Welcome to Issue No. 19 of Prime Number:
A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose
Letter from the Editors (or jump to the Table of Contents)
We’ve got a great issue for you—Number 19 is our EIGHTH—but first I wanted to share some news! Our nonfiction editor, Tracy Crow, has just published her memoir, Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine, with the University of Nebraska Press. It’s a great read, and I think you should all find a copy right now. Or right after you read this issue of Prime Number Magazine.
In Number 19, we continue to bring you distinctive poetry and prose: short stories by Laretta Andrews-Mitchell, Frank Scozzari, Gerry Wilson, and Arthur Powers; essays by Eileeen M. Cunniffe, Michael Royce, Michael Brantley, and Susan Grier; a craft essay by Maria Giura; poetry by Richard Downing and Mary McMyne; reviews of novels by and interviews with Kirby Gann and Marc Schuster, and a review of a poetry collection by Kevin Simmonds.
Our cover photo for the issue is by photographer Cath Barton, who also provided the cover for Issue 11.
We are currently reading submissions for the Issue 19 updates, Issue 23, 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 “23” 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 (email@example.com) and we’ll pass your thoughts along to the contributors. Similarly, if you are a publisher and would like to send us ARCs for us to consider for reviews, please contact us at the above email address. We’re especially interested in reviewing new, recent, or overlooked books from small presses.
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 19, April-June 2012
History Dream #18: Anne, Anne, Anne & Norton
History Dream #8: Wounded Knee
Into the Dark Wood
Sonata on a Michigan Night
The River Inside
Let Me Go Ask My Sales Manager
A Single Sentence
REVIEWS and INTERVIEWS
Review of Mad for Meat by Kevin Simmonds.
Review of The Grivers by Marc Schuster, followed by an interview
Review of Ghosting by Kirby Gann, followed by an interview
Why So Long, Memoir?
Front Door at Brighton, England
Poetry from Richard Downing
followed by Q&A
History Dream #18: Anne, Anne, Anne, & Norton.
- for Anne Cecil, Anne Vavasour, & Anne Hathaway
It seemed odd to be signing his name inside the cover of his book.
He clicked the pen once and the nib projected
far enough out
for writing. Another click and the nib retreated
into its plastic shell.
Uh, Mr. Shakespeare. Bill. If you’d just sign it “To Morey, my biggest fan.”
I’ve got some more shopping to do.
Click. Out. Sorry. Sorry. He began the inscription.
M...o...r...E...y, the man corrected.
Oh, E y. Yes, you did say that, didn’t you? A few loops and swirls
and “Mory” became “Morey.” Bill closed the book
and handed it to the man eager to resume his shopping. I hope
you enjoy it.
It’s not for me. It’s for my uncle. He’s the reader in the family.
Said this got four stars in the New York Times and that’s good enough
for him. The man slipped the book into an open plastic bag. So
it’s good enough for me.
Click. In. At least someone is going to enjoy it. Shakespeare forced a smile.
A shrug. We can always re-gift. Know what I mean?
Bill was afraid that he did. Yes. Next.
She stepped up
to the table. This is a thrill, truly a thrill,
Please, call me Bill. Bill liked what he saw.
Oh, I couldn’t, Bill. She giggled. It appears I can. I’ve read everything
you’ve written – Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tempest, Othello –
Timon of Athens? Bill was basically a nice enough bard, but like most of us,
he could have a bit of a mean streak.
I’ve read almost everything you’ve ever written. A half smile.
Even the poems.
She presented Bill with his book: The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd edition.
Bill paused to read
the title. He was not one to collaborate
and he wondered who this Norton fellow
Anne whispered, I bought it on Amazon. I hope you don’t mind. She leaned
in until he swore
he could feel her breath on his cheek. No one goes to bookstores anymore.
Then she laughed and acknowledged the modest line
behind her. Unless you’re here, that is.
Anne, – Click. Out. – what shall I say?
Anne slid him a small piece of paper, a note:
Anne, I love you,
I thought about having you leave off the “Shakespeare.” Too formal.
But then it wouldn’t be worth as much on eBay. She winked
and lightly touched his hand.
Bill laughed, copied the note onto the title page,
then noticed the ring on her finger.
Yes, I am. Married. Is that a problem?
Bill quickly raised his eyes from the ring and slid the signed book
toward Anne. Do you have a twin?
