Welcome to Issue No. 13 of Prime Number:

Cover.JPG

A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose

Letter from the Editors

Dear Readers,

Just in time for Halloween, we are excited to present lucky Issue No. 13 of Prime Number Magazine. The only thing scary about this issue, though, is how great the work is that we're able to bring you this quarter. We've got terrific short stories for you, including work by Sybil Baker and Benjamin Buchholz, both of whom have novels coming out soon. We've also got wonderful non-fiction, including an essay by Kirk Curnutt, author of Dixie Noir, among other books. Also, be sure to check out our eclectic mix of poetry, including work by Lenore Weiss and Joe Mills. And because we think you will be doing a lot of reading in the cold months ahead (or hot months, for our friends in the Southern Hemisphere), we've got a bunch of book reviews. Lastly, we're pleased to present a story board by Emily Edwards that we think you'll love.

Our cover photo for the issue is by photographer Peg Duthie.

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 six 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 17, scheduled to launch in January. 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 13, October-December 2011

 

POETRY

Skylaar Amann

And the Dreams of Vaudeville Follow Us All Home

Memories of Ukulele and the Girl Who Loved Her

Amorak Huey

Johnny Winter in Stockholm

Big Bill Broonzy in Amsterdam

Governor O.K. Allen Considers the Pardon Request

of Huddie William Ledbetter

Joe Mills

Crucible

Telling Time

Lenore Weiss

Börte’s Perfect Love Story

 

FICTION

Shannon Anthony

License to Rock

Stephen Williams

Pan's Burden

Benjamin Buchholz

Uncle Matty Doesn't Require Collapse

Robert Wexelblatt

Petite Suite Printanière

Sybil Baker

The Spiritual Age of Machines

Jody Hobbs Hesler

Welcome

 

STORY BOARD

Emily Edwards

Art Critic

 

NONFICTION

Jacqueline Doyle

Crosswords

Kirk Curnutt

The Best Cemetery in the South (in which to Kiss a Woman)

Sarah Gottlieb

Red

Patricia Bjorklund

Almost Happy,1972

Lois C. Fiorelli

Living in the Zone

 

REVIEWS

Hobie Anthony

Review of Betty Superman by Tiff Holland

Anne Sanow

Review of Mending: New and Selected Stories by Sallie Bingham

Malena Carollo

Review of If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter

Jeffery Hess

Review of Fighting in the Shade by Sterling Watson

Marko Fong

Review of Jailed by Myra Sherman

Catherine Staples

Review of Lumina by Heather Ross Miller

 

COVER ART

Peg Duthie

The Key to Room 103, Hotel Porte Mars, Reims

 

Prime Number Decimals

Prime Decimals 13.2

Prime Decimals 13.3

Prime Decimals 13.5

Prime Decimals 13.7


Skylaar Amann.jpg

Poetry from Skylaar Amann

followed by Q&A

And the Dreams of Vaudeville Follow Us All Home

Step up to yesterday and yes

the heyday of play. If vaudeville

be the food of live, play on. One

more encore, encourage irreverence

and revere performer. Brava! diva,

broad, vibrato. Keep clapping till

the raven stops rapping and the only 

thing knocked backed longer than drinking

is the slapsticking and the stinking jokes.

Tip tumblers, hats, and tables till wood

and glass slivers like tinder and the general

brouhaha belches hoi polloi into night

streets and sleek streetcars shift dirty men

from concert saloon to salon to one-room

studio and grave shifts worked hung over

and humming. And the ukulele strums

linger melodies in men’s heads, vibrate

lips as they slip home lately, hopes hopped

up on music, magic, and that frantic

slapstick.  The chugchugchug

of the train tracks syncopate dreams

in a whole city’s brains and enflamed

aspirations for a better tomorrow haunt

the commonest man and his poor wife,

both eking out a working class subsistence.

Sitting by the radio, cheap pipe and sewing

respectively in hand, and each quietly 

imagining a secret, separate, 

existence: he, a professional juggler, 

and she sings like a bird.

 

Memories of Ukulele and the Girl Who Loved Her

She was born--like they all were--on the wrong side of the tracks. Sleeping on hard bed like a fret board, listening to the woo-woo of the train wash over her like ocean waves. She saved every dream for the stage and gazed at the night stars in that certain romantic way in which the rough-and-tumbles store up hope like pinched pennies.

But the years skipped by like scratches on wax cylinders; she let her bob grow out and joined the working class, breaking back, unpacking boxes, moving up the ladder slowly--as far as a girl like her could go. Then sick and aching for forgotten yesterday, faux vaude, and joie de vivre, she heaved her zombie body from the millstone and willed her way to the great white way, a Broadway whale to her rehab Ahab.

She hit the train tracks, pulled up stakes so they couldn’t follow her. She walked away slowly awol, then running, she made her getaway. Oh, she got good, lammed it as far as her gams would get. She tapped on creaky stages, juggled in saloons, sang off key in concert halls, creeping ever closer to that Broadway Whale, with its fishtail and Mae West body that reverberates va-va-voom when you touch it. 

And she touched it. 

Its four-string fret board plays like a rib cage, weeps gently and shrugs off trouble. Hums melody like a tumbling wave, strums chords like a short skirt. She stopped short on the sidewalk, saw it tug her from the window. She gave the man inside the last of her juggling money, hugged the ukulele to her body. Ukulele. She said the word again, in the Hawaiian way. ‘Ukulele. It brushed her lips like kissing sublimity. She let her thumb skim down the strings and her spine shivered in the way that meant she was changed for ever. She thought back to the shack she grew up in, the pain, the factory bosses and fatcats, the humiliating auditions and rejections at one dime museum after another in every one-horse town on the small-time circuit. Never again. She plucked a few notes so sweet they brought tears to her eyes, and she knew it was true.

 

 

Skylaar Amann is a poet and artist living in Portland, OR. In 2005, Skylaar was a Kidd Tutorial fellow at the University of Oregon. Her poetry has recently been published in Cirque and Sea Stories. She writes regularly on the subjects of the sea, love, and chronic pain. When not writing, Skylaar enjoys the ocean and playing her ukulele. www.skylaaramann.com

 

Q&

Q: We’re on a series of one-night stands for the vaudeville troupe. What is this town we’re pulling into, where the show will set up this evening? What do you see from the train window? 

A: We’re in every town in America, from New York City to Seattle and every small town in between. We’re playing in concert saloons, variety theaters, and music halls. Heck, we’ll even play a dime museum or a street corner if the price is right. Over the years, the audience ranged from rowdy drunks to high-society ladies and children. Despite the romanticized fantasy of the vaudevillian performer, life was tough…theater bosses were cutthroat and cheap, conditions were lousy, crowds were rough, hours were long, racial tensions were high. Still, I’d trade a desk job for a ukulele any day. 

 

Q: Why the ukulele? 

A: I always loved the ukulele...I just didn’t realize it until I started playing. The uke was a big part of old vaude and was ubiquitous in the films and music I grew up with everything from Cliff Edwards records to Marilyn Monroe movies). I picked up a uke of my own a few years ago, and the rest is history. While I am still learning to master the instrument, the connection was immediate...I felt a kinship with the past and an era I have always related to. The ukulele is small (perfect for my small hands), easily transportable, and above all: fun! Playing the uke, I am a performer, a jokester, a musician…a vaudevillian, which, really, since the first time I saw Harpo Marx on camera, was all I wanted to be. 

 

Q: Are the memories and dreams of the working class spangled with sequins? 

A: Growing up in a rural, low-income environment, imagination was a big part of my existence. Anything I couldn’t read in a book, I dreamed up myself. I cut my vaudeville teeth at an early age, watching Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and Mae West films reverently (even copying the jokes, timing, and movements in life and on paper). I yearned for the power these comics possessed...their linguistic gymnastics, anarchic 

physicality, and general freedom...something not commonly found in a life of financial limitations. In adulthood, having pursued arts and academics over wealth and business (an often laborious and unrecognized task), I continue to dream of sequins...the money, the notoriety, the independence, wondering what other paths my life could have taken, and may still.


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Poetry from Amorak Huey

followed by Q&A

Johnny Winter in Stockholm

Tivoli Garden, June 1984

 

No shadows here. You could be in Miami:

one of those places where the blues

has the bright echo of a bauble in the sun –

 

light plunging: white stone into rivermurk.

 

There’s something like home about a water city

even where the buildings are angled all wrong,

the history belongs to someone else

 

and the churches are unsmiling. 

 

A long way from Leland or Beaumont 

but still the sweet mildew smell of summer,

the strange blossoming of hyacinth.

 

When you’re seeing clearly –

 

no more dragons to chase – one stage

fades into next, until a high lonesome wind

bruises down from mountains

 

with the keening of a water oak limb

 

about to break free. They adore you here

but you know better – it’s the music,

not the words, your fingers telling a story

 

in any language, any season – it’s about love,

 

all the loves a man ever had

or lost, you can’t let this sunshine end

because once the song stops, baby, 

 

you can kiss tomorrow goodbye.

 

 

Big Bill Broonzy in Amsterdam

June 1953

 

Some places just lay claim to you –

 

the way this city named for a river

where all the trees are no taller

than a man’s head has felt like home

from the hour you arrived. Summer

 

no warmer than March, Jim Crow’s

never set foot here – your new friends

think you’re joking when you ask 

if you’ll be arrested for taking 

the stage at the pub. You thought

 

you knew a thing or two about rivers

 

& women, but this girl,

she turns you inside out. She

hardly looks at your face

but never stops watching

your fingers. Her smile makes 

 

your blood heat up, thumping 

this Gibson never felt so good.

This place reminds you of a house

being built on top of the spot

 

where an older house burned:

 

all promise & possibility

& maybe even redemption.

It’s not until hours later

when she tells you her name – Pim –

& asks for a light.

 

Without waiting for an answer,

she leans in so close to your mouth

you smell lemons & fresh air,

 

she touches the tip of her cigarette

to yours, inhales

like she’s drawing electricity

 

from deep inside you,

in that brief glow 

sparking between you

you can see everything:

 

the beginning, the end –

dark smeary blotches

flickering against a pale green 

 

so bright it hurts the eye.

 

 

Governor O.K. Allen Considers the Pardon Request of Huddie William Ledbetter

July 1934

 

One of those Louisiana summer evenings,

peeper frogs rioting outside,

breeze just moving heat around

like the inside of an oven. Can’t tell

if it’s supposed to be funny, letter 

on back of record: “Goodnight 

Irene.” Fine song, but the gimmick puts you in mind

of that joke you know the newspapermen

are telling about you – dogwood leaf blows in 

an open office window, and thinking 

it might be a bill from Huey, you sign it. 

Lord, it’s hot. Life’s too short.

You’ve been looking for something essential

you can claim as your own,

maybe this is it – think of the music,

the way a song can get inside a man’s head

and lurk there, dangerous

and erotic like blood, or water

when the river’s high against the levies,

swirling away whole Tupelo trees

from leaf to root. Hear the right 

notes on a record player

and you’re twenty-six again,

back in Waxahachie 

on a picnic blanket with a girl in a yellow muslin dress,

world on fire and smelling like red wine,

her mouth hungry against yours,

this was before tax assessments and highway commissions,

before this pressure behind your eyes

that you’re pretty sure will kill you someday,

before anyone owed or owned you –

when anything, by God, was possible.

 

 

Amorak Huey teaches professional and creative writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His poems have appeared in Rattle, Poet Lore, Contrary, The Southern Review and other journals. More information is at www.amorakhuey.net.

 

Q&A:

Q: What is your favorite water city, and why?

A: It’s no secret that we humans love to live by the water. There are practical reasons for this – transportation, commerce, etc. – but there’s also something about water that speaks to us, connects with us, calms us. Raymond Carver wrote that loving rivers increases us, and that line has always resonated with me. Grand Rapids, Michigan, has a river running through it, and we’re an easy drive from Lake Michigan. So maybe this is my favorite because it’s where I live now. I am here, and there is water, and yes to both of these things.

 

Q: Tell us more about Big Bill Broonzy and his life and music.

A: Big Bill Broonzy was a ridiculously talented blues guitarist and singer in the first half of the twentieth century. His biography is suitably unclear for a blues legend – maybe he was born in Arkansas, maybe in Mississippi – and he worked mostly in obscurity until after World War II when he went to Europe with part of a folk-blues-roots music revival tour, where he was extremely well received and cemented his status as an icon. Also, while he was in Holland, he fell in love with a Dutch woman named Pim van Iseldt, whom he married. Broonzy died in Chicago in 1958 of throat cancer. His “Guitar Shuffle” is one of the most remarkable pieces of music ever recorded. You can listen to it here.

 

Q: How did you come to write these poems about music and musicians and place?

A: I wrote a poem about the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson and his alleged deal with the devil, and then I wrote another one, and then I started reading about other blues musicians and I just kept writing. I grew up in Alabama, so the songs and stories and rhythms of the South matter to me, and my father has always listened to the blues. So these poems, which make up a whole manuscript now, are about music, and place, and American history, and fathers and sons, and all these huge and important and small and personal things wrapped up in the blues. The music. It all comes back to the music.


Joe Mills.JPG

Poetry from Joe Mills

followed by Q&A

Crucible

i.

“Tell us a story,” the children ask,

and the parents, although they know

it’s a delaying tactic, always agree.  

Listen, they say, once upon a time

there were girls and boys like you,

scared and resourceful, disobedient

and loved, and there were parents,

like us, trying to keep them safe

and warm and fed, but they failed 

so the children had to leave to fight

monsters and giants, witches and wolves,

and when they came back home

sometimes they found their parents 

had died, but not you, you never will.

 

ii.

Yes, there is evil

in the world, some

directed at you

and you can do

nothing to avoid it.

Beware of strangers.

Don’t judge by appearances.

None of these will help.

Evil will do what evil does,

striking you down

even when you don’t

bite into the apple,

and if you’re lucky,

you survive, sometimes

unconscious, sometimes

in a tower (after all

there are  so many ways 

to be locked up) 

but still alive, if not

warm, at least waiting.

 

iii.

You prefer beauty

to the point of wanting

someone comatose

instead of the village girl

who dances according

to her own desires

 

because you believe

you will be the one 

to wake her, the one 

to make her move, 

your vivifying kiss, 

your magical presence.

 

This is the mirror

of the tale.  Stop

looking at her,

imagining the feel

of that skin, and listen.

 

iv

Forget they’re animals.

Forget the easy jokes 

about property crimes.

Don’t stop at slogans:

 “Avoid extremes” or

“Find the middle way.”

Consider only the bare

element.  A woman,

a blonde stranger,

eats and sits and sleeps

in the bed you’ve shared

your most intimate moments.

Call her intruder

or mistress.

Call her daughter in law

or doubt.

Call her longing 

or desire.

But she will come 

and afterwards

nowhere will be

just right again.

 

v.

When you get home

after stealing and killing 

to feed your family, 

you’ll take an ax 

to memory,

hacking down

the evidence

and burning 

the green stalks;

the smoke will be 

seen for miles

ensuring an audience

for you to recount

what happened

and what happened

becomes the tale

you tell.

 

vi.

Ignore the housing materials;

pay attention to the statistics.

Whatever gets built

brute force knocks down

two out of three times.

 

This is enough

to keep yourself fed 

and something to remember 

when you lock the door 

before going to bed.

 

vii.

Blood, puberty,

sex, violence, 

it may be these

sometimes, but always

the family dies.

No matter what 

we do or have

in the basket, 

no matter who

happens to pass by

at the last minute.

Blame the wolves,

among us, famine,

viruses, poor vision,

or tell the story

so the mother

of your mother

survives this

particular ending

but we all know

where each path ends.

Burn everything

away; this remains

the bone of the story

on which we choke.

 

 

Telling Time

A tale, like a rock,

over the years,

becomes smooth

from constant rubbing;

edges and corners abrade 

until it seems no more

than a glossy ornament,

but hold it to your ear,

you can still hear

the ticking within.

 

Whatever gets polished

away, the violence

we do to one another

and ourselves – the cutting,

off of toes to try to fit

into a slipper, the dancing

to death in red hot shoes,

the pulling out of tongues –

this remains:  the clock

will strike midnight,

the crocodile is nearing,

the last petal falls.

Hurry, each story says,

you don’t have much time.

 

 

Joe Mills teaches at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he holds the endowed chair for the Susan Burress Wall Professorship for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities. He also is the poet-in residence at Salem College.

 

Q&A

Q: How do fairy tales prepare children to understand their world–and their parents?

A: The crime writer Jim Thompson said that there were dozens of plots, but “there is only one story. Things are not what they seem.”  Every fairy tale deals with this, and readers learn about the world’s complexities. (This, by the way, is also why I think Disney often gets the tales wrong. In Disney films, you can judge by appearances. Scar is clearly evil; he has a scar. The step-sisters are “ugly” inside and out.) Dealing with these complexities requires resilience, resourcefulness, and the recognition that there is much outside of your control. It’s good for children and for parents to understand this.

 

Q: What is a fairy tale that you won’t read to your children, and why?

A: I’ve kept them away from Bluebeard although I know they’ll get to him eventually.  It’s less the tale than the telling that I’m careful about. Fairy tales deal with identity, so issues of race, gender, class, etc. are inevitably involved. Issues involved with adoption also come into play a great deal.

 

Q: If you found yourself lost in an unknown forest, what strategies would you use to save yourself/be saved/win the day?

A: Be careful who you talk to–no matter what they look like–and what you say to them. Again and again, fairy tales suggest a key strategy is to know when to keep your mouth shut. And be nice to the birds; they usually can help.


Lenore Weiss.gif

Poetry from Lenore Weiss

followed by Q&A

Börte’s Perfect Love Song*

 

1. Börte Sings Both Loud and Softly to Temujin

I am Mongol, loyal to one master.

When that other khan

 

touches my cheek, it turns into a salt pond.

Nightmares rim my eyes with darkness.

 

My husband, Temujin, is a gray wolf

who kissed my mouth.

 

I remember when Temujin lifted

the fringe of my silk banner

 

with his spear.

Now his spirit pole is gone from my tent.

 

I drip candle wax along the fissure of my heart,

drink warm kumis.

 

A woman in black sable calls me

to stand before my dream.

 

Floating seeds join each other in air.

I hear them laugh.

 

The seed in my bowl is not his.

It doubles me.

 

I will slip away like the whip of a horsetail

upon the frozen steppe.

 

I was not born to die in another clan's tent.

The Blue Sky follows me between branches.

 

The face of the marmot and falcon is Temujin's

face. The birch hides my secret.

 

 

2. The Lichen Clan

Stolen from Temujin to this mirror camp, days

stick in my throat and sicken me.

 

I see men, women, and children

with the same two arms and legs.

 

They stare

and wait for me to circle.

 

If I remove my silver necklace,

I must bow my neck.

 

How long can I nurse emptiness,

a heartless child?

 

The fire at night warms bootless feet.

My silver gelding with a black tail does not run toward me.

 

I search the Altai Mountains for rising dust.

Before a cooking fire,

 

I dry a blanket, the same color

as an arrow that strikes

 

the curved tip of a falcon's wing.

I see it.

 

Men come to crush each other,

and every woman and child with two arms and legs.

 

Stallions mash bones with hooves

into the black rock of Lake Baikal

 

covered with the faces of lichen

that speak as one clan.

 

3. Wild Onion and Pear

Lying next to this man, Chilger,

through the smoke-hole of our tent,

 

I hear a grasshopper

burrow in sheep dung.

He throws a hand over my chest

like a lasso pole to draw me in tight.

 

His breath travels up an elk-path

and comes back down, snorting.

 

All night, even without sleep,

I cannot rest.

 

I'm the one who holds his willow branch

until it topples,

 

and in the morning, the one who fills

a leather bucket with mare's milk

 

until it runs down his face

and drowns him in a white river.

 

I draw my lips over my teeth.

He wants to capture a smile.

 

He can bridle me.

No one commands my heart.

 

Only the child that floats on its back

with fingers pressed against my belly.

 

I will dig in the ground,

feed him wild onion and pear.

 

4. A Wolfskin with a Silk Rope

My ears hear everything at night.

My eyes see everything during day.

 

I could not tell who entered my tent

through the evening smoke-hole and stood

 

with his legs, an arrow's width apart.

Then I saw him.

 

Sky blue. Even his nose.

Maybe he was a cloud.

 

In his hand, several wolfskins tied

with a silk rope.

He said: From the water of your waters

will grow a nation. Four sons

 

with the strength of a wolf pack

tied together.

 

He placed a bundle in my lap.

When I awoke, it was my head's soft pillow.

 

Then I knew Temujin would come.

Who else could be the father of such men?

 

Part of me

wanted daughters to braid my hair,

 

to brew tea when news of the tangled grass

reached my ears.

 

Piles of rotting bodies like dead trees.

I am not prepared.

 

5. The Strongest Hand

Soldiers drink horse’s blood,

fill moats with dead bodies,

 

pile catapults with excrement

near a thousand flickering fires.

 

Quivers of horn and wood

hug arrows for their intended.

 

Ashes of men rout a birch

with locust memories.

 

Now I pour ashes into my palm

and blow breath on them,

 

men in a season of slaughter

who disappear beneath a saddle.

 

When I was a child,

my mother carried me on her hip.

 

I wore boots as soft as doeskin.

One day she found a mare,

escort to a pool of water

between shoulders of earth.

 

The sky grew black. I could see back

to the beginning

 

before I held a horse’s mane

and breathed in its sweet sweat,

 

where I sat and wondered why people kill each other,

and then scatter to the strongest hand.

 

6. A Sparrow in Search of Spring

Temujin, wolf-man with cat eyes

came to me in a goat-skin cape

 

to replace my companion of months,

a shadow. Now my twin flies

 

like a sparrow in search of spring

away to a peak covered in grass,

 

or like a sturgeon that leaps

with the oar of its tail.

 

I run free.

Night is studded with pearls

 

and wraps us in black velvet.

Inside each other's den,

 

no one sees

what we do,

 

our backs etched raw

by root and stone.

 

Thunder from our sated voices

widens a stream-bed.

 

Who we are together

shines in our eyes.

 

The child that is mine

becomes his.

 

Temujin has come back.

I pick out straw from his beard.

 

 

*Börte was the first wife of Temujin (Chingis Khan). She was captured by the Merkid

tribe and temporarily married to Chilger the Athlete. Chingis Khan began his drive to

unite the clans of the Asiatic steppes in an effort to reclaim her.

 

Lenore Weiss  is an award-winning writer who lives in the Bay Area. Her collections include “Sh’ma Yis’rael" (2007) from Pudding House Publications, “Public and Other Places” (2003), and “Business Plan” (2001). Her work has most recently appeared in The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Nimrod International Journal, Copper Nickel, and Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal as well as anthologized in Not A Muse: Inner Lives of Women and Appleseeds. She is the editor of From the Well of Living Waters, an anthology of poetry.

 

Q&A

Q: How did you come to be interested in Börte and Temujin?

A: I attended the Genghis Khan exhibit at the Tech Museum in San Jose. As someone of Hungarian descent, I’ve always had an interest in Mongolia. The exhibit opened new doorways, including mention of the marvelous books by Jack Weatherford who traveled Mongolia for a period of five years and traced the footsteps of Genghis Khan. I was excited by a quality of language, a narrative that was based on survival and an intimate awareness of the physical world. I wanted to work toward achieving that same quality in the Börte and Temujin poems.

