Welcome to Issue No. 17 of Prime Number:
A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose
Letter from the Editors (or jump to the Table of Contents)
First, the big news. When we launched Prime Number, we promised “an online quarterly with a print annual” and we have now delivered on that promise! Our first print annual, Editors’ Selections Volume 1, is now available for order from Press 53. The book includes poetry, fiction, and non-fiction from Issues 2, 3, 5, and 7. (As I write this, it’s time to begin work on Volume 2!)
Second, here we are with Issue Number 17, our 7th issue since we launched the magazine in July 2010. We continue to bring you distinctive poetry and prose: short stories by Daniel B. Meltzer, John Carr Walker, Brandon Patterson, and Gleah Powers; essays by Kathryn Rhett, Ellen Kirschner, Jessica Erica Hahn-Taylor, and Mary Alice Hostetter; poetry by Kat Henry, Brian Simoneau, and Katherine E. Young; reviews of books by Benjamin Buchholz, Xu Xi, Donna Miscolta, and Bruce Guernsey; and a craft essay by Buzz Mauro.
Our cover photo for the issue is by photographer Peg Duthie, who also provided the cover for Issue 13.
We are currently reading submissions for the Issue 17 updates, Issue 19, and beyond. Please visit our Submit page and send us your distinctive poetry and prose. We’re looking for stories and essays up to 4,000 words (including flash under 1,000 words), poems, book reviews, craft essays, short drama, ideas for interviews, and cover art that reflects the number of a particular issue (we’re looking for a “19” right now). If we’ve had to decline your submission, please forgive us and try again!
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.
One more thing: Prime Number Magazine is published by Press 53, a terrific small press helping to keep literature alive. Please support independent presses and bookstores.
Table of Contents, Prime Number Magazine
Issue 17, January-March 2012
My Father's Garage as Resting Place
Minutes of the Last Meeting
At the Edge of the Earth
Chop Wood, Carry Water
The Road to the Correctional Center
Review of When the de la Cruz Family Danced by Donna Miscolta.
Review of Access by Xu Xi
Review of One Hundred and One Nights by Benjamin Buchholz
Review of New England Primer by Burce Guernsey
Expanding the Powers of First-Person Narration
Waiting at Bercy
Poetry from Kat Henry
followed by Q&A
after A.M. Parker
are easily mistaken for vandals. In the poem
about the vagrants, the woman’s voice is
hoarse and the man splatters snot rockets
on the side of the dusty road.
On the side of the road where they live
grass lays in a checkered plain
visible from space. The vagrants are homeless
so they live everywhere. I’m ready,
are you? the man asks the woman.
She coughs. On the side of the road where
the vagrants thumb for rides and kick rocks
at each other’s feet, the grass is unaware
of the slow ticking of the Earth underneath.
The vagrants scratch their itches, sing songs about
where they’re going, where they’ve been.
They have been everywhere, and they sleep well.
In the poem about the vagrants, because their lives
lack detail, falsehoods proliferate. They move
across vast plains of Sahara, Mojave, Kansas. Dust—
she coughs. Their scalps are scrubbed
clean with sand. The grass remembers:
bending toward the Earth in worship,
growing up, seeding toward the high sun.
In another poem about the vagrants
their stomachs are thin. They never
comb their hair though it grows like cattails,
long with sorrow. In this poem the woman copies down
everything the man says and the man
never listens. Prolific at poetry and progeny,
he says. Um. They spread a blanket
across the grass and picnic—in each hand
a red wine bottle. In this poem about the vagrants
they are sometimes vandals. Abruptly
a line of porcupines crosses the road, one after the other.
The man makes a joke about them. He stole the joke
like he stole the bike—carried it on his back
for weeks, refusing to leave the woman behind.
Not a very good vagrant. Why must
my hair grow so long? the woman asks
the man. It’s a sign of your age, he says, like the dinosaurs.
He carries a revolution in his pack
under the iron skillet. What it is
they have given up in search of beauty, and
freedom, and stories to tell.
Education, the vagrants say,
is learned. In this poem they are wrong—
it is received. Turning their phototrophic faces
to the sun, they bask in themselves.
They know what they’re not and they
don’t care what they are. The equator, they say,
is where the party’s at, where the pieces fit—all those
folks stomping and shaking their cattail dreads to
drumbeats, that’s where we should be. Embarking
with sand on their lips they sing songs to
the North Star, etc: Andromeda, Cassiopeia,
Orion, Poseidon. They are interested
in what is coming, happening, on this warming Earth.
And when they finally arrive, the tropical sun strikes
their faces like a hammer hitting a home run—
rattle, burn, scar. But they
consume mugs of Labrador leaf and rose petal
tea with every meal, telling new stories
of raising spiders in plastic bags,
of staying alive on roots and cigarettes,
saying, repeating, Well,
it’s one thing to go, another completely
to head the other way.
Kat Henry wrote this poem while a student at the University of Michigan. “In northern Michigan for the summer, I was dreaming of life on the road and imagining (one might say romanticizing) a life of vagrancy and total freedom. After I read this poem at an open mic at a bar in Ann Arbor, I read it to a homeless man, who said he could relate to it. It was the biggest compliment I’ve ever received on a poem.” After graduation in April 2011 she lived on the road for a while, and made the necessary edits to the poem. She loves hiking, cooking, gardening and traveling. Her poems have appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Anemone Sidecar, North Central Review, and Susquehanna Review. She lives in Arizona.
Q: The poem is “after” A.M. Parker—can you discuss how his work influenced yours?
A: Alan Michael Parker wrote a book called The Vandals, full of poems all about vandals: what they do, what they believe, who they are. The poems are incredibly insightful, intelligent and witty, and his characterization of the vandals struck an inspirational chord in my poetic mind: except that instead of vandals (and their implication of destructiveness) I imagined vagrants. I replaced the blatant (though minor) violence of the vandals with the suggestive (and probably more dangerous) violence of hunger and homelessness experienced by the vagrants.
Q: Parse the differences among vagrants, hobos, nomads, homeless, and holy wanderers.
A: I have to admit that I have, in the past, read the Wikipedia articles about several of these. However, I will attempt to create original definitions that may shed more light on the nature of the vagrants.
A hobo is specifically someone who rides the rails: that is, hops freight trains. I think the word was historically used to define people (especially men) who did this during the Great Depression. In any case, the word certainly has a historical sense about it, and
there are very few hobos still in existence (at least in America!) Hobos might travel for a particular purpose, such as looking for work, or for pleasure. Because they ride trains, they are able to travel across vast distances over a relatively short period of time and with little or no money.
Nomads are people who live a nomadic lifestyle. Unlike the others, they do not come from any particular, specific place, though they probably stick to a general region. Additionally, it is implied that all or part of their sustenance comes from the land or from their relationship with nature, for example, nomadic people of Siberia and northern Europe who follow reindeer herds, drinking their milk, eating their meat and making clothes from their hides. Being on the move is the way they live, rather than a “break” from their “real” life.
Homeless and vagrants are the most similar among these: they both choose (or, infrequently, are forced) to live outside the bounds of normal society, and usually do not seek or find continuous employment or stable living circumstances. I suppose that a vagrant is a type of homeless person. A typical homeless person travels infrequently or not at all, preferring to live in a city where he has a community and knows where to find and how to get access to food, shelter, etc. A vagrant lives on the road; he may stay in one city for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, but he always returns to the road and moves on. Homeless people are often targets of violence, anger, and discriminatory treatment in the communities they inhabit. Vagrants often experience similar discrimination, but because of their transitory state they are also likely to experience the hospitable generosity that is so often shown to travelers. Vagrants, like vandals, may be considered a minor public nuisance, and are likely to have their evening barbecue by the lake interrupted by the police because the people who own second homes on the lake don’t like all those dirty kids and their dirty dogs running around.
Finally, holy wanderers: those who travel in search of spiritual enlightenment or with the aim of converting others to their beliefs. I would consider Mormon missionaries an institutionalized form of holy wanderers. Some holy wanderers preach on street corners, others meditate in the woods in silence. Some live lives of asceticism, intentionally depriving themselves of basic needs and comforts, and this they have in common with those who choose homelessness or vagrancy. This kind of ascetic lifestyle, combined with travel, can help those who seek it to achieve spiritual enlightenment, or at least a new way of looking at and understanding the world.
Q: Tell us more about porcupines…
A: Porcupines appear in at least one of Parker’s vandal poems. They are slightly absurd creatures because of their juxtaposition of cuteness and deadliness (think Pokemon?) Also, it is a myth that they can shoot their quills at predators. I wouldn’t get too close, though.
Poetry from Brian Simoneau
followed by Q&A
My Father’s Garage as Resting Place
Ivy crawls up cracks in concrete walls
I scraped and painted every summer. Built
in the forties and meant to hunker
against the worst New England can give,
its windows frame the river and its willows.
It’s easy to see why my father bought it—
what better place for his big bones
and broad shoulders and hands like granite
to get run down by eleven-hour days?
The cops used to sit in the office, coffee
and donuts, smoking and shooting the shit:
hockey games and heart attacks, kids away
at school, the boobs on a beauty walking by.
Now they park at the edge of the lot, watch
for traffic running the red across the bridge.
The gas pumps are gone and the new owners
hung their sign above the double bays.
Next door the redbrick church is empty
almost every day, the ivy spreading
to its wrought iron fence. There’s always
a steady parade of cars, always the river
passing, winter always on its way,
but weeping willows are the first to bear leaves
in spring and the last to let them fall.
Sunday sunlight washes over families holding hands
like paper dolls. Before breaking bread, heads bend
to pray: eyes closed, lips moving in union with the priest’s
whose arms unfold as if to grasp the holy air.
Candles lift whispers of smoke toward heavens
that hover somewhere above a vaulted ceiling.
Faith forgotten by Monday morning: heads
again hang low; hard voices mutter
curses against brothers, bosses, the blind sun
scorching the sky; empty hands reach out to find
what’s left to grasp. Every day they handle hammers
and wrenches, shovels, brushes, brooms. Every day
consumes them, flames of foundries and factories
and their own hands stoke the furnace, the sweat
sharp on blistered skin. Every day wears down
their bodies—crumpled pages, torn to pieces,
tossed by a wind that muffles prayers and pleas
and cries for love or something like it, mercy.
He leans against an empty oil drum to smoke
as traffic crawls beside the river. The day
drops behind the empty mills, its shadows
stretched across a picture of his kids.
The bell rings him out to another car
before he gets to finish his cigarette.
He rubs his hands on his Dickies, fingers
burning from the cold. He curses, hustles
car to car, checking oil and washing windows
for strangers who thank him but don’t look up.
When he sleeps he sees his kids taking
flight, wings unfolding, eyes fixed on the hills
past the city limits; they never look down
at the growing pile of ash. He’s always liked
the smell of gas, how it stings his nose, stays
in his clothes, soaks his skin. How easily he’d light—
sparks from a dragging tailpipe, a flicked cigarette—
how high the flare, how quickly he’d burn up.
Brian Simoneau’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boulevard, Cave Wall, The Collagist, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, North American Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Waccamaw, and elsewhere. His work is also included in Two Weeks: A Digital Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. He lives in Boston with his wife and their daughters.
Q: “Every day wears down their bodies,” you write, celebrating people who make a daily sacrifice for their daily bread. In a time when “blue-collar work” seems to be disappearing and devalued, can you talk about its role in American life?
A: I don’t know that “blue-collar work” is disappearing, but it certainly has become devalued. The work will always be there, as will the worker—as long as we drive cars, there will be someone skilled at fixing them; as long as we work in classrooms and offices, there will be someone who spends the night cleaning them—but this type of work is becoming less visible in our culture. It’s been pushed to the margins of our daily experience. We don’t see it. Of course, some of us probably don’t want to see it: to see the hard work being done, to see how our clothes and computers and food are produced, would be to acknowledge the economic inequity that touches so many areas of American life. So we ignore it: we send manufacturing jobs overseas, we stigmatize manual labor, and we embrace a popular culture of celebrity and wealth. In my own life, there was no ignoring the importance of work. With grandparents who worked in factories, with a father who fixed cars six days a week, I was reminded everyday that almost everything in my life was a result of someone else’s hard work. That sort of awareness doesn’t play a very big role in American life these days, but it should.
Q: What kinds of jobs have you held, and what have they contributed to your poetry?
A: Growing up, I helped out at my father’s auto repair shop whenever I could. When I was young, I mostly cleaned up and watched him work; later, I collected the old parts and drove to the scrap yard. I’ve pumped gas. I’ve worked as a custodian at an elementary school—waxing floors, fixing furniture, painting walls, washing windows. I was a busboy for about two weeks. During college I was an attendant at the art museum on campus. Since college, I’ve worked as a teacher in lots of different settings—a university writing program, private high schools, a YMCA daycare center. I suppose all of these jobs have contributed to my poetry, though it’s hard to say exactly how. Like any shared experience, each introduced me to others whose lives and worldviews helped shape my own. Each gave me time to indulge my imagination; waiting for the next car to pull to the pump, or passing a mop up and down hallways, I’d let my mind wander, make up songs, invent silly games to pass the time. Most importantly, I think that watching my dad at work—and then learning other jobs on my own—taught me to pay attention, to be aware of how small details contribute to getting a job done, to be perceptive and engaged with the world around me. Of course, as a teacher, I get to read and talk about literature every day, every word I encounter somehow filtering into my own writing.
Q: There is a strain of the pastoral in your work—the weeping willow, the river, the ivy. How do you see the persistence of the natural in a man-made environment?
A: I grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, a city known for its mile-long stretch of redbrick mills and its complicated system of canals and locks. The whole place was an attempt to use nature for human needs and desires, to control natural forces for human gain. It worked for a while, and then it didn’t. By the time I was born, the mills were empty and crumbling, the canals mostly stagnant. The Merrimack River, however, follows the path it always has—like the lilacs growing from Frost’s cellar holes in “Directive” or Whitman’s dirt in our boot-soles. Even in this highly engineered environment, it’s the natural that persists. To really know the world around me, then, and to fully understand my place in it, I must accept that the natural—not human culture, and certainly not my humble contributions to it—is what lasts.
Poetry from Katherine E. Young
followed by Q&A
Light bends about her head—moon through
the trees, streetlight down the block,
incandescent glow from a rowhouse
bulb—and he bends, too, to hear
her plead, Don’t hurt me any more.
He says, I never meant to hurt you.
The words float there, smelling of asphalt
and someone’s trash and honeysuckle
sweet in a nearby yard. Headlights
journey up the street, briefly
silhouette her as she places
both palms, open, on his chest:
as if she might somehow read
his heart with just her fingertips.
Laughter drifts from an upper window,
nylon sheers shimmer in the breeze.
She weighs the silence, measures again
the length and breadth of what is,
what’s not articulable. As if
in answer, his hands grip her back,
tight, tighter as she accepts his lips—
so that when she undresses later
in front of the mirror she
discovers ten new bruises, pink-
purple whorls inking her skin.
That first time when you hit me,
I marveled at the crack
your hand made as it struck
flat against my face.
I should have known right then:
we were headed straight
for this soul food joint, where
I’m picking at turnip greens,
sweet potato pie,
as you plead with me to take
my inconvenient heart
and just go away.
You say it’s all my fault:
I ask too much, love
too deep. Don’t make me do it
again, you say. I know
you mean it. Like you mean
this next thing: when we’ve split
the last crumb of cornbread, made
our exit past the catfish
gazing lugubrious in
his tank, when we’re standing
in the parking lot, your arms
around me, your hand—same hand—
traces the bone of my cheek,
as if I’d never been there,
as if you would never leave.
Katherine E. Young’s poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, Southern Poetry Review, and many others. She is the author of two chapbooks, Gentling the Bones (2007), and Van Gogh in Moscow (2008). In 2010-2011 her full-length manuscript was a semifinalist for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award, the De Novo First Book Award, and the Philip Levine Prize, while her translation of contemporary Russian poet Inna Kabysh was awarded a share of the 2011 Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender Prize. She teaches English at the University of Maryland.
Q: This is difficult subject matter—discuss the making of poems about physical and emotional abuse.
A: Our culture seems to prefer that victims be strong, dignified, and stoic (the very qualities, of course, that abusers methodically strip away!). Louise Bogan (who knew a thing or two about being a victim) writes that the lyric poet cannot “indulge in any of the lower-grade emotions, such as self-pity,” a maxim I took to heart in working with this material. But these poems aren’t about keeping a stiff upper lip—they’re about something else. I believe people stay in abusive relationships because our human need to love is stronger, even, than our fear. What I wanted to capture was the speaker’s passionate love and empathy for a person who—like all abusers—is so damaged that he lacks the capacity to accept, let alone return, those feelings.
Q: Food has power to soothe, celebrate, heal, unify. Can you talk about “Soul Food” and your characters?
A: And soul food itself is famous for all those reasons. Of all the possible food-related settings for this poem, which balances “comfort food” against a relationship in which “comfort” plays almost no role, I couldn’t have chosen one more deliberately ironic. And yet I was completely unconscious of that irony when I was writing the poem because I was fixated on the man and woman clawing at one another—neither one able to break away—while sharing that last shred of cornbread. And on that catfish, cruising in his murky deep. A friend commented that this poem ends in a parking lot, “where these things always end, don’t they?”
Q: Honeysuckle is mentioned in your poem—is there any other fragrance so intoxicating and fraught? What other flower-aromas are particularly powerful for you?
A: I was raised in the rural South, so I’m particularly partial to magnolia in bloom; I recently finished a group of sonnets in which magnolias play an important role. And my uncle in North Carolina planted gardenias that flowered into December—I’d arrive for the holidays to find a cut gardenia in a glass of water on my nightstand. As for honeysuckle, even the name is fraught with that curious interconnectedness of sex and mother’s milk—the unwrapping/disrobing, the suckling, the sticky sweetness.
Minutes of the Last Meeting
by Daniel B. Meltzer
followed by Q&A
The meeting of the Committee on Committees was called to order on Thursday, June 2nd at 7:02 PM, according to the Chair’s wristwatch.
Before getting down to the evening’s business, there was a brief discussion and unanimous agreement to request of the Facilities Committee that the wall clock in our meeting room, which had stopped at 11:17 five months ago, be repaired or replaced. Committee member Anthony Marcotricciano, who is also co-chair of the Facilities Committee, said that he would present the proposal to his committee at their next meeting, which would take place in September, after our summer recess for July and August. He reminded us all that any purchase, should that be recommended, would also require the approval of the Budget Committee.
Attendance was taken. In attendance: Chair Helen Rubin Santiago, Vice Chair Morgan Jones, committee members Anthony Marcotricciano, Ruth Pinsky-O’Gorman, Sheldon Foster, Ellen Fisher-Fenster, Joel Liebowitz, Mort Spielman, Ann Schwartz, Kwame Harrison, and yours truly, Richard Sam Kaplan, Recording Secretary.
It was noted with general sadness by the chair that Member Hu Sin was absent, still in mourning for her pet python, Lucinda, who had unfortunately swallowed a four-foot long battery-powered toy crocodile last week that someone had carelessly or maliciously left on Hu Sin’s fire escape. A motion was introduced by Ruth Pinsky-O’Gorman and approved unanimously to send a sympathy card. Pinsky-O’Gorman volunteered to excuse herself to go to the Duane Reade around the corner to purchase the card and return with it for all to sign. She was excused by the chair and then left.
Chair Helen Rubin Santiago called for approval of minutes of the previous month’s meeting.
Member Kwame Harrison objected and proposed (as he has at every meeting since joining the committee a year ago) a public reading of the full minutes at all meetings. A motion was put forth by Harrison and seconded by Ann Schwartz, but a majority of members present voted eight votes to two to approve the minutes without having them read aloud, Members Harrison and Schwartz being the two yea votes.
Member Harrison requested that it be entered into the record (again) that, for the enlightenment of members of the public in attendance, he requests that the committee schedule a special meeting to address this issue in the near future.
For the record, there were three public attendees seated in the meeting room on this occasion. After Kwame spoke, two of the three public attendees stood up and left, apologizing for having believed there was to be a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” here this evening, with accompaniment by a pianist from the local music academy. It was in fact screened on Saturday Night as a presentation by the Special Events Committee.
The third public attendee raised her hand and requested to address the committee, but was told that she would have to wait until the public session following the conclusion of the Committee’s business session.
A brief discussion followed concerning whether the misinformation regarding the scheduling of the Charlie Chaplin film might have resulted from a miscommunication by the Communications Committee or a slipup at the Scheduling Committee or at the Special Events Committee itself. Notification of the chairs of all three committees was agreed upon unanimously and Recording Secretary Richard Sam Kaplan volunteered to report the problem to all of them.
Kaplan then noted that Harrison’s motion regarding the minutes would, in any case, more properly be the business of the Rules Committee and, after some discussion, it was agreed that it be taken up by a special joint session of Rules and Committee on Committees, to be scheduled by the Scheduling Committee as soon after the summer recess as possible, and after consultation between the two committee chairs. A motion to approve the joint meeting for this purpose was introduced by Member Kaplan, seconded by Harrison, and approved unanimously. Kaplan graciously agreed to communicate the request with the Scheduling Committee.
Having thus dispensed with Old Business, we next turned to New Business.
The sole item on our agenda was the ongoing effort to consolidate and/or eliminate some of our committees, members having been complaining about redundancies and having to attend too many meetings. All agreed there is enough overlap to warrant some cuts and consolidation.
Chair Rubin-Santiago asked for suggestions for committees that may be merged with others or eliminated entirely, and a lively discussion ensued.
