks ago. 

*

My father walked into my office with a manuscript and tossed it onto my desk. “Take a look at this, Steve.”

I glanced down and saw a typewritten letter—I mean one from a real typewriter. It had a return address on the Northwest side—our publishing firm is located on Michigan Avenue in Chicago—and was simply addressed to Marion Brothers.

Dear Sirs:

You published my first book, The Big Day, in 1955. I am wondering if you would be interested in         publishing my recently completed one, Thorn.

Enclosed is the manuscript for your consideration.

Yours,

Daniel Morgan Gray

*

I took the manuscript home that night and read it. It was a photocopy of typewritten pages. The story is about a group of men on a hunting trip in the 1950s, somewhere in Canada. The theme is pretty much The Big Day, but with a couple of differences. This time the narrator is Marty Scherer, so to speak—although he is named Al Martin. What I mean, though, is that this time the story is narrated by the pariah and not by one of the others. The pariah feels he is isolated and an outcast, tells of his own reinstatement and redemption—though this time the heroic act is more subtle and doesn’t get him killed. 

But there is something disturbing, unsatisfactory about the story. First, unlike The Big Day, there is no clear indication that the other members of the group know about Al Martin’s problem, or intentionally in any way make him a pariah. It almost seems to be an entirely inner process of his feeling himself to be an outsider—although, again, this is not absolutely clear. Second, there is really no indication of what Al Martin’s problem is. It could be homosexuality—but only having read The Big Day would make one think so. It could be some other sexual issue, or something else altogether. Believe me, I went back over the text for an hour trying to figure it out—and it isn’t there. It leaves one with a strange, disoriented feeling after reading a manuscript that, on its surface, seems like a pretty straightforward story.

*

Marion Brothers, our publishing house, has offices on the 8th and 9th floors of one of the best buildings along Michigan Avenue. That we are in Chicago, and that we are still family owned, set us apart in the publishing world.

The firm was founded in the 1920s by my grandfather and his two brothers, and they did very well through the 1950s. My grandfather and great uncles had the sense to diversify—we own the building we are in, for instance—so that the firm doesn’t depend solely on publishing for its livelihood. That allowed us—especially in the 1960s as my father became more influential—to focus on quality, so that our name was—and is—right up there with Knopf and a handful of other firms that are really interested in books. With the help of Molly Hanrahan, who’s our lawyer and my second cousin, Dad has restructured the firm so that the publishing portion is controlled by a family foundation and would be almost impossible to take over. Our understanding is that, as long as there are Marions—or friends and relations—interested in publishing good books, the firm will stay in business. 

In any case, we have a bright future as my older brother, Sam, is a genius at publishing and is recognized by the family—and by the non-family senior editors—as the heir apparent once Dad retires. In addition to Sam and me, three other family members of our generation are active in the firm—our cousin Jack Thompson, who works in finance, and our second cousins Mark Marion, who lives in London and represents the firm there, and Molly. I emphasize that Molly is my second cousin because she’s special—the way she holds her head at an angle when she talks to you, the chestnut highlights when the sun touches her hair, the glint of humor in her eyes. But there’s a difference between us—Molly graduated from Northwestern Law School and could have walked into any job in the city; I certainly wouldn’t have my job if my last name weren’t Marion.

“You’re a good boy, Steve,” Dad said to me when he was in my office recently. “You’re our touchstone to reality.” And he reached out and tousled my hair. I’m twenty-nine and my dad still tousles my hair, and I don’t mind it. 

*

Sam came into my office and slouched into one of the chairs.

“It seems that Daniel Morgan Gray is in a nursing home and can’t get out and around,” Sam said. “I’ve made an appointment to see him tomorrow. Want to go along?"

“Sure,” I said. 

I looked at Sam. He’s four years older than I am—but, right now, with sleepless nights and worry, looks older. His five-year-old daughter, Carla, has some sort of growth disorder that the doctors can’t seem to identify—even though Sam’s wife, Nora, is a teaching assistant in bio-ethics at the University of Chicago and has tapped into all the resources of the medical school.  

“You’ve read Thorn?” I asked. We have a rule that neither of us will tell the other what we think of a manuscript until we’ve both had a chance to read it and write down our initial impressions.  

He nodded. “Most of it. I’ll finish it up tonight, then jot down my thoughts. We can discuss it in the morning.” 

He stayed for a few moments, apparently lost in thought, staring at his long thin fingers. That’s okay—sometimes he comes into my office for a while just to sit and think and be away from things. But today, after a minute, he suddenly startled back to awareness, shot me a fleeting grin and heaved himself out of the chair. 

“Ten o’clock?” he asked.

“Fine,” I said. 

*

That afternoon I was reading an incredibly self-absorbed manuscript by a guy who I have heard is a darling of the literary world. By page seven, I had decided that this was one on which I was probably going to vote “no”—by page 30 that probably had become definitely—and by page 44 I decided to vote “no” on reading the rest of it. I stood up, restless and bored, and—as I usually do at least twice a day—decided to stroll down the hall to Molly’s office. 

When I walked into her office, I could tell she was intense. That meant law. Molly is a wonderful, light-hearted imp except when it comes to legal matters. I remember I once asked her why she hadn’t dated anyone in law school. “Marry another lawyer,” she flashed back “—do you think I’m crazy?” I took that as a hopeful sign. I wanted to say, “How about a junior, junior publisher?” but somehow it didn’t get said. It sometimes seemed it never would.

She was on the telephone now, and I knew what the problem was. The book was on her desk—a family saga about a fictional senator from Wyoming who, after publication, turned out to have an awful lot in common with a non-fictional ex-governor of Montana. 

She set down the receiver—looking as though she would have rather slammed it—and glared at me. “Liability,” she said. She reminded me of Susan B. Anthony talking about women’s suffrage. “Why doesn’t anyone understand liability?”

I picked up the volume on her desk and weighed it in my hand.

“Oh, I don’t know, Moll,” I said. “It’s a mighty thick book, but—even if it fell on someone’s head—it couldn’t do that much damage.”

She looked at me fiercely for a moment, then giggled and leaned back in her chair, the humor once again glinting out of her brown eyes.

“Stevie,” she said, “I swear, sometimes you’re a Godsend.”

 

2.

“So why Thorn?” I asked. “The title, I mean?”

“Think, Steve,” Sam answered. He was driving us out to the Northwest side. “Literary references.” It was a game we had played ever since I could remember. Probably half the intelligence I have is due to my big brother making me think. 

“Give me a hint,” I said.

“Bible.”

I thought back to my short career in Sunday school when my mother, the painter—Anne Marion, was going through one of her religious periods. 

“Moses. There’s something about Moses and a burning thorn bush.”

“Try the New Testament,” Sam said. 

That was harder. I had tried to read the Bible as a teenager, but had never gotten beyond Exodus. Later, in college, I’d read parts of the New Testament—I knew some of the stories, of course—but thorns? Then something suddenly popped into my memory. 

“A thorn in my side,” I said. 

“Very good,” Sam said, as he slowed for the Irving Park exit. There was silence between us as he pulled off and down the ramp. 

“That’s as far as I can get,” I said.

He nodded. “Saint Paul.”

“Tell me.”

He turned onto Irving Park and headed west. “Paul mentions a thorn in his side—that’s where the phrase comes from, of course—that he prays will be removed. But God won’t remove it. So Paul figures it must be there for a reason.”

“So, what is it?”

“Paul doesn’t say. There’s been a lot of speculation about it—some think it was a pain or illness, others that it was a sin—or, more likely, a temptation to sin in a particular way. But nobody knows.”

“Oh,” I said. 

*

The nursing home, when we got there, proved to be a wing of a retirement community—what Dad would call an old people’s home. As we entered the lobby, I had the feeling of stepping back in time—Glen Miller playing over the sound system, posters announcing this week’s movies—Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire. Pictures of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman on one side of the lobby were balanced by pictures of Dwight Eisenhower and Herbert Hoover on the other, presumably to make everyone feel at home. A brightly smiling, seventy-year-old receptionist asked us who we wanted to see and directed us to Mr. Gray’s room. 

The room, when we got there, was a typical hospital room. Daniel Morgan Gray was sitting in a chair, wearing blue and white striped pajamas, a dark red robe, and leather slippers. He made no effort to stand up, but smiled and leaned forward to shake our hands.

“Forgive the hospital room, gentlemen.” He spoke expansively, his voice firm. “I’m here under observation, and they won’t let me wander about.”

He had a catching smile that wrinkled around his eyes, leathery skin and a crew cut. He seemed—sitting down—to be about medium height, but sturdily built. I don’t think he had ever been handsome, but he had a likeable sort of Robert Mitchum quality—a sort of man’s man from the 1940s and 50s. If you told me he was a retired truck driver, I would have believed it. If you told me he had been a soldier in World War II, I would have believed it too. I had never bothered to form a picture of him in my mind’s eye—but if I had, I wouldn’t have been disappointed. 

My brother brought out his business card and handed it to him. DMG (I can’t go on calling him Daniel Morgan Gray—but Daniel would be more familiar than he ever warranted, and Mr. Gray is way too bland) took it. 

“Mr. Marion himself.” He smiled, looking up at Sam. “I’m impressed.” He turned to me. “And you?”

“Just one of the family,” I said lightly, handing my card.

*

We had just settled into functional hospital chairs and begun the conversation, when Sam’s cell phone rang. Worry glimpsed across Sam’s face. He excused himself and, answering the phone, got up and left the room.

DMG’s observant eyes followed Sam out, then turned toward me. 

“His daughter is sick,” I explained.

“I’m sorry,” DMG said. He sounded like he meant it. He looked at me for a moment, then asked a surprising question.

“He feels responsible, doesn’t he? For his daughter being sick.”

I thought for a moment. “I suppose he does,” I said. “I don’t know why he should, but I think he does….”

“Feeling responsible is a funny thing,” he said, “—not always logical.” He looked down at the business card I had given him. “It says here just ‘Editor.’”

“They all say that. Except the ones that say ‘Senior Editor.’ Or my father’s—that says ‘President.’”

“So you really are one of the family. Know anything about books?”

I smiled. “A little. You grow up with them. It gets into the blood.”

He chuckled. “I know. My own father was a university professor.” He glanced at me, a slight twinkle in his eyes. “You look surprised.”

“Do I? I suppose I thought….”

“I know,” he said, grinning. “It’s the tough, working man look. I guess I started to pick it up as a kid, in the thirties—hanging out with the townies, you had to be a little showy tough if you were a prof’s son. Then I got really good at it during the war. And later it was great PR as a writer—in the 50s they liked their writers tough and manly and a little working class.”

There was a rustle behind me and Sam came into the room, his face concerned. “Steve,” he said, “can you handle this?” And then, “I’m sorry, Mr. Gray—a family matter. I have to go.” 

Sam stepped over to shake DMG’s hand. DMG stood up with an effort. As I had thought, he was about average height—an inch or so taller than I am. 

“I hope your daughter is okay, Mr. Marion.”

“Thank you. This may be a breakthrough.” Sam said it, but I sensed that he didn’t believe it, that he knew Carla’s condition would be with us a long time. He motioned to me. “My brother….”

“Your brother is doing fine. We’re having a great talk.”

“I’ll catch a cab back,” I said. Sam nodded and was gone.

*

“So you really were in World War II,” I said as we sat down again. I had a fascination for that period, looming like a myth decades before I was born. I loved to hear the old men tell about it.

“Did you think I made all that stuff up?”

“Some writers do. Stephen Crane did.”

“Crane was a genius. I’m just a writer.” He gave me a fleet half-smile—and I realized he had just said something that pleased him. 

“Did you really know Marty Scherer?” I asked. 

He looked at me oddly for a moment.

“I was Marty Scherer,” he said.

“Oh.” I felt taken aback—as if somebody had suddenly told me a very personal secret—which people, in fact, sometimes do. “But you didn’t die.” Dumb observation, Steve. 

“No. More’s the pity. In the 50s I used to feel bad about the guys who’d been killed in the War, but sometimes, now, I think they were the lucky ones. Saved all this”—he waved his hand around the hospital room—“and all the shit the world’s gotten into. If they’d known this was what we were fighting for....”

He broke off. 

“But it must have been easier for you during the last thirty years....”

Easier?” He looked baffled, almost on the verge of outrage. “What kind of damn fool statement is that?”

He looked at me fiercely for a moment, puzzlement written on his face. I felt myself blushing. Then suddenly he threw back his head and laughed.

“Oh, that’s it. You think I’m a homo. Because I said I was Marty Scherer... You think I’m a homo.” And he laughed again. 

The strange old-fashioned word fit his role. But it was my turn to look puzzled.

*

He must have noticed my bewilderment. 

He sat looking at me for a moment, then leaned forward in his chair. “Let me explain, kid,” he said. He put up his right hand, the thick index finger extended. “Have you ever felt like an outcast?”

“Sure,” I said. “I suppose everyone has.”

He nodded. “Most everybody feels it as a kid sometimes. The pimply punk wanting to be accepted by the athletes. The athletes—the ones the punk thinks have it all wrapped up—wanting to prove themselves.” He grinned. “The prof’s son wanting to be accepted by the townies.”

“Or as an adult,” I said. “Walking into a cocktail party where you know no one and no one knows you—or seems to care.”

“You’ve got it,” he said. “Well, some guys fit in more than others—guys from small towns who’ve grown up among people they know, guys who aren’t too self-conscious. But others carry something in them that makes them feel that way all the time. I noticed it in the Army.”

“Marty Scherer,” I said.

“That’s right. I balled up all of that—all those feelings I had—and put it into one guy. There were guys like that in the Army. Not necessarily homos—and not all the homos were like that—but guys who were different, somehow, just didn’t seem to relate, to belong. I had enough of that in me to feel it. I wasn’t all Marty Scherer—I had enough of the regular guy in me to see it from their side too. But in writing you—how can I say it—distill things, make them clearer. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah.”

“So that’s what I wrote about.” He leaned back in his chair and looked at me. 

“You did a great job of it in The Big Day.”

“It was a good book,” he said. “Did you ever read the other two I published?”

“Sorry.”

“No need to be. After I finished The Big Day, it continued to gnaw at me—this outcast stuff. I searched around for subjects. One of the books was about a guy who wants to kill people—a sort of hidden murderer. He never does it, but he wants to. Trouble was, I couldn’t like the guy. I liked Marty Scherer—but this guy—by half way through the book, I couldn’t stand him. How can you write about a guy being an outcast when you’re thinking he damn well deserves to be an outcast? I finished the book because I had a contract, but I never liked it much.”

“And the other?”

“The other was more interesting. It was about a woman—May Thompson—who’s a kleptomaniac. It’s a thin little book, but it was hard as hell to write. It’s about a woman—most kleptos are women—and that was new for me. And then kleptomania—I mean, it’s a tragedy for those who have it, but it’s a little comic seen from the outside, and I had to control that—not ignore the comic but keep it under control. I did pretty well—it’s not a bad little book.

“But when I got done with it, I was at loose ends. I needed to write about something that makes one an outcast without being completely repulsive—you know, something that is abhorrent and yet not abhorrent. And hidden enough to make one seem almost normal—not an obvious defect—not a Quasimodo. When all this stuff broke out about child molesters, somebody suggested I write about one. They didn’t understand—I’m not interested in evil…or in witch hunts. There might be a story there about someone wrongly suspected of molestation, but never openly charged… something that follows him like a silent cloud. But I could never get into it.

“In the 1970s I got fascinated by a case that happened in South Dakota. This guy was State Secretary of Education. He died suddenly and they discovered he was a bigamist, with two families in the state, neither of them knowing about the other. I thought about that a lot—how this guy, well-known and visible—balanced those two families in a small, rural state for years. No wonder he had a heart attack! It must have been schizo—but in the end it was hard to see him as an outcast. His problem was—you know—rather an excess of inclusion.” He shot me his half-smile again, pleased with his own remark.  

“You really got to me a few minutes ago,” he continued, “when you said that things must have been getting easier for me these last thirty years. Way off base—it’s just the opposite. Do you know how hard it is to write about pariahs in a society where everything is okay? I mean, could I write The Big Day now? No way. Readers would just think Marty was a guy who needed to come out of the closet, and that the others were a bunch of bigots. There used to be lots of things you could write about: Negroes passing for white, people covering up lower-class roots or insanity in the family, all kind of things that would make a person feel like an outcast. But now. Have you ever watched daytime TV? Every repulsive thing you could think of—and some you couldn’t—pulled out and made public. Sometimes I think people sin—we used to call it sin—not for the pleasure of it, but so that they can publicize it and make big bucks. Or they don’t even do it... just make it up.”

He ran out of steam and paused for a moment. 

“You have a point,” I said. “I’d never thought of it, but it must be tough to write about outcasts in a world where everything is tolerated.” 

“Everything tolerated, talked about, paraded all over the place. Christ—we were a lot more interesting when we were inhibited.” He paused a moment. “But even now...even with all this belly-hanging-out stuff...we still, we still feel like outcasts. Tell me it’s any different today than it was.”

“No,” I said, thinking of the young people I knew. “I don’t think it’s any better—maybe worse.”

He nodded. “Everything’s supposed to be okay—I’m okay, you’re okay—no hang-ups or guilt. And still, deep down inside, we are strangers, outcasts, pariahs….”

He looked at me for a moment. “And so....”

He left the sentence dangling and I completed it for him.

“And so you wrote Thorn.”

*

“I won’t rewrite,” he said later. “I can’t. A few commas and clean-ups and stuff,” he waved his hand, “okay. Anything you decide on. You understand what I’m trying to do. But I can’t rewrite—I’m too old, it doesn’t matter enough anymore.”

We had been talking for half an hour. About the book. Thoughts I had. Questions. 

This was the third time he had emphasized that he wouldn’t rewrite. I didn’t want to push it any further. Underneath the tough exterior, I could see the effort he was making, the age showing through. He was tired. 

“Okay,” I said, standing up. “I’ll have to reread the manuscript and think about it. And, of course, I don’t have the final word.”

He reached out and shook my hand. 

“Whatever happens is fine,” he said. “Talking with you’s been great. At my age, having one good reader’s as good as having a hundred thousand.”

I smiled and turned to go. As I reached the door, he called out to me.

“Steve,” he said, and I turned back toward him. “What does it feel like to be just one of the family?”

I stood with my hand on the door handle, looking back at him. I hesitated for a moment, then smiled.

“Most of the time—” I said, “just great.”

 

3.

There were seven of us in the meeting room: Dad, Sam, two senior editors, two other junior editors besides myself. Thorn was the third book up for discussion. Five of us had read it. 

I gave a brief report on my meeting with DMG, then let the others talk. It went around with the usual insights—these were bright, sensitive people who knew books. One of the senior editors was mildly in favor of the book, one of the junior editors thought it wouldn’t have any relevance or impact—“Much less sales.” 

“I really don’t know,” Sam said. “Steve, what do you think?”

I was at the foot of the table, where I usually sit. I was aware of the old table’s polished mahogany surface, of their eyes turned toward me. 

“Publish it,” I said.

My father nodded.  

 

 

Arthur Powers is from Chicago, and has lived most his adult life in Brazil. He and his wife spent seven years in the Amazon, organizing subsistence farmers and rural workers’ unions in a region of violent land conflicts. He received a Fellowship in Fiction from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, three annual awards for short fiction from the Catholic Press Association, and 2nd place in the 2008 Tom Howard fiction contest. His writing has appeared in America, The Hiram Poetry Review, The Roanoke Review, The South Carolina Review, The Southern Poetry Review, and many other magazines and anthologies.  

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: I awoke one morning with the story, “Thorn,” fully formed in my mind.  

 

Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be?  

A: A ’cello.

 

Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences?   

A: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Conner, Graciliano Ramos, Jorge Luis Borges. In poetry, Robert Frost, Alan Tate, Wallace Stevens.

 

 Q: Where is the perfect place for writing?  

A: Any place cool and quiet. Long drives. Stories develop in my mind, to be written when I have an opportunity to sit down at my laptop.


After Roy

by Marion de Booy Wentzien

followed by Q&A

The door opens and this guy who can only mean trouble blows in just as I serve the only other customer, a young sailor, his pan steak and fried potatoes. Trouble saunters over to the counter and eases himself down on the orange vinyl stool to the left of the cash register. I glance at the clock. Less than half an hour till closing. Trouble picks up a menu. Like he can fool me. I know he's scanning the place. I've been robbed four times in the last six months. I'm beginning to wise up.

My husband kept a gun in the cash drawer. He wanted to teach me how to shoot. I said no thanks. 

"The best defense is a good defense," he said. He made sure people knew he had a gun and that he knew how to use it. After Roy died, I wrapped the gun in newspaper with crab shells and sent it to the dump. Lately I've been thinking I made a mistake. Fear isn't fun to live with. It's like having lice. No matter what you do, you just can't get comfortable.

Sasha left early this afternoon. Her baby is sick. Luke, the fry cook, is strung out on something and can barely flip burgers. If I can keep Sailor Boy here till closing, maybe Trouble will go away empty-handed. Sailor Boy has some muscle on him. 

Sailor Boy shoves a huge bite of steak in his mouth and catsup dribbles down his chin. Slow down, boy. Make it last. "Hey, son," I say. "You'd better chew that meat or you're liable to choke to death." That's how Roy died. A chunk of beef got stuck in his throat.

"You ready to order?" I ask Trouble. He's got a graying red beard. I've never liked beards. I figure if a guy wants to hide his face, there's a reason. When we were first married, Roy wanted to grow a beard. I had a fit. Said I wasn't kissing a furry face. That fixed that.

"Haven't made up my mind." He stares into the menu. I take the opportunity to scan him. Dark blue wool coat with a knitted hat hanging out of the pocket. Trouble, all right. I glance into the cooking area. Luke has his back to me. I can tell by the hunch of his shoulders he's dozing. Fat lot of help he is.

My daughter says I'm too old to be working this hard. She wants me to move to Phoenix and live with her. Free baby-sitter, I thought, and said no. I aim to keep this place three more years. Then I'll sell and have a retirement on my terms. But on these cold lonely nights when I'm about to be held up, I wish I'd said yes. The neighborhood has changed since Roy and I started our Mom and Pop business. Gone downhill. Nobody knows anybody anymore. Nobody trusts anybody.

Roy’s been dead eight months. In the beginning, I didn't think I could go on without him. But somehow I'm doing it. "How about some more fried potatoes?" I ask Sailor Boy. We need to stretch things out here.

"Sure. Thanks." 

I go into the cooking area and step on Luke's sneaker in passing. He says, "Ouch," opens his eyes slightly. 

“Wake up,” I whisper. “I may need you.”

His eyelids slowly sink back down.

The skillet of potatoes is still warm. I give the boy a healthy serving.  The kid smiles and the gap between his teeth makes him look so much like my dead brother, Timmy, I want to cross myself. 

"I'm ready," Trouble says.  

"Yes, sir." 

"Black coffee and a sweet roll." He's careful not to look at me.

Sailor Boy is standing up. "Hey, how about some pie," I call out. "I baked a chocolate one this morning. How about a slice of that with whipped cream on top. Or ice cream. It's on the house," I add in case he's short. Times are hard. Some folks admit when they're hurting and ask for help. Others take what doesn't belong to them. 

"Mine on the house, too?" This time Trouble's gray eyes meet mine with a look that goes right through me and out the other side. A chilling look pushed forward by an attitude

"Sure. You want some pie or the sweet roll. Or both?"

"Pie," he says. "With whipped cream. Lots of whipped cream."

Sailor Boy takes ice cream on his. "I have a nephew in the Navy," I say to make conversation. "In San Diego."

"Been there." He shovels the pie and ice cream in like he's still starving even after all that steak and potato.

Trouble is standing, fumbling in his coat. He tosses some coins on the counter.  He pulls the black knitted cap out and sticks it on his head. "That pie could use less sugar." 

Moments later the chimes on the door jangle and Trouble goes out into the night. I hurry as fast as my stiff knee will let me over to the door and lock it.

"I'll let you out when you're ready," I say. "Can I get you anything else?" 

"Milk would be good."  

I tap Luke's shoulder in passing. "You can go now." Luke stretches. Yawns. Starts to settle back into dreamland. "Come on. Wake up. Go home. I'll finish the clean-up." I'll make up a new want ad while I'm at it, I think, but I know I won't. Luke's good on the griddle and he's honest. You can't have everything. "Lock that back door after you," I remind him.

I give Sailor Boy milk and take the dirty plates off the counter. Stick them in the sink. When I come out, he’s standing in front of the register. I tell him to forget it--that the whole shebang is on the house. I tell him he reminds me of my kid brother. I don't add I'm thinking back thirty-three years.

I say I'll unlock the door for him. He says he'd rather I unlock the register.

"You don't want to be doing that—"

"Open the damn register or I'll kill you." He shows a knife, one of those hunting knives with spiky edges. I hit the key and the drawer slides open. He grabs the bills. "Where's the rest?" he asks.

"That's all there is."

"That's all?"   

"Yep.”

"Why bother running this dump?"

Right by his greedy hand, taped to the register, is a torn photo of Roy and me when this place was brand new. We were young, smiling, full of hope. We had so many plans. It went by so quickly. I tell my daughter to enjoy those kids, that husband of hers. Because one morning she won't remember how she bypassed the future she was always dreaming about and lost so much of the past. 

The kid orders me to let him out. I do. Hang the CLOSED sign on the window.  Maybe I will go to Phoenix. Sit in the sun. Watch my grandkids.

I go back to the cooking area and scrub everything until I can stop shaking. I should call the cops. Report this. Sergeant Davies will be sore if he finds out I haven't. He'll tell me I'm getting too soft. But then he has more faith in the system than I do. Filing a report hasn’t done any good in the past. It just meant a lot of standing around and filling out forms. 

It's not that I don't respect Sergeant Davies. I do. He comes by every afternoon for a cup of coffee and a slice of my chocolate pie. "He's courting you, Anita," Sasha likes to tease. I haven't figured out whether I'd like that or not. Men are a lot of work. Funny, Sergeant Davies has never said a word about the pie being too sweet. 

Before I turn out the lights, I pick up the paper sack of leftovers I've got sitting on the floor of the broom closet. Inside the sack there are two cans of soup, some stale bread and a grapefruit. All day and all evening I keep sneaking the extra cash out of the register and hiding it in the bread wrapper. I don't tell anybody. Not Sasha, not Luke. Nobody. After the first robbery—which was the only one that made me cry—I've never kept more than sixty-four dollars in the register. Roy's age. I'll have to add another dollar Thursday. Thursday's his birthday. 

Outside it's blowing cold little snowflakes that blind like tears. I juggle the sack, yank my scarf up to cover my mouth and nose. 

"Gimme that!" It's Trouble, hat pulled down so low all I can see is the triangle of his nose. He grabs the sack out of my arms and is off down the sidewalk, his footprints making crazy marks in the snow.

I stand absolutely still until I'm sure my heart isn't going to explode through the center of my chest. The few lit-up windows in the office building across the street look like melting pats of butter. Behind me, I know the diner is dark. I think of all the times Roy and I closed up after a slow day—how he'd put his arm around me and say, "It's you and me against the world, honey."  

Now it's just me. 

I step off the curb and cross the street. Head for home. "I'm not licked yet," I whisper as if Roy were walking beside me, keeping me company. With each step, I can feel the two hundred and eighty-two dollars folded inside my right shoe. "Not by a long shot."                                                                  

 

Marion de Booy Wentzien has twice been a recipient of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. She has won The New Letters Literary Award and recently one of her stories was presented by the Chicago Humanities for the Arts in their Stories on Stage. Her stories have been published by Scholastic Books,The San Francisco Chronicle, Seventeen Magazine, Story Magazine, Blue Penny Quarterly, The Sonora Review and other literary journals.

She lives in Saratoga, CA with her husband and some rescued animals.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: I’m always interested in how women who’ve been in a long term relationship carry on after their partner dies. This story was created after ruminating about a working partnership in an area that has seen better times and not selling or giving up.

 

Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be? 

A: A flute.

 

Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences? 

A: I love stories/books about people who do daring things: climb mountains, go down slot canyons, race in the Vendée Globe and other adventures. Kon Tiki probably got me started in this direction. Essentially I read everything! Even telephone books in hotel rooms.

 

Q: Where is the perfect place for writing? 

A: My bedroom at a desk that overlooks a green yard with many trees—fruit and shade trees—where obese squirrels and a huge swarm of crows come twice daily to be fed nuts.


Gregory J Wolos.jpg

Smooth

by Gregory J. Wolos

followed by Q&A

She expected it to smell like seared flesh and hot tar, but the tattoo parlor doesn’t. It smells like hand sanitizer, and a little like nail polish remover—probably the ink. It doesn’t look like anything now because she’s got her eyes closed. Not everyone does lids. Almost nobody does lids. Laser, of Laser’s Tattoos and Piercings does lids, but Jenna had to take two buses to get to here. And she knew the minute she stepped onto the first bus outside her gated community that she’d forgotten her smart phone: no calls, no texts, no tweets. She might as well have forgotten one of her senses. But since it’s never, ever happened before, leaving her phone behind is a kind of message, isn’t it? Laser says nothing when Jenna says she’s eighteen. 

“Stars of David,” she says. “One on each eyelid.” Twenty-five dollars per lid. Duct tape covers rips in the arms of the chair she’s settled into, as if customers had been tearing at them. “Won’t you hit my eyeballs? I heard that you slide a spoon under.” She shivers, imagining the spoon she plunged into her breakfast grapefruit cupping her naked eyeball, its handle pressed into her cheek, her lid stretched spoon-shaped.

“No spoon. I’m careful,” Laser says. He’s squat, but a big squat, like a giant dwarf. He’s neckless, and his head is square. Before she shut her eyes, he was fiddling with his inking tool, checking its sharpness on stiff paper. The apparatus works with a foot pedal, like her grandmother’s sewing machine.

“Yeah,” she says, “because you don’t want me leaking out my viscous fluids.” She imagines her cheeks wet with something like egg whites, like thick, sticky tears. “I wish I could watch.”

“Should I tape ’em down? Hard to do that and tattoo ’em.” 

“You don’t have to. What will it feel like?”