A twin? Anne laughed loudly, holding her sides in a self-embrace.
Oh, Mr. – she paused and remembered – “Bill.”
Two sisters but no twin. Then her smile disappeared into a pause
as she patted her stomach. We had to get married,
do you know what I mean?
Bill nodded that he did. The modest line behind Anne had grown even
Anne brightened. He’s a Bill, too. But nothing like you. He’s younger.
Once again she leaned forward. And he’s the jealous type. Typical black
male. Shakespeare grimaced. But don’t worry.
He doesn’t know I’m here.
And he can be moody. Probably because he works all the time.
She disguised her voice, deepening it to a man’s: “Got to get ahead
any way you can these days,” he likes to say. “Move up or move out.”
Bill found himself taking notes as best he could on the back of Anne’s note.
Did I say moody? I wouldn’t be surprised if one day I come home and find
he’s blown his brains out. One day he is, the next day he isn’t. Then
she whispered: It’s a father-
son thing. Isn’t it always?
She sighed, more resigned than sad: It’s an old story.
Shakespeare nodded. Yes, indeed. They’re all old stories.
Anne took the pen from Shakespeare’s hand, retrieved her note,
wrote a phone number beside “Anne,” and handed pen and paper
back to Bill. Click. In.
Don’t worry. It’s my cell. I’ll leave it on vibrate. Click. Out.
Anne pressed The Norton Shakespeare against her breasts. You’ll call
Bill felt himself penning and editing the line before he spoke it. “Alas”
didn’t make the cut: Yes. I will. I’ll call you, Anne.
Anne gave him a full smile and planted a grand kiss on the dust-
jacket of his book.
Then I’m off. She turned to leave,
and extended her hand:
Is that my pen or yours?
History Dream #8: Wounded Knee
As a general rule, this is not how it’s supposed to work. Patton
fingered the ivory-handled revolver he wore at his waist. He felt
he should be shooting at something; after all, this was the movie
version of himself. Something flying would a fitting challenge.
But all around him lay Indians, already dead. And,
as best he could tell, these were not movie-version
Indians, who would have been fine to shoot, especially
in mid-war whoop then falling from panicked ponies
into South Dakota dust and celluloid history. Patton
slapped one fallen brave across the face Just in case.
Might snap him out of it. The Indian looked to be sixteen,
maybe twenty. Hard to tell with them. Especially
when they’re dead. Germans, now they were a lot easier
to tell apart. A few palominos circled a burning
Panzer tank. Patton lit a cigar in the flames. Blew smoke
rings up and over the scene. A PFC with an arrow
in his shoulder (movie version) told Patton the bodies
were mostly Paiutes, with some Sioux mixed in.
All dead. Of course Patton was right in his assessment
of the battlefield. The private pointed out a particularly well
decorated body: This one was their version of you, General—
Chief Big Foot. Chief Big Foot’s head lay on the corner
of a white flag, feathers and blood covering much of the middle.
The other corner was still in his left hand. Except
his flag’s the wrong color, Private. Above
where the private and the general stood looking down
the Ghost Dance had already begun: the renewal ceremony,
the prophet Wovoka’s vision enacted by doppelgangers
of the fallen now rising, replacing the white man
in the movie version yet to be shot.
These lean apparitions circled Big Foot’s half
brother, Chief Sitting Bull, who sat cross legged,
eyes closed, seemingly oblivious to Patton beneath him
and the general’s orders to clear the area, to bury the dead
quickly in a large common grave. We don’t want
some Goddamned foreign disease. The private jumped
right to it. He, too, wanted nothing to do with a God
damned foreign disease. Sitting Bull was now high
in the sky, his dancers escaping both flames and time.
A well placed shit would take both soldiers out,
he thought, one final human act. He began to shift
his seat in the sky.
But Black Elk knew better: That is not what the Ghost
Dance is all about, the medicine man whispered
to the man around whom the others danced.
And fecal matter is not a part of our ascension.
The Black Hills were now far below them. Two
uniformed figures had faded first to dots, then less.
The one with the fewest stripes spoke to the man
with the most: How shall we mark the grave?
A well shined boot ground the General’s cigar
hard into the dirt.
Just plant a flag
and be done with it.