 

Q: What did you collect as a child–rocks, insects, stamps?–and why?

A: Mostly, I coveted unbroken crayons, notepaper, and books.

 

Q: Perhaps you would offer your thoughts on the narrative poem and its place in the contemporary poetic landscape.

A: The narrative is strong, especially in the work of young hip-hop artists throughout the world who tell stories of what it takes to survive in a difficult urban landscape.


Shannon Anthony.jpg

License to Rock

by Shannon Anthony

followed by Q&A

Despite my efforts to explore fresh territory, the conversational needle—totally rejecting my venturesome metaphor—gets stuck in a gouged-out groove. See, we never meet any Eds or Eddies even close to our age, so isn't it fascinating that the name is disproportionately represented in the population of famous rock guitarists? We can never actually name that many, and that's including The Edge—how hilarious it always is to include The Edge—but afterwards there's this smiling silence like we've discovered a not-the-least-bit-boneheaded truth. This time this pisses me off.

"How the fuck would we know how many Eds are out there? What new people do we ever meet, Eddie or otherwise?"

Lisa just smiles. "I run a tight friendship."

I can't stay mad at her. I mean, I can, but it makes me a complete dick. Because she's so—I mean, she makes people feel...I mean, her home is so homey it can only be described with words I haven't learned to use properly—but I strongly suspect the presence of bolsters and sideboards and cozies.

I don't let the apartment door slam on my way out. The hallway's full of welcome mats and holiday door decor. Lisa's neighbors aren't like mine, in that none of them strikes me as likely to be interested in our services as suppliers of genuinely realistic out-of-state ID’s.

Hey, it's not about the money. We remember what it's like to be underage. So we give the kids what they need to get into rock clubs. Look, they could drink and drive themselves to death just fine without our help. The important thing to understand is that what our customers lack in legitimately issued photo ID's with late-eighties dates of birth, they more than make up for in a headbanging, hip-hopping, moshalicious, rockaholic will to make it to the next show.

Myself, I'm not getting out and about so often anymore. Good enough things can always be downloaded by those who don't care to wait. And, well, the last concert I was at, I looked around and realized it's almost getting to the point where I'm old enough to have fathered some of these kids, I mean if my genetic material at the period in question hadn't all been earmarked for Daisy Duke. You know, back in the day before anybody said back in the day.

Of course if the bands had been any good at all, I wouldn't have given a shit about the crowd, but the thing is, everybody else was seriously into the garbage. So I was like, okay, I get it. We've outgrown each other. Have fun, kids, I'm going to find new places to be young.

Because what happened to me was NOT that I felt suddenly old. I am so not old. People are always telling me how youthful I am. ("Thirty-two, huh? I'm still going to have to see some ID.")

* * *

"...and as Minnesotans, this concerns us."

Damn it, Lisa just had to go and meet herself an Edward. Dressed to impress someone who's not me, Ned is pretending he's warm enough in svelte wool. He's our age but in dress shoes taking old man baby steps to cross a piddling patch of ice. I am of course wearing traction-packed work boots. It's totally beside the point that they make me look cool. That is, the boots and the parka make me look like I don't give a shit, and that is what's cool. At least if the parka's connected to the boots by Bowie legs encased in long, lean jeans.

"Mac, you're washing these jeans every couple of weeks or so, aren't you?"

Uh huh. How would Lisa notice it's the same pair if she wasn't totally checking out my Bowie legs?       

"As I was saying..." Ned is still saying. "Minnesota is a border state, and..."

And we are in a bored state. I yawn and start fishing in my parka for our most recently finished products.

Lisa gives me a warning look. "Ned's obviously very interested in the border, being Department of Homeland Security like he is.”

Wham-bam—my Bowie legs shoot out from under me, and I come down hard on an icy curb. See, being a Minnesotan means something significant is always happening to me. Mostly in the form of weather.

* * *

"It would be safer if we stop hooking...certain kinds of people up." Lisa knows what I'm trying not to say. "I don't want to get them—or us—into trouble with the Department of Ned. I mean, it's pretty serious, right?" 

This isn’t the first time our feet have gotten cold. Sometimes it's looked like we won't be able to keep up with the technology, but then of course technology always puts us right back in the game. Whenever I've had doubts, Lisa's always been the one to go, "We can't quit now. It's totally the principle of the thing!"

Now all she says is: "Serious? Of course it is."

* * *

"The thing is, Lisa. I have to tell you. You should know. The truth is. Here's a fun fact." I'm kind of in love with you.

"A fun fact is where now?"

Jesus! After all the concerts we've gone to together, how the hell does Lisa's hearing not suck?

* * *

"Mac! Can we give you a lift, buddy?"

Ned is a professional threat collector. Yet he doesn't seem to feel threatened by me.

"Why the hell not?" I climb in.

But I can see Lisa wishes I hadn't. Why the hell not? All is explained when the radio informs us we are tuned in to "the best new country."

I punch Ned on the shoulder. "This is my stop! Thanks, man." I feel safe giving him the finger, knowing he can't see it.

"Mighty cute mitten you got there, Mac."

Whatever, asshole. Some of us cheerfully violate the rules of fashion if it means keeping most of the feeling in most of our extremities.

* * *

Lisa says, "I never did get my fun fact."

"Here's a fun fact: The 'best new country' is the worst music in the world."

"Seriously, Mac."

"Seriously, Lisa? EIGHTY languages are spoken in the Minneapolis Public Schools." 

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. And these kids are tomorrow's professionals and parents and public servants and, yes, party animals!"

"Oh. So you're not stopping."

"I guess I can't." And by the way, your boyfriend really needs to be...well, me. "It's totally the principle of the thing."

* * *

"Mac, I'm here for the license!"

Lisa would know totally evocative words for the fabric that frames my customer's face. I don't know the cloth or the colors. What I do know is that this chick—let's call her Melody, like it says right here on her driver's license—could totally be a not too distant cousin of Iman.

I share with Melody my standard words of wisdom: "If you squander this opportunity and settle for barhopping at fucking Mall of America, I do not want to hear about it, and, frankly, you'd deserve to get busted. I mean, you just want to drink: That's what Wisconsin's for."

Young Melody assures me the license won't be wasted. That's all I need to hear, but she goes on to mention some of the establishments she'll be visiting. The names ring a few bells, and set off...twangier instruments. "Um, but aren't those places totally...?" I can't say it.

"Yes, I love—"

"You don't need to tell me! This biz is strictly don't ask, don't—"

But she tells me. She says: "Country!"

I'm not completely closed-minded, you know. I'm not opposed to the existence of Dixie Chicks, or Judds. Country music was good enough for Daisy Duke. And hell, peaceful rebellion can be such a rockin' thing, even if what's being rebelled against is, well, rock. But—country! I don't know what the world's coming to.

* * *

Here's a fun fact: Ned is Department of History.

And by the way I was totally right. That long pillow thingie that gets in the way when Lisa and I fool around on her couch? Definitely a bolster.

* * *

Kids (I now find myself saying), I totally believe that the opportunity for immediate gratification is not even close to the worst thing in the world. This license means I'm trusting you not to drink and drive. I believe in your right to culture, be it popular or unpopular. We're in the land of the this and the home of the that. And, kids, I TOTALLY believe, if your taste happens to suck, in headphones. So enjoy. We've got weather, we've got music. We're in the middle of it all, where east meets west and K stations share the air with W's. Yeah, they mostly suck, but work with me here. 

Kids, understand that it IS a small world, as well as big and scary. We are Minnesotans, kids, and everything, but everything, concerns us.

 

 

Shannon Anthony lives in Minneapolis. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at Bound Off, Brink Magazine, Menda City Review, The View From Here, LITnIMAGE and Coal City Review, among other places. Her shortest fiction is tweeted @shannon_anthony.

 

Q&A

Q: What can you tell us about this story?

A: The first version was “finished” almost ten years ago. (Most of the intervening time was spent in denial of the need to cut a few thousand words and add a plot.) Though written in and about the wake of the September 11 attacks, this was from the beginning a very fun story.

 

Q: What have you been reading lately?

A: Mostly fiction. Recent favorites include Alissa Nutting's story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow. I've also been reading classic sci fi, and not long ago I began a leisurely journey through the works of 18th and 19th century novelists like Burney, Oliphant and Trollope.

 

Q: Where do you write?

A: At my dining table; at a desk that was once padded with foam rubber and used as my baby sister's diaper changing table; at a homemade standing desk (the secret ingredient is duct tape); in my head, especially while walking, washing dishes or taking a shower.

 

Q: Deciduous or coniferous?

A: Deciduous. (Sorry, coniferous, but what else would I say in October? Ask me again in January.)

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Thank you for asking! I'm writing a novel…but I don't like to say much about work in progress. Thank you for not asking. I also have an ever-growing list of short stories in the works.


Stephen Williams.jpg

Pan's Burden

by Stephen Williams

followed by Q&A

“My god you stink,” I said.

“I didn’t know you were so sensitive. Next time, I’ll wait for ’em to build showers before I come ashore,” my sharpshooter said.

“I smell you a mile away and it ain’t just cause we all need showers. You must have something wrong with your insides. It don’t even smell human.”

“We ain’t here to serve tea. Get back to your binoculars. I’ll let you know if I need your opinion.”

We were quiet for at least an hour before I started worrying about our position.

“Are we in the best spot?” I asked.

“I don’t know about you, but the best spot for me would be sitting on the front porch with my mother.”

“I mean here. Are we in the best spot or should we move into the valley?” He damned well knew what I meant the first time.

“We’re good right here where the Lieutenant put us. If they try to come up the valley, they’ll have to cross two hundred yards without no cover.”

With my BAR and his rifle he was right. We could have held back a whole company. Our Lieutenant warned us that fresh troops would be looking for a weak point to force their way across this island. They’d just landed, so they’d scout around.

We both shut up again and watched the valley another hour before I broke the silence again. By then the sun was half way up in the sky and it was getting as hot as a boiler-room. I saw movement at the far end of the valley. “There are some guys under that big tree, the big tree by the edge of the grass,” I said.

“Where?”

“See the top of the grassy knoll? They’re in the shade of the tallest tree. They’re just standing there looking for us. I can’t see much, but there are at least two of them.”

“I see something. It could be two heads looking our way or it could be shadows.”

“Can you take them from this distance? Do you have the shot?” I asked.

“Too much cover until they move. They know we’re here, but they’ll still try something.”

We watched and waited for some movement. They had good cover on their end of the valley and we had good cover on our end. They couldn’t go around us without crossing a lot of exposed ground and there wasn’t any place to hide if they got into the valley.

“They’re moving,” I said.

My sharpshooter slowly put down his own binoculars and pointed his rifle. Their point man stepped out from the shadows. He never saw us and my sharpshooter hit him with the first shot.

“Like the range at Lejeune.” He spoke aloud, but seemed to be talking to himself.

“What do you think they’ll try next?” I asked.

“We won’t have to wait long to find out. I doubt if they’re patient.”

“I see them two guys again. Same spot,” I said.

“They’re trying to find us.”

“Someone’s moving to the left,” I said.

“I see him,” my sharpshooter said. “Middle didn’t work out so good.”

There was a little movement behind trees and low bushes to our left. In minutes, a second man emerged.

The second man didn’t get any further than the first. My sharpshooter hit him as soon as he had a clear shot.

For another three minutes, the valley was quiet. I didn’t even see the officer poke his nose out from behind his tree.

A flock of green parrots crossed the valley diagonally. They emerged from a copse to our right and flew just a few feet above the grass height with no interest in us. They squawked so loud the whole valley froze until they passed.

“There’s another one on the right,” I said. “He’s coming up low and slow.”

Another single shot kill.

Except the rifle reports, the valley was as silent as a summer schoolyard. The taller grass swayed in the friendly breeze that cooled my sunburned neck and ruffled my blouse.

In about three minutes I saw movement again.

“Number four is at the door, coming up on the left,” I said.

The fourth man fell next to his friend. My sharpshooter dropped him at exactly the same spot as the second man.

We froze in the diamond bright glare of the sun. At this range we could stay in our little hiding hole all day. The spotters at the other end of the valley would never see us.

“Just hold tight, we’ll be all right,” I said, talking to myself more than to my sharpshooter.

Number five started up the right side of the valley. He got no further than any of the others.

“Do you think it ever snows here?” My sharpshooter asked while the report from his last shot still echoed in my ear.

“What?”

“Everything’s so green, but we’ve never seen it rain. We haven’t had a canteen full of rain the whole time we’ve been ashore. It hasn’t rained once.”

“I ain’t real concerned about the crops right now,” I said. “The corn and the cotton will be just fine.”

“Corn needs regular rain.”

“Let’s keep our focus on this valley now and check the Farmers Almanac after we finish the chores,” I said.

The sixth man followed the familiar pattern. He came toward us low and slow and on our left. Once again, my partner dropped him with one shot.

“This is getting boring,” I said.

“I wonder where they’re from. Are there any farm boys or are they all city kids?”

“I hope you ain’t starting another weather report,” I said softly. “I don’t want to hear about no corn.”

Number seven started toward us on the right. My sharpshooter let him get a few paces past his comrades. Even though he had one more bullet in the chamber, he manually removed the clip and reloaded. He didn’t want to give away our spot by having a spent clip fly out of his rifle.

A shadow darted across the face of a bush in the center of the valley. I tensed the grip on my BAR gun stock and flattened even closer to the ground. It was just a sea eagle flying in an easy arc above the valley. He drifted away without noticing us.

Number eight came toward us in another three minutes on our left. It was another single shot kill. If my shooter could see it, he could hit it.

“I think they’re trying to win the war by using up all our ammo,” he said. “Bullets cost money you know.”

“Yeah, at this rate we’ll be broke, in about eighty years. What’s their officer thinking?”

“He’s got no idea what to do,” my sharpshooter said. “He can’t go back and tell his commanding officer he failed and he can’t get past us. He might spend his whole platoon without figuring anything out.”

“He ain’t figured nothing out yet,” I said.

Number nine stepped forward on our right. He looked around the ground as if we might be hidden in the grass. He didn’t last ten seconds.

“Why don’t he just shoot them himself?” I asked. “It’d save everybody a lot of trouble.”

“Do you think human life means the same to them as it does to us?”

“I’ll be happy if we just live through this day. It don’t matter to me what they think.”

“Say anything you like; I want to know we did this thing for a purpose.”

“You think too much.”

“How can you say that? We’re not machines; we’re made to wonder about things.”

“All I’m wondering right now is whether the next guy will come up the right or the left. You should be thinking about hitting him when he does. We should both be wondering how many men they sent on this patrol.”

By then it was time for number ten on the left. He might as well have painted a target on his chest.

“What do you think it means?” He asked during our next three-minute respite. “You know, this whole thing. Why are we here; why are we doing this? What does it all mean?”

“It don’t mean nothing. We was just two guys dumb enough to enlist. Them guys down there was even dumber than us. Only they was a lot less lucky. Your kind of talk don’t do nobody no good. It’s like a kid asking, ‘why is the sky blue?’ It’s just blue, that’s all.”

“It must mean something.”

“Yeah, what are you going to do, save the world?”

“Why not?”

My sharpshooter was speaking just as number eleven emerged on the right. He took his shot and number eleven bought his fate.

“I think that was eleven, if I didn’t lose count,” my sharpshooter said. “There are two guys under that tree again. Maybe that officer is rethinking his master strategy. Maybe he’s trying to think of something else to do.”

Number twelve followed on the left. My sharpshooter dropped twelve next to ten, eight, six, four and two.

We waited the normal three minutes. Nothing happened. All we saw was tall grass swaying in the breeze.

“I don’t see nothing. There ain’t nobody under that tree that they like so much. I don’t see nothing.”

My partner watched by looking down his rifle sights while I worried the tree line with my binoculars. Fifteen minutes passed without movement.

I offered a premature opinion, “I think we got them all. Yeah, we got them all. Don’t see nothing.”

“You just keep thinking,” my sharpshooter said.

“Do you think they’ll try to come around to the north?”

“They can’t. They’d run right into headquarters company. They’d never even get through the wire. They might have already tried, now they’re looking for the soft spot.”

“I hope you’re right. I don’t see nothing moving.”

We stayed quiet for another fifteen minutes. The calm put me on edge. I was almost relieved when I saw movement from the tree line.

“Another one’s coming,” I said.

Number thirteen wore the uniform of an officer, probably an ensign. He walked toward us up the center of the valley, marching as if on a parade ground. He didn’t crouch, take cover or look around to his left or to his right. He just walked smartly up the center of the valley in plain sight and without hesitation. He drew a sword and held it in a salute position next to his stiff torso. He didn’t even pull his pistol from its holster. A single shot granted his death wish.

The sun hadn’t yet reached its apex for the day.

“This thing meant something to him,” my sharpshooter said.

“Yeah, it means we got Spam for lunch and them poor dumb slobs are lunch for the crows.”

“No, this thing means something. It must mean something and it’s my burden to find out what.”

“Forget it. You’ll go crazy.”

“If it takes the rest of my life, I’m going to figure out why this happened.”

He turned his back on the valley and tossed his rifle next to a tuft of thorny creeper grass. Then he lit a smoke from a pack I hadn’t known he had and looked at the ground for answers.

My god he stank.

 

 

Stephen Williams has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Central Michigan University. His academic concentrations were mathematics and psychology. He worked as an economist, an engineer, a financial analyst and a marketing executive. He developed residential real estate and managed a commercial vineyard.

 

Q&A

Q: What have you been reading lately?

A: Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell; This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey by Steve Almond

 

Q: Where do you write? 

A: Any place I can find a flat surface capable of supporting a 8 ½ by 11 tablet of paper.

 

Q: Deciduous or coniferous?

A: Deciduous.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a story about a homeless man. I have not decided on a title.


Benjamin Buchholz.jpg

Uncle Matty Doesn't Require Collapse

by Benjamin Buchholz

followed by Q&A

I’m very good at not answering questions, that’s what the mouth in the back of Adelaide’s head says as she turns away, the hair is thin there, thin and gossamer, the mouth beneath it, covered in hair, it frightens Lovely, bearded, like a backward eyeless Santa Claus, Lovely never noticed it before, why now?, the secret mouth, secret anatomy, not answering questions, dissembling as a form of flirtation,

Lovely follows Adelaide down the hallway, Adelaide turns a corner, Lovely pauses at the corner, listens for Adelaide’s footsteps to stop, they stop, the door opens, Adelaide’s door, three doors from the end, Lovely looks around the corner,

Adelaide’s hidden mouth says as the door closes on it, come have a cup of coffee with us one of these days, there are things we can share, secrets,

like the mayor?,

no, not him, goodbye now, over my dead body, I don’t share well, you see, that sort of thing, nothing personal, so I’d rather not play, that’s the easiest way to win sometimes, I’ll just sit here with the cat, we can talk about it, tell you secrets, that’s not sharing,

the door closes, Adelaide inside alone, Lovely waters the plants outside her room for a few minutes just to make sure no one has started arguing inside, no one putting on nice dresses, push-up bras, rummaging in makeup bins, what would Burgundy say about that?, premeditated, cold-blooded, disruption, wave-function collapse,

*

spooky action at a distance, isolated present, see Burgundy went to New York City once, several times, really, but only once that mattered in the entanglement, rode the subway to the end of its line, got out, looked around, walked to a café three blocks from the station, checked her watch, left a note on a napkin, I was here, where were you?, and just then Adelaide entered the café,

Adelaide!,

Burgundy!,

we'll play cards when we’re old, Parcheesi, watch the others choke on peanut shells, but golly, neighbor, we’re here now, why?, how’d it happen?, were you following me?,

it’s a random thing, it’s a mystery, 

have you been to this café before?, Adelaide asks,

no, no, no, Burgundy says, she means it, and she isn’t lying,

*

double-slit experiment, passing through two women at once there must be a prediction where he ends up, wave function dictates a single outcome, a localized event, but they scatter, coherence, rage, jealousy, in a single-world theory these could be accounted, perhaps the scene twice, seen through the keyhole of Adelaide’s room, she’s got the old projector out, the wheels of tape turning, showing it on the wall, collapse, the two outcomes, the multiple outcomes choosing a single state, a solid state, at least temporarily, relative to the observer, Lovely’s kneeling in the hallway, she’s got the mop, the bucket, the observer,

*

she hasn’t been to this café before, she hasn’t written anything on a café napkin before, no reminders, no love notes, no accusations, she folds the napkin, discreetly, I was here, where were you?, dabs the corner of her mouth with it, sets it in her lap, all very open, all right in front of Adelaide, Adelaide watches the napkin,

I’m thinking about dessert, join me?,

Adelaide looks at her watch, I was supposed to meet someone but he has forgotten, I think,

that's too bad, says Burgundy, I guess it’s just you and me,

it’s a nice café at least, Adelaide looks around, she’s been here awhile, in the café, Burgundy notices, in her booth, a newspaper, folded, unfolded, newspaper ink rubbed off the pages and onto Adelaide’s thumb, bits of comic,

I was thinking about dessert too, we might as well, you can tell me how you ended up here, and alone too!, we’ll treat ourselves, we deserve it,

alone, yes, thinks Burgundy, she glances at the door as Adelaide gathers her gear, leaving the newspaper, her gear just a small purse, a hat with a band around the rim, like a flapper, how passé, Adelaide you must have been something to behold when you were sixteen and innocent, Burgundy says to herself, 

they’re twenty-two, they’re rather innocent still, the innocence doesn’t reveal itself to them, of course, it never does, but they’re alone, waiting, hungry for dessert, alone in a café in New York City,

*

the reel on the old projector wobbles, the images move along the wall, over notches in brick, move as if underwater, sepia-toned, languorous, Adelaide’s sway, unchanged these 50 years, unchangeable, it’s the fish, heady with depth, meaning, certain of itself, I can swim it says, see mom, leaving home wasn’t so difficult, it’s the 50’s now, modern women doing modern things, the world isn’t innocent but it isn’t as scary as the stories you tell, I can swim in the deep end just fine, who needs the reef, crannies in the coral?, who’s afraid of that big bad shark?,

*

lovely day,

lovely,

you come alone?,

yes,

both of us, such coincidence, you waiting for someone?,

what’ll you have?, I’m thinking about the cheesecake, they say New York is the place,

maybe a flan, I’m a caramel girl,

is that the secret?, caramel?, (I’ll have to make something up,) my brother, 

your brother?,

the one with the limp, I haven’t told you about him?,

(there’s no brother, of course, like innocence, there isn’t, just more abyss, less shoal, 50 years of Burgundy’s brother, he’s become epic, the lies,)

funny we’ve lived across the street from each other for almost two years now, I haven’t heard you mention him,

he’s a little bit of a family secret,

Burgundy!,

I’m ashamed, yes, I’ll be candid about it, (the lie,)

I hope it’s not too bad,

what?,

whatever he has,

it’s not contagious,

oh, thank heavens, does he visit often?,

he’s in Africa,

I thought he was meeting you here?,

he's not in Africa, (damn it,) he’s supposed to fly in, he was in Africa, Mauritania to be exact,

with a limp,

from the war,

one of those, it’s a shame,

yes, yes it is,

*

this is Adelaide’s favorite part of the film, she rewinds it, watches it again, Africa!, she’s put call-out captions above their heads, they blink in and out, their turn to shine, Lovely can see the outlines of the little stickers, their depth, they aren’t one dimensional, more like a shadow on the film itself, the edge, cartoon stickers, a thumb with newspaper ink,

*

rewinding,

lovely day,

[she’s up to something, too much coincidence]

lovely,

[until you arrived]

you come alone?,

[I told him I’d rather he picked me up at the train station, but no, he said it was too big a surprise]

yes,

[I told him I’d rather we meet somewhere more public, a first meeting, don’t know the café, I’m just glad it’s got a few other people in it, he seemed nice enough but who knows?, mother always told me to watch out for myself in New York, I’m thrilling to it, though, the chance]

both of us, such coincidence, you waiting for someone?,

[too close to the bone, maybe that’s her trick, the directness, not answering is answer enough here, and I don’t want to answer, of course I am, what do you think I just wander in on any old café three-hundred miles from Boston?]

what’ll you have?, I’m thinking about the cheesecake, they say New York is the place,

[did I even hear her?]

maybe a flan, I’m a caramel girl,

[am I being a snob?]

is that the secret?, caramel?, I’ll have to make something up, my brother,

[can she hear this?, it’s quiet in here, I’ve got to smile a little extra to keep the sound from escaping my lips, do fish like caramel?, I’ve seen the boys look at her, her husband away at work late, boys at the grocery store, construction workers down the street drilling at the manhole cover, why does she live across from me?]

your brother?,

[jealousy is a bitch]

the one with the limp, I haven’t told you about him?,

[I knew a boy with a limp once, he caught a frog when we were eleven and chased me around the schoolyard]

(there’s no brother, of course, like innocence, there isn’t, just more abyss, less shoal, 50 years of Burgundy’s brother, he’s become epic, the lies,)

[sustainable, maybe multiverse, these worlds!, I’ve got an imagination, decoherent formulation doesn’t require collapse, it’s the simplest explanation, thus Ockham’s Razor will prove it, I’m just a simple girl, really]

funny we’ve lived across the street from each other for almost two years now, I haven’t heard you mention him,

[you talk too much]

he’s a little bit of a family secret,

[like my Uncle Matty who likes to masturbate under the table at dinner]

Burgundy!,

[did I say masturbate?]