“Weird,” he says. “You’ll love it. Stars of David.”

“Yeah. Yes,” she says, and holds her breath. Laser hasn’t got a single tattoo, has he? Cool. It makes him more of an artist somehow. Does he notice her lack of eyelashes? That she has no eyebrows? Can he guess that her pubes are shaved? That under her hot pink wig her head is as smooth as a beach ball? Could he guess that she’s devoted to the spunk and spirit of Annabelle Hadley?

“I’m starting” Laser says.

“Okay.”

“See you later,” someone, a man, calls. Jenna doesn’t remember anyone else having been in the parlor when she got there, and she nearly peeks. Whoever it is must have been in the back—there’s a door, isn’t there?

“Later,” Laser says. The front entrance jangles when it opens and shuts.

There’s a hum, and Jenna pats her thigh, but there’s no phone. Then her lid is alive with the crawling feet of bees. On Youtube she’d seen a man’s face dripping with a live-bee mask. Through the tickling she feels the push and nip of Laser’s tool: the first star is being formed. Intersecting triangles will make a Star of David for each wink, double stars when she blinks. Annabelle Hadley is Jewish and probably had a bat mitzvah. Jenna’s Jewish, too; her parents aren’t religious, but she’s been to the bar and bat mitzvah’s of relatives. She imagines Annabelle Hadley’s sweet voice filling the sanctuary as Annabelle chants her Torah portion. Those lucky enough to have been there must have died listening, but been reborn as something better—flowers or butterflies. Or stars. Annabelle has made two record albums, but her lovely voice drowns in guitars and synthesizers. 

“Hummm—” Jenna buzzes along with the tattooing.

“Hurts?” The pressure of the tool’s point lifts, and the bee dance stops.

“Un-unh.”

“Then shush. Shush unless it hurts.”

“I thought you’d use a spoon.”

“No spoon,” Laser repeats. The hum resumes. Annabelle Hadley is smooth. Slick as a seal. Alopecia universalis. No hair at all—that’s the “universalis” part—perfect, because it’s total. Annabelle’s total baldness is a one in 100,000 shot, which is a sign of her blessedness. The wigs no one knows she wears are made of natural hair, grown by young women hired to grow it for her. Annabelle pays them with money from her Scaredy-Cat clothing empire and whatever she’s saved from the movies she used to make. They live in a special house, these girls, but nobody knows where it is. Growing their hair long for Annabelle is their sole occupation. They’re like priestesses. Once their hair is shorn, they never allow it to grow again; they shave themselves totally smooth, out of devotion to their employer. Then they move to upper floors in the special house, which is in a gated community, Jenna believes, much like hers. Jenna wishes she could give up her hair for Annabelle’s wigs, but she can’t. Jenna has alopecia, too.

But Jenna’s alopecia isn’t perfect like Annabelle’s. Jenna’s is “totalis,” a funny word for “partial.” Jenna’s hair is patchy, and her mother shaved her head and fitted her with her first wig before she was five. That first wig was like a golden helmet, the wig of an aging Broadway diva, or a grandmother. Now Jenna chooses her own wigs, shocking pink and purple, and shaves herself smooth.

It’s Annabelle Hadley’s alopecia, not her problems with drugs and alcohol, that has kept her out of movies since she turned twenty. She’d grown tired of hiding it. Her addictions are a front. Her disease is probably the most closely guarded secret in Hollywood. Jenna might be the only one who knows.  Hairlessness changes the way you see the world. You learn about hiding and intuiting.

Fifteen is paradise! Fifteen and smooth, and she’ll have stars and stars and stars every time she blinks. Jenna has an idea for a tattoo of a pair of baby lips about to take her nipple. Unlike the voluptuous Annabelle Hadley, she’s flat-chested. Jenna’s mother and her Nana are also small-breasted women. But though a tattoo of a pair of baby lips about to take a nipple is a beautiful idea, how do you do it? Could you tattoo the indentation in the breast made by the baby’s cheek? The tiny lips would be hovering in the air. How do you tattoo the air?

“Unh—”

“Sorry.”

Jenna’s eye tears—not from pain, but for Annabelle and her secret suffering. 

i am the little girl of svidrigaylov’s dream

This was the first tweet she read of Annabelle’s, before Jenna understood. She’d loved Annabelle in Super Siblings, the first movie she’d ever seen, and had worshipped the young star in her last hit, Cool Girlz. But what was this tweeted “svidrigaylov’s dream”?  Jenna Google-searched, and found: 

1. Svidrigaylov: a Russian noble in Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment; Svidrigaylov’s moral decay is illustrated by his dream of rescuing an impoverished little girl who transforms into a prostitute before his eyes.

2. Svidrigaylov’s Dream: a film begun by director Raymond Walchuk (see Son of KongTeddy); production was terminated when Walchuk was accused of making “inappropriate sexual innuendoes” to ten-year-old costar Annabelle Hadley (see Journals of a PrincessSuper SiblingsCool Girlz, “Celebrity Rehab,” Scaredy Cat Enterprises.) The subsequent scandal, settled out of court, effectively ended Walchuk’s career and launched Hadley’s.

“First one’s done. Need a break?”

“Un-unh.” Jenna smells blood now, faint, through the odors of sanitizer and ink.

“Okay. Keep ‘em closed.” Tickles and nips on her second lid—Jenna again reaches for the phone she forgot.

i am the little girl of Svidrigaylov’s dream

That tweet, the beginning of history, is seared like a beautiful scar onto Jenna’s brain. Accompanying the movie reference Jenna found a photograph of Annabelle Hadley at ten dressed and made up as the dream prostitute. The brassy wig Annabelle wore was identical to Jenna’s childhood wig! (That wig had frightened her classmates. Why else had they avoided her?) The young Annabelle’s Scaredy-Cat green eyes, her lids, lashes, lips, cheeks and brows, all painted provocatively, had mesmerized Jenna. Poor Annabelle! Had she been bald already? Or had the trauma of playing a prostitute at ten, of suffering the director’s inappropriate advances, shocked her system into rejecting her hair? Jenna has studied Annabelle’s subsequent films; she has poured over celebrity shot after celebrity shot. Everything is a wig! Jenna knows: swathed in borrowed hair, Annabelle Hadley mourns her stolen childhood.

Late afternoon is the prickliest time for Jenna, and sitting in Laser’s warm chair is nearly unbearable—so many hours after she’d risen at five a.m. to complete her first shaving. Before bed she’ll shave again, every square inch of skin, polish herself with creams, and luxuriate in the coolness of her sheets. And each morning, dark, bristly islands will have re-surfaced.

There would be new tweets from Annabelle if Jenna hadn’t forgotten her phone. The messages are a disguise, nonsense about “clubbin” and “parteez,” each tweet like a band-aid strip covering a wound. Jenna peels away the band-aids and translates the tweets into feelings: Annabelle needs something to nurture. A baby would make up for the childhood she’s lost.

“You pluck out your eyelashes?” 

Jenna doesn’t answer. 

“Because some people can’t grow them.” Laser’s monotone doesn’t harmonize with the buzz tracking across her lid. “Some people don’t have hair anywhere,” he says. Jenna tenses. There’s something beneath Laser’s words. She’d told him she was eighteen and would have forged a document to prove it. Does he suspect something about her or Annabelle? A wave rises and falls inside and a blush warms her cheeks. This morning she’d drawn her brows to match the arches over the green eyes of Annabelle’s Scaredy-Cat logo. (The tops were for tweens, and Jenna wouldn’t dare wear them. But seeing Annabelle’s eyes branding the chests of little girls never fails to steal her breath.) Did boys hurry home to their locked bedrooms after school, dreaming of her and Annabelle’s eyebrows? 

“Your parents going to like ’em? They know you’re here?” Laser asks while he works. “They going to like you starry-eyed?”

“They’ll be surprised. What’s not to love?” Her mother rolls her eyes at Jenna’s pink and purple wigs, as if to say, “I was young once.” Her father never seems to notice them. The stars will be a declaration. The stars are a way to see and be seen, and with them she’ll rise to the heavens with Annabelle Hadley.

Before Annabelle, Jenna pulled clumps of hair from her Barbies and hid the dolls. After intuiting Annabelle’s perfect alopecia, she resurrected them, pulled out the rest of their hair, and moved the bald Barbies into her box of treasures. She could ask Laser: Do you do invisible tattoos? 

Jenna feels a cool blot on the first tattooed lid. There’s a whiff of disinfectant. 

“That’s a pad,” Laser says. “To stop the bleeding. Almost done. Ready?”

“Un-hunh.”

Jenna can’t remember the interior of the tattoo parlor. Did the walls display strange shapes, symbols, and creatures? Elaborately lettered slogans meant to last a lifetime? She’s forgotten the shop’s exterior, too, and its address. It would have been in her smart phone. There’d been bus rides through deteriorating neighborhoods. She might as well be deep in a forest, inside the witch’s house with Hansel and Gretel, the house made of candy and cookies; she’d left nothing to mark her trail home. She sees footprints on midnight pavement shining under ultra-violet streetlamps. Above, countless six-pointed stars twinkle in a deep purple sky. She squirms, and the buzz, tickle, and nip stop.   

“Whoa!”

“Sorry.” If she asked, would Laser tattoo a drop of milk, two drops, leaking from her nipple onto her breast—like milky tears? How much would that cost? But the drops of milk might look like blood. A moist weight compresses her second lid.

“Okay,” Laser says. “Just sit for a couple of minutes.”

“Done?”

“Done.”

“I want to see.”

“Wait.”

Laser’s voice is very close and far away at the same time. She smells smoke. He’s smoking while they wait. She wouldn’t smoke, but she’s not against it. Annabelle Hadley smokes. 

“Do you know Annabelle Hadley?” she asks. “You know who she is, right?”

“The rehab slut?” 

Jenna’s whole body frowns, but then there’s a glow like the illuminated footprints she’d envisioned outside the parlor. She sees beneath Laser’s words: She’s beautiful, he means! What does he look like—no tattoos? A face like a bull’s? 

“You’re not really eighteen.” 

“Next month. Sorry I lied.” Fifteen must be the legal age of something.

“You live a long way from here, right? You needed directions when you called.” Smoke wafts into Jenna’s face. Her eyelids sting under the pads. “You need a ride?”

“I guess. Can I see what I look like?” 

“In a second. You live in the hills, right?”

“Way out. In a gated community. In a cul de sac.”  She knows so little about her own neighborhood. Gated. And not half a mile from hers, another gated community. Maybe Annabelle Hadley’s girls, the ones who supply her hair, live there. Or maybe they live on Jenna’s block, safe behind her neighborhood’s gate.

“I’ll drive you. Let’s get these off.”

The pressure on her lids lifts, like tiny birds taking flight. Jenna squints. Laser has turned off the work light. The parlor swims in shadows. She exercises her lids as if they’re the drying wings of a new butterfly.

“Here.” Laser hands her a mirror. Why had she thought he wasn’t tattooed? The backs of his hands, his thick arms, even his neck are nearly black with arabesques, figures, and obscure lettering. But his face is square and flat, as if it had been squashed into a large glass cube. A gold ring pierces his septum and hangs over his upper lip. The hair he’s pulled back into a ponytail is threaded with silver. His eyes are small and black, and his teeth are very white, even though he smokes.

“Crazy wig,” he says as Jenna stares at her new self. At first she can’t see the change—the light is dim, and her lids retract like a baby doll’s. She closes one eye, and there it is! A beautiful star, etched in thin lines of ink and blood. She switches eyes—the second star is as beautiful as the first. She flutters her lashless lids, and, the stars twinkle—perfect under Annabelle Hadley’s Scaredy-Cat brows. She giggles, and bats her stars at Laser, who nods and flashes his teeth. He looks at her closely, admiring his work. He examines her so thoroughly, she feels him inside of her.

“I’m an artist,” he says. 

Jenna remembers the bills folded in the pocket where her phone should be and tugs them out. “Thanks,” she says, and holds the money toward Laser, half-expecting him to refuse it. But he doesn’t; the bills disappear into his tattooed hand. He steps back and takes in all of her. 

“Nice eyes. Crazy wig. It’s gonna be dark. I’ll take you home now.”

“Okay. Thanks.” Jenna stands for the first time in an hour. Figuring out the bus would have been a drag, though she could have showed off her stars. Her legs are weak.  Laser takes her arm; his fingers test the firmness of her tricep. His touch is as gentle as the pressure of his tattooing tool had been on her eyes—she feels like one of those fancy Easter eggs. 

“Annabelle Hadley,” he snorts. “Loser.”

Jenna is charmed by what she knows lies beneath his words.

“Wait,” Laser says. His face is inches from hers. His attention is on her stars. “You’re still bleeding. Got to put the pads back on. Jenna has an urge to wipe the oil glistening on his flat nose with a sterile towelette. 

She waits, gripping the frame of the door she’s been led to, as Laser dabs at each of her eyes. It stings. She smells antibiotic cream and tobacco on the fingers that swab her lids and lay fresh gauze over them. Tape adheres to her forehead and cheeks. She worries—silly, she knows, after tattooing— about the instant of pain when the tape is stripped. And won’t her Annabelle Hadley eyebrows be marred?

“I’ve got to lock up. Don’t want to get robbed,” Laser says, and leaves her, sightless, at the door that surely leads through a back room to an alley where his car, maybe a pickup truck, awaits. She hears the grating and clanging of metal—Laser is dragging the steel barriers across his shop front. The parlor feels empty and frigid. If she could see, her breath would be visible. She remembers there’d been someone in the shop when she’d arrived, someone who left after she closed her eyes. Just a voice. Maybe it was somebody clean, the tattoo-less figure she’d confused with Laser. It’s nice to think of Laser having a friend.

He’s back. Jenna anticipates his touch; his cigarette breath warms her face. She hears a deep sigh. If this were a fairy tale, Laser would be devoted to her service. She might be a distressed damsel—she’d lost the royal infant the queen had placed in her care! Together, she and her protector must find a child to replace the missing baby. They could look in one of the gated communities, where there are plenty of children. Jenna sees herself elevating a fresh, cooing, squirming infant before Queen Annabelle Hadley. Even if Annabelle guesses the child isn’t her own, nobody will mind. Behind Jenna, Laser would be kneeling with his square head bowed.

“Ready?” Laser asks, as if he knows what Jenna is imagining and has the story by heart. She paws the air for him. What will he say when she reveals her smoothness?

 

 

Gregory J. Wolos’s fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Storyglossia, elimae, Apple Valley Review, Underground Voices, Prick of the Spindle, Gulf Stream Magazine, The Fiddleback, the anthology Surreal South, and other journals. In the last year his stories have earned recognition in several competitions, including a 2012 Pushcart Prize nomination. One of his stories was selected as winner of the 2011 Gulf Stream Award for fiction, and another won the 2011 New South Writing Contest. He lives and writes on the northern bank of the Mohawk River in upstate New York. His website is: www.gregorywolos.com

 

Q&A

Q: What was the genesis of this story?

A: My story “Smooth” emerged from an ever-expanding collection of linked stories I’ve been working on for the last year, Svidrigaylov’s Dream and Other Stories. The stories spin off from the obsessions and hijinks of an idiosyncratic filmmaker. A sequel to “Smooth” will appear in the journal FRiGG later this summer.

 

Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be?

A: An oboe: it has a plaintive wail, the quality of its sound often depends on the weather, and accomplished players make their own reeds

 

Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences?

A: Salinger, Melville, Kafka, Chekhov, Carver 

 

Q: Where is the perfect place for writing?

A: For me: any small, windowless room with a good lamp, a comfortable chair, and a closed door one would think twice before knocking upon.


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Perfumery

by Kevin McIlvoy

followed by Q&A

for S.B.

 

An upended bell. Not struck, but touched awake.

“We call this place The Pair-foom-airy,” said The Perfumer.

“When did I arrive here?” he asked and, to please her, “Here at the pair-foom-airy?” It was just like him to ask last questions first. Because: where he was he was, as if what he was was the perpetual is, the is that shall have felt, felt, feels as infinite as the exquisite dark-defeating seedling-green skin of the unclothed voluptuous Perfumer.

He asked, “Are you? Actually? Green?”

He asked, “And have we always met?” and “Am I ever awake?”

She whispered back, “Yes I am we have we shall have. You are. You are awakening now.” 

He looked around, slow shaking of his head, and then his shrug, his grin, 

and said, “This place is small.” 

The Perfumery was smaller than a rowboat stood on its stern. Smaller than the bathroom on an airplane. A spirit there could row some, fly some, take to the sky or to the sea. 

The Perfumer’s body was so close to his that her knee pressed his knee when she kicked at the pearl-shell gown pooled around his feet as if a former self.

And he heard the bell, from behind. Or.

Or both within and behind him: radiating. 

If her sun-suffused jade face, jade eyes and brows were less close, he might not have grinned and said, “I’m here! I’m in The Perfumery!”

“Pair-foom-airy,” she said, her forehead brushing his, sweet orange, clary sage, valerian, her tossed-up hair imprinting its chrism there, lovage, marjoram, labdanum, her knee pressing once more, and then.

And then withdrawing, the afterfragrances neither there nor disappearing.

“The first,” she said, and when his laughter robed them in the little booth, she touched her fingertips upon the light scarves of laughter at her throat, and then at his, and up to his ear, the cartilage and thin glove of flesh there.

And behind his ear, her fingers, her fingers, laurel, anise, ambergris, her hand opened, the soft back of her hand moved across and down, the camphor of her hand, and caressed, in pausing, his warming nipples.

She leaned in to move her neck against the pulsepoint in his, up, up.

Her lunar cheek and chin vined his chin and cheek, two different resins perfuming him, under, against his earlobe, her hand closing upon his chest.

“Is that,” he said, “my heart?” He meant, That bell—that bell.

She said, “My hand.”

“My heart,” he said.

She said, “Perfumed,” pressing harder, and releasing her fist. “The second,” she said who would be numberless in her gifts. Where her head and her hand had been, he felt incensed, and said, “I’ll burn here!” but she was closer, consoling, they were as close in this high, narrow space as two embracing mists.

And he thought that he had only thought, Is this what I wished?

She said, “Yes.”

Clearing silence followed and burning closeness as her breasts and belly murmured him. 

He heard the bell’s echoing oblations lifting from their crib of sound, the chording of the world coming in and leaving.

And returning.

“Am I the cause?” he asked, who eternally was.

Garlanding him in her arms, she smiled, said, “Turn,” and meant “Around.”

He obliged. She orbited him, his chest pricked by her aureoles, his belly astringent against hers. The circumscenting friction of their contact wound him, them, him, her, him, them in shrouds of scourging pleasure.

Inside her arms, he turned. 

“The third,” she said, but hadn’t there been many perfumings in the moments, and an eternity of moments more than three?

Turning within the bowl she made of herself, he sounded her, he sounded his own skin, he created a gleaming, ringing sound in The Perfumery. And beyond.

Not struck but touched awake from these dreams of you, I thought I could not, could not bear your death.

I thought – how foolishly I thought! -- I could not give you up even to the The Perfumer, the fragrant earth, dear friend.

 

 

Mc McIlvoy lives in Asheville, NC. As “mcthebookmechanic.com” he offers mentoring, manuscript editing, and writing workouts. His work has recently appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Kenyon Review Online, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. Graywolf Press published his most recent book, The Complete History of New Mexico and Other Stories.

 

Q&A

Q: What can you tell us about this story?

A: “Perfumery” is from a new collection, 57 Octaves Below Middle C.

 

Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be?

A: Blues harp, Hohner Special 20 (key of C).

 

Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences? 

A: Major hero: Basho. Others: Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, Yusunari Kawabata, Herta Muller, Angela Carter, C.D. Wright

 

Q: Where is the perfect place for writing?

A: The perfect place for writing; the perfect place for revising; the perfect place for reading: inside the work itself. Oh, okay, I admit: I also like empty, abyssal 24-hr. restaurants. Some have said that inside my “work itself,” there is empty, abyssal 24-hr. restaurant.


The Day the Change Came for James

by Corey Mesler

followed by Q&A

--Hey, Honey, where are you? I’ve got news, good news. 

--What—what is it James?

--I’ve decided not to be afraid anymore, not to be neurotic.

--What—what do you mean?

--I was at the office today and I thought, I am not neurotic. Why have I been living that way? 

--Just like that.

--Well. 

--James—you can’t—

--Gloria, go with me. Listen to me. This is important. 

--You just decided--

--Mostly. I suddenly—well, just felt good and. Suddenly—listen, I mean, there’s a new secretary. 25. Real cute, great butt. Short skirts. And always real nice to me. 

--Uh huh.

--And I thought, you know, when I was younger, I would have just approached her and told her what I think. Like that day I showed up on Wendy Whatsername’s front porch. Didn’t know me from Adam. And I said, Hi, this is kinda crazy but I think you are so beautiful and I want us to try out a relationship. 

--You did that?

--Yes, yes, Surely I’ve told you. But I felt that old courage again, that surge of bold energy and confidence.  I want that feeling again, that coolness. That self-assurance. It’s been missing, Gloria. It’s been missing too long. 

--Because of this secretary with the great ass. 

--Well, no, no, not entirely. I thought about you and the kids. You deserve better. You deserve the good me, the one before the great troubling. I want you to know that man, not the one I have been for the past ten years, the one who sometimes can’t go to work simply because it involves leaving home, the one who can’t grocery shop or fly in an airplane or get stuck in a crowd. I am not that guy anymore. That drip. I am the Ur-James, the one who first courted you. What do you think?

--Well—

--Remember when your sister said that thing, that she didn’t understand the agoraphobia, the burden of it. She said she was just too busy to worry all the time and that maybe I just needed to stop thinking about myself and start living. Remember she said that? 

--Yes. You hated her for saying it. 

--Yes, I did. 

--You called it bushwa. I called it bushwa. It is bushwa. James—the doctor said—

--I know what the doctor said. I know I thought your sister an insensitive philistine, especially for saying you were “an enabler” and that she would never do that for her spouse. Enabler. A word she read in some pop-psych book. And like she can even keep a husband.

--But—

--Right. Sorry. Off-track. I was thinking. Maybe it is just an illusion. Maybe it is like I am hypnotized by myself. Self-hypnotized. And I can just say, No more. Or: Now wait a minute. Demon, get thee behind me. Just say it and by saying it make it so. What do you think?

--Well, James, I hardly know what to say. I mean, well, we’ve compromised, sure, but this is the life we’ve built. We are comfortable in our cocoon if that’s not overstating things. We don’t really miss parties, crowds—

--But, Sweetie, don’t you just want to bust out, to cry to the populace that life is real, that life is all around us? Don’t you want to howl from the roof sometimes? 

--The roof. 

--Metaphorically. No—no—wait—really, from the roof. I am going to climb up there and howl. I am going to climb up on the roof and make my declaration to the world. 

--No, James, really, the kids—

--They’ll love it. They will love their new dad. They haven’t met the man. He is going to be the Über-father!

--James, don’t—James—

*

--Well, that went well, didn’t it? 

--But, Gloria, it did. In a way, it surely did. 

--James, Mrs. Turra called the cops. 

--I know, I know. I’ll go talk to Mrs. Turra. I’ll just tell her it’s the new me. I’ll tell her I won’t need to get on the roof very often. 

--James. The police came to our house. 

--Just to talk me down, Honey. You know. They were very nice. I told them—

--James, you didn’t—

--I told them about my new life. Or about how I was reclaiming my old life. That I was no longer phobic. That I was pulling myself up by my bootstraps. That I was saying, James, buck up, you little weasel. Dare to eat a peach! Life, man, life!

--You said that to the police officer. 

--A version of it, yes. 

--And he let you go back into the house. 

--He handed me a card, a shrink’s card. 

--Of course he did. 

--But, isn’t that great, Gloria? Isn’t that rich in irony? I’ve been crazy for ten years but now, saner than sane, I am told to see a shrink! Isn’t that rich? 

--James, the kids—

--I know, I know—I’ll go talk to them. 

--Don’t—

--Gloria, this is good. I can explain. 

*

--How did that go? 

--I think they got it. Or sort of. 

--Janie didn’t understand. 

--Not entirely, no. She asked if we were getting divorced. 

--Mm.

--Well, it’s ok. She’ll get it. 

--Frank? 

--He asked me if there was another woman. He sorta didn’t get it either. 

--Another woman.

--Yes.

--And you told him?

--I tried to explain about the new secretary’s great butt. I think I might have gone off the rails there. 

--No doubt. 

--You’re laughing. 

--Well, James, I mean—well, hell, ok, it’s a little nuts, but I haven’t seen you giddy in a long time.  It rather undoes me—it rather pleases me.

--I know!  I know!  That’s the point. This is me. I used to be giddy!

--Ok, James. 

--So, now, whew. I need to sit down. I feel a little dizzy. 

--You climbed too high. 

--Yes. No. I’m just—dizzy. 

--Sit down. I’ll get you a drink. 

--Yes. A drink. 

--Sit down. 

--I will, yes. Thanks. Honey, come here, take my hand. 

--Of course, James. I am here. 

--Just hold my hand. I got so—dizzy. 

--I know. 

--I—I want to tell you something.

--Of course. 

--I want to fuck the new secretary. 

--I know, James. I know you do. 

--I mean—she’s so young, so full of life. She’s like a fresh plum. 

--I can see her. 

--And that butt. It is, so—Perfect. 

--Yes, James. 

--I want her. 

--Ok, James. 

--Do you—is this how people feel? Is this normal? Do people walk around wanting each other and fearless and full of seed and life and passion? Do you, Gloria? Do you walk around like that? 

--I do, James. Sometimes.

--And you want to fuck men you don’t even know. 

--Of course. 

--It’s—dizzying. It’s—I don’t know. 

--I know. It’s scary, really. Other people. 

--Yes. Exactly. Other people are scary. 

--Just sit here. 

--Yes, I will.  I’ll just sit here for a while and then I will get up and look at things again. 

--That’s a good idea. 

--I’ll just sit here. I’ll relax. And then I’ll—reassess. 

--That’s right, baby. 

--I feel so funny, Sweet. I feel—I don’t know—empty

--Of course, James. Just sit. 

--Yes. Just be still.

--Yes. 

--Just sit and reassess and later, later will come, and I will think about what I want to be. I want to be something, Honey. 

--Of course, James. 

--I won’t fuck the secretary. 

--I know, James. 

--And you—you—

--Just sit here, my husband. 

--Yes. 

--I’ll get you a drink. 

--Thank you, Honey. It’s all—

--Yes. 

--It’s just—

--I know. 

--So—

--Yes. 

--So—dark. It’s getting dark in here, Gloria. 

--I know, James. Let it come. 

--Yes. Let the darkness come. That’s the ticket. Thank you. I’ll just sit here. 

--Yes.

--And let the darkness come. 

--Yes. 

--Let it come now. 

 

 

Corey Mesler has published in numerous journals and anthologies. He is the author of four novels, 2 books of short stories, 2 full-length collections of poetry, as well as numerous chapbooks of poetry and prose. He and his wife own Burke’s Book Store in Memphis TN. 

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: My story is about the desire for positive change and about how that moves in and out of our lives like the echo of falling water in a dream. 

 

Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be? 

A: The kazoo because the tonette is too difficult.

 

Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences? 

A: Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, Frank O’Hara, Iris Murdoch, James Tate, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Captain Beefheart, The Marx Brothers. I would also add that the single most perfect piece of writing I can think of today is Hemingway’s “At the Indian Camp.” 

 

Q: Where is the perfect place for writing? 

A: At my desk in my bedroom at 6 a.m. before the rest of the world wakes up.


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Corpse Pose

by Maura O'Brien

followed by Q&A

He was the kind of teacher who was aware of everyone and no-one. Sometimes he put his fingers to his temples as he smiled and nodded his way in and out through the mats. A girl over by the wall smiled back at him. Silly, Helen thought. “That’s it,” he said to the girl. “Lovely”. Helen went deeper into the stretch until it began to hurt.

“Now there will be discomfort. Feel the discomfort, be aware of it but try to stay there.  Just for another little while.”

He had a way of singing words here and there that made you want to please. ‘Little’ became liiihhh-tel. Helen knew she’d gone too far but she’d stay because he sang liihhh-tel.

“And breathe. Always breathe.” 

Helen held her breath.

“Well done everyone!”

He beamed.

“That’s a hard one. Trikonasana. Let’s just take a minute to get our breathing back.”

He wasn’t tall. He was neat. Like he was always new and shiny, taken out of a box and put to work. He had a white-toothed smile, wide. Going right from one side of his face to the other. His hair was long enough to be pulled back into a ponytail. And his voice. That was the thing. It bubbled, it danced, it eased its way around corners and through gaps. That’s why his class was always full, Helen thought. That and because he made jokes. He wasn’t all heavy and intense like some of the others. 

“You guys have been to far too many serious yoga classes. Relax! Groan and grunt if you need to!”

Sometimes there was no space left in his class and people were turned away so Helen always came early now, just to be certain.  

The end of class: Savasana. Helen imagined her bones had been stretched and kneaded like pieces of rubber and now became heavy and weighed her down, down into the floor. She lay on her back, palms facing upward. 

“Anyone need a blanket?” he said. 

Helen always put up her hand. He tripped in and out through the mats gently dropping blankets. Once he had draped it over her. She remembered the surprise of it. The brief contact, his hands touching her shoulders for a second. Being tucked in to sleep like a child and woken up wide awake at the same time.

The lights were dimmed and incense filled the room. There was soft music. Bells ringing. His voice purred.

“Now, don’t fall asleep. I know you all want to.”

That soft ripple of laughter again.

“Your mind might be busy, racing, especially if you’ve pushed yourself hard. Now, it’s time to let everything go. In every muscle. If there’s any tension, tense up that muscle for a second and let it go. Curl your toes in and point them out. Good toes, bad toes.”

There was no laughter now, everyone was starting to rest. There would be smiling though. Helen felt she could hear them, the smiles.

“Then relax them. Wriggle your fingers aaannd relax.”

Helen’s leg was throbbing. Really throbbing. She would try to take her mind off it. Sometimes, she liked to imagine bumping into him. In a shop, maybe. Or a café. She would be sitting in a café, reading. What would she be reading? Her hair would be down and blow-dried and—

“Try not to daydream. Daydreaming just gets in the way. Look at the thoughts racing through your mind and then go back to the breath. Inhale, exhale.”