Member Kwame Harrison proposed elimination of the Facilities Committee on the grounds that issues requiring immediate action so simple as replacing a light bulb, or a printer cartridge, or true emergencies such as the overflowing toilet last fall during a meeting of the annual Interfaith Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanza Dinner Dance sub-committee of the Events Committee, become impossible to address, owing to the mandatory checks and balances that were established after Ruth Pinsky-O’Gorman, who is also co-chair of the Outreach and Community Relations Committee, took it upon herself two years ago to invite Tony Bennett, whom she had met on a cruise to the Bahamas, to perform at the Dinner Dance, to which she said he had agreed and for which the Board soon received an invoice for $35,000, payable in advance. Ruth was compelled to write to Bennett’s agent to apologize for the misunderstanding and to cancel her request. There was then a threat of a lawsuit from his agent over Bennett’s loss of income, the singer having cancelled another lucrative engagement during the busy holiday season to accommodate us. A cousin of Bennett, who happens to live in the neighborhood and plays squash with the chair’s husband, fortunately agreed to mediate, and the matter was resolved without any cost to us.
There was then an extended exchange around the table about the night of the toilet overflow incident during a session of the Events Committee, when phone calls were placed to all Facilities Committee members in order to satisfy the quorum requirement, as mandated in our bylaws. Arguments ensued over a vote to repair immediately, or to defer the matter until a quorum of the budget committee was also reached and connected with the quorum of the Facilities Committee via conference call. This endeavor failed when the battery in Henry Waxman’s cell phone went dead one minute into to the call. Attempts to reach the members of both committees a second time using Sheldon Foster’s new I phone were unsuccessful when all the numbers he attempted to reach responded with voice mail or a busy signal.
The cost of the ensuing cleanup and replacement of bathroom linoleum and meeting room carpeting unfortunately consumed the budget for the summer picnic, forcing its cancellation. There was also the expense of renting a meeting room at the Y for two weeks while ours was re-tiled, carpeted and “aired out,” so to speak.
A rumor soon circulated that Mildred Kendall, who owns the Coffeeteria and sits on the Fall Dinner Dance Subcommittee of the Events Committee, had engineered the flood by wedging a bran muffin into the toilet tank’s egress, causing the overflow, and that she had done so out of revenge for the Events Committee’s having voted to put the catering for the affair out for competitive bids. But the allegation was never proven. Her husband Charles, the investment banker, who sits on both the Facilities committee and the Budget committee, threatened to punish the perpetrator of the rumor in a manner and in language which decency and respect for all of our devoted members prevent me from dignifying here in print.
Ellen Fisher-Fenster suggested that Ruth Pinsky-O’Gorman may have done it to get back at those who had ridiculed her for presuming, without prior authority, to invite Tony Bennett to perform at the Fall Dinner Dance, causing all that embarrassment and the threat of a lawsuit from a celebrity we all admire, with the implication that Ruth’s shipboard encounter with the crooner had amounted to more than just a friendly dinner table conversation, as she had described it. General chatter and speculation around the table ensued for more than two minutes, until Chair Rubin-Santiago rapped her gavel and called for order and reprimanded us all for engaging in idle gossip about one of our own when she is not present to refute the insinuation.
Back to the business at hand. A general consensus on the understanding that the Board could not properly or economically function without either a Facilities or a Budget Committee, and that merging the two might compound the confusion of who was responsible for what was reached and a motion to table the matter for further discussion until after the summer recess was approved by unanimous vote.
Member Mort Spielman then proposed that the Committee on Committees itself be dissolved, as it has neither approved a new committee nor found itself able to eliminate one or to bring about a successful union of two or more committees in its entire four year existence. He had been complaining for the past two years that not only do we accomplish little or nothing worthwhile with our discussions, but that Monday night is an important night for pro football telecasts, and that he has missed the first half of every Monday night game so far this season. A lively discussion ensued. Member Fischer-Fenster suggested that Mort not be so cheap and order TiVo so that he can watch his game any time he pleased. Mort demanded she take back the “cheap” comment, and she did. He said watching a game after you know who has won it defeats the entire purpose of the experience. A lively discussion ensued, which the Chair’s gavel eventually brought to a close.
In any case, as every other evening of the week is taken up with meetings of the other committees, the unavailability of the meeting room presents a serious impediment to this proposal.
Member Kaplan graciously offered his own living room for meetings any other evening of the week, but two members (Schwartz and Fischer-Fenster) being allergic to cats and the obvious problem of competing with other meetings that our members are obliged also to attend on those evenings rendered the suggestion moot.
All agreed to the Chair’s proposal that the best thing to do would be to defer the matter until such time as a joint meeting of the Committee on Committees and the Scheduling Committee could be arranged as soon after the summer recess as possible. The proposal was approved unanimously.
Member Marcotricciano then noted that member Pinsky O’Gorman had been gone for more than an hour on her mission to purchase a sympathy card for member Hu Sin on the occasion of the passing of her pet python Lucinda, and had not yet returned. Anthony requested permission from the chair to be excused so that he could go down to the Duane Reade to see what might be keeping her. General concern was expressed around the table, Tony was excused, and he left the meeting room.
At this point the sole member of the public who was seated in the public seating area raised her hand and asked again to address the committee. Chair Rubin-Santiago informed the woman that as we were still in the New Business section of our meeting, her question would have to wait until after we had completed our Committee business, at which time she might speak during the public session.
Various proposals were then put forth over the next half hour or so, suggesting, among other things, that the Events committee be absorbed into the Scheduling committee. But a defense of the independence of the Events Committee was vigorously argued by Vice Chair Morgan Jones, the interior decorator and Chair of Events, on the grounds that Events serves a creative function, whereas Scheduling is merely administrative.
Joel Liebowitz, the CPA and chair of Scheduling, took issue with Jones’s assertion that Scheduling was “merely,” in Jones’s words, administrative and demanded an apology, asserting the challenge of accommodating the many needs and demands of various members, including Jones himself, who refused to attend any meeting on Thursday evenings because it’s his bridge night, or on Wednesdays because of his group therapy sessions. Voices were raised and both men needed to be restrained after rising from the table and appearing to be about to engage in what we used to call fisticuffs. The chair’s hammer, drowned out by the shouting of the two men, eventually brought the meeting back to order.
At this point, we witnessed the return of Members Marcotricciano and Pinsky-O’Gorman, the latter leaning heavily on the former’s arm and appearing to be rather intoxicated. Tony reported that he discovered Ruth at the bar in Downey’s Pub, which is next door to Duane Reade, in conversation with a roofing salesman from Wisconsin. Ruth said she couldn’t find a card expressing sympathy for a dead python and had just stopped into Downey’s to use the lady’s room, but got into a conversation with a very charming gentleman from Wisconsin who had (quote) “Paul Newman’s amazing blue eyes,” upon which she dropped into her chair and immediately fell asleep.
The Chair requested that Tony Marcotricciano escort Ruth home by cab and to put in for the expense to the petty cash fund after the summer recess.
No other business being on the agenda, The Chair rapped her gavel and declared the meeting adjourned. At which point the woman seated in the public section raised her hand and began rapping the floor with her cane.
“May I speak now?” she declared in a booming voice and as thick an Irish brogue as this Recording Secretary had ever heard.
“Yes, of course. The public session is now open. Would the speaker identify herself and ask her question. Committee members will kindly reseat themselves.”
“My name is Rose-Marie Finn, and that’s with two n’s if you please, and I had also been expecting to see the Charlie Chaplin flick, but what I was wanting to tell you for the last two hours or so is that there’s a serious amount of water gushin’ forth, if you please, from under your bathroom door out there in the hallway and somebody here should be callin’ a plumber, as my own husband Frank happens to be, before you find yerselves all up there on that table o’ yours in the middle of a flood.”
Phone calls went out immediately to members of the Facilities and Budget Committees. Failing to raise the required quorum for both bodies, Chair Rubin Santiago declared the meeting adjourned at 9:16 pm and all members and the sole public attendee exited by the fire stairs.
Faithfully recorded and respectfully submitted by Recording Secretary Richard Sam Kaplan, DDS.
Daniel B. Meltzer lives in New York City. He has written for the Baltimore Sun, Albany Times Union, the Chicago Tribune and Associate Press Syndicates, and CBS News. His plays are published by Samuel French, Inc. He has taught at NYU and Penn State University (not in the athletic programs). Stories and memoirs have appeared in Confrontation, Southern California Anthology, Fourth Genre, Gettysburg Review, and other journals and magazines. His new fiction collection, Outsiders, is to be published in 2012.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: "Minutes of the Last Meeting" is based on my own experiences with community organizations and on various committees.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Sophocles, Shakespeare, Moliere, Freud, Wodehouse, Bierce
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: The French Riviera. Or in my kitchen.
Q: Who plays you in the movie?
A: Brad Pitt or Clive Owen, depending on who is doing the lighting.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My first memoir: Nothing Happened Here, Volume I, also The Complete Contrarian, A Contradictionary
by John Carr Walker
followed by Q&A
for Charles Bukowski
It all happened that summer of West Nile Virus, when the news put sick people on TV and ran stories on how mosquito repellent was flying off the Wal-Mart shelves. I had a job trolling the streets of Fresno bagging and tagging dead birds. We believed that the virus would manifest itself in birds first, that they were predictors of how the sickness would move through humankind, and that summer the birds were falling from their perches in the trees and probably right out of their flight patterns. I had a government-issue phone, and I’d be sent on calls to pick a bird out of someone’s pool. They float—I think I’m one of few people who’d know that—and I’d use my government skimmer to take them off the top. Then dead birds became such a common sight people stopped making reports. I’d be driving home and see them littering the highway like a load spilled off a truck. I blocked traffic bagging and tagging, horns blasting behind me, cars backed up for miles. I was called names, considered crazy. Me, the fine line separating public health from an epidemic, called crazy.
“I know how you feel,” my researcher friend Henry told me, after I complained to him about my circumstances. He always came outside after I dropped off my specimens to smoke an unfiltered with me. This particular day he had a pink smear of bird blood on his smock in the shape of a talon, as if one of the avian cadavers had fought back. He pushed his glasses up his nose. He was constantly pushing his glasses up his nose. We were both sweating in the summer heat—Henry worse because he was used to the air conditioning inside the lab. He dropped his smoke in the alley and smothered it with his shoe. His caterpillar eyebrows were visible over the rims of his glasses: the specs were on their way down his nose again. He said, “You should take your Missus along with you tomorrow. Get her out of the house.”
“A date with the reaper,” I said.
“Don’t flatter yourself, Pet. At most you’re his janitor.”
“Speaking of,” I said, walking around the pick-up, jangling my keys.
“Why don’t you take the rest of the day,” Henry said, talking as if he had the authority to grant vacations. “Go home, have a nice meal, wine and dine the lady.”
“You’re the boss,” I told him, and drove away.
Actually, I was heading home. I had been heading home for three days now. I wanted to go home. The missus and I leased in a northeast neighborhood; our house was only a few years old, its closets still smelled like new carpet. A grand place from what I remembered. I thought I could rest there. And I was on my way home again when I saw the black bullets of dead crows under a streetlight. I pulled over to the curb only a few blocks from my house, telling myself I was seeing things, I needed to go home and rest. Then I heard the muffled thump of another one hitting the pavement, then another, and then they really started falling, a hailstorm. I watched them splatter. They lay prone on their backs, feet up, wings out, or on their shoulders with their backs to me, elongated, elegant black.
I should have gone home anyway. I was all set to do exactly that, to restart the engine and drive away, when I saw him. He was skipping from the circular glow of one streetlamp to another, like a kid doing puddles. He had an umbrella and a white dust mask. I watched him squat before a crow and prod it with something. We called his type novitiates, regular citizens who tried to examine the dead birds without our equipment or training; novitiates suffered delusions, and were known to have a death wish. They were considered somewhere between a nuisance and a threat to public health, and it was official policy to prevent a novitiate from contaminating a sample. Instead of continuing home, I got out of the truck and approached the scene. Once I’d gotten closer, I saw that he was poking the crow with a ballpoint pen. He looked up at me, startled, the dust mask practically glowing. “You must be with the CDC,” he shouted, his voice muffled.
Close enough, I thought.
“It’s the plague of crows over here.” He toured me around the corpses, holding the umbrella over us. There were four-dozen at first count, black humps of fresh crow. They lay in the street, guttered up next to the curb, on the sidewalks and grass strips. When I went over the area with my flashlight I found more on roofs, stuck in rain gutters or nested up against chimneys. The novitiate felt the need to explain the relationship between death and falling. “The real question is cause or effect,” he said. “If they died in the air, then hit the ground, or if they hit the ground while still alive.”
I didn’t say much. Bag and tag.
“It’s West Nile, isn’t it? It’s started right here in my neighborhood.”
“The birds have to be autopsied first.”
“Oh, I already know what will happen,” he said, smoothing a few wiry strands to his bald crown, looking into the night over the rim of his mask. “These will go into some lab, but no answers will ever come out.”
“No news is good news.”
“People already have news,” he said. “We want Information. We want to be informed.”
“I can understand that,” I said.
“It starts with you, you know. What can you tell me about these specimens?”
“Well, they’re dead. But I guess you told me that.”
“Is it official policy to make fun of the citizenry?”
“No, sir,” I said.
“I pay taxes. I vote in every election at every level. I fill out my census immediately. I have a right to know what’s happening right here in my own back yard.”
“I can’t tell you much,” I said. “But crows are never a good sign.”
“I thought not,” he said, nodding but looking scared. His skin was going as pale as the dust mask, the blood draining out of his face.
“They’re big birds, you know. It takes a lot to bring one down. This many?” I shrugged my shoulders, letting him fill in the blank with the terrible truth. I said, “Have you been out here long, sir?”
“I—a half-hour, I’d guess.”
“And you’ve been wearing that mask the whole time, correct?”
“—You’re a wise man to have kept that mask on.”
For a second I thought he was going to collapse and weep in the street. “What about you?” he asked, the fear in his voice cutting right through the mask. “You’re . . . unprotected.”
I stopped my work to give him a meaningful look. I leaned in a little closer. I could smell the breath leaking out—as if that cup of paper could stop a dread disease. It couldn’t even stop halitosis. “There’s a government vaccine,” I said.
He recoiled a step. “I knew it.”
“Excuse me,” I said, and turned to my job, leaving him to think he’d been right all along, the best feeling any of us can have.
Each bird got its own bag, with a tag relating the location I found it, and whether in fresh, desiccated, or decomposed condition. The fresh ones went straight to the researchers’ tables. I marked the spot I found them with Xs of pink spay paint, so if they found West Nile in the bird they could search the area scientifically. Such cases—clustered specimens, we called them—created a lot of excitement in the lab. I always called ahead. The boys and girls in goggles would be waiting on the curb for my truck to pull up, filled with bumpy orange bags. Enough for everybody, I would joke with them. The imminence of disease spreading through the air turned us on. Our careers—our lives—had meaning, hard work and dedication about to be recognized.
It was certainly the granddaddy of clustered specimens, but I got them all. Into hedges to retrieve birds, up onto roofs, an arm’s reach down a chimney, where a crow had come to rest in an abandoned barn owl nest. I left pink Xs on box shrubs and composite shingles and bricks. I ended up having to finish with an audience of morning commuters leaving their homes for work, which of course was not ideal. No one is friendly finding you on his roof. They were less than understanding about the Xs, calling it defacement, calling it criminal. One day soon, I thought, they’d look back and be glad I was there. The man who cut West Nile off at the pass, who put public health above the petty concerns of property damage and trespassing—they’d talk about me with reverence for years to come, the hero of the West Nile story.
I tooted my horn when I pulled into the alley behind the lab. I had a feeling this was the one that would prove all our fears, and it came from practically my own neighborhood. I watched in the rearview while the researchers unloaded the birds, two orange bags for each smock, like hunting trophies or harvest bounty, our reasons for being. Henry knocked on the passenger window and held up his pack of smokes and a Zippo. I shut off the engine. “I figured you’d have been home by now,” I said, getting out of the cab.
“Who among us goes home?” Henry passed me a lit cigarette. The paper was moist from his lips. “I thought you went home as well, and look at us, both right here.”
“Touché,” I said.
The floor of the alley was still in shade, cool from the night, but a blade of sunlight was working its way down the lab wall like a slow-moving guillotine. Henry and I watched its progress awhile without talking. Then I started telling him about the specimens. He lit me another cig as I talked.
“So this is the batch, for sure,” he said.
“That’s what I figured.”
“She’s arrived, my friend. The ship’s come in.”
“Armageddon is upon us,” I said.
He tossed away his cigarette and pushed up his glasses just in time. “It’ll be more like a thinning out,” he said. “The frail and elderly first. Then the indigent.”
“We’ll save the rest,” I said.
“That’s the spirit, Pet.” He slapped my back. “We’ve got to be patient. It’ll all be worth it in the end.”
Patience, I kept thinking while driving home. I was learning how to be patient with a disease that refused to make its grand entrance. I asked Henry to call me on the official phone the minute they found something—I insisted he call me—but I couldn’t help thinking that one of the lab boys, perhaps the very second I drove away, was calling out, “Eureka!” and they’d proudly celebrate the discovery of life’s destruction without me. Could I count on Henry to interrupt the orgy and say, “That’s one of Pet’s, Pet brought that bird in, let me give him a ring and we can all toast Pet!?” I depended so much on the birds and the clues their deaths contained. Without them, I was just a trash man. The birds made me a hero on the frontlines.
In the living room of my house a woman was asleep on my couch, wearing panties and a t-shirt, one leg slung over the back. Her chipped painted toenails looked like tiny dishes. I stood there blinking at her. Her name was Camille. We were married. I decided the best thing was not to wake her. Let her finish her sleep. I’d get breakfast ready, and then she could explain to me why she was sleeping on the couch. Except I was noisy in the kitchen. Clanger of bowls, dropper of eggs, shouter of curses. I went out for some fresh air instead.
Our paper lay wrapped in a plastic sleeve on the lawn. I checked the mailbox but the postal woman hadn’t been by yet. I sat on the porch with the Fresno Bee and turned through the sections looking for another picture of myself. About six-months before, I’d appeared on the front page, just doing my job. Today there wasn’t anything worthwhile. I folded it up and let it balance on my thigh. I sat there squinting out at the warm morning, the familiar houses, the cars in the driveways and at the curbs. The image symbolized for me what I’d been doing out there for three days straight: protecting everyone’s right to come home at night and stay until morning. I—we, my cohorts and I—braved the worst scenarios so no one else had to.
It was so quiet and still. I watched down the block for a door to open, a car to back into the street and drive away, a school bus to come around a corner and load up some kids. I strained to hear something besides the lazy knock of oak branches against my roof, or the sea-sounding breeze in the fig leaves. I looked again at the newspaper: Was that date really today? Had something happened I wasn’t aware of, stopping time? Had Henry let me down? Then, entering my senses as if surfacing for breath, I heard the scratching, so soft I thought it might be a product of my imagination. I sat perfectly still and waited. I heard it again. Like the tearing of paper. Like the whittling down of wood by sharp knives. Like clawing-out. Goose-fleshed, I tried to discern the source. I scanned the street from one horizon to the other before I realized the scratching was coming from behind me, within my own house.
I burst through the front door. Camille was at the sink and I startled her. She glared at me wide-eyed, her hair a tangled nest from the couch. “What the hell, Pet—”
“—Sshh!” I crawled alongside the wall, listening. “You hear that?” I whispered.
“All I hear is the thin ice cracking under your feet.”
“Sshh!” The sound had leaped into a frenzy and then fallen silent. I’d heard that before. I knew then what I had inside the wall. “It’s birds,” I told Camille.
“Of course it is.”
“Somehow we’ve got birds trapped in the wall.”
I looked up and down the textured surface, decorated with pictures. Occasions, family. I hardly recognized my face in any of them. Crawling left and right, I rapped with my fist, listening with my ear near the baseboard for a response.
“This is too much,” Camille said.
“I’m trying to listen.”
“Bullshit, Pet. Bull shit. You’re crawling around like a nutcase, that’s what you’re doing.”
“Here,” I said. I’d heard their answer despite the distraction in the room. I scratched a mark into the paint with my thumbnail, then went to get my tape measure, then took the measurement from the front door to the spot.
“I want you to leave whatever it is alone and talk to me,” Camille told me. “I want whatever it is to stop. Okay? You can’t keep staying gone, Pet. It worries me sick and I can’t take it anymore.”
She stood there with her arms crossed over her chest, her bare thighs touching under the t-shirt hem, and her face was red and swollen with tears. She was waiting for me to tell her that everything was fine, but I didn’t know yet. I had a job to do.
“Tell me where you’ve been!”
“Just a second.”
“Who is she? Tell me who she is!”
I went out to the porch again. Pages of the newspaper were plastered against the spindles by the breeze. Pieces of it tumbled over our lawn into our neighbor’s. I measured from the front door and painted a pink X where the birds were entombed.
Camille stood in the doorway. “What in fuck are you doing?”
“Marking the location.”
She seemed to see me in a different light then. Her head cocked a little to one side and her eyes, which had been stained with tears, now shone with understanding. Her voice came soft and musical. “Who can I call, Pet? Tell me a name. There must be someone I can call for help.”
“This is my job, honey. I do this everyday.”
I retrieved my reciprocating saw from the garage, and when I came back, Camille was leaning on the porch rail with her back to the world. Gooseflesh stood alert on her thighs. Her bare feet had left moist footprints on the boards where she’d been pacing. “Let me call someone,” she said.
“I am the one people call,” I assured her.
If she said something in response, the buzz of the saw covered it up. I pushed the blade into the siding, cutting out a square panel to free the birds—working from outside so I wouldn’t release the virus into our living room, for Camille’s sake. The story swelled in my head to grand proportions: Hero bird collector finds disease in own house, saves all.
I removed the cut siding. A talus slope of hollow bones poured out, a burial ground of my avian friends. “Look at that,” I said, full of wonder. Somehow the bones had been speaking to me.
But I, Pet Petersen, was talking to no one. Camille had gone inside. I got an orange bag from my truck. I poured handfuls of the bones into the sack. I wrote down my address, then marked the box desiccated.