I’m ashamed, yes, I’ll be candid about it,

[I masturbate, but only when no one is around]

I hope it’s not too bad,

[it’s good, better than a man]

what?,

[we were talking about something else]

whatever he has,

[syphilis, shit, I dunno, make something up]

it’s not contagious,

[the whole world is masturbating, I want dessert]

oh, thank heavens, does he visit often?,

[in the bathtub is the best, the prickling of Epsom salt, the heat, I like having the window open, my knees sticking through suds like two islands, risen, when I climax I lift myself up in the middle like I’ve got a string from my bellybutton to heaven, lift myself up like a whole continent appearing immaculately]

he’s in Africa,

[that’s a continent]

I thought he was meeting you here?,

[he hasn’t shown up, duh, that’s why I’m alone, this is awful]

he's not in Africa, (damn it,) he’s supposed to fly in, he was in Africa, Mauritania to be exact,

[Mauritania, I know nothing about Mauritania, is it even in Africa?]

with a limp,

[that’s good]

from the war,

[whew, an end, people don’t pry about that, the ones who didn’t come home to the tickertape]

one of those, it’s a shame,

[I’m free]

yes, yes it is,

[dessert?]

*

the reel doesn’t end but Adelaide puts it away, she stores the machine under her bed, she sits on the bed, takes off her shoes, slowly she reclines, but she on her side, curled up into something like a fetal position but looser, a ball of string unwound, on her side so that both mouths may breathe.

And Lovely goes away.

 

 

Benjamin Buchholz’s fiction has appeared widely and has been featured in two editions of Dzanc Press’s Best of the Web.  His first novel, One Hundred and One Nights, is forthcoming this December from Little, Brown.  He writes the Middle East culture blog “Not Quite Right.”  (not-quite-right.net)

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: Things jumble around. I'd been reading a little physics, Hawking's Brief History of Time. And then Saramago too, some magic realism. Seeing the elderly ladies through a keyhole that sort of combined their rivalry while separating it and then rehashing, several times over, a glossed conversation -- that's the structure of the piece. I think the structure tries to say a little something about relativity, although I didn't set out with that idea in mind. I just pictured the keyhole and everything else sprung forth from there.

 

Q: What have you been reading lately?  

A: I'm taking a masters degree in Near East Studies at Princeton and so I'm drowning in academic reading. Its good stuff, very mind-expanding to read about medieval Islamic scholars and trace their work through various commentaries and such (which is a big portion of one of my classes) and its a nice break from the real-life world.

 

Q: Where do you write? 

A: All over the place.  A lot of it at the kitchen table, which probably accounts for various mentions of food cropping up at strange and unanticipated times.

 

Q: Deciduous or coniferous?  

A: Deciduous.  Spring and Fall my favorite.  Without the deci there is no spring and no color in the autumn.

 

Q: What are you working on now?  

A: I've got a first book of fiction called One Hundred and One Nights coming out from Little, Brown this December and am working on, almost finished with, a second one. One Hundred and One Nights is set in the small Iraqi town where I worked for a year whereas the new book delves into and fictionalizes some experiences I had while traveling the middle east this last year.


Robert Wexelblatt.jpg

Petite Suite Printanière

by Robert Wexelblatt

followed by Q&A

1. Ouverture en Ut Majeur pour Chœur Aviaire, Sonnette, Pivert, et les Jonquilles

Bessemer lolled in his La-Z-Boy drinking a cup of Earl Grey. Before his retirement he wouldn’t have touched the stuff. Iced tea in summer was fine, but only old ladies and Englishmen drank hot tea. He pictured the Earl as effete, snobbish, bewigged. Bessemer disliked that he liked that hint of bergamot and wasn’t grateful to his cousin Ida for sending him a selection of Twinings (how do you pronounce it?) for Christmas.  But then he’d caught the first of the three colds he’d had that winter and found the tea made him feel better. Now he’d come to prefer it to coffee. The tea was at least more useful than the necktie Fred and Marcia sent him from Florida. “Be a snowbird,” said a card featuring tinsel on a palm tree. “Come on down.” The tie was turquoise with white gulls all over it. The last time he’d worn a tie was at Bill Burrell’s funeral; you didn’t wear a turquoise tie at a funeral, let alone one with seagulls all over it.

Bessemer glanced at the old man fishing on the cover of the L. L. Bean catalogue. For guys like that retirement is good. Not for him. For him it didn’t mean canoe trips with well-behaved grandsons; it meant tea-drinking and boredom. There’s no proper routine, nobody to shoot the shit with; you watch too much TV and start looking forward to shows as if they were visits with friends; you take afternoon naps and wake up checking for symptoms; you hardly care what you eat but put a lot of pepper on it. You drink hot tea.

The winter had been ferocious and interminable. He had hardly left the house but still he managed to come down with three colds. Where he lived March was called mud-time and for good reason. But this year the snow didn’t begin to retreat until the month was over. Now it was April and the Gormans’ daffodils were up. Bessemer imagined that, had he married, his wife would have planted bulbs so that when she left him or died he’d have daffodils every spring to remind him of her. Florida? It’s hot and flat, one big waiting room, hangs down like an old man’s organ.

Small as it was, his house had cost him more to heat than he expected. Not only was oil sky-high and the winter brutal but he was home all the time now, usually in an old fisherman’s sweater and a fleece on top of that. Twice the Jeep had needed a jump. The shoveling was risky; the sky usually gray; the prospect, in every sense, dreary.

When the doorbell buzzed he nearly spilled his Earl Grey. He hadn’t heard an engine, no car crunching up the gravel driveway; the Gormans never stopped by. The buzzing was odd, too—five short blips, as if the button were just being tapped rather than pushed.

He went to the door, stretched to look out the window at the top. Branches with a fuzz of pale green, empty sky. He opened the door cautiously.

The front yard was filled with birds, like in that old movie. There were sparrows, both brown and gray, junkos and chickadees, a pair of cardinals, four blue jays, a gang of grackles. The big bird on his step he recognized as a flicker. Black mustache and bib, barred feathers, gray skullcap, red blaze. There used to be a flicker came round but he hadn’t seen it for years. Maybe this was the same bird.  

The flicker bounced once, examined him up and down with its yellow eye.  “There used to be a feeder,” it said.

“What?”

“Round the back. A feeder. For seeds.”

The host of birds set up a row. The flicker swiveled his head around toward them, then back to Bessemer. “I don’t particularly care for seeds myself, of course. Worms, ants, insects—seeds only on need. But these—” he swiveled again, the bright slash of red drawing Bessemer’s admiration, “these do.”

“Then why don’t they speak for themselves?” said Bessemer, feeling more amused than crotchety.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said the flicker. “They can’t talk.”

Bessemer didn’t bother to ask why the flicker could. What he said was, “I see.”

“So . . ,” drawled the flicker, “they’d appreciate it if you’d maybe fix up a feeder, keep it stocked—sunflower seeds, please, for the jays—and, well, that’s about it.”

Bessemer considered. “Why didn’t you ask last Fall? It would have made more sense.”

“I was in Georgia. Look, it was a hard winter for these guys. They don’t migrate. Some of them even froze. You understand?”

“I suppose so. They don’t need a feeder now but they want me to get in the habit. For next year. That it?”

“Exactly!” The flicker hopped in a circle. The seed-eaters fluttered and set up a cheer, or so it seemed to Bessemer.

That afternoon he cranked up the Jeep and drove to Home Depot to get lumber and nails for a bird house, then to the garden store where he bought a trio of squirrel-proof feeders, finally to Costco, where he picked up two twenty-pound sacks of mixed millet and cracked corn. He was about to leave when he remembered to grab a ten-pound bag of sunflower seeds.

Over the next week the flicker alighted from time to time in Bessemer’s yard, snapped up a few grubs, checked out his work, and, apparently satisfied, flew off.  

 

2. Le Hosta Énorme, Concertino Aigre-Doux en Vert et Jaune pour Piccolo, Flûte, et Absence

Home Despot her friend Julie quipped. It opened in March and by the middle of April Johansens’ Nursery announced it would be closing. Ginny knew the Johansens; she liked them and their store. She expected they would be resentful and make one of those angry Big Box speeches. In fact, they were almost giddy with relief.

“We’re not getting any younger.”

“Got a good price for the land. Better than we’d expected.”

“We’re moving to North Carolina—up in the hills, you know. Fine climate.  Temperate.”

“Lots of ex-military.”

They were having a clearance sale. Ginny bought a pair of secateurs, flats of tomatoes and pansies. The perennials were mostly gone (perennial’s my favorite horticultural word, said Julie); but back in a corner, up against the chain link fence, half hidden by a fallen shelf, Ginny spotted an outsized green planter sprouting attractive bluish-green leaves striped with yellow. The hosta looked strong. There was no little plastic tag describing the plant, no watering directions or Latin name. Mrs. Johansen said she wasn’t sure what sort of hosta it was and called her husband over. He scratched his head, perhaps distracted by thoughts of hanging out with retired master sergeants and fighter pilots, and said vaguely, “Big one, I think. Dig down about at least a foot.  Give her plenty of room; that’s the ticket.”

When she picked Jeremy up from school she told him she’d been to the garden store.  When they got home she took him into the back yard to show off the new plants. She wanted him involved.

“What do you think? Row of pansies here?”

“Put the tomatoes by the fence,” he said like a son of the soil. “Dad said that’s best.”

“What about this?” She pointed at the hosta.

“What is it?”

“Hosta. Broad leaves. It’s a perennial.”

“A perennial?”

“That means it comes back next year.  You know those things around the big maple in front of the Belfiglios’? They’re hostas.”

“Oh,” he seemed disappointed. “But this looks a lot bigger and it’s not all green.”

“I’d like you to take care of it. It’s yours.”

“What do you mean? It’s not like it needs to be taken for a walk, Mom.” Jeremy never missed a chance to remind her of the dog she wouldn’t buy.

“Don’t be fresh. I mean you get to choose where to put it. You dig the hole, you water and feed it. It’s supposed to be a pretty large one. Have to dig deep and give it lots of room.”

“How big will it get?”

“I don’t know. Maybe a couple of feet? We’ll give it regular shots of this.” She held up the box of plant food. “See? You screw this hopper thingee to the hose and just spray it on every couple of weeks. The water mixes with the powder. Pretty cool, eh?”

Jeremy shrugged. He was doing that a lot. But he went to the garage and came back with the spade.

“Change your clothes first.”

Stan was on his third deployment. He was supposed to be home in September, unless they declared another stop-loss or something worse happened. E-mails weren’t so frequent this time around, Skype conversations even less so. Ginny knew that meant he was in a rough place. Jeremy wasn’t taking it well; for that matter, neither was she. Jeremy sulked. Stan had missed his eighth birthday, their anniversary, Christmas, New Year’s, Groundhog Day. When the car broke down and needed a new what’s-it, money was a little tight for a while. Ginny caught herself looking at men in a way she didn’t like.

Jeremy insisted on pasting a map of Afghanistan on his bedroom wall. He’d sent away for it, paid for it with some of the birthday money from her parents. Ginny no longer put on the evening news and tried to distract him from updates about the war. It was useless.

Jeremy chose a spot a good four feet from the fence and dug deep.  She gave him a handful of superphosphate and showed him how to mix it in. He shoveled some of the loose dirt back then filled the hole with water. “The roots will be able to spread out easily, get a good start. Right?”

He checked the plant every day, marked the biweekly feedings on the calendar, patted handfuls of red mulch around its base. The hosta took hold and began to grow; it grew fast. Enormous leaves opened out all the way to the fence, new ones sprouted above them, then more and more. By June it took up nearly a third of the yard and was taller than Jeremy. He invited friends home after school to admire the prodigy. “Check out how thick the leaves are,” he told them.

“It’s humungous,” they admitted.  “Awesome,” they said. Ginny could see the children weren’t really interested in the gigantic hosta; they only wanted to please Jeremy. They feel sorry for him, she thought sadly. But then, so did she.

The last day of school was a feeding day and Jeremy rushed home to set up the hose. It was warm. Ginny poured two glasses of lemonade and took them out to the patio.

“It’s still growing, Mom,” Jeremy shouted across the yard, pointing to the top of the plant. It was nearly as high as the spruce tree. Maybe it wasn’t a hosta after all. Hostas aren’t tall.

Jeremy dropped the hose and came over to get a drink. “It’s like the beanstalk,” he said proudly. “You know. Jack’s.”

“Well, you’ve taken very good care of it,” said Ginny.

“I really have.” His face was already in the glass. He gulped and mumbled something.

“Huh?”

“I call it Dad.”

“What?”

He came up sucking air. “Daddy.”

“You do?”

He nodded. “Because it’s tall and I love it. And because it’s a perennial and you said perennials always come back.”

 

3. Cadenza Pour Alto Solo, Généralement en Troisième Vitesse

Where am I going, you ask? You want to know where I’m going?

Weeks ago, years ago, in some other life, in what I thought was real life, in May, in expectation, in distress, in spite of, in the face of, in an excess of confidence, in downright panic, I pedaled toward the sun, turned my back on a whole seaboard, my job, boyfriend, mother, sister, Honda Civic, cousins, needy niece, my boss, hairdresser, retirement plan, laptop, bagels, new black dress, Facebook, Nana’s pearls, Jane Eyre, my ex-boyfriend, married ex-lover, favorite bistro, Thai takeout, shoe store—weeks ago, years ago, I left for a Sunday afternoon ride, my customary route, the standard twenty-one miles, started pedaling west on Route 20 but didn’t turn on Weston and then didn’t turn off on Sudbury either and haven’t turned yet or needed to because I had my MasterCard and L. L. Bean Visa and Amex in my fanny pack and it costs hardly anything to keep going and not only is my health holding up despite rainstorms, wind, hamburgers and motels, but I feel powerful, lithe, a hard-bodied sylph; but, as you ask, it’s my belief that there’s still a long road ahead because, you see, where I’m going is as far as I can go.

 

4. Quator à Cordes avec des Fauteuils Roulants, en les Trois Movements, Assez Brusque, et Un Interlude, Pas Trop Longue

“April morning in the park. Not dark.”

“A lark!”

“Nary an aardvark, loads of bark.”

“. . . Think that guy might be a nark?”

“Enough, my dear. I’m just not, you know, up to the mark.”

She guffawed. “Oh, you!”

It was one of their games of old. To her its source was lost in prehistoric mists; to him, the day before yesterday.

They both knew she came as often as she could so she never offered excuses and he never reproached. She had a big job running corporate relations for the Museum, and the hours weren’t exactly regular. He mused sometimes—not often, what was the point?—how it would be if she married, had children, if he’d had more of them, if his wife had gone on living for more than ten days after she was born.

Dad’s no complainer, she thought proudly. Not once since the accident, not an instant of self-pity. Wheelchair now, maybe an operation later. How did he fill his days?  Well, he was drawing more. Last week he’d asked her to bring a soft eraser, a pad of number 80 textured paper, three pencils. He still went into the office on Tuesday mornings.  He called one of those special cabs.  

*

That it was so blatantly ironic only made it more cruel. She’d been a ballerina, had played tennis better than her husband, the athletic health-nut whose heart gave out so inconsiderately. Four times club champion. She had danced Odette, Juliet. Now her right hip was shot, like her husband’s heart, likewise her left knee, and she couldn’t stop being sore as hell about it.  

“Hate this damned thing.” She struck the sides of the wheelchair.

“I know, Mother.”

“No. You don’t.”

He stopped at a bench and aimed her away from himself so she faced the meadow.

“After the physical therapy,” he said. “Then we’ll see.”

She looked around at him. “Why aren’t you mad at her?”

He sighed. “Because she was brave. Because she did what I didn’t have the nerve to do. I’m relieved. I’m grateful.”

“I never liked her.”

“I know that. So did she.”

*

-They might meet.  They could pair off.  Why not?  For what other reason are they in the park? Age-appropriate. Seasonal. They all fall in love with each other. A double-wedding in June.

-Give me a break. That’s worse than improbable; it’s sentimental.

-Is it? They’re all damaged. So many wounds looking for balm.

-Exactly. One of them could pull out a pistol and shoot the others.

-You don’t like happy endings?

-I like superheroes and Ossian’s verse and the last inaugural address.

-You just don’t believe in them; is that it?

-Correct. These four people are in the park. It’s springtime. They’re all unmarried for various reasons; all lonely, incomplete, and crippled. The father and daughter are crazy about each other; the mother and son evidently aren’t. You want to be Jane Austen?

-I’d love to be Jane Austen.

-And you think she was happy?

-When she was writing, yes.

- Lizzie’s wit and D’Arcy’s cash. It’s an irresponsible satisfaction. It’s girlish.

-My, you’re pompous today. In dreams begin responsibilities.

-So they say. But not in fantasies. Fantasies are willed evasions.

-So, where exactly does a dream end and fantasy begin? He’s taken with the way she walks. She likes the sound of his voice. She remembers flirting with him at a dinner party long ago. He’d like to draw her portrait. He asks her to get a cup of coffee. Come on. It’s spring. Loosen up.

-While were quoting: April is the cruelest month. Remember?

-Sure, and February’s the longest. In fact, you’re still in it—or it’s still in you.

-. . . No wonder I love you.

-What’d you say?

-I said I love you.

-What? You do?

*

Children squealed as they ran after a ball. Pigeons flapped out of their way, not really scared. A terrier and a Labrador sniffed each other as their owners, in no rush, chatted. The sky’s blue deepened to navy; the breeze softened to a zephyr.

He pushed his mother’s chair and looked at the couple coming toward them. She had that indescribable way of walking he liked. Feminine.

She tapped her son’s hand.

“That man in the wheelchair.”

“Yes?”

“I think he flirted with me, back in the Jurassic Age.”

“His daughter?”

“You never know. Could be an unlucky trophy wife.”

“Unlucky?”

“The wheelchair.”

She patted her father on the shoulder, leaned down and whispered.

“How about we challenge them to a race?”

“Might be fun.”

“The man looks so sad.”

“The way a Stoic does.”

“What?”

“Invisibly?”

“I don’t know. It’s visible to me.”

As they drew abreast everybody examined everybody else.

“Don’t I know you?” she said.

“Hello. Could be.”

“Lovely afternoon,” she said.

He smiled, shrugged, looked toward the meadow and opened his arms. “Spring.”

She grinned. “Yes.  At last.”

 

 

Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies.  He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; his recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.

 

Q&A

Q: What was your inspiration for this story?

A: In my experience, inspiration is mysterious and may reveal itself only long after it has done its work, or not at all.  In the case of “Petite Suite Prinantière,” though it was the season itself—daffodils, air temperature, birds.  As I have been writing a series of these Debussy-suggested suites, the form itself must have played a role as well.

 

Q: What have you been reading lately?

A: I just read Howard Jacobson’s novel, The Finkler Question.

 

Q: Where do you write? 

A: In only one place:  my study which has an overhead fan, a 16-foot-square desk, equipment for playing music, and French windows giving on my small garden.

 

Q: Deciduous or coniferous?

A: “After the age of five no man handles his affairs as well as a tree does,” wrote G. B. Shaw.  I’d hate to have to do without either variety.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Grading 97 essays written by college sophomores.  However a poem or two might get squeezed out, if I’m lucky.


Sybil Baker.JPG

The Spiritual Age of Machines

by Sybil Baker

followed by Q&A

I wasn’t manorexic, as my wife asserted. I was simply trying to live forever. Or at least until 2029 when, according to The Spiritual Age of Machines, humans will be able to download their brains into computers. 

“What if the computer you’re living in crashes?” my wife asked one night before sleep. I was lying very still on my back because I was too bony to sleep on my side. Her back was to me because she said if she saw my body before she fell asleep, she had nightmares.

“That’s very two thousand and eleven thinking,” I said. “It won’t happen.”

“Then what about sex, love, and families?” she whispered.

I closed my eyes and saw stars. “Once we’re living in a computer, we won’t need any more of that.”

My wife didn’t understand this. She didn’t understand why I wouldn’t have even a bite of her pot roast (too calorie dense) or measure only two ounces of wine (just enough resveratrol) every evening or why I was cold all the time (no fat), or why I didn’t want to have sex anymore (no desire). I explained that it was the side effects of CRONing—Calorie Restriction, Optimal Nutrition—which slows down the aging process so that my skinny sixty-year-old ass could get to 2029 strong of heart and mind. I told her that my lackluster libido was a result of the lower testosterone which was a result of the calorie restriction, and she said, fine, she wasn’t attracted to me anyway now that I was a 123-pound skeleton. 

Even now, living in the future, I still don’t know why she didn’t understand me. We both watched her father suffer from searing headaches and nightly hallucinations of hooked pirates coming to kill him before he finally died of brain cancer. We buried our dog Lucky in our backyard after he’d been flattened by a garbage truck. And we went to the funeral of our only child Luke in 2004, a soldier who died in Iraq. But that’s not what I said to her when she asked why I wanted to live forever, because she knew all that. Instead, I told her that the world was big and long and exciting and didn’t she want to stay and see what would happen? She said I was going to die, whether I liked it or not. And I said, well, they starved the monkeys and they’re still alive and the ones who ate normally aren’t, so there’s that. 