Helen saw herself in the café reading a big heavy hard-backed book. There were frosted windows and soft lights. Listen to the breath, listen, she reminded herself and the book, the window, the café became smaller and smaller till they were gone.

After class he was in the corner talking to a lady with silver hair. 

“You run a beautiful practice,” the lady was saying.

Helen rolled up her mat. She had definitely pulled something. Idiot. And Ian was coming over later too. He would joke. Thought yoga was supposed to help, not hurt. He might cook dinner and they would watch television and after a while she would begin to enjoy it. And lying in this big room on the floor would seem strange and separate. 

Sometimes, during class, Helen liked to imagine the lives of the people around her. She sensed that their lives were different from hers. That they ate healthy foods and read more books and travelled and had other friends who did the same and they would meet in cafés and talk about real things and had jobs that they enjoyed and were interesting. And when they went to class it wasn’t just like a sandbank in a sea of stuff that clogged up their time, it was all part of the same flow. They had lives where one thing flowed into the other. This is what Helen imagined people meant by “wholeness”.  

The silver-haired woman was still talking to him. They were talking about Nepal. Ashram, what does this mean? She would look it up. The woman had a young face even though her hair was grey.

Helen lingered near the doorway and bent down to put on her shoes. Her leg hurt. Once he had walked her out and stood talking to her while she put her shoes and coat on. He’d told her about some Friday nights at the centre when they got in a DJ and everyone brought food and just sat around and ate and talked. “Look out for the next one,” he’d said, smiling.

Helen groaned when she straightened up and the woman at the desk smiled at her. She felt a blush rising up her neck.

*

Helen had to use deep heat and limp around for a few days. What kind of teacher is she if she lets you hurt yourself? Ian wanted to know. Ian had no time for all that hippy bullshit. Next thing you’ll have me eating lentils or something. Helen had thought about making lentil soup. There were recipes pinned up at the centre. Quotations too. What was that one she liked? The only tyrant I accept—she would write it down if no one was looking. Or memorize it.

That Friday, Helen went out to the pub with her work mates. They drank beer, then went on to shorts and danced right there in the pub where they had been sitting. At the end of the night, when she started to feel tired, she thought of the yoga centre—people sitting on the floors in the dim light, food balanced on their laps, heads bobbing to the music. She tried to imagine being there too but couldn’t. When she left the pub she started walking in the direction of the centre instead of toward home but only got half way there. Her hangover had already started. When she rang Ian, he was annoyed that she was walking around the city on her own. Where were the others? He would come and find her. 

Ian stayed till Sunday afternoon.

The following week, he offered to pick her up from yoga class. They could get a pizza, he suggested, in that Italian around the corner. But Helen heard herself say that she didn’t want stodgy pizza and wasn’t sure what she was doing after class anyway. Then Ian had gone all quiet on the phone and she knew he was hurt.

*

Helen was lying on her mat when the teacher came in. Footsteps as light as a dancer’s, tip-toeing through the mats. “Well, how is everyone?” he said to everyone and no-one. Helen stared at him, look at me. Look. I’m here. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach as class began. 

After a while the nerves began to settle and Helen started to enjoy it. She let herself be pulled and twisted and wrung out until she felt light and soft, ready for anything.

“Now our next position can be tricky. Take it slowly. Anyone finding it too hard can try a different version.”

Two women on the other side of the room opted for an easier position and he went over smiling, nodding in encouragement.  

“Put your left leg here and your right leg—Yes. That’s it, just there. That’s it, just like we did last night.” 

His favorite joke. The women giggled, careful laughter rose and fell around the room.  

Helen tensed, felt something else in her stomach. Not butterflies, something hard and sharp. She looked over at the two women and copied the alternative position but he was down at the back of the class now. When he walked by her mat, he said nothing. When he turned to face the class, he smiled and his eyes seemed to focus on a spot above their heads.

At the end of class they lay down for Savasana. Helen’s whole body bristled. She would talk to him after class. She had decided. Tell him about her sore leg, ask about that position. She had worn makeup. A little. Enough for it to look natural but better. To cover the grey circles under her eyes, to highlight her eye lashes. She looked good in her tracksuit and tight t-shirt. She knew that. Ian told her that every week. No. Don’t change, come here, leave it on.

“Corpse Pose,” the teacher was saying, smiling. “Corpse Pose. If you want to become full, let yourself be empty.” He paused. “That’s the Tao, not me!”

There was laughter again but Helen didn’t feel like laughing. 

“No. Seriously. This pose is about letting yourself be empty. Empty of ideas, dreams, goals. Those old anxieties, those midnight worries, this is a time to have a break.”

Helen took a deep breath, right up to her shoulders and let it out. She counted five breaths and stretched her arms and legs like in a yawn. 

“Let your mind move over your body. Over any tingling or odd sensations. Let them go. Relax your scalp, your face, your tongue.”

Helen heard his feet pad around the room as he was talking. His voice at the top of the room, then beside her. Someone was talking outside the room in the corridor. She thought of Ian’s voice on the phone, kind, worried. The teacher’s voice here on a Friday night “Relax!” it was saying, laughing. Helen saw herself there too, sitting on the floor. He was looking at her, smiling. Then it all moved further away, his voice, the smile. She felt her skin, her blood as she started to shrink into the floor. “Helen?” a voice came from above her. “Helen?”

When she came back, he was sitting at the top of the room.

“Well done everyone,” he said when they were all sitting up. “I think we had some sleepers there!” He tutted and shook his head. 

Behind her, someone giggled.

“Great class. Try to take something from it, a small piece of the strength and calm we found here tonight and use it, use it in your week ahead. Well done. Namaste.”

Helen dawdled. She folded up her blanket and tidied the ones that had fallen down. He was speaking to the two women he had helped in class. They were talking and laughing at the same time. One of the women had an accent and long blonde hair that shook when she spoke. Helen had nothing else left to do. She put her coat on and her hat. Her gloves. Everyone else was gone except Helen and the three talking at the top of the room. They hadn’t even rolled up their mats yet. “No way!” he was saying. “Unbelievable!” The room still smelt of incense and wooden floors and something else human, something female.

Helen stood near the door. She was about to leave when he noticed her. Though she knew he knew she was there all the time.  

“Helen, can I help you? Do you need something?”

Helen wasn’t sure she could find her voice; it felt so tight around her throat. 

“No. I just. Wanted to ask. No. It’s fine. See you next week.”

The two women had turned and stood waiting. When she left she heard them talk and laugh again. Like she had laughed with him before.

What’s up with you? Ian wanted to know a few days later. Is it me? But they picked up where they had left off. Their familiar routines: cinema once a week, the odd take-out, pub on a Friday. It was all she knew of this city—Ian, work, and now, yoga. One night Ian cooked her spaghetti Bolognese and set the table, lit candles and everything. I know you have a thing about atmosphere, he’d said. He would try to do stuff she liked more. They could try to do different things together. Ian’s eyes were kind, like there were layers of colours behind them.

That night almost made everything seem fine.

*

A week later, the weather was bad. It had been snowing all day. You’re not going out in that are you? You’re mad, said Ian. I’ll walk you, he offered. Don’t go. Stay in.  

The snow came down in large flakes. Helen had never seen the city like this before, so still. She saw snow resting on windowsills and bins like a thick layer of icing. Now and then a car crawled by. No one was out except groups of teenagers pelting snowballs, laughing and shouting. They were the same groups that she crossed the road to avoid every week but now they just seemed like big dazed children.

The yoga centre was quiet too. The usual woman at the desk, a few people hanging around near the door getting ready to go out into the cold. There were red and green Christmas plants in pots on the floor and candles that smelled of cinnamon flickered in the draft. A poster on the wall said “Friday Night Winter Potluck. Bring family and friends!” That Ghandi quotation was still there, the one she liked:

The only tyrant I accept in this world is the still small voice within me.

Helen was the first to arrive for her class. She rolled out her mat, sat down and waited. A door banged on the corridor. “Here! Over here!” someone shouted outside. Snow was piling up on the windowsill of the small square window. Helen felt calm, waiting there in the big empty room. There was no need to panic, everything felt different in the snow.

Then she heard him, near the door. “Hello?” he called. Helen sat up and turned but he was gone. She smoothed her hair—it smelled of shampoo. She was wearing the same tight red t-shirt, the one Ian liked. A few moments later he came to the door again. 

“Hello! I didn’t see you there over at the side. I wasn’t expecting anyone.” He was still wearing a hat and jacket.

“So, it’s just you. Let’s give it five more minutes and see if anyone else shows, OK? Music?” His movements were light and quick. He turned on the music: bells again. 

“Tibetan singing bowls in the snow, there’s something about that, isn’t there?”

“Yes,” Helen said, smiling. She wanted to say something else but he was gone again. Now the butterflies were back and the hard, sharp thing from before and a whole lot of other things too. She lay down. The room was cold. Like there was a layer of cold air close to the floor, swirling. Helen lay as still as she could and tried to feel calm again. She listened to her breathing, the in breath and the out breath. In and out. She exhaled in shreds.

“Right.” He padded back in quickly, this time without his jacket. Helen stood up.

“Well? Shall we leave it for tonight or do you still want to have a class? I doubt anyone else will show. Good for you by the way, getting here in the snow.”

He smiled with his mouth closed and looked at her. His eyes said nothing.

“I—I don’t know,” said Helen. “Since I’m here, we could do a short class or something?” She gave him her best smile. “Or we could just talk for a while? About yoga and—”

“Right. Mmm. I’m just a bit worried about the weather getting worse. You could get a refund or take an extra class at the end of the course? You should try Vinaysa Flow sometime, you’d like it.”

“But, I walked,” Helen found herself saying. She heard her voice insistent, rising. “I

walked in the snow. I walked all the way here. I …” 

“Look.” He gestured towards the small square window, now divided into two rectangles,

one white, one dark. 

“If it's about the money, you'll get a refund.”

“It's not about the money. It's about … about… ”

His eyes were like dark glass. Helen looked down at her feet.

“Is there someone who can pick you up? Or meet you? My friend’s stuck on the other side of town. I might try to get over there.”

“Yes, of course. Go ahead. It’s fine,” Helen said. She looked at a dark spot on the floor.  

“Right, so,” she heard him say. His little feet and his thin legs padding over to turn off the music. 

Helen felt the cold air swirling near the floor. She imagined it circling like white smoke. She wanted to lie down and be covered with a blanket. She wanted to go back to a moment before, to the moment where he first came to the door and said “hello.”

She felt him linger at the back of the room. “See you next week?” he called. Helen sat on her mat, closed her eyes and listened to her breath. Inhale. Exhale. She didn't turn around.

 

 

Maura O’Brien lives and works in Dublin. She has an M.Phil in Anglo-Irish Literature from Trinity College Dublin. She has previously published in Cyphers magazine and her short story “Routines” was shortlisted for the 2011 Francis MacManus Short Story Competition. Maura is currently working on a collection of short stories.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: Corpse Pose began on a snowy walk to a yoga class last December.

 

Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be?

A: I would like to be a French Horn but fear I’m a bit fluty.

 

Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences? 

A: Alice Munro, Katherine Mansfield, Carol Shields,James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Henning Mankell, Colm Toibin, ….and more.

 

Q: Where is the perfect place for writing?

A: At my small blue desk in the bedroom or lounging on my bed.


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Education

by Kevin C. Jones

followed by Q&A

Psychology

“Gwen?” Tom is looking at me over his sub sandwich from the deli counter in the cafeteria.

“What?”

“What if you could kill someone and get away with it?”

I don’t know how he eats those things, with mayonnaise squirting out of the side like snot and all of that cheap processed turkey and pickles and shit he puts on it. I ignore him and go back to my Diet Coke but he’s insistent today and it looks like I might just have to pay attention this time. 

“So what?” I say. “What if you could?”

“Who would you kill?” 

You’d think it’d be a long list, wouldn’t you? I mean, anyone in the world and nothing would happen to you. No one would know. Just snap your fingers and someone’s gone. 

It’s not. A long list, I mean. There actually aren’t that many people I’d kill. That I know, anyway. I’m leaving out third world dictators and human rights violators and most of the football team and the guy who invented algebra. Of course, he’s probably dead already, right? I mean, algebra’s been around for a while now, so why waste space on the list for him? Like I said, it’s a short list, and no, my mother and father aren’t on it, although you might think they would be. If you knew me, I mean.

And you don’t.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I’d have to think about it.”

“Oh,” he says. He looks disappointed. I think he has a big list. I think he wants to tell someone. I think he’s afraid that if he seems too enthusiastic someone will report him to the principal or a teacher or something and that’ll be it. Schools nowadays, they have a low tolerance for that sort of thing. Talking about death, I mean. Killing, lists of fantasy homicides and all that, I’m sure you understand.

They say that the metal detectors at the front doors are to protect us, but we know better. It’s for them: teachers, parents, staff.

I’m not stupid. I watch the news. I know all about the shootings and bombings at those schools in the Midwest. I’ve had my mandatory sensitivity training just like everyone else here. I watch what I say. 

I learned to watch what I say after my fight in gym class last semester. After my meetings with the police and the school psychiatrist and the MMMPI. After lots of ink blots and no car for a month. After that the school believed me when I said I was sorry for punching out that other girl in the locker room. I’m pretty sure they believed me, but sometimes I think that the security guards are watching me a bit closer than the rest of the kids in the hallway. It’s hard to tell.

“I’ve got to go,” I say. “History test, see you.”

“Late.” 

On the way to class I go by a group of Goth kids standing by the Spirit Wall. They hiss as I walk past but the last thing I need is another trip to the office so I block it out and think happy thoughts. This is something I get told once a month in Group, “Think happy thoughts.” Like it’s Peter Pan or something. My counselor, Marci, tells me this all the time too. It’s usually at the end of my weekly one-on-one in her office downtown. We bullshit for most of the hour my parents require me to attend and then, in the last five minutes or so, she reminds me to think about things that make me happy. The way Marci explains it, it’s supposed to make me remember why life is such a great thing. She doesn’t say that it’s supposed to keep me from punching out another student, but it’s what she means. Like my parents, she reminds me about how I was only able to stay in Key Club because my dad’s such a pillar of the community and blah blah blah, and all that shit. Like I’m really into extracurricular activities. Like I’m doing student government and the model UN for myself and not because my mom was school valedictorian like a million years ago.

I’ve gotten really good at nodding my head at all the right moments. At looking like I sincerely believe every word my counselor says. I took two years of drama, including Summer Stock Theatre. It’s paying off.

 

PE

Friday night after my parents have gone to sleep I sneak down to my car and drive over to the park by Kari’s house and call her on my cell phone.

“Yeah?” She says. She’s whispering and I picture her sitting on her bed, hunched over, head tucked under a dark, hooded sweatshirt. She’s so dramatic. We’ve been in three plays together and she’s always going on about wanting to do something exciting instead of just reading about it. Instead of just standing on stage, pretending to be somebody. When I told her I needed a partner for what I was going to do tonight, she begged me to let her come along. 

“I’m here,” I say.

“Okay, give me a minute, my parents just went to bed.”

“Can you do this?”

“Yeah,” she says. “They must’ve drank about three bottles of wine tonight.”

"What’s the occasion?”

“My brother got into med school,” she says. “All I heard for two hours was ‘You’re next kiddo’ until the Merlot ran dry and they went to their room to watch Leno.”

“Okay, get here soon.”

I wait about fifteen minutes before I see the headlights of Kari’s new Jetta in my rearview mirror. She parks her car, gets into my Honda, and off we go to the river. I was right, she’s wearing a black hoodie and sweatpants, her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. We look like members of some obscure all-blonde terrorist group. Like an Animal Liberation Front cell, except we both bathe on a regular basis and shave our legs.   

Because it’s late the entrance to the river is closed, so I park down the street a few blocks. 

“What about security?” Kari says as we get out of the car.

“Nothing, just Park Rangers, easy to dodge.” They’re shit, spending the whole shift tooling around in their Ford Broncos, dreaming of becoming real cops some day. I hand Kari the backpack I brought for the rocks and we duck through a hole in the chain link fence that’s been there forever. 

It’s only a short walk to the riverbank. We actually don’t need to go all the way down to the water to get the rocks; there are plenty of them lying around on the sand just past the parking lot and the picnic area. We grab a bunch of round ones, grapefruit sized, easy to throw. Anything larger and we risk losing accuracy. Anything smaller and we won’t do enough damage. She licks her lips and carefully selects each rock before gently placing it in the pack, like they’re Easter eggs. Like they’ll break if they get too close to each other. Her nails have been French manicured; they shine in the moonlight.

“What?” She says.

I look up at her face. “What do you mean, what?”

“Why are you staring at me?”

“I’m not, I…wait, did you hear something?” 

Car sounds. Headlights in the distance, getting closer. We drop to the ground behind some bushes as a Bronco goes by. Park ranger. I watch as he rounds the corner, making his way down to the visitor’s center and the nature area where I went on a field trip in the fifth grade. My class got to hold a frog and a tarantula. A long-haired guy from the university taught us about ecosystems.   

“Come on,” I say. “Let’s go before he comes back.”

We jump up and run back to the hole in the fence, Kari bitching about the weight of the rocks she’s carrying on her back. At the car, we drop into our seats, I key the ignition, and we’re gone.

 

Math

One grapefruit-sized river rock can destroy one rear window of a parked automobile if thrown at the proper angle and appropriate velocity. The average replacement cost of a rear window in tonight’s target neighborhood is $368. Kari and I have eight river rocks in my backpack. Over the next ten minutes, how much damage will she and I cause by driving 45 miles per hour with the headlights out, hurling rocks through the back windows of luxury automobiles as we pass by?

From the river, I drive back through the neighborhood, scanning for targets of opportunity. The first street I find has enough cars, but too many streetlights. The last thing I need is some over-excited Neighborhood Watch member to write down my license plate and call the cops. I circle around for a few minutes, jumping from street to street, past million dollar homes with wide, circular driveways, four-car garages, and For Sale signs with my mother’s name and realty company on them. 

“How about that one?” Kari says, pointing towards a group of cars at the end of the block. 

“No streetlight, enough room to get up to speed,” I say. “Okay, you know what to do?”

“Roll down the window and toss the rock, right?”

“You have to make sure you get the right angle or you’ll just hit a taillight or the trunk,” I say. “Get a good arc; aim for the center of the windshield.”

“How do you know this?” 

“Just throw it at the right time,” I say. “You’ll see. Get your gloves on and get ready, here we go.”

I read somewhere that you can’t get fingerprints off of rocks, but I don’t want to take any chances. Kari puts on a pair of rubber gloves and digs a rock out of the backpack.

“Where did you get those?” I say.

“My dad’s bag at home,” she says. “One of the advantages of having a doctor for a father.” She gives me a big smile and I feel my face get hot.

Kari rolls the window down and I turn off the headlights. I can still make out the speedometer as we get closer: 35, 40, 45 miles per hour. The car is just up ahead, a brand new Mercedes resting against the curb like a sleeping child. 

“Now,” I say.

Kari leans out of the passenger window and hurls the rock toward the car. For a moment I wonder if she messed up, then I hear the back window implode, followed by the car alarm’s whoop whoop whoop as I hit the gas and tear away.

“Jesus,” Kari says, her voice barely a whisper. “We just, I just…Jesus.”

“I know,” I say, reaching over and squeezing her arm gently. “You okay?”

She looks over and there’s a light in her eyes I’ve never seen before.

“There’s seven more rocks,” she says. “Can we use all of them?”

“We can do whatever you want.” 

 

Biology

After it’s over, I drive Kari back to her Jetta. 

“That was great,” she says. Her face is flushed with excitement. She’s standing close enough for me to smell the lotion she puts on her face. “When can we do it again?”

She reaches up and pulls her hood down, takes out the ponytail. My heart beats like a caged rabbit in my chest as I take a strand in my fingers, brush it away from her eyes. It feels like spun silk against my skin. 

“Soon,” I say. “I’ll let you know.”

“What are you doing?” She tucks the strand behind her ear, cocks her head at me. 

“Nothing, you had hair in your eyes.” My hands drop like they’re made of stone. “You did great tonight.”

“Thanks,” she says. “That was crazy. Whoever owns that Mercedes is going to shit when he…you know, sees all the glass…hey, are you there?” She’s slowly backing away from me, opening the Jetta’s door. 

“What are you staring at?” 

“Nothing.” Panic rises in my throat like sickness. Kari wipes her mouth with the back of her sleeve, looks at it, back at me.

“Is there something on my lips?” She says. “You keep looking at my mouth.”

“No.” My face, hot. “Nothing.”

She gets into the car. “You’re being weird,” she says, and closes the door. “I’ll see you at school.”

“Wait.” I knock on her window. She hits a button and the glass retracts with a whine.

“What?”

I can hear music coming from the stereo, the low hum of the car’s engine. A couple of blocks over someone’s dog barks. Even in the dim light of the dashboard I can see how blue her eyes are.

“Nothing,” I say. “Just, you know, don’t tell anyone.”

“Yeah, duh,” she smiles. “Thanks for letting me come with you, it was cool.” I watch her drive away until the taillights disappear. Tomorrow, I tell myself. I’ll let her know how I feel tomorrow. 

Maybe. 

I go home and crawl into bed. I dream of Kari’s mouth, car alarms and broken glass.

 

 

Kevin C. Jones’s fiction and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Ink Pot, r.kv.r.y., and the anthologies Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform and Boomtown: Explosive Writing from Ten  Years of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA Program. He lives on Florida's Gulf Coast where he teaches writing and literature.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: The character (Gwen) just showed up in my head one day and wouldn’t leave, so I had to tell her story.  The rock throwing section stems from an actual incident during my high school days, but the less said about that, the better. 

 

Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be?

A: An accordion: They’re awkward, strange, slightly infuriating, yet people seem to like them anyway.

 

Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences? 

A: Amy Hempel, Daniel Alarcón, Junot Diaz, Dan Simmons, and too many others to mention. 

 

Q: Where is the perfect place for writing?

A: Any place I’ve got a fairly quiet moment.


Kim Church.jpg

Cafeteria Lady

by Kim Church

followed by Q&A

Backlit, faintly glowing, she waves me to a booth by the window, one of the narrow ones she knows I like, with cushiony seats and natural light, good for reading. I have a book on my tray as always. 

I come in every Wednesday after therapy for the vegetable plate, $2.99 plus tax. Today I’m having lima beans, mashed potatoes and applesauce—soft foods, because my teeth are loose. I’ve been grinding again, probably that’s why, though there may be a deeper reason. My teeth may be crumbling from within.

My therapist says worry is a way of pretending you can control things you can’t. Like your bones turning to chalk.

The cafeteria lady takes my tray. She is old, with hunched shoulders, a feathery mustache, gray hair done up in a net. Her eyes are small and dark, darting, seeing everything at once. She has many jobs. She greets customers, helps them find tables when the room is crowded, which it always is at lunchtime—shoppers, store clerks, tradespeople, retirees from Cameron Village, office workers like me, but never anyone I know, so I’m safe here, no threat of conversation. It’s best to avoid conversation after therapy, the same way you don’t go swimming right after a meal. You need time to digest.

Some customers need help setting food on their tables. Some expect her to fetch their condiments. She can gauge exactly how much attention each of us needs.

She checks my drinking glass. “Sweetened?” she asks, in case I want refills.

“Yes.”

I can’t imagine a more perfect hostess. Or a more unlikely one. Because all the while she’s greeting customers and setting tables and collecting trays and ferrying condiments and tea pitchers, she is also shaking uncontrollably. She has a condition that causes tremors in her hands and arms. Her elbows shudder like baby-bird wings. 

In the booth next to mine, two men finish their lunch. She has been keeping an eye on them. She plucks a spare tray from the tray station and carries it over, trundling along in her crepe-soled shoes, regular as clockwork. The instant the men get up to pay, she moves in. She scrapes their leftovers onto the tray and stacks their dishes, small bowls into larger bowls, larger bowls on plates. She stands their silver in one man’s empty water glass. She rights the salt and pepper. Her hands tremble, they jerk, but she is methodical, unhurried, even when a young woman walks up behind her and wants the booth. The young woman is wearing a tailored suit and spike-heeled shoes. She looks important, shifting her weight from foot to foot while the cafeteria lady, who doesn’t carry a rag like the other girls, drains a little water from the second man’s glass onto a clean cloth napkin and wipes the table: there now. She clatters off with her tray full of dishes. 

The young woman inserts herself into the booth stiffly, as if she might snap in two. There is nothing fluid about her. She is thin, her hips narrow like mine. Manicured hands, no wedding ring. Probably no children: her face is closed-off, unmotherly. 

If you don’t have children you’re more likely to go through menopause early. Your body stops preparing for something that isn’t going to happen. 

My body figured it out when I was thirty-nine. Now I’m fifty-two and my doctor says I’ve lost bone from my hips. Not much, but she wants me to take a drug. This drug could corrode my esophagus and, in a single dose, weaken my jawbone so that if I ever have dental work I might not heal. My doctor isn’t focused on these side effects, which she calls rare. She’s focused on the fifty percent mortality rate associated with hip fractures. If I don’t take this drug, I could break my hip and die. My doctor is trying to motivate me. She knows I dislike drugs; she also knows I’m anxious about my health — she prescribed a sedative for my anxiety. Sedatives increase your risk of falling and breaking a hip. 

I’m skeptical of the bone-loss drug, but I take my doctor’s warnings to heart. I take calcium and Vitamin D supplements. I walk. Most days I walk at lunchtime, twice around the Capitol in my pantsuit and Adidas. And when I walk I think, Careful, you could fall, you could die. Even though the high mortality rate is for elderly patients. Even though the stress of worrying about falling can cause bone loss. Stress activates a hormone that leaches calcium.

I work on the fourth floor of the legislative office building, researching and writing memos for lawmakers. Researcher Four: the highest level state researcher you can be. My office is small but private. I can close my door, take off my shoes and practice yoga poses: tree, stork, eagle, skater. The standing poses are supposed to improve your balance and reduce your chances of falling.

Government work is honorable if not especially meaningful. I take some small pride in my resourcefulness and my clear, organized writing. Still, I will be happy to retire. In three years I can draw full benefits. 

The cafeteria lady’s work is never-ending. She can never clear a table or refill a water glass and say to herself, There, I won’t be doing that again.

When a big family gets up from the round table in the middle of the room, she’s ready with her tray. She scrapes and stacks their dirty dishes—so many; the tray is too heavy for her to carry to the dishwasher. She will have to leave it for one of the younger, stronger girls. And all the food on the floor, from the children, she will leave for the girl with the carpet sweeper. She knows her limits.

She wets a napkin and wipes the table. Returns condiments to the condiment station and organizes the station: ketchups behind ketchups, mustards behind mustards, A-1s behind A-1s. Everything in perfect lines.

She turns and greets another family. 

My doctor is young and pretty, with three young children whose pictures are everywhere. She wears stylish boots with her white pants and smock. Her hair is long and straight. 

“I like your hair,” I told her last time. More and more I feel the need to ingratiate myself. 

“Thanks,” she said. “I have to spend a long time on it. If I don’t, it looks like yours.” Meaning curly and wild—another symptom of the change. When I was young, my hair was sleek and straight like hers, only naturally.

Another symptom: bumps that come up on your eyelids and make your eyes feel full of sand. It hurts to blink. The best treatment is hot compresses made from Eyebright teabags. If these don’t work, I resort to the antibiotic ointment my doctor gave me.

Does she judge me—my doctor—for going through menopause early?

Does she judge me for my dry eyes, my wild hair, the lines on my face? Especially the grooves from my mouth to my chin. Marionette lines. 

Does my doctor, with all her children, judge me for my failed pregnancies? They happened long ago, but they are part of my history. I have to write them down again every year when I go in for my physical.

I told her I had reservations about the bone-loss drug. She prescribed it anyway.

“Be careful to follow the pharmacist’s directions exactly,” she said. “You have to stand up for at least half an hour after taking each pill, until it’s all the way through your esophagus.”

When my glass is low, the cafeteria lady comes around with a pitcher. This is one of her jobs, to appear at the right time with the right pitcher. With some people, regulars, she might sit and talk a minute. It’s an act of grace, her sitting down with you.

Some days all she does is visit with people. No refills or bussing tables or collecting condiment bottles or serving anyone anything. Just chat. This is an important part of her job, to make the cafeteria feel welcoming and civilized. The other girls are not capable of chatting with customers. Some have mental problems. Some have speech impediments. Some don’t know English.

“More?” she asks me, her voice a crackly alto.

“Please.”

She always speaks to me but never sits. It’s the book, I think; she doesn’t want to keep me from my reading. I wonder if she notices this is the same book I’ve been reading for weeks. I’ve renewed it once already.

She leans over me, her elbows fluttering, her pitcher trembling. The tea tosses and quakes. The ice rattles. But somehow she doesn’t spill a drop. I have never seen her spill a drop, and I watch her closely.

The dining room is divided into three sections: front, middle, and an area for large groups in back. I sit in the front section whenever possible, for the windows, and because it’s where the cafeteria lady spends most of her time—though when I sat here last week she never came out of the middle, where she knew a woman having lunch and kept stopping by her table. I ended up reading my book and leaving early.

Today I am rewarded for my patience. She’s working the front, and three booths near mine empty out in quick succession, so I get to spend my whole meal watching her clear. I’m careful not to stare, but merely glance up from my book. There are condiments to be put away, too.

“It’s not like I worry for nothing,” I tell my therapist. “My grandmother had bad teeth. By the time she was my age, they’d rotted and she had to have them all pulled.”

“Mm,” my therapist says.

“She thought dentures would make her look young again. She was beautiful when she was young. She didn’t know how uncomfortable they would be. She never got a good fit. Finally she quit bothering.”

“Mm.”

My dentist says maybe I should wear my mouth guard all the time, not just at night. Because both awake and asleep, I tap my front teeth together and grind the back ones and clench my jaw muscles. I recently chipped a tooth, and two of my incisors are loose, the same two I knocked loose when I fell last summer. It was only heat exhaustion, but I had to have an MRI just in case. The neurologist, a big, smiling, Yogi Bear-like man, clipped the films to a light board to show me. “It’s nothing,” he said. “It’s just your brain getting older.” 