Richard Downing is active in peace and environmental movements all the while trying to remain a realist. He has won the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Peace Poetry Award; Writecorner Press’s 2010 Editor’s Award; New Delta Review’s Matt Clark Prize; and New Woman Magazine’s Grand Prize for Fiction. He has poems in a number of literary journals and anthologies. His chapbook Four Steps Off the Path is a YellowJacket Press 2010 contest winner. He has a PhD in English and a dog named Annie (see picture).
Q: “History Dream No. 18” has the tinge of nightmare, the author trapped at a signing table in a bookstore. Is there an autobiographical element?
A: I do have a touch of claustrophobia, so that may have leaked into the poem. And I did have a book signing for my small press novel, The Waking Rooms. No nightmare tinges, however, as I got along well with both people—(I did say it was a small press novel).
I’m consciously anti-autobiographical in that I try to examine characters who are very (emphasis on “very”) different from the person I perceive myself to be.
Q: Can you discuss how you came to work on the history poems, and how these poems might make a larger work?
A: First let me place the convolution warning at level orange. Here goes: I’m highly suspect of people with answers, particularly of people with the answers. History (which itself is quite fluid) has too many examples of persons eager to impose their realties on others. Depending on your particular place/time in history, I’d advise anyone who is or has been or will be Indian, Jewish, female, black, 3/5’s black, a 1 percenter, yellow, gay, disabled, short, nearsighted, Palestinian, poor, ill, lumbering, a poet, Muslim, Christian, bald, an atheist (you get the picture) to take the advice of Monty Python and “Run away! Run away!” At least until my History Dream poems spread openness and tolerance across the land; these things take time.
The History Dream poems exist to allow the experience of shattered time and space, the experience not of linear time but of continually overlapping time, of the arbitrary over the fixed, of possibilities. Shakespeare just happens to be in a bookstore, Patton at Wounded Knee (it could just as easily have been the Crusades or the Battle of Maldon). My hope is that readers sense the freedom inherent in unsettled settings that deny the black & white of learned expectations (historical and otherwise) and, instead, promote grey—the color in which openness and tolerance best exist. Placing a rigid character like General Patton into a fluid/arbitrary time frame is meant to contrast sharply his dehumanizing acts with the open experience allowed the reader.
In a quieter way the allusion to Othello in History Dream #18 implies the unfortunate results when any single perspective dominants a relationship. #18 also promotes openness by embracing mystery. The three Annes of the title (Hathaway, Cecil, and Vavasour) represent the (possibly) ill-starred wives of Shakespeare and—speaking of mystery—of Edward de Vere, the man some feel actually wrote Shakespeare’s works. That a fourth Anne may be hitting on Shakespeare in a modern bookstore adds another layer to the fluid reality that is our relationship with Shakespeare.
Other poems in the History Dream series place God on Wall Street, Magellan on a Carnival cruise, Jon Stewart attempting standup at the Continental Congress, and Donald Trump at the Tower of Babel. Each poem in its own way tries to embrace tolerance while exposing frailty.
In terms of form and structure, I view the poems as genre free; they owe much to the short story, to the novel and to drama. Some in the series—though not nos.18 and 8—are footnoted in ways that blend satire and parody with academic writing. By attempting to be all things, the History Dream poems become free from any one thing. In this sense, form is theme.
Q. You’re planning a dinner party. What historical figures would you invite, and why?
A. I would invite Jesus if we could talk man to man (plus, I’d ask him to cater the event). Jack Kerouac makes the list because he’d probably need the meal. Donald Barthelme and Raymond Carver make the list as a way of saying thanks. Queen Victoria for the façade of civility and in hopes that Kerouac gets her drunk. Mid-career John Coltrane for the music and for the chance to fulfill his spiritual quest (Coltrane sits next to Jesus). A random serf from the Middle Ages to remind us of what we have and of how lucky we are to have it. He gets the doggie bags.
Poetry from Mary McMyne
followed by Q&A
You know that story about the girl who meets the wolf
beside the forest, the girl who wears crimson, who takes
the long way through the wood to gather blooms.
In my mother’s version, the girl is mindless. Her head
lolls. Her eyes roll like marbles. She is not girl but doll,
as dumb as porcelain. You can’t help but favor the wolf –
Don’t talk to strangers, my mother says. Don’t stop to
pick flowers. Don’t wear red. Don’t answer the door when
I’m not home. Don’t stray from the path I showed you.
Only a sliver of light bleeds through the doorway.
The bed creaks. In the hall, no father’s footsteps.