I’ve eaten the same meal twice a day for the past six years, a shoebox-sized salad composed of six different vegetables, water-packed tuna, three types of berries, and twelve almonds all tossed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Until a few months ago, this meal allowed me to sustain a CRON lifestyle, first by losing thirty-one pounds in two years and then by maintaining my target weight of 123 pounds for the past four. That was why I didn’t understand how, for no apparent reason, I started gaining weight, at a rate of two pounds a week. After the weight gain started, during my lunch break at work (I’d been working in the paint section at Lowes since my construction management job was eliminated during the Great Recession) I’d raise my concerns on the CRON message board, detailing down to the gram what I’d eaten that day, but my fellow CRONies all said I must be missing something. They said people just don’t start steadily gaining weight on a plan they’ve been following for years. They accused me of sneaking in calories, of becoming lax with my measurements, of lying to myself, and so, out of hurt more than anger, I told them to fuck off.

On the day I reached 129.2 pounds, I decided to start intermittent fasting two days a week as a way to jumpstart the weight loss. After a few weeks, my weight gradually went down again to an acceptable 124.9 pounds, which meant that I was once again aging slowly. But the fasting was affecting me; I would get light-headed at work and quickly fall short of breath when I stocked the paint cans on shelves. My wife got even angrier with me, since I refused to go to any social events on my fasting days. It was summer, and barbeques and pool parties abounded. When I did go, my wife wouldn’t even let me wear a bathing suit to the pool parties. She said I looked disgusting, like a carcass on the side of the road. Road kill.

“We’ll see who has the last laugh,” I said.

“Ha ha ha ha,” my wife said in a leaden voice. 

Even with the fasting, I was still 1.9 pounds away from my optimum 123 pounds that I’d maintained for so many years. I dreaded my six-month blood work appointment the next month, as I was certain that my numbers (amazing the doctor had told me on the last visit, they’re the numbers of a very robust thirty year old) might creep back up. I was worried that I was aging again, if only slightly, but enough to keep me away from 2029. If that didn’t work, there was Plan B, which my wife didn’t even know about: cryonics. If the computer brain technology didn’t pan out exactly as planned, I could at least be preserved until 2099, when, according to the Spiritual Age of Machines, “Life expectancy is no longer a viable term in relation to intelligent beings.” So if I couldn’t live long enough to be downloaded in a computer, at least I could be preserved, and later revived, once the technology had caught up with our dreams. The only hitch was that actual cryonics implementation was not yet perfected, so I still needed to count on CRONing to increase my life expectancy until the kinks were worked out, so to speak.

Because of the dizziness and breathing problems, I decided I could live with 124.9 pounds and reduced fasting to once a week. Sure enough, even without stepping on the dreaded scales each morning (125. 4, 126, 126.8, 127.1, etc. etc.) I could feel the weight steadily accumulating, like drops of rain in a water barrel. The side effects, important indicators that I was CRONing, were disappearing. I didn’t need my sweater at work, for example, and my cheeks weren’t quite as hollow. When I reached 131.3, I even initiated sex with my wife for the first time in months, and, although she kept her eyes closed, she didn’t refuse me. This was not good. 

When my weight topped 135, I knew I needed to do something drastic. I decided to fast continuously until I was under 130, and then I’d fast every other day until I was down to 125. For three days I lived on watery broth, and by the fourth day I was no longer hungry. I was at 130.7, halfway to the finish line, and I was determined to fast for one more day. That fourth morning, as I was slowly dressing for work, my wife (she’d already moved to the spare bedroom on the second day of the fast) threatened to divorce me unless I ate at least a small salad the next morning. I relented, as I was sure I’d be below 130 by then, and went to work. That afternoon, as I was mixing paint for an impatient man with a foreign accent, I must have breathed in too many fumes and passed out. When I came to, I was bent like an upside down V over a coworker’s shoulder who was carrying me to the break room. “Damn you’re bony,” he said. “My ten year old weighs more than you.” I decided not to remind him that his son was a tubby overeater who was destined for diabetes and an early death. In the break room another coworker was on her cell calling an ambulance. I told them there was no need, that it was just the paint fumes and the flu, that I’d be fine. But they were adamant that I go to make sure I’d not had a heart attack or anything, so I excused myself to the bathroom (anything but the hospital, with its glucose tubes and force feeding!), and snuck out the back exit. I was still a bit shaky and my heart was beating like a hummingbird's, but I managed to walk to my car (parked in the spot farthest from work for light exercise) and get on the road home. I just needed to rest, to lie in bed and sip weak broth and watch something non-challenging on TV. In the morning I would eat some lightly steamed vegetables with my special miracle dressing, and a bit of salad as well, to please the wife.

I pulled up to our house, surprised that my wife’s car was already in the driveway. She didn’t work that far away (she was a dental hygienist), but she always went out to lunch with her friends, where she could enjoy her food and eat with normal people, she said. I quietly closed the door to my car and walked around to the back, where she wouldn’t see me. I suspected she might have taken a lover and that they were having an afternoon tryst. If she was, I’d rest in the car while they finished. I thought a lover might allow us to coexist more peacefully. I peered into the bedroom, but it was empty, so I walked around to the kitchen area. She was hunched over the counter sprinkling something from a clear plastic baggie into my herbal supplements, vitamins, and protein mix, all arranged in front of her in a tidy row. From the back with her rounded figure and falling hair she looked like a witch mixing her potion. Sabotage. I ran into the kitchen and wrapped my bony fingers around her neck. She elbowed me in my ribs, and for the second time that day I fell to the floor.

Five minutes later, we sat across from each other at the kitchen table, me accusing her between my jagged sobs while she rubbed the fingerprint bruises purpling her skin.  

“Why did you betray me?” I cried.

“I hated it that you want to live in a future without me,” she said. 

I wanted to say, but if I don’t live forever, then who will remember? Who will remember the way your pinkie won’t straighten because Luke slammed the car door when he was late for soccer practice? Or how your father made the best ice cream, hand cranking the cream and vanilla cooled by salted ice because he swore that it tasted better that way? Or your hands, the color of red wine from the blackberries you picked at the edge of the woods to put on top of the ice cream, like an exotic bird’s wings as you lifted the spoon to your open mouth? How I used to spend days in the garage cutting wood and nailing things together while Luke played in the sawdust at my feet? He’d build the things I had—tables and chairs and log houses—with his Legos later that night while you and I sat on the couch and watched the local news. How when a piece was missing he’d cry, and we’d be on the floor searching under furniture and dusty corners, not giving up until we found it? Or how you hung the bed sheets outside with wooden clips because you thought the fresh air made them smell sexy? Who will remember the cicadas outside in the late summer night, the windows open, the ceiling fan humming along with them, all of this before we could afford air conditioning? Or your voice as you sang to Luke when he was sick, a little flat with a tendency to wander, more a wave than a straight line, how after a few minutes he’d fall back asleep?

How could I explain to her if she didn’t already know it, that one day sooner or later we’d be separated, whether I lived or died? That since she had no desire to live forever, our parting was inevitable. But we were beyond all that, so that’s not what I told her. Instead I said, “Who will remember the last time we saw Luke? Before they killed him?”

“They didn’t kill him.”

“He was on nine different medications all prescribed by the same military physician and that’s what he used to kill himself. To me, that means they killed him.”

“He was always so sensitive,” my wife said, in the same wavy voice she’d used when she sang to him. “Maybe it’s best not to remember forever.”

We’d reached an impasse. Since she couldn’t understand, I decided I might as well put my theory to the test. I moved out the next day into a small, sparsely furnished apartment not too far from work. From there I continued my CRON regime unimpeded and returned to my 123 pounds, stabilizing there without much effort. Now I inhabit the future, where my memories of her and my son are all I have, and so far this has proven to be true, all I’ll ever need. 

 

 

Sybil Baker is the author of a linked collection, Talismans, and a novel, The Life Plan. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including most recently Prime Mincer, Prairie Schooner, and The Journal for Compressed Arts. After living in South Korea for twelve years, she moved back to the States in 2007, and is an Assistant Professor of English at UTC. An MFA graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she also teaches in the City University of Hong Kong’s low residency MFA program. Her novel Into This World will be published by Engine Books in 2012.  For more information see www.sybilbaker.com.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: Years ago, I was a lurker on a CRON message board, and one of the regular posters mentioned The Spiritual Age of Machines as his inspiration for living longer. The starting point for this story was, “What if a guy wants to live forever, but not for reasons that we might normally expect?”

 

Q: What have you been reading lately? 

A: Re-reading The Odyssey, Antigone, Oedipus Rex. Recently read Heliopolis by James Scudamore, Shin Kyung Sook’s Please Look After Mom. On the October to-read shelf: Other Heartbreaks: Stories by Patricia Henley and The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. 

 

Q: Where do you write? 

A: I’m nomadic, but usually the kitchen table or the living room sofa.

 

Q: Deciduous or coniferous? 

A: Decidedly deciduous. 

 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’m finishing up edits on my novel manuscript Into This World, to be published by Engine Books in 2012.


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Welcome

by Jody Hobbs Hesler

followed by Q&A

Agatha moved slowly nowadays. When she heard an odd noise in the kitchen this evening, she moved slowly toward it to see what had caused it. Since Molly had been gone, she heard a lot of noises in the evenings, and she’d come to expect very little from them. Sometimes it was wind, or a child shouting in a yard across the street, or a large truck trundling by and shaking her windows. These were all noises she hadn’t noticed when Molly had been here with her. Then, the radio Molly had kept on—classical music, jazz, news, different programming for different times of day—had obscured other background noises until eventually they’d been forgotten. After Molly’s death, the noises had returned, and they continued to spur Agatha’s curiosity.

In the kitchen, for some reason she wasn’t startled to see a young woman sitting there, having hoisted herself on top of the counter across the narrow kitchen from the stove. She wasn’t startled or even bothered, though the girl’s freshly shaven head and challenging posture hinted at malevolence. She wanted to be frightening. Perhaps that’s why she wasn’t. Also, Agatha had seen her before.

“Boo,” said the girl.

“Boo yourself,” said Agatha. She turned her back to the girl and fiddled with the yellow tea kettle on the stove, setting it to boil.

The young woman’s legs dangled from the counter top. Her Converse high-top tennis shoes, once bright red, were now faded, with lolling tongues and gray, frayed laces hanging untied. She looked cold, like she’d been outside recently and for a long time. Her cheeks were flushed.

“Shouldn’t you be afraid of me?” the girl challenged, thumping her feet against the cabinets below her. 

Agatha considered the question, but couldn’t find any fear. Molly used to tell her that there were sometimes perfectly sane and healthy reasons to be afraid of things, and Agatha should pay attention for signals that triggered this kind of fear. There was no excuse for a woman, or any person, of any age to clamber out on a rooftop in the middle of a violent summer storm to try to trim a tree branch that kept battering against the roof. “It doesn’t matter what new problem you’re trying to prevent,” Molly had reasoned. “Skittering around on a wet tin roof at the height of a lightning storm is just stupid. It’s something you should be afraid of, and that fear should keep you from doing it.” She’d said this after Agatha had climbed back into their bedroom window that summer night. Outside the storm still raged. Agatha stood dripping in their bedroom, covered with scratches from the thrashing twigs. Molly had toweled her dry, then slowly cleaned the wounds, one by one, humming. She had never stayed angry at her for long, even when she’d deserved it.

But Agatha can’t find even a reasonable reason to fear her interloper. The girl, maybe seventeen, had lived a few streets over in their city neighborhood perhaps all her life. Agatha remembers her from ages ago, walking down Mulberry Street, Agatha and Molly’s street, scuffing along beside her mother who was pushing a younger sibling in a stroller. Agatha and Molly had been gardening. The mother and children had stopped for some reason. Maybe the baby had tossed a toy from the stroller. They had all said hello. Agatha knew this girl. “You live down Center Street. Isn’t that right?”

The girl looked alarmed. Her eyes widened. “How’d you know?”

“You’ve been here all your life, right? I should know. I’ve been here thirty-five years.” Had it been that long ago that she and Molly had moved in, pretending to the real estate agent, to their neighbors for years, to be unmarried cousins who were economizing? They were careful to draw their blinds before even as much as brushing a hand against the other’s cheek. There was no telling what people would’ve said or done, had they known, thirty-five years ago. “I remember you from when you were small.” Agatha held out one hand, hip high. 

The girl nodded, maybe remembering herself at that height, too. “Still, I snuck into your house. You didn’t invite me. There’s no telling what I’m like now.”

“Maybe not.” Agatha rummaged the cabinet to the left of the girl’s head, pulling out two tea cups and saucers, from Molly’s family’s best china that Molly had inherited years ago. Dainty purple flowers, not too close, trailed upward and out from the bottom of the fragile cups, rising to a gold-plated rim. In the cabinet below the teacups, Agatha found the tea tin. She opened it and handed it to the girl. “There are several blends,” she said. “Some are herbal. You can read the tags and choose what you’d like.”

“You’re serving me tea?” The girl sounded affronted at the idea. “I could be a strung out meth head. I could be a thug who beats up old ladies. I could be an ax murderer.”

All the while, Agatha shook her head no. “No, not you,” she said. Out of a cabinet to the right of the girl’s head, she pulled a package of ginger snaps. She poured a few out onto a plate, offered them to the girl. “Besides, you don’t have an ax, and neither do I.”

The girl squinched her eyebrows, but nodded and accepted a cookie. She was wearing several braided-string bracelets that looked like they’d been on her wrist for months, maybe years. Her fingernails were bitten and looked sore. Her sweatshirt was new and clean and her jeans were crisp and dark blue. She wasn’t in any material sort of need. But some kind of need swelled up and around her. The closer Agatha stood to her, the more she felt it, like a toothache.

“So,” Agatha said. The water in the kettle churned, almost boiling. “What does bring you here?”

The girl looked down, seeming to fix her gaze right onto the divot on the floor where Molly had dropped a pair of scissors maybe fifteen years before, when this tile floor had been new. The white square tiles, joining at smaller black diamonds, replaced the autumn gold and avocado green tessellated linoleum that had been here when Molly and Agatha had moved in. Molly had been cutting a tag from a new blouse, and the scissors had dropped from her hands, landing open and upright, long blade in the floor, inches from Molly’s bare feet. That was when her arthritis had just started to become a problem and her hands began to freeze in moments of ordinary tasks, like using scissors. For a long time, you could only see the tiny slit if you looked for it. But, over the years, the edges had browned and swollen with changes in humidity.

Before the girl answered, the tea kettle whistled. Agatha moved slowly to retrieve it from the stove and poured the water over the two tea bags, also slowly. She faced the girl again when she returned the kettle to the stove, making it clear she was still interested in her answer.

“I was angry,” the girl said.

“At me?” Agatha asked, but not defensively, only curiously.

“No, not at you, not specifically,” the girl answered. She held the tea cup in her hand, about to sip it, and suddenly she looked at it, and at Agatha again, as if she had no idea how she’d gotten here. “No, I was angry because of all the lies people tell. People can tell a lot of lies and not even think how they make you feel. Not even care.”

Agatha nodded, agreeing, and she blew onto her tea to cool her first sip. She picked up a ginger snap and broke it in half. The clock on the wall over the kitchen table said it was six thirty. Agatha wondered if somewhere this girl’s parents were putting plates on a table, wondering where their daughter was. Agatha had already eaten supper, succumbing to that stereotype of older people, always eating supper at five o’clock. That was when she got hungry. Waiting any longer made the days last so long anyway. Normally she wouldn’t have her tea and cookies until around eight. That was a nice way to break up the time before going to bed at nine. Routines made her feel less alone. “I suppose,” Agatha said, “someone told you a pretty bad lie recently.”

“You could say that,” the girl said. She sipped her tea, took another bite of another cookie. “You could say that.”

Agatha stood in the middle of the kitchen holding her tea cup because her guest was sitting on the counter, but holding the cup and saucer in the middle of the room was awkward. She had to do some tricky balancing to take a bite of her cookie. She wasn’t as agile as she had been in the old days, and it was funny the sorts of things that reminded you, like trying to drink tea and eat a cookie in the center of your kitchen.

The girl seemed to return her stare to the divot in the floor, then she swiveled her head fiercely upward to look at Agatha again. “You know what they told me?” she said.

Agatha met the girl’s gaze but thought the question was rhetorical. When the girl didn’t say anything more, Agatha said, “Who? No, of course I don’t know what they told you.”

“My parents,” the girl said. “And, nothing. They told me nothing.” The next bite she took of the cookie in her hand seemed retaliatory. It snapped loudly. “Nothing at all. I wake up one morning. Come downstairs for school. Half the furniture’s gone. My mother’s having coffee at the kitchen table like a normal day. I say, ‘Where’s dad?’ She says, ‘At his house.’ Can you believe that? At his house? ‘This is his house, Mom!’ I told her. She just shrugged, took another drink of her coffee and told me not to be late for school. That was the whole story.”

“Sounds pretty awful,” Agatha said. The girl drank more tea and thumped her heels against the cabinets below her. Her bald head looked smooth as a baby’s knee and so pale Agatha figured today might be the first day her scalp had ever seen the sun. “That why you shaved your head?”

“That doesn’t really make sense,” the girl said. Somehow the baldness made her look much younger.

“That doesn’t really matter.”

“Well, okay, then yes. I did it because I was mad. They lied to me. They freaked me out. I figured they should get freaked out, too.”

“So it does make sense,” Agatha said, “after all. But what about me? What did that have to do with you coming in here?”

The girl heaved out a sigh. “I was walking around mad, I guess. Thinking about how everybody lies. I saw your welcome mat and thought, ‘I bet I’m not really welcome.’”

“You came in to try to prove it?” Agatha said. “To prove that everyone lies?”

“Something like that.”

“But I don’t lie,” Agatha said. She put her tea cup on the counter beside the girl. 

“Why aren’t you afraid of me?” the girl asked.

“I remember you,” Agatha said. “You’re a good girl.”

“From seeing me on the street? You think you can tell something like that?”

Agatha smiled. “I know I can,” she said. She described their meeting the day she had seen the hip-high version of the girl walking with her mother, pushing a stroller, how the baby must have tossed a toy overboard, and the girl had rushed forward to get it. She had bumped into Molly. Agatha and Molly were weeding the garden bed where the sidewalk on the street met the walkway to their house. There were bright purple petunias blooming, and the girl saw them when she went to retrieve the baby’s toy. 

“Are these your flowers?” the girl had asked Molly. Molly had said, “Yes, they’re ours.” And the girl had turned back to her mother. “Mommy, come see,” she’d said. “Look at these flowers these two mommies are growing. Aren’t they beautiful?”

Retelling the story to the girl, Agatha paused here. “You probably don’t know why I would remember that, do you?”

“No.”

“People seeing two women making a household together don’t always know what to say. They ask questions or say things in heavy whispers when they think they’re out of earshot. But you didn’t think we were strange at all. You saw us, do you see what I mean? You called us by a name that made sense to you. Two mommies. So simple. So I remember you, and I know you can see me. You understand what matters about people.”

The girl looked startled again. Twice, as an unexpected trespesser, she had been surprised in this kitchen. Agatha thought that was interesting. “For instance,” Agatha went on, “right now, you’re upset because you feel like your parents didn’t quite see you, the way I just described people seeing each other.”

The girl nodded. The dainty tea cup looked strange in her rough hands, but it also seemed to calm her. She didn’t let go of it.

“They didn’t lie to you, though,” Agatha added. A stormy look came back to the girl’s face, like she was ready to argue, but Agatha kept going. “It’s not a lie if somebody just doesn’t know what to say. People don’t mean to fall out of love. Nobody wants to fall out of love. It happens anyway.”

“Is that what happened to you? Is that why the other lady isn’t here anymore?”

Agatha wasn’t sure how the girl could tell that Molly was gone, not just for a moment, but for good, as though the emptiness Agatha felt she rattled around in were a visible thing. “No, that’s not what happened.” Something caught at Agatha’s throat, and she reached for the counter top to steady herself. “Molly and I never fell out of love. Sometimes, people really do love each other until they die.” Tears stung at the corners of Agatha’s eyes. She picked up another ginger snap and bit it, hoping to give her body something to distract it from the sudden onslaught of her feelings.

“Really?” the girl said, her head snapping to attention at Agatha’s last words. She looked immensely relieved, her body slowly loosening from the fist it had been holding itself into. “It’s easy sometimes to think things are the same way for everybody.”

“But you learn different,” Agatha said. “Nobody’s really the same. And love is always different.”

The girl let go of the tea cup, placing it gently beside her. It was empty. She squared her hands on the counter edge and slid herself down to the floor. It was dark outside and even later now. Surely her mother was worried, pacing a floor a few streets over.

“I’ve got to go now,” the girl said. She reached out a hand to shake Agatha’s. “Thank you.”

“Come back any time,” Agatha said.

 

 

Jody Hobbs Hesler lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Blue Ridge Anthology, Potato Eyes Journal, Leaf Garden Press, The Writer’s Eye Anthology, Pearl, and Albemarle Family Magazine. One of her stories was a Pushcart Prize nominee, and she has won and placed in a variety of regional writing competitions.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: A childhood friend’s father took off, and the only explanation his kids got was the half-empty house when they got home from school. I’d wanted to work the mysterious, mute awfulness of this event into a story for ages, and Agatha’s gentle bereavement offered an apt foil to the teenager’s angst here—turning the story away from loss and frustration and toward love and hope.

 

Q: What have you been reading lately?

A: I just finished a couple of recent Man Booker Prize winners—Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question and Anne Enright’s The Gathering. Now I’m treating myself to Dickens’s David Copperfield, while I also finish Jared Diamond’s explanation of the rise of Western civilization in Guns, Germs, and Steel.

 

Q: Where do you write? 

A: Most often I write at my desk in our study, under a framed sketch of Leo Tolstoy from an old issue of the London Illustrated Times. (My father-in-law rescued that issue along with heaps of other old issues of Illustrated Times from the scrap heap when the Library where he’d worked during college began to dispose of such things to make way for new collections.) But I’ll write just about anywhere you put me.

 

Q: Deciduous or coniferous?

A: Definitely deciduous. I love the colors and the whole cycle of life thing.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m revising a young adult novel, Voodoo Girl; working on the first draft of an adult novel, Little Angel; and gathering, revising, and adding a few more recent stories for a collection.


Art Critic

by Emily Edwards

followed by Q&A

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Emily D. Edwards was a producer and journalist before she joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The writer/director of many films, Edwards has also published books and articles on popular media. Her films have screened on national television, in theaters, and festivals. They include documentaries, narrative feature films, animations, experimental films and shorts. Her most recent publication is a chapter in From the Arthouse to the Grindhouse (2010), a book dealing with cinematic transgressions. Her most recent screenwriting award is the King Family Foundation Award for the narrative feature screenplay, Rude Planet.

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?

A: This story was inspired by a colleague of mine, Paul Gulino, a professor at Chapman University, who pitched me a story about an Internet date gone bad. In Paul’s story, the couple agrees to meet at an art gallery, but it quickly becomes clear that the young man doesn’t like art and the art doesn’t like him. I changed Paul’s story and characters and included a Pygmalion element, but kept Paul’s location in a gallery and his idea that art was literally alive and judgmental. The publication of a screenplay/storyboard is a real thrill for me. I’ve always felt that modern readers are so media literate that they could enjoy the unproduced screenplay as a literary form, mentally casting and directing the work for themselves as they read. I’m hoping this is the case for “Art Critic.” 