A woman in the cafeteria line looks like a cartoon: her legs are too straight; her shoes are pointed in exactly the same direction.

Down the line, people stare at food through the steamy glass, their eyes hungry and hopeful, their faces orange in the reflected glow of heat lamps over roast beef, Chicken San Francisco, yams, peach cobbler, biscuits. 

The bread lady asks the man in front of me, “What bread, sir?” 

The man has a gentle face and long wavy hair, like Jesus. “None, thank you.” 

“What bread, ma’am?”

“A soft roll, please.” You don’t have to bite a soft roll, or chew it even. You can tear it with your fingers, put the pieces in your mouth and let them dissolve.

At the end of the line, a woman prints the slips we will take to the cashier when we leave. She’s younger than the line workers, and glamorous, with red fingernails so long the tips curl under. “How many in your party?” she asks me, as she does every week. How can she not know by now?

“One.”

The cafeteria lady is working the front section, padding around table to table, collecting stray Sweet-n-Low packets. She wears tan Easy Spirits that match her tan pants, a tan apron over a crisp white blouse. She is bigger at the bottom than the top, like a tree: sturdy trunk, nervous branches.

The long-haired man walks up behind her, lays a hand on her shoulder and smiles around at her, a beatific smile. She seems surprised and happy to see him. They talk. They are old friends. He keeps his hand on her the whole time. People are always touching her this way: kindly, on the shoulder, on the arm, as if to stop her shaking.

This is how an anxiety attack comes on: you feel a little off-kilter. You don’t understand why. The not-understanding makes you even more disoriented. Your heart speeds up. Your hands and feet get wet, your tongue dry. You start to go numb. A pins-and-needles feeling spreads from the back of your neck down your arms, across your chest, over your solar plexus. Your doctor will write this down as parasthesia.

You might get dizzy and short of breath. You might feel faint. Twice I’ve had to call for an ambulance when I thought I was passing out. I’m fortunate to live downtown where the ambulance arrives quickly, within three minutes.

When the emergency room doctor diagnosed me, both times, with anxiety, I took it as a judgment. No, I said. I must have had an allergic reaction to something. 

She gets off work at two. At ten ’til, without fail, she stops whatever she is doing and gathers her things: sweater, purse, styrofoam takeout box—her supper, I imagine. For people who have no one else to cook for, this is an easy and nutritious way to eat. I sometimes go through the line a second time to get extra food to take home.

I used to eat supper with the game shows on TV. I liked the challenge of Jeopardy, the happy crowd noises of Wheel of Fortune. But now that the drug companies are allowed to advertise, every commercial break is a scary litany: all the ways you can suffer and die if you don’t use their medicines, all the ways you can suffer and die if you do. So I canceled my cable and joined Netflix. I rent DVDs of old shows—Mary Tyler Moore, Andy Griffith. Light-hearted shows in black and white, with no commercials to give me nightmares.

I wonder: does the cafeteria lady shake in her sleep?

Some days I catch only a fleeting glimpse of her. Last week she never showed up. I ate slowly, waiting. Two o’clock came and went. Finally I got up to pay. I asked about her (“the one,” I said, “who pours tea for people?”) and the one-armed man at the cash register told me she’d taken the day off. 

“Is she sick?”

“No, ma’am, she took a vacation day. In seventeen years she’s never been out sick.”

How could I begrudge her a day off? But I wished it hadn’t been a Wednesday. 

A nervous day, today. Driving here, I slammed on brakes for the shadow of a bird crossing the road.

Two booths away, a man in a greasy uniform and workboots is complaining to his friend. He has bad skin and a loud, twangy voice. He’s telling his friend how his wife left him a year ago and still hasn’t picked up all her stuff. “Bitch could rent a truck,” he says. 

I wish I could make a tape of him. I would play it for my therapist whenever she asks if I want to get married again.

He tells his friend all the ways his wife used to attack him: she threw keys, threw her pocketbook, threw herself across the room at him, fists flying.

“I don’t have a violent bone in my body,” he says. “She drove me to it.”

He ruins my experience of the cafeteria lady, who is busy in our section, retrieving and arranging condiment bottles. She is focused, intent, like a crow collecting shiny objects. But who can relax and watch her while there’s this man with his blackheads and his voice like a banjo?

You hear about hot flashes, night sweats, forgetfulness, mood swings. You don’t hear so much about thinning bones or loose teeth or bumps on your eyelids. Or fear. Menopause can overtax your adrenal glands; they can misfire and cause random surges of fear and panic. Not many people know this. Men don’t know this. Men say, Why are you always so afraid?

My minister says fear is a failure of faith. If we truly believed in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, we would not be afraid of death. 

Today is Ash Wednesday. The cafeteria lady comes to my table carrying a framed cross-stitch another customer made for her, an early Easter gift. The cross-stitch is a verse about our risen Lord.

“Have you ever seen anything so pretty?” she says.

“I never have,” I say.

She reads the verse aloud.

“That’s lovely,” I say.

“More tea?” She starts for a pitcher.

“No thanks, I’m swimming in tea.”

She looks at me, puzzled—am I making a joke? She smiles, just in case. Then wanders off to show her gift to someone else.

I imagine her going home after work, hanging her cross-stitch on the wall, studying it from different angles to be sure it’s straight. Then sitting down, shaking her head and saying out loud, “Swimming in tea.” Still not sure whether to laugh.

Stop worrying, my therapist says. Decide how to take care of myself, do that, and let go. Start with my teeth. Wear the mouth guard at night. Maybe a quarter-tab of Xanax before bed to help with the grinding.

But even on Xanax I have nightmares: my car going over a cliff, etc. Dreams so obvious they’re not even interesting. Even in my sleep I roll my eyes thinking, Right, we all know what this means. 

Jesus said, “And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life?"

The cafeteria is not calm today. There are children running around, shrieking, making me glad I never had any. I wolf down my vegetables and make my lists and don’t linger. I don’t even bother looking for the cafeteria lady, though on my way out I ask about her.

“She isn’t here,” the one-armed cashier says solemnly. “She won’t be back.”

I pretend not to know what he means. I don’t want to know. “She retired?”

“She passed.” 

In his kind, slightly nasal voice, he tells me everything. How she came to work last Thursday complaining of a bad headache. They told her to sit down; she did, then couldn’t get back up. They called for an ambulance and she was taken to the hospital, where the doctors found a blood clot in the back of her brain. “It was about to burst,” he says, “and they said when it did it could cause blindness or paralysis. They upset her so bad she fell into a coma. She only came out once, for about thirty minutes.” He’s still in shock that the cafeteria lady, who was eighty-three, could have gone from having a “clean bill of health” to dying so suddenly. “We made a big fuss,” he says. “We sent deli trays, and everybody signed a card and put in money for the family, to help with the burial expenses.” 

He waits for a word of sympathy, his face earnest and hopeful. I want to say the right thing. But all I can think is, I didn’t even know her name. As if my knowing it would have kept her alive.

“Good of you,” I say. Can he hear in my voice what has been taken away from me? What has ended? “She was special.”

He takes my money in his hand and sends my change down a chute from the cash register. “A servant of God,” he says.

There are things I believe in. The sky, the sun, shade trees, birds, bird feeders. I believe in the smell of gardenias. The gardenia bush in my back yard is blooming; I can put my nose in it. I believe in washing my hair every other day to conserve both water and my hair. I believe in drying my clothes on a line, and growing my own tomatoes, and returning library books when they’re due. 

I believe in remembering people. I believe that memory is a form of afterlife; it’s how we stir the spirits of the dead.

Is it necessary to believe in more? Is it enough to want to? 

My yoga teacher moves with a slow grace. She has a gentle voice. She tells the class, “You have what you need.”

Our final pose is Savasana, corpse pose. We’re supposed to lie flat on our backs and let go of everything, the weight of our bodies, all our thoughts and plans. Return to the earth. Like we’re practicing for death. 

But I can’t stop thinking. 

I’m imagining a time years from now, maybe sooner, when I can look back and say to myself, Remember when your teeth were shifting and you worried, but then they settled and everything was fine? Or maybe I’ll say, Remember when it was only loose teeth?

The teacher lightly taps her chime, ping, pang, pong, and we open our eyes.

Spinach, yams, beet salad.

It’s been months. The cafeteria lady has been replaced by a man. A plump, white-haired, apple-cheeked Santa Claus of a man, with a carpet sweeper in one hand and a little paper cap on his head. He does everything fast, without any help. He’s friendly, jovial even, with a deep loud laugh. I am friendly in return, out of respect for the cafeteria lady. But all his ho-ho-ho and bustling and bobbing around only makes my friend’s absence more noticeable: her slow, measured pace, her attention to small things, her quiet quaking.

I don’t watch the Santa man. I don’t watch anyone. I eat; I read. 

This book is about how to stop bone loss without drugs. 

Eat leafy greens. 

Walk in the sunshine twenty minutes a day. 

Get enough sleep. 

Don’t drink coffee or tea; don’t take antacids. 

Use herbs: horsetail to build bone, dandelion root to aid digestion, white chestnut flower to calm “worries that go round and round.” 

Every night before bed I practice deep-breathing: in on a count of four, hold seven, out on a count of eight. This is supposed to keep my nightmares at bay. 

One night I dream about the cafeteria lady. She comes to my table for no reason. “Everything all right?” she says, and, ignoring my book, sits down. 

 

 

Kim Church’s stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Painted Bride Quarterly, Mississippi Review, Flash Fiction Forward (Norton), The Great Books Foundation Short Story Omnibus, and other publications. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she has received fiction fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Millay Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Vermont Studio Center. She recently completed her first novel, Byrd, a fragmented family history of a child given up for adoption.  She is now working on a novel set during the Gastonia textile workers’ strike of 1929.  She lives in Raleigh with her husband, artist Anthony Ulinski.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: “Cafeteria Lady” is a story about fear and aging inspired by Yeats’s “The Wild Swans at Coole.” For my narrator, Yeats’s swans take the form of an elderly K&W Cafeteria hostess, a character modeled after the late Myrna Morton of Raleigh.

 

Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be?

A: My 40-year-old Guild guitar, dark red, mellowing.

 

Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences? 

A: Eudora Welty, Alice McDermott, Joan Didion, Amy Hempel, Roddy Doyle, James Salter, Wislawa Szymborska, Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Elizabeth Strout, Jhumpa Lahiri.

 

Q: Where is the perfect place for writing?

A: A treehouse.  Or an upstairs room with a window in a house on a hill.


Robert Moulthrop.jpg

Back Up To Fall River

by Robert Moulthrop

followed by Q&A

A One-Act Play for One Actress

 

Cast:Emily, age Late Teens—Early 20s

 

 

Setting: A stage in a hall in rural Northern California. The people in the audience are the people in the audience.

 

EMILY enters, running from the back of the hall up on to the stage. She is wearing jeans, shirt, jacket, dark glasses, backward baseball cap. She has a knapsack on her back. She has been running for some time and is a little out of breath. She acknowledges the audience with a look, and, holding up her hand, silently asks them to wait.

 

EMILY

Wait. Please. Really. Really. Just a minute. Please. Just let me, uh . . .

 

She stops, shakes the knapsack off her back, catches it with one hand, swings it slightly, puts it gently on the ground. These movements are quite familiar—this is the way she always takes off her knapsack.

 

She stands for a moment, then, in one fluid motion, reaches behind her head, moves the bill of the cap to the front, removes the hat and quickly, as if it were a magic trick, folds the cap down and makes it disappear into her pocket. She acknowledges the silent cheers of an imaginary crowd, lifting her hands and bowing.

 

But then she stops and is quite silent, finally taking off her dark glasses without a flourish. She appears tired and wary.

 

Really. You're in the right place. I mean, this is Fall River Mills, right? You all got the, uh, notice? Right. Well, I'm sorry. I hope I didn't keep you waiting or anything. I didn't plan for that car to break down. George, I mean, he has his license and all, it's just that he's not too good with cars, and he, uh, forgets. He'll be along, I think. I mean, he's going to take me, uh, home. So you can see him then.

 

She moves and stands behind the knapsack and, so that we can see, unpacks it, taking out, first, a children's yellow shovel, then a shoe box sealed up with a single piece of masking tape around its middle, finally, a coffee tin with a snap-on plastic lid.

 

These arranged in front of her, in front of the knapsack, she seems to regain her energy. She suddenly takes off her jacket, shakes it out, folds it in an intricate and special way, then puts it into the knapsack, quickly, as if it were an animal that might escape unless quickly cornered and captured.

 

Then everything is suddenly over, and, from a space somewhere off, she begins to speak.

 

You know, it's so hot. I didn't think it would be so hot here this time of year. How come is that?

 

This was hard getting here. I saw the town, you know, from off there on the highway, just, I thought, up through that meadow, but that was a long way. We don't get to climb too many hills down there in Fresno.

 

And those prickles got on my socks. I didn't mind. This, this is . . . this country here, this is . . . nice.

 

Oh, I should have said. I'm Emily. Emily Bonavida.

 

She takes a small folded piece of paper from her jeans' pocket. She opens it slowly, smoothing it out and rubbing her fingers over the words.

 

I was worried, at first, but I had the directions that Dr. Mahoney sent me. I wonder . . . Wait, wait, don't tell me. No, wait, Dr. Mahoney, don't get up, wait, wait.

 

She puts the directions in her mouth to leave her hands free, then picks up the shoe box and opens it, and takes out a snapshot. She looks at the picture, then out into the audience, then at the picture again. She smiles, looking out into the audience.

 

Yes. There you are. A little different. Hair and, what, something around the eyes. 

 

She holds the picture up for everyone to see, but the picture is small and the image is difficult to make out. She gestures to a man in the audience.

 

Look upon this picture, and on this. The counterfeit presentment of two . . . That's not fair, though, really. It's a pretty good picture. All those years ago. 

 

The other person in the picture there, that's Amanda, that's my Mom. What was that? A picnic or something? Dr. Mahoney, you look, she looks . . . Amanda. What a name, right? Rolls right around your mouth and off your tongue. Amanda Bonavida. Grandma said that it was Grandpa, he was the musical one, named her for the sound of her name. 

 

Well, you probably all remember him, right? Guillermo, the butcher right over by the church, sang Verdi all the time? At least that was what Grandma said. He sang until, well, until, what Grandma said, the light went out from his life, when Mama, when we all, that is, moved away, at least that's what Grandma says.

 

Well, whatever. Those were pretty good directions. We got a little lost is all around Grass Valley and then again, coming through, what was it, Burney, I guess, we missed the turn. We saw the waterfall, though.

 

In order to put the picture back in the shoe box, she puts the directions in her mouth again. 

 

Thanks, Doc. Couldn't have done it without you. That's what Grandma would say, help her up, help her sit, move her around or whatever. 

 

EMILY adopts the tone of an older, probably senile woman, just enough of a suggestion to give us a sketch of the woman.

 

Thank you kindly, Emily. I couldn't have done it without you.

 

Well . . . Grandma. She was . . . old when she died. I don't know. Ninety-eight or something. She'd never tell. So, Grandma, I'd say, how old are you? And she'd say, flipping a pancake at the griddle, just turning it with a flip, you know, Oh, she'd say, I'm as old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth. 

 

I liked to think about that. Of course, by the time I knew her, she used to put her teeth in the glass of water by her bed. So those teeth . . . But she had a tongue, all right.

 

You get in here right now, clear up these dishes, or I'll make you go out in the back, pick a willow switch, and come in here and give it to me so I can switch you good, same as I did your mother.

 

She didn't mean anything by it, of course. She never did hit me. Not even once. And, of course, every time she would mention my mother, Grandma would just, you know, stop. I remember that time, I was in Fifth Grade, we'd just done this play, this Shakespeare, I got to play Ophelia, I wore white and said to the King, "Here's rue for you," and be crazy and everything, and Grandma, she was standing at the sink, looking out the window back at the hen house, and the water was running, and she just said, Your mother would have . . . and I said, My mother what? And then she just started to cry and I did, too. 

 

I loved my grandma and she loved me and we both loved my Mom. Except I never knew her. My mom. She died when I was two.

 

I have her picture in here, somewhere. Not the one with Dr. . . . Another one, a real one.

 

She gets the shoe box and takes out a picture.

 

Here, she looked like this . . .

 

She holds a small picture, one she clearly treasures, out for the audience to see. At the same time she assumes a pose, a woman at the beach, pretending to be a bathing beauty, squinting at the camera.

 

But then, I forgot, you knew her. All of you. Dr. Mahoney, Everybody. 

 

She puts the picture away.

 

Nice of you to come. Really. All of you. See, what Grandma said, what she wrote . . .

 

She digs through the shoe box and finds a letter.

 

Here, what she said was . . . "It's a small town, and they'll all fit in at the school. Get them all together so you can tell them.". . . Now, here's the . . . well, the . . . I have to . . .

 

Well, Grandma told me to do it this way, I mean, she wrote, well, I'm sorry, but there isn't any money . . . She didn't . . . I mean, well. I'm sorry, here's what she wrote, I'm just . . .

 

"They'll come there for you if you tell them that I've left a lot of money to the town and that you're bringing a check. Just write to Dr. Mahoney . . ." So I did. 

 

Grandma thought you'd be interested in the money. She was right. Funny to think that you were the one who wrote her those poems. She saved them, did you know that? I have them, here. Don't worry, I'm not going to . . . But they were great. 

 

So, and here's everyone together. 

 

See, what the deal is, I know that since Mom and Grandma left, all those years ago, Grandma made it sound like things were great and there was all that money from the crops and all. But it wasn't like that. And there isn't any check. There isn't any money for anything. Just for me to get up here.

 

But what it is is that, well, what else Grandma's letter says is, here, let me read it to you: ". . . You need to tell them all the truth. They need to . . ."

 

Don't leave. Please don't go. You need to, just let me, I'm almost finished here. Really. Here, she says . . .

 

"They need to know what happened. Tell them how after your Mama went to Dr. Mahoney so he could do the abortion, how she came back home and bled to death and died."

 

Did you know that? That part about the blood? My grandma never told me about the blood part. I just read it when I read the letter, right after Grandma died. I just knew about my Mama, just about, you know, that she had died when I was two. So, see, it was like having three deaths, first my Grandma, then the baby—my sister—then my mother's blood.

 

I . . . miss . . . my . . . Mom. Dr. Mahoney. I miss her so much. So. Grandma. Well. My Grandma and I, we thank you for coming.

 

She looks at the back of the hall.

 

Just a minute, George. I'll be right there. Is the car running now all right? No, you all please stay, stay. I'm, we're almost finished. I just wanted to say . . .

 

She holds up the coffee tin.

 

This is Mama. I mean, her ashes. Grandma kept it all these years. Grandma wanted her to be buried here, at home, where she grew up. Grandma, she wanted to be put in—planted she called it—down in Fresno. But she thought Mama should be back up here. That was the other reason I . . . And why I brought the shovel—that was Grandma's idea. 

 

My shovel. She kept it. From one time over in Santa Cruz. And Grandma said, in that way she had, "You dig a nice little hole with this here shovel you used that time at the beach you don't remember but your mother bought you that shovel when you could barely walk and she would take it well you use it to open up the ground to take her in up there in Fall River." Something like that.

 

At first I wasn't going to. I was just, I don't know, going to, what, hand Mama's ashes to you, to Dr. Mahoney, make you . . . hold them until . . .

 

But I don't want to do that now. You remember about the prickles? in my socks? Well, that was that meadow, down the hill back there, where the yellow grass runs right up to those big evergreens? I stopped and sat there while I was fixing my socks. I looked down the hill, and I could hear Mama's voice saying, "Here, Emily; just right here in among the grass and trees; where I can see the hawks and feel the wind on my face." Did she . . . Dr. Mahoney, did she go down there? To that meadow?

 

So, anyway, that's where I'm going now.

 

She hunkers down and packs up her knapsack, one item at a time, except for the yellow shovel and the coffee tin.

 

Down to the meadow with my Mama. 

 

She looks out over the people assembled . . .

 

Thank you all for coming.

 

. . . and walks, deliberately, from the stage and out through the audience.

 

 

Robert Moulthrop is a prize-winning author and playwright who lives and works in New York City. His work has appeared in such journals as Berkeley Fiction Review, Confrontation, Eclipse, Harpur Palate, Haven, The MacGuffin, Portland Review, Sou’Wester, River Oak Review, and Willard & Maple. In 2011 he was a winner in the Cartaret Writers Contest, and was awarded e-Chapbook publication of seven short stories (Grace) by Wordrunner. In 2010 he won first prize in the Literal Latte fiction contest; he has also received a grant from the New Jersey Council on the Arts. In 2005 he was awarded the New York International Fringe Festival's Outstanding Playwriting Award for his original full-length drama, Half Life. Two other plays were notable successes in the 2006 and 2008 Fringe Festivals. Favorite quote: “Your work is to discover your work and then, with all your heart, to give yourself to it.” The Buddha.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the genesis of this story?

A: I wrote “Back Down to Fall River” as a gift, an audition piece for a young actress who has since become a professor of French literature. Fall River, Massachusetts, has, of course, a place in American history; this “Fall River” is, however, closer to Fall River Mills, California, where I was born.

 

Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be? 

A: A piano. Harmonic structure, range of music, both accompaniment and solo.

 

Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences?  

A: Harold Pinter, Herman Melville.

  

Q: Where is the perfect place for writing? 

A: Wherever you are when the impulse strikes is pretty good. I like regular, old fashioned coffee shops in New York City (used to be Greek, now primarily Russian-owned). When I travel, anything like a café or bistro or restaurant where I can linger with my notebook over coffee. Cliché, but true for me. I like the white noise. When I’m editing my own work, I prefer the New York City writing space Paragraph, where I’m a member: Third floor of a building on West 14th Street with cubbies, a kitchen, a bathroom, a small library, and internet access. Writer heaven.


Annette Gendler.jpg

Waiting in the Dark

by Annette Gendler

followed by Q&A

On the third day, they move Harry, my husband, to a private room. We return from his smoking break to find we have a different view. The grid of gray glass rectangles of the hospital wall across the courtyard has been replaced by the steep black shingles atop red brick walls, dormers of the roof of the American School of Correspondence, and beyond it, the concrete rectangle of another University of Chicago building. 

My eyes will come to appreciate the roof’s variety of shapes, the tar shingles that sparkle in the late summer sun, the green of the oxidized copper dormers, the red brick chimney, the blue sky beyond. For inside the hospital, all is square and all colors are muted. Mauve and mint, beige and gray. All those pastels lull me.

I smooth out our children’s paintings that the nurse brought over from Harry’s former room. Our five-year-old’s poster-size picture features a landscape in thick brushstrokes: a sun rimmed in red with orange rays, purple dots flying through the air, a tree with an orange trunk. Our middle son is not into drawing pictures, but he relinquished his favorite teddy bear to keep Daddy company. Our daughter, the fourth-grader, sends one picture a day: a heart with “I miss you, Daddy,” a rainbow with “I love you, Daddy,” and a pattern of interlaced curvy forms, colored red, purple, green, and yellow with the superscript “Get well, Daddy.” I arrange them on the bulletin board facing the bed.

It is an ordered society here, in the inpatient part of the hospital. Wide cotton gowns, their pattern of small gray diamonds filled with beige circles pale from many washings, signify the patients. White coats with names stitched in cursive blue letters on the left breast pocket are for doctors and registered nurses. Wildly patterned lavender and mint pantsuits are for regular nurses, navy pant suits for transportation or environmental services personnel. Anyone in regular casual clothes, like me, is a “family member.” Anyone in business clothes is part of hospital administration and rarely seen on the upper floors.

***

Stomach pains had plagued Harry for a week. When they worsened and he ran a fever, he had gone to Urgent Care. Intestinal inflammation, said the doctor. Take some antibiotics. For good measure, they had done a CT scan. The next day, the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, a call from our doctor: “The attending radiologist reviewed your CT scan. There is a foreign object in your stomach. It looks something like a needle. You must come to the Emergency Room at once.”

We had been sitting outside on the porch, reminiscing with Harry’s mom about the trip to Hawaii we all had returned from a week earlier. Her bags were packed; she was scheduled to fly home that afternoon. A foreign object in Harry’s stomach was hard to fathom, especially since he had no recollection of choking or biting on anything hard, but I could almost see our doctor’s serious look through the phone. She was not kidding. 

Harry’s mom sprang into mother mode: “I will stay, no problem. I’ll take care of the kids. You go with Harry.” We canceled her flight, outfitted her with one of our cell phones, and vanished into the hospital world.

***

Something was in Harry’s stomach that was visible on only one frame of a CT scan. One frame out of a hundred. The ER attending physician clicked through frame after frame to show us the one. It looked like a needle.

We were told this thing had to be extracted because it seemed to have perforated the stomach wall and was poking into the pancreas. Two blood tests showed that not only was Harry’s white blood cell count up (signaling an infection), but his amylase and lipase, the enzymes produced by the pancreas, were elevated at 204 and 423. I learned that the normal range for amalyse is 28-100; for lipase 11-65. The pancreas, so I now understand, is a delicate organ that produces insulin and other enzymes needed for digestion. Harry didn’t have pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) yet, but that was a danger.

Our doctor came to the ER that evening, in her workout clothes, to check on us. The surgery night team was ready to admit, if not to operate.

“Is this really necessary?” Harry asked our doctor. 

“You’d be taking your life in your hands if you left,” was her reply.

***

Two months from now, I will attend a writer’s conference where a panelist will relate the story of Martha Frick, daughter of steel tycoon Henry Clay Frick. As a writer-in-residence of the Frick Foundation, the panelist had noticed the prevalence of children’s images in the artwork displayed in Frick’s mansion, and had become interested in the soft side of this man who had run the Carnegie Steel Company. 

I will listen to this panelist’s account, an old fear spreading in my stomach. I will jot “Martha Frick” in my notebook, but I won’t be able to forget her story. I will research her, and I will find the following account:

  • In the winter of 1889, the nurse who had been changing Martha noticed a small spot on the child’s right side that had split open and was oozing pus. Startled, the nurse wiped the pus away and was horrified to find a black pin exiting the wound. In thinking back over the onset of Martha’s illness two years before, and her constant suffering since that time, all realized that Martha must have somehow swallowed the pin in Paris during the summer of 1887--and that for almost two years, as the pressure of the abscess grew, the pin had been pushing through her body.
  • […] Limited to the science of his day, Dr. McClelland made a half-inch incision, cleaned the wound, and considered the operation a success. But Martha cried day and night after the operation. The doctors could not tell what the trouble was, for the pin was out and the incision had healed over. Unknown to them, however, a peritoneal abscess had formed in the trail left by the pin, and infection was filling Martha’s abdominal cavity. Unwittingly, the doctors exacerbated the situation because their knowledge of bacteriology was so limited and the practice of aseptic surgery unknown. Instruments were not sterilized; nor had the surgeons scrubbed or worn sterile protective clothing.

Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait

 by Martha Frick Symington Sanger

Martha died two years later, at age six, after her wound had reopened and pus poured out again. 

A needle is such a small object, such a small detail. One person not minding a detail, like a pin lying about, can cause another’s misery, severe illness, even death. The if’s pile up in my mind: If Harry hadn’t gone to the doctor on time, if they hadn’t done the CT scan, if the radiologist hadn’t paid attention to that one frame, if we didn’t live in the time of CT scans. The if’s--fate’s icy breath--are in the small things.

***

It is not like the doctors know it all nowadays. We follow them on an exploration, and they are simply one step ahead of us, interpreting the facts as they present themselves. Harry and I have to rely on their expert knowledge to make decisions about his body. Expert knowledge of people we have just met. How do we know that the facts could not be interpreted some other way?

That is where community comes in. Community works in circles, not up and down like the hospital hierarchy. From the ER, I call a friend who has other people’s phone numbers. People who attend religious services with us, people we chat with at congregational events, people who are doctors at this hospital. 

“Do you know Dr. F?” I ask one of these people. “Is Dr. F a good surgeon? He’s Harry’s attending.” I have picked up hospital speak: you don’t say “attending doctor,” you say “attending.” The attending is the master of your fate. It turns out that our acquaintance knows Dr. F’s boss, a pancreatic specialist. 

The next morning, a Sunday, the doctor we know is on call and stops by Harry’s room and talks. He likes to talk. I figure the more expert talking from someone you know, the better. Calms the nerves. Yes, Dr. F’s boss is reliable, and he will call him, will tell him that a friend of his is under Dr. F’s care and ask him to keep an eye out. There should be nothing to worry about, we are told. Dr. F gets the highest marks in the medical literature and seems to be a fine doctor.

Later that morning, Dr. F, the attending, makes his Sunday rounds in civilian clothes, no white coat, with his two sons in tow. The boys must be four and five, and they do not make a peep, but sway around their daddy’s legs. Dr. F makes a good impression on us. I could picture him behind a deli counter, asking in his raspy Italian accent whether we want the sirloin or the shoulder cut. He has that competency in his craft about him. Even if the craft is unpleasant, it’s necessary. He takes the time to answer our questions, to explain his approach: “We’re not going in right away, we’re taking the conservative approach, do an endoscopy first as we don’t know what’s in there. Maybe we can see it from the inside of the stomach, chances are not high that we will, but it is worth a try.”

Problem is, this is Labor Day weekend and no specialists are in the hospital to perform this procedure, and this is not a life-threatening emergency that warrants disturbing someone’s holiday weekend. Dr. F does not say that, but we know. He says if he can find Dr. D, if Dr. D is on call, then maybe they can do it over the weekend. Dr. D is whom he calls to fish razor blades out of peoples’ stomachs. Harry and I must look puzzled.

“Yes,” he says, “there are people who swallow razor blades. Voluntarily.” 

Does Harry have to stay on IV? No food, no drink until Tuesday? Why can’t he go home and come in for blood tests once a day? 

“Too risky, that would not be advisable,” says Dr. F. “We don’t know for sure if the stomach is perforated, or how badly it is perforated. It could be leaking. The pancreas could flip out at any time. It’s too risky.”