No one came out of the lab when I blew the horn. I banged and banged on the door, and a researcher I didn’t know finally opened up. “What in the world is it?” he asked me.
I held out the bag. The bones rattled together like chips of ice when he took it. He regarded me, then peeked inside the sack, a violation of safety regulations. Slowly his eyes lifted to mine. I said, “Henry here?”
“He went home,” the researcher said.
“What happened? Did you find West Nile?”
He shook his head no. “It’s been a frustrating day,” he said, then started to slide away from me into the lab. “Maybe this one,” he said sarcastically, rattling the sack of bones.
“They came from my house,” I said.
He nodded once and shut the door. I heard the deadbolt engage as per regulations, though it felt personal.
I sat in the truck with the AC going full blast until it smelled musty and was blowing lukewarm air. I could barely breathe. There was this painful speed to my heart. It was beating the back of my breastbone as if to get out, and all at once I understood what was going on inside me. It explained why I couldn’t get home, why I found specimens everywhere I went, why I heard them in my wall. I put my hand on my chest. I knew all about birds, I’d been highly trained by the government, but still I wasn’t prepared to feel one in there, where a heart should be.
It wasn’t fair. Instead of being on the cover of Time Magazine, this development would put me in the tabloids. People would only read about my life while waiting to pay for groceries. All the good deeds I’d done would be blown away by the turbulence of a bird in my chest.
I worked hard to catch my breath. I did my best to arrange a natural face, even checking my color in the truck’s chrome bumper. Henry would have known something was wrong with me, but Henry had abandoned the cause. I knocked and knocked on the lab door. The same researcher opened up, and I wondered if he was in there by himself. “What’s your problem, guy?” he said.
“I need to borrow a scalpel,” I said. He looked at me over his perfectly fitting glasses. I missed Henry. Henry I could have told exactly what was going on inside me. Henry would have lit me a smoke and heard me. I told this other guy, “I just got a report of clustered specimens in a vineyard outside of town and I need a scalpel.”
I huffed impatiently, talking fast to cover up how my voice trembled. “You ever been to a clustered specimen site in a vineyard? Fucking mayhem, man. The canes—that’s what they call the branch of a grapevine, cane, as in hell—just about swallow a bird whole. It’s like surgery getting them out. Hence—” I held out my hand.
He regarded me once more, then went inside. He left the door standing open, and I could see my bird bones being classified on a metal table. They looked yellow in contrast to the stainless steel. We’d find no answers in those bones, I guessed, and the bird in my ribs started flying loops as if to tell me my guess was right. Then the researcher was back, holding a scalpel to me handle first.
“You loan this blade in service to your fellow man,” I said.
“Whatever,” he said, shutting and bolting the lab door in my face.
Most days I would have thought about reporting his multiple safety violations, or dwelt on his rudeness, but today I wasn’t in a petty mood. Driving home, my bird-heart was expanding to see the beauty in all things. The ripples of heat on the road ahead of me like the ocean. The brake lights flashing on and off in traffic as if choreographed. The palpitations of a doomed man.
I got home and found my own door unlocked, yet another violation of safety rules. I stepped inside and knew at once that Camille had left me. There were no signs, per se, just a tremendous emptiness that one feels when stepping into a deserted house. But of course it didn’t matter. Actually I was glad she wouldn’t have to witness what was coming next.
I’d brought an orange bag inside with me. I went upstairs and turned on the bathroom tap and took off my shirt. Looking at myself in the mirror, at the distinct tan lines ending at my neck and biceps, at the scalpel in my hand. I cut the air over my chest, trying to visualize the incisions that would get the bird out. My reflection blurred through the tears in my eyes. I breathed deep, telling myself I had to, for the sake of humankind. But how unfortunate that my every good deed be eclipsed for the sake of a lost bird.
I opened the window for fresh air, and, as I stood there looking out over the tops of the young trees in our neighborhood, my bird-heart leaped with joy. The greenery washed back and forth in the breeze like foam on a sea, and I was led out the window to squat at the edge of my roof, my toes in the rain gutter, my hands folded up close to my body. What a pretty world we’ve made, so full of perches, growing toward the sky. And what a shame that it’s all going to come tumbling down.
John Carr Walker grew up on a raisin farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley and now lives in Saint Helens, Oregon, where there’s not a vineyard for miles. His writing has appeared in StringTown, Slow Trains, Prick of the Spindle, The Writer's Dojo, Eclectica, Small Doggies, and elsewhere. He's the editor and founder of the literary magazine TRACHODON.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Bellow, Roth, Updike—I think anyone with an interest in realist fiction can’t really escape being influenced by that trio. I also love Roddy Doyle, Tim Winton, Barry Hannah, Michael Ondaatje, Larry Watson, Rick DeMarinis . . . My favorite thing is discovering a new writer who knocks my socks off. I’d rather find someone new to add to my list of influences than read a writer’s whole list.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: Under the covers.
Q: Who plays you in the movie?
A: David Tennant. What fat American wouldn’t want to be played by a twiggy Scot?
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve recently completed a collection of short stories, so I’m working at collecting rejections. And I’m at work on a novel about an Okie and a Japanese family in WWII-era San Joaquin Valley.
At the Edge of the Earth
by Brandon Patterson
followed by Q&A
“Cabot disappears from historical record following his departure from
England. Some baseless speculation claims him to be the victim of Spanish
pirates;equally baseless speculation attributes a fiscal failure of his
final voyage as the foundation for being dropped from the pages of history.”
Adm. Arthur Weston, The Last Voyage of John Cabot
All men are explorers. The body is but a vessel for the soul.
His crewmen—the lot of them English—call him “John Cabot,” as do his English patrons and supporters in England, who wait thousands of miles away and months in the past. It is preferable to hearing their tongues trip over “Giovanni Caboto.” On this, the sixty-third day of his voyage from Bristol, and his tenth day probing the inlets and coves of these foreign isles, he has turned his small flotilla of four ships north, to where the sea becomes ice.
The ships are stocked with provisions: the black fish that spawn and thrash for leagues of open sea, fowl and hoofed game from the island forests, and fresh water from rocky streams. They traded with the dark-skinned aboriginals for furs and smoked meats. Caboto’s scabbard is empty, the decorative espada ropera having been exchanged for help with recaulking the hulls of his ships with hasty oakum, and carving sounding poles to ward against sea ice.
They sail on the whim of errors. Just six years earlier, Columbus claimed to have reached Cipango and the fabled eastern shore. This conclusion came not from evidence of locale, but from erroneous plots on the circumference of the world. A host of factors—not the least of which was a misconversion of miles and leagues—led to Columbus underestimating the globe’s span.
Caboto took this error to the English throne as the basis for his own plan: where Columbus had sailed due west and been waylaid by unexpected land, Caboto would navigate the compressed northern longitudes, and so both bypass Columbus’s continent and make faster travel.
This is Caboto’s third voyage. The first was fruitless and ended in near-mutiny. On the second, they reached the northern isles he now watches from the sterncastle. They are not Cipango, as he had hoped, but an extension of the same wooded mass that beguiled Columbus. The route to the east—to the lands of the great Khan, to Cipango, to the true West Indies—lies further north.
An ensign tosses a broken bucket over the Matthew’s side and chants: “Eternal father, protect us from the waves, protect us from the wind, protect—” He stops as the bucket crosses the ship’s midline. He ropes in the bucket in and calls out, “Three knots.”
Beaufort, the ship’s Master, logs their speed and resets the geared chronometer, then moves a peg on the traverse board. They must do this every hour, for each call and plot tracks the ship’s course. Time magnifies errors, so they are regimented in their checks. At nightfall, Caboto will use a quadrant to check the plots against the stars.
“Were we traveling westward, our progress would be great,” Beaufort says. He is a thick man, full-bearded, and with hands like mitts. “True North won’t bewray Cipango.”
“Progress is not defined on one axis,” Caboto says.
“No sense of being a malapert intended, Captain Cabot.”
Caboto turns to the main deck. Two of his men, blanket-wrapped and hands knotted with cloth, mend the sails.
“No sense taken.”
The men sleep below decks, often gathered about the ship’s stove to steal its warmth. When on watch, they pace and stomp cold-numbed feet. There are no fish to be netted, so they eat the salted stores.
Beaufort inks their course on a paper map. They travel an arrow nearly as true as the pointer on a compass.
“We’ll see ice soon,” he says.
Night ends. If the sun were to do more than drift across the sky like a bright cloud, then Caboto could say that they travel thirty leagues every day.
During a brightest midnight hour, Caboto watches an ice floe cleave. Its heart is a color of blue he has never seen before.
Columbus’s forsaken land hovers to port, visible as a thin smear of gray. During fog or bad weather, it makes its presence known with every sounding.
Caboto puts to shore frequently, packing his landing parties in shifts on their single craft, and his companion vessels doing likewise. He tells his men they are to find food and water, though in truth the missions have no purpose but to give the sailors a reaffirming return to land.
The new world gives way to ice. Flippered dogs live on the frozen sea; they take refuge from pursuit by sliding into the water. His men have killed several of the creatures for food and fur. Also hunting the dogs are great bears, white as the ice itself, save for black dots of eye and nose. At the end of every expedition, the landing parties carve blocks of ice to replenish their cisterns. This crew will not thirst as long as the seas are frozen.
His men row out to pods of whales in the manner of the Basque fishers. With a spear made of a gaffe bound to a split oar, they take a whale and butcher it for fat and meat. Oil is made from the blubber for the warming pots strung belowdecks like lanterns. From the whale’s mouth protrudes a great tusk; it strikes Caboto as so strange that it saddens him to watch the beast die.
There is another peculiar scene, this time among his crews. When the ships have moored against the floes and sunk sounding poles between the ice and their hulls, his sailors cluster on the main decks for prayers and vigils. Each day brings more worship.
Beaufort calls Caboto from the pages of his journal. “Captain, they’ve turned leeward. The others—they’re making a full about.”
From the main deck he sees the other three ships of his expedition tacking from starboard to port until they point southward. He looks to his bundled men on deck: all are gathered at the rails.
“Is there any rumor of dissent here?”
“No,” Beaufort answers. “And I abide to keep it as such.”
He hands watch to Beaufort and returns to his quarters. In his ward, he writes of the development. As he notes the situation, he is struck by the oddness of cubicolo—‘bedroom’ in his native tongue—as it appears on the page. He watches the black ripples in his ink well, and imagines a terrestrial bed that sways on undulating land, one that, like the Matthew, invites sleep in a land without night.
It is also strange to think that his flotilla has been reduced to a lone vessel without interference of gale, leviathan, or maelstrom. Surely his captains entered a pact when they were last moored on the ice, or perhaps arranged one while still in port, an agreement to turn about when they reached a certain latitude.
Caboto should have anticipated their betrayal. More than the elements or any scourge of the unknown, a crew is an expedition’s greatest hazard. He knew his fear-knotted men would be the voyage’s greatest obstacle. He remembers them in their circles of prayer, carved crosses clutched as if their talismanic powers leaked when squeezed.
What do they think of Caboto? Is he Eve, rushing the Matthew headlong towards a reckoning with the Tree of Knowledge? Crewmen are so quick to forget the greed that tempts them aboard these voyages in the first place, the promise of treasure or holds packed with exotic spice. Caboto did not force them aboard at knifepoint, though they may think as much during fearful moments.
During the good moments, they have no thought beyond simple profit. They have no realization that exploration is a Promethean task, and if the Matthew is to be split upon the ice, or trapped in frozen stasis, then the sacrifice will be for the betterment of mankind. If it is to succeed, then it will be for the sake of enlightenment, not for the pecuniary pursuits of those involved, be it the grandest king or the most meager dockhand. And Caboto’s voyage will succeed, as every day opens new discoveries, and there is no knowledge that will not benefit man, and no push for knowledge that will not inspire the efforts of others. The common sailor—weak-minded and fearful—will never understand this.
Rather than finish the entry, he scripts a rough poem in his adopted tongue:
On caravels, on ribbed triremes, on boats
made dragon prowed, you sail on rolling swells
of aspiration, spreading ink’ed paths
across the kraken’s meres, the serpent’s caves.
Chimera’s shadowed lands revealed, the white
of empty map inscribed, enlightened, named—
you sound and mark, you chart star-speckled skies,
your guides the turning compass rose and fate.
Row out and plot the Nile’s soft lotus bloom.
Row out betwixt Calpe’s clashing walls of stone.
Row out and strike clear paths through ice’d isles.
Row out for spice-filled junks at harbor’s curve.
Row out and build gray forts on Moorish sands.
Row out from ships at berth on newest shore.
Row out beyond the edge of earth and sky.
Row out on seas too small for man’s ambition.
The knocking and shouting that wakes Caboto hails from men other than Beaufort.
He rouses from beneath piled blankets and carries them as a cape to his cabin door. Sweat hangs in the crevices of his skin and drips across his brow, both declarations that he will likely die of fever if his crew doesn’t kill him first. He thinks of his robe sword, long since traded to painted natives. It would be worthless against a ship’s compliment, and still he wishes for it.
“Captain,” the voices call, “Captain Cabot, come.”
He opens the door to find his crew standing in a gaggle about his door, their faces without hint of malice.
“Where’s Beaufort?” Caboto asks.
“Upon the main mast,” one says.
“The ice,” another answers, “the ice has disappeared.”
Caboto realizes his fever is not illness, but a flush of warmth that has overtaken sea and sky. He sloughs the blankets and adjusts to the sight of flat water devoid of ice in all points, save sternward.
The northern passage he had hoped to find is now meaningless, a concise route now made circuitous in the face of an immense discovery. He and all other sailors of the north had assumed the globe to be capped in ice, which prevented an expedition from crossing the transverse of the northern hemisphere directly: sailors such as Caboto had to sail the fringes of the ice. But with a polar cap not encumbered by floes, any vessel navigating the initial freeze could sail northward a short distance to the other side of the world.
Beaufort lowers himself from their highest mast, the handles of a windlass spinning in his grip.
“I’ll right our course to follow the floes,” he calls as he untangles himself from a vest of ropes.
“Keep us steady,” Caboto says.
Beaufort’s eyebrows pinch. “We’ll land on Muscovite soil,” he says. “Land of the Khan himself, perhaps.”
He dreams that the Matthew sails to the corniced edge of the world and is carried over into the star-pricked blackness of the celestial beyond. The heavens open like the mouth of a whale.
The dream startles him awake. He lies still and lets his mind move with the waves beneath him, and so rocks himself to sleep.
The world changes shortly after Caboto leaves the ice behind. He glances sternward and sees frozen peaks still visible behind him, an odd sight, as he had expected the floes to dip below the horizon. Using the mathematics of triangles, he realizes the ice should have disappeared from view long before. There is no worthy analog—for a sailor, watching the seas straighten themselves over a course of days would be akin to something as fantastic as a man noticing the gradual migration of mountains across a continent’s interior.
Horizon is the product of a curved globe. For long centuries the seaman has known that the world is a sphere, even though his landlocked counterparts might never know otherwise. It is evident from watching landmarks subside when leaving port, or high-masted ships sink beneath the waves with increasing distance.
The loss of horizon is the loss of curvature. At first, he thought the world might be more of a bulging disc—like a ball of dough slapped against a table—than perfect sphere, though he soon realized that explorers to southern lands had well-mapped distances that would not form to an earth flattened on its bottom.
His second thought was that the earth was still a sphere, save for its northern span, which was a flat plane, as if someone had snipped off the globe’s top with shears. The idea bothers him until he maps the hypothesis. He takes a round wooden buoy and paints upon it the continents. He traces the Matthew’s northerly route from Columbus’s land to the Russian shore, and measures the distance with string. Then he cuts off the northern hemisphere with a saw, as if he were cleanly slicing off the top of a woodland berry and thus removing its stem and vestigial leaves. He replots his ship’s course, measures, and shows his work to Beaufort.
“We’ll halve our leagues traveled,” he tells the ship’s Master. “We’ll not travel over the hill of the earth, but speed along as if we have tunneled through it.”
Caboto reads Archimedes’ The Sand Reckoner from the sterncastle:
The perimeter of the earth is three hundred myriad stadia and no greater, though some have tried to show, as you know, that this length is thirty myriad stadia. But I, surpassing this number and setting the size of the earth as being ten times that determined by my predecessors, suppose that its perimeter is three hundred myriad stadia and not greater.
A treatise on how much sand it would take to fill the universe. Archimedes estimated the world as larger than anyone before him had supposed. He created a new numbering system using nested powers of ten. He used every hypothesis and tool available to him. And still he fell far short of appreciating the world’s truth.
Caboto is the first to see the wall. He stands at the bow, peering northward, when a great ridge of blue, painted at the far end of the sea, makes itself visible. It appears so suddenly that his men mistake it for an illusion, though their captain is the first to realize that blue sky, white sun, and blue sea had earlier colluded to make the wall difficult to catch with the naked eye.
The wall is the sea itself, bent upward like a frozen wave, climbing uphill in protest of all physical law.
“Your buoy doesn’t comfort this,” Beaufort says as Caboto approaches his post at the traverse board.
“No, it doesn’t,” Caboto says.
There is no explanation—either in the realm of science or of spirit. Before him is an ocean that has risen up to heights greater than any mountain, and in its specter nervous men fumble across the decks.
Caboto strides to the main mast and orders the ship’s boy to ring a gathering bell. His meager crew gathers about him.
“We make a show of hands,” he says. “From that show we enter accompt. We’ve seen not dragons, nor mermen. No water spouts or tempests. We’ve seen a world unfurl like a rose’s petals, and the knowledge we’ve gained is more fearsome than any beast of fable. So now I give a choice of further voyage or a homebound journey. A show of hands then, for a continued journey.”
He raises his arm. “A show of hands.”
Beaufort lifts his. The men follow.
In less than a week, the Matthew climbs upward, perpendicular to the ocean below. As a boy, Caboto watched a spider walk up a wall. Now, he pilots an entire ship that does much the same on a sheet of water. Clouds loom ahead like hills at the end of a path.
The pull of the earth has changed to accommodate the wall. Or perhaps the wall accommodates the earth’s pull. Caboto has determined as much with a set of experiments.
“We’ve seen no fowl,” Beaufort said as they began their upward journey, a comment that prompted Caboto to wonder how birds would adjust to the strange rules of the wall and the greater ocean. He realized that if a flock of gulls were to approach the wall, their flight would at some point be turned into noseward freefall.
As there are no birds to experiment for him, Caboto tests the bounds of this strange patch of sea. A bit of broken planking tossed over the side falls into the water wall and bobs alongside the Matthew, rather than tumbling miles downward to the North Sea. When he climbs the Matthew’s highest mast and flings another piece up and away from the boat, it sails on a path that is ninety degrees to the wall, as it seemingly should. But then, if he has thrown it hard enough, when the piece should fall back to Caboto it instead lingers briefly in the air, before dropping many leagues to the known sea below.
The sounding line scrapes bottom. The water gradually shallows, pacing its way up the line’s knots and deeps.
A hundred fathoms.
“Bring lamps to the bow,” Caboto orders, though the weak beams offer little aid through the mist of clouds.
From that point there is no sleep—the ship’s entire compliment mills about the fogged deck. The sails are pinned to slow their progress and still the ocean’s bottom rises to meet the Matthew’s keel.
“Fifteen fathoms,” rings through the shroud.
The cloud mass’s thickness is unrelenting, though now the proximity of the sun has filled the mist with hazy light. Caboto feels as if he is lying on his back in a meadow, with the sun’s glare illuminating even through his closed eyes. With the light has come an odor—the smell of bound books, more than could be imagined, wet as if interred in a damp cellar. The smell of the new land, perhaps, or of strange, ocean-borne vegetation.
“Drop anchor,” Beaufort calls. “Prepare the boat.”
Caboto steps to his side. “I’ll make landfall alone.”
“Can’t see where it earns the risk, Captain.”
“My mind is set. Bring me a lantern and set the chronometer—turn homeward if I haven’t returned in twelve hours.”
Beaufort claps his arm once, then breaks to order his men. Even in the haloed fog, they move with precision. The crew has proven him wrong—they are true explorers. Caboto is proud of them, from Master to cabin boy, though the singular moment ahead—the setting of his foot onto a land more foreign than could be imagined—that moment will be his.
He does not look up to his crew gathered around the main rail as he is lowered into the water. As soon as he has unknotted the pulley lines, he seats himself and rows. He rows until his back and arms ache. He thinks of his ensign’s sounding call—Eternal Father, full of grace—and imagines God watching him.
He rests and continues. He fights through the fire in his arms and back, and the pinched skin of his palms that will blister.
The bow furrows up a meager wake of sand and comes to rest against a cragged face of pale rock that slopes up from the shore. The ridge stretches to either side of him, infinite from his vantage.
Caboto steps into the water and walks to the edge of the earth. It is as if he stands on a splintered wall in which its top is made of two angles that terminate in a ragged point. The first angle is the slope of water the Matthew scaled and the slight beach beyond. Now Caboto stands at the summit and looks down at the second angle, made of the same chalky rock, sloping away for miles and fissured with canyons. He sees no way to go forward: the crevices rival any river in their depth and breadth, and their jagged surfaces splinter like smashed films of glass.
Above, the clouds recede: the sun looms larger than the most swollen harvest moon. The scent of books is so heavy that his lungs seem to fill with it. He takes a deep breath and looks about once more, and only then does Caboto see the desk.
It is the horizon beyond his ledge—a field of polished brown, larger than any ocean, larger than the sky itself. The oak surface is dotted with implements: rulers, angles, a saucer into which the Indies could be dropped like crystals of sugar. He sees a compass, as visible to him as a constellation in the night sky, its pivot point and quill set so widely apart that one could rest in France, the other on the Moorish coast. A half-finished map of the English Channel lies beneath it, crossed with red and black lines of distance and direction.