She bends toward me. Be not girl, her eyes say, but wolf –
Years later, in the same room, I awake from dreams
of shadows. My flesh prickles with fur. My body
hums with ancient pangs. I want. I doubt. I dread.
My heart thrums drumbeats. The moon calls
my flesh beneath my nightgown. I search
the dark lawn. My mother is dead.
The grass stretches, a sea of shadows, into streetlights.
Headlights telescope up the hill. The radiator clanks.
My voice trembles in my throat, a howl,
as I stand behind the cracked glass of that window
with my memory of that story and my mother,
and no one but the moon to tell.
Into the Dark Wood
Follow me into the dark wood
where trees branch into infinity,
a maze so thick it repels the rain.
Keep your eyes on the old earth.
Watch for oak roots. Among them,
mushrooms multiply in perpetual
shadow. Above, the leaves speak.
They huddle together. They have
known each other centuries. They
whisper, We will not move. We will
not part for any wind. You get the
sense that you’re interrupting. Hares
disappear in the thicket. A buck
watches from the bushes. His horns
divide like water. He listens.
He breathes. He bounds away.
Where are we going, you ask. Where
he goes, is my answer. To the
beginning of time. To the root
of the river. All the way to the cave.
Mary McMyne teaches writing at Lake Superior State University, where she co-edits Border Crossing, a journal of literature and art. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism, New Delta Review, Exquisite Corpse, and other journals. She won the Faulkner Prize for a Novel-in-Progress for her project reimagining the Odysseus myth for an American soldier’s wife during the Vietnam War. “Into the Dark Wood” and “Fur” are persona poems from the perspective of a character in her current project, retelling the Red Riding Hood fairytale in the 1920s. Her fiction is represented by Kathleen Anderson of Anderson Literary Management. Visit her online at www.marymcmyne.com.
Q: Whose work do you prefer – that of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, or Charles Perrault – and why?
A: I grew up reading the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. As a girl, my favorite stories were “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood” by the former and the beautifully dark version of “The Little Mermaid” by the latter. I can’t really say which of the three I prefer overall – they’re all such products of their times – but I can say I’ve read a lot of transformations of Little Red Riding Hood, and of the older versions, I prefer Perrault. Red dies at the end, plain and simple, and there’s a kind of dignity in that.
Q: J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that “The Cauldron of Story has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty.” What bits are we adding in these late days?
A: I think we’re in a strange and wonderful place, right now, in literary history. Our collective imagination seems obsessed with speculation in a way I don’t think we’ve been for a long time. My father read Tolkien alone, late at night, by flashlight in the ‘50s. Now kids obsess together over Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. There are so many strange and wonderful stories–myths and fairytales and legends–being rewritten and invented for this age. I think–I hope–we’re coming out of an era obsessed with “reality” and moving into one more interested in possibility.
Q: What items would you take to survive in the Dark Wood?
A: Bread crumbs.
by Laretta Andrews-Mitchell
followed by Q&A
Jilleen is in the garden, her narrow bare feet mired in mud. Blackbirds jeer from the twisted limbs of a box elder tree, cocking their shiny heads this way and that. Ignoring them, Jilleen pulls one foot free and straddles a clump of rhubarb that has pushed through the erratic warm-ups and freeze-downs of a South Dakota spring. The cawing stops. Fat-bodied birds rise as one and wing shudders through the still morning air. Jilleen watches them swoop across the alley, across train tracks that segregate west hill residents from Aberdeen’s greater twenty-five thousand, and when they disappear beyond the smokestacks of Cass Clay Creamery, she turns her attention back to the rhubarb. It is knee-high. Sturdy. Daybreak dew shimmers along leaves like dropped pearls, though she pays the gems no mind as she slips a knife from her sweatshirt pouch and severs a crisp, ruby spear.
“Normal, act normal,” she silently chants, in case Rick is awake and spying from a window. Any telltale movement could tip him off. She flings the spear at a bushel basket and starts working down the row, her escape plan twisting like a whirly wind behind cat-green eyes. The rhythm of slicing and tossing sorts details, spins them off one by one. First, she needs Rick’s car. He hardly ever trusts her with it. But last night, after her performance of oh yeses and love spasms, he agreed she could drop him at work today and collect his hard-earned pay, race it to the bank before their rent check bounces. Nazi landlord’s threatening eviction, she told Rick, for insurance.