***

So we stay in the hospital over Labor Day weekend. Harry with the hospital gown over his pants, pushing his IV pole along. Gone is the man who prefers polo shirts to T-shirts. Gone is the man who likes to wonder about his next meal, his jolly belly is now hidden under a pastel-colored gown. 

We hang out where the smokers gather in the concrete-tiled courtyard off the hospital’s main entrance. Cigarette butts litter the gravel around a few scruffy bushes. I sit on one of the benches lined up along the wall; the grid of its seating surface imprints a pattern of squares on my palm as I press my hand into it. 

Harry prefers to stand. He sneaks a few cigarettes. The only pleasure allowed. An elderly lady in a wheel chair holds up a light for him. As he bends down and his dark head hovers over her hand, she asks: “Were you in the ER Saturday night?” 

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“You’re the man from the ER! I remember you! I don’t forget nobody who was good to me. You gave up the restroom because I was havin’ a bladder accident.” 

She surveys all of us smokers and smoker-companions and nods toward Harry: “And that man was already in the bathroom. And he came out for me.” 

She zeroes in on me: “He your husband?” 

I nod. 

“You got yourself a good man. A good man.”

I feel myself swell, just a little bit, with pride.

***

On Tuesday, they call us for the endoscopy at noon. We trek through the tunnel from the inpatient to the outpatient building where the procedure is to be performed. Harry’s bed is rolled into a cubicle, and I am assigned the guest chair that is squeezed next to it. The cubicle has about two feet of space on either side of the bed, and a wall of cabinets with a sink behind it. Artificial light, no window in sight. I have my tote bag with a lunch packed, so creature comforts for the “family member” are taken care of. Harry does not need creature comforts. Just his IV pole and the occasional trip to the toilet. 

We leave the curtain open and look out at eight cubicles on either side of this white linoleum corridor. Eight cubicles where patients wait for their procedures, mainly colonoscopies. We are lined up like caged hens, waiting to produce an egg. 

We watch patients being rolled in and out of cubicle number five opposite us. One patient with tightly cropped gray hair makes sure his nurse knows he is a gynecologist. Desperate to show that he is not an ordinary patient, that he is, under other circumstances, part of the white coat caste, he engages the doctor who is going to do his colonoscopy in a chat about rising insurance rates. When he is wheeled out, I only see his proper short hair and his socks, beige and dressy. After him, a girl is in the cubicle, tucked tight into her bed. She is crying, whimpering. Hearing her weep softens my reserve. I turn away and ask Harry if the blanket keeps him warm enough. It is the only time during all of this that I feel tears well up.

Other people come in and out of cubicle five, but after a while they blend together. Waiting changes your sense of time, makes things blend together. At any other appointment, in ordinary life, we would have flung down our magazines and left in a rage after an hour. But here we arrived knowing Harry was an “add-on” to the schedule, happy that this specialist would tend to him. And so the clock ticks on and we sit and stretch and talk and call Harry’s mom to see how she is getting on with the kids. We do not fidget, we do not sigh. We just sit in our cube like dutiful hens. Once in a while I glance at my watch, report the time to Harry. One thirty, almost two, three o’clock. Harry keeps saying this is an academic exercise. After all, this is a teaching hospital. They know they won’t be able to extract the thing. And I keep saying there is always the off chance, trying to keep his spirits up.

In the end, the anesthesiologist appears at 3:30, and later Dr. D, the one who fishes razor blades from stomachs. 

***

I emerge from the double doors behind which I left Harry to Dr. D. If he is unable to extract the foreign object from Harry’s stomach, Harry faces surgery the next day.

I figure I’m in for at least two hours of waiting since Harry is under general anesthesia. Time for a cup of coffee. Since I’m in the outpatient building, the Au Bon Pain cafeteria in the inpatient building with its lattes and croissants is far away. I make my way to the food court four floors down, but find only brown- and orange-rimmed glass coffee machine pots, their contents thickened to a syrupy brown. I need some good coffee. I wander farther, out into the sunshine and over to the university bookstore café where Starbucks is brewed. It is warm outside and blindingly bright. I breathe in the fresh air. When you spend your days in cubicles behind pastel-patterned curtains, walking two blocks along a city street lined by young, promising trees is more than a luxury. It is freedom.

At the coffee shop, I marvel at life going on in its mundane way. People are chatting, buying books, ordering sandwiches, while just a block away, under fluorescent lights, a doctor is poking around inside my husband.  

It is 4:30 by the time I return to 6A – Gastroenterology, and the lights are off, the lobby empty, the secretary’s desk abandoned. A puddle of fear pools in my stomach. I drag one of the chairs over to a skylight; sit down, cross my feet. I study my toes sticking out of my sandals. I’m in bad need of a pedicure. But there’s been no time for that. There’s just time for waiting, for being on call. I pull a magazine from my bag. 

A voice pipes up in the emptiness: “Are patients waiting in the dark now?” I look up to see a small man in the twilight waiting area, wielding a stainless steel coffee cup. 

I smile. “No kidding,” I answer. “I looked for a light switch but couldn’t find one. So I pulled the chair over here, closer to the skylight.” 

He surveys the scene, including my disarrangement of the seats. “The light’s probably centrally controlled,” he says and plops down two seats from me. 

“I don’t know about you,” he continues, tugging his long thin ponytail, “but I intend to be out of here in twenty minutes.” 

Twenty minutes? The last four days have pounded any expectation out of me to have anything done in less than an hour. Now and then the double doors slam and someone in civilian clothes emerges from Gastroenterology, obviously on the way home. Every time, I expect they are coming for me. I have to be there when they summon me, so I tell my waiting compatriot when I have to go to the restroom. I leave my tote bag stuffed with Harry’s slippers and my magazines propped on my seat, evidence of my presence.

After the restroom break, I settle back into sipping my mocha and leafing through Parenting

***

Half an hour later they come for the man with the ponytail. He was right; he didn’t wait much more than twenty minutes. I do not wait that long either, one and a half hours maybe, including my jaunt for coffee, to be called back into the gastroenterology cubicle where Harry lies under several cotton blankets. His bed is elevated so its railing reaches my chest. His forehead glistens; his voice is thick as he says: “Hi.”

We know it did not work when, within what seems like no time at all, Harry’s surgeon Dr. F appears with another doctor in tow. He introduces Dr. H, a specialist in laparoscopic surgery. 

Surgery will be tomorrow morning. Show up at 7:30, they advise me. They will try to do it laparoscopically, meaning remote control surgery, meaning a few small incisions and a shorter recovery, hence Dr. H with his interested and benevolent smile. If that does not work, they will have to open Harry up completely. They’ve never seen anything like this. People ingest stuff they shouldn’t often enough, but it usually passes through the system, and if it doesn’t, it would cause trouble in the narrower passage of the stomach. Not up where the stomach is wide and next to the pancreas.

Harry makes Dr. F hold his hand, makes him promise he will perform the surgery himself, not a resident or fellow with only a few years of experience. They clasp hands while Dr. F walks us through the likely procedure, through the if’s and the risks. I look on, knowing that I should feel more anxious than I am. After all, Harry is the rock of my life. But my natural stoicism has taken over, has been augmented even by all the waiting and the if’s and the but’s and the lulling atmosphere of the hospital. 

If anything, I feel slightly embarrassed by the drama. Later we will find that soliciting the promise was not necessary. Dr. H’s surgery report will state that “it was necessary for two attendings to adequately and safely perform this operation.” 

***

“Sure puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?” a friend writes in an e-mail. I wonder. I have found that existential events have me obsessed with details. Maybe I focus on the little things because the big things are out of my control. 

Twenty years ago, when my dad died suddenly, I asked a friend to go to the city’s fanciest glove boutique and buy me a pair of lacy black half gloves that leave your fingers exposed. I had to have those to attend the memorial service. They had the right unusual glamour for an unusual occasion. They evoked the requisite pathos for me who, up until then, had only seen funerals in movies.

When our children were born, the first thing I’d do as the contractions came on hot and heavy, was jump in the shower and shave my legs, while Harry stood in the bathroom doorway, holding a towel and urging me to hurry for the hospital and the midwife. But no, the legs had to be shaved, and lotion applied, even if I had to sit on the bathtub rim while contractions doubled me over. I had to be prepared; the legs had to look nice. They would be exposed, after all. But most of the time you don’t know when you’ll be exposed. There aren’t always contractions to warn you of your impending vulnerability.

Now, after we’ve made the trek back from the outpatient building to Harry’s hospital room, I wait by Harry’s bedside and obsess about my toenails. I really need to tend to them. What if I were in the hospital bed, not Harry? I would be stuck with toenails that are too long, polish outgrown. I’m not prepared, not in the best shape possible at all times. And I should know that fate can strike and any time, and that one needs to be prepared.

At midnight, after returning from the hospital, after the late night talk with Harry’s mom and packing tomorrow’s bag with Harry’s special requests, I’m rubbing off nail polish. Harry hates it if my toenails aren’t painted red. I figure if I go in tomorrow without it, wearing sandals because it is still warm outside, I will be able to tell how much he is himself by whether or not he notices. 

***

The next morning, I am composed while I trot alongside Harry’s bed as they wheel him to the operating room. I smile when he jokes with the pre-op nurse, while he talks with the anesthesiologist. A final hug and squeeze of Harry’s hand, and then the doors close.

I have never felt so alone. For a few hours now, Harry’s consciousness is extinguished. The world already feels vast and empty. My anchor is gone. And if, just if, he were not to come back, then it would remain that way. I’d have to stay in the world because of the kids. I would be their anchor, but for me, there’d be unending nothingness without him. I would be utterly alone, like I am now. Everything would rest on me. No one to discuss everything with, no one who’d know where I was every given hour of the day, what I was aspiring to, or worried about. No one to care about my toenails. I’d just be going through the motions of being alive. 

Numbness settles over me. I walk back along the corridors; follow the red line someone taped to the ceiling to guide family members toward the Surgery Family Waiting Lounge. I learn that I have to check in and out and that I can’t eat and drink in the lounge. But I need my creature comforts. So I check in and I check out. I study the hospital floor plan to make sure I can trace my way back and head for the lobby where the Au Bon Pain cafeteria offers coffee, cinnamon rolls, chocolate croissants, mozzarella and pesto sandwiches, pumpkin soup. I get a latte, a croissant, and a corner table. I can be okay sipping my coffee, scrolling through the e-mails on my BlackBerry. I find a message from my sister. All the best, she writes, we are sending good thoughts your way. I could call her, but if I heard her voice, I would break into tears. I must, however, call Harry’s mom. If I don’t, she’ll show up and then I’ll have to deal with her nerves. I call her: “He’s gone in. I’ll call you when I hear next.”

I start to keep track of time and then I don’t. What does it matter? Do I know if waiting two hours versus four means there are complications? It probably does but I don’t want to think about that. Better to wait until I get the facts. I finish the croissant, the latte. I check back into the lounge. There are stains on the speckled carpet, rips in the maroon vinyl cover of some seats. Why can’t they create a pleasant surrounding for those who are waiting? I don’t want to be here. Everybody here is waiting for a verdict. 

A couple sits by the window, the woman’s head on her husband’s lap. Must be parents, must be a child in surgery. I head toward the bathroom, and am about to push open the door when the receptionist chirps: “Mrs. Gendler, call for you.” 

“Can I just go to the bathroom?” Let me just get this over with, I think, let me feel ready for whatever I need to face.

“There’s a call for you,” she says sternly. You have to face this now

I let go of the bathroom door.

It’s the post-op nurse: “Dr. F wanted you to know he’s out. It went well. They will come down shortly to talk to you.”

My heart starts pounding. I go to the bathroom. Then I settle back into my seat and flip through a magazine. I want to look composed when they show up. When Dr. F and Dr. H do saunter in, I fumble with my tote bag, trying to shove in my magazine. I stumble over the bag while they are waving me toward the private consultation room. Dr. H holds the door open for me.

Why do I tremble now? I know Harry is okay, and I must remember to ask the right questions. Harry is lying flat on his back in a room somewhere, eyes closed, monitors flashing. I have to be in charge. 

“It was a small thin metallic black wire. About one and a half inches long. Anyone could have swallowed it. Concealed in a piece of food, you wouldn’t notice chewing on it,” Dr. F says.

Thankfully, they were able to do the small operation. Five incisions. If all goes well, he should be out in three days. The pancreas is okay. There was an abscess between the stomach and the pancreas but they scraped it out.

They put blue dye into the stomach to see if it leaked but it didn’t. Nevertheless, no food, no drink until Friday when he will have to take some contrast liquid and they’ll do an X-ray scan to confirm the stomach is not perforated. After that the nose tube will come out and he’ll be able to eat regular food.

I ask: “When can I see him? Where should I wait?”

“Best to wait in his room. It will be another two hours or so before he comes out of recovery.”

I wander back to his room; pick up lunch at Au Bon Pain on the way. I think about how somewhere, somehow, someone dropped a wire into tomatoes being canned, or a batch of sausage meat, or mixed it into a tossed salad, not on purpose, of course, but just hadn’t noticed when a clipping or a shaving fell in. Just like someone, somewhere, left that pin lying about that little Martha Frick picked up and swallowed. But I don’t think of that incident yet because I don’t know of it yet; the Martha Frick story will be for a later haunting, a reminder of the havoc a small carelessness can create.

I sit by the window in Harry’s hospital room. I study the copper green gables outside and I surrender, once again, to the waiting.

***

Four hours after surgery, Harry wants to get up. The nurse unplugs the suction tube that elongates his nose like an elephant’s trunk, hangs the catheter’s urine sack on the IV pole, pins the drainage bag from the tube emerging from the right side of his stomach to his gown, puts the IV machine on battery. Off he goes. 

“Wait,” I say, I stumbling after him, “let me tie the back of your gown.”

“I don’t care if people see my behind,” he says while I fumble with the strings on his back.

“Well, you can’t go about flashing old ladies,” I say.

We make our way down the hallway with its Monet prints. Each patient’s heartbeats are zigzagging across the monitors installed outside the rooms.

We reach the end of the corridor where a large window looks out on the upper deck of the parking garage. In another 30 minutes he’ll stand here again and wave to me as I back out the minivan. But for now, we wait to watch the ball of the sun turn crimson before it dips beyond the horizon.

As we wait, he clings to his IV pole, and for a second looks down, and jerks his head in a double-take. He looks at me accusingly.

“Your feet,” he says, “look terrible.”

 

 

Annette Gendler’s essays and memoirs have appeared in many literary journals, most recently Natural Bridge. She’s currently finishing a memoir about an impossible love that succeeded (hers and her husband’s) even though it was the previous generation’s ultimate nightmare: the forbidden love between a German and a Jew. She holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, teaches memoir at StoryStudioChicago, English composition at Kaplan University, and does communications work for her children’s school. She lives in Chicago with her husband and three children.

 

Q&A

Q: How is Harry today? Any further complications?

A: Harry is fine except for a painful pancreatitis attack when we were traveling in Israel a year and a half after the surgery. The doctors in Tel Aviv didn’t believe the wire story until our doctor faxed over the documentation.

 

Q: What surprised you most while writing this piece?

A: Readers always want more emotion from the narrator. I’m by nature rather stoic, and even more so in a crisis situation, so I found it hard to capture the narrator’s emotions.

 

Q: You teach creative nonfiction writing--what models do you like to share with your students?

A: In my introductory Memoir Workshop we usually read excerpts from Russell Banks, Mary Karr, Frank McCourt, Lauren Slater, Jill Ker Conway, and Vivian Gornick. It’s always amazing to see how differently students respond to texts I’ve read many, many times. There’s something new to discover each time.

 

Q: Tell us a little about your writing process. After all, you’re a wife, a busy mother of three, and a teacher. How do you make time to write?

A: I get up at five in the morning and write before the craziness of the day breaks loose. I have a former teacher to thank for that, see my recent blog entry. Since I don’t work in the corporate world anymore and my teaching has settled into a routine, I’ve lately also been able to dedicate half a day on Mondays and Tuesdays to write, and I’ve been blessed with two residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. All that made it possible for me to finish the book manuscript. You really have to live with a book and that’s almost impossible to do in tidbits of time.


Erin McReynolds.jpg

We Hit People

by Erin McReynolds

followed by Q&A

My mother and I hit people. We don’t like it, but we seem to find ourselves in situations where hitting is necessary, or at least totally understandable. The style of the hit varies, depending on the occasion. For the man who grabbed my ass in a hotel bar, a slap was required, but the kind of slap that you have to wind up and pitch: bold, but comedic, like Barbara Stanwyck in The Mad Miss Manton. I could tell he was some drunk Midwestern middle-management type, an eternal man-boy with a thick neck and denim shirt tucked into his khakis. I figured he was suffering enough. In a darkened parking lot, if we were alone, I would have hit him differently, but in this rather well-lit space that was filled with my graduate school professors and colleagues, a slap would do. Then I delivered an equally cinematic lecture about women not being objects, which he grinned all the way through, and when I finished and turned to leave, he grabbed me again. 

So I punched him in the solar plexus. 

Mom, on the other hand, she favors the shove. Her hits are sloppy and uncertain. Her hand neither fully opens nor closes into a fist, as if her body is totally committed to doing harm right up until the moment she must follow through. And then, perhaps frustrated by her ineffectual hitting, she flails and screams. It’s the verbal abuse where she really hits her stride. When I was thirteen, she was arrested for driving under the influence. The next day on the phone, she told a friend that she’d screamed at the cop, “You have any idea what my life is like? You should be lucky I’m only drinking, pal.” When she quit her job in campus security at the community college, she called her boss an “immoral asshole” and a “piece of crap.” Another time, a bouncer called the cops on her, and as she was stuffed into the back of the police car, she screamed, “I’m warning you! I’m a witch and you fuckers will pay!” 

She never really got physical with my brother or me, except to yank us off of each other as we scratched, bit, and kicked like a couple of possessed hyenas. We were really committed, too: we threw books, a stapler, rollerskates—nothing was off-limits when we got into these rages. Nintendo controllers, we discovered, could be used effectively as flails against each other (or the TV, whenever it incurred our wrath). I still can remember the sensation of grabbing a fistful of his hair, and when I do remember, I quickly shut it off, reminding myself that this could not be helped. That it was another time, another place. Different rules applied; or, because we were left together alone and unsupervised every day, no rules. We had to make them up as we went, each claw and jab an exploration of the limits of our violence. One summer, when I was eleven and he was just nine, we had The Scissor Moment. I remember grabbing them, and then a hesitation that seized my body, wrapping it like invisible but ever durable cellophane. He stopped as well, an expression on his little face than I can only take for feral terror. Frustrated, I threw them down, and he picked them up, taking his turn to brandish them at me. His miniature features, wrinkled in absolute black-eyed hatred, stuttered, and froze. Reader, if I have absolute faith in my brother’s or my goodness, it is because I remember exactly the moment that we walked together, unsupervised and uninstructed, right up to the line and found it impassable. 

Of course, it didn’t stop us from beating the shit out of each other.

When we were a bit older and living with Mom’s boyfriend, Scott, we watched her throw a knife at him, or at least in his general direction. It went through a window, landing safely in the turtle pond that he was forever working on. He was the project-oriented kind of speed freak that would stay out there until the wee hours of morning, cutting rocks with a diamond-blade saw and grinding his teeth, but that window stayed shattered until we eventually left, its duct-tape patch like an enduring German Expressionist statement about passion. I thought about this jagged display when, at eighteen, I backhanded my live-in boyfriend. To be fair, he was being a real pain in the ass, and I was stoned. The people who say marijuana doesn’t make you violent? They would change their tune if they knew this guy. He would sit around thinking of irritating things to say, a professional button-pusher. The Dalai Lama, Himself, would have kicked my boyfriend’s ass. Anyway, I paid the price for losing my cool: he threw his elbow up defensively, and the little bone that runs up the side of my hand snapped like a pole bean. The doctor declared it a clean break and wrapped it. No cast, no Tylenol with Codeine for the pain. Just a long dull ache and a little pop to my pinky knuckle whenever I make a fist. 

Over the years, I watched my mother slow down somewhat with age or drinking, or both. She took up with a guy named JR, an older and heavier version of Scott, also an alcoholic and also with an appetite for amphetamines. He moved into her condo, and I saw less and less of them. And then one day, I was in a courtroom in California, listening to her coworkers testify self-righteously about the “immoral asshole” bit. I heard the bouncer, with his ridiculous silver ponytail and Hawaiian shirt, recount the slings and arrows of my outrageous witch mother. I learned from her neighbors about the fights that they’d witnessed between my mother and JR: the bruises, the yelling, the chases after one another into the apartments of others. And finally, I heard her boyfriend, JR, looking gaunt and tired from his three years in prison, say, “I never meant for anything like that to happen,” hardly able to recall the moment when the knife left her hand and found its way into his, having long ago blocked the sensation of it driving into her neck again and again and again. They gave him murder in the second, which means he didn’t plan to kill her; he just couldn’t help himself. After all, she’d hit him in the head with a cutting board. 

I came home from my mother’s murder trial and threw my keys at my fiancé. Not immediately—we’d been at a concert and the guy in front of me wouldn’t shut up. I kept glaring at him and muttering under my breath, which made my fiancé really nervous. “You’re from New York,” I reminded him, “when did you get so timid?” 

“When I moved to Texas,” he said. “In New York, everyone’s annoyed with each other; in Texas, everyone has guns.”

It was a good point, but still, I felt like he was judging me. Then he dares to suggest I might have anger issues, and began listing off examples to support his case against me, so I threw my keys at him. But really hard. I didn’t hurt him or anything, but I may as well have, for how I was running away down the street all of a sudden, like someone who’d just killed the man she loved. Halfway down the block, I turned around to see why he hadn’t caught up to me yet and realized he wasn’t standing in front of the club anymore. That he’d walked away from me, too, in the opposite direction. Breathless and panicked, I ran, as fast as I’d run away, I ran to him, and when I caught up to him I cried, “Don’t you ever let me walk away! Don’t you ever.” What I meant was, don’t leave me on this path. I don’t want it, don’t you know that? He held me tight, and I curled my fist on his shoulder. Pop, went my little finger.

I didn’t sleep much that night, and when I did, I dreamed of knives.

#

Listen, the story about hitting that guy in the bar at grad school doesn’t really matter. What matters is that afterward, I cried in the arms of the nearest woman I could find. “It’s not fair,” I kept repeating. Not fair that we lived in a world where one out of three women would be raped or molested in her lifetime, where women are seen even in our modern, educated, and industrialized society as things to covet, overpower, terrify, and loathe, and that I had to walk at night with a constant awareness of where the lights were, who was around, and with my car keys at a taut ten and two around my middle finger in case I had to jab them into an attacker’s eyes. I honestly didn’t want to be violent, but it was a violent world, and I think I was right to hit him, but hitting him still felt like I was trying to stop the world from spinning the wrong way by hurling myself into a jet engine.

You might think from my mother’s general bad-assedness that she’d have been proud of me, but I’m not so sure. When I was 21, she and I drove a midsized rental truck up to South L.A. to help my grandparents empty out my great-grandma’s house. She’d recently passed away, and my grandmother hadn’t wanted to face alone the considerable task of emptying her mother’s house of its fifty years’ worth of Depression-era hoarding. Since a Realtor was showing it the next morning, it was now or never. 

We started before sunset, but by ten o’clock, absolutely none of the dozen or so boxes my mother and I had brought had been filled, or even removed from the truck. My grandfather stood in the kitchen, ice tinkling in the vodka he constantly had in hand, while my grandmother held up ribbons, broken knobs, old newspapers, and scrutinized each against the light as if trying to recall its use. Sensing things were only going to degrade as the older folks got more tired, I clapped my hands together and barked what I thought were helpful orders. Let’s make three boxes for keeping, thinking about, and giving away, and just boom boom boom! My grandmother swatted the air around her and sputtered in frustration. Come on, I said, we can’t be here all night, I mean, can we? There’s so much still to do! Then the shouting started. My grandmother shouted at me to stop being insensitive; I shouted back that I would take Insensitive over Still Packing At 3 A.M.

Fuming, I left on a five-minute protest march around the block. When I returned, all three of them were standing in the front yard, shouting at each other. My mother had her purse and mine: either we’d been fired or she’d quit for both of us. Grandma stomped toward me, calling me names and moving as if she were going to strangle me. That’s when Mom jumped between us and said, Don’t you fucking touch her! I could tell from the tone in her voice this had nothing to do with me anymore. 

Grandpa charged Mom, like he’d been waiting to for years, and that’s when I round-housed the old man, finishing it with a left cross just like I learned in cardio kickboxing.

My grandfather stood about 5’10 or 5’11—not a tall man, but a solidly built one. He had the skinny limbs of an aged drinker, but he had the torso of an elk. He was in the Navy long ago. As I smelled the lime and stale smoke that he blew out when my punch connected, I thought, Fuck me, I just hit Grandpa. He’s going to kill me. I scuttled to the driver’s side of the truck and yelled for my mother to get in. She stood on the step of the cab, holding on to the passenger door and screaming at them, You never loved me, as if for the first time.

We drove in silence, rattled, breathing heavily and maybe even crying. But as soon as we got to the freeway on-ramp, we began to laugh. It started with a bit of a low giggle, and then we were just looking at each other with our mouths wide open, coughing with laughter. Absolute weeping hysterical laughter. I hit him, did you see that? I really hit him! My mother put a cigarette in her mouth and scolded me with her lighter: I thought I taught you to respect your elders. I drove down the freeway, leaving the orange lights of L.A. behind us, and gloating. I can’t believe he was going to go after you, that bastard. It’s about time someone stood up to him. But I stopped when I noticed she was looking at me in this way that was neither proud nor amused. I didn’t understand it at the time, the look on her face, but I would come to know it later as grief.

 

 

Erin McReynolds has an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. Excerpts from her in-progress memoir have also appeared in The North American Review and r.kv.r.y. She writes and edits for the Fearless Critic restaurant guides, and lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and dog. She has not hit anyone in about four years.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of getting this material on the page?

A: I’m a pleaser, so I’ve never been comfortable eliciting pity. But my family is tragic, so there’s no escaping it. I have to find the comedy in that; Chekhov’s my beau ideal for illustrating the comedy of watching people fail at being happy. Striking a balance between the horror and the beauty and the wackiness of our family challenges me throughout this entire book as I write it. 

 

Q: Besides being a writer, you’re also a food critic. What one dish, or food, most sums up your writing life? Why?

A: Oof, good question. Pringles. Seriously. My desire to eat them, like my desire to work on this traumatizing memoir after a day of work, is sporadic—but if I eat one chip, I go into a kind of trance, emerging only after I’ve blown through the tube and gotten my greasy fist stuck in the bottom of it. I might write twenty pages in one sitting, and then do nothing but revisions for another two weeks. But I’m always thinking about my writing, and certain associations will start the process all over again. 

 

Q: What advice would you give aspiring writers who want to cross over from fiction to memoir?

A: During the writing process, don’t worry about the James Frey mess or how to market your book: the best memoirs are the ones that blur the line between fiction and non-fiction anyway, because you can bet your experience and how you remember it will be terribly blurred. Use the sense of freedom that fiction gives you to express the essence of what happened—no one’s interested in reading or writing a colorless but totally true recounting of what happened (except judges). Read Tim O’Brien’s writing manifesto/Vietnam War memoir The Things They Carried.

 

Q: As a child, what was your favorite book? Why?

A: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick. I was nine or ten, so the references to farting and butts and such grabbed my attention, but I became obsessed with the voice of the book and read parts of it over and over. Although a lot of it went over my head, that sardonic, dry-sighing “hi ho” seeped in; I often felt alienated and left out because I changed schools frequently, but I was able to keep this sort of bemused-observer perspective that got me through. It still gets me through.


My Memoir

by Michael Milburn

followed by Q&A

Memory, the whole lying opera of it, is killing me now.

Barry Hannah

A little more than a year ago I was informed that I was a character in a soon-to-be-completed, contracted-to-be-published, and based on reliable forecasts, widely read memoir. Not the main character, but judging from the period covered, which included my ten-year marriage to the author, more than a walk-on. The reason for the advance notice was to invite me to inspect the manuscript for—well, for what was not specified. Accuracy? Probably. But the events in question were more than twenty years old, so I wasn’t sure how accuracy could be arbitrated other than by comparing memories. Injury? Possibly, though I couldn’t remember doing or saying anything that merited mistreatment. In fact, I recalled little of what I had said or done at that time. 

Nor was I interested in being reminded. As far as accuracy was concerned, I had no intention of assembling a sheaf of notes quibbling with facts or interpretations. I knew that to object to my portrayal or, worse, my inclusion in the book so close to its publication date would cause the author serious difficulties. Also, it hadn’t escaped me that the invitation to read the manuscript came unaccompanied by any sort of legal waiver, so I concluded that the portrait must not be too harsh. I declined the offer to preview the book, citing my discomfort with reading about myself. As a result, I remain as ignorant of what was written about that time as I am vague about what actually happened.

Some people might welcome the prospect of appearing in a memoir, but I found nothing to celebrate in the news. Leading the list of drawbacks was the intrusion on my privacy, not to mention that readers would encounter a version of me that is neither the present me nor my own memory of myself. I would feel self-conscious wondering who had met this literary imposter and what they thought of him. It also felt strange being drafted into someone else’s writing. As a poet who often writes autobiographically, I have worried about the effect of my disclosures on my family and friends. Now my voluntary self-exposure would be replaced by involuntary exposure, with my life affecting someone else’s art and the reaction to it. The author Rafael Yglesias, whose parents used him as a basis for characters in their novels, said, “It’s odd to be a minor character in someone else’s life since we’re always the major character in our lives…it offends the natural narcissism of every individual.” 

A year after learning of the memoir’s existence, I received word of its imminent publication. Once again I passed on the offer of an advance copy. I didn’t so much choose to do this as the decision seemed to come pre-installed in me. Reading a book in which I was a character was simply out of the question. I didn’t feel any resentment or competitiveness; the whole thing was just unnerving, and involving me further would only make it more unnerving. 