 

Q: What have you been reading lately?

A: Ellen Besen, Animation Unleashed, Kathryn Stockett, The Help, Randsome Riggs, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children 

 

Q: Where do you write? 

A: I normally write screenplays using Screenwriter software—so at a computer. 

 

Q: Deciduous or coniferous? 

A: Although I am aging and dropping lots of things recently, and so probably deciduous, I’d like to imagine that I’m an evergreen. 

 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: Actually, I’d like to make “Art Critic” as a short animated film, but have no budget. So, my challenge will be finding talented vocal actors who could work for free and allow me to video tape their movements while I make the audio recording of their voices. (Although the characters are already designed, casting can influence the ultimate look of the animation. I take into account actors expressions and movements while animating.) At the moment I am between script and 

production and not involved in any other artistic endeavor, which is a bit disconcerting.


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Crosswords

by Jacqueline Doyle

followed by Q&A

A writer at the party last weekend was wearing a long black dress and a kind of iridescent green fanny pack. This other writer came up with a screech, "A fanny pack! If I wore a fanny pack no one would know it was ironic!" Can you believe I once submitted something to her magazine? Do you think if I sent in an "ironic fanny pack" story it would get in?

This morning, one of the crossword puzzle answers was Manila, and our son just flew there yesterday for a two-week stay. He's living in Malaysia this year. In fact there was a lot of synchronicity in this morning's crossword puzzle, but don't get me started.

I used to have a fanny pack, but I don't know where it is. More recently, like less than a week ago, I lost a small zippered bag of makeup. Just lip gloss, mascara, and eye shadow, but it's unnerving not to have it. I've been using a spare mascara that leaves black rings under my eyes. Mornings, and even at the end of the day, I look like a raccoon.

My fanny pack wasn't ironic, of course. There have been short periods in my life when I felt like I was cool, but not many. Others when I didn't worry about it. Others when I did. My son wears a fanny pack when he goes hiking in the rain forest outside Kota Kinabalu where he lives. His fanny pack isn't ironic, either. Though, he's pretty cool.

Raccoon wasn't on the crossword puzzle, but skunk was. Last year, we paid a trapper to get rid of what we thought was a raccoon in the attic. He caught one raccoon, then another, then another, then a skunk that was probably just passing through the yard, then a fourth raccoon.  The biggest raccoon, the mother, got away. Our son says this is their habitat, not ours. He's working for an environmentalist group.

I wonder who invented the fanny pack. Most people wear them in the front, I think. One of the crossword clues today was derriere, not a word you see much. The answer was rear. You wouldn't see ass in a family newspaper crossword puzzle probably. Or even butt, which is the first answer I tried.

After the raccoons left, the house filled with fleas, jumping from the floor onto our ankles and legs, sailing off tables and windowsills, leaping onto my desk. With the animals gone, my husband and I were the only remaining hosts. An exterminator had to spray the attic, the crawl space, and the house. Twice.

Biting insect was on the crossword puzzle, too. Sometimes the answer is flea. Today it was a three-letter word and turned out to be ant.

During the open mic at the party last weekend, I read a story about a magician. It started out as an allegory about not being able to pull any more words out of a hat. It had an epigraph from F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Big Crack-up": The conjuror's hat was empty. My writing group told me to get rid of the epigraph, and the story got more realistic as I revised. The magician got a name, and a recently departed girlfriend, and a life. I remember its beginnings, though.

On some level, it's still about me, and the fear I won't be able to pull more words out of my magician's hat.

Hare was on today's puzzle. A kind of rabbit, the clue said.  

I just started doing daily crosswords this year. Often the clues seem way off, with little appreciation for linguistic accuracy and the fine lines between meanings. 

The magician story was published in a better magazine than the ironic-fanny-pack editor's.

Some days, it's still hard to pull words out of my hat. Once in a while, it's like raccoons in the attic or clowns in a Volkswagen at the circus. They tumble out in unimaginable profusion. One, then another, then another. More of them.

And just when you think that must be all, another!

They do handstands and somersaults and cartwheels. There are no rules or numbers. No one tells you what they mean, or don't mean. You can carry them around in a fanny pack during the day and look at them without worrying about "irony." You can put them in quotation marks if you want to. Or not.

You can mix them up in a hat like Tristan Tzara did and toss them onto the table to create Dada poems. Conjure a Paris café with lots of red wine and other writers, crumbs from baguettes strewn all over the checked tablecloth.

You can imagine a flea circus and write about it. Make the words leap and crisscross. March in orderly rows, and then suddenly jump off the page.

This morning the five-letter word for "end" turned out to be "cease." That was the last word I filled in to complete the puzzle. More synchronicity. But don't get me started.

 

 

Jacqueline Doyle's creative nonfiction and fiction have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Prick of the Spindle, Bartleby Snopes, Front Porch Journal, Blood Orange Review, and California Northern Magazine. Her flash prose has been published or will soon appear in elimae, 5_trope, Tattoo Highway, flashquake, LITnIMAGE, Monkey Bicycle, Staccato Fiction, Everyday Genius, and many other online journals. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she teaches at California State University, East Bay.

 

Q&A 

Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece? 

A: I was sitting at the kitchen table on a Saturday morning doing the crossword puzzle, sun streaming through the windows, and found myself meditating on synchronicity, the criss-crossing of events and associations, and words marching vertically and horizontally on the page.

 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?

A: "Scene, scene, scene," someone in my writing group said to me. I've found her admonition very useful as I write fiction. But in my creative nonfiction, I love to play with ideas, which sometimes leads to scenes, sometimes doesn't.

 

Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.

A: Writing flash is fun, because the first draft often emerges suddenly, after a flash of inspiration. I'm a compulsive rewriter, of flash and longer pieces. I've learned to wait at least a day or two before sending out something that I think is finished, because usually it isn't. 

 

Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?

A: I once had a system, and the poetry is still alphabetized, all in one bookcase. But there's no clear organization for the rest, and at this point I have rows of books in front of rows of books, making it very hard to find anything. I don't even have an e-reader, which seems a poor substitute for this fruitful chaos.


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The Best Cemetery in the South

(in which to Kiss a Woman)

by Kirk Curnutt

followed by Q&A

There are as many lovely settings in which to kiss a woman as there are varieties of kisses and places on her body to plant them. I’ve always been as big a sucker as any romantic for the slow dance and the candle-lit dinner, the dimming movie theater and the reclined passenger seat of a 1981 Grand Prix. Yet none of these ever made me appreciate how fragile a lip-lock can be more than the ones that occurred in—of all places—a cemetery.

At the risk of sounding ungentlemanly, I’ve been fortunate to smooch among some of the world’s most famous gravestones. In my wayward youth, I once made out with a Parisian gamine next to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s plot in Père Lachaise, inspired by a none-too-intelligible conversation about the none-too-intelligible Tender Buttons. Four summers ago, I snuck a buss from my now wife, D., while touring Poets’ Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey. Not all this osculating was confined to tourist stops, however. I once startled a girlfriend by landing an unsolicited smacker at the foot of my father’s eternal resting place in Tipton, Indiana. I think I was trying to win his approval by proving to him that at least one of us was still alive.

For all my globe-snogging, I’ve decided that the cemetery most conducive to kissing is the one closest to home. Since moving to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1993, I’ve made a habit of strolling Oakwood Cemetery, located only four blocks northeast of the downtown made historic by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Regardless of season or weather, it seems I need only traipse a hill or two of Oakwood’s rolling acres before I stumble upon a canoodling couple. Sometimes they’re teenagers mooncalfing to the soundtracks of separate iPods, sometimes they’re gay, quite often they’re non-locals paying their respects to Hank Williams, the most famous of the cemetery’s 200,000 residents.(1)  Usually when they see me the lovers pretend to be conversing close together out of a hushed respect for the dead. Every once in a while they continue on as if I were just another loitering ghost. 

What intrigues me about these kisses is that they’re rarely sexual. Something about the juxtaposition of Eros and Thanatos in a cemetery is so kinky that the very idea sends the imagination panting straight to the Gothic extremes of getting it on. That’s why, while ink aplenty has been spilled over the phenomenon of graveyard trysting, nobody much talks about what kissing there means.(2)  While I can appreciate that to some folks charnel romps are thrilling because they let us flip a middle finger at the Grim Reaper, methinks the bravado is a bit of an existential conceit. For all the nuzzling I’ve witnessed among Oakwood’s ledger stones, I’ve never once caught anybody in flagrante delicto, much less flagrantly delicto-ing to confirm they’re not spiritually dead. Not that I don’t doubt that it happens, but my traipsing has taught me that a good cemetery will make us ponder the lugubrious side of love as much as it’ll send us wuthering to the heights of passion all Heathcliff-like. That’s the only conclusion I can draw, anyway, when I trespass upon private moments that aren’t the lip-crushing, teeth-chipping, uvula-twiddling tableaux that the word kissing conjures up. Rather, most kisses I spy at Oakwood are sad, sad exchanges of emotion, and in a weird, quite possibly perverted way, I find them uplifting.

What makes the atmosphere at Oakwood so congenial to the poignancy of un baiser is its peculiar history and literature. Opened in 1810, it is a quintessentially Southern burial ground, every bit as redolent of Old Dixie’s tortured legacy as the Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston that inspired Henry Timrod’s “Ode: Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead” and the McGavock Confederate Cemetery in Franklin, Tennessee, the setting of Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” After Hank Williams’s grave, Oakwood’s biggest draw is a steep east-facing slope where 724 Confederate veterans are buried under identical white tablet stones, many of them anonymously. Crowning the slope is the first of the cemetery’s two Civil War memorials, and even a cursory trot among the brick coping will lead to the graves of stalwart secessionists with baroque antebellum names such as William Lowndes Yancey, Benajah Smith Bibb, and William Burr Howell (aka Jefferson Davis’s father-in-law). The headstones of these men are especially prominent in April, when loyal CSA sons celebrate Confederate History Month by tamping fresh Rebel stick flags into Oakwood’s gray grass.

Because Montgomery sells itself as both “the Cradle of the Confederacy” and “the Birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement,” Oakwood also bears the scars of African-American history. The juxtaposition of the city’s contradictory legacies is not as stark in the cemetery as it is downtown, where two blocks and a right turn is all that separates the First White House of the Confederacy from the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church. Nevertheless, with a little sleuthing, one can locate unheralded black heroes whose presence lends balance to Oakwood’s more prominent Confederate memento mori. In addition to several slaves, there are first-generation post-bellum black entrepreneurs such as Henry Allen Loveless, James Hale, and Victor H. Tulane, as well as many families who participated in the 1955-56 bus boycott. Among the more tragic stories is that of Dr. Harper Councill Trenholm, whose presidency of the all-black Alabama State College (now University) from 1926 to 1962 has been overshadowed by a single concession to white power. When Alabama State students attempted to desegregate a courthouse cafeteria at the height of the sit-in era, Governor John Patterson pressured Trenholm to expel the protestors and fire sympathetic faculty. (It was Patterson’s defeat of George Wallace in 1958 that inspired Wallace’s infamous pledge to never again get “out-niggered” in an election). Under threat of dismissal, Trenholm relented, an act that King—Trenholm’s former pastor at Dexter Avenue—decried as “cowardly.” Labeled an accommodationist, Trenholm soon fell ill from the pressure of his unenviable position and died in February 1963, only a few short months after the college he shepherded for thirty-five years unceremoniously forced him from office.

As emotional a punch as its history packs, Oakwood could hardly compete with more famous Civil War and Civil Rights shrines were it not for its literary legacy—one that specifically centers upon kissing. By the late 1910s, the cemetery had garnered a reputation among white teenagers as a primo spot for petting. (Not of the heavy variety necessarily, but merely first base). One belle especially fond of this pastime was Zelda Sayre. According to legend, the irrepressible Zelda had many a beau, one of whom, Peyton Mathis, was a well-to-do marbleworks proprietor responsible for two of Oakwood’s most celebrated memorials, The Wings of Death and The Broken Column. It’s not hard to imagine the dandy Mathis—half of an ostentatious hometown duo known as “the Gold Dust Twins”—squiring Zelda through the cemetery, hoping his art was sufficiently aphrodisiacal. Yet, however talented, Mathis was no match for a rival from Minnesota, a second lieutenant stationed at nearby Camp Sheridan, where the Army’s 67th infantry regiment trained for the Great War. The outsider had arrived in Montgomery in June 1918, boasting of two imminent accomplishments: he’d just finished drafting a novel he insisted would make him famous, and he was convinced he would die a hero on the Western front. Suddenly, Zelda didn’t find funerary art so seductive, and Mathis was jealously reduced to mocking this bibulous interloper as “F. Scotch Fitzgerald.”

The exact role Oakwood played in the earliest stages of Scott and Zelda’s fabled courtship is unclear. It isn’t referenced in their published correspondence until April 1919, nine months after they met at a Montgomery country-club dance. By then, the aspiring author was neither famous nor dead; shortly after Charles Scribner’s and Sons rejected his novel the previous fall, the Armistice dashed his hopes for military martyrdom, and upon his discharge he scrounged by as a $90-a-month copywriter for a New York ad agency. Zelda was understandably doubtful about Fitzgerald’s prospects, yet those doubts didn’t stop her from writing ornate love letters that simultaneously strung him along while hinting at extracurricular adventures with other men:

I’ve spent to-day in the grave-yard … trying to unlock a rusty iron vault built into the side of the hill.… The boys [probably the Gold Dust Twins] wanted to get in to test my nerve—to-night—I wanted to feel “William Wreford, 1864.” Why should graves make people feel in vain? I’ve heard that so much, and [Thomas] Grey is so convincing [in Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard], but somehow I can’t find anything hopeless in having lived—All the broken columnes [sic] and clasped hands and doves and angels mean romances.… Isn’t it funny how, out of a row of Confederate soldiers, two or three will make you think of dead lovers and dead loves—when they’re exactly like the others, even to the yellowish moss? Old death is so beautiful—so very beautiful—We will die together—I know—

References to other men drove Fitzgerald to such a fury that Zelda soon ended their relationship. The pair didn’t correspond for several months until, predictably, the first thing Scott did when Scribner’s accepted a revised version of his novel—now titled This Side of Paradise—was to book a train to Montgomery. As the couple renewed their romance that November 1919, they visited Oakwood. As Fitzgerald later remembered, “While out walking with [Zelda] I wandered into a graveyard. She told me I could never understand how she felt about the Confederate graves, and I told her I understood so well that I could put it on paper.”

The fruit of that boast was a tale about mismatched Dixon-Mason lovers called “The Ice Palace,” which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in May 1920 as This Side of Paradise was fast becoming a succès de scandale. In the story, the Zeldaesque heroine, Sally Carrol Happer, leads her Yankee beau, Harry Bellamy, through Oakwood’s “wavy valley of graves” to the hillside of Confederate dead. Overtaken by emotion, she delivers a eulogy for the “strange courtliness and chivalry” she imagines the South stood for: “People have these dreams they fasten onto things, and I’ve always grown up with that dream. It was so easy because it was all dead and there weren’t any disillusions comin’ to me. I’ve tried in a way to live up to those past standards of noblesse oblige—there’s just the last remnants of it, you know, like the roses of an old garden dying all round us.… Oh, Harry, there was something, there was something!”

Even for the Jazz Age this was lachrymosity laid on thick. As with much of Fitzgerald’s early fiction, the satire and sentimentality are virtually indistinguishable. My own feeling is that Scott was slyly tweaking Zelda’s Old South pretensions as much as he was hymning them, especially when Harry’s response is to whip out a handkerchief and declare, “I want to kiss you, Sally Carrol.” Satirically or not, Sally Carrol dabs her tears and obliges. Fitzgerald’s description of their petting is vintage Roaring Twenties overstatement: “She kissed him until the sky seemed to fade out and all her smiles and tears to vanish in an ecstasy of eternal seconds.” 

Sentences like that suggest why the boy from Minnesota fancied himself a “connoisseur of kisses.” And yet, as with all passionate embraces in Fitzgerald’s work—and they are legion—Sally Carrol’s ecstasy is haunted by loss. She already senses that she and Harry are incompatible. His gelid kiss has revealed that Northern boys don’t know what it means to “indulge in the cheering luxury of tears.”

I hadn’t read “The Ice Palace” before moving to Montgomery, so when I discovered the Oakwood connection through the Fitzgeralds’ correspondence in late 1993, I carried a copy of Flappers and Philosophers to the cemetery’s Confederate slope. I figured the story would mean more if I was communing with the ghost of their love. 

Instead, I was disappointed. I found it cute but dangerously close to cloying—a common criticism of Fitzgerald’s gaudier romances. I was also leery of Sally Carrol’s nostalgia for antebellum Alabama, especially when, mid-oration, she drops an un-ironic reference to “old darkies.” 

For the next several years, whenever I wandered Oakwood, I brought books about other famous Montgomery figures, from MLK and Miss Rosa to Jefferson Davis and George Wallace—people whom I felt gave me a broader perspective on a city I’d come to love because its paradoxical history struck me as America encapsulated. It wasn’t that I stopped reading F. Scott Fitzgerald. Far from it. Professionally, I specialized in him, authoring books and organizing conferences devoted to his career. I read him intellectually rather than emotionally, however. I felt I had to. I’d taken a hard left into my thirties, and I was mindful that when Zelda brought Scott to Oakwood, she was all of nineteen and he twenty-three. Pondering cemetery kisses, whether theirs or mine from my wayward youth, frankly, seemed immature.

Then one day in October 2000, my wife asked to meet in the old graveyard. She was another reason I regarded Fitzgerald so dispassionately. She was a dead ringer for Zelda and even shared her birthday. Friends had accused me of only marrying her for those reasons, which was both insulting and untrue. Even if I were deluded enough to try to morph into F. Scott Fitzgerald, finding a look-a-like spouse born in Montgomery on July 24 would seem an improbable aim. Some coincidences simply can’t be planned.

So, as I entered Oakwood that day, the Fitzgeralds were the least of my worries. My wife and I had only been married two years, and we’d spent the past one seesawing between separations and reconciliations. We were both exhausted, underweight, insomnious. I’d taken to soaking my blues in the bathtub for hours at a stretch and drinking too much. I was all of thirty-five, and my hair was gray.

“What do you think we should do?” she asked.

Right then it hit me why I’d been summoned to Oakwood as opposed to the bedroom or bar or the long country drives that usually coerced us into giving our marriage another go. Consciously or not, she’d invited me to the cemetery because she was ready to lay me to rest.

“I guess you better call a lawyer,” I answered.

We tried walking around to forestall the inevitable tears. Crazily enough, at one point I realized we were near the grave of Zelda’s parents, Anthony and Minnie Sayre, and I thought of Zelda’s description of her father’s interment in Save Me the Waltz (1932), her only published novel: “It was peaceful in the old cemetery. Wildflowers grew there, and rosebushes so old that the flowers had lost their color with the years. Crepe myrtle and Lebanon cedars shed their barbs over the slabs; rusty Confederate crosses sank into the clematis vines and the burned grass. Tangles of narcissus and white flowers strayed the washed banks and ivy climbed in the crumbling walls.” Zelda’s poetic style is often criticized for veering off into such flowery digressions, but on this day, I could attest that the roses were indeed color-bled and the narcissus knotted beyond repair.

Then it was time to leave, and all that was left was to kiss goodbye. This kiss seemed like a reliving of our entire relationship—French kiss, holy kiss, Judas kiss, vengeful kiss. It was every imaginable emotion at once, which is undoubtedly why it went on so long.

I won’t lie and say that was the last pash we ever shared. Like many divorced couples, we went through that masochistic period of disentanglement uncharitably known as “ex-sex.” We discovered that burying memories or even smooching them adieu takes much longer than legalities; it wasn’t easy for either of us to accept that we were to be “yellowish moss” on the tomb of each other’s dead love.

Now, almost a decade later, my ex and I occasionally run into each other in Montgomery. We never talk; we politely turn our backs out of respect for our present partners, with whom we’re each infinitely happier. I’m still a homer for all things F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I still weekly hike Oakwood, sometimes with a book, sometimes with D. and her Labrador.

When I catch sad canoodlers in our “wavy valley of graves,” I’m tempted to intervene and assure them that the melancholy I see in the meeting of their lips is the only reward of knowing that love is more mortal than we are. That way they, like me, can justify the allure of kissing at Oakwood with a line from Sally Carrol Happer: “Even when I cry I’m happy here, and I get a sort of strength from it.”

 

(1) The name actually refers to two separate but adjoining burial grounds, the 140-acre, city-owned “Old Oakwood” and the twenty-acre “Oakwood Annex,” which is where Hank Williams lies. The annex was privately operated before going into receivership in 2004; since then, it has been maintained by the Alabama State Department of Insurance. 

(2)A few examples: in the Hades section of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom fantasizes about “love among the tombstones” with “Turkish whores and young widows” because “in the midst of death we are in life.” The late Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran takes Joyce’s sentiment to exclamatory extremes in Tears and Saints (1995), describing cemetery sex as “the urge to desecrate tombs and to give life to cemeteries in an apocalypse of springtime! There is only life in spiting death’s absoluteness.” The motif appears across the literary spectrum, from philosophical allegories such as George Bataille’s Le bleu du ciel (1935) to chick-lit like Beverly Brandt’s Dream On (2005). Nor do sepulchral tangos necessarily require two: in Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater (1995), eponymous hero Mickey Sabbath attempts to exorcise his nostalgia for his dead mistress by masturbating over her freshly filled plot—after catching not one but two competing lovers practicing similar handiwork, no less.

 

Kirk Curnutt is the author of twelve books of fiction and criticism, including two novels, Breathing Out the Ghost (2008) and Dixie Noir (2009), as well as Coffee with Hemingway (2007), featuring a preface by the late John Updike. Among other awards, he has won the Indiana Center for the Book’s Best Books Award for Fiction and the Faulkner-Wisdom gold medal in nonfiction from the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society. His current book is Brian Wilson, an entry in Equinox Publishing’s Icons of Pop Music series.

 

Q&A

Q: Can you tell us a little about your process for incorporating research into the essay?

A: The main idea behind this piece is how we interact with history, how our own stories have to live among the ghosts of other people’s. I just let the writing flow from the personal to the objective and back, taking the structure in sections. The form is intentionally fractured in that way, which didn’t please everybody who read the essay in draft. More than one person told me it didn’t hang together. But the reality is that our intimate memories butt up against the more public past of the places where we live or the ones we frequent, often in ways that are jarring because that discrepancy makes us wish we could regard the events that constitute our lives as dispassionately as we read the dates on a stranger’s headstone. Which never happens, of course. So it just felt right to try to invoke in the reader that queasy juxtaposition I always feel at Oakwood between the tales interred in the cemetery and those anecdotes of my own I’d love to bury.  

 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?

A: The best advice was to partake of the adverb—indulgently. Most mentors and how-to books recommend doing away with them. Too flowery, too written. But I knew a Hemingway scholar once who pointed out to me in a single short story how many times EH used them, and how unobtrusively he could do it. Gertrude Stein had a whole theory of them, how they conveyed “continuous being.” Then I studied Fitzgerald and I realized the glamour they can bring to prose. If used judiciously, of course.     