Skyward, the sun is encased in glass and metal. Further out are bookshelves fit for a god. Below, the edge he stands on reveals itself not as rock, but as the curled edge of a sheet of paper, and he realizes that he is so small as to be less than a dust mote on this paper, and that his world—the globe entire—rests in summation on a cartographer’s drawing sheet, and beneath him is the slightly curled edge of that sheet magnified to a terrific scale.
His world, now rendered as common and insignificant as a boat lost on the great surface of the sea. He thinks of laughing, crying, and screaming. He thinks all these, layered and intertwined, bursting in his mind, but does nothing.
Caboto sits where the sand and water fade into parchment. Waves smack the shore with halfhearted applause. He looks to where the Matthew should be anchored. In the kingdoms of Europe, men talk of a world orbited by the sun and the stars, and of a benevolent God crafting honeyed realms for believers. They speak with certainty.
After a moment, he stands and takes his skiff by its mooring line, and drags the boat up the beach. He pulls for two steps and rests. Another step or so, and rests. He turns his feet sideways for a better grip in the sand. Sweat rolls into his eyes—he wipes them with the back of his hand, and addresses the lamp above him with a glance.
The slow progression ends at a fissure. Caboto steps behind the boat and shoves. The keel grinds against the rocky thrust of paper before pitching forward. The boat tumbles. Planks and oarlocks crack like bones as it drops into the void.
He sits and waits for his breath to calm. He has two days of water. It will last him long enough to witness his creator’s drawing of a new world.
Brandon Patterson’s recent fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Confrontation, A cappella Zoo, Knee-Jerk, and The Evansville Review.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I had stuck in my mind (for a few years, I think) the idea/image of a carrack sailing north to the border of an immense map. Caboto and the details came later with research and writing.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: My mama raised me on Hemingway and Conrad, but I don’t think a bit of it wore off.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: Some fantastical place that’s quiet, comfortable, and has enough internet access for relevant research, but not so much as to inspire distraction.
Q: Who plays you in the movie?
A: James Spader during the White Palace/Crash era.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m getting ready to hammer At the Edge of the Earth and a few other stories into what I hope will be a semi-cohesive collection.
by Gleah Powers
followed by Q&A
The summer I turned seventeen, my mother took me to Paul Roberge’s studio to study art. He told her he didn’t accept everyone and I had to bring samples of my work. He was the best artist in Phoenix, known for his drawing and painting skills and his many public sculptures and murals including the Phoenix Bird at Sky Harbor airport. My mother thought the Phoenix Bird was “God-awful,” but most everyone else saw it as a beautiful rendition of the symbol of the city. I liked its semi-abstractness, bright colors, and that Paul had used natural materials from the Hopi and Navajo reservations in its construction.
My mother said she remembered him from years ago when she used to model. He’d come to the Wigwam Resort and the Westward Ho on modeling days and sketch her and the other models as they walked the makeshift runway by the swimming pool as guests ate lunch under striped umbrellas. Sometimes, I modeled with my mother in a matching child’s version of her outfit. We’d hold hands, pose, then pivot at the end of the runway, the skirts of our dresses lifting and twirling like fans opening into the hot desert air. But I didn’t remember Paul.
She said when she performed at the Sombrero Playhouse in Lady In The Dark, he came back stage one night wearing a black cape. “He was very dramatic. He kissed my hand and asked me to pose for him, which I never did. I wore a chignon in those days. He must be in his sixties now. He’s French, and he has a thing about Indians.”
Paul’s studio was attached to a small three bedroom adobe house, adjacent to the Indian School Road canal, encircled by paloverde and eucalyptus trees and twelve-foot high white and pink oleander bushes. The house and studio were set back a quarter of a mile down a dirt road from a street that was lined with upscale tract homes.
He’d just finished lunch when we arrived and was wiping his teeth with a cloth napkin. He was tall with gray white hair. A square patch of moustache sat perfectly underneath his nose. His steel blue eyes were both inviting and penetrating, as if he could see things about me that I didn’t see. His chiseled face tilted upward and moved slightly from side to side as if he were bothered by smells in the air. He wore sienna colored moccasins, which wrapped around the outside of his ankles, held together with silver buttons. A turquoise bola tie in the shape of a Zuni sun hung from his neck.
Kachina dolls and miniature French flags and soldiers sat on shelves above the desk in his office. He told us he’d just been named the French consul of Arizona. He was a good friend of Helen Luce and Marcel Marceau and his mother had been a Russian princess. He’d started the Boy Scouts in Paris and moved to Arizona to study the Navajo and Hopi Indians. He was an honorary member of the Hopi tribe.
“Remember me?” my mother said. “From the Wigwam?”
“Of course,” he said, but I could tell he didn’t. My mother knew it too. She fluffed her hair and cleared her throat. “I’ll just wait here,” she said, sitting on the couch in the den.
Paul took me the studio. It smelled of turpentine, oil paint, and charcoal. Work tables were piled high with stacks of drawing pads, sketches of naked woman, all kinds of pens and pencils, different sized broad flat knives, a palate, and huge jars of paint. Blank canvases were stacked up in a corner. Paintings of women with very long hair leaned against the walls: one with braids that curved down and up around her breasts; another with hair tangled in a man’s hands; an American Indian woman wearing smooth thick spiraling buns on each side of her head. Others had hair flowing down in sheets of black, reddish blond, or brown. All were realistically portrayed in glistening oil paint. I wanted to pick up the brushes I saw sitting upside down in red coffee cans, like magician’s wands, and be able to paint like that.
I showed him my tree drawings, the collages I’d made in art classes at school, and my best painting, a copy of Goya’s Saturn Devouring One Of His Sons, which looked more like his daughter in my version. The coolness of the cement studio floor eased through my thin leather-soled thongs.
“Ah. Very honest,” he said. I didn’t know what he meant but I hoped it was enough for him to accept me as a student.
He asked me to write a visual description of anything I liked and to come back in two weeks. Paul kissed my mother’s right hand, then mine. He said something in French as he unlatched the heavy wooden double doors of the studio. My mother’s “Million Dollar Red” polished toenails lost what was left of their shine as we walked through the dirt driveway to the car.
By the time I went back to see Paul, I’d had my shoulder length hair cut short in a geometric style and I’d started working part-time as a shoeshine girl at the Safari Hotel barbershop. Jiggs, the owner, told me to wear hot pants and smile a lot. Sometimes I had to clean and polish six pairs of cowboy boots covered with horseshit, but the tips were good. My girlfriend’s mother was shocked that my mother would allow me to have such a job, but she’d heard about it from the bartender at the Safari and encouraged me to apply. “What a fun way to make money!” she’d said. My mother was a natural flirt, and I was not. I think she thought the job would be a good way to earn money and give me the flirtation training I needed. I hated bending over men’s shoes with a mirror behind me, but I learned that the more I smiled and the shorter my shorts, the more money I made.
Paul read my paper: a description of a mother and her two children playing and laughing together on a beach. He said I veered off the visual into a description of feelings, but he could tell I had an artistic sensibility. Even with the barbershop job, I couldn’t afford the twenty-five dollars an hour he charged for lessons. He offered to trade private and group classes for studio work. My duties would include bookkeeping, cleaning the studio, washing his brushes, stretching canvas, running errands, setting up easels and supplies for his art classes, and occasional portrait modeling. He’d provide a meal on the days I worked.
He was upset I’d cut my hair so short because it would be more difficult to attach hairpieces when I modeled. “A woman is made for long hair,” he said. “Below the hips, below her sex. American women cut off sexuality.”
“Short hair is much easier to take care of,” I said.
“Ah, but with long hair, a woman becomes different each day. She can wear her hair up or down, in braids, it is endless and the man stays interested.”
“What does the man do to keep the woman interested?”
“The nature of woman is to love one man and focus attention on him. The nature of man is to love many women.”
That didn’t sound right to me. But he must know. He was French.
Paul said the job was mine if I’d let my hair grow. I agreed to the trade and had my first art lesson.
He covered a wooden stool with a piece of black velvet, carefully set an egg on top, then angled two overhead flood lights to create shadows. He handed me a newsprint pad and a stick of charcoal.
“Be sure to include everything you see. I’ll be back in a while.”
“Can I have some music?” I asked.
I stared at the egg and thought he must be kidding. I wanted to use big brushes, spread thick color on canvas. I lit a cigarette and drew the outline of the egg. Slowly, I began to see shapes of light and shadow. I made small marks inside the outline and smudged them into little patches of gray, some blacker than others. My drawing looked like an oval patchwork quilt, not an egg.
Paul came back in an hour and handed me a glass of wine. “Good. Now, train yourself to see patterns of variegated light and shadow in everything.”
The next night, I set up the studio and attended his life drawing class. He had six students: two retired army men, three tan housewives from the neighborhood, who were very enamored with Paul, and me. We did quick sketches of the first nude model I’d ever seen. I was surprised she didn’t seem embarrassed. She changed poses when a timer went off: every minute, then every three minutes, then five.
“Why are we drawing so fast?” I asked Paul.
“Hesitation breeds bad art. The eye sees, the mind sketches, the hand only obeys. It is important to observe all the time, sketch all the time, wherever you go.”
The model’s eyes never looked at any of us directly. When she took a break, she went outside in her little blue robe and smoked. Her hair hung down to her knees. Paul told her to pin it up for the quick sketches and then release it for the longer pose we drew at the end of the evening.
I spent three nights a week and Sundays at the studio. When I arrived Paul would smile and say, “Ya te he,” a Hopi greeting. I stayed late in the evenings to wash his brushes with turpentine and Castille soap. On Sunday mornings, before we went to work, I made instant coffee the way he liked it, in a big ceramic mug with four teaspoons of sugar and thick cream. But instant coffee didn’t seem very French to me.
To round up students and try to sell his art, Paul did a portrait painting demonstration once a month for groups like the Kiwanis Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and circles of women in private homes who’d studied art in college and were now docents at the Heard Museum. They’d hover around Paul before and after the demonstration, each vying for his attention with wine, cheese, cookies, and practiced questions about art. I set up his easel, brushes, and tubes of paint and sat for the portrait. I wore a long hairpiece that hung down the middle of my back. I attached it onto my own pulled back hair and covered the line of demarcation with a black headband. Paul was impressed with how still I could be. I liked seeing my face emerge into a painting. He made me look older than I was.
When Senor Tico’s, a new Mexican restaurant in Scottsdale, commissioned Paul to design a marketplace mural, I helped him paint pink and red flowers with green vines and leaves around the arched doorways. I was afraid of making a mistake, but he gave me a pattern to follow and said he had confidence in me.
I did life drawings of fruit, flowers, Kachina dolls and nude women. My skills improved. I made a color wheel with corresponding tones of white, gray and black. I did a painting exercise in the dark to learn about light. I couldn’t stop looking at my first self-portrait. It was realistic and abstract. The paint was thick, the brushstrokes a mixture of bold and refined. It was an image I’d never seen in the mirror, only felt deep in my stomach. I’d painted my insides, made visible a gnawing crookedness I had no words for. Paul said making art was like an archeological dig. He put on an art show with his student’s work, and I sold three drawings.
He took me to the Hopi reservation for the snake dances. He said I needed to experience something other than my white American culture, that exposure to Hopi life would be good for my development as an artist.
“You can sketch but no photographs and you have to wear a skirt on the reservation or they will think you are a hippie. The Hopi don’t like hippies, especially the ones that show up half naked to watch their ceremonies.”
We drove Paul’s old Chevrolet station wagon up the mountain road to Second Mesa. He’d been going there since the 1940s, before there was a road that went all the way to the top. He’d ridden a mule in those days. He told me the Hopi had dances for every occasion, even one to instruct children in sex.
I wished I’d had some instruction, I thought.
“White people are not allowed to see that one,” he said.
When we arrived at Second Mesa, Paul got out of the car and said, “Ya te he!” as he handed out gifts of chicken and coffee to the Hopi women who greeted us.
Paul showed me around the reservation before the dances started. I noticed some large snow white feathers on the ground and I bent down to pick one up.
“What kind of bird do these come from?”
He grabbed my shoulder and said, “Don’t touch it.”
“It’s part of a sacred prayer ceremony. You have to be more respectful. White people think everything belongs to them.” He sprinkled some cornmeal from a little reddish brown pouch that hung from his belt around the feather I’d almost touched. Then he sprinkled me.
“Let’s go,” Paul said. “It is time.”
We sat on hard folding chairs in the plaza. The Mud-Head Kachinas, the clowns called Koyemsi, were dressed exactly like the Kachina dolls in Paul’s den. Their bodies were painted in brown mud. They wore black skirts and headpieces made of mud with holes for their eyes and mouth. I got out my sketchbook and began to draw.
Other Hopi men, dressed as Snake people, appeared wearing loincloths and feathers. They carried gourds and seashell rattles. The crowd became quiet. The snake men began to move in a circle around the plaza in a repetitious stepping dance choreographed to the sound of their rattles. The monotone rhythm created a trance state. My body seemed to dissolve into the sound. For a moment, I slipped out of my mind. My usual thoughts seemed to un-stick themselves from my brain. I began to sketch abstract shapes I’d never seen or imagined. When I looked up, the men were extracting snakes from a bush, putting them in their mouths, between their teeth as they continued stepping.
“Rattlesnakes,” Paul said.
“Does anyone ever die?” I whispered.
Paul’s eyelids began to flutter. His body made tiny spiraling movements. I’d seen him do this sometimes when he was painting.
After a while, the men put the snakes gently on the ground and soon the plaza was full of slithering reptiles. A man with a stick poked at the snakes until they were in a pile. Finally, the dancing men grabbed them and carried them out to the desert in four directions, to the west, south, east and north. The plaza became quiet.
Being on top of the mesa, I could look out as far as I could see. A quiet breeze carried smoke and herb smells from the Kiva. A gust of wind blew my skirt up. I pulled it tight over my knees and held it down. This was the first time I’d felt like a minority. The Hopi lived a tribal life, protected by some kind of ancient reality. I wanted to be one of them.
Paul came out of his trance. “Now, rain will come,” he said.
And the next day, rain did come. It poured down as I worked on a painting of the snake dance trying to recapture how I’d felt on the reservation. In the afternoon, a model who was scheduled to pose that night for Paul’s new painting got sick and cancelled. He asked me to fill in. I’d have to pose nude and it would be extra money. Fifteen dollars an hour. He made a Brie cheese omelet for dinner. Whipping the eggs he said, “I do not understand you Americans keeping butter and cheese in the refrigerator. Cheese is alive!”
After dinner he handed me a robe. I took off my clothes in the bathroom, looked in the mirror, experimented with the confident and nonchalant expressions I’d seen on the models I’d drawn in class. I sucked in my stomach, put on the robe, and walked to the studio. Paul attached long stiff hairpieces to my head, then laid out fake tree branches, pieces of driftwood, small twigs and an antler horn on a hard wooden platform covered with shiny red and purple fabric.
“I’ll be right back,” I said. I went to the kitchen and downed a few gulps of Russian Vodka from the bottle. I went back to the studio, quickly threw off the robe and lay down. Paul wound my fake hair around the branches and the antler. He turned on floodlights. Heat beat down on my skin from every corner of the platform. He climbed up and down a ladder, hovered over me, taking photographs from different angles. Then he made insistent scratching sounds on paper, sketching me in different poses, occasionally rearranging the hair.
I started to feel aroused. The vodka had helped me relax. The theme from Dr. Zhivago played in the background. I was sure Paul would seduce me and I wanted him to. The more he looked at me the more sensual I felt. I wondered if he’d lean over and kiss me or lie down next to me. Would he carry me to his bed? If we had sex, I imagined I could ingest everything he knew about art.
“Ah. You are beautiful,” he said. “You are very beautiful. You were made for the south of France. Look up. Look up. A little to the right. There, that curve there. That's it. Now you are in the perfect light. The sensuous mouth. Lovely. Have you ever made love to an older man?”
“How old was he?”
“Was he an artist?”
“A dancer. In Florida he’s known as the Limbo King.”
Lennie was the first and, so far, the only man I’d had sex with. We met in Ft. Lauderdale when I was fifteen. My mother and I moved there for a couple years after her second divorce. Lennie had a Beatle haircut and at six-foot-four, lean and long limbed, he could wiggle his way under a limbo pole seven inches from the ground.
One night when my mother went out, I gave my virginity to the Beatle-haired limbo king. I wore a vintage 1940s see-through black lace nightgown for the occasion, sprayed my arms and neck with my mother’s Chanel No. 5. The insistence in his hands startled me. He began to kiss me everywhere. He smelled like Coppertone and salt water.
“I’ve wanted to fuck you since the first time I saw you,” he said.
“I haven’t gone all the way before.”
“Yeah, right.” He thought I was eighteen.
He led me to the bedroom where I’d lit five peach-scented candles. His hands slid under the nightgown rubbing my legs, stomach, breasts, and inner thighs. He tried to enter me and couldn’t. He kept trying and finally spread me open. I moaned with pain. He made panting noises and said “Oh, baby,” over and over again.
Afterwards, fluids seeped out of me. I knew some of it was blood. I didn’t show Lennie the proof. I ran to the bathroom to avoid staining my mother’s sheets.
When she suspected I’d had sex, she said, “I hope you’re not sleeping with him because if you are, he won’t respect you.”
Who’s respecting you? I thought.
Sometimes, when I came home from a date, I’d see a guy sneaking out of the apartment, shoes in his hand, a jacket draped over his arm. I’d wait until he walked down the street to his car, then go inside in pitch-blackness as my mother pretended to be asleep. I didn’t tell her I saw these men. She couldn’t take being called a hypocrite. So I let her think she was fooling me.
Lennie and I were together for a year. My mother and I moved back to Phoenix and I didn’t see him after that.
Now, lying amidst branches and twigs, I wondered what sex would be like with Paul. What French things would he do?
“Mmm. The hair looks natural on you. It is sexy.”
I turned my head to face him. “Will this be a painting of me with my face and body or are you just using me to get the right proportions?”
“Please do not move.”
“Did you look at the self portrait I did last week?”
“Very original. Honesty is the basis of true art. And remember, an artist is creative. Stay original. Never be a robot or a sheep. Have a contrary mind to be original, but do not become so much so as to veer on the sensational, like our friend Picasso.”
Paul said this with an envious tone. I could tell he wanted to get into a debate so he could make his case against Picasso, but I already knew what competition felt and sounded like. “So I definitely have talent?” I said.
“Most definitely. All great artists have been, at first, amateurs.”
“Were you ever married?”
“A long time ago. I have a daughter.”
“Did your wife have long hair?”
“Of course. I would not be attracted to a woman who didn’t.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“I have many. Perhaps I have a new one.”
He stopped sketching. I felt my body flush. I closed my eyes, ready for his touch. But he didn’t make his move. He started sketching again. “I just met a half Hopi, half Italian woman I want to paint.”
I thought he’d meant that I could be his new girlfriend. My body felt like dead weight as I posed for another hour in a different position.
“Voila,” he finally said and sent me home after I cleaned up the studio.
I didn’t tell my mother about the nude modeling. She wouldn’t have tried to stop me, but I thought she might be jealous. She got that way when she didn’t have a boyfriend. We’d go out to dinner and she’d ooze sexuality with the busboys, waiters, any man in the place. I still cared about her feelings then so I’d make a half-hearted effort to compete, felt guilty if I didn’t. And she’d always be the winner.
I did more nude modeling for Paul but he never made a move. My artwork continued to improve, began to look professional. The kind of abstract images I’d sketched on the reservation began to appear in my work; shapes of color faintly resembling human figures seemed to paint themselves onto my canvases. But I was also preoccupied thinking about sex with Paul, why he wasn’t interested after seeing me naked in all kinds of sensual poses. He started taking me to the Chris Town shopping mall to look for young women with long hair. When he spotted one, he’d send me over to do the talking.
“Ask if they would like to model for a professional artist. Ask for their name and phone number and give them my card.”
I didn’t want anyone else to pose for him so I lied and told him none of the women were interested. I started wearing my hairpiece everyday after that.
I guess my mother could tell I was falling in love with Paul. Maybe she read my journal or found the nude drawings I’d done of him. One day she told me she’d read an article in Vogue magazine that said young girls had a tendency to think they were in love with older men, particularly if they didn’t have a father. She stood up, cleared her throat and re-arranged the turquoise and silver bangle bracelets on her arm. She left the room and never mentioned it again.
I worked for Paul off and on for the next three years. After that first summer and as I got older, my longing for him faded. When I was twenty, in town visiting my newly married mother from art school in Mexico City, I worked with Paul one day in the studio. His vision had become spotty and I helped him finish a commissioned portrait. He said I knew his style better than anyone. After the day’s work we talked and drank vodka into the night. He kissed me and we ended up in bed. I didn’t know if it was the alcohol or his age or both, but he couldn’t get it up. His penis was surprisingly small and did not match his sexual bravado. I wondered if that had been the reason for his rejection. How many longhaired women had he really been with? I asked him why he never made sexual advances before. “I wanted to,” he said, “but I didn’t want to ruin your life.”
He fell asleep. I got up; walked in the dark through the house to the studio, looking at his art, breathing in turpentine, paint, linseed oil, and all the things he’d taught me.
Gleah Powers has an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Lumina, Southwestern American Literature, Flatmancrooked, Naugatuck River Review and The Paulinian Compass, journal of St. Paul University Manila. She’s been awarded writing residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Rancho Linda Vista arts community and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial fund. Gleah lives in Santa Monica, California and is currently at work on a short story collection.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: As a young person, I studied art at various art schools in the U.S. and Mexico and worked as an artist’s apprentice.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Richard Yates, Mary Gaitskill, Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver, Joan Didion, Alice Munro
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: I move around from my writing studio, to the living room couch, to my bed and back again.
Q: Who plays you in the movie?