Was I overreacting? Politicians and celebrities get written about all the time and must learn early on to desensitize themselves to publicity. Joan Kennedy claimed to check every book on the Kennedys to see if her children were treated fairly. My instinct was the opposite, whether from neurotic self-consciousness or a healthy sense of privacy. 

To one friend who e-mailed that he had read a review of the book, knew that I must feel ambivalent about it, and wondered if I wanted to talk, I answered that my plan was to keep my head down and let the wave of attention pass over. Afterward, whenever people asked me about it I changed the subject. The only problem was that by discouraging any mention of the book I couldn’t tell who had read it. For the most part, though, my strategy proved effective. Since I wasn’t reading or hearing about the book, I often forgot it was out there. Long periods of ignorance were interrupted by flickers of awareness such as when my sister asked how I was handling all the hype. I admit her question made me slightly paranoid (all what hype?), but I’m still glad I wasn’t out trying to navigate whatever she meant by that.

A few things people said gave me an idea of what was in the book, or at least in the part that involved me. I asked myself how I would have written about those experiences. As I said, I remember little of that time, its ample drama notwithstanding: the broad plot, a few events and actions, hardly any detail, definitely no quotes. I remember periods of unhappiness, and in terms of specifics that might color a literary portrait, I have a vivid memory of a hand trying to open a locked door—that image, packed with emotion, has stayed with me through the years. Actually, the door was in a hospital, a detail that gives the image more memoirish potential, but even now my first impulse was to omit it here because it seemed like a step outside the privacy zone that I’m eager to protect. There are two other adjectives I could add, but they carry the image so far out of that zone, and beyond my purpose here, that I’ll keep them to myself. For all I know, this is all fleshed out in the book anyway.

It may seem curious that in a personal essay about how I coped with my inclusion in a memoir I would ration the information revealed in one detail: a locked door. Maybe it’s because details are what trigger writing for me; I’ll be walking around and a remembered image will suddenly explode into the subject or even the whole plan for a poem and I’ll rush to write it down. I suspect that memoirists aren’t prompted to write by details so much as by periods of time, such as their adolescence or the span of a relationship, journey, addiction, or illness. Which would mean that the spark for the memoir I appear in had less to do with me or an image than with the period the author wanted to write about, in which I played a part. 

Neither that period nor the locked door has ever ignited any creative tinder in me, though the door has all the characteristics of images that I have turned into poems. Maybe I have steered clear because the subject is too grim or too closely involves other people. This is not to say that the memoirist should feel the same way; those experiences are common ingredients of our two very different and subsequently very separate lives. In this sense I accept my role as a supporting character, while cringing at the idea of my words and actions being rendered by another writer. Memoirists don’t just recreate their own pasts, but those of people whose lives have overlapped with theirs. My unease with my portrayal is compounded by the fact that the period is so indistinct to me.

A character in Tobias Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life found himself in a similar situation after that book’s publication. In an interview Wolff recalls:

  • I had a call from a guy that I had lived with for a while when I was in high school….I’d lived with his family for about three months and I had written about my time there with him. And it was pretty gritty stuff. And he called me up from Fairbanks, Alaska, where he was a stock broker, and said he’d heard I’d written a book, and I said, “Yeah,” and he said “I heard I’m in it,” and I said “Yeah,” and he said, “I’d like to see it,” so I Fed Ex’d him a copy and waited with some dread for his reaction. And his reaction was of all the reactions I’ve had the strangest. He said, “Is this really what happened?”  And I said, “Well, as near as I can remember,” waiting for him to say, “that’s not my memory of it.”  He started trying to get me to take him through it. He had been—he was now in AA—he had been just a stone alcoholic from the time he was fourteen, and when I knew him he was deeply alcoholic. He started drinking right after school let out and was drunk every night, drunk every week-end. And he had no memory of those years at all. It was a blank to him, an absolute blank. 

Soon after the scenes from my own past appeared in print, I received an e-mail from a stranger saying how much she admired me in the book, citing in particular my eloquence. “All the best quotes are yours.”  My first reaction was that there was someone out there pretending to be me. I tried to remember anything I had said during the period covered in the book, eloquent or otherwise, and was unable to reconstruct even the gist of my words. The best I could do was to imagine what I generally might have said based on my vague recollection of what was happening.

In college I read that Jack Kerouac’s friends nicknamed him “The Great Rememberer,” and decided that if I had more astute friends they would say the same thing about me: I have always prided myself on the quality of my memory, especially in my writing. Yet my appearance as a character in someone’s memoir has exposed a significant gap. I can’t explain my amnesia for that period; many of the events affected me profoundly. The fact that I have never written about them suggests that for me and perhaps for other autobiographical writers, memory and inspiration go hand in hand. Memoirists don’t necessarily remember more or better than others; they just select their most indelible experiences to write about. If this is true, I feel more confident in the accuracy of how I am portrayed. Maybe the author really did recall my words verbatim, and I spoke as eloquently as my e-mail admirer claims.

Wolff likens the way his book restored his friend’s past to the movie Blade Runner where the cyborgs are programmed with human memories. I’m not sure I want anyone else’s memory to stand in for mine, accurate or not. As a writer I believe in the sanctity of forgetting, in the way the subconscious chooses which experiences to preserve and which to erode or erase. I also know—and my one fan letter confirms—that my memoir self would be subject to judgment by readers no matter how hard the author strove for objectivity. Having long since formed my own judgment about that period, I am loath to see the case reopened.

“It is infuriating for me to see my private experiences and feelings re-invented for me,” Ted Hughes wrote in a letter to his friend A. Alvarez about the latter’s 1963 memoir, which reported intimate details of Hughes’s marriage to Sylvia Plath. Hughes contends that memoirs, as distinct from biographies or histories, compromise veracity for the sake of literature.

  • You didn’t distinguish between two completely different kinds of writing…between a subjective work that was trying to reach an artistic form using a real event as its basis, and a documentary work that professes to present anything except errors—everything very purely told and impersonal—of some event that did really happen and is still an active part of some lives. 

I, too, am troubled by the liberties a memoirist might take in “trying to reach an artistic form.” My greatest pleasure in reading nonfiction comes from believing that what I am reading happened. Knowing that I am witnessing history, even personal history, gives me a pleasure that vanishes when I suspect the author of “rounding the corners,” as John Berendt, the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, approvingly put it. For this reason, books like Berendt’s and memoirs with abundant dialogue or implausibly precise descriptions put me off. I remember the disillusion I felt at Frank McCourt’s liberal use of dialogue in Angela’s Ashes. Asked how he could remember his childhood conversations, McCourt hedged, saying, “You remember the essence of it.” But in the case of my distant experiences, essence is all I have, and I’m reluctant to see it diluted through someone else’s words. In her essay "Fashioning a Text," on the process of turning experience into autobiography, Annie Dillard writes: "At the end of the verbal description you've lost the dream but gained a verbal description.”

The dispute over the veracity versus the verisimilitude of memoir is, I imagine, as old as the genre itself. In my case, the battle is fought on two fronts: by the writer trying to extract accuracy from memory and by the subject trying to protect his memory (or lack of it) from the author’s words. “I hope each of us owns the facts of his or her own life,” Hughes said as he watched his biography turn into myth in the wake of Plath’s suicide. 

Having forgotten so much from the period covered in my memoir, I wonder if my ownership rights have lapsed. I still have no plans to read the book, but I can’t deny being curious about the story it tells, fashioned as it was with an artistry that my real life lacked.

    

 

Michael Milburn teaches high school English in New Haven, Conn. His book of essays, Odd Man In, was published by MidList Press in 2005, and his third book of poems, Carpe Something will appear in 2012.  

 

Q&A

Q: So, has this experience changed how you approach your autobiographical poetry? If yes, how? If no, explain why not? 

A: I was already pretty sensitive to how people might react to being written about, but this has made me more so. Increasingly, I keep back anything that might make anyone uncomfortable, but that’s easier to do on a poem by poem basis than on a memoir by memoir basis. 

 

Q: How much time has now elapsed between finding out you’re a character in someone’s memoir and the drafting of this essay?

A: About a year from finding out to starting the essay.

 

Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process. 

A: I tend to write first drafts very fast and without re-reading, then put them away for a while. Usually there are one or two more such put-aways during revision. It really helps to get a completely fresh look and some objectivity on the experience as well as the piece.

 

Q: What’s on your summer reading list? 

A: I teach high school English and always promise myself not to read for school, but end up sampling lots of books with an eye toward putting them on my syllabus to replace the ones I’ve gotten sick of teaching.


Sheila Black.jpg

Waiting to be Dangerous: Confessionalism and Disability

by Sheila Black

followed by Q&A

1.

I have XLH, commonly known as Vitamin D Resistant Rickets, because the symptoms mimic those of nutritional rickets—sharply bowed legs and an unusually short stature. “It is usually classed as a form of dwarfism,” stated a description of the illness posted online from the Merck Manual. I was over forty the first time I read this, and I was shocked. “Dwarf” was a word I had never used in reference to myself. But it made sense when I thought about it. Still, it was hard to say:  “I am a dwarf.”  “My children are dwarves.” “We suffer from a form of dwarfism.”

 

2.

When I think about why I am drawn to confessional poetry—confessional poetry which M.L. Rosenthal first defined as consisting of “sexual guilt, alcoholism, repeated confinement in a mental hospital” among other subjects—I think of my disability(Rosenthal: p. 26).  Rosenthal asserts that in “confessional poetry” such “difficult” subjects are “usually developed in the first person and intended without question to point to the author himself (herself?).” I do not like my automatic association of disability with shame, but there is no question that is there. The first time I read that my illness was “a form of dwarfism,” my cheeks reddened, my palms burned. I felt somehow ashamed of myself. Even though, as my disability is genetic, I bear no responsibility for it whatsoever. 

 

3.

When I was two months old, I caught the red measles. Growing up my mother used to say that this was the cause of my XLH—only she called it “my illness” or, more commonly, “my legs,” as in “the reason your legs happened to you.” She said my fever rose so high “it must have done something to your DNA.”  In fact, this explanation makes no sense. Later, of course, I’d discover that no fever can change the coding of the DNA. My mother insisted this because she said “there is no other record of anything like this in our family.” Only years later, did I realize she kept repeating this story even as I, my father, and everyone else argued with her, because it was a way of saying what had happened was in fact accident, not her fault. Later, when she came to understand that XLH occurs often out of the blue—due to spontaneous and unexplained mutations in the genetic structure—she appeared to accept it, but I could tell she did not find this as soothing an explanation as the red measles, because it still implied some hidden weakness, some secret reason why this fault, this mutation occurred in her child. I could not understand her guilt until as an adult I reviewed my old medical charts. I discovered that for two years, when as a young toddler I began to exhibit radical bowing of the legs, the doctors believed the reason was that my mother was not feeding me properly. They ordered her to keep charts of every meal she fed me. They asked her if she was lying when she reported giving me milk many times a day.  Shame and guilt, the rock-bed of the confessional.

 

4.

In recent years, confessionalism has become a favorite target of a multitude of poetry critics, often employed as a symbol of all that is wrong with poetry. Among the accusations: confessionalism relies too much on the poet’s own experiences; it reflects a reality television aesthetic in which artistic power is predicated on revelation of lurid secret or personal trauma. Yet the silencing of or scorn for such so-called charged material is often itself a kind of corrective repression. Interestingly, as a few perceptive critics such as Cate Marvin have pointed out, dismay at the confessional is often specifically addressed at the more powerless (women, minorities) who seek to marshal its power. Furthermore, the direct association of confessional poetry with “true confession,” is naïve and problematic. In “Female Trouble: Women’s Transgressions in the Confessional Mode,” Marvin writes:

….confessional poets set up their camp smack in the middle of the dangerous border

that separates the poet’s lived experience from the poem he/she has created. However, what

makes the project exciting and dangerous is the poets’ refusal to remain faithful to the truth, as

opposed to offering strictly biographical revelations. Confessional poetry is never earnest;

rather, it is mercilessly manipulative of the reader…(Marvin: p.31).

Put simply, the confessional poem relies for its charge not simply on the presentation of problem material, but rather on the self-conscious presentation of it before a specific audience. In this sense, the confessional poem is much closer to the dramatic tradition of poetry—the dramatic monologue, the staged scene—than it is to a simple narrative of truth. As a result, confessional poetry, far from being dominated by the personal, often becomes a place where the personal and the political intersect in surprising, exciting, and potentially subversive ways. 

 

5.

As a person with a visible disability, I have often felt intruded upon, defined, and even circumscribed by the gaze of others. As a child, I don’t believe I truly conceived of myself as disabled or different (the word for what I was in my day was crippled) until I started school. In my first school, a catholic convent in Rio de Janeiro run by an order of mostly English and Irish nuns, my legs were immediately tagged as a sign of God’s will, God’s mystery, even God’s love.  Yet for all the talk about how God loved everyone and how people like me were somehow special proof of this, I also attracted an uncanny amount of hostility. A boy named Gabriel in my class was beautiful in the most classical sense of the word. He had golden hair, he was tall, and he had a crooked and somehow endearing smile. Everyone appeared to turn to him as sunflowers turn to the sun. And he, from the very first, hated me. The mystery of his hatred grew as vast and immutable as the mystery of how day turns to night. In the playground—a cobbled courtyard surrounded by a thin fringe of grass—he would follow me chanting, “There goes ugly girl.” Once, he and another girl asked me if I believed in fairies. I said I did. He picked up a stone and threw it at my cheek. When it cut me, and I bled, I went to the nuns crying. Gabriel said I was lying, that I had tripped over my own crooked feet. The nuns believed him, and I recanted. Later that year, I would read little picture books about the lives of lions: the natural order of predator and prey. All of this would make some kind of intuitive sense to me, but it was a sense that bordered on despair. There was an order, an order I did not understand, hooked together between Gabriel and me, and God’s mystery, God’s judgment, God’s order, and I was on the wrong side of it. “Don’t stagger like that,” our teacher, Sister Agnes, would say to me with irritation as we lined up for morning prayers. “Of course you can’t help it, I suppose, but it does seem to me you could at least try to put your feet straight and walk like other people.”

 

6.

I think about why I tell this story, a true story more or less, or why I think it might have meaning.  The story for me is obviously how I was a victim, but if the story stops there, it is not a story with much lasting interest or value. Perhaps the story is more interesting as an allegory of power—Gabriel and I as symbols of forces beyond us, positions we have in a sense inherited:  the  ugly “crippled” girl and the beautiful “golden” boy. Yet to tell it as pure allegory leaves out the hot, dense, embarrassing, complex ways in which we as individuals reacted to the situation. Often that year I tried ineffectually to win Gabriel’s and, by extension, my teacher’s approval. I tried by wearing my school uniform longer than was the custom. By forcing straight my crooked feet as often as I could remember. By pretending to like and admire whatever they liked and admired. Gabriel’s cruelty to me—how ironic that he should be named for the archangel—mounted as the year went on. Yet was it entirely personal? I can’t imagine it was. He, too, was performing for an audience, carrying out a role he felt bound to play—or perhaps he was just poking at me as you might poke at a hill of ants, out of child-like curiosity. What will they do? What does it mean that they live, too, in this world, but appear so other?

Late in the year, Gabriel accused me of deliberately kicking in the tall ruby-colored stained-glass window of the school chapel. I knew I was in big trouble when a group of nuns came bearing toward me across the playground, like an Armada of black ships. I panicked and ran out of the school grounds. A group of street people caught me and dragged me back through the school gates. At first, the fact that I had run (barely run, actually, since I was at this time extremely bow-legged) was taken as evidence of my guilt. But when the Mother Superior asked me to recreate the act, I could not lift my leg high enough to reach the window. And it became apparent, because of the precise way my legs were twisted, that I was physically incapable of kicking in the window. Gabriel was in disgrace. Yet the pleasure of victory I might have been expected to feel instead had the ashen taste of the worst kind of defeat. I often thought years and years after that I would like to write a “confession” of how I had kicked in the window, except I hadn’t. I had never even conceived of doing such a thing, until I was accused of it. Yet I could not help feeling that the whole incident echoed or reflected something inside me—I was angry, and I would have kicked that window in had I been able, had I been braver, had I thought of it. I recount this simply to express the ways in which the truth of experience, or its inner meaning, tends to blur or bleed over the more you contemplate it. Hated because I was different, that very hatred transformed me into someone who hated and made me dangerous, left me either with the choice of capitulating, finding a way to fit in, or rebelling outright, refusing to. 

 

7.

As a poet, a storyteller, I am attracted to the unruly and confrontational elements of the confessional, to the ways it complicates personal truth through a presentation that makes the audience continually question whether the speaker is to be trusted. I like how it politicizes the personal and expresses how the political is personal by often staging its confession to most implicate the reader. Cate Marvin again: 

A poem becomes confessional when the speaker shirks responsibility for the implications of his or her subject matter. The confessional poem operates essentially in a trickster mode. It is never faithful to the actual; its narrator is not reliable (Marvin: p.44).

I think hard about why this element of unreliability, the trickster aspect of confessionalism appeals to me. And I think the answer has to do with the positions historically available to the person with a disability, or more pointedly the paucity of those positions. For instance, in the story above, no matter how I try, I cannot see myself as anything other than “crippled.” The most striking thing about me, as far as this particular story is concerned, is the fact that I have crooked legs.

 

8.

I often feel like the worst kind of picky thinker when it comes to my XLH. There is almost no response anyone can make that will please me. I want people to see beyond my XLH, to see me as an individual. At the same time, I can’t imagine myself without XLH.  I used to feel happy when people said they “barely noticed ” or “couldn’t tell.” Now hearing something like that tends to annoy me, except that many of my dearest friends are in the “barely noticed, couldn’t tell” camp, and I believe them. Yet I sense that some other people don’t see much else about me and see my disability as a clear negative (which I don’t). Once, when I was in college and experiencing a brief skinny moment in my otherwise chubby life, a very pretty Italian girl I knew only slightly fell and broke her front tooth. During the three or so days when she was waiting for a cap to be fitted, she stopped me on the street and invited me for coffee. Over cappuccino and hamentashen, with its dark poppy medicine taste, she jawed on and on about beauty. “Breaking my tooth,” she said, “made me understand for the first time what it must be like to be you. To know you could never be attractive to most people—” It was a moment of almost comic awfulness. I felt compelled to be polite and reassuring, but inside, I was dumbstruck. For days after, I wondered if my life was like some horrible joke, if everyone knew how ugly, how strange I was except me. But then I also knew there were people in my life who did not see me that way.    

 

9.

Like many people with a disability, I am always slightly amazed to realize I have suffered more from other people’s perceptions of my condition that I have from my own real disabilities. For instance, I do not remember ever staying up all night wringing my hands because I would never run a four or even a ten-minute mile. On the other hand, I have spent many useless hours agonizing over how people might react if they ever saw me in a mini-skirt. As a poet, the influence this has had on me is both hard and easy to track. I tend to write in a kind of supercharged rush with images of violence and/or horror laid up right against images of beauty and/or tenderness, as if the two were part of the same continuum, as if the two could be forced together, blurred into one another, or, more pointedly, represented contradictions that must find a way to co-exist because they could not be resolved. I do believe this comes from the experience of living with disability or, more precisely, living with disability in a world that circles around structures of, ideals of “normal.”  A world in which I am always the piece that doesn’t fit and also a body that speaks or argues loudly—even against my will—about the problems with such normalizing structures. Furthermore, these are structures I have certainly internalized in my own attitudes about my disability. I believe my disability matters because I know it matters to other people. At the same time, I tend to believe that it is just one fact about me, and not always a particularly important one. And yet whatever I might feel personally is always rubbing up against the bigger facts of history, society, in which 70 percent of people with disabilities do not have a job. So how can I say—though I do—my disability doesn’t matter?

 

10. 

I love the confessional because it allows such contradictions, such instability to be front and center. It allows feeling and extremes of feeling within an ideological context but one which is inherently unstable, one in which the message is never entirely anchored. As Cate Marvin notes: 

The confessional project may be of particular interest to women because it allows them to misbehave on the page, to reconstruct their identities, to display the power of their intelligence through language, to speak their minds without being silenced or interrupted . . . and to, ironically, say what they really mean. In confessional poetry, there are no rules…(Marvin: p.46).

By “no rules,” Marvin suggests that the confessional, by offering the ability to occupy multiple intimate, apparently “true” positions vis-à-vis the charged “issue at stake,” also offers the possibility of an imaginative transcendence. In the case of feminist poetry, confessionalism offers a means of escape from the polarities of a discourse of femininity that limits or encodes the female speaker. The confessional often achieves this through ruthless and even extravagant staging of a charged emotional moment. The most striking example is perhaps Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” which compares her experience of an absent or repressive father to the Holocaust—a comparison that is clearly hyperbolic, offensive and meant to be so, but, also, compellingly in the poem, imaginatively true for the speaker herself. The poem is a kind of psychic theater, but one which in its staging casts new light on the world as it is, suggesting the necessity of a reconfiguration of female power and how it functions (or doesn’t) within a patriarchal system. The radical, even unhinged claims the poem makes thus become an affirmation of the imaginative and real power of the speaker, who speaks with almost Promethean fervor out of a desire to revision or recreate herself. 

The parallels with disability poetry are obvious. Often the dilemma for the disabled poet is how to say what the poet truly means in a context in which disability is either silenced and denied, or, conversely, given such overwhelming importance the human being becomes subsumed by his or her condition. Lennard Davis points out that the target of the poetics of disability must perhaps ultimately be the structures of “normal” in which the disabled speaker is conceived and constructed as a perennial other and usually a lesser (Davis: p.3). This, for me, is the project the confessional most animates. When Marvin states that the confessional at its best or strongest “is defined by its artifice,” by “its ruthless desire to convince us its untruths are true,” she suggests how the confessional often uses artifice and untruth to allow a marginalized speaker to radically reconfigure his or her position. By allowing its speaker the dangerous freedom to be, or appear, extravagantly personal while making a wider critique of the social context, confessionalism often becomes, as Marvin puts it, “a true expedition into the imagination” with the potential for tracking multiple modes of our liberation. 

 

 

Works Cited

1)Davis, Lennard J. “Constructing Normalcy: the Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the 

Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J 

Davis. London: Routledge, 1997.

2)Marvin, Cate. “Female Trouble, Women’s Transgressions in the Confessional Mode.” Doctoral

Thesis. Cincinnati: University of Cincinnati, 2003. 

3)Rosenthal, M.L. The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II. New York: 

Oxford University Press, 1967.

 

 

Sheila Black is the author of two poetry collections, House of Bone and Love/Iraq (both CW Press). The 2000 U.S. co-winner of the Frost-Pellicer Frontera Prize, given to one U.S. and one Mexican poet along the U.S.-Mexico border, her work has appeared in Puerto del Sol, Diode, Copper Nickel, CutBank, Valparaiso Review, Conte, Blackbird, Lingerpost ,Superstition Review, and others. She is the co-editor (with Jennifer Bartlett and Mike Northen) of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, which is scheduled for release by Cinco Puntos Press in September 2011. She lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

 

Q&A

Q: What writers, besides Plath, do you draw on for inspiration?

A: Lately I’ve been reading Primo Levi, Mary Austin (“The Land of Little Rain”),

Melissa Kwasny, Ingeborg Bachmann, Jennifer Bartlett, Jon Anderson, and Roberto 

Bolano—all in different ways very inspiring.

 

Q: What surprised you most while writing this piece?

A: How violently I still felt the experience of childhood humiliations. It made me

think again how hard it is for children to move out into the world to…such a simple sounding

 phrase…“become socialized.”

 

Q: What was your favorite fairy tale as a child, and why was this fairy tale your favorite?

A: “The Goose Girl” hands down, because in a way it is terrible—she can’t speak and she

 should speak. But in another way, it’s a strangely liberating story. She accepts the life

that is given her. She is the princess who becomes the goose girl.

 

Q: Tell us about your home library…how are your books organized? Or not? Categories? Alphabetically? Tall to small? Other?

A: (1) I have too many books. (2) I keep promising myself I will get rid of some but never do. (3) They are organized like prizes in Crackerjack box—I like forgetting what books I own and on good days being pleasantly surprised; on bad days I spent ages hunting fruitlessly for  books I believe I own…


Beverly A. Jackson.jpg

The Wing Shed

by Beverly A. Jackson

followed by Q&A

2008 Brittany, France

The day before yesterday, I was standing over my father's grave in the Brittany American Cemetery in the French village of Saint James. I never knew where he was buried until a writer friend, realizing how rootless I felt, unearthed his whereabouts in an Internet search, doing what I never thought possible. 

At the time of his death, he and my mother were estranged, possibly divorced, and I was only four years old. I was encouraged to forget him. But I had a hollow in me that I spent a lifetime filling with "what if’s." Once I knew where he had lain all these years, I began immediately making plans for a pilgrimage to France. Single-minded, excited, perhaps a little crazed, I researched the Internet and networked with all kinds of people who would help me once I arrived. One clue led to another. One contact led to the next. I cashed in a chunk of the small inheritance my mother left me, caring not that it was my retirement fund, and booked a flight.

A staff member at the cemetery, an American named Alan and a docent of a sort, told me that all of the American dead, sailors and soldiers buried all over Brittany, had been transferred to Saint James after the war. Acres of lush green hillsides are dotted with white marble crosses, row upon row, manicured and tended, not unlike Arlington's acres of headstones. It flattened my heart to see that vista of white markers. Alan picked up a protocol bucket of sand gathered from Omaha Beach and led me through the maze of paths to find my dad. I had brought a bouquet, but someone had already put little American flags and fresh flowers on his grave. Alan said it was a welcoming gesture done by a member of Brest 44, a national French society dedicated to keeping alive the memories of World War II liberators. As the gray sand was rubbed into the 3-line engraving on the cross-marker, the lettering became legible. "Now you can see it's your father," Alan said gently. 

 

Andrew L. Jackson

Sgt. 341 Bomb Sq 97th Bomb Gp (H)

October 21, 1942

Then he left me to be alone. Taps chiming from chapel bells floated on the morning air over acres of graves. Sun in a cloudless sky threw shadows behind every cross, cloning them skinny and flat across the lawns.

Everything clean and serene, I stood at my father's grave and waited. I stood there, fearful of an emotional avalanche. But nothing came. There was no one there for me to talk to, only an empty stage after the many battles of a terrible war. Thousands of young dead boys—not only in this cemetery but so many others in France—Normandy, Ardennes, and Chapelle.

My father's bones were interred beneath my feet, but his spirit was not there. 

I drove my little rented Fiat to the last place on my itinerary: Saint-Vougay, a village three hours west of Saint James, where in 1942 the Nazis had originally buried my dad in a churchyard. I had coordinated this visit in advance with the Amicale, a group of Saint-Vougay farmers who had formed their own local memorial society, similar to the national Brest 44, since World War II had bestowed an historical trophy on them, which I badly wanted to see.

Iffig Palud, the president of the Amicale, and his wife, Martine, are my hosts. I'm welcomed by their mayor, Madame Marie-Claire Henaff, at a reception worthy of visiting royalty: champagne, my own translator, and later, in the passenger seat of an authentic World War II jeep, a drive to a spectacular banquet. The ride, courtesy of Brest 44, was with young Frenchmen dressed in American G.I. uniforms who beeped the horn all the way to the restaurant where I was toasted and presented gifts, including an original 1942 Life magazine with photos of my father and his crew.  

The next morning, two more Amicale members took me sightseeing. The churchyard where the Germans buried their enemies is ancient and charming, with roses growing on walls surrounding the graves. My French friends showed me the section the Nazis used for Canadian and American war dead. Those barrows are long empty; remains moved to Saint James. My father's spirit wasn't present here either. 

But on this day, they have brought me to a dilapidated shed they insist I must see. Its weathered walls are pale gray metal, constructed from their prize—the wing of an American B-17 bomber. 

A somber little group of nine, we congregate on a muddy levee, once a cow path alongside an irrigation ditch. Direct access to the farm by auto is impossible because the muck is too deep. We have parked the cars off the isolated farm road, to visit the Wing Shed. It is an old-fashioned lean-to, long abandoned—really just two walls on poles stuck in the soil. After decades of hard winters, the metal structure cants perilously, sinking in tall weeds.

Huddled under umbrellas, awaiting the spring rain of Brittany to let up, we will have to cross an irrigation ravine to get to the shed, which after sixty-five years is bonded to its surroundings. Grass sprouts from the crevasses of its seams. Under this flat gray sky, I feel like a melancholy child in my old body, a woman close to seventy. A father could not recognize his child in this gauzy light. Drizzle greens the checkered farmlands all the way down to the sea. Tongues of smoke waft above the distant chimneys of squat stone houses. Brittany is gripping in its stark beauty, but this is not a place where I would want to die. 

Our Amicale host, Hervé Simon, owns this farm and addresses us in French. I can understand every third or fourth word, and am grateful that Iffig, their president, who speaks fluent English, translates for me.  

"Hervé is telling you the farm has been empty since his father, Jean-Yves, died. It's now for sale, but as you can see, it needs a lot of work." Iffig gestures to a small yellow farmhouse and rickety barn sitting beyond the shed. "We plan to escape this rain and share a bottle of wine indoors afterwards."   

"The English Channel is there?" I ask, pointing north. On the Internet, I found many details I'd never known. When the United States joined the war against the Nazis, the first American strategic bombing command was based with the RAF in England near Ixworth in Suffolk. That's where my father was assigned duty. The bombers crossed the Channel on every mission to France.

Iffig nods and gazes out over the vista of farmlands. Under the umbrella, his face is shaded, his eyes pensive behind rimless glasses. "Life was hard during the war," he said, "and the Germans were despised. When they blew up this American bomber, people ran into their fields to try to save victims and to hide anything that might aid the Nazis, like maps or weapons. It was said that a machine gun was thrown into a brook near my home, but it was never found. The farmers needed any materials they could salvage, for supplies of just about anything were scarce. Mothers made shirts and clothes, even wedding gowns, out of parachute material."  

“Terrible,” I say, vaguely remembering my mother complaining about war shortages. No gasoline, no nylon stockings. But she hadn't lived in an occupied country. And she hadn't flown in a bomber under attack. 