 

Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.

A: I try to have a set schedule: the same hours, the same days. It’s like farming. You get up early and you do your chores. If I don’t keep to the schedule, I get lazy. I write a lot of different things—fiction and criticism—so I always have a choice of projects to work on. If sparks aren’t flying on one thing, I can flick my Bic on another.

 

Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?

A: Honestly, I don’t organize my library. My books won’t sit still long enough. They barely tolerate my immobility. (They charge a lot of rent, too.) They gather in corners of the house one day, then dogpile in whatever empty space they can find the next. Until just recently, many would stretch out on the side of the bed, forming the contour of a body. I always have a book in a pocket, too, whether the hip of a sport coat or the back cheek where a wallet would be if I had money. If a pickpocket ever targeted me, he’d probably be disappointed to walk away with a copy of Tom McGuane’s Panama.  And if he tries to plug me in the gut in the course of that robbery, he better be packing high caliber because there’s a couple hundred pages tucked in my waistband his heater will need to tear through.


Sarah Gottlieb.JPG

Red

by Sarah Gottlieb

followed by Q&A

An unfamiliar sun is beating down, shining on my head so fiercely it is becoming hard to focus on walking fast enough. I step cautiously over stone and gravel as sand and dust swirl around my dirt-filled sneakers. I am hiking—or so I am trying—in the pit of the Ramon Crater in Israel, on a ten-day program called Birthright, a trip free to anyone of Jewish origin between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six. I am nineteen. It’s about noon, and the sun is at its worst.

In the desert, I’ve fallen behind the rest of our group, tired. The group medic, an Israeli reserve soldier named Ohad, with a shotgun slung over his shoulder, is walking with me, struggling  to maintain my slow pace. His job during our hikes, among other things, is to make sure no one in the group falls too far behind. Our tour guide makes sure to lead the front and Ohad makes sure to bring up the rear. I keep Ohad busy, though he doesn’t seem to mind.

“What do you call this color?” he asks. He is pointing at my head. Instinctively, I pull a hand up over my forehead. My hand burns for a second as I touch my head that is scorching hot from the sun. It takes me a moment to realize his question. Oh. He’s talking about my hair.

“Red,” I say.

He looks confused. “Are you sure there is not another word?”

“No, in English they just say red.”

“It is very beautiful,” he says. I feel myself blush, and say thank you, sure now that my face must be as bright as my hair.

I am  not certain what made me blush this time. I had appreciated the compliment of course; I always do. But in my lifetime I’ve received an unusually large amount of attention because of my hair. Yet sometimes I do catch myself blushing, the heat to my face perhaps an odd mix of delight and embarrassment. Delight comes in the compliment itself; embarrassment sometimes follows in realizing that I have been noticed. 

People look at my hair. I don’t like to think it is me that is looked at because I have never believed myself to be beautiful, or pretty, or anything really attractive. My hair, on the other hand, is beautiful. My hair is the only area of me, the only part of me both inside and out, that I have any confidence in. But still, being associated with a color all my life has proven difficult.

Red, a flashy and demanding color, is paired with stop signs and stoplights, blood, fire, and ideas of love—all  begging calls for immediate attention. Red is a color for the bold, the brave, those who drive a red car, those who fearlessly wear a red dress. I am not bold. I stand out, but seldom by choice. 

My hair is also red in a way that other red hair is not. Unlike most reds that might be considered closest to blond on a hair color spectrum, mine would be considered closer to brown, though it has no brown in it. In the winter, my hair sometimes becomes so dark that if I take a section out from way underneath and examine it closely, I am able to see purplish undertones. 

My  red hair has been my center since the day I was born. My mom has a story from my baby years she loves to tell. As she tells the story today, I imagine a cool orange sun beginning to set. Soft light sneaks between tall buildings, illuminating sparkling sidewalks and highlighting the glow of my hair. 

I am too young to remember what the day truly looked like, but my mom tells the story something like this:

It was warm out, September or October, and I was four or five months old with a thick mop of curly hair. My parents had driven to Manhattan and had taken me with them. The three of us were on the corner of Fifth Avenue, right outside of Tiffany’s, when my dad stopped to use a payphone. He turned his back to my mom, who was holding the handles on my stroller. A stranger on the street suddenly stopped and peered into my carriage. She stood there cooing over me, and then another person stopped and looked. 

Another, then another until there were more than twenty strangers surrounding the two of us. I can only imagine my dad’s shock, maybe panic, when he finished his phone call, turned, and saw the gathering around my stroller. And this was just the beginning.

As I grew up, I was continually greeted with admiration no matter where I went. “Wow, look at that color,” people would say, circling around me to inspect my head from all angles. “Amazing.”

I used to feel annoyed whenever someone complimented me. When it was just a word or two it was okay, but then there were the people who would stop and talk to my parents for a good ten minutes about my hair. Or worse yet, the strangers who actually bent down and started petting me, usually in the doorway of a restaurant or in the middle of a shopping center. Women would sometimes stop me and say that they’d tried to dye their hair red, but found it impossible to get my shade. “People would pay lots of money for that color,” they’d say. It’s true.  According to the Toronto Star, in 2006, Americans spent $123 million on red hair dye, alone.

I’m always asked from who I got my color. “Is it from your mom?” strangers ask. They are puzzled by my dad’s brown-black hair and my mom’s hair, red, but not my shade. People are surprised when I explain how the shade really came from my Grandma Jackie, my dad’s mom. My mom says that the day I was born was the day Grandma Jackie’s hair started turning gray.

My siblings have it, too. By the time I was five, I had both a sister and a brother with red locks. They, like my mom, do not have my shade; my hair is much darker.

Despite my siblings and I not all having the same color, I’ve been told our trio looks good together. We did even more so when we were younger and were always within feet of each other. Younger photos of us together show small, smiling faces with pink cheeks shrouded by red hair. In one picture, my sister hugs me around the waist, her head touching mine, wavy strawberry-blond locks mingling with my deep red curls. My brother stands behind us, grinning mischievously, his chin resting between my sister’s head and mine. His hair is not as light as my sister’s, yet not as dark as mine, and we are a perfect portrait of colorful, arranged happiness.

Around the time I was five, my family began modeling. I went on dozens of “go-sees” as a child. The rooms were always old, small, inconspicuous buildings along streets of Manhattan. During the actual photo shoots, the buildings were bigger, brighter, and always stocked with tables spread full of food. As I was led to different sets and backdrops, wooden floorboards gently creaked under my sneakers. Sometimes, posing was fun. I was given crayons to draw with and candy bars to eat while cameras clicked in front of me. Before I could read and write, I graced the covers of Parent & Child magazine and could be found on boxes of bead kits. 

Since I was young and we lived close to the city, it was easy for my family to make the trip into Manhattan. The modeling lasted only a few years, though, because my mom quit the agency, Wilhelmina, after they called one winter morning at five a.m. and told her to wake me up for a photo shoot in Central Park. Then in February 2002, I did my last modeling for Limited Too. The photo shoot was my attempt to get back into the business. At that time, though, with my siblings and I enrolled in school, it was far too difficult for my family to make constant trips into the city. More important, however, was likely the fact that I stood under five feet tall and had almost reached my full height. At twelve, even child models had to be taller to find work. 

Then, too, I’d become too shy for modeling. This became clear to me the minute I stepped inside the Limited Too studio for the spring photo shoot. After I was led past food and makeup, I came upon a truly horrific scene. In front of the white backdrop, a photographer snapped away as two girls clad in bright blue and green danced around to a Britney Spears album. Somehow, when I’d begged my parents to let me try modeling again, I hadn’t thought about having to move around. The idea just hadn’t crossed my mind. Oh my God, I remember thinking as I approached the backdrop, my fingers finding my sweating palms, forcing my hands into fists. Am I going to have to dance in front of people?

Later, after five humiliating hours of staffers and models telling me to loosen up, I turned away from modeling for good. A couple of months later when I received the spring catalog in the mail, all I could see was how awkward I looked. There was one photo I did like: a picture of me, arm in arm with another girl, the two of us displaying the front and back of a graphic t-shirt. The girl was facing the camera, smiling sweetly; I had my back turned, my hair in a loose bun, red curls pointing in all directions. I liked how the focus on my side of the photo was on my hair, not on the rest of me. I was comfortable with that; I looked good with my back turned. My hair was, after all, the true selling point behind my modeling campaigns, even as I struggled to accept the fact that my color made me different.

Around  the time I turned eleven, it began to bother me that I didn’t really know anyone else my age with red hair. I started looking for redheaded characters in books and movies. I identified myself with Madeline and Caddie Woodlawn, real and fictional characters who had my color. They were adventurers of some kind: Madeline tended to stray from the group and get in trouble and Caddie Woodlawn (a nineteenth century character) hated housework and often found herself outside with the boys. I now see what must have influenced me at that age to love the outdoors and to make trouble, two things I have come to recognize as stereotypical for redheads.

But what of the other stereotypes that came with being a redhead? A bad temper? Sometimes. Passion? Maybe. Stubbornness? Definitely, though I’m pretty sure I get that from my brunet father. 

And then there are more physical stereotypes of being a redhead, something I realized when I was twelve and had moved on to middle school. In a class of three hundred, only three other redheads had joined my grade. These girls were redheads, too, but their hair was a different color, more orange than red. They also had light colored eyebrows and eyelashes, almost to the point of blond. My eyebrows and eyelashes were brown. Their eyes were also light, green (like my brother’s and sister’s) or blue. Mine are brown. And one girl’s skin was covered head to toe in freckles. While I had freckles sprinkled across my face and on my arms, I was hardly covered in them. Soon, I began to feel the expectations of being a redhead tagged onto my identity. 

St. Patrick’s Day had become something of a funny holiday to look forward to, not that I ever remembered what day it fell on. In fact, the only memory before high school I have of St. Patrick’s Day is from when I was about five: one morning when my mom brought home green-dyed bagels from The Bagelry for breakfast. After eating one, I threw up green.

In high school, peers would come to class that day in emerald-colored shirts with hands wrapped around water bottles full of vodka and ask me why I wasn’t wearing green. “Aren’t you proud to be Irish?” they asked. “Show some spirit!” I wasn’t Irish, I would tell them, I was actually Luxembourgish and a mix of some other European countries nowhere near Ireland.

 “What?” they would cry. “You’re not Irish? No way.”

Later, when I would tell my mom how I refused to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, she questioned me. 

“You don’t have to be Irish to celebrate,” she said. “It’s kind of a universal holiday.”

“But then people might think I really am Irish,” I argued.

“Do you have a problem with the Irish?”

It took me some time to realize what my qualms were about wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day. No, I didn’t have anything against the Irish. I realized that I liked being a unique redhead. While there are many more redheads in the world who also have no claim to Ireland, I liked that my hair color couldn’t be explained. I liked that it wasn’t tied to something obvious or tangible such as a country and couldn’t be expressed through a green shirt. My hair had its own story, and if I had to boycott St. Patrick’s Day to show it, then I would.

Just as people are surprised when I tell them I am not Irish, they are as puzzled when they learn I am Jewish. Reactions usually range from raised eyebrows to questions of, “They make Jewish redheads?”

I’ve gotten used to people questioning my hair when they learn I am Jewish, though I’d never questioned it much myself. This may be naïve of me, but I don’t see it as anything that strange. I know redheads to be a minority just as I know Jews to be a minority. Together, it would seem to me this would make for an even smaller minority, something that would explain why, in my lifetime, I’ve only met (aside from my own family) maybe two or three other Jews with red hair. Though I don’t see anything special about being a redheaded Jew, it would fascinate me to be able to trace where the red hair started in my family.

The week  after my Bat Mitzvah, right after I turned thirteen, my grandpa suddenly passed away. I began to feel the sadness lasting into the months and years after his death. Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, I realize now that I felt somehow less innocent. In the Jewish religion, tradition holds that one’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah marks a child’s becoming a man or a woman. In today’s society, thirteen is hardly considered old enough for womanhood. I knew little then what it meant to be a woman, yet after my grandfather’s death I knew I no longer felt like a child. 

After my grandpa died, I became critical of the certain world I thought I had known. I also became critical of myself. Everything appeared serious and felt like it carried more weight. Fitting in at school suddenly began to matter more than it ever had before. My hair, I felt, made me different. Because my hair was so much darker than the other redheads in my school, I didn’t even feel like I had anything in common with them.

What happened in the months after I turned thirteen seemed to hit at once. I lost almost all my confidence. Girls and boys in school were mean, scathing it seemed, and yet… I wanted to be like them. I didn’t want to stand out. They all talked the same way, wore the same things. I could get away with some of that, or at least try to, but my hair would always make me an outsider. My hair was not sleek and straight and blond or brown like theirs. I was a red, curly, frizzy mess. I couldn’t tan without getting sunburned first, and there were colors I couldn’t wear unless I wanted to completely represent the upper half of the rainbow: colors like orange, yellow, or fuchsia. 

When I wanted to change my hair to blond, my mom absolutely forbid me. Now, I thank her for this. Even as badly then as I wanted to be accepted, I don’t think I really wanted to lose my color. My color had made me who I was, and even though I sometimes hated that person, I didn’t know how to really be anyone else.

Though my mom would never have allowed me to dye my hair, she agreed when I pleaded to let me get it permanently straightened, which boosted my confidence, for about a week. As my mom had warned, straight hair would not make me truly feel better or solve my problems. I had other issues, none of which she voiced, but issues that I knew to be there. There was my persistent acne, merciless even after years of dermatology appointments. There were my short legs. And then there was still my growing unease and sadness, something that would rapidly turn into a severe depression that lasted years.

As peers walked the hallways chattering and laughing, I made my way to class with my head down, books held tightly to my chest, sneakers squeaking as I dragged my feet across floors too clean.

After a year or so in high school, I settled for a while into a new me, a person I didn’t always recognize, but someone I liked better than my eighth-grade, thirteen-year-old self. I was still depressed, though, and I carried this lifeless, defeated person I did not know with me constantly. I wore oversize sweatshirts to school and tied my hair back and hid it in my hood whenever I wanted to melt into the walls, which was often. Hiding wasn’t easy. I was too aware of the attention my hair brought me; I could feel its mark as though it were a large, single flame burning through me. In my unrelenting state of self-consciousness, I began to take note of all things red and the different meanings found in the color. 

Red, an emotional color, comes in dozens of shades. The color was first introduced to the crayon color spectrum in 1903. Crayola claims that “personality traits” for this hue are hot, energetic, loud, and powerful. 

Red can take on other meanings, as well. Recently, Crayola surveyed thousands of children: “If courage were a color what would it look like?” They answered scarlet. In an effort to support children fighting cancer at St. Jude’s hospital, “scarlet,” a shade of red, has been replaced by “courage,” the newest name added to the 64 Crayola crayon box. 

Red is a color I see almost every minute of the day; unavoidable, as my eyes often glimpse my long hair whenever I look sideways or down. In high school, I often felt confused and unsure of how I should carry myself. I was rarely energetic or loud. I certainly never felt powerful or courageous. 

I became  used to the names people would give me for my hair. Carrot-top, they’d call me. Rusty. Ginger. Or sometimes, just Red. My identity revolved around my hair, and so I constantly cared for it. When I was sixteen, I learned to blow-dry my hair sleek after a shower. I paid attention to the style, played with bangs and layers and angles for a few years. Friends always wanted to play with my hair. During lunch, they’d often stroke or plait it into long braids. Girls I didn’t know asked me what kind of shampoo I used and where I got my hair cut.

Eventually, I ditched the oversized sweatshirts and most days let my long hair fall around me. I realized the power my red hair gave me and I began to love and appreciate it. My hair was the item most complimented and now, beginning to peek through the thick, muted veil that had enclosed me in my depression, I started to take in more of the world again, and also the pressure to perfect my hair each time I washed it.

Today, I take up to an hour to blow-dry my hair. I spend so much time washing and blow-drying that I even plan my showers around my weekly schedule. I tell my family in advance when I plan on styling my hair so they know at what hours they’ll be allowed to use the bathroom again. They’re used to it. My friends, on the other hand, are still baffled when I, at times, require two hours notice before going out. If nothing else about me looks or feels right, at least I can count on my hair to look good. My hair gives me character; it allows me the confidence to acknowledge myself a person worthwhile.

There was a period in high school when everyone began to tell me I looked like Lindsay Lohan. It was a compliment, and I secretly loved the comparison. After all, everyone had thought she was beautiful. Before Lindsay came along, redheads weren’t recognized much in the media for being beautiful or sexy—at least as far as I knew. She was the only celebrity I ever followed. I watched how she cut her hair and I wore the colors she wore. Her growing fame gave me some confidence, knowing suddenly that maybe I didn’t need a more traditional hair color to be considered attractive.

After Lindsay’s movie career began to take off, she dyed her hair blond. This shocked me; it was almost as though she’d taken offense against me. Why would she do such a thing? I thought back to middle school and how I’d once considered dyeing my hair blond. I realized I would never be able to do it, especially not now. Who would I be without my hair? I imagine hardly anyone would think I was the same person. I decided Lindsay Lohan was beautiful anyway without her red hair. Me, I wasn’t so sure.

I would not know myself without my hair. There is a part of me that is terrified to lose my color, or worse yet, lose my hair completely. This thought has not yet fully come to surface because I know I am still young and healthy, but with each passing year, I feel the issue slowly inching closer to the front of my mind. I do not know what I will do with myself the day my hair beings turning gray. The idea is one that even now I am having trouble acknowledging.  Red hair dye is available, yes, but I’m not sure I will ever find my exact shade in a bottle, or even if I will want to. I like that it is natural.

Even after my own hair turns gray, the Oxford Hair Foundation has predicted that by the year 2100, redheads will either have become extinct or extremely rare. Though the company’s claim is currently being debated, the idea bothers me nonetheless. I know the gene for red hair to be recessive, yet I somehow cannot imagine my children not having red hair. I cannot imagine a world without red hair.

It is  past noon now and the Israeli desert is sweltering, drawing my attention to my hair again. Is it frizzing? Will I have to wash it? I’m not sure if there will be a point to that since tomorrow we will only be in the desert again, for the next day our group will arrive at the location where Sharon, my best friend since middle school, will introduce us all to her aunt and uncle. They will greet her excitedly, and then they will turn to me.

“Ah!” Sharon’s uncle will cry, smiling, staring. “Gingy!”

“That is the word,” Ohad, the group medic, says, suddenly behind me. “Gingy. That is what you call it!”

“Gingy?” Someone else, an American, asks behind me. “Like Ginger?”

The color of my hair finds itself in my cheeks again as I unconsciously move my hands up to touch my locks. I will always blush, and in these moments, I will always know how lucky I am for my hair.

 

 

Sarah Gottlieb works in Florida as a video producer and editor. She also writes freelance for a variety of platforms. Sarah earned her BA in writing and communication from the University of Tampa, where she graduated with honors and received the Journalism Student of the Year title.

 

Q&A

Q: What did you discover about yourself while writing this piece?

A: I discovered how much I could learn by just taking time to reflect. At the start of this piece I had only two or three small ideas. Immediately those ideas snowballed into a lifetime of thought and emotion once I pushed everything else aside and allowed myself to focus.  

 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?

A: The best writing advice I’ve ever been given—and I’ve heard it more than a few times—is to just start. That is, stop trying to come up with the perfect idea and just begin typing.  

 

Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.

A: As soon as I have an idea, I write as much as I can in one sitting. I shut everything else out, usually three to six hours at a time. I try not to edit or filter. A day or two later I come back and start revising.

 

Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?

A: Until I move to a bigger space, I’m limited to keeping only a dozen books around. The works I find myself underlining about once a page are the ones I hang on to. I tend to stack according to how much I’ve scribbled inside (the more scribbles, the closer I put within reach).


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Almost Happy, 1972

by Patricia Bjorklund

followed by Q&A

After the assassinations of Kennedy and King, I wouldn’t dare to guess where or when the next incident of mayhem might occur, but my father always made it clear when the world had gone too far. “Saint Catherine, Saint Ann, Saint Jude! Where the Hell are they?” he said, as our car slowly rolled out of the parking lot of Our Lady of the Assumption. “What’s happened to all the saints?” He turned and looked at me and my brothers in the backseat. “You think they were just called up to Heaven?”   

My little brothers didn’t attempt to answer and I didn’t know what to think except that it was true. All kinds of relics seemed to have disappeared overnight as Assumption got caught up in the streamlining trend: floor-standing candelabra, marble baptismal fonts, and incalculable feet of wrought iron altar railing were missing. The place looked looted. I watched our church get smaller in the side-view mirror. In this case, the trouble was Vatican Council II and their latest hedonistic changes, a loosening of restrictions that suddenly allowed churches to engage in interior decorating.

My mother smoothed her linen skirt and sighed. “How can they turn a place as rich and inspirational as a church into something as pedestrian as a vacant room? Maybe the emptiness is supposed to make us yearn and reflect on inner things.”

Johnny-Boy cleared his throat. “Maybe they’re just cleaning the statues,” he said.

"That’s a cute idea, kiddo,” my father said. “But where have all the kneelers gone?” He slapped the steering wheel. “How in God’s name are you supposed to worship if you can’t get on your knees?”

“You can still worship, John,” my mother said. She took off her lace veil and folded it.  

“Really?” my father said. “They’re throwing away saints, Jane. Which Dumpster do we go to when we wanna pray to Saint Ann?”

“Well, it's still our church,” my mother said.

“It's not my church. Pandering to the masses,” my father said. “That’s what this is. After one thousand, nine hundred and seventy-two years, the Roman Catholic Church has chosen to tamper with divine traditions. I don't believe for one minute that this is what God wants!”

We pulled up to the Wood Avenue Bakery, our usual stop. My mother lowered the visor and refreshed her flip in the mirror. She sprung out of the Impala. When she returned, my father reached across to open her door and my mother angled into the car with a tower of boxes which were bound together like a present tied with a bow of striped bakery string. She balanced them on her lap, assorted-sized boxes with more than enough pastry for two families of five. 

The Meehans were that other family.

At home, Jim and Olive Meehan, my parents’ best friends, came over from across the street with their three kids and all of us lingered in our church clothes. We huddled around the counter in our kitchen, grabbed napkins and plunged our hands into cake boxes of donuts: jelly, custard, glazed, and crullers. My mother sliced a fresh log of apple strudel and poured orange juice into glasses with avocado-colored tear drops paint on them.   

Mr. Meehan cuffed up his white shirt sleeves and told us that the situation wasn’t any rosier at the other local parish. “There’s a carnival brewing in the parking lot outside the gates of St. Peter’s,” he said, “and inside, the crucifix of Jesus has been replaced by a bare wooden cross!”      

“That’s for effect,” my father said, “if you can believe those collared-punks with their mop-tops!” 

“Hippy-priests!” Mr. Meehan said. “Literally turning their backs on God so they can tune-in to the congregation.” He flashed the A-OK-sign, which really meant over-and-out.

“Maybe they have good intentions,” my mother said. She centered four Earthenware cups on their saucers. “But the real issue here is in the translation. How do we know if the words of the sacraments can be converted from Latin to English?”

“As if God ever needed to explain himself to us!” my father said.     

Mrs. Meehan unplugged the Farberware percolator and poured coffee. “I’m not sure the Eucharist is the Eucharist anymore?” she said.  