A: Jessica Lange
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A short story collection.
by Kathryn Rhett
followed by Q&A
Health care in America: even my doctor lines up for the community multiphasic blood screening, rather than going to the regular lab.
It costs thirty-two dollars for the usual screen, plus ten dollars for thyroid, or PSA or B-12. The blood-drawing used to be held at the local rec park building. Now it’s at the county emergency services building, outside of town on a brand-new winding country road. They could just as well hold it at the public library, or firehouse, or agricultural center—any large room usable for voting, or the traveling reptile show, could be set up for phlebotomy.
I’ve had my blood drawn in a lab attached to a medical suite, or in a hospital, or at an off-site location attractive for proximity or shorter waiting times. Those labs all resembled each other in their hospital décor, their magazine-enhanced waiting areas and nurse-like receptionists, their blood-drawing chairs set next to tables crowded with tubes. Fainters could opt for a bed or gurney with a pull-around curtain. I used to be a fainter, but then I ran out of time for the process of losing and regaining consciousness. So I started chatting up the phlebotomists while staring fixedly at an opposite wall, and remained upright.
Last time I had my blood drawn at the hospital lab, routine stuff ordered by my internist, the bill came to two hundred dollars, even with my semi-expensive employee-subsidized health insurance. My doctor waxed sympathetic, but, hey, he got his own testing done in the community multiphasic screen. My doctor lined up at the rec park? I imagined his friendly bespectacled face and white coat as he stood patiently in line by the playground.
So I signed up for the same, fasted ten hours, and drove five miles to park, at 7:15 a.m., in a large crowded lot with everybody else. There was a line out the door. A greeter checked my name off a list in the lobby, and gave me the lowdown. She pointed to a room beyond the lobby. “They’ll give you your tubes in there,” she said, “and there’s food for after.” Give me my tubes? Not to sound squeamish, but I’ve never handled my own test tubes. I proceeded to a table lined with women in t-shirts and cardigans presiding over a cashbox, to pay forty-two dollars. They might have been working the school bake sale, a recent occupation of mine. I recognized their upturned smiling faces, their pleasure at exact change. They directed me to tables scattered with pens to fill out a form. At this point I could have been registering my kid for youth soccer, which occurs in an elementary school cafeteria, and which would, apparently, be a fine place for the town’s populace to sit down and get stuck with needles.
Form completed, I headed for the inner chamber, and another table of smiling women. A registrar studied my form, grabbed two plastic test tubes with rubber caps, and carefully wrote my name and identifying numbers on the label of each one. Then she handed me my tubes and directed me to stand in line. Four long tables were being used for the testing, with metal chairs pulled up by the ends. Boxes of medical supplies filled all of the table space. The lab techs, all female and dressed in patterned scrubs, looked harried, rushing from here to there, brushing strands of hair back toward ponytails. Who signed up for this shift, I wondered, administering community blood tests from 6:30 until 8:30 a.m. without pause. These must be the newest or worst phlebotomists. A tall, unsmiling woman snapped off her blue gloves. I hope I don’t get her. She raised a hand to indicate she was free, and turned away. Of course, I get her.
“Is there an arm you’d prefer?” she asked nicely. She had me sit in the appropriate chair and admired my visible veins. She had weird hair, a cap of blond wavy stuff rimmed at the forehead with flat cinnamon bangs, but now she looked me in the eye and smiled. “I bet you’re ready for coffee, huh,” she said. We chatted. She had this chatting thing down. Within a minute she knew that I was a college professor/writer with kids, and I knew that she was “an orange on the color wheel.” Orange signified a creative type, according to her boss, the woman who supervised this bloodletting factory and who also happened to teach a class about the color wheel. “How do you know which color you are?” I asked.
“You take the class,” she said. “There are four colors, orange, gold, blue, and green. If you know your color, then you can figure out how to get along with other colors. You must get some odd students, right?”
“So you would learn how to interact with them. Like for me, I learned about golds, who are really moral. I’m in a gray area with that, but if I know they’re golds and I’m orange, I can get along fine.”
Mulling the concept of there being only four colors on the wheel, I felt relieved to hear about the gray areas.
“Nonfiction, there’s nothing better than that,” she remarked. “My mom gave me this Good Housekeeping contest to do, 2500 words or less but it had to be fiction, and I was like, what? I don’t want to make it fiction, I want to write about real life! You know?”
“Yeah. My husband writes fiction.”
“Is it based on real life?”
I nodded. We both shrugged. “I know,” I said. “I’d rather put my name on it and call it nonfiction.” This comment represented a gross simplification, but I was following the phlebotomist’s lead in the creative art of chatting. Who knew we would be discussing writing? I thought of this woman’s mother handing her the contest clipping, encouraging her daughter’s talents. She was a creative type, an orange on the color wheel, sugar dreams arrayed before her like a gummi-candy buffet.
“I had this great English professor, she let us go all out, do whatever we wanted, you know, where other teachers would always be telling you, you have to say it this way or whatever.” She sighed. “I chose between writing, phlebotomy, and the whole medicine thing.” I would have asked why—the obvious answer being financial—but our time was up. My phlebotomist had drawn my blood, skillfully, performing an intimate transaction. And she had also looked me in the eye, and seen me, and engaged in a real conversation. I don’t know many people who can perform the metaphysical part of her task, especially in less than five minutes.
I had much to ponder. I passed up the free blood pressure test and the foil-topped cups of orange juice and the cellophane-wrapped muffins. Call me a snob, but I had brought a Kashi brand granola bar. Was it to distinguish myself from the mobs who would grab at the crackling wrappers of low-quality free food? Or was it to preserve some simple control over my choices while shuffling along with the masses? The community blood-screening show would pack itself up and head over the green hills to another county, vampiric peddlers.
I signed up to access my lab work on an e-portal, and drove the five miles home. Right in town, in the hospital, stood a well-equipped, permanent room especially designed for drawing blood. It was called a lab. But no one could afford to use it.
Kathryn Rhett is the author of Near Breathing, a memoir, and she teaches creative writing at Gettysburg College, in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, and at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Her work is forthcoming in Harvard Review, and she keeps a blog at kathrynrhett.wordpress.com.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: First, it seemed an indicator of dire straits in health care that I had to have blood drawn in a cafeteria. Second, while I went in there with a snide attitude, I left feeling humbled by the kindness of my phlebotomist. Third, I was tired of writing long serious essays and wanted to write a brief impression.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Keep going. David St. John told me that. His method was attentive encouragement, and his belief was that the only way to get better was to keep writing. The only way to get to the good stuff was to write toward it, failing along the way.
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: I read all the time and write down quotes I like in a notebook, so that if I’m not writing at least I’m thinking. Sometimes I write longhand in a notebook and sometimes at the computer—whichever way helps me get the words out more easily. Being a working parent, I’ll write anywhere, anytime, in my head, talking to myself, on an index card—whatever’s available when a thought happens.
Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?
A: Alphabetically by genre, poetry at home and nonfiction at the office. The fiction is all mixed up because my husband prefers chaos, and that’s his genre. Books I’m currently reading are in stacks on night table, kitchen window sill, and next to the couch.
by Ellen Kirschner
followed by Q&A
I liked to sit next to my father in temple. On the orange cushion in the straight-backed pew I relaxed in his assured presence. Riverdale Temple was the only place he did not get beeped.
My father was a doctor. Not just a doctor—he was The Great Doctor.
I knew because my mother told me so. She never said the words; she didn’t have to. She told me every time she unwrapped a dazzling gift from a grateful patient; every time he did not come home for dinner because he had a sick patient; every time he did come home and sat in his big green armchair with The New York Times wide in front of him, smelling of the hospital. He’d sit in the green armchair, one leg crossed over the other, a clunky Murray Space Shoe etched out from under the newsprint, glass of single-malt scotch on the rocks on the side table, brown like Dr. Pepper without the fizz, ice cubes cracking in warm liquid. He let me dip my pinky in and suck on the sweet taste that swallowed hot.
My mother admonished me: “Don’t bother Daddy, he has a sick patient.” She reproved me: “Don’t bother Daddy, he has a big case in the morning.” She reproached me: “Don’t bother Daddy, he lost a patient today.”
We were in temple for my brother’s confirmation, nothing like the Catholic ritual, rather a post-Bar Mitzvah American Reform Jewish rite. As usual I was braiding the fringe of my father’s tallis. Funny how he never stopped me, given how furious he got when I took a pen from his desk and failed to return it. Then he’d storm into my room in the back of the house at the end of a long narrow hall, right up to my desk where I sat coiled over my homework, the tread of his weighty Space Shoes pressing my stomach into a lump as he loudly demanded his pen back. “I’m sorry,” I’d whisper, to which he thundered, “Sorry isn’t enough!”
Rabbi Shulman thundered not just in English but in Hebrew, too. I rocked a bit to the pulse of the language as we responded in chorus, “v’yit ga dal, v’yit ga dosh, sh’may raba.” What it meant I didn’t know, but it surely wasn’t gibberish. It rose and fell with rhythm and melody like singing speech or spoken song. We sat in the front row. My mother had to be seen. Although we were High Holiday Jews who rarely attended other services, when we were there, she had to be sure that Rabbi Shulman, the president of the congregation and any other temple luminaries knew that we, the Kirschner family, were there. I gazed across the great stage that spanned the room, Stars and Stripes on one end, the blue and white Mogen David on the other. We had learned to sing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, in Sunday school. Between the flags of the two countries to which my allegiance was due stood the Holy Ark, the cabinet that held the sacred Torah scrolls. The doors of the Ark were shaped like giant tablets painted silver to mimic the ones of stone that God gave to Moses on top of Mt. Sinai, or at least the ones Charlton Heston held in The Ten Commandments. My father’s hospital was called Mt. Sinai, too.
Over the Ark was a large silver six-pointed star, its center a sheen of frosted blue glass: the Eternal Light. I studied the pulsing Jewish star above the Ark. As a child I had spent many hours wondering how it could be the Eternal Light. Eternal meant forever. The glow came from a light bulb. A light bulb would burn out. I concocted different scenarios. Perhaps they calculated exactly how long the light bulb would last, and then, just moments before, they quickly-switched-to-a-fresh-bulb? No. As soon as the bulb was unscrewed it would go out, and no matter how dexterous the bulb-changer, no matter how quickly and seamlessly he screwed in the new bulb, no matter how powerful a person he was—I pictured the awesome Rabbi Shulman, himself, silver hair like a mane brushed back, high forehead and thick locks, deep, long pleated sleeves of his robes swinging open like an accordion as, with a flourish, he twisted the bulb. Even if it were Rabbi Shulman himself, and not Henry, the pleasant, skinny colored man who, as superintendent of the building, was a fixture at Riverdale Temple too, the one who handed out Chanukah candles to my brother and the other kids in Hebrew School that Tuesday night in 1965 when the whole city went dark. Even if it were the ferocious, leonine Rabbi Shulman himself who changed the bulb, for a moment, at least, the light would go out.
It was Sunday, June 9, 1968. I had just graduated from Fieldston, a privileged “bohemian” prep school in Riverdale. The mystery of the Eternal Light was stored away with other childhood riddles—why my father wasn’t like the empathic doctor of Father Knows Best, why my mother wasn’t at the door to greet me after school, smoothing her ruffled apron with one hand, holding a plate of cookies in the other, instead of locked in her room unable to get out of bed.
I called it The Year of Death. It began in October 1967, when my friend Robin Sachs died. Robin’s leg had been amputated for bone cancer. Those first few months of school he hopped around the quadrangle on crutches, one pant leg folded and pinned. I knew he was dying—he knew it, too. We even talked about it. His death was no surprise, but never had I been to a funeral for someone my age.
I never got to tell him that I had a mad crush on him, even though he was a year ahead of me with a girlfriend whose shadowy hair skated loosely over her shoulders, who wore Pappagallo shoes and carried a Gucci handbag. Straight from P.S. 81 in the Bronx, how could I match her Manhattan sophistication?
Just three months later, I was in my room letting “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” drop onto my turntable for the millionth time when my friend Mimi called to tell me that our classmate, Ricki Browne, was dead. Ricki wasn’t my best friend, but we sat next to each other in math and had a lot of laughs at the teacher’s expense. I laughed at Mimi.
“This is not a joke,” she said. “Ricki was on vacation with her family in Acapulco and she drowned in the ocean.” I hung up the phone and went into a kind of seizure. I couldn’t catch my breath. Great heaves shuddered out of my body, trumpeting like the whooping cough my brother had had. My mother ran into my room, her eyes blurred with fear. “What happened? What happened?” I could barely choke out the words. “Ricki is dead. She drowned in the ocean.” My mother started shaking and ran out of the room, leaving me to drown in my own watery heaves. A few minutes later she came back and handed me a familiar glass of scotch. I drank it. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know that scotch was not a replacement for holding me and hugging me and keening on each other’s shoulders. How could I know when she had never held me or hugged me before? How did I know how to hold my own children tight as their sobs shook themselves free on my tear-wetted shoulders till their bodies relaxed, spent with grief over some small slight of childhood?
You can ask those kids of mine. My kids can tell you about 1968. They studied it in American History AP. They can tell you about the Vietnam War, but can they see the limbless soldiers and burning babies that invaded our living room on the news every night? They can tell you about the murder of Martin Luther King, but did they stand side by side, arms crossed, hands clutched, chanting “We’ll walk hand in hand?” John F. Kennedy’s assassination had been a seismic rupture, a shifting of geological plates that undermined my footing ever after. How else then to explain my dispassionate acceptance when I learned that Robert Kennedy was dead, his brains splattered over a kitchen floor in a hotel in California after a victory I was sure would lead to the presidency, end the war, sew up the racial gash like my father, the surgeon, would “close” a patient. Gone was the hope I'd read in the faces of families celebrating on TV the homecoming from war of a father, a brother, a son.
Two days after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, I was there but not present that Sunday morning in June as my brother mounted the bimah to give his Confirmation speech. By then I was blank of feeling, anaesthetized. Through dulled senses I gradually became aware of a murmur spreading along the rows of congregants like pressed pleats. My brother stopped at the bottom of the stairs. Rabbi Shulman was slumped to one side in his great armchair. His face was stone gray. The President of the Congregation ran to the Rabbi and shook him, which made him slump even more, then turned to the congregation, extended his arms in plea and just like you see in the movies cried, Is there a doctor in the house? My father tore from my side and charged up the stairs. The rest I remember in black and white, grainy, static in my ears. My father took hold of the Rabbi and laid him on his back in front of the Ark. Kneeling, back to the rows of pews, my father raised his arms high above his head and brought them down with all his heart, with all his soul and with all his might, onto the Rabbi’s chest. It made a cracking sound. My eyes wavered to the familiar symbols embedded in the mosaic around the Ark: menorah, candles, dreidle, Torah scrolls, and, my favorite, two hands spread out, thumbs and forefingers touching, framing a triangle of blessing that the Rabbi had held over my head at my own Confirmation as he chanted first in Hebrew and then in English, “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine on you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
Another crack as my father brought his fists down on the Rabbi’s chest. I thought I saw the organist and choir behind rows of white flowers slip off stage. The edge of my eye caught my father again, kneeling before the Rabbi’s ponderous, inert frame, raising his arms high above him in supplication, snapping them down violently onto the Rabbi’s chest. Crack! It echoed through a sanctuary, now empty as ushers had guided the congregants out, too consumed to notice the teenage girl at the foot of the stairs. A trail of gardenia from the white flowers penetrated my hardened crust, softened and perfumed it. Again and again my father raised his arms.
Again and again he brought them down with a treacherous strength that could have smashed stone tablets like the ones Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai to a people prostrate in front of idols. Crack! Down came his fisted arms charged with determination to cheat God. No pinkness returned to the Rabbi’s face, no breath entered or escaped his body. I could have felt it now, where the fragrance of gardenia had slipped in and out of me. With each blow my father’s arms bore down on the Rabbi with unnerving resolution to restore life—as he had done for all those grateful patients whose gifts cluttered our living room. He was determined to bring the Rabbi back from the clutch of Hades, King of the Underworld, god of death and the dead, god of hidden wealth of the earth, black soil, inert metals, a miserable domain from which my father strove to kidnap the Rabbi with hands of Asclepius, the first surgeon, half-god half-man, the only being able to enter the realm of Hades and return a person to life.
But the arms of The Great Doctor faltered. He was worn out. He was losing his confrontation with God this time, but still he would not give up. Once more he raised his arms, willing them with might, plunging his fists onto the Rabbi’s chest with another horrific crack. The Rabbi’s arms and legs just flopped around like the Raggedy Ann I used to drag behind me when I’d dipped my pinky in my father’s scotch.
“Ellen!” my mother hissed. She pinched my elbow.
I turned and followed her out of the sanctuary.
Ellen Kirschner’s stories have appeared in Under Our Skin and Visible Ink. The bilingual journal, Interfaces, published her illustrated essay, “Woman Reconstructed,” with her lithograph on the cover. She has written for The New York Times, Architectural Record and other publications. Ellen also creates ceramic art.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: Time Magazine called 1968 “The Year That Shaped a Generation.” As a high school senior, world events entwined with my own, ending on a remarkable note that reshaped my relationship with my country, my religion, and, most of all, my father. I have written many drafts of this story over the years. At last I feel I have done it justice, telling it so readers can experience what that 17-year-old young woman felt.
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 came from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. She recommends writing a “shitty first draft.” It gets me past “blank page anxiety” and gives me something concrete to work with. When my kids were in school I gave them the same advice. They loved it—or maybe they just loved hearing mom say “shitty.”
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: I start with that shitty first draft, put it aside for a while, and then come back to it, hopefully with more objectivity. I work from my internal felt sense of characters and situations in an effort to create stories that a reader can enter and experience from the inside. It helps to have a tough but kind critic when I don’t know where to go next.
Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?
A: I will never convert to e-reader! I need to put my nose in a book, literally—I like the way they smell. My library is organized by subject and within that from tall to short (loosely). Many books are stacked horizontally—some by width and color—for sculptural and visual effect.
Chop Wood, Carry Water
by Jessica Erica Hahn-Taylor
followed by Q&A
Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment; chop wood, carry, water.
The December rain seemed halted by the evergreen canopy as we stepped onto the trail to Lookout Creek. The ground crunched under my rubber Wellies. “Is that hoarfrost?” I asked my husband, Marshall, and pointed at the small shelves of ice on the ground that had lifted the dirt up in patches. He did not know. But it was everywhere, this up-lifted earth, evidence of winter and solitude, of the lightest steps or no weight at all.
Our two-year-old came staggering past, bundled in layers and rain gear, her weight light enough to walk on hoarfrost without fracturing the crystal mesas. First she walked down the winding trail surrounded by evergreens, turning her body partway to lift a small red hand and lock eyes with Marshall and me, who were still crouched over the hoarfrost, and to tell us, “Come on!” as if she were a teenager. (“Have you heard of a threenager?” her pediatrician once asked me)
Behind us was a lonely volleyball court, and farther back, some low-lying rancho style buildings, the headquarters of the H.J. Andrews Forest, and 15,800 acres in the Cascades of Oregon. We are located in the side yard of a research station in the midst of a drainage basin where over a hundred experiments have taken place—northern spotted owl research, log decomposition studies, exciting new forestry management practices, avalanche studies. Some studies are fixed, and others are part of a long-term research program, a 200-year study with only a 10 percent completion.
We are like data points in a forest research project, as I was invited as a writer to participate in the Andrews Forest Long-Term Ecological Research Project. I am here to write a series of reflections, but unlike other writers who have come here, my experience is colored by the pixy laughter and red-faced tantrums of a two-year-old. I was thankful that the people in charge have allowed my family to join me; they add a special dimension. I am also a human who spends much of her life in a city in northern California, and more time than average outdoors, hiking and traveling. I can also be described as a wife, married to a self-described eco-geek.
When Marshall and I were packing our bags in San Francisco, we exchanged some dark humor. “It’ll be like Stephen King’s The Shining,” we snickered, folding turtlenecks and rolling winter socks into fat balls. “A retreat in some remote woods, perhaps some snow, an aspiring writer, a spouse, and a small child,” I giggled.
“Yeah, it’s totally the right recipe,” Marshall agreed.
But we’d keep those thoughts to ourselves, meaning I wouldn’t write about it; there would be no REDRUM in my stories, no blood baths, no flying axes. And we didn’t want to be a couple of Beavis and Buttheads. The upcoming experience in the Andrews Forest would be special. This retreat would place my writing in a cool long-term time capsule of ecological study, sponsored by the Spring Creek Project, which blends science, philosophy, and creative writing. For Marshall, this week would be a much-needed respite from life as a computer programmer in Silicon Valley, and a chance to be with his daughter for much more time than he usually has. For Genevieve it would be the first time to spend several days in the outdoors among cathedral trees and carbuncular mushrooms. She could wallow in mud, or taste minty water droplets dangling off evergreen needles.
Farther along the path was an ancient Douglas fir, with so large a girth that our family of three couldn’t link fingers, a tree so old it might have been a sapling when the Spanish conquistadors were marching across American continents in search of gold. Its bark was thick and fissured, lifted in craggy steaks up from the cambium. Light green nettings of tiny epiphytes hung in the cracks. Crinkled leaves of lichen, called deer lettuce, rooted into the trunk, dripped rain. I picked Genevieve up to by at my face-level, and we leaned towards the tree trunk. It smelled of rain, was cool to the touch, and when I looked up at the base of the tree’s canopy, a spiral of green branches far above my head, Genevieve tilted her head back and said, “Wow…”
What was it like here five hundred years ago? The valley in the Cascade Mountains was here, I imagine, and this drainage basin for Lookout Creek toward which we were headed. Many more old-growth Douglas-firs would have been here—some upwards of a thousand years old. If the largest living Douglas fir, a specimen found in the Olympic National Park of Washington, is 280 feet tall (85 meters) and has a trunk diameter of 13.5 feet (4.11 meters), might there have been many of that size? Many plants still alive might have been growing then: evergreens like western hemlock or western red cedar, and deciduous trees, broadleaf maple or alder. Cold air would still settle along the drainage basin, and icy crystals would still push up patches of dirt. And ten thousand years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene, perhaps a valley glacier filled this area, or a much larger one buried all the mountaintops of the Oregon Cascades.