Iffig continues. "Jean-Yves, Hervé's father, took his horse and cart into another farmer's field searching for what he saw drop." He stops to point to the left of us. All I see in the distance is a stretch of gentle farmland.

"Jean-Yves knew he had to rush, for soon the soldiers would arrive looking for survivors and to collect the spoils. Metal was a treasure during the war, so he was making a dangerous risk. He got the wing tipped onto his cart and tied, then dragged it back to his farm to hide in his barn under hay and manure. It stayed there until the Nazi occupation was over. Fortunately, the Germans never searched Simon's farm because it was so far from where the, uh, what do you call…fuselage?"

"Fuselage."  I smile.

"Feh, it's the same! Anyway the wing fell far away from there. Farms nearer the major wreckage were searched and searched again for airmen in hiding."

"It's hard to believe, that kind of courage!” I say. “And then he built this shed."  My mind tries to imagine the fear they lived with daily.

"Iffig, did I tell you I was able to find original Day Raid reports of the men returning from their missions? I had no idea such things were on the Internet.  I didn't even know that the records of Saint James were available to the public."

"No, I have never seen such reports."

I tell him about the report for October 21. About how ninety planes from four different Groups took off to bomb the submarine pens in Lorient, France. But here's the thing. Seventy-five of them returned because of bad weather, mechanical failure, or enemy action. So only fifteen B-17s, all from the 97th, my dad's Group, made it across the Channel. They also hit bad weather, but twelve of them managed to reach Lorient and unloaded 60,000 pounds on their target. 

"I knew there was a big mission,” he says, “but had no idea only fifteen got through the weather. I want to read that. The storms and cloud cover here can be very bad.  Here we are now, waiting for the rain to stop!"  

I tell him it’s amazing to read history when it's so personal to your own life.  “But wait!” I say. “Do you have any idea how many Focke Wulfe 190 Luftwaffe fighters struck those last three planes that never made it back to base?"

"How many?" Iffig guesses, and holds up five fingers on his free hand with a question mark in his expression.

I shake my head. "Based on what the surviving crews said, there were an estimated thirty-six German planes that attacked them!"  

Iffig excitedly translates my story for the rest of our party. Mouths fall open. This is a new, exciting detail for them.

I tell them more. I tell them how there were three RAF Spitfire squadrons who were supposed to defend the rear of the 97th's formation. But in the stormy weather, I explain to Iffig for translation, they couldn't see any bombers or enemy aircraft and thought all planes had abandoned the mission. Iffig's face registers my own sadness. The RAF could have changed the history of my life if they had been able to fight that day. 

A B-17 loaded with bombs was an elephant in the sky, easy prey for the Luftwaffe. The Big Bitch was the last airship in the formation, and totally unprotected from direct attack. My father, Lex Jackson, was the tail gunner. His gunner’s compartment at the rear of the plane was the tightest, next to the ball turret. He had to sit on a modified bicycle-type seat in a kneeling position for the majority of the mission. The tail was reportedly drafty and the gunner had to constantly battle frostbite and clear the windows of frost at high altitudes. 

Iffig stands with his hands folded together, looking down respectfully, as if he can read my thoughts. I try to picture the view from the tail gunner's window: storm clouds, enemy craft, bullets hailing on the glass. A horror, and no help to fight them off.  

In a later report written by the pilot, I learned that the Luftwaffte made their first hit on the Big Bitch at about the 15,000 foot mark. After three attacks, a fire broke out in the bomb bay and flight deck and one engine blew out; its controls were shot away. With the radio out, there was no communication between positions, but the co-pilot and navigator seemed to have the fire under control. Since they were flying level, they thought they might make it on the engines to the Channel, if not to England. These are realities that I was ignorant of, growing up.  To know the truth late in my life was a gift, and a heartache. 

The Amicale members chat among themselves, dutifully standing in the rain for my benefit.

I turn again to Iffig.  "I read that the plane tried to turn back to England, but it made a jolt and headed straight down after some kind of explosion."

 "Possibly the bombs loosened and tore a hole," he says.

Only two crew members were wearing back-type chutes and fell out of the airship. The rest had unattached seat chutes or emergency chutes they likely never got a chance to hook on, except for the tail, ball turret, and nose gunners, who didn't have room for chutes at all in their spaces.

"There are still witnesses alive who were children standing at the window of the school room here in Saint-Vougay when that plane burst into flames and fell from the sky."

"Did you yourself see it?" I envision the silver ship spiraling downward, explosive flames igniting the heavy cloud cover. I wonder where the tail landed.

Iffig laughs. "No, I was not here in 1942. You think I'm so old, eh?" His eyes twinkle. Indeed, he has to be twenty or thirty years younger than I am. My father had just turned thirty before he died. Younger than Iffig.

The citizens of the tiny village of Saint-Vougay formed their Amicale to build a granite memorial to the crew of the Big Bitch. For decades it has been their personal symbol of liberation from the Nazis, and they welcome all interested visitors with grateful enthusiasm to share it. But as an immediate relative of one of the crew, I am honored and feted with the best of what they can give. They act as if I'm family, as if they want to fill my loss with their love. I learn such societies thrive all over France, honoring American, 

Canadian, and British dead warriors.

"If it was not for these heroes," Iffig says, "we would be speaking German today."

Firsthand accounts from those old-timers, who as children looked out the window of the one-room school, say that when my father’s plane exploded in the air, only two parachutes dropped from the sky. Pieces of airplane and bodies fell, widely scattered over nearby farm fields. But precisely who and where is lost to history.

The pilot and the navigator in parachutes were the only two of a ten-man crew to get out alive. The pilot, John Bennett, managed to escape for a week, fleeing on his knees with two broken ankles, passing out from pain, hiding in bushes, starving, until finally discovered by a startled farm woman. She helped him inside her barn and fed him, but called the French police since she was alone and frightened. The police collected Bennett and turned him over to the Nazis that same day. 

The other survivor, the navigator, wounded and unconscious, was captured immediately and taken to surgery in a German infirmary. Both men were ultimately sent to Stalag Luft III POW camp (subject of the film “The Great Escape") for the duration of the war. They both returned home in 1945, lived into their eighties, and related all they knew. The other eight crew members died that October day.

Tired of waiting for the rain to let up, I break from the group and scramble down the ravine. The mud fills my shoes and soils the hem of my jeans. The rain seems like a torrent now that I'm not under Iffig's umbrella.     

"Be careful," Iffig cries out. "Wait, I'll come with you." I turn and see Hervé and Jean-Claud follow Iffig, large men wading comically across the ditch, umbrellas tilting on their up stretched arms, with Jean-Paul sloshing right behind. These members of the Amicale  are visibly pleased to have me see their treasure. Muddy and soaked, the rain runs down our faces and we break into laughter at the sight of each other.  

The metallic shed is dull and marred by decades of Brittany storms. It is pierced with holes of various sizes, corroded at their edges, some smooth, others ragged and rough-edged. It would be hard to count the number of bullet holes that pepper the wing. I tentatively touch them with my fingers, some so large I can put three fingers through the holes. The metal feels hot beneath my fingers or icy cold. I can't tell which. The thought of being airborne, high off the earth in the crosshairs of thirty-six Nazi fighter planes is hard to hold. The movie versions bear little resemblance to the emotional reality of seeing these raw wounds in metal. The noise, the smoke, the courage, and fear are all bitter tastes in the back of my throat.

Iffig sends me to the end of the shed where the metal shows a faint outline of one of the points of the large American star that once emblazoned the wing. At first it is hard to see on the stained and streaked surface, but looking closer, the shape, a triangle, one arm of a large star in a slightly lighter color becomes apparent, like an abstract ghost of itself—a weathered memory of the other ghosts who died here. It is like seeing the American flag or hearing the national anthem in this faraway, alien land where the man I never really knew was lost to me forever. I am glad for the rain. Iffig circles my shoulders with his arm and says, "Let's have that cup of wine."

The Simon farmhouse is tiny, a series of dollhouse rooms crowded with mildewed, overstuffed furniture. Our Wing Shed group mills in the old-fashioned kitchen, sipping wine, eating Brittany shortbread from decorator tins. The Amicale members whisper among themselves and file in and out of a back room. Iffig engages me in light conversation, his eyes darting back and forth, and I'm aware of secrecy and excitement.

Finally, a package is placed in front of me, wrapped in brown paper, tied with packing string. It is flat, oblong, and heavy. Glasses rise in a toast. Faces beam around me as I untie the string to reveal a hunk of gray metal, corrugated on one side and smooth on the other. Handwritten by a felt pen is a brief history written in French of the crash of the Big Bitch with my father, Andrew Lexington Jackson, named in particular. And beneath those words are the autographs of the members of the Amicale. It is a piece of the actual Wing Shed that has been cut away for me to take home. For me to keep.

My thoughts tumble. I am a skeptic, not one to quickly trust. I am a loose fish who no longer has expectations of people or of life. I am the daughter of a dead American hero. I am loved. And without a doubt, in that uncanny mystery of a force beyond reason, I know that my father, Lex Jackson, or whatever part of him that's left on this earth still alive, sits right here in my hands. 

    

 

Beverly A. Jackson is a writer, poet, painter, and stock option trader living in Naples,

Florida. Her house is on a lake with a resident alligator who keeps her two dogs and

cat on alert on the lanai. Her work is widely published in literary journals and ezines,

including Smokelong, Eclectica, Tattoo Highway, Opium, Shimmer, and Night Train.

Her blog is www.bevjackson.blogspot.com, and her art work is at www.artshackstudio.com.

 

Q&A

Q: How did you approach the research aspect of this piece?

A: I’ve pored over Internet records, personal letters from my grandparents’ files, and 

lengthy correspondence and conversation with the Bretons. It has all been very

moving and rewarding.

 

Q: What surprised you most while writing this piece?

A: That I started at the Wing Shed, and not with the beginning of my pilgrimage to

France to find my father.  I was surprised that this is where the story started, but

didn’t end for me.

 

Q: Do you find writing inspiration from other genres? From any particular writers?

A: I’ve been reading memoir, but haven’t found a “model” yet for what I want to do myself. So I’m sort of (ahem) winging it.

 

Q: Tell us about your home library…how are your books organized? Or not? Categories? Alphabetically? Tall to small? Other? 

A: Just moved and gave away skadzillion books in North Carolina.  What’s left is piled onto three bookshelves, as yet untended. Like bad children sent to their rooms without supper. I shall tend them soon, poor babies.


Jeffery Hess.jpg

Nobody's Father

by Jeffery Hess

followed by Q&A

My wife called me on the way out of her neurologist’s appointment. I’d offered to go with her, but she tends to handle medical issues like a wounded cat and, as usual, had insisted on going alone. Over the phone, she told me the doctor wrote a prescription for a new medication that would alleviate the hereditary effects of what the doctor called “tremors” in her hands and neck. I’d always found her symptoms barely noticeable, but she was increasingly self-conscious and now there was no mistaking the excitement in her voice as she discussed the prospect of applying mascara single-handedly and attempting soup with a spoon.

“However,” Lauren continued, “the active ingredient lessens the effectiveness of my birth control pills.”

Talk about a side effect.

Our phone conversation was brief and one-sided, as if she were reading a car wash menu. “There’s hysterectomy for me, vasectomy for you, the IUD, Nova Ring or whatever it’s called, some new coil things they shove into the ovaries, and, of course, there’s condoms. Obviously the quickest method available.”

Condoms. The word struck me as funny. I’d called them “rubbers” twenty-some monogamous years ago. Now the concept of penile haberdashery seemed as antiquated and restrictive as head gear and curfews. 

She’d been on the pill since we’d met (which had been a fateful day in 1990) and I’d grown to take it for granted that she handled the matter by swallowing a pill, almost imperceptibly, in the kitchen every morning while the coffee brewed. Now, birth control was something that required input on my part, which meant actually facing the issue. This was the end, not of ignorance, but of avoidance. The bottom line was: we had to come up with another option. But condoms?

#

I have no way of knowing if birth control is such an issue for other couples in their forties, but it’s huge to us because we’ve never had kids.

Being childless isn’t something we ever agreed to. Any discussions about it were closed after mutually agreeing to sweep the issue under the rug until another time when we’d do the same thing. 

In the late 1990s, a few years into our marriage, we did actually consider having a baby. Lauren was a professional figure skater who had been forced by injuries to retire at the age of thirty-one. She suddenly had her days free and I was making good money as a communications specialist. Perfect timing. We went so far as to interview her OB/GYN to get all the details. I hadn’t slept the night before. While in her office I had to pretend I wasn’t sweating, secretively wipe my forehead as I took three pages of notes that detailed everything from her need to gain at least twenty-five pounds during pregnancy to the graduating scale of complications for each year Lauren aged. Nothing we learned made the process sound any more appealing, to either of us, what with the medical procedures and the risks for mother and baby and all. 

#

My parents don’t understand our reluctance. My mother has never openly discussed the issue with me, but she’ll drop a hint the way an Italian mother can. Nothing mean or accusatory. No specific examples come to mind now—they’re subtle that way—but I know them when they come. 

My father on the other hand is much more direct. One day, he confronted me while Lauren and I were visiting them for the weekend. We were saying good-bye when my father signaled me to follow him out of the kitchen where my mother and Lauren were discussing new countertops and the parameters of the perfect kitchen sink depth. After making our way into the spare bedroom that my parents use primarily for television watching, my father's jovial features faded and were replaced with the solemnity of something serious. It was the look I’d gotten when I needed a stern talking to about staying out too late or having broken a trinket or a bone while he was at work. 

We stood there, looking eye-to-eye and instantly, the old dynamic of father and son was revived. These were roles that had been covered in dust because we had been more like friends for most of my adult life, largely out of mutual respect. My parents and Lauren and I have traveled together and played cards into the small hours every chance we got. Now, however, my father and I had slipped into old character roles.

“I stopped myself from bringing it up last night,” he said, “but the more I slept on it, I just have to say something. By not having kids,” he said, awkwardly gesturing to signify the two of us, “you’re going to miss out on this.” 

That sentence was a punch in the chest.

My father took a seat. Patted the couch cushion next to him.

Instead of sitting, I had remained standing, winding the cord on my cell phone charger. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but this was a feeble and unintentional form of rebellion on my part. I was seventeen again and he was showing me how I was wrong.

There is a certain perception of failure involved in not having children. And maybe it’s just me, but when the reasons are chosen instead of biological, there seems to be an overhanging sense of treason.

Lauren and I each have had the tug of war in our heads. In our mid and late thirties we felt abnormal for not having kids. And more than just the absence of children, was the absence of any urge to have children. 

I wound and unwound my cell phone charger while I stood there, thinking of something to say. Instead of taking my time, I admitted that taking no action was, in fact, an action itself—that, at our ages, not deciding was in itself a decision.

“I just don’t want you to miss out,” he said. 

Maybe if I hadn’t focused so intently on my phone charger or if my head wasn’t so addled with sentimentality at that moment, I would have told him, “You know, there’s no guarantee I’d get as lucky as you did.” He would have gotten a kick out of that.

#

The subject matter wasn’t, strictly speaking, a parental or authority issue. Other such confrontations, even those from strangers, have evoked similar responses in me. For instance, on a vacation cruise to the Bahamas a number of years ago, Lauren and I met a woman over breakfast in the grand dining room. The woman sat on the other side of the table with her elderly mother, and talked endlessly about her kids. She spoke loudly and with an Appalachian accent. She looked at us and gestured as if we were part of the conversation so we felt obligated to listen. We nodded and smiled as required; after the eggs were eaten and the coffee drunk, the woman wiped her mouth with her linen napkin, looked at Lauren and then said, “Ya’ll have kids?”

I don’t know which of us said “No” first, but the skin on the woman’s face seemed to twist. She tilted her head, smiled a little with a clenched expression, and said, “Well. Ya’ll are young.” Lauren thought nothing of it, but it got to me.  I’m sure the woman meant to be sweet and encouraging, but the comment was conciliatory and condescending. 

#

Sometimes the opposing opinion isn’t so naïve in its encouragement. One night about a year ago, Lauren and I attended a friend’s engagement party. 

At a franchised pub, with 1980s rock blaring and a basketball game playing on a corner-mounted television, the bride-to-be introduced Lauren and me to a woman firefighter sitting by herself—turned out she didn’t know anyone there except her husband who was close with the groom-to-be. 

The woman firefighter was magazine-cover fit, had long brown hair, and the notion of someone so attractive in that line of work surprised me. We talked about the stupidity of motorists who ignored the sirens and the big red trucks barreling down the road as well as about the couple celebrating their engagement and then, with all the small talk exhausted, she brought up the subject of kids. The woman firefighter had two, the oldest four and the youngest, twenty months. I never understood why parents lose the ability to round up or down when they discuss the age of their kids. Tell me the kid is two. I’m a stranger. I won’t hold you to specifics. 

I was barely into my second beer when she showed us pictures on her phone—the four-year-old girl looked just like her mother and the boy was grinning inches from the lens.

She flipped her phone shut and said, “You have kids.” 

It wasn’t a question. The way she ordered her words was like an assumption, or maybe just a prompt in an attempt to keep the conversation moving, but her facial expression was expectant and guilt-inducing. And why wouldn’t she assume we have children? We’d be ideal parents, or at least we seemed to have the means and ability to be ideal parents, and the room we use as a home gym would make an ideal nursery and later, a child’s room. But still. 

Lauren and I answered in unison, “No. We don’t.”

Instead of dropping the issue, the woman firefighter sat up straighter and asked without hesitation, “Why not?” 

No one has actually asked us this quite so bluntly before—not friends, our parents, or even my ninety-year-old grandmother who would’ve liked nothing more than another great grandchild—a new bambino—but now this woman firefighter had put us on the spot. 

Maybe I took a step back in response to this, maybe it was two. The moment felt like a slow and casual motion, though I doubt it was either slow or smooth. I’d managed to hold in the words, but I’m sure my facial expression said, “That’s none of your damn business.” I understood the woman firefighter enjoyed being a mother and was grateful for her kids, but like religion and politics, you don’t get that personal with people you’ve just met. 

I should have replied, “Lauren has a barren uterus,” but I didn’t because it wasn’t true, and more importantly because I’m superstitious enough to fear a jinx or karma or whatever it is that might cause such a condition. Still, it would be easier to say something like this when people ask. 

Lauren didn’t dodge the woman firefighter’s question as I planned to, but answered honestly and shamelessly that we just never chose to. 

Here the woman firefighter worked a job where she might have to rescue babies from burning buildings and yet she still took the time to bring two of her own into the world. We stood before her, derelict in some inferred expectation to procreate.

To deflect, I rattled off a stale joke about my begging and Lauren refusing. I laid it on thick with obvious sarcasm hoping laughter would change the subject.

The woman firefighter ignored my attempt at humor. She sat square on her stool, her posture rigid, and said, “You’re not complete until you have kids.”

Lauren and I looked at each other, subtly as long-married couples do, but neither of us replied. The awkward silence that ensued was mercifully shattered by an explosion of cheers at one of the pool tables behind us. Someone must have made a tricky shot. Lauren used the commotion as an opportunity to walk over to the bride-to-be. Meanwhile, facing the pool tables, I was left to think about what the woman firefighter had said.

The tone wasn’t accusatory. Her voice wasn’t harsh or sarcastic; it was plain and natural, like a prophet proposing redemption; she had no apparent regard for how such a statement would affect Lauren or me. 

In everyday life, I reserve little time for high-horse, soapbox types. I imagined the woman firefighter with a “Choose Life” bumper sticker on her SUV or minivan or whatever she drove with two car seats in the back and I then pictured her padded beneath a helmet and Nomex coveralls, hauling a fire hose two and half-inches in diameter toward a gentrified home set ablaze. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, the madder I got, the more proficient I imagined her being on the job, and the less attractive she seemed.

Not complete?

Is this what it has come to? I wondered. We’re derided because we’re in a position to have children yet we chose not to? 

Incomplete?

Yes, I suppose if one were to consider the complete responsibility, because parenting is nothing if not a mandate, making one completely responsible for another human being. Beyond my insecurities, there are also issues of time, money, and energy required of child-rearing. I would be, we would be, locked down, not focusing on each other with our usual ardor but on a third entity who may or may not be a wedge, cleaving a fused whole. And we’ve heard dozens of times that it’s selfish to have just one child. 

I’d just met this woman. I didn’t know what her definition of complete entailed or if she were one of those people who couldn’t acknowledge the slightest chance there might be equally great rewards on the other end of the spectrum. What some call childless, others call child-free.

As such, we have wine with dinner, often accompanied by jazz music in the background, and afterward I smoke a cigar on the lanai while reading a good book. If we’re up late, we sleep in a little extra because we can. On Sundays, guys I know have early morning baby-duty with dirty diapers, messy bottles, the Wiggles or cartoons constantly on TV, and toys littering the living room floor. We have mimosas with brunch over the New York Times and watch bad reality shows on VH1 or R-rated DVDs with their various amounts of profanity and nudity on the fifty-inch flat screen. If a Motley Crue concert comes on the HDTV channel, we're free to crank it full volume, TiVo it, and replay at full blast anytime we want.

We’re often mistaken for newlyweds while traveling. And when we’re home, we exercise, read, spend weekends together as a couple and sometimes apart. We most likely wouldn’t do anything like that or have the relationship we do if we had children—based on the examples of dozens of family members and friends who are married with children—not to mention those who are divorced and share custody or only occasionally have contact with their children over the phone or once a month by proxy of their child support payments. 

Some may say ours is a shallow existence, and they may be right. We often wonder if we’ll grow old alone, without kids to take care of us. Storybook as the opposite appears, the reality is so many offspring have little to do with their parents these days that we can’t justify it on those grounds either. In fact, we’ve heard a number of people say that if they could do it over again, they’d never have kids.

Rationally, I know that just because we can doesn’t mean we should, but physically, I don’t actually know if we could. Never trying means never knowing. And while I’ve spent each month since my teenage years counting on and sometimes praying for the scheduled female cycle, I can’t help feeling morose when hearing about an infertile couple spending thousands of dollars on doctors, surrogates, donors, and in vitro fertilization. I’ve heard stories about the relentless and scheduled screwing, the painful shots in their desperation to have a baby. 

Sometimes I envy this determination, but mostly, I just don’t think I could handle the responsibility of such challenges. There was always the fear of natural and age-related complications that I wouldn’t want to face. And even on a lesser scale, maybe I’ve spent a lifetime unhappy with my own normality as it was. Sometimes I believe it best not to perpetuate my average height, my weak eyesight, the commonness of brown eyes and hair on anyone else, or to add to the over-population of this planet. Also in the back of my mind is something my mother used to say about my being such a handful as the reason she stopped having kids. I never really liked it when she said it, and sometimes I wonder if my difficultness as a kid is something I don’t want to perpetuate on Lauren or myself. 

Regardless, I just don’t think I’m suited for fatherhood. I’ve never pushed a kid in a stroller. I’ve never changed a diaper. I’ve never even had a dog. I’m a decent uncle, I suppose, but I wasn’t able to relate to my niece or nephews until they were old enough to catch and throw a ball. 

#

Speaking of which, on one of our periodic trips two hours south to visit my family, I went with my father and brother-in-law to my nephew’s T-ball practice. They were assistant coach and coach respectively, and at the little league field, we barely made it to the dugout by the time a dozen minivans materialized and kids were everywhere. My brother-in-law had them run laps around the bases and then paired them off to warm up their arms with a catch. My father and I paired up and we had a catch, like he and I have been doing since I was the same age as the kids around us.  

It was for these such events that even as I approached middle age, I kept a baseball glove handy. Throwing with my father reminded me of the old days when he worked with me in our backyard or at the field after practice.

As we threw back and forth, a couple more kids arrived and took their place on the field. During infield drills, I served as catcher to feed my groundball hitting brother-in-law. I was Yogi Berra to his Casey Stengel. 

After a hydration-break in the dugout, a kid walked up to me from my left. He completely sidled me and when I looked down, his face was one you’d see in advertisements for cereal or neon-colored beverages. The little ball cap was pushed back on his head, and a clump of brown curls and freckles looked up at me. “Whose father are you?” he said. 

Out of shock, I said, “What?”

“Whose father are you?” he repeated, in the same curious tone.

Instinctually, I looked around to see if my own father was in earshot. He was standing by home plate and out of range.

“I’m nobody’s father.” 

The kid still looked up at me, but his face had twisted a little.  

“I’m Steven’s uncle,” I said, as if claiming a right to be there.

The kid looked down for a moment and then back up to me, his face back to normal proportions. “Oh,” he said. “Okay.” And he ran to the bench to pick up his glove and join the others on the field. 

#

Being on a ball field always makes me think of my friend, Jeff. We shared the same name and as kids spent many hours on such a field. Jeff’s father remarried recently and I’d attended the wedding. I watched Jeff stand up as his father’s best man. It was touching and, of course, I couldn’t help wonder if either of them ever imagined such a scene.

At the reception, Lauren and I sat next to a retired couple who ate three heavily-buttered rolls each before dinner was served. He was a tall man with eagle-like features, a geologist trained at Penn State who I would have believed was once a starting linebacker for the Nitany Lions. His wife was soft spoken and well mannered, a southern girl perhaps who now passed her time in front of game shows with her knitting in her lap. They were older but still vibrant and participated in the conversation. They were still as into travel as we were and were planning a cross country RV trip the very next day. They’d been married for 48 years, and never had children. 

I took some sort of redemption, or maybe it was vindication, in their lack of regret, even at their advanced ages. 

They got up to leave after the cake was cut. 

“You’re not having cake?” Lauren asked.

“We’ve got to ship out early in the morning,” the geologist said.

I said, “You’re starting the cross-country trip tomorrow?” 

“Before first light.”

We said our goodbyes with hugs and handshakes on their way out, not just because we enjoyed talking with them, but because we felt a connection to them, perhaps a hopeful one, brief as it may have been.

#

Above and beyond all my doubt on the issue is the unity of thought on the subject between Lauren and me. Is it fate or pure randomness that put two equally apprehensive people together? Aren’t we wise to heed this apprehension? As individuals? As a couple? Doesn’t doing what’s best for ourselves make us complete?

It’s not like we ever sat across from each other and decided the issue with a word like, Never. At no point was it a case of one or the other saying anything remotely final on the matter. It’s just that neither of us has been the one to say, “Okay, I’m ready.” Neither of us has ever lobbied the other toward a decisive yes or no on the issue, knowing full well that with each passing year, the option grows more distant in the rearview mirror. 

We’re now the age when the natural way, if we even wanted to, is no longer a viable option. The risks are too severe, according to the notes I still have in a steno pad I saved all these years from when we interviewed Lauren’s OB/GYN. And now I know the risks for autism rise six-fold in men over forty. Today, medical advances may concoct injections, inseminations, and pills, but that would create a child of science, not one of nature.

Technically, I was overdue to carry the burden of birth control. 

It was impossible to think of IUDs, some sort of coils, or the option of a hysterectomy, all of which sounded unappealing and uncomfortable. 

It was time for me to seriously consider having a vasectomy. 

I was forty, but I didn’t know if I could voluntarily forfeit my ability to reproduce. I mean, it was one thing to squander the ability, but I certainly couldn’t volunteer to have the power surgically removed. 

My other brother-in-law doesn’t seem to have a problem with it. Last Thanksgiving, he told me, “I have an appointment in two weeks to get clipped and snipped.” 

“You do?”

“Hell yeah,” he said. 

He has a five-year-old son named Dylan.

I don’t.

#

Lauren came home with her filled prescription of anti-tremor, birth-control-killing pills…and a box of condoms. We were in our bedroom looking at the package, trying to read the label. 

Increasingly, for me, proper lighting and font size are paramount to reading, and though we had two small lamps on either side of our king-size bed, the ambient light wasn’t bright enough. The curtains over the sliding glass doors leading out to our pool were drawn so I stepped closer to the window and opened the wooden blinds. Outside, the sound of the pool filter filled an otherwise silent moment as I read the red lettering on the package. 

The notion of condoms carried a subtle charge of excitement and we both relished it a little, privately, but knowingly in the ways of couples. The fireworks in the bedroom have always been stellar, thank God, but the element of something new making its way into our marital bed sort of aroused us both. But now, here it was. Suddenly I was a teenager again angry about the need for something so invasive between us, but deeper inside, no pun intended, I felt like nothing more than the middle aged punk who was forced to wrap his weasel so we wouldn’t have a kid. I knew birth control would never be the same. It would now always be visible, as if fashioned out of a balloon.

“I can’t read the package in this light,” I said.

“Why do you need to read it?” Lauren was topless, in the process of changing into sweats and a t-shirt.

“I don’t think much could have changed in the decades since I last used one, but I want to be sure.”

I looked at the box, but it was covered mostly with logos so I opened it and took one out. The red ink printed on the gold foil was smaller than on the backs of sugar substitute packages and I didn’t have my glasses. Though I couldn’t read the package, the writing there proved a point: if you can’t read the label on condom wrappers, you shouldn’t have to use them. 

Lauren stood by my side and closed the wooden blinds with a shaking hand and then hugged into my side. Our situation was forever changed and as I looked at the box in my hands, I heard the echoes of my father, the woman on the cruise ship, and the woman firefighter. 

 

 

Jeffery Hess served six years in the U.S. Navy, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and edited the anthology Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform (Press 53). He’s held writing positions at a daily newspaper, a Fortune 500 company, and a university-based research center. In addition to corporate publications and websites, his writing has appeared in r.kv.r.y., Plots with Guns, The MacGuffin, The Houston Literary Review, American Skating World, the Tampa Tribune, and Writer’s Journal. He lives in Florida where he’s completing a novel and leads a creative writing workshop for military veterans. 

 

Q&A

Q: What surprised you most while writing this piece?

A: That I was still angry at that woman firefighter. It wasn’t the voicing of her opinion that bothered me, but rather the judgment in her words—in her eyes. 

 

Q: You provide creative writing workshops for military veterans. Can you tell us a little about those? Why workshops only for military veterans, for example?

A: The workshop is in its fourth year now. I started the workshop because I enjoy teaching. The reason I limit the workshop to military veterans is because I believe sharing my interest, passion, and whatever knowledge I have with them will somehow encourage them to write more and better, and secretly, I hope my efforts might convey, in some small way, my gratitude for the sacrifices all veterans make. 