My father tore open a packet of Sweet-n-Low, poured it into his cup and twisted the paper until it resembled a toothpick. “The whole mass, it didn’t even clock-in at a full hour. Holy Communion has gone from a sacrament to something like a trip for fast food.”

“Good-God help us,” Mrs. Meehan said, and she pulled a stool up to the island and set her elbows on the pumpkin-colored counter.  

The Meehan kids, Andrea, Char, and Paul drifted out to our backyard. My three little brothers scampered outside too, powdered sugar on their lips and each of them double-fisted with doughnuts. I lingered at the kitchen counter peeling the skin off my strudel.

My father grabbed a box of donuts, held it in front of me and shook it a little. “And what do you think?” he asked.

I looked at the mess of powdered sugar and sprinkles. “I don’t want a doughnut,” I said.

“I said what do you think?”  

“I think they’re singing more than they used to.” 

“Yeah—but not the time-honored hymns,” my father said. “I’d better not catch you singing any of that Kumbaya-crap.” He pushed his cup and saucer away. “You call that a church? There’s too little flesh and blood—and too much guitar.”   

“It’s such a shame too,” Mrs. Meehan said. “You kids don’t get to hear those gorgeous hymns, how beautiful Latin truly is—Latin, the language of God.” 

My father turned toward me and leaned back in his chair. “So, just what’s going on in that school of yours?” 

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, stalling.  

“You know what I mean.”

I had to offer up something and I was never exactly sure of what to leave in or what to leave out to avoid one of his lectures. “Let’s see… Sister gave us the Good News Bible. It’s not really ours—I mean we have to leave it at school. But it’s a good looking book!”  I looked at my mother. “It’s cute—a pure white cover, with 18 karat gold letters—it opens and closes with a zipper and a tassel!”

“There is no good news in the bible,” my father said. “And saving your soul is the antithesis of fashion!”  

My mother adjusted the pearls around her neck, and I went back to picking raisins out of my strudel.

“You realize that the new Vatican is particularly targeting the women,” Mr. Meehan said, and he slid his tie from his collar.

“Yeah,” my father said. “The grannies are turning church basements into Bingo halls, and they’ve got the teeny-boppers pitching banners for the peace movement.”    

My mother stood in front of the sink, looking off to something further than any point in our kitchen. “I’m not worried about the kids becoming hippies or gamblers,” she said. 

 “Well, you ought to be,” my father interrupted. “Speaking of the bible—it says it is better to tie a millstone around a child’s neck and toss him into the ocean, than to let him—or her” he said as he pointed to me, “lose his eternal soul.”

“That’s not what ‘suffer the little children unto me’ means,” my mother said.

“The bible means exactly what it says, Jane,” my father said.

I slipped out of the room and out to the back porch as my parents went on bickering, but I knew what it was they were worried about. The Catholic Church did seem to be giving up the mysterious rituals that made it the one true church. The mass—which had remained the same for centuries—was changing.    

Deep down, I knew some of my parents’ worries real. Sister June Marie’s hem was way up since Jesus Christ Superstar. Her habit was half of what it used to be, and felt banners for peace and love draped concrete-block walls all over my school.

On the first Wednesday of each month, we marched from homeroom to church for mass. Father Ryan preached Peanuts sermons just for us. Comic-strip characters faced moral dilemmas, i.e., is it right for Snoopy to lie about his heritage, disguise himself as a full-bred instead of a mutt to have an edge in the Top Dog Competition? Charlie Brown caught Snoopy in a bald-faced lie—he understood; he forgave; he didn’t even punish.    

We no longer had to wear our plaid hats, those itchy wool envelopes that made me think of the Foreign Legion, to that first Wednesday mass. The passé headwear stayed in our desks to hold pencils, sharpeners, and rubber erasers that could pass for chunks of cheese. I didn’t tell my parents that my head was exposed. I was keeping it to myself.

Just that very Wednesday, I had been sitting in church for one of those Good News masses—squished in the front pew between Martha Cassady and Carol Stonkas.  Father Ryan stepped down from the altar to shake our hands. “Peace be with you,” he said and his face was only inches from mine. His hair was clean cut, parted on the side, but long enough on top to graze his forehead in the breeze of the tuba-sized church fan. His eyes were a deep ocean shade, like gems so brilliant they looked fake. If I could forget that the world was about to blow up, if it was possible to meet and fall in love with the guy next door, if I could buy any of that happy-ending with Mr. Wonderful-type stuff, Father Ryan was the face of that fairytale. 

I could picture Father Ryan without a collar. I could imagine him singing a Bobby Sherman song, a tune like crystal cool water, miraculously pouring out of the pocket-transistor radio I’d been sneaking around with: HEY little wo-man, please make up your mind.  You’ve GOT-to come into my world and leave your world behind.  

It would be so easy to follow him. At that moment, the way of the cross didn’t seem so lonely and out of the way. When our school packed the pews for those Wednesday masses, we all knew that Sister Beatrice was just winging it on the bongos. I had a real sense of rhythm. I’d be a virtuoso with any form of drum and I could legitimize the tambourine. I could help Father Ryan bear the weight of virtue and fame. Communists and Satan worshipers, they could brand me with my social security number or put me through weeks of Chinese water torture, but I wouldn’t forsake Jesus or my country and I was expanding my allegiance to include Father Ryan’s face—and Bobby Sherman’s voice—and I started to entertain the idea that I might actually fall for a boy who could say words like hey little woman and really mean what he was saying.  

On the other hand, joy was a shackle to Hell. I wrestled with the chains of happiness. I suffered spastic excitement as it sometimes churned in my stomach—clear indication of what my parents called sensitivity training—the most insidious type of brainwashing. Just being a student at Assumption had its price; I wasn’t as uncomfortable as I should have been. I’d been seeing way too much of Sister June Marie’s ankles and shins. I didn’t tell my parents when she stopped trudging around in black oxfords because I liked the way she sprung around our classroom in airy-beige sling-backs with cork soles. Her shortened habit was as secular as a hankie: wisps of pale hair to hang out, carefree. In the shine of her diamond-shaped face, I saw happiness. Happiness, real to me, a force fizzing in the gut. Happiness was undeniable, almost irresistible, and dangerous for just those reasons.  

But I thought if I kept the numbers down, if I monitored my occasions of joy, I would never get addicted to happiness, which was a fool’s game in the valley of tears anyway.  I reasoned that my experience with the seductive desire to be happy was my best defense against becoming a communist or a liberal myself. So, I allowed myself to be obsessed with one priest: Father Ryan; one song: “Hey, Little Woman,” and one nun: Sister June Marie. And I was dying to know where she shopped for her sort of normal, but still nun-ish wardrobe. Her colors were brown, beige, gray, and navy. Sister wore neutral cardigans and skirts and simply classic white blouses. She leaned on sturdy wools and reliable cottons. Sister’s look was humble, yet distinctly hopeful—she had clothes that were almost happy.

A couple  of Sundays later, we went to mass at Assumption again. I had no idea what my parents were thinking. I didn’t expect to find that the saints had come marching back in. But because we were there, I had to hope: I hoped that Father Ryan would make a revelation. I wanted him to bless us, and then grace us with words of wisdom, point out a grand design that my parents couldn’t conceive of. I wanted Father to preach about some earthly paradise, say something about music being a gift from Heaven, sanctioned by the Pope. Then, I wanted him to explain about all those statues—the bisque beauty and glazed blood that had disappeared. Where had all the saints gone and what about those kneelers?    

It didn’t happen though.  Father Ryan made no attempt to explain the disappearances.  He offered up a generic sermon about Lazarus. He never even mentioned Snoopy and maybe it was for the best. After mass we retreated to the Chevy in dirt-staring silence.     

My mother shook her head and turned on the radio. Stevie Wonder was singing… My cherie amour, lovely as a summer’s day… I was no stranger to the words. My father hated the radio, especially in the car, but it seemed he had so much on his mind that he didn’t hear it. Stevie Wonder was filling up the car with sound that had the power to move me like a weeping willow… My cherie amour, distant as the Milky Way…      

Along both sides of Stratfield Road, the estate homes with their historic maple trees seemed to be waving to us, pushing us along. La-la-laa-laa-laa-laa… We passed the Brooklawn Country Club, the duck pond near the 7th hole. We passed the quaint strip of store fronts: the striped awning at El Dorado Pharmacy, and the barber shop spinning its ribbon like a million connected smiles. We were cruising along with the radio on—like other people and in a normal world. I basked in the perfection of the universe in motion from my fixed location in the backseat: my brothers weren’t fidgeting or taking up too much space. I adored the gorgeous waves of my mother’s hair; I loved the contrast between my father’s tan neck and his jiffy-white collar. The air was sprinkled with the sweetness of Stevie Wonder’s voice—candy canes of La..la…la. Music paved the way for our procession back to Bridgeport. I had the urge to blow kisses to people on the sidewalks, the travelers, the onlookers...  How I wish that you were mine… A thin, grassy knoll charmed the middle of the street. The words and music marked the time as we passed—sort of like Kennedy’s motorcade before the shot. We rolled peacefully, away from the corrupting wealth of Fairfield, Connecticut. We passed the sign, the town line, and we floated back to our city of Bridgeport, our city of cars without circular driveways, cars that crammed the streets and flooded the curbs, each car with its own radio. I poked my head between my parents and looked at it, our thankless Delco, the precise black lines between the numbers on the AM dial reminding me of a thermometer. At that moment, we were around 98.6, set on the perfect human temperature. I praised the Lord for sometimes making life so clear to me: every car had a radio built in, pressed into the heart of each dashboard like a soul. I thanked him for the radio and for the revelation:  at some point, whether we were listening or not, the same song pulsed through us all. 

 

 

Patricia Bjorklund has a B.A. and M.S. from Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven and an M.F.A. in creative writing from UNC Wilmington. “Almost Happy, 1972” is a chapter from her memoir, U.S. and Them: A Re-enchantment of an American Childhood, which she is currently shopping around. The title-chapter appears in the spring 2011 issue of the Missouri Review and another chapter can be found in the latest Palooka. Her work has also appeared in the Connecticut Review, Post Road, American Writing, Folio, Wilma, to name a few. She is full-time faculty at Southeastern Community College in Whiteville, N.C., and also teaches a writing workshop in Wilmington where she lives. 

  

Q&A

Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?

A: Radios inside cars, right there in the dashboard. I still can’t get over the potential happiness, the magic. I remember being a girl and hearing a song and watching the world go by, and even though the world seemed to be hanging by a thread, happiness was real to me and anything was possible for a moment at least.

 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?

A: Soak in a bathtub. It’s the best suggestion ever. I’m giving a guarantee right now.  As soon as you get suds on your hands, all will be revealed.  You won’t be able to find paper, pen and a towel fast enough.    

  

Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?

A:  I used to group together shelves for various genres, and within each genre, I put my favorites on the “nicest” and most convenient shelves (given that I’m 5’1”) so the ripple effect defines my inner and outer circles. I’m in the midst of moving for the first time in a while, so I’m rethinking my hierarchal nature and my shelving situation.


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Living in the Zone

by Lois C. Fiorelli

followed by Q&A

Saturday, December 31, 2005, Kuwait City, Kuwait

Sand. Expansive areas of it. The color of coffee with cream. I felt our plane circling as it descended. Tiny roads. More sand. Tents.

It’s a desert. What do you expect?

My new life didn’t include Etienne Aigner purses and shoes or weekly dinners and Scrabble at Mom’s. Instead, it consisted of camp politics, battle buddies, and daily intelligence updates.

As a Navy reservist deployed to the Mideast, I needed to familiarize myself with the region. I studied terminology, policy, and organizational charts soon after my combat boots hit the ground. Settled into my job as squadron legal officer. Ignored the camp’s stale urine smell. Decorated my hooch. Next, I wondered how to show family and friends what life’s like in a combat zone. My training as a journalist seized me. Look for stories, take notes, and report through newsletters .

From: Lois

To: Kuwait Group

Subject: Small price for freedom

Sent: Sunday, January 15, 2006

Greetings to all from the desert. We're actually at Kuwait Naval Base, or KNB. Within KNB is Camp Patriot, the American compound created at the beginning of the war. Look for us on a map. We're located at 28 degrees 52 minutes north latitude and 48 degrees 17 minutes east longitude. Camp Patriot is home to all U.S. military services and is run by the Army and the Air Force.

Although Kuwait is not currently at war, reminders of it are everywhere. The Iraqi’s slaughtered Kuwaitis during the first Gulf War in the decaying Naval barracks where senior officers now live.

A brick wall topped with Constantine wire surrounds much of our compound. You can see pockmarks where the brick is chipped away. We’re told Sadam Hussein’s men caused those when they executed innocent Kuwaitis during the first Gulf War.

Reminders of that bloody war even exist in the air. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal techs find unexpended rounds on the beach and detonate them. The sound of killer firecrackers breaking the silence when we least expect it.

Our camp carries reminders of this current war every day. Service members heading to Iraq process through Kuwait and out-process here before going home. Men like Billy, a soldier I met last week while watching the news.

“Time for me to go home,” Billy said. His eyelids sagged, causing the skin around his eyes to tighten.

I wanted to understand his dejected tone. “Sounds like you’re sad.”

“Strange as it may seem, ma’am, I’d rather stay.” Sweat began to soften the jet-black ringlets of hair around his temples, ears.

Say what? I hunched forward in my chair. “Any specific reason?”

He looked at the TV screen, magazine rack next to it, a motivational poster on the wall. “Feels more comfortable. My home life. Things aren’t the best at home.”

“Wanna talk about it?”

“Naw.” He tapped the pocket Bible I held. “Can you pray for me? To accept the fact I have to leave?” His hand reached for mine.

Billy and I prayed for a minute, then he said good night. Haven’t seen him since.

Though a portion of our camp’s population is transient, like Billy, many of us will stay in Kuwait our entire deployment.

Clearing barrels outside the dining facility, Post Exchange, Operations Center, and entry control points, or ECPs, remind us this is a war zone. Anyone carrying a weapon must clear it before entering camp or those buildings.

Reminders of conflict exist in the TCN watch. Armed sailors accompany Third Country Nationals, or TCNs, as they drive septic tanks through camp everyday.

This is a desert, and yes, dust covers everything. Our compound is paved with gravel rocks to help keep us from breathing dust when we walk. Most of the tents raised when Camp Patriot sprang into existence are gone. The remaining tents are being dismantled, but can’t get shipped stateside. They’re contaminated because of particulates adhering to the fabric.

It's easy to call home. A PODS-like structure houses six satellite phones, enabling us to dial direct, free of charge. I can also call through the Defense Switching Network to an automated number at Camp LeJeune, then dial my AT&T phone card number.

The dining facility serves Baskin Robbins’ ice cream at lunch and dinner, and my room has an Ethernet connection. Life is good, just dusty .

Monday evening, I checked my Comcast account, wondering if anyone in my Kuwait group had replied to the email.

From: Annette

To: Lois

Subject: Re: Small price for freedom

Sent: Monday, January 16, 2006

Hi Lois,

Thanks for the letter. Very interesting. I’d love to send you a care package, but am unsure of what to send. What do you need? Want? Books, magazines, toiletries?

Take care of yourself. We're all thinking of you and your comrades .

Fears about getting chastised for sending the newsletter disappeared. I knew exactly what to ask for. Tuesdays With Morrie. The bestseller was high on my reading list. I asked Annette if she could send it, then read Lois T’s note.

Lois, a member of my church, wanted to know how to help meet my spiritual needs. I had a stash of Christian rock CDs, but not any soft worship music.

From: Lois T

To: Lois Fiorelli

Subject: Re: Small price for freedom

Sent: Tuesday, January 17, 2006

I will get right on the request for worship music. I have several wonderful CDs, but am not sure how to mail anything. Will it get to you?

Better sign off now. May He give His angels charge over you - to bear you up on their wings that you will not even dash your foot against a stone .

Lois T. and Annette showed me folks cared about the well-being of deployed troops. The high I got from their email wore off by midweek, though, as legal issues rose within our squadron.

The ex-girlfriend of a squadron sailor waited until he deployed to slap him with a paternity suit. She filed the suit as soon as his paycheck increased due to our tax-exempt status.

We filed paperwork for the judge. Explained that the sailor couldn’t appear in court because he was deployed to a combat zone.

“Scan the letter. Email it. Pronto,” I told the enlisted man. “Let me know as soon as you hear from the court.”

“This is crazy.” Neck muscles tightening, he split ‘crazy’ into three syllables. Kuh-ray-zee. “My ex knows I’ve always acknowledged I’m the father of her child,” he said.

“Let’s hope the judge postpones this case. Your current wife’s pregnant? She doesn’t need this stress. Nor do you.”

To me, the ex used the paternity suit as a ploy to get the sailor’s money. Did she realize her actions impacted a military unit providing force protection for the war? I got angry every time I thought about the woman.

My emotions switched gears again when another friend responded to my first newsletter. Lydia lived in St. Augustine with her husband Barry, a host of cats, and an adopted Jack Russell Terrier. We met when I found the Jack Russell. I looked for someone to adopt the dog because I couldn’t keep her. Lydia and Barry came to the rescue.

Now we’re friends, and I’m Aunt Lo to Noggin, their spoiled girly dog.

From: Lydia

To: Lois

Subject: Re: Small price for freedom

Sent: Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Lois,

Thanks for your update. It's sobering to hear what your day must be like. Makes me feel very lucky and thankful for you and all who work with you. God bless and keep you safe until we see you again. Noggin sends wet kisses. Love .

My hormones careened like an uncontrolled ship. Why am I in the desert? How will the experience change me? Whose life can I touch? I expressed my thoughts to my pal Sheryl, even though email still didn’t bring any news from her.

From: Lois

To: Sheryl

Subject: Musings

Sent: Thursday, January 19, 2006

A good friend of mine suggested while deployed I take time to be me; accept myself; learn who I am. I've come a long way since you told me you saw fear in me, yet I have a ways to go on the path of getting rid of it. This morning I thought about fear while proctoring an advancement exam. I'm still fearful of how others see me. How I look, how I dress, and what they interpret. Should I care? No.

I'm fearful of being vulnerable. Every time I hear Pastor Kim talk about being open and transparent, I cringe inside. For me, being vulnerable has meant getting stomped on. Misunderstood.

Sometimes I think I'm incapable of sharing from the depths of my heart. You've told me before I have much to give to others. Sometimes I see the much  and at times I don’t. 

I've thought about post deployment. You told me you were concerned about my integration into the civilian workforce and asked me to seek help when I transition. I can already see the difficulties. This is a different way of life. I don't want to get locked inside a cube again. I still need to seek the purpose, the type of field to enter. Please pray for me to entertain new avenues and allow God to guide my next career.

I started thinking of the Chris Rice song, Life Means So Much . Am I living life to the hilt? I want to be on the journey, seeing life and exploring it. Maybe somehow after Sissy Dog died a part of me did too.

There’s plenty of time to reflect on life and where I'm going. What plan God has for me. How to accept myself as I am. I know you're rooting for me and praying for me, as I pray for you. Yes, God has me here for a reason and part of it is to listen and learn about myself. Carpe Diem, my beloved friend. Thanks for all the times you've encouraged me, supported me, and listened to me .

Maybe Thursday night’s intense look at myself saved me. I studied Friday’s afternoon sky, my first sky-watching experience at Camp Patriot. The clouds looked like a mountain range. I envisioned snow blowing off those mountains, wintry winds creating near whiteout conditions.

On Saturday morning, I didn’t have to imagine wintry winds. The flag jerked outside my window. The moaning, whining of the wind whipping around the corners of buildings in the compound created a creepy atmosphere.

Sandstorm? I prayed the dust didn’t cause further damage to my swollen, infected sinuses.

After breakfast, I retreated to my room. Listened to the metallic drumbeat of the flag stanchion thumping against its pole while I reviewed a legal investigation. Took a late morning break to check email.

From: Mom

To: Lois

Subject: Love From All

Sent: Friday, January 20, 2006

Hi Sweetheart,

Came over a while ago to visit Joshua. Thought I’d send a message. Your package is ready and I will send it tomorrow. I put a long note in with it. Hope your sinuses are better. Today was a pleasantly warm day, but I wish it were more seasonal. You know me. It gets hot enough soon enough. I want to feel cold weather.

Josh sends purrs and licks and meows to say he misses you a lot even though he gets visitors twice a day. He is sprawled on his back waiting for his tummy to get rubbed. Grandmom sends her love, as does Mike. He is going to a meeting with Brad this evening. Take care, Lo. We miss you .

I didn’t see my mother’s Friday evening note before Saturday because Kuwait’s eight hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Reading her message made me homesick. I missed cuddling on the couch with my cat Joshua. His purring sounded like a musical masterpiece. I went to sleep Saturday night thinking of Mom, my brother Mike, and Josh the cat, yet realizing I needed to get comfortable in my new home.

Monday, January 23, 2006

My initial shell shock at the sparse living conditions lifted at the beginning of our deployment’s third week. I embraced the small town feel of my camp. Thick concrete force protection barriers no longer reminded me I served in a combat zone. Instead, the 5-by-10 foot barricades captivated me because I realized my comrades used them to tell their stories.

Military groups were allowed to decorate the barriers before they went home. Men and women drew detailed images of their home states’ landmarks, such as Seattle’s famous Space Needle, contrasted with scenes depicting duty in the Mideast. Some groups printed the names of unit members and listed their hometown. From graffiti, the American, Kuwaiti, and Iraqi flags, to my favorite hand-painted barricade, courtesy of the 54th Medical Company. The Medhawks flew helicopter ambulances from Balad, Mosul, Tal Afar, Tikrit, and Kirkuk. Their barrier included a map of Iraq. Superimposed over it they drew a red cross and a helo. Next to the map and the helo they wrote, “Fly It Like You Stole It.” The phrase became my mantra.

* * *

I dealt with our second legal crisis involving an innocent sailor early in the third week of January.

“Ex went to court and got a judge to give him custody of my two kids,” Petty Officer Moriarty said. Her hands strangled her uniform shirt’s neckline. “He went to their school, showed his paperwork, and took them.”

She sobbed into my shoulder. “The prin … principal said he couldn’t help because the judge signed the papers. Plea … please help me, Commander. Do something, please.”

The cries of a wounded mother fighting for her children while she tried to stand for America in a war zone sucker-punched me.

“Let’s make an appointment with the Navy lawyer at Arifjan,” I said. I’ll go with you.”

Later that week, while she waited for the JAG lawyer, the early thirty-something enlisted woman wound her curly hair around her fingers. Let go. Repeated the motion.

“Not sure I understand how your ex got a judge to override your current husband’s custody,” I said.

Petty Officer Moriarty let go of her hair. “I never filed paperwork to give my current husband joint custody, although my Navy family care plan stipulated he’d keep the boys if I mobilized. The Navy paperwork stated my ex would have normal visitation. Weekends, holidays, and summer vacation.” 

She quit pacing. Grabbed my wrist. “We meant to file the actual custody forms, but life got in the way and we never got it done. Then I deployed.”

“Make sure you explain that. To the JAG.” My arm stiffened. Moriarty let go, walked away.

We left Camp Arifjan holding a list of military-friendly lawyers from South Florida, where Petty Officer Moriarty lived. She’d have to battle the system if she wanted her current husband to get the children while she served overseas.

