MEET OUR GUEST EDITORS FOR ISSUE 167, JAN-MAR 2020
(Submissions are open July 1 through September 30 at Submittable)
Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair as a professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He has published six collections of poetry with Press 53, including This Miraculous Turning, winner of the 2015 Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry. His poetry has been featured in The Writer’s Almanac and in Ted Kooser's “American Life in Poetry” column, and he holds degrees in literature from the University of Chicago, the University of New Mexico, and the University of California, Davis. His flash fiction collection Bleachers: Fifty-Four Linked Fictions debuted from Press 53 in April.
Stacy R. Nigliazzo’s poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including the American Journal of Nursing, Bellevue Literary Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Ilanot Review, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and Thrush Poetry Journal. Her first collection of poems, Scissored Moon (Press 53) won First Place in the 2014 American Journal of Nursing Book of the Year Awards in Public Interest and Creative Works. Her most recent poetry collection is Sky the Oar, also from Press 53. Stacy lives in Houston, Texas, and has worked as an emergency room nurse for the past thirteen years.
Two poems by Stacy R. Nigliazzo from Sky the Oar
Short fiction by Joseph Mills from Bleachers: Fifty-Four Linked Fictions
Jar Jar Binks
Mark was surprised to realize how popular soccer had become. He wasn’t prejudiced against it, although he had never played, but he always thought of it as an alternative game, one that was kind of a joke, like Frisbee golf or badminton. It was something people did on beaches during spring break with a cheap plastic ball bought at Walmart or a gas station. Something for those who weren’t good enough to play football, basketball, or baseball, the normal sports.
He knew that people in other countries took soccer seriously, the World Cup and all that, but the key was in other countries. In other countries people ate dogs and frog legs. He wasn’t judging them; he wasn’t prejudiced, that just wasn’t how it was done here. Except, now, looking around the park, it’s clear that soccer is a thing. Even among non-Hispanics.
Mark had thought his son Clark was an anomaly, a kind of freak, playing EA FIFA and following Manchester United, but it turns out there are a lot of other kids like him, and judging from the T-shirts in the bleachers, a lot of adults as well. The other parents yell things he doesn’t understand like, “Oh unlucky! Unlucky!” How does luck have anything to do with it? When a kid kicks a ball twenty feet wide of the goal, that’s a crappy kick, not unlucky. And some of them don’t talk about “soccer” but “football” and “footie.” But at least he recognizes some of the jerseys and logos from posters in Clark’s room.
A couple years ago, Clark started putting up pictures of athletes that Mark didn’t know and whose names he couldn’t pronounce. He was familiar with Pele and that guy with the drug problem. But Messi? Ronaldo? Who were they? Yet he hadn’t said anything because he recognized what was happening. It had happened with his first son Henry, when he was married to Joyce. Kids teach you that the world has changed.
When they were living in that duplex on Jefferson, long before the divorce, Henry put up a bunch of posters supposedly from Star Wars, characters Mark didn’t know. Henry taught him there was a whole universe in addition to the films. The three films. The ones Mark thought of as the “real” Star Wars films. He knew about the second three; he had watched one of them, and it had been too ridiculous to follow. That hadn’t bothered him because he assumed those were a kind of asterisk, something hard-cores might watch, those guys who dressed up in costumes and bought tickets to midnight first showings, but no one else took that second “trilogy” seriously. Through Henry, however, Mark discovered people did. What’s more, the films had been renumbered, so that the first Star Wars, the Star Wars, was considered the fourth. He and Henry hadn’t even been able to talk about them accurately because Mark was constantly confused. The first one? My first or your first? Okay, his first did have “Episode IV” in the opening scroll, but no one paid attention to that. It was just a dropping into the middle of the story. A cool narrative technique. And there weren’t just more films, but cartoons, or “animated series,” something about clones, and even Legos. Star Wars Legos!