 

Q: Tell us a little about your writing process.

A: I write mostly from a laptop, on my back porch, at night. I begin each writing session by typing in a journal-type file. It’s not a journal in the strict sense of the word. Often I type up ideas, bits of dialogue, or I’ll pose myself questions there about a scene I’m working on and see if it develops. This warm-up works for me, probably because whether I’m writing an essay, a short story, or a novel (as I am currently) I never have to face a blank page.  

 

Q: What’s on your summer reading list?

A: Right now, I’m finishing Muscle for the Wing, the second book in Daniel Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy. Next will be the third in the trilogy, The Ones You Do. Then, I’m really looking forward to receiving my copy of Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time and Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana. Come August, I hope to be finished with the novel I’m currently writing and plan to immerse myself in baseball season. I’ve got Ian O’Connor’s The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter and Jane Leavy’s The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.


The Person To Whom Things Happened: Finding the Inner Story in Personal Narratives

by Michael Steinberg

followed by Q&A

From Journalism to the essay to the memoir, the trip being taken by

              a nonfiction persona deepens, and turns ever more inward.” 

                          --Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative

          

Literature—fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction—is the singular art form that allows readers access to another human being’s thoughts and feelings. Consequently, we turn to literary writing not only to connect with others who are attempting to make sense of their lives, but also to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and the perplexing worlds we live in.                   

It would seem then, that creative nonfiction, particularly memoir and personal essays, would offer readers an accessible entree to a given writer/narrator’s thoughts, feelings, and imagination. Why is it, then, that I so often find myself saying to several of my MFA students “the main thing missing here is your story”?     

You’re probably thinking, “Here comes another endorsement of those confessional ‘me, me, me’ narratives”—the kind that give creative nonfiction a bad name. Quite the contrary. One of the reasons we’re seeing too many of those pieces is that a good number of memoirists and essayists are narrating only the literal story of their experience and leaving out the “inner story,” the story, that is, of their thinking

               

The Inner Story in Literary Memoir

Recently, a colleague sent me a segment of a family memoir in progress. In it, she discusses both her father’s recent death and how much her childhood neighborhood has changed. She says in her cover letter that she’s trying to explain the connections between the loss of her father, the decay of her old hometown, and, by extension, the erosion of many urban neighborhoods throughout the country.    

This is the kind of personal/investigative essay that we don’t see often enough in creative nonfiction. Still, ambitious as it is, there’s an important element missing; that is, the narrator’s engagement with her own story.      

In my notes to her, I wrote,        

          Your writing is graceful and honest. There’s an important

         back story here that sets a clear context for the reader. There are

         also some compelling characters here, including the narrator—that

         I’d like to know a lot more about. For example, beyond the fact that

         this is being told in the first person, who is this narrator? What was

         her childhood relationship to her father like? How old is she now?

         And why, at this particular juncture in her life, is she examining this

         aspect of her past?    

It was my way of nudging her to cut loose from her thesis and give us the human story—that is, the story of her thinking, the internal struggle to come to terms with her losses. If she allows us that access, we’re more likely to become interested not only in her story, but also in her relationship to her father, the significance of his death, and the larger connections that she’s trying to establish.          

In A Sketch of the Past, Virginia Woolf writes, “The reason so many memoirs fail is that they focus on the events or what happened and leave out the person to whom things happened.”   

As Woolf suggests, in order for readers to connect with a particular narrator's story, they need to feel that person’s presence throughout, whether the narrator is at the center of the story or whether he/she is a witness or observer.       

Memoirist Patricia Hampl says it another way: “You give me your story, I get mine.” Both Woolf and Hampl are implying that memoirists, no matter what subject they’re writing about, are more likely to connect with their readers by disclosing their thoughts and feelings, their confusions, fears, and self doubts, as well as their exhilarations and successes—the qualities, in short, that link us as fellow human beings.                                                     

Awhile back, I wrote an essay/memoir entitled “Trading Off.” It’s largely about a four-year struggle between me and a high school baseball coach, one Jack Kerchman, who had the reputation for being a taskmaster. Throughout the narrative, I am trying to describe, mostly through sense impression and memory, the shame and humiliation that I chose to put up with while in pursuit of a single-minded dream. At fourteen, I wanted more than anything to pitch for the high school baseball team. And that meant I’d have to audition for this formidable coach. According to the rumors, Kerchman, a Jew himself, routinely went out of his way to taunt and harass his Jewish players. As the adult narrator looking back on his adolescent self, I wrote the piece partly as a way of better understanding why that apprehensive, uncertain young boy so deeply craved the approval and respect of such a perverse human being.                

Here’s a scene that describes our first encounter.              

  • It was early September, my first day of high school. Baseball tryouts were in February, so I figured I had plenty of time before I had to worry about dealing with Coach Kerchman. In first period homeroom, though, Mrs. Klinger handed me a note, ‘Be at my office 3 o’clock sharp.’ It was signed by Mr. K. The rest of the day was a blur. I couldn’t hold a conversation, I picked at my lunch, and every time I opened a book, my thoughts drifted. By five minutes to three, my stomach was in knots.
  •        Kerchman’s ‘office’ was located across from the boiler room, deep in the bowels of the ancient brick building. To get there, you had to walk past the showers and through the boy’s locker room. As I opened the stairwell door, I inhaled the steam from the shower, and above the hum and buzz of locker room banter and small talk, I heard the clackety-clack-clack of aluminum cleats hitting the cement floor. An entire bank of lockers was reserved for Angelo Labrizzi, Mickey Imbrianni, and Leon Cholakis, the football gladiators I’d been watching with envy for the past year. I’d seen them around school and at the State Diner jock table. But here in their domain, they possessed an undeniable aura. As far back as grade school, this was an exclusive, prestigious club I’d dreamed of belonging to ever since I was in junior high.
  • Though football would never be my sport, I’d fantasized that playing varsity baseball would offer many of the same privileges. I’d already witnessed these for myself: Adults—your own parents—as well as your friends, actually paid a half-a-buck to watch you play; cheer-leaders chant-ed your name (‘Steinberg, Steinberg, he’s our man, if he can’t do it no one can’), and they kicked their bare legs so high you could see their red silk panties. After school, you’d hold court at the jock table in the State Diner. You also got to wear a tan leather jacket with a big blue and red ‘R’ across the left breast, and your girlfriend would show off by wearing your letter sweater to school. Maybe the biggest ego-trip of all was when everybody watched with envy when you left sixth period Econ to go on ‘road trips.’
  •         I tried to push those thoughts out of my mind as I timidly knocked on Kerchman’s door. ‘It’s open,’ he rasped in a deep, gravely voice. The room was a ten-foot-square box, a glorified cubbyhole, smelling of Wintergreen, Merthiolate, and stale sweat sox. The brown cement floor was coated with dust and rotted out orange peels; and on all four sides were make-shift-two-by-four equipment bays which overflowed with old scuffed white helmets, broken red shoulder pads, torn blue and red jerseys, red padded pants, muddy cleats, and deflated footballs—all randomly piled on top of one another. 
  •        Mr. K stood under a bare light bulb wearing a blue baseball hat, white socks, and a jock strap. He was holding his sweatpants and chewing a plug of tobacco. 
  •         ‘You’re Stein-berg, right?’ He said my name, Stein-berg, slowly, enunciating and stretching out both syllables.
  •          ‘I don’t beat around the bush, Stein-berg. You’re here for one reason and one reason only. Because *Gail Sloane told me you were a reliable kid. What I’m looking for, Stein-berg, is an assistant football manager, and I’m willing to take a chance on you.’
  •         I’d forgotten about Gail. At that moment, I wanted to run out of the room and find a place to cry. Assistant football managers were glorified water boys; they did all the ‘shit work,’ everything from being stretcher-bearers to toting the equipment.   
  •         He sensed my disappointment and waited a beat while I tried to compose myself.
  • ‘Gail also tells me you’re a pitcher,’ he muttered, as he slipped into his sweatpants. Another tense beat. 
  • Finally, he said, ‘In February, you’ll get your chance to show me what you’ve got.’ 
  •        To make certain there was no misunderstanding, he added, ‘Just like everyone else.’
  • Then he paused again. ‘So, what’s it gonna' be, Stein-berg?’
  •         It had all happened too fast. My head was throbbing, my thoughts chaotic.
  •         In a trembling, uncertain voice, I told him I’d have to think about it and let him know tomorrow.

 

  • =============================================================
  •         *Gail Sloane was a neighbor who worked for Kerchman in the Guidance office at the
  •      Junior High where he taught. During the summer, over my objections, my father had 
  •      asked Gail to put in a word for me with the coach.       

Whenever I’ve had occasion to read that scene in public, I deliberately observe the facial expressions of some of the people in the audience—particularly, the women. A few will roll their eyes. Others will cross their arms. Some will even grimace. And who can blame them? So far as they’re concerned, it begins as just another high school baseball story, the kind of “bad old days” jock tale that their boyfriends or husbands have recited to them over and over again.

By the time I’ve finished reading, though, many in the audience, men and women alike, have figured out that the memoir really isn’t only about baseball. Baseball is mainly the context and setting for the boy’s  encounter with the coach. 

More important is that both audiences and readers are able to imagine what it’s like to be inside the mind of the narrator as he obsesses and agonizes over how badly he wants to make the team, while at the same time weighing the trade offs he’s inevitably going to have to make in order to fulfill his dream.     

As the older narrator looking back, I realize that I have to earn a reader/audience’s trust and empathy. Therefore, I must allow them access to the moment-to-moment turmoil  that’s running through the young boy’s mind.  

If I’m successful, sometimes the very same people who’d initially resisted the scene, will approach me after the reading and tell me about the humiliating experiences they’ve experienced with similar kinds of gatekeepers: punitive teachers, abusive parents, cruel or manipulative friends, for example. Not so long ago, one woman told me that the scene was reminiscent of her own teenage struggle with a harsh and demanding ballet teacher.     

That’s precisely the kind of response I’m hoping for.  I want the audience or reader to be inside the young boy’s skin, to the extent that they feel the humiliation and shame that he did.  And I want them to be inside his mind so they can comprehend why he chose to make this devil’s bargain with such a cruel and manipulative coach.       

Only by allowing them this access, can my story, as Patricia Hampl suggests, become their story. Had I written only the factual, “here’s what happened to me” part, how many people in that audience would have been able to make the kinds of personal connections and discoveries I just described? 

                            

Teaching Applications

I frequently tell my students that there are as many different reasons and impulses for writing a memoir as there are memoirists. Some write to tell their story, others to preserve a family history. Some want to reminisce, others write in hopes of discovering what the story means.  

Whatever their intent, no matter how young or old they are, I find myself urging them to go beyond and/or to probe beneath the literal story. As Vivian Gornick explains, “Every work {of literature} has both a situation and a story. The situation,” Gornick says, “is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that pre-occupies the writer; the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” Essayist/critic Laurie Stone phrases it another way.  “Too often,” Stone writes, “the writer mistakes his or her experience for a story, instead of looking for the story in the experience.”      

And so, I advise writers to think about a given memoir as having two stories: the story of the actual experience—the surface subject, the facts, the sequence of remembered events (what Gornick calls “the situation”)—and the story of their internal struggle to come to grips with what those facts and events might signify.         

I also pose to my students a series of questions, deliberately designed to get them thinking about why they’re telling this particular story, and why it matters enough to write it.    

How, I ask them, did this experience shape/change you? Was there anything important at stake? If so, what were the costs? And finally, what were you thinking/ feeling as you wrote the specific scenes? Hopefully, these will become part of their thought process as they compose their narratives.     

Gornick also says, “What happens to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the larger sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.”    

It follows then, that memoirs can have more than one voice; there’s the voice that tells the literal story, and another, more reflective voice/persona that analyzes, comments, and speculates about the story’s meaning. The second voice is that of the adult narrator, the persona that Bill Roorbach calls “the writer at the desk, searching to discover what’s at stake in this story, and what the larger human implications might be.” Consequently, that voice is the one we’re more inclined to identify with and trust.   

             

The Inner Story in Personal Essays

Everything I’ve said about writing memoirs grows largely out of what I’ve learned from reading, teaching, and writing my own personal essays. Since many essayists are by nature, contemplative, reflective types, the essay is an ideal vehicle for their interior explorations.

As Scott Russell Sanders says, the essay works by “following the zigzag motions of the inquisitive mind.”  Phillip Lopate adds that an essay “allows you to ramble in a way that reflects the mind at work...in an essay, the track of a person’s thoughts struggling to achieve some kind of understanding of a problem is the plot, the adventure.” And the late critic/memoirist, Alfred Kazin, maintains that “an essay is.... an expression of the self thinking.... it is not the thought that counts,” he says, “but the experience we get of the writer’s thought; not the self, but the self thinking.      

All three are suggesting that connections between writer and reader have less to do with an essay’s subject than with the writer’s inner struggle to make sense out of some nagging question, elusive idea, confusing experience, or perplexing situation.     

For example, let’s examine how Dagoberto Gilb crafts his very short personal essay, “Northeast Direct” in such a way as to facilitate this writer-to-reader connection.    

To summarize the essay, in the opening paragraph, Gilb, the narrator, boards an Amtrak train in Boston that’s headed to Grand Central Station in New York. Shortly afterwards, he spots a stranger reading a novel. Within a matter of minutes, he notices that the man in front of him is reading his latest novel. Naturally, he’s shocked and surprised—and, above all, intensely curious to know more about his reader.         

This subsequently triggers an inner confusion that causes Gilb to wonder if he ought not approach the stranger and inform him that he’s the author of the novel the man is reading. So for the remainder of the train ride, Gilb goes back and forth in his head, obsessing about how to handle this unlikely coincidence. 

Until he reaches Grand Central, Gilb self-consciously debates with himself about whether or not to tell his reader that he’s the author of the book. Hours later, when he gets off the train at Grand Central, Gilb trails his anonymous reader until deciding at the stairs leading to the street that it’s best if they each go their separate ways without disclosing anything to the man about being the novelist.     

That’s the obvious plot of the essay, what Vivian Gornick calls the “situation.” What makes this a compelling narrative is that for the entire journey, we’re privy to Gilb’s thoughts and feelings. We feel his confusions; we witness his observations; we follow his ruminations and speculations—both about himself and the guy who's reading his book. When the reader puts the book down, gets up to leave the car, comes back and picks the book up, we watch as Gilb sizes him up, while vacillating between wanting to disclose himself as the author, yet preferring, in the end, to remain anonymous.    

We also follow the twists and turns of our narrator’s thoughts as he experiences a variety of contradictory responses: self doubt, pride, insecurity, elation, confusion, disappointment, and relief. Given the situation, we recognize that these are all normal human responses. So much so that we probably wouldn’t trust Gilb if he didn’t react in this way.     

What makes this essay work, then, is the way in which Gilb, as narrator, enlists his readers’ empathy and then gets us to identify with his anxieties and inner struggles. It’s as if he’s saying, “Reader, what would you do if you were in my shoes?”    

Moreover, by using the incident on the train as a catalyst for his thoughts, and by confining those thoughts to a prescribed period of time (the duration of the train ride), he transparently allows his readers to understand and know him far more intimately than we would have if he'd written the literal story of his chance encounter. It’s the difference between a story told to friends at the bar and a well-crafted personal narrative by a writer who understands the form.   

*

In Scott Russell Sanders’s personal essay, “Cloud Crossing,” we encounter a narrator who, like Gilb, is thinking his way through a personal dilemma. The main difference is that Saunders’s persona is a more somber and contemplative human being.   

Like “Northeast Direct,” “Cloud Cover” is crafted as a journey—an interior exploration. Whereas Gilb uses the train ride from Boston to New York to structure and frame his essay, Sanders shapes “Cloud Cover” by inviting the reader along on his hike up and down the side of Hardesty Mountain.  

Carrying his son in a backpack, Sanders, as the narrator, observes the natural world around him: rocks, fossils, trees, and cloud formations. Each observation triggers a series of disjunctive thoughts and reactions, mainly tied to his confusions, guilts, and apprehensions about the future of the environment and the hazardous world his son is being born into.   

The piece opens with the narrator ruminating in part on the guilt he feels for spending too much time writing and not enough time with his infant son. This leads to a series of brooding, somewhat metaphysical meditations on time, mortality, and personal responsibility. In the midst of his soul-searching, Sanders decides to take the child with him on a hike up and down the side of a nearby Oregon mountain.    

In “Cloud Cover,” Sanders is trying to puzzle out some troubling personal issues, as well as ruminating on the larger implications of his thoughts. In the process, he expresses some dark apprehensions that he might otherwise not have encountered.  And we, the readers, understand his moody pessimism because we’ve been part and party to his inner journey.    

In each essay. Gilb and Sanders have created structures and situations that act as catalysts for thought and reflection. As a result, both writers can range as freely and digressively as they wish, like jazz musicians riffing away from the melody line and then coming back to it. 

Final Thoughts on Teaching

In Judith Kitchen’s essay, “The End,” she writes, “The building of a process of thought is what interests the reader....The intimacy of the essay,” Kitchen maintains, “is a sharing of thought. We look as much for how an author approaches a subject as for the subject itself.”   

In the piece, Kitchen offers some sound writing advice. 

       “Here are five things,” she says that “my students deny themselves as their stories draw to a close: 

        —retrospection: a looking back, an assessment

        —intrusion: a stepping in, a commentary

        —meditation: a thinking through and around, finding a perspective

        —introspection: a self-examination, honest appraisal and discovery

        —imagination: (as distinct from invention) which allows for alternatives, projections, juxtapositions, whatever could provide a larger frame.

Kitchen claims her students “deny themselves” these opportunities. It’s a  generous, accurate phrasing of the matter. 

        I’ll add the following to her list:     

     —reflection: thinking things out, searching for meaning 

     —speculation: playing “what if ’’  

     —self-interrogation: asking the hard questions, the ones you don’t always want to know the answers to 

     —projection: trying to predict what might happen

     —digression: allowing the mind to wander away from the subject  {some of the richest discoveries, I believe, are made through digressions}.       

The truth is that by nature and disposition all human beings are reactive creatures. That is, we’re always responding internally. In any situation or encounter, we probably couldn’t get through thirty seconds without experiencing most or all of the reactions listed above.  

*

No matter what the catalyst might be then—a teenager’s desperate need to impress a coach; a writer’s impulse to introduce himself to a stranger who’s reading his book; or a father’s guilt over not spending enough time with a child—the human mind and imagination never stop analyzing, asking why, and posing “what if” questions.   

And so our charge as writing teachers is to keep urging would-be-writers to explore their internal thoughts, questions, and confusions more deeply, to interrogate their thinking more rigorously, to extend their ruminations and reflections outward, and, in the process, continue to search for ways of finding shape and meaning in those deliberations.         

As V.S. Pritchett says, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”

 

This piece originally appeared in a slightly different

form in the 2011 issue of Grist: The Journal For Writers.

 

Works Cited

Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Woolf, Virginia. A Sketch of the Past. Quoted in “The Luminous Power of Words.” Bartkevicius, Jocelyn.  Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, 3:2, (Fall, 2001).

Steinberg, Michael. “Trading Off,” The Missouri Review. XV11 (Spring, 1994).

Stone, Laurie, ed. Close to the Bone. New York: Grove Press, 1997.

Gilb, Dagoberto. “Northeast Direct,” The Threepenny Review , 67: (Fall, 1996).

Lopate, Phillip. “The Essay Lives On: In Disguise,” New York Times Book Review, November 18, 1984.

Kazin, Alfred. Quoted in Heilker, Paul. The Essay: Theory and Pedagogy for an Active Form. Urbana, NCTE, 1996.

Sanders, Scott Russell. “The Singular First Person.” Secrets of the Universe: Scenes from the Journey Home. Boston: Beacon, 1991.

Sanders, Scott Russell. “Cloud Cover,” The North American Review, (1981).

Pritchett, V.S.  Quoted in Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story.

 

 

Michael Steinberg has written and edited five books. In 2004, Foreword Magazine chose Still Pitching as the Independent Press Memoir of the Year. Other titles include, Peninsula: Essays and Memoirs From MichiganThose Who Do, Can: Teachers Writing, Writers Teaching, and The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (with Bob Root), now in a sixth edition. He’s also founding editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Steinberg has been a guest writer at many colleges and universities, as well as at several national and international writers’ conferences. Currently, he’s the creative nonfiction writer-in-residence in the Solstice/Pine Manor Low Residency MFA program. 

 

Q&A

Q: Can you share a little about your current writing project? 

A: Currently, I’m working on three projects. I’m finishing up a collection of personal essay/memoirs loosely connected on the relationship between baseball and writing. I’m also part way into a midlife memoir, which seems to be turning into a sequel of Still Pitching, my earlier coming-of-age-memoir that came out in 2003. The third project is a collection of personal essays on/about selected craft issues in creative nonfiction. The essay you’re publishing is from that collection 

 

Q: What surprised you most while writing this piece?

A: Its unexpected evolution. It began some years ago as a fifteen-minute AWP talk. Then, I revised it into a short (780 words) craft essay that was published in Fourth Genre  before expanding it again last year into the almost 4,000-word piece that you see here. What surprised me most was discovering, over time, how much more I had to say about this subject. 

 

Q: Writers often ask the question, How does one know a work is complete? You’ve provided invaluable checklists within this essay, but even then, I’m afraid many of us will mentally insist, “It’s all in there, I swear.” So how do you know, for example, when a piece is ready to submit for publishing  consideration? 

A: This answer is related in some ways to the previous one above. At Fourth Genre, we editors see a lot of very good pieces that are unfinished.That is, they’re still missing something. It’s hard for us to know what that something is. Often, the problem is in the structure. As a writer, I’ve also come to recognize that what I originally thought were my best pieces—that is, when I first sent them out—simply weren’t finished. So, I got into the habit of not looking at my rejected work for a while. When I pulled them out to reread and revise, I immediately recognized what was missing. Again, it was usually a problem with structure. My point is that six months or a year later, you have more emotional distance from the work. And, as a writer and reader, you also have more experience wrestling with matters of craft.

 

Q: If we were to lock you in a room for a single hour with a writer of your choice, who would that writer be, and why?

A: Patricia Hampl. In the mid-90’s, when I was beginning to read about and write literary nonfiction, particularly memoir, I came across Hampl’s essay, “Memory and Imagination.” At that time, memoir wasn’t taken very seriously as a “literary” form. By which I mean that the literary writer’s impulse is to transpose and transform human experience into art. And that’s what I wanted to do in my own memoirs. During the 90’s, though, we were just beginning to debate the “literal truth” issue in memoir. So, Hampl’s notion that imagination alters, even rearranges, our memory gave me permission to use my imagination more freely in composing my memoirs.


The Watery Part of the World, by Michael Parker

(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, April 2011)

Reviewed by Martha F. Brenner

 

Michael Parker’s fifth novel evolved from a short story, “Off Island,” about the last inhabitants of a storm-battered, mosquito-infested island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The story, inspired by actual events, won major awards but to Parker felt cramped, covering too much time. He expanded the story, then combined it with speculative “histories” he’d written about other women on the coast: Theodosia Burr Alston, the well-educated daughter of Aaron Burr and wife of a governor of South Carolina, and Virginia Dare of the Lost Colony.

In lesser hands the combination might have seemed contrived, but Parker, a professor in UNC-Greensboro’s MFA program, knows how to make his characters’ lives  resonate both in close quarters and over time, uniting them with common dilemmas, in language that flows seamlessly from period and regional diction to incantatory strokes. 

The novel unfolds in the alternating views of four characters: Theodosia, presumed dead in a shipwreck off Nag’s Head in 1813 but spared by a pirate; Woodrow Thornton, an African American fisherman who is the descendant of Hezekiah, handyman to Theodosia and Old Whaley on Yaupon Island; and elderly sisters Maggie Whaley and Theo Whaley, great-great-great granddaughters of Theodosia Burr, who depend on Woodrow to survive in the present when Yaupon has dwindled to a ghost town without electricity or mail. Still, they’re content to stay—Woodrow enjoys his “sweet spread” of four acres in the colored section—all except Woodrow’s wife who wants to move to the mainland, closer to their grandbabies.

Without modern distractions, memories and Yaupon history are more intense. Theo Whaley, keeper of an antique portrait of Theodosia, relishes the annual visits of an anthropologist and his assistant, switching to an Old English brogue when they show up with their tape recorders. Woodrow avoids their questions “swole up with the answer, like a snake had swallowed a frog.” They want to know if the civil rights movement has reached the island. Woodrow still calls at the sisters’ back door. 

Maggie, as indulgent as her sister is prim, remembers playing Virginia Dare in the dunes as a child and, in her forties, taking a young lover who’d come to Yaupon to learn to fish from Woodrow.  He joins her for a swim. “‘I hear you’re wild,’ he said after a while. She heard a little fear in his voice, which made her like him—and what he said—better than if he’d come on all cocky. ‘You must have been talking to somebody tame,’ she said. He snickered. ‘That would be about everybody on this island.’” 

When he asks Maggie to leave with him, she hesitates (Parker draws this out a bit long) for fear she’ll end up like Virginia Dare, drawn to the continent out of a greed for life, the lure of “Always Elsewhere.” She might roam forever.

Finally, in 2005, it’s Hurricane Wilma that provides the pivotal moment for Yaupon’s last islanders to show whether they can breach old resentments and racial barriers to care for each other. 

On Parker’s island, history is personal. Tolerance, respect, security, and freedom  aren’t bestowed; they’re hammered out in relationships. An aristocratic woman painfully recasts herself to survive on the coastal frontier with pirates, scavengers, and a freed slave, much as women had to adapt on the western frontier. Theodosia’s descendents, overly proud of their adaptation to Yaupon, can’t acknowledge their reliance on Woodrow. He, in turn, can’t break himself of the habit of helping, enduring Theo Whaley’s haughtiness and Maggie’s neediness with quiet indignation. Parker finally gives Woodrow the strength to confront them and the sisters live for years with regrets. It’s much too complex a change to capture on a tape recorder or in a history book. But Parker’s rich novel comes convincingly close. 

 

Martha F. Brenner’s short stories have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Bellingham Review and Boomtown: Explosive Writing from Ten Years of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA Program (Press 53). Her books for children include Abe Lincoln’s Hat (Random House).


Eddie's War by Carol Fisher Saller

namelos (August 1, 2011)

Reviewed by Kristen-Paige Madonia

 

Set on a farm in a small town in Illinois before and during World War II, Carol Fisher Saller’s novel Eddie’s War is composed of a series of 76 poetic prose vignettes that narrate the complicated world of Eddie Carl, a nine-year-old boy grappling with life during the time range of 1934 to 1944. The book, which is marketed for middle-grade readers but will find a large audience among adults as well, invites us to return to that heartbreaking and beautiful time of youth when we first begin to understand the vastness of the world but are still wrestling with the day-to-day experiences and challenges of being a child. Drawing from the diary her father began in 1944 as a child in the eighth grade, Saller explores farm life and Eddie’s relationships to his small-town community and to nature; this setting serves as the backdrop for Eddie, who gets left behind when his brother Thomas goes to war to fight as a bomber pilot. 

In addition to the diary, Saller’s aunt also gave her copies of letters her father mailed to his brother while his brother was at war, another resource she used to fuel the vivid setting and poignant emotional tone of the novel. It is this kind of detailed authenticity that makes the book so memorable—the meticulous accounts of working on the farm and riding the hitch of the family tractor, blue jeans turned up, the sun burning brightly as they wove their way through rows of new corn. In addition to life on the farm, Eddie often spends his time in the library reading wrinkled and yellowed newspaper accounts of the war, and finds solace in the papers, electric fan panning back and forth as he ruffles through crime stories and headlines, opening and closing the sheets together “like wings of a big, papery moth.” It is in the library that Eddie initiates an unlikely friendship with Jozef, an older man from Poland, as they exchange their fears and hopes and histories throughout the course of the novel.

While his brother serves as a bomber pilot on the other side of the ocean, Eddie assumes a larger role at home: flying in the crop duster plane, competing in pest-killing contests (“I had one rat tail, two sparrows, and a mouse”), playing basketball, minding his grandmother (“If the president really wanted to win the war, he should put gramas in charge”), and discovering the mysterious world of girls and high school. Through letters that Eddie and his brother write to one another while Thomas is training for and fighting in the war, the novel juxtaposes Eddie’s small-town life—where a school bus skidding sideways constitutes an emergency—with the world Eddie imagines Thomas enduring, “away at the air base-probably learning emergency drills, women and children first... cutting up in a fighter, being an ace—and what the heck—winning the war all by himself.” More than half of the book takes place during the war, and while the short chapters are at times tragic and full of coming-of-age complications that immediately align the reader with Eddie and his struggles, Saller has managed to balance the dramatic WWII historical setting with the often comedic and lighthearted tone of a young boy wading his way through adolescence. The short, concise stanza structure creates a sense of immediacy and urgency, and it is impossible not to feel as though you are a part of Eddie’s family and his community as they manage the trials of wartime. 

Saller’s vibrant descriptions and complex characters invite the reader to participate in the world of the story as opposed to simply witnessing it, and her talent as a writer is undeniable as she experiments with prose-poetry structure and explores the convoluted and emotional historical setting of WWII. But the heart of the book lies with Eddie’s voice, his distinct way of viewing the world, his inevitable innocence and eventual loss of it, and the way his life on the farm is altered as he navigates his way out of childhood and into the adult world.

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Kristen-Paige Madonia’s debut novel will be published in 2012 by Simon & Schuster, and her short fiction has appeared in Upstreet, New Orleans Review, American Fiction: Best Previously Unpublished Stories by Emerging Writers, Sycamore Review, Inkwell, and South Dakota Review. She holds an MFA from California State University, Long Beach and currently teaches creative writing in Charlottesville, Virginia and is at work on her second novel.


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Cath Barton is a singer, writer, and photographer who lives in South Wales. You can see her exhibition of photographs of Wales at www.camelsaloonwales.blogspot.com. Her stories have been published in 100 Stories for QueenslandFractured West, and The Quotable.

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