Riding home, I tried not to show my true feelings. I was caught between a genuine concern for Moriarty’s family and knowledge she could have avoided the emergency.

Who hasn’t procrastinated, though, when forms and the government, are involved? I couldn’t stay mad at Moriarty for contributing to the events causing her plight. Her life was hell. No way I’d add to the despair by saying, “You’re partially to blame.”

I returned to Arifjan less than 48 hours later. This time, I saw a byproduct of war that’s the root of more emotional heartache than a child custody case.

From: Lois

To: Kuwait Group

Subject: Fallen Heroes

Sent: Sunday, January 29, 2006

It's Sunday eve. On Friday morning I went to Camp Arifjan, a large Army base twenty minutes away, to attend a memorial service for two airmen. They died last week in Iraq when their convoy hit an improvised explosive device, or IED.

Tech Sergeant Jason Norton and Staff Sergeant Brian McElroy belonged to the 70th Medium Truck Detachment at Camp Arifjan. Both knew convoy techniques. Sergeant Norton was a squad leader and convoy commander. Sergeant McElroy - a truck commander, vehicle operator, and assistant convoy commander.

Sergeant McElroy worked at Alaska’s Elmendorf Air Force Base before deploying to the Mideast. Sergeant Norton worked at the same command as a military working dog trainer. These two men knew each other. Trained together. Fought together. Sergeant Norton picked Sergeant McElroy for his driver during last Sunday's convoy. Neither returned from their mission.

The Zone One Chapel at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, like many churches today, has no pointed roof or steeple. It looks like an auditorium, not a chapel.

Our squadron’s deputy commander parked his SUV at 10:30 a.m. The memorial started at 11 a.m. We saw a line of silent airmen as we approached the chapel. They rendered salutes when the deputy and I walked by.

Inside, four desert-tan boots guarded the front center of the chapel’s stage. Each pair of boots supported an upright M-16 rifle. Atop the rifles rested combat helmets, the same type issued to my deputy and me. Each M-16 wore a set of dog tags. A single 8-by-10 photo of the sergeants completed the display.

“They were young,” my deputy, Commander Andy Campbell, said. “Survived by his wife, daughter, and son.” Andy read from the memorial bulletin. Rubbed his forehead. “They both had children.”

Andy has children. He's a family man. Coaches a kids' soccer team.

“Makes you realize how meaningless many things are,” Commander Campbell said. 

Solemn songs drifted through the chapel. The words spoke of heroes, fallen comrades, children whose daddies died.

Two military working dog handlers strode to the front of the church with their German Shepherds. The regal looking dogs made no sound. Servicemen carrying rifles took seats; they didn’t even clink weapons against the floor.

Fallen heroes, fallen command members, fallen friends are honored this way.

I saw airmen passing a box of tissues. Men as well as women yanked the soft paper from its container. Bagpipes played Amazing Grace  and the service began. The Air Force captain who commanded Sergeant Norton and Sergeant McElroy lauded his men as “two of the best.” He spoke of their love of life, love for their families, devotion to duty. 

Airmen paid tribute to their slain friends, describing how they encouraged all those they met. Now they’re the ones being lifted.

The ceremony included a Final Roll Call , a tradition in military memorials. An airman shouted the name of a squad member. The person stood, said, “Present.” 

A second squad member, then a third, yelled, “present” when they heard their names. The roll-call leader then called Sergeant Norton's name. No response.

“Sergeant Jason L. Norton,” shouted the airman.

Sniffling and crying filled the auditorium.

“Sergeant McElroy,” the roll-call leader yelled. 

Silence.

“Sergeant Brian McElroy,” the airman shouted. 

Nothing remained of Sergeant McElroy and Norton but memories.

An enlisted man shook, sobbed when the final roll call ended. The airman continued grieving while the firing of volleys echoed through the chapel.

I've never experienced grief to such an extent. My family’s still alive. I've not yet seen a close, intimate friend die. Some of you have. I eventually will.

Many who attended Friday's memorial service lost a close friend. All lost two comrades who left one morning and never made it home. Life is like that. A child, parent, sister, brother, or friend might unexpectedly die.

What about the last words spoken to a loved one who doesn’t make it home? I ask each of us to think about what we say each day to those closest to us. Do we encourage them or destroy them?

Let's build others up so when grieving comes we can grieve the person and not the final words spoken to them.

I close with a short poem written for Sergeant Jason Norton and Sergeant Brian McElroy, two fallen heroes memorialized by their comrades in arms:

“Caught in the fire of freedom's fist, two stars rose in the midst. God needed two soldiers and took the best he saw, two brave men, never will they fall. He lifted them up in peaceful embrace; as time stood still God's glory embraced—two hearts sown as one ... leading on ... and never gone.” (AC1 Valerie Roy )

After sending the memorial newsletter I wrestled with the reality that I needed to heed the advice given to my friends. Too often I spoke reckless, careless words, hurting my family.

The worst—April 2002. It didn’t matter that my brother, Mike, angered me or that the medication I was taking caused major hormonal swings. I used my tongue as a sword, wanting to make my brother bleed. And I succeeded. 

I regretted the poor decision, wept, and cried out to God. My apology to Mike came too late. He refused to listen.

The nightmare continued for seven months, the time it took him to forgive and speak to me. My brother said I crushed his already low self-esteem. I hurt him because he saw me as a hero.

Mike and I walked through the event, cried together 42 months after it happened, sixty days before I left for the combat zone.

Shame flooded me as I cried again, this time in a hooch thousands of miles from home. I didn’t want to ever cause another person the deep pain Mike felt because of my recklessness.

Positive self-talk helped lift the dirtiness of the memories covering me. I closed my laptop and flipped open a book, The Faith of the American Soldier.

The next day, one of the friends I made while coordinating my squadron’s mobilization responded to Sunday’s weekly update.

From: Commander Valerie Eichenlaub

To: Lois

Subject: Re: Fallen Heroes

Sent: Monday, January 30, 2006

Hi Lois,

Thank you for sharing this very moving and emotional tribute. I am saddened to think about how many of these stories you will observe during the next year. I enjoy sharing your experiences and observations. You certainly give me a perspective of what people are dealing with there that I never would have had. Stay safe, my friend. Best regards.

Val’s words cemented my reasons for watching the war zone world revolve and reporting about it for those not chosen to spend time in the volatile Mideast.

The local region didn’t carry the only instability of our deployment. Servicemen confined to camps, without the liberty to drink a beer, shop at the mall, or go to movies and restaurants, might show stress in unpredictable ways.

As January ended, I worked our first case of erratic behavior. We needed to demobilize a sailor for slapping his body and arguing aloud with himself while sleepwalking. He didn’t remember doing any of this. I asked if he wanted to see a psychiatrist. His response spared me from giving him paperwork ordering a mental health evaluation.

I researched options for sending the man home without hurting his career. At the same time, I continued searching my faith for answers—to understand the stress of war, and why I seemed more alive in a combat zone than at home living as a civilian.

 

 

Lois Fiorelli grew up in the Florida panhandle. She graduated from the University of Florida in 1981 with a BS degree in Broadcast Journalism. Lois has almost 17 years experience in the U.S. Navy and has twice deployed during the Global War on Terrorism, in 2003 and 2006. She is currently a Commander in the Navy Reserves, and augments the Officer Training Command, Newport, R.I., staff when they teach a two-week course to newly commissioned reserve officers. Lois lives in Jacksonville, Fla.

 

Q&A

Q: What did you discover about yourself while writing this piece?

A: Writing the piece helped me see the confidence I gained in myself as a person and leader as a result of the eight months I spent in the Middle East. It also underscored how important it is for me to continue to strive to show love and encouragement to those closest to me.

 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?

A: In writing memoir, people don’t care about the events. Readers want to know how you interpreted the events and what the events meant to you.

 

Yes, I followed it, though it was often hard for me to dig through my emotions as I wrote my memoir. I wanted readers to care, so I worked on finding my voice

 

Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.

A: I’ve learned I write better in the afternoons than in the morning. While writing my memoir, I set a goal to write two new pages a day. During revisions, I set goals for how many pages I would revise per day, based on how much revision each section needed. After each new draft, I put the work aside for at least a week before printing it. I read each new draft aloud, making notes on the printed copy.

  

Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?

A: I haven’t bought an e-reader yet. Some bookcases are organized first by category, then book size. One bookcase is arranged from small to tall because the books are stacked on top of one another.


Betty Superman by Tiff Holland

Rose Metal Press (August 2011)

Reviewed by Hobie Anthony

Tiff Holland's Betty Superman is a chapbook of stories that capture the scope of a woman's relationship with her mother. In a series of instances, images, and short narratives, the narrator-daughter conveys a picture of a mother who may not be a Superman, but is an authentic human being capable of love and of being loved.

Jamaica Kincaid's brief story "Girl" showed a mother-daughter relationship through the voice of the mother as reported by the daughter. Holland plays on this equation and has her narrator take full control. The book begins with "Dragon Lady," a lilting prose poem that immediately evokes Kincaid's story in its general tone. Holland's narrator relates anecdotes and quotations from her relationship with Betty in a series of five stanzas. Each part shows the mother, Betty, as a deeply flawed individual prone to eccentricities both fun and horrific, a woman who is loud, brash, and not shy about sharing a harsh or manipulative word. The mother in Kincaid’s story says, "prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming." Holland's Betty says, "Give me a kiss, you’ll be sorry if I die during the night. Then you’ll miss your mother." 

The final stanza of "Dragon Lady" begins with vulnerability, a desire for closeness where there was no closeness. Betty reaches out to her daughter in an heroic effort to move past her hard dragon hide, to touch and to be touched in mother-daughter bonding. The daughter knows her mother is dying and is brought back to memories of being 10 years old and afraid that her mother would die. Back then, Betty threatened to die in the night and a traumatic fear struck the daughter. When the narrator relates a suicide attempt, Betty asks why her daughter would do such a thing to her. Now, Betty points a fake cigarette at her daughter, a threat that backs her away. Thus Holland completes a complex prose poem about childhood and rounds out an image of a push-pull relationship where the two forces never meet: two positive magnets that maintain distance, never touching. 

Betty Superman was the fifth winner in Rose Metal Press's Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest. The contest's judge, Kim Chinquee, describes the stories as layered, piling image upon image. In this way, the book achieves the end of giving us a portrait of Betty Superman, a collage of individually crafted and finely wrought images. One of the stories, “The Barberton Mafia,” originally appeared in Prime Number Magazine

In this slim volume, Holland has given readers a glimpse of a fresh and unique relationship with a colorful, flawed, and vulnerable woman. While each piece is surely under 1,000 words and many under 500, each of these stories taps a sense of humanity and familial relations that will leave readers satisfied and enriched with emotional insights.  Holland's effort is a fantastic success and a worthy addition to the growing canon of prose that refuses to let size matter.

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Hobie Anthony received his MFA in fiction from Queens University of Charlotte, NC. He can be found or is forthcoming in such journals as The Los Angeles Review, Crate, Prime Mincer, The Other Room, R.kv.r.y., Ampersand, Pank, Prime Number, and Palimpsest, among others. When he's not writing he can be found on his bike or at one of Portland's disc golf courses. 


Review of Mending: New and Selected Stories by Sallie Bingham

Sarabande (October 2011)

Reviewed by Anne Sanow

Since her debut novel in 1961, Sallie Bingham has published six more, along with collections of stories, poetry, plays, and a memoir about growing up in (and freeing herself from) the burden of her powerful and volatile Louisville media family. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Prize Stories. For all this prolixity, she may be one of the most devastatingly good writers in America who isn’t a household name. Fortunately, Sarabande Books has just released Mending: New and Selected Stories, which spans Bingham’s long career and showcases her considerable talent.  

The title story opens the book with a strong first-person presence: a young female narrator finds her way to independence after her mother, who “had a penchant for changing men,” foists her off on her aunt in Greenwich. In an attempt to find warmth and connection, she becomes obsessed with her psychiatrist in the city. With a wink at The Bell Jar, the story is a bit of a romp—yet it also depicts a kind of necessary unraveling of the self, and tilts the ordinary askew.

The tilted effect is something Bingham excels at. The narrator in “Mending” initially tells us that she is “ply[ing] my trade up and down the avenue,” but our expectations of what that might mean are quickly knocked sideways when we learn that she has been raised as a “good girl”—yet one who will hook up with the handyman, or liken a man’s genitals to a radish. These tilts demand that the reader pay attention.

Bingham also often chooses to write from the more challenging or unsympathetic point of view. In “Winter Term” (the controversial story written as an undergraduate that won Bingham a spot as a guest editor at Mademoiselle), two college students grapple with an unsatisfactory relationship and the restrictions of 1950s social mores; their conflict is conveyed from the perspective of Hal, the young man, and the reader is likely to feel implicated in the behavior that results. The husband in “Rachel’s Island” decides to seduce his wife’s sister, and ends up humiliating himself. In “Benjamin”—which brilliantly engages the themes of creativity and aging—the title character is an irascible artist who has achieved success late in life (he is 90) and blatantly pursues a young museum assistant. Bingham is also adept at depicting conflict by just letting her characters talk: in both “Selling the Farm” and “The Hunt,” siblings and in-laws reveal their secrets and suppressed opinions, opening wounds that may never heal and upending self-knowledge in middle age, just when we think we have a handle on it.

There are strong messages here: about gender, about class, about sex and the self and who we are or are trying to be, and what me might never become. Bingham knows how to put characters together and let their desires and differences not just rub up against each other, but scratch and draw blood if they need to. They are talky; they say the wrong things or too much; they’re allowed some epiphanies and moments of happiness, too, but it never feels completely easy. Good fiction is about engaging conflict, not avoiding it—about looking closely, often uncomfortably, into the marrow of self.  Bingham clearly knows that if you center on character, the Big Ideas will emerge as a result.

This is a hallmark of Bingham’s stories. They are deceptively focused, yet do several things at once, with both subtlety and sharpness, and the layers deepen their complexity. They are both frank and undeniably classy (we go into bedrooms; young women pull up their stockings and don hats or gloves). The observations are keen and the language is wonderfully fresh and precise: a woman recalls her mother sitting “cow-patient” in the front of a car; another woman retrieves her hat from the floor “as though she were scooping fledglings out of their nest”; the dialogue, in every story, is pitch-perfect, with sass and verve.  Reading this collection as a whole, it comes as a shock to realize that this is a writer who had that rare thing called wisdom even in her twenties—even better, to realize that she continues to push boundaries. If you don’t know Sallie Bingham’s work yet, get to know her now.

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Anne Sanow is the author of the story collection Triple Time, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award for fiction. Her stories have appeared in Kenyon Review, Dossier, and Shenandoah, among others, and she is currently working on a novel.


If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter

(Sarabande, April 2011)

Reviewed by Malena Carollo

Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now is an introspective memoir of Van Meter’s acquaintance and acceptance of his homosexuality. Through a collection of essays, Van Meter recounts events throughout his life that add up to his understanding of himself and that, ultimately, help to shape him into the person he is today. 

Though the dedication for the book reads “to my parents,” the reader catches a glimpse of the difficult challenges ahead when, during the opening essay, Van Meter’s mother scolds him for innocently asking a childhood friend, Ben, to marry him. “You shouldn’t have done that,” she {says.} “Boys don’t marry other boys. Only boys and girls get married to each other.”

In each essay, Van Meter provides insights about growing up gay, and how the perceptions and attitudes of others affect him. One issue he addresses is growing up with the term “faggot.” Reminiscent of Middlesex, the essay, “To Bear, To Carry: Notes on ‘Faggot,” recounts Van Meter’s struggle and mild obsession with searching the etymology of “faggot,” attempting to find in black and white that “faggot” is unequivocally “gay.” 

Though some situations in the memoir involve intense emotion for Van Meter, a lack of sensory details regarding his feelings creates distance between the reader and the intended emotion, as if the reader must remain that helpless fly on the wall, watching a scene unfold. While the reader might not experience every knotted stomach or chest pang surely experienced by Van Meter, his message is not lost. By the end of the memoir, however, the reader has no doubt developed an empathetic relationship with Van Meter and certainly a broader understanding for the intensely human side of being gay.

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Malena Carollo, from Lake Forest, Calif., is a sophomore at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., and is majoring in international relations and creative writing. She is the assistant entertainment editor for the college's award-winning, nationally recognized newspaper, The Current.


Fighting in the Shady by Sterling Watson

(Akashic Books, August 2011)

Reviewed by Jeffery Hess

Like the Spartans at the center of this book’s conceit, the protagonist, Billy Dyer, is forced by tightly woven events in 1964 Florida to fight a series of battles. (The title comes from a quote by Dienekes, the bravest of the Spartans at the Battle of Thermoylae, in response to a report that the Persian archers’ arrows would block the sun.) Like Dienekes, Billy lives without comfort and seeks love and acceptance from his fellow warriors—his high school football team and coaches.

But this is more than a coming of age novel. Billy Dyer is a complex and unforgettable seventeen-year-old who “loved [his teammates] and what they did more than anything else in the world.” The lengths he goes to prove his allegiance tests the very limits of the warrior ethos where honor and pride are most valued.

Billy faces opponents on the field, a troubled (broken) home life, a blue blood town led by corrupt businessmen, and the secrets he is duty bound to keep. 

Early in the book, Billy’s father warns, “…you don’t know what football means to this town, the old families here…the powers that be and always will be…. It starts when they’re born into luck and money, and people like us, we don’t know what it is. We don’t know, and we aren’t included….”

During an extreme hazing ritual, Billy confronts the opposite of honor—shame. He rebels, which provokes the ire of coaches and older teammates. The ensuing chase and fight injures one player and gets Billy kicked off the team. 

With free time and a need for money to help his mother, Billy takes a night job at the nearby orange juice processing plant. This physical work helps financially and keeps him in shape. Because of the injury he inflicted on his teammate, the football team loses three straight games, which is unacceptable to the businessmen who pull the strings in this town. As a result, they need Billy to play, but he’s unwilling to do it for free. The men who pay him also employ his father and now have both Dyers fighting their battles for them. This drives the ultimate conflict that rolls quickly to its satisfying climax.

The period’s small town corruption, the injustices between the haves and have-nots, the exertion and collisions of football, as well as Florida’s “molten August air,” and the “haze” that “hung above the city, smelling of orange peels burning at the juice plant east of town” all ring absolutely true. The story that unfolds is one of right and wrong, honor and shame, and what that means, not just for Billy but for the entire town, and by extension, all of us.

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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.


Lumina by Heather Ross Miller

Louisiana Literature Press (May 2011)

Reviewed by Catherine Staples

Like the monologues of graveyard inhabitants in the Spoon River Anthology, Heather Ross Miller’s lyric narratives weave the story of another small town, this one dominated not by the graveyard but by the hellish heat and crucibles of aluminum-smelting. Lumina is full of fierce living and shot through with loss. The book’s title is one letter short of a mineral crucial to the making of aluminum, “alumina.” Miller may also be invoking the Latin for “lumina,” “light, an opening,” initially it seems, somewhat ironically. For although the industry provided a livelihood for local rural blacks, whites, and immigrants—all those “who dared the smelter’s flare, and / drove out its ingots, those perfections,” it did so at “a terrible cost…dirty, hot and dangerous.”    

The first of the town’s voices is that of Nell Leopard whose name and story knell like a bell, fateful and dire. “My mother picked it, said, Nell./ This easy augury christened me.” “Augury” is entirely the right word, presaging a tragic arc. Her mother’s warning, “pretty little girl, you’ll get men into/ trouble,” is all too apt. It’s all a good fit with Lumina’s haunting cover of a pensive child photographed in a sepia-tone, yet holding a bright red apple. 

Appropriately enough, it’s Nell who remembers back to a time before engineers made a “furnace” of their falling water, a time before men’s “bare faces” were “all night hot, all night dirt/ all night danger.” This anaphora perfectly captures the grim existence of the smelters and is in marked contrast to Nell’s childhood memories of the undammed river. “I heard the Falls batter/ rock, scatter white lather/ light as a veil, then gather water/ to run three miles…” Miller builds a rich wave of sound with her characteristic blends of end and interior rhyme. Her free and  natural progression jars with the ominous description Bill Leopard, Nell’s cuckolded husband, gives us of the river’s cold waters penned in behind the dam: “a dazzled brain-damaged giant just /gone to sleep awhile, he remembers…”

Miller’s succession of voices are stylistically varied and gripping: the dancing Palmer girls and their beloved Julian; Leo Gabriel, barkeep and musician; Magdala, tending to her flourishing garden; Silva, the Seafarer; Atlas-like Amos and the devout Bonnie Mae; Adjer Stoker and his furnace thriving cats—to name just a few.  I found the voices of Nell’s children, Mark and Carrie Beth, to be particularly moving. Like a chorus in a Greek tragedy their doom is announced before you watch it happen. “The day we drowned,/ Carrie Beth pinched me hard, a little purple crescent moon on my inside arm.” Miller catches the child’s voice and attention to detail. Mark explains, the way the older brother would, “We told Toby the last breath/ is never there.” His younger sister drowns to the tune and movement of a waltz, and with tacked-on refrain fashioned from nursery rhyme:    

 

She picked up her skirt,

one two three, one two three

with a thumb and a finger.

Don’t get it wet.

Everywhere Mark went,

she went, too.

 

With searing imagery and a deceptively simple rhythm, Miller frames the slow motion horror of Carrie Beth’s drowning, “One/she flirted her skirt; two then/ bent to kiss herself…” 

Losses are not lost in Lumina, transformed perhaps, but not erased. Nell’s story--her grief, losses, restlessness and vitality—threads its way through the generations. Nell’s grand-daughter, Lucia, finds herself peering out the very same window from which her grandmother once stared and the first of Nell’s troubles began.  Lucia’s sense of entrapment leads to a lonely plaint: “What have you got to lose, Lucia?” she asks herself, “Smelter there; / town here. And in between?”  She might be speaking for any one of them. In one of the most beautiful lyric sequences of the book, Lucia addresses her infant with perfect honesty:  

 

Unmarry me, unmother me, let 

me loose, bright faced as the moon,

a fresh white cake still in one piece,

unbitten. Can’t you do that? 

 

The voice is compelling and believable, more proof of Miller’s range and masterful ease. Without giving anything away, the infant makes an answer her mother cannot refute. The cycle comes round with Lucia “whose name means light, splendid/ sacramental light, soft as wine/falling freckled and ripe.” Don’t expect to move through Lumina at a leisurely pace, the drama of these voices compels you to sometimes race through the pages, only later returning to slowly re-read and to admire.

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Catherine Staples teaches in the Honors program at Villanova University. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, The Southern Review, Third Coast, Commonweal, Michigan Quarterly and others. Honors include the University of Pennsylvania’s William Carlos Williams Award and The New England Poetry Club’s Boyle/ Farber. Recently, her manuscript was named a finalist for the May Swenson award; it’s also been a finalist at Ohio State University, Lost Horse Press, and Eastern Washington University. Betsy Sholl selected her chapbook, Never a Note Forfeit, for Seven Kitchens Press’s 2010 Keystone Prize.


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Peg Duthie works as an indexer and copyeditor. She shares an old house in Nashville, Tennessee with a tall mechanic, a silly dog, and a small piano. Her photos have appeared in Tattoo Highway and Blue Print Review , and there's more about her at http://www.nashpanache.com/ .