Mark had unconsciously assumed that he would introduce his children to certain worlds: Middle-Earth, Narnia, The Galaxy. He would explain the concepts and act as a guide. But he waited too long. While he was working, Henry discovered and explored Star Wars on his own. As a result, he once woke Mark and Joyce in the middle of the night, climbing into their bed and gabbling about Halloween. “If the store doesn’t have a Darth Maul costume, I might be Lord Dooku, but I don’t think he has a double lightsaber and I really want a double lightsaber and I know he doesn’t have a cape. Darth Vader has a cape, so maybe I should be...” Mark hadn’t known what his son was talking about. That wasn’t how it was supposed to be. There was only one Darth. Darth Vader. Who was Darth Maul? As for Lord Dooku, was that a joke? A script by a nine-year-old or the guy who wrote Captain Underpants? Mark liked butt jokes; he liked poop jokes, but Star Wars shouldn’t be a parody of itself.
At the time, it worried Mark that his son only seemed to identify with the villains. He wanted Henry to like Star Wars for the right reasons, for how he had come to think of it: the moral lessons and the battle of good and evil, and the quasi-spirituality of the force that sounded good but didn’t require anything of you. Wasn’t wanting to be Darth Vader like wanting to dress up like Lucifer? Last year during a Y basketball game, he thought he misheard someone shouting a name, but no, he heard right. There was a kid on the other team called Anakin. He couldn’t believe it. Anakin! Why not Voldemort or Sauron? It was a glimpse into the darkness.
And then there was Jar Jar Binks. Henry loved him. It hadn’t seemed possible, but he had. Like everyone, Mark enjoyed the cantina scene and the weird aliens, and he didn’t have a problem with characters like Jabba the Hutt, but Jar Jar Binks? The character felt like a horrible joke. Yet Henry used to mimic his voice and watch his scenes repeatedly on YouTube as if this was the height of humor. Mark felt an incredible, almost insurmountable, distance from his child. How could he relate to someone who liked such junk? Each time he heard Henry’s imitation, he turned away in disgust.
There had been several bad years between them, ones of distance and neglect, ones that coincided with the divorce and its aftermath, so if Mark was honest, they had far more to do with Joyce than Jar Jar. In the past couple years, he had been trying to heal that rift, doing special things with Henry like seeing each of the new Star Wars films as soon as they came out, just the two of them. But it was difficult. Henry hated having a half brother, what Joyce scornfully called Mark’s NIF, “new and improved family.” She claimed it was Mark’s version of a midlife crisis, an attempt to get it right, a do-over.
Mark never tried to get the boys together, which also was fine with Crystal. She preferred not to think about Mark’s previous life, and as she put it, Mark needed to look forward, not backward. It was a sentiment that struck him as inappropriate rather than inspirational. Ignoring his first son was hardly “looking forward”; still he didn’t always tell Crystal when he was with Henry. In fact, he didn’t talk about any of them with any of them. Thank God for the privacy and directness of texting.
Sometimes Henry’s anger was almost palpable, which made for uncomfortable moments like sitting next to him and watching Kylo Ren kill his father, Han Solo. Henry thought the scene was cool; Mark definitely did not. A Kylo Ren mask would never be a gift he would buy his oldest son.
There is some truth to Joyce’s dig. Mark isn’t trying to do it over, but he is trying to be better at family this time. He is far more patient and accepting with Clark. Like with the cleanliness thing. In the backyard, if the ball gets dirty, Clark washes it at the garden faucet, or takes it inside and wipes it down. The wet ball then attracts dirt, and he washes it again. He will repeat this cycle of kickdirtwash kickdirtwash several times, until, as if it’s the only way that he can stop, he will chuck the ball over the fence, and even then Mark can tell it is hard for him not go get it and wash it again. If that had been Henry, Mark would have had a hard time dealing with it. He would have told him to “let it go.” He would have interfered in so many angry, wrongheaded ways.
Mark is accepting of who Clark is. He doesn’t say anything about the washing of the uniform both immediately before and after a game. He can handle the clean freak stuff. What Joyce gets wrong, in her (understandable) sarcasm and bitterness, is that it’s not the family that’s improved but him. That’s the paradox. This time around he is far less physically capable to parent, but far more mentally able to do so. Maybe it’s aging. Maybe it’s the ability to learn from mistakes. Maybe it’s recognizing his children have lives of their own in a world that isn’t the one in which he grew up. Or maybe, after Jar Jar Binks, the rest comes easy.