There were Native Americans here too, the Kalapuya, on the western side of the Cascades. Mark Schulze, the Andrews Forest Director, believes there were no permanent villages in what is now called the Andrews Forest. “This was a seasonal use area,” he told me a few days earlier when we ran into each other in the library of the research station. “From what I understand,” he continued, “people were using this area –hunting, gathering, probably burning a bit on the high ridges.” The Kalapuya, like other Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest, relied on the old-growth forest. Trees were the source of weapons, fuel, clothing, boats, and homes.
What was it like here 150 years ago after the Gold Rush in California? The Gold Rush and its subsequent population surge toward the West Coast spawned a need for lumber, and the old-growth forests began to be logged. But the Andrews Forest was public, national forest land. “Very little logging occurred on national forest lands before and through World War Two,” wrote Fred Swanson, a researcher with forty years’ experience in the Andrews Forest, in an email during my stay at the Andrews. “The experimental forest was set up in 1948 as the Blue River Experimental Forest and was renamed to honor H.J. Andrews in the 1950s.”
The Andrews was fortunate to be designated as an experimental forest, but neighboring forests were not so fortunate. Axes, crosscut saws, and steam power worked to level the forest. We spent Christmas Day sitting in a clear cut site about three miles down the road from the research station headquarters, meditating on the uniform grove of trees replanted fifteen years ago by someone with regard for the future. There wasn’t a single snag (a dead tree that houses many critters) as a reminder of the ancient, giant trees.
As I walked down the trail toward Lookout Creek, my toes winced from the cold although they were protected by wool socks and plastic rain boots, and for winter, the weather was mild. We could’ve been presented with snow, or hail, but this year late December was drizzly with interludes of sunshine. However, a big weather system was just about to roll in, according to Mark, who happened to be the only other resident besides us at the headquarters this time of year.
We were eager to get down to Lookout Creek because we’d admired the views of mist-laced peaks from an old fire road for a mile and a half.
I straggled down the trail, jotting notes into a book while the others ran ahead.
“Ho,” I heard Marshall cry. “Look what Genevieve just found!”
There was a fire pit in the middle of a circle of benches. We were in the deserted ropes-course area for middle-school kids, as evidenced by green scaffolding around the base of several massive Douglas firs. Marshall stood to the side, looking possessed, a mishmash of Lyle Lovett’s long, oval face, and Jack Nicholson’s wide eyes and diabolical smile, his shoulders hunched up, holding aloft a sinister ax. By his feet was a rain-blackened log, its face bitten by a hundred ax strokes. Chunks of kindling lay heaped close by, half-covered by a tarp.
“Come here, baby,” I said, pulling Genevieve close. She had no idea what an ax could do. Her expression was as serene as a Zen Buddhist contemplating rocks as her gaze traveled up the long, dark wooden handle to the steel blade. Suddenly, my husband swung the ax down. Crack! A forearm-sized chunk of wood split in two, and the ax blade lodged in the battle-scarred log where the kindling had rested.
“Holy shit,” I said, my eyes still fixed on the grisly, weathered ax, a tool from a horror movie.
“More!” Genevieve screamed, jumping and clapping. Her mouth hung open in anticipation, and at the next crack, she squealed like a piggy.
“Whoa!” she hollered again as more pieces of log flipped through the air.
I took out my camera—my daughter’s generation will be overly documented—to capture the grand excitement of her response to the satisfying crack of steel on wood. My husband swung again and again, splitting wood with happy abandon. Albert Einstein once wrote, “People love chopping wood. In this activity one immediately sees results.” Sure enough, the chunks of wood falling onto the soft mulchy dirt were tangible evidence.
In the city we’d left behind, the moments often don’t feel quite real. We move short distances to get buckled inside the metal cage of a car, and drive long distances in short times to arrive at some destination, some padded room. There isn’t room for axes in the city world.
Marshall was chopping wood like a champion, adding to the amount of kindling ready to be used in a campfire. There’s a photo hanging on the wall in our forest apartment of two young scientists at a BBQ grill covered in skewers of brown mushrooms; a hatchet lies across the cutting board in front of them. People around here handle axes as deftly as we handle kitchen knives.
Genevieve and I were more excited by the moment, with every crisp thwack. Even as witnesses to wood chopping, there was a crisp reality, something immediate and raw. We were incapable of modulating our voices. My intention to meditate at the creek’s bank was temporarily forgotten.
“Shit,” Marshall grunted, one boot up as he yanked on the ax-handle, struggling to free it from a monster chunk of kindling. His struggle was sobering. His arms were akimbo and he glared at the ax handle, tilted at thirty degrees. “Think I can just leave it here, like the sword in the stone?” He peered at me under furrowed brows.
“It’s Momma’s turn,” I said, all adrenaline fired, just as he pulled the ax free.
I balanced a chunk of kindling on the great log and heard Marshall say with an element of doubt to his voice, “Do you know how to do this?”
I smirked. “I can figure it out.” I swung the ax up over my head. Axes are one of our oldest inventions; there is evidence that early man used hand-axes a million years ago. We are fascinated by simple machines—the pulley, the inclined plane, the wheel; the blade of this ax was a wedge. My fingers slid around the belly of the smooth handle, my biceps and deltoids contracting in an unfamiliar way that paradoxically felt natural, filled with potential energy.
We are also taken by myth. Marshall later told me he had images of a recent fantasy series running through his mind as he chopped, envisioning medieval style battle-axes. I was thinking of Scandinavian Thor, with the magical hammer Mjöllnir, sometimes referred to as an ax, the “the best of all the precious works,” according to Snorri Sturluson, writer of the 13th century Prose Edda. I also thought of Changó, a vibrant, powerful god of West African, Caribbean, and Roman Catholic traditions. His double-bladed ax can “create or destroy,” writes Migene González-Wippler, author of Santeria. Despite their different cultures, Thor and Changó are associated with thunder, lightning, power, and carry a strikingly similar weapon.
Goddesses also wield axes. The “labrys” or double-bladed ax, of Crete “originally belonged to the Mother Goddess,” claims Margaret C. Waites in American Journal of Archaeology. Greek goddesses like Demeter, Aphrodite, and Artemis have been depicted with axes. The Amazons, those mythic warrior-women, carried axes in their arsenal.
But perhaps it is simple physics, the science of the swing that is most meaningful. After all, the gods are only figments of my imagination, while the reality is simply the tool in motion. It is the ax’s descent that excites me most, the kinetic energy. The mechanical advantage of a wedge becomes actualized when the blade hit its target. Forces shoot from the blunt “butt” end down its head and become violent perpendicular force, moving outward, splitting even a great log.
Half a lifetime ago I hopped freight trains, even through the Cascade Mountains. I was a survivalist and a punk rocker, never without a pocketknife, a flashlight, a bandana, matches, or maps covered in plastic packing tape. I felt unconquerable, and I believed that I needed to carry a weapon—like a “smiley,” a bandana tied to a lock—although I might never use it. I married a man who has a thing for knives and guns, and so I have shot his 9-millimeter Sig P226, hitting a paper target with surprising accuracy.
I located my daughter, making sure Marshall had corralled her. She was entranced. Twenty-four hours later, her paternal grandmother, Grammy, will email that she remembers the “magic” of watching her uncle split wood in Mississippi, sixty-three years ago. History repeated itself when Marshall and his brother watched their father split wood. My mother owns an ax, too, and I used to watch her split logs for our fireplace in San Francisco, her tongue in a taco-shape as she grimaced and swung.
I took aim. My vision narrowed into a tan triangle marking the top of the kindling. I sucked cool forest air into my lungs. My scientific-minded husband would say speed is key, that kinetic energy depends on the square of its velocity, meaning the faster, the better. Double your speed, quadruple the energy. Be fast and accurate. Hit the center, I silently chanted, hit the center.
Crack! Two sticks of kindling flipped through the air. “Yeah!” I cried.
“Whoa!” hollered my daughter, wiggling against her father’s extended leg that kept her back. He had a proud smile on his face, one eye glancing through the viewfinder of our camera-video recorder. This would go down in family history.
A second time, I lifted my ax and focused on another chunk of kindling. This felt great; it felt real. In this fantastic nanosecond, I was a character in a Laura Ingalls Wilder book, splitting great pyramids of logs for a grueling winter. W.C. Fields argued, “The nation needs to return to the colonial way of life, when a wife was judged by the amount of wood she could split,” and this was my moment of truth.
I swung through space, a beautiful arc. Man anthropomorphizes the ax—it has a “heads,” a “beard,” and an “eye.” Its blade bites. The handle has a “belly,” and the lightly angled portion at the bottom of the handle is a “throat.” Crack! The ax chomped the kindling, dead center.
But this time, it kept going. The ax was a wild thing out of control, falling swiftly with my hands still glued around it. I watched the bright blade slice into my thin rubber boot, its “heel” lodging into the meat of my forefoot. I squealed and tossed the ax down.
I looked up, panic-struck. “Turn off the camera!”
Marshall was still filming, but he quickly stopped.
“The ax hit my boot.” I kneeled, gently prying off my boot. A red rose bloomed across the top of my baby blue wool sock, and I pressed a hand on it. I imagined delicate white bones severed in and veins cut like penne pasta. “Get Genevieve, and then help me.”
I didn’t wait as Marshall tried to make sense of what had happened, and I hightailed down the trail as fast as possible without galloping on my wounded foot. Genevieve pitched a tantrum behind me, but I was already squishing across the volleyball field, thankful for the icy puddles lessening the pain.
I banged on Mark Schulze’s apartment door, but he was in the field. What to do? My cell phone was useless without reception, and what good would calling do anyway? I sat in a deck chair, put my foot up, applied pressure, and waited for Marshall and Genevieve to catch up.
No longer than half an hour later, Mark drove his car down a curvy, quiet road littered with wet maple leaves and chunks of debris that had tumbled down the upper escarpment. Beside us was a long, empty reservoir, a giant cleft in the foot of the earth which resembled the white, gaping wound under my sock. Marshall and Genevieve would be following in our car after packing diapers.
“Please don’t tell anyone about this,” I asked Mark, who had a reassuring smile on his bearded face. My retreat was crumbling like dry leaves as I thought of my failure to get to the creek’s edge, and that the wound might be bad enough to necessitate an early return to the city. “I’m so embarrassed,” I admitted, and Mark kept his eyes on the road. I told Mark that I hadn’t listened to my husband’s advice on the art of wood chopping. We both laughed, easing the tension.
No blood had seeped through the Ace bandage covering the gauze. This was a good sign. Perhaps all would be well. I was not in pain, for the adrenaline of the accident felt like a natural dose of amphetamines, and the cold air had numbed my toes. A captive, Mark listened to me rattle on about the resilience of the human body, or on the other hand, how a little wound can change everything. Suddenly you focus on what you cannot do anymore. “If I could survive a caesarean,” I concluded with a wry grimace, “I can survive this.” Mark looked at me and smiled, nodding his head.
It was nighttime and raining hard when Marshall drove us back to the Andrews Forest from the McKenzie River Clinic, where Genevieve had received shiny stickers after she threw down several wooden puzzles and flipped a few Good Housekeeping magazines through the air. The NP was my kind of medical practitioner, experienced in wound stitchery, and a believer in alternative healing. “You got some lavender flowers for Christmas, you said? Lavender oil would be helpful in a few days. But I’d also take antibiotics starting tonight, and let’s give you a tetanus shot.”
She and her assistant had seen worse: logging accidents. “We’re talking about chainsaws.”
Loggers have a grisly motto worth heeding: “Cut and get cut.”
One flick of a switch and gas-powered heat filled our tiny apartment. Thankfully, we were here to stay through the week, and the writing retreat had not fallen apart.
“Mama hurt her foot,” Genevieve said in wide-mouthed gasps, her potbelly pressed against the couch, blue eyes gazing at me. She had one hand on my well-wrapped foot while the other stroked my forearm. The rich, sweet smell of brownies coming from the oven, some destined for delivery to Mark.
“I’m okay now,” I said in a soft voice, and then picked up my daughter, breathing in the sandalwood scent of her hair. Good health is precious, and it’s easy to lose. Just six months ago, Genevieve touched the back of her hand to a hot barbecue grill and went to the ER. Marshall told me about plinking golf balls with a .22 rifle when a bullet ricocheted off the ball and flew straight towards his face, luckily just grazing his forehead. How quickly and unexpectedly a fun moment involving potential and kinetic energy can turn deadly serious. Marshall described sledding with his brother when they were boys, careening down a snow-covered embankment above a soccer field, when his brother slammed into a hidden bench, breaking bones and damaging his spleen. Thirty-five years ago my father went diving in the Caribbean Sea, something he adored, and perhaps in part because of a stupid mistake—jamming weights in his pockets instead of a quick-release weight belt—he drowned. It is a fragile miracle then to be alive; if only we did not have to have accidents to remind us.
Out there among layered, dynamic ecosystems, among cold creeks rushing towards the river, among frozen puddles on steep mountain roads, among the quiet giants of old-growth trees, life feels acutely real. The wilderness imposes a heightened awareness of the natural world. It lives by the law of science: physics, anatomy, biology, ecology, and more. The city, full of comforts and conveniences, holds a different energy, though it follows scientific laws just the same. The smallest nick could become a deadly infection in the wilderness if there were no medicine for the wound. John Krakauer in Into the Wild describes a young man, Christopher McCandless, as “rash and incautious by nature” who made “a careless blunder” of eating a plant with a toxic mold which cost him his life in the wilds of Alaska . The wilderness illuminates life’s delicate balance.
We should meditate on our ancestors and their beliefs when entering the wilderness. The Native Americans of this area lived in balance with the old-growth forest, and had identified medicines growing around them. There are several hundred plants in the Pacific Northwest that Native Americans used for cuts, burns, infections, fevers, hemorrhaging, and numerous other ailments. Even to leave civilization briefly, one might do well to seek knowledge from the traditions of native peoples. In the space between myth and reality, between warm houses and space in wild forests, and among ancestors from all over the globe, there are many lessons to be learned—in my case it was humility, patience, and respect.
“All of Changó’s legends,” writes González-Wippler, “and the central theme of his cult, is power, be it procreative, authoritative, destructive, medicinal, or moral.” Sitting with my damaged foot up on the writing desk in the apartment, a large ice pack draped over the Ace bandage, I look outside the window. Rain is pouring down, tiny streams shooting off the ripples of the roof. There is a short lawn of moss and tiny ferns before the forest rises up, a shaggy wall of evergreens. If my gaze could penetrate the trees, I would look straight down to the ax. If any old gods are present, they’ve not treated me so badly. The ax cleaved that kindling before it chomped into my foot. If I keep the physics of the swing in mind, next time I try to chop wood, I won’t be so damned arrogant.
Tomorrow, if possible, I will hobble down to Lookout Creek for a new kind of meditation. “As metaphor it carries us into new realms, and it changes our perceptions, our being,” the feminist Mary Daly writes about the ax. “Used metaphorically, it is an instrument of change, of metamorphosis.” Maybe so. Though I will not pick up that ax which lives along that trail, I might look at it as my husband first found it, leaning up against the woodpile, with far less hubris and much more humility.
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New York: Doris Kindersley Limited, 2006. Page 9.
González-Wippler, Migene. Santeria: the Religion: Faith, Rites, Magic. New York,
Harmony Books, 1989. Page 40.
Krakauer, John. Into the Wild. New York: Anchor Books, 1996. Pages 192-194.
Lindow, John. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Norse, Elliott. Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest. Washington, D.C.: Island Press,
1990. Pages 27, 29.
Pojar, Jim and MacKinnon, Andy. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Vancouver:
Lone Pine Publishing. 1994. Page 27.
Schulze, Mark. Personal interview. December 26-27, 2011.
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1916 Runatryakindred.com. Web.
Swanson, Fred. Email interviews. December 27-28, 2011.
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Jessica Erica Hahn was born on an old ship off the coast of Florida to globe-trotting parents, but spent much of her life in San Francisco, where she still lives with her nuclear family. Her writing can be found in several literary journals, and she has two self-published books from the 1990s, Transient Ways and Elysian Fields: A Fucked Up Love Story. The novel she's writing about seafaring hippies just won the Clark-Gross Award.
Q: Can you tell us the motivation behind the piece?
A: "Chop Wood, Carry Water" was inspired by a week-long writing residency in the Western Cascades of Oregon, funded by the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word; the Andrews Forest Research Program, and the U.S. Forest Service. A stipulation was to write reflections about three specific locations, one being Lookout Creek, which is mentioned in my essay.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve been given? Did you heed the advice? Why or why not?
A: After years of self-destructive tendencies and egotism, Stephen King wrote that the job of writing "starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around." I like the mindfulness of art serving life, but I also appreciate the image of a drunken, blitzed out Stephen King sitting at a huge desk in the middle of his room like the tyrannical captain on a doomed ship.
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: Motherhood has influenced everything about my writing. I am writing and publishing more than ever before, because a heightened awareness of time and life motivates me to rise before dawn and take pen to paper.
Q: How do you organize your home library?
A: My books are arranged mostly by subject matter and strategically located throughout the house in glass fronted cases and all on shelves—in the living room, bedroom, office, both bathrooms, the walk-in closet that serves as a baby nursery, and the kitchen. I have special collectible sections of mythology and folklore, freight trains and hobos, biology and ecology, travel, astronomy and earth science, and literature throughout the ages. I also have comics, zines, and about half a million picture books.
The Road to the Correctional Center
by Mary Alice Hostetter
followed by Q&A
The road to Augusta Correctional Center winds through farms and fields, over streams. We pass Buffalo Gap, the Cowpasture River, Goshen Pass. We turn onto Estaline Road, an address which sounds more fitting for a country estate than a prison.
Then, in the foothills of mountains where trees are brushed with yellow and red, not yet blazing, the golden rolls of hay in the fields give way to rolls of razor wire surrounding the looming, sprawling concrete of the Correctional Center.
Visitors are already lined up at the door, where handmade signs are taped. Allowed: photo ID, car keys, coins for visiting room vending machines. Another, Watches must be left in cars.
When my turn comes to complete the visitor form, I leave blank “relationship with inmate,” not certain what to say, how to explain it in such a small space. When I give the form to the guard at the desk, she tells me brusquely that every line must be filled out. “How are you related?” she asks, as if I don’t understand the words.
“Friend of the family,” I say. I don’t say, “A friend of his adoptive father, the one he killed with an axe while he slept.” Or, “I worked with his father, a gentle man who could see the good in anyone.” There isn’t space to say, “I knew the inmate twenty-three years ago, when he was thirteen and I worked with him in a program for runaway kids, when he gave me sketches he had made of houses with curtains at the windows, smoke curling from the chimneys, homes he must have known only in his imagination.”
My friend and I have our IDs checked, go through the metal detector, are patted down and stamped with an invisible star that will show up only with infrared light. Then we go through a series of three locked doors. The steel doors clang behind us, one at a time, and we cross the courtyard to the next building. The woman behind the Plexiglass window checks our invisible stars, then our photo IDs, in case we became someone else between two of the locked doors. After three more locked doors and a short walk down a stark corridor, we arrive at the visiting room with rows of low plastic tables surrounded by small plastic chairs. It feels like visiting an elementary school, except this is not a children’s space.
At each of the two dozen tables sits a man in jeans and a blue shirt. Some of the neatly-groomed men have a single visitor sitting with them; others have a group. In another setting, in other costumes, the men might have been insurance salesmen or a baseball team. But they are all criminals. This is a Level 3 correctional facility. They are all serving extended sentences for rape, murder, armed robbery, or other serious crimes.
At many of the tables are clustered what look to be family members, parents whose aspirations for their sons did not include rape or murder. And wives who might have hoped for more from their children’s father than a few moments visitation in a crowded room every now and then when everything can be worked out to make the trip to this hard-to-reach location. At some of the tables, children squirm on their chairs and drink sodas. They eat chips and peanut butter crackers from the vending machines that line one wall. Unsmiling guards circle the room and walk among the crowded tables. Mounted cameras monitor the scene from every angle.
First we wait for a table, as if we’re at a popular restaurant on a weekend night. Then we get our table, and wait for Jesse. Finally, the secure door opens, and a tall man enters. When I last saw Jesse, he was a tow-headed, blue-eyed pre-pubescent, but something about the way this man moves, the intensity of his eyes, makes me believe that he could be Jesse. He looks our way and waves. When he gets to the table, he shakes our hands and says he remembers me from when he was involved with a program I worked for. I’m not sure I want him to remember me and had decided that I wouldn’t mention it, but part of me is glad that he does. It somehow makes him seem more human, and, of course, it feels good to be remembered after so many years.
In response to a letter Jesse had written to the Friends Meeting, his father’s religious community, two of us from that group who had known his father volunteered to come and learn more about the concerns he alluded to in the letter. During his trial, people from that group had been active in encouraging the court not to consider the death penalty, so Jesse thought someone from the group might be willing to listen to him. There is little choice; listening is all we can do.
For the next hour he doesn’t pause, scarcely seems to breathe, as he talks about all of the injustices he has endured while in prison, the snitches and set-ups, the double crosses and cover-ups. There are hidden knives and commodes sabotaged with toothbrushes, attempts on his life by others and by his own hand when he swallowed razor blades. There are surveillance cameras so powerful they can see every word on the letter he’s reading from all the way across the prison yard. There is unwarranted time in “the hole,” an unexpected and unexplained transfer to a different correctional center. The plots and subplots are so complicated that I get confused.