A door slams. Her gut flip-flops, though she stays on task as she sneaks a peek at a little A-frame house. There’s no Rick charging out the back door but the neighbor’s Doberman is full throttle, teeth bared. She pitches the knife. It arcs up and over the garden, lands quivering in grass centimeters from a pounding paw, and the dog makes a U-turn, bounds back to the neighbor’s yard. It stands there. Watching. Low growl, rippling muscle.
Jilleen picks up the bushel basket and walks sideways toward the house, keeping the Doberman under surveillance but avoiding its glassy eyes. Knees trembling, she trudges up the back stoop.
Dodging Rick won’t be as easy. He’ll be name-calling, face-spitting mad when he realizes what she’s done. Figure she’s hiding out at her parents—like they can offer anything she wants. No. She’ll take the cash and the kids and make a run through the Jim River Valley, mile after mile of flat worrisome fields, sprouting a crop cover so new it couldn’t even hide a rabbit. But once the valley is no more than a snapshot in her rearview, she’ll rise up into the Lakota Hills. A place of coots and coulees and foxes.
By seven-thirty Jilleen is chopping bite-size chunks of rhubarb into a sink of cold water. A dozen dough-lined tins crowd the counter. Every Friday she delivers pies to Fritz Market, rhubarb in spring, lemon meringue and wild chokecherry through the dog days of summer, and come September, pumpkin and spiced apple. Today’s batch is a decoy and, fingers crossed, won’t make it as far as the oven.
Jilleen glances over a shoulder at her seven-year-old son, Tyler. Soft sandy hair falls across his brow as he arranges then rearranges plastic cereal bowls on Formica. The table is a Goodwill find and bears the gouges and chips of the family who dumped it there. Tyler positions a box of Cheerios over a burn scar, then turns to his little sister and says, “Can you count the bowls?”
Maggie-Mae bounces around the table, smearing a thumb-smudge in each bowl.
“Four,” she squeals. “Same as me.”
“Pipe down!” Rick steps from the slant-floored bathroom into the kitchen, his shirt unbuttoned, flaunting a working man’s chest. He gives the radio dial a spin.
“River walleyes feasting,” a voice announces, “biting on worms to red spinners.”
“For every lucky bastard but me.” Rick tugs at his shirt pocket until a Brown County Roadworker logo rips free. He comes up behind Jilleen and shoves it down the front of her jeans.
Spoons clatter across linoleum.
Jilleen squirms, but Rick keeps her pinned against porcelain. He screws his head around and watches Tyler retrieve the spoons. “Go ahead, boy,” he says. “Tell your mamma what I do all day.”
Jilleen stares out the window above the sink. The lawn is awash with purple-cupped crocus, and the barberry bushes she planted around her garden to deter stray cats and unleashed dogs have shed winter’s hold. But the lone box elder tree is half dead, and the blackbirds are back, embedded like locusts along bare limbs. Beaks open and close but she can’t hear their taunt. And then she hears Maggie-Mae recite, “Daddy shovels pot holes full of tar cinder so the rich farmer boys can rip ’em up again with their big ass tractors.”
“At least someone in this house understands.” Rick holds up a hand and Maggie jumps to high-five it. Then he reaches around Jilleen and snatches the phone receiver from the wall, pokes her in the back with it. She knows what he wants. The same thing she does. An escape from drudgery. But she can’t grant him that today—she can’t call his supervisor with another excuse for another absence. Not today. Today she needs Rick tethered under a ten-hour work load.
The phone continues pressing.
“Rent check’s gonna bounce, Hon,” she says.
Rick drops the phone in a doughy tin. Jilleen slumps forward as he backs away, a fall of chestnut hair hiding lips pressed tight. She hears coffee glug into a thermos, the clink of keys that ride from a chain at Rick’s hip.
When the back door slams shut, she swings back her hair and resumes chopping rhubarb. Fiery chunks drop left and right, skip across water and bounce airborne. From the window she can see Rick slide behind the wheel of his ’65 Mustang—his three-hundred dollar steal, a ten-year-old-rusted-out wreck purchased with her pie savings. The Mustang roars to a start spitting yellow fumes, stalls, fires again. At the squeal of tires fishtailing down the alley she winces, her escape exploding in her head like spewed gravel, and her knife slices through fruit into flesh.
“Shit,” she yelps.
“Shit,” Maggie-Mae parrots.