The room is so loud that we lean in to hear him, scarcely six inches apart. It seems surreal to be so close to him, looking into the clear blue eyes of the man who had murdered my friend, looking at hands that might have been an artist’s hands if they hadn’t been a killer’s. I briefly imagine them holding the axe.
Tattoos creep out from under the buttoned cuffs of his blue shirt. At the corner of his left eye is a tattooed tear drop. I’ve heard that a tear drop tattoo is a sign that you’ve killed and had no remorse, and I wonder if Jesse has ever shed a tear for killing such a kind and gentle man.
After his exhaustive and exhausting tale of prison injustices, and after hearing from us that we have no magic solutions to offer, Jesse talks about John.
He pauses, the longest silence in the time we’ve been there. Then he says, “Sometimes I think I killed John to get rid of the vision of me that existed only in his mind. He was the only one who thought I was worth something. I guess I couldn’t deal with that.” He says it in a matter-of-fact tone that suggests it makes perfect sense to kill someone whose vision of you doesn’t align with your own, as if it’s possible to explain so life-changing a decision so simply. Does he even care that he destroyed another person and his potential?
An announcement over the P.A. indicates our time is up. There is so much more I might say, might ask, but, even if there were more time, I’m not sure I would say any of it. I might ask if he believes there is anything of worth left in him. In killing John, did he succeed in destroying the vision? I wonder what he thinks he can make of his life, now that he’s cut off so many possibilities.
When we leave, before Jesse is escorted back to his cell block, he looks across the room, waves, and smiles. It looks like the smile of a 13-year-old whose future could have been so different. Or it might be the smile of an almost-forty-year-old man who knows his first parole hearing will be coming up in a few years, a man who knows he will need allies. And what if it’s both? What do I do with that? He turns away, and then he’s gone, the thick steel door slamming behind him.
We reverse our route through all the locked doors. Outside, I blink as my eyes adjust to the golden fall light. I take a deep breath of the crisp air, trying to replace the oxygen sucked from my soul. As we drive away from the Correctional Center, I can still hear the echo in my memory of steel doors slamming, one after the other.
Mary Alice Hostetter recently retired from a career in teaching and human services. She lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have appeared in Streetlight and DreamSeeker magazines. A piece is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: When the last steel door of the prison clanged shut behind me, I knew that I needed to write about this surreal experience in an effort to try to make sense of it. The piece took shape very quickly after that.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: As obvious as it may sound, I have found “Write what you know” to be very worthy advice and I try to keep it in mind as I choose what to write. “Be fearless in your writing” is advice which I also find a worthy, if sometimes elusive, goal.
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: My writing, especially non-fiction, starts off as a circling process, a bit like a crow looking for some shiny object to carry back to its nest. When I have found the image or topic, I excavate it, digging all around it, writing everything I can remember or imagine, the images or scenes that connect to it, the memories it taps into. When I have written as much as I can remember or imagine, I pare it down, shape, and polish it
Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?
A: The organization of my books is a very fluid process, controlled by limited space, with a nod to color, size, and where the book was last used or might next be used again. Surprisingly, and miraculously, I can almost always find what I’m looking for.
When the de la Cruz Family Danced, by Donna Miscolta
Signal 8 Press (2011)
Reviewed by Melissa Bashor
Johnny de la Cruz is an immigrant who left his Manila home for the US Navy at 17, his father’s way of keeping him out of trouble and away from his crush, Bunny Bulong. Johnny returns only once to the Philippines, at 40, without his wife and three daughters, to visit his ailing father, and is briefly reunited with Bunny, married herself now, and childless.
Twenty years later, Johnny de la Cruz is slowly dying, and he is afraid. Not of death, but of saying things he knows must be said, and hearing things that might be said back. And unbeknownst to him, less than 100 miles away, Bunny has died, and her son Winston is driving toward him with a letter to Johnny that Bunny never sent.
What does a lifetime of unspoken disappointment do to a family, a family close in proximity and ritual, but oceans apart in their minds? What happens when a charming stranger comes courting them, seeming to embody a fulfillment of their individual desires? Miscolta’s quiet and compelling novel explores this dynamic from every angle, each family member’s frustrations cataloged in his or her own point of view.
Miscolta is a master of capturing those intimate unspoken, hyper-aware moments between family members:
Josie knew she had irritated her father. He was making a mess of the mints. He looked at the clock on the wall.
“Where’s your mother?” he asked her.
Now Josie was irritated. “At her meeting?” She deliberately made it a question. After all, shouldn’t he know?
“Yes, her meeting.” Her father seemed satisfied, and for some reason Josie felt compelled to disrupt his composure.
Any novel with six points of view risks being unwieldy, especially when the characters are all so emotionally estranged from one another. The whole novel depicts an awkward dance, the characters all out of sync and stepping on each other’s toes, but Miscolta’s depiction of it is carefully choreographed, and under her deft direction, the reader never loses track. In fact, one of the chief pleasures of the novel is the suspense of wondering how she will braid the ragged threads of the characters together at the end.
Very good novels operate in a sphere beyond the characters, embedding their story within a time, a place, a culture, and Miscolta honors this tradition. She explores a particular immigrant experience, and the estrangement and rootlessness it can cause. Through this experience, she also comments on the isolation and unfulfilled promise of planned suburban communities in contrast to their messier, evolving urban counterparts. Throughout, there is a suggestion that, in our urge to find something better, we abandon the very things that could make us the most happy, despite our dissatisfaction with them. Miscolta has written a beautifully composed novel of a family in disarray, finally trying to dance its halting way back together.
Melissa W. Bashor received her MFA in fiction from Queens University of Charlotte, where she currently works as Program Coordinator. She is working on a novel.
Access: Thirteen Tales by Xu Xi
Signal 8 Press (November 2011)
Reviewed by Sybil Baker
For most of her writing career, Xu Xi, one of Hong Kong’s most eminent writers, has explored the tensions and possibilities of straddling East and West, more specifically Hong Kong and the United States. Xu Xi’s most recent novel, Habit of a Foreign Sky (2010), which was a finalist for the Man Asian Prize, and her collection of essays Evanescent Isles (2008), focus on a Hong Kong in transition, a Hong Kong often misrepresented or appropriated by the Western media and the expatriates who live there, knowing little of the language or culture. Her most recent book Access: Thirteen Tales continues this conversation of what it means to live in a globalized world, where characters, often constrained by their circumstances, work to find “access” to emotional and physical connections in a variety of ways.
With emphasis on “tale” rather than story, the collection focuses on an urgency to share an experience rather than on a character’s personal psychological transformation. The stories revolve around a theme, or question, or idea of “access”—who has it, who doesn’t, and in what ways—and are divided into tall tales, circular tales, fairy tales, old wives' tales, and beastly tales. The tales often (but not always) concern women of Chinese or mixed ethnicity negotiating a tricky terrain of sexuality, work, aging, and globalization. One feels that these tales are told to allow readers to commune with the characters, to enter a world they may not normally access, rather than being designed to extract the readers’ sympathy or pity.
In an interview about the collection in Time Out Hong Kong, Xu Xi says “Short stories tend to be a bit perfect, while tales feel more sprawling, more saga-like, more like the old-fashioned stories.” In that sense, these tales may have more in common with Chaucer in their breadth than in the carefully crafted fiction often represented in Best American Short Stories and other “best of” anthologies. (That said, the subtly complex “Famine” in the Fairy Tales section, a story about a woman’s desire to live her life fully after her parents' death, was an O. Henry Prize winner). Like the jazz music Xu Xi loves and writes about in Evanescent Isles, these stories can be read as variations on its theme of access, and, like jazz, their deceptively loose and open feeling belies an intelligent attention to technique and structure.
In the worlds of these tales, 9/11 represents one of many examples in which access is restricted. While the “war” is mentioned obliquely in several of the stories, 9/11 is dealt with specifically in the title story, “Access,” which also appears under Fairy Tales. The main character, Elna, living in New York and caring for her aging mother, opens an online bank account that mysteriously doubles her money until she, in the virtual world at least, is a multimillionaire. However, because the money is not real, she can’t withdraw it. “Elna thought about all the access denied to her and people everywhere, how so much of it was simply beyond ordinary control.…How they would never understand…the way they should but couldn’t because the real war, the one true, never-ending war, was right here and also faraway, out of their range of vision, and fought by those who might never, ever, in their wildest imaginings, be able to open a bank account anywhere in the real or virtual world.” Elna’s reflections in this section represent one of the central themes of the collection, which concerns the haves and have-nots in a globalized society.
Work is explored in its many levels, from top executives to mid-level managers, to a young masseuse to an exotic dancer and a prostitute. In “Servitude” (from Circular Tales), a retired widower still works part-time for his former boss, who has Alzheimer’s. Their relationship allows Chung access to the rich and powerful, providing him with his own tales he narrates to his dead wife. When he is relieved of those duties, Chung is bereft; without his servitude to his former boss, he has no stories, and without stories, he has nothing to communicate to his dead wife.
In the section Old Wives Tales, women nearing fifty deal with their sexuality in often humorous ways. In “Available,” Jeena and Dennis seem mismatched but continue to see each other out of inertia and availability rather than any true desire. As their relationship progresses, Dennis calls Jeena, who lives in Singapore, from the States. Jeena reflects: “It has been a long time—years—since anyone had sprung for long distance. It was obscurely present, like catching whiffs of girlhood, a time before men occupied such wholly valuable mental space, rent-free.” Witty observations such as these keep the tales fresh and from lapsing into myopic melancholy or victimhood.
In the final tale, “Lady Day,” a revenge tale, the “beast” is a hermaphrodite in business for herself as a high-end call girl. While she has gained success and independence in her field, she is still haunted by a vicious rape at a boys' boarding school and decides to seek revenge. The story, and the collection, end with Lady Day, named after Billie Holiday, exacting her own deliciously horrific punishment on her schoolmates, a contrapresso that would make Dante proud.
What Xu Xi accomplishes in these tales is not just meditations, riffs, and explorations on the varieties of access: emotional, financial, territorial, physical. Ultimately it is the reader who is gifted access—to a transnational world that transcends personal experiences and boundaries through tales told with expansiveness and wit, without falling into sentimentality.
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.
One Hundred and One Nights by Benjamin Buchholz
Back Bay Books (December 2011)
With a title that evokes one of the best-known works of Middle-Eastern literature, Benjamin Buchholz’s debut novel depicts a modern war-torn world beset by endless conflict and filled with mystery, romance, deception, and intrigue.
Set in a post-Saddam Iraq that struggles to cope with the American occupation, the novel is narrated by Abu Saheeh (“Father Truth”), who has recently moved from Baghdad to open a mobile phone shop near the route of American convoys traveling back and forth from Kuwait. “Why has he moved here?” the reader asks, which is exactly what propels this story of sectarian revenge. Why, indeed. It appears from the beginning that Abu Saheeh is watching, spying on the Americans, but for whom? And to what end? It also develops that Abu Saheeh has lived in America for many years, and is actually fond of American pop culture. So if he plans an attack on the Americans, which is the reader’s best guess, what is his motivation? Who is behind it? But these aren’t the only questions that the reader wants answered. Every evening at his shop Abu Saheeh is visited by Layla, a young girl who seems to appear out of nothingness. She speaks of family, but none are seen. Abu Saheeh is interested in this girl. Why? And who is she?
The conflicts in the story are numerous, some personal, some political. Abu Saheeh’s family is a divided Sunni/Shia Muslim family. There are pro- and anti-Saddam factions in the city, as well as Iranian-trained and influenced jihadists, not to mention followers of Hezbollah. There’s an estranged brother, a jilted fiancée, an arranged marriage, an incompetent assistant, and an untrained security guard who may or may not be in a homosexual relationship with a waiter. All of which provide an opportunity for the reader to learn about this society and its tensions, but also, more importantly, provide fuel for a suspenseful and engaging fire.
If I have a complaint about the book, though, it’s that this first person narrator, who knows perfectly well what he’s doing and why, withholds that information from the reader, doling it out a little at a time. It’s one thing when an author does that in order to heighten suspense, but it can be infuriating when the narrator is manipulates the reader in this way. For example, each chapter ends with an italicized section that recounts Abu Saheeh’s sojourn in the U.S., his training and then practice as a doctor in Chicago. It also hints at developments in his personal life that turn out to be crucial and ultimately reveal his personal motivation for his actions. But if he has known all along what he was doing and why, why didn’t he tell us? Is it simply that he’s unreliable? That the reader must learn not to trust him?
And yet, his relationship with the mysterious Layla, about which Abu Saheeh is as confused as the reader, provides sufficient reason to stay with his story. We assume that eventually his motivation will become clear (it does), that his plans will be revealed (they are), and that Abu Saheeh and the reader will both come to understand who Layla is (maybe).
It’s a powerful and surprising debut novel.
New England Primer by Bruce Guernsey
Cherry Grove Collections/WordTech Communications (July 2008).
Reviewed by John Guzlowski
Bruce Guernsey is a terrifying poet.
Some poets tell you about the terrifying in familiar ways. They will draw you a picture of an axe caught in a foot or a razor in a trachea, of bodies piled like worthless paper, of mother’s slumped kneeling in the road where the truck took out their daughter or son. There is terror in the pictures drawn by such poets, and we recognize it and turn away and say no more.
Guernsey isn’t like those poets. He shows us a terror that we cannot turn away from because it is the real terror, the terror that slides just below our comfortable memories of our comfortable lives.
I’ve always suspected this of Guernsey’s poetry, ever since I read his first book January Thaw (Pittsburgh Press, 1982). In its beautifully crafted and meditative poems about rural living, chopping wood, fishing, and the turning of the seasons, Guernsey hints about a world that knows terror at its edges. These hints have become more insistent over the years. The terror seems to be spreading from those edges toward the center of this poet’s world.
In his most recent book, New England Primer, Guernsey writes about a place that you think you know, New England with its comfortably familiar rural landscape. We read in the first part of the book about ice-fishing, igloos, weather stripping, ice-storms, oatmeal, moss, owls, deer, pumpkins, yams, and night fishing on the Pasquaney River. We imagine the poet’s world as a place that we know well, a simpler place in a simpler time, our fallen contemporary world redeemed by nostalgia, a place we’ve come to imagine as somehow restorative, but what Guernsey shows us is a world that is harder, more demanding, as suggested by his title New England Primer.
It recalls the original New England Primer, the first textbook printed and published in the American colonies. Starting in 1608 and extending into the late 19th century, the primer attempted to teach fundamental reading skills to the children of New England along with the Puritan worldview. Probably the most famous passages in the original primer were these two short poems:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the lord my soul to keep.
If I die before I wake
I pray the lord my soul to take.
In Adam’s fall
We sinned all.
These two poems evoke the child’s world, but it’s a world that isn’t simple. This child’s world is infused with death and sin, sin and death. The child of the original Primer, however, isn’t fearful because he has his faith. There is a God, and He protects the innocent. In Guernsey’s New England Primer, there are no such promises or guarantees. The world is a terrifying place, a hard place where things change and it’s seldom for the better. We see this in Guernsey’s poem “Ice Storm”:
To go to bed one April night,
a halo around the moon,
to sleep for hours it seems,
you never heard the sleet—
to waken so suddenly old,
all that green gone white,
the orchard creaking,
its branches brittle as ribs—
to squint at the light with milky eyes,
the great-grandchildren gathered near,
all staring, all frightened—
to point towards the window,
someone wetting your lips—
to try to tell them
The familiar ice storm with its natural but expected threat becomes a storm that we aren’t prepared for no matter what we do or think. It’s a storm that suddenly descends upon us and transforms us as permanently and terribly and certainly as anything in Franz Kafka. Around the edges and sliding beneath the surface of Guernsey’s ice storm is time and aging and silence and dementia and death.
Faced with the terrifying, Guernsey doesn’t flinch, doesn’t pull back. One of his favorite metaphors is that of the hunter or fisher, and Bruce Guernsey is a poet who seeks out the terrifying, hunts it down, studies it the way the hunter’s in his poem “The Deer” seeks out a deer:
At the edge of a field
I wait for the sun,
Study the shadows
And what does he find when he studies the terrifying? Nothing that will make it less terrifying. When dusk turns to dawn, and he can see things clearly, the things he sees don’t rescue him from the terrifying. Death and sin, or whatever makes him afraid, is still there. There are no solutions, neither simple solutions nor hard ones. We don’t have the promises that soothed the generations of children who read those New England Primers. Guernsey in New England Primer is a writer flipping through the memories of his life, seeking something that will last, hunting in the shadows for something that will sustain him and give him courage as he moves forward to the inexorable promise of life, death and silence. He writes about himself as a child, his children, his parents and grandparents, and those he’s loved and loves—hoping that in the writing he will find some connection to them that will push off the fear he feels.
A number of the poems in this collection show us this, but perhaps it’s expressed most simply and forcefully in the poem “The Phone Booth”:
by a one pump station
in some cornfield town
I said “I love you”
on the phone, words
I haven’t said
to anyone for years
or written down
but had to stop
in a dry wind,
in a flat place
to say, to say
“I love you,”
clear and sure
out of the wind
in the rattling glass
of a phone booth,
a place perhaps
to start again
where gray wings whirl
above the bins,
and the tall grass bends.
Guernsey is a poet who knows his craft and knows what will touch the reader. He knows too about the terror that we all feel and the hope that we share that someone’s love will help us live beyond our fears. But will this love save us from the terror at the edges of this world?
He prays that it does.
John Guzlowski’s writing has been published in The Ontario Review, Atlanta Review, Exquisite Corpse and other journals. His poems about his Polish parents’ experiences in Nazi concentration camps appear in his book Lightning and Ashes. Regarding the Polish edition of these poems, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz said the poems are “astonishing.” Guzlowski blogs about his parents and their experiences at http://lightning-and-ashes.blogspot.com/
Expanding the Powers of First-Person Narration
by Buzz Mauro
followed by Q&A
Every fiction writer knows that a first-person narrator can provide the kind of intimate access to a central personality that can be a lot harder to achieve in third. Of course, every fiction writer also knows that first person comes with certain built-in limitations, like the inability to break away from that personality when you feel like showing a scene your narrator is not present for, or providing direct access to the thoughts and feelings of another character. It’s the cardinal rule of first person: Don’t narrate anything your narrator cannot plausibly know.
And yet, great literature is rife with flagrant violations. Nick Carraway narrates a central scene in Gatsby’s drama as if he’d been there taking notes, when it’s clear he was nowhere near that fateful garage at the time. Most of Tristram Shandy is devoted to Tristram’s blow-by-blow narration of events he could not possibly have been privy to, notably his own conception and birth. And all of Madame Bovary—including the most intimate details of Emma’s adultery and despair—is presented as a memoir of a childhood acquaintance of her husband.
What’s going on here? Why are so many of the first-person narrators of the world’s great novels telling us things they have no way of knowing? And how are their creators getting away with it?
First person is often seen as the poor relation of third. I remember first becoming aware of the extent of the prejudice against an author’s choice of first person when I read Jonathan Yardley’s review of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys in the Washington Post several years ago. Yardley raved, “Chabon leaves no doubt that he is the young star of American letters,” but ended the review with a plea for Chabon to graduate on to third person: “Though Chabon has demonstrated a keen understanding of other people’s minds and lives, thus far his preoccupation has been with fictional explorations of his own. It is time for him to move on, to break away from the first person and explore larger worlds.” (1)
The criticism seemed to me unfair and—odd. Could first person really be such an enormous limitation? Was Yardley making the elementary mistake of confusing Chabon’s “I” with Chabon himself? But when I read the third-person masterpiece that Chabon eventually came up with, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I had to acknowledge that it contains riches of both depth and scope that it’s hard to imagine arising out of first-person technique, in which the only tellable information would be restricted to what one person could realistically know. How could a first-person narrator even approximate the variety of perspectives and locales and worldviews and social commentary of Kavalier and Clay? And we would all have to admit, a first-person War and Peace is practically inconceivable.
John Gardner gives us his own version of the Master’s view on the topic: “In any long fiction, Henry James remarked, use of the first-person point of view is barbaric. James may go too far, but his point is worth considering. First person locks us in one character’s mind, locks us to one kind of diction throughout, locks out possibilities of going deeply into various characters’ minds, and so forth.”(2) I can find no actual instance of James describing first person as “barbaric,” but he did call it, in the preface to The Ambassadors, “the darkest abyss of romance ... when enjoyed on the grand scale” and added that “the first person, in the long piece, is a form foredoomed to looseness.”(3) Not quite “barbaric,” but quite a condemnation.
Whether or not the disadvantages cited by Yardley, Gardner and James apply to every first-person narration, most readers can probably think of stories in which the first-person point of view limits the story to something slight, contrived, or self-indulgent. And yet—what about first person’s undeniable charms? It’s one of our most powerful tools for seeing the world through a unique individual’s eyes, for experiencing a story not only from within an individual consciousness, but within that individual’s uniquely revealing and enjoyable language patterns. It would certainly be a shame to have to forego all that every time we want to tell a story that ranges outside the personal, the intimate, and the small.
So the question is: How can we fiction writers reap the benefits of a first-person narrator without falling prey to its apparently inherent limitations of scope? And one good answer may be: by breaking the cardinal rule.
Referring to Flaubert’s strange point-of-view frame in Madame Bovary, novelist David Jauss writes, “How do we explain the fact that such a superb writer violated what so many consider the most basic of all ‘rules’ about point of view? My answer is that there isn’t, and never was, such a rule.”(4) Jauss points to many examples of narratives that employ what he calls “first-person omniscience,” starting as far back as “the oldest known collection of stories, the Egyptian Tales of the Magicians, which was written between 5,000 and 2,000 b.c.” and continuing into modern times. The fact that so many writers have successfully broken the rule throughout the ages, he contends, invalidates it altogether.
I don’t completely agree with Jauss—breaking the rule unconsciously or without sufficient reason is a real and grievous error—but breaking it judiciously, with a full understanding and exploitation of all the implications, can open up whole new realms of narrative power. Expanding first-person narration to tell what a narrator can have no way of knowing, if it could be done without outraging the reader’s sense of fairness, would seem to be a way of combining the breadth and dispassion of traditional third person with the depth and intimacy of traditional first. I believe many authors have used this technique to transcend the traditional limitations of first person, to complicate the intellectual and emotional lives of their narrators, and to integrate the complexities of storytelling into the substance of their stories.
One of the most daring and powerful examples of this phenomenon can be found in one of the most daring and powerful novels in all of world literature: Moby-Dick.
The book begins as a traditional first-person narrative, introducing us to the narrator through his famously intimate and quintessentially first-person tone: “Call me Ishmael.” We then experience, through Ishmael’s own senses, his search for a suitable whaling vessel to cure his blues, his acquisition of a bosom friend in the cannibal Queequeg, and his boarding of the Pequod. Up to here, there’s nothing unusual about the point of view.
But once the ship sets sail, something mysterious happens to Ishmael’s voice. We get the famous “six-inch chapter” about Bulkington and his presumed preference for the dangers of the sea over the comforts of the land, with some gorgeous writing about how dangerous those comforts themselves can be. This is a philosophizing, generalizing Ishmael, still beautifully human and believable, but certainly in a different way. What’s more, he purports to be giving us access to Bulkington’s private motivations! Where did he get those?
It seems unlikely that Ishmael has reliably received this information about Bulkington’s psyche from the man himself. For one thing, Bulkington disappears completely from the narrative with this chapter. And the passage is more about Ishmael’s metaphorical use of Bulkington than it is about the man himself: “Know ye, now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea...?”(5) And yet we don’t question the motivations that Ishmael attributes to Bulkington; nothing in Ishmael’s language invites us to doubt what he tells us, so we assume he gets it right about the man while throwing in some philosophical musings of his own. In a way, we suspend our disbelief in what Ishmael is telling us, just as we suspend our disbelief in what Melville tells us.
When Ishmael gets into Bulkington’s head like this, we can feel the first-person perspective starting to expand. Melville hasn’t done anything “illegal” with the point of view (yet), but we’ve moved beyond Ishmael’s direct personal experiences, into territory that a strict application of the first-person rule might make a lesser writer shy away from.
And then things start getting weird. As the Pequod moves out to sea, Melville starts to do something really different with point of view. Ishmael himself almost completely disappears from the tale he’s telling. Practically nothing that he says or does on the long voyage is recorded in the book until the very end, when we hear a few details of how he is able to save himself by floating on Queequeg’s coffin. We don’t get any of the details traditionally associated with a first-person narration. We don’t know where he sleeps or what he eats or who he talks to, or even for the most part what work he does, even though he describes a great many whaling tasks in exhaustive detail.
After the wealth of realistic, humorous, and personal detail Ishmael has provided about his preparations for the voyage and his budding friendship with Queequeg, the shift to total reticence about himself is jarring, almost shocking. His own actions and experiences turn out to be not particularly important to the story, except for the most important action and experience of them all: the telling of the tale. In that sense, he remains the central character throughout the book.
It’s a pretty amazing feat Melville performs with his point of view, and one we mere mortals can learn from. Melville takes away the things Ishmael knows firsthand, therefore best, and allows Ishmael’s interests to expand out into unknown, or imperfectly known, aspects of the world around him, creating more of a third-person scope. As we follow the story of Ahab’s quest as seen and told by Ishmael, we learn more about Ishmael’s own predilections, interpretations, and obsessions than a strict limitation to his personal experiences could ever reveal, and at the same time Moby-Dick enlarges into a book about the Big Ideas.
Once the voyage is well underway, the question of what Ishmael “knows” gets more and more complicated. A simple example is the story of Queequeg’s “birthing” of Tashtego from the whale he has fallen into. Queequeg dives into the water, “and soon after, Queequeg was seen boldly striking out with one hand, and with the other clutching the long hair of the Indian.”(6) What an inspired use of the passive voice that we’re always warned against! By whom Queequeg “was seen” is not specified; the point of view seems to be that of a group of mostly undifferentiated crewmen on deck. As always, it’s unclear where Ishmael himself is positioned, but the readiest assumption is that he is among those watching and can, therefore, relate details that he and many others on the ship were actually able to observe. But he goes on: “Now, how had this noble rescue been accomplished?”—and proceeds to explain exactly what happened under the water, using details no one but Queequeg, Tashtego and Melville himself could have known.
Still, few readers are likely to consider this a breech of point of view because it’s a simple task to determine how Ishmael might have received this information he’s passing on to us. Just as we assume that he saw the surface details with his own eyes, we assume that the underwater details were given to him by Queequeg or Tashtego or both at a later time. And we learn a bit later that this is, in fact, the case.
The logic that is so easy to apply to an apparent point-of-view transgression in this rescue scene can be applied in many similar instances. Ishmael may not always be interested in telling us how he gets his information, but it’s not hard to see that he may in fact, at least some of the time, have “legitimate” sources. This is one of the ways Melville frees Ishmael to tell us more than he is able to directly experience himself.
But then he just starts making stuff up.
Consider an elaborated scene like the one in which Ahab insults Stubb on deck late one night. Ishmael clearly was not there. It’s highly implausible that the lofty Ahab would tell the lowly Ishmael about the encounter, and only slightly less implausible that the officer Stubb would do so, especially considering that Ahab makes quite a fool of Stubb in the scene. And even if one of them did tell Ishmael what happened that night, is it conceivable that either of them would present all the specifics of detail and dialogue, not to mention the resulting indelible characterization of both Stubb and Ahab, that Ishmael offers in passing the scene on to his readers? It’s so unlikely as to be virtually impossible, so we seem to have a real point-of-view gaffe. Plenty of critics have been willing to say that Melville, in this scene and others like it, simply screws up and forgets that he should only be telling us things Ishmael can know.
But if we give Melville more credit than that, we might learn that point of view is a more varied and wonderful thing than the restrictive “rules” suggest. The brilliance of the writing here is revealed in the title of the chapter. It’s called “Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb.”(7) That’s the language not of the novel or the memoir, but of the theater! Ishmael thus announces the chapter—the first in which he really plays fast and loose with point of view—as an imaginative enactment. The title asks us to imagine the scene acted out upon a stage—as Ishmael himself has apparently done. We’re not given direct access to Ahab and Stubb, but only to Ishmael’s imaginings of them. We have reason to believe that his knowledge of the two men (achieved from daylight observation, shipboard gossip, etc.) is sufficient to present at least certain aspects of their characters and the encounter faithfully, but the complexity (and I would also say, the humanity) of the scene is increased exponentially when it’s read with the realization that, even though this is a scene Ishmael could not have access to, we have never left Ishmael’s point of view.
Ishmael uses the theatrical technique again in several later chapters that recount scenes he could not have witnessed firsthand. He even presents two of these chapters (39 and 40) in traditional script format, complete with stage directions and speakers’ names centered above their “lines.” When he tells us at the end of his “Cetology” chapter, “This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught,”(8) he’s driving home the point of such “postmodern” experiments with form and genre—which I think should be an integral part of the experience of reading Moby-Dick: Ishmael is actively creating the story rather than simply telling it to the best of his recollection.
In other words, Ishmael is a writer. Every “I” narrator, in fact, presents himself or herself as a writer, at least implicitly. The words of the story have been written down and we read them as though the “I” has done the writing. Often, as here, the narrator’s status as a writer is made explicit, and that’s the case with many narrators who move beyond traditional restrictions to narrate what they cannot really know.
It’s a great technique for expanding the powers of first-person narration into realms traditionally reserved for third—and beyond. We still have the powerful hook of an intimate connection to a first-person consciousness, but we’re no longer concerned only with what he knows, but also with what he seems to know, or thinks he knows, or maybe even what he wants to know. The psychological stakes cannot help but rise.
A salient feature of Ishmael’s story-creating style is the constant drawing of metaphysical analogies to the anatomy of whales and the methodologies of the hunt: “All men live enveloped in whale-lines” is one example among dozens or hundreds (209). It’s in these overt metaphorical interpretations that it’s most important to remember that it’s Ishmael talking to us and not Melville trying to bypass his narrator to get his point across. Ishmael is a character whose only desire, once he boards that ship, is to extract as much metaphysical significance as he can from every event, every personality, every jawbone. The events of Moby-Dick constitute not a series of pre-planned symbols, but a rich human experience from which all significance of life and death has been mined—by its protagonist, not by its author directly. In an allegory the events and objects and characters embody concepts, but Moby-Dick starts with events and objects and characters and achieves conceptual significance through Ishmael’s interpretation of them, an effect that is a direct result of Melville’s restricting us to Ishmael’s first-person point of view.
Ahab shares Ishmael’s metaphorical bent (“O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.”) and so does the rest of the crew at times, as when they perceive and fear a “spirit spout” following the ship (231). But if we continue to grant Melville the benefit of the doubt where point of view is concerned, we can’t escape the conclusion that even Ahab and the crew are refracted through Ishmael’s consciousness. Moby-Dick is symbolic only because it is symbolic for its narrator. Ishmael is so consumed by his own metaphysical interpretations of events that he himself seems to disappear into them—they are all we know of him because they are all he cares about telling us—and the assimilation is so thorough that generation upon generation of readers seem to have been seduced into thinking it’s the story itself that is so full of meaning—for example, that the whale represents evil or justice or the meaning of life, whereas all we can know, and all we need to know, is that the character Ishmael equates the whale with evil or justice or the meaning of life in compelling ways. Moby-Dick is the story of a whale and his hunter as seen through the eyes of a unique consciousness, and even though we may forget he’s there, it’s his manner of seeing and telling the story that gives the story its power.
The story of Ahab’s quest could have been told in an omniscient voice without resorting to an Ishmael at all, but Melville’s choice to tell that story through a questing, perceptive, far-ranging, and inventive first-person point of view allows him to give us two great characters instead of one. The obsessive captain’s story achieves its magnificence only through its interpretation by an equally obsessive seaman, and thus Melville inextricably embeds symbolic interpretation into the very structure of the narrative. That effect would not have been possible without a bold and creative interpretation of the cardinal “rule,” and the lesson has not been lost on some of today’s most innovative and powerful writers.
One of the finest examples I’ve found of an expanded first-person narration in contemporary writing is Marjorie Sandor’s short story collection Portrait of My Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime. Taken together the stories form a kind of novel, though not a very traditional one. As the title suggests, they add up to a portrait of a mother—perhaps a cubist portrait, a mother perceived from many different perspectives and never completely reassembled. The title also announces that this is necessarily a creative rendering: a first-person narrator will be telling us some intimate things about her mother, things a daughter might be unlikely to know firsthand. The subject is Clara, whose daughter Rachel narrates all the stories in the first person, chronologically beginning with Clara’s birth. Sandor allows Rachel extensive access to the thoughts and feelings of several members of her family throughout the book, including her mother and father, her grandmother, and her brother. Rachel herself, like Ishmael at sea, fades into the background, except in her role as the filtering imagination. And as in Ishmael’s story, the line between telling and creating is blurred.
Rachel’s point of view might at first seem less “illegal” than Ishmael’s often does, because she is at pains to let us know where her information comes from. She admits to passing on stories that have been passed on to her: “A narrow kitchen, a tragic life—that’s what she tells me now ….”(9) Sandor seems to be transcribing Rachel’s transcription of Clara’s description of her life. Clara has allowed Rachel this access into her understanding, by telling her a story.
But as we read, it becomes clear that this simple explanation does not hold up. For one thing, the stories that are passed on to Rachel, and that she then passes on to us, are told in great detail and in evocative, “writerly” language, with ample reconstruction of thought processes and analyses of emotions, so they take on the immediacy of “reality,” or of a strong work of fiction. If at first we sense that Rachel is imagining these details, elaborating on the basic story her mother has told her, it’s very easy to lose that feeling as we get caught up in the mother’s story, as though the mother were the protagonist in a traditional third-person fiction written by Rachel, and Rachel herself did not come into it at all. We stop worrying about how Rachel became privy to these thoughts, and allow the conventions of fiction to work on us. We suspend our disbelief.
That in itself is a daring and powerful expansion of first-person technique, but Sandor complicates things even further. Just when the fiction has consumed us, when we’ve settled into a page or two of the mother’s story, allowing ourselves to believe we’re experiencing Clara’s life as she herself experienced it, the author throws in a reminder that we’re getting the information second- (or third-) hand. “There’s not much to go on; a mother will only tell you certain things.”(10) So now the emphasis is on the daughter’s experience of her mother’s story, rather than on that story itself, and we have to wonder: Whom, if anyone, do we believe? And when this is the question dominating the reading, it’s easy to start taking things with a grain of salt. Surely the mother did not tell her story to her daughter with such precision, such grace, such exquisite vocabulary, and so we must assume that Rachel is speculating, at least about the nuances, and the speculations may tell us as much about Rachel as they do about anyone else. We’re accustomed to ascribing the sensibility of an author’s writing to one of her characters—whether through a first-person narrator or a “third-person limited” tone—but surely it’s too much to believe that two characters—both Rachel and Clara—are able to use language this well! And when the grandmother, father, and brother offer their own stories, it turns out that they, too, share Rachel’s (and presumably Sandor’s) finely modulated voice.
This is where Sandor’s project is revealed to be much more complex than it at first seems, and where her unorthodox point of view yields its riches. She’s not just telling a story about a family. She’s telling a story about telling stories. The reason we never arrive at a clear “portrait” of the mother is that the project of the book is to explore the complexity (and ultimate futility) of any attempt to tell a complete and coherent story. Sandor is interested in questions of how stories interweave, how they contradict each other, whose stories are more and less credible, and who’s telling a particular story and why:
“But this is supposed to be my father’s version, my father who on his deathbed wanted to tell me a love story.”(11)
“God, how I want to change their stories before they become my own.”(12)
“Other passengers, men and women with unknowable lives, slept or told each other stories, making them better or more horrible than real life ….”(13)
“It was a sentimental love story, embarrassing at any distance. … And it wasn’t exactly a lie, my father thought. What was true about it could not be spoken, that was all.”(14)
So Rachel, like Ishmael, is a speculator, an imaginer—a writer—and as such she invites and requires the reader’s active involvement in her stories more fully than any traditional first- or third-person narrator. Like Ishmael, and like Nick Carraway and Tristram Shandy and any number of other rule-breaking “I” narrators, Rachel is an obsessive quester after the truth of experience, and hence cannot stop herself from imaginatively inhabiting the lives of the people around her.
The effect is kaleidoscopic. It’s not that the raw material doesn’t matter, but it gains its beauty only through its shifting patterns. This could be done to an extent by moving the point of view from character to character, but by presenting stories in a fluid first person, Sandor and her fellow rule-breakers put the emphasis on the individual mind working to make sense of things. It’s what the mind of the writer herself must do, of course, and it’s also the task presented to the reader. The intimacy forced upon us by the first person implicates us in the narrator’s quest. In Portrait of My Mother…, we’ve heard less about Rachel than about anyone else by the end of the book, yet it’s her sensibility that alternately focuses and diffuses the shards of narrative. We are forced to question and judge her as we strive to put the story together for ourselves. Her decisions about what to tell us form yet another story, the only story of herself that she allows us to hear, and the expanded first-person point of view makes it a story that blurs distinctions between mother and daughter, reality and imagination, writer and reader.
The book ends with “Malingerer,” a story about Rachel’s father’s experiences in a hospital during World War II. Stricken with an ear infection, he’s at first accused of being a “Jewish fake”—a “malingerer.”(15) This false story that others tell about him almost costs him his life. The story that then saves his life is the one about the hospital aide he falls in love with. She nurses him back to life and opens his heart in ways he didn’t think possible. But when he’s discharged, no one can find her. The Colonel tells him, “with a fever like yours, hallucinations aren’t uncommon.”(16) This woman is an important part of the puzzle of the book, explaining a lot about Rachel’s parents’ relationship after the war, yet we’re left wondering if she ever even existed. Thus the book ends with the greatest unresolvable ambiguity of all, particularly when we remember that much or all of this story has been invented not by the father but by the narrator! This first-person narrator has ultimately failed—as Ishmael does not—to make sense of her material in a way that she and the reader can fully embrace. What’s clear is that the beautiful tangle of narratives is as complete as it is going to get.
It’s a quintessentially “postmodern” yet deeply human perspective. We alternately believe everything Rachel tells us and reject her authority completely. From her twenty-first-century vantage point, Rachel experiences the complexity of storytelling more fully even than the ahead-of-his-time Ishmael, and through Sandor’s expert exploitation of the combined inwardness and outwardness, the intertwined intimacy and range, of an expanded, rule-breaking first person, her readers experience it, too.
Contemporary writers have continued to find new ways to exploit the technique of expanded first person. In “Mister Squishy,” the first story in Oblivion, by the late David Foster Wallace, it’s not until page 57 that we learn that an “I” is involved at all, through a single “my” and a single “we,” and in a footnote, at that.(17) This “I” is a plausible direct observer of much of what is related in the story, but certainly not everything, especially the long accounts of various characters’ thought processes. To have the “author” of the story identified, even in this minimal and rather preposterous way, produces an effect similar to Sandor’s. We read differently from that point on, believing in this character’s creations just as we did when we thought they were merely Wallace’s. Perhaps we even grant the fictional narrator a little more credibility, somehow, than we grant to Wallace, because we understand the eyewitness basis of this narrator’s authority. Yet at the same time we question his right to tell us anything that should be beyond his ken, as we never questioned Wallace when he did essentially the same thing. It’s wild, bizarre, illuminating about both human nature and the nature of storytelling, and a ton of fun.
In “Good Old Neon” Wallace allows his first-person narrator what may be the ultimate in unauthorized access: Late in the story the narrator narrates the process of the story’s creation by “David Wallace.” In the last few pages of what has hitherto seemed to be a traditional first-person story, David Foster Wallace becomes a character who is created by the narrator, who is himself created by David Wallace ….
The narrator seems to be telling us the truth about how he himself was created, but since we’ll never know, both he and his David Wallace must remain characters rather than real people. The unorthodox technique helps make them as complex and interesting as any characters in contemporary fiction. Both the narrator and “David Wallace” assign themselves powers of creativity to rival those of Ishmael. We watch these characters create themselves through their creation of others. That is perhaps the ultimate existential activity, and certainly one of the most serious and worthy subjects literary fiction can take on.
Whether applied subtly as in Moby-Dick or overtly as in “Good Old Neon,” the idea that characters can create characters of their own provides a framework for expanding the power of first-person narratives beyond what a human narrator could reasonably be expected to know. If these examples can be trusted, the best narrators for this kind of experimentation are narrators who are obsessed with something or someone—in other words, really intense and engaging narrators, which are the best kind, aren’t they? Such narrators can tell what they know and what they imagine, surmise, suppose, and decide, and that creativity gives them and their stories a powerful extra dimension. Moby-Dick, Portrait of My Mother…, and “Good Old Neon” are as much about processes of perceiving and creating as they are about anything else, and the same is true of Tristram Shandy and The Great Gatsby and countless other rule-breaking fictions. They are quest stories in which the narrator’s quest for the truth of experience mirrors the fiction writer’s own and, by inescapable extension, the reader’s.
(1) Yardley, Jonathan, “The Paper Chase,” Washington Post Book World 19 April 1995, 3.
(2) John Gardner, The Art of Fiction. (New York: Vintage-Random, 1983), 75-6.
(3) Henry James, preface to The Ambassadors. (New York: Barnes, 2007), 14.
(4) David Jauss, “From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance and Point of View in Fiction Writing,” Writer’s Chronicle, September 2000. <http://www.awpwriter.org/magazine/writers/djauss01.htm> (accessed January 13, 2008)
(5) Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Great Books of the Western World no. 48. (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952), 78.
(6) Ibid., 254.
(7) Ibid., 91.
(8) Ibid., 105.
(9) Marjorie Sandor, Portrait of My Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime: Stories. (Louisville: Sarabande, 2003), 46.
(10) Ibid., 44.
(11) Ibid., 65.
(12) Ibid., 85.
(13) Ibid., 152.
(14) Ibid., 210.
(15) Ibid., 193-4.
(16) Ibid., 210.
(17) David Foster Wallace, Oblivion: Stories. (New York: Little, 2004), 57.
Buzz Mauro’s stories and poems have appeared in Prime Number, Willow Springs, New Orleans
Review, River Styx, Poet Lore, Tar River Poetry and other journals. He lives in Annapolis and
works as an actor and acting teacher in Washington, D.C. He received his MFA in fiction writing
from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. More of his writing can be
Q: What surprised you most while writing this piece?
A: I’d say the biggest surprise was how passionate I found myself getting about this fairly obscure
aspect of point of view in fiction. I think writers always think of their characters as people, and I
discovered that critics often don’t, and that riled me. I wouldn’t have thought I would care so
much about defending Ishmael’s personhood, but I really did.
Q: Can you share a little about your current writing project?
A: I’ve made a little specialization out of writing short stories with various kinds of mathematical
content, and I’m currently shaping a bunch of those into a collection.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer? Did you follow it? Why or why not?
A: This will sound facetious, but the best advice I ever received about writing was to do it with
coffee. That nugget came, semi-facetiously, from the great David Huddle. I followed it
religiously until I traced my frequent headaches to too much caffeine. I still follow it, but less
Q: If we were to lock you in a room for a single hour with a writer of your choice, who would that writer be, and why?
A: Probably Fyodor Dostoevsky, assuming he could be alive for that hour. The Brothers Karamazov
– my favorite book – was supposed to be the prelude to another novel, but he died before he
could write it. I’d love to ask some questions about what was going to happen next.