Jilleen plunges her hand in the sink, feels Tyler press against her hip as clear water turns red as the rhubarb.
“You need stitches,” he says.
She holds up a bloody index finger, wraps a dishrag around it.
“That’s not clean. My teacher says you gotta wash cuts with a special soap.”
“Get your butt to school.”
Tyler slips out the back door. Jilleen crosses into the living room, her step sullen, weighted with defeat. She lifts a curtain fashioned from two wash clothes and looks out the front door window, watches Tyler sprint across Fifth Street, then check his pace, keeping well behind a group of jostling boys. One of them turns around and flips Tyler the finger.
Jilleen bumps her forehead against the window, wishing Tyler would just this once bust through their bully-boy barricade and blind them with moxie. The kind her daddy tried to slap out of her. But Tyler has never seen her fierce. Not when it counts. That part went underground when her eyes first rested on Rick. He was sitting on a stool up to the bar at the Idle Hour. She, underage and adrift on Columbian Gold, had stood charmed by a snake inked around his left bicep.
“That’s where a rattler bit me,” Rick said, offering her a closer look.
“Don’t see any fang marks,” she taunted, and the soft molasses in Rick’s eyes fell away, replaced by something dark and thrilling and treacherous as black ice on pavement. He turned on the barstool and she stepped between his knees. She could smell the wind in his hair, the spice of his skin. When his lips swelled around hers she knew, if she wanted him, her tongue had better melt like cotton candy on his.
Jilleen backs away from the window and trips over Maggie-Mae, who is camped in front of the TV, sucking a thumb and watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. She slaps the thumb out of Maggie’s mouth, looks away from tears welling in rounded eyes.
“Mommy will be right back,” she chokes out.
It’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood floats from the TV as Jilleen navigates ladder-like steps to the basement. At the bottom, gritty light filters through high windows, and the concrete floor is uneven, heaved up in cracks. She bumps against the clothes dryer, useless since January but a safe place for stashing a garbage bag stuffed with her and the kids’ getaway clothes. She contemplates returning them to drawers, then reaches up and gives the overhead bulb a half-turn. A row of cubicles pops into view. They house Rick’s fishing tackle, meticulously sorted and labeled, rainbow colored lures and red bobbers, rubbery worms, plastic minnows, shiny spinners rigged to hooks that dangle silent and deadly. Rick’s fishing rods hang against the cement wall, snugged like pool cues in velvet-lined nooks. She notes that two of them are missing. Christ. He never intended she could drop him at work this morning. And now she’s supposed to high-tail it upstairs and dial Peek, the giver and taker of sick pay, who buys her lame excuses because once, under a high-top down at the Silver Dollar, she let his sweaty hand creep up her thigh. Rick was there too, his back to her, holding court up to the bar, bragging how he’d hooked a trophy walleye.
“You got to know how a silver-scaled beauty thinks,” Rick said, as Peek’s fingers inched closer to her panties. “When she hits you set the hook.” Rick jerked his phantom rod. “And you let her run out your line to exhaustion.” Then he turned around and stared straight at her, made like he was reeling her in, and she rose, slipping free of Peek. She had put on quite a show, weaving this way and that through the crowd, who toasted her with Bud bottles held high as she snuggled up to Rick.
Jilleen’s hand juts inside a cubicle and pulls out a box of matches. She fumbles it open. Match sticks scatter. And two fat doobies roll out. She plants one between her lips, strikes a match to cement. Inhales the joint to a stub. Sunday, she’s thinking. Rick won’t show up until late Sunday, full of beer and smiles and toting a cooler of walleye for her to gut and fry up for supper. Would serve him right if she didn’t call Peek.
She pockets the second joint, then drifts back upstairs. The phone hangs against the wall like a thick, black commandment. She’s reaching for it when it rings, tolling seven times before she cradles receiver between cheek and shoulder. It’s Rick.
“I already called Peek,” she blurts out.
“So did the kids give me the puking flu or strep throat? Hooting laughter comes from the background, and she figures he’s in some Missouri River dive, chasing tequila shots with red beer.
“Food poisoning,” she says.
“Good one, Jilly.”
“When do you think you might maybe be home?” she says.
“Why? Does Jilly have somewhere she needs to be?”
Her heart skips. But her voice is smooth as whipped butter as she says, “No place other than the bank.”
“Fuck the landlord. I’m taking my Sweet Jilly out tomorrow night.”
“Hang up lover boy,” someone shouts, and the line goes dead.
A tiny grin plays at Jilleen’s lips. A night out means writing another rubber check, even more reason for Rick to hand over his car keys and paycheck Monday morning. And Monday is just as good as today, she tells herself. It’s only another seventy-two hours, and Rick probably won’t be home until tomorrow, so she’ll only have to pacify him for forty-eight. She’s gotten good at faking it, but the thought of Rick’s eyes, those dark pits that once thrilled, another marathon night—there’s not enough weed in the world to numb that task.
The dishrag wrapped finger throbs as she dials Peek and tells him both her and Rick are coughing up green chunks.
“Lot of that going around,” Peek drawls, and adds it’s not her lips but her sweet ass that makes him hard.
She bangs phone back in its cradle and the dishrag falls from her finger. Blood spurts. She ducks in the bathroom and swings open a metal cabinet door, grabs out a bottle of rubbing alcohol, gasping at the burn as her finger dunks into the bottle.
After binding her wound in white gauze and adhesive tape, Jilleen digs Rick’s work logo out of her jeans. It slips from shaky fingers, takes a beeline for the toilet. She thinks about fishing it out. Then flushes. Rick will drink harder than ever once she’s gone. Skip work. And without her as a buffer Peek will can his sorry ass. Her legs go weak, and the toilet slips sideways as she eases down into the empty tub. Cold porcelain presses through her sweatshirt, and the fate she’s forcing on Rick rips like jagged ice through her veins.
“Man knocking! Man knocking!” Maggie-Mae skips into the bathroom.
Jilleen reaches out and clamps a hand over Maggie’s mouth. “Stay put,” she whispers, and scrambles out of the tub. She takes a deep breath, then creeps into the kitchen, hugs against the staircase that zigzags up to the kids’ attic bedroom. She pokes her head out an inch or so, thinking the Jehovah Witness who prowls west hill every other day has come to damn her. But it’s Leo, a bartender down at the Silver Dollar, famous for selling dime bags of weed taped to the bottom of a Budweiser. He has his big hairy face pressed against the backdoor window. She jerks back but he sees her and pounds harder.
Jilleen opens the door.
“The old man still sleeping?” Leo stands in a pool of hard sun. She shields her eyes. He squints at her bandage, and she lets him think its Rick’s fault, though Rick has never hurt her that way. Then Leo tilts his head and peers over her shoulder, like Rick is hiding behind the door or something.
“He’s at work,” she says.
“He was to meet me in front of The Dollar at nine.”
Leo shoots tobacco spit at her feet. “Tell Ricky boy the weed he’s selling those crazy-ass west river cowboys belongs to me.” He steps close, so close she can smell his brown teeth. “Seems you owe me a couple a dimes too.”
“I want a dime.” Maggie-Mae shoots around Jilleen.
Leo grins. “Kid sounds like you.” He fishes a coin from his pocket and flips it in the air. Maggie jumps. But Jilleen catches her mid-leap and shoves her inside.
“Nice save,” Leo says.
Jilleen kicks the door shut. She spins around and marches to the sink, starts one-handing blood-spiked rhubarb into the dough-lined tins. The pies will net thirty bucks. And if Leo should darken her door again before Monday, she’ll zero him out, too.
By two-thirty, fluted crusts are golden brown and pink, syrupy juice oozes from V-slits. Jilleen foil wraps the pies, stacks them in racks. Half an hour later Tyler gets home from school and helps her bungee-strap them in his radio flyer wagon. She dreads delivery. Fritz Market is only four blocks down, but Rick’s sister, Mona, works behind its only counter, scrutinizing everything that goes out and comes in, and Jilleen fears the scent of flight is on her so strong that Mona will take one whiff and somehow, some way, alert her baby brother.
“You’re old enough to deliver these on your own,” she tells Tyler.
“Aunt Mona’s gonna ask where you are.”
“Tell her I cut my finger half off.” She wheels the wagon around to the front of the house, Maggie-Mae at her heels, chanting “Ice cream, ice cream. I need ice cream.”
At the curb, Jilleen hands Tyler the handle. “You can buy a treat,” she says, then watches until he crosses the first intersection, one hand clutching Maggie’s, the other pulling his load.
Back in the house, Jilleen fingers the doobie in her pocket, lights a Marlboro instead. One puff and she stubs it in an ashtray etched with Lightening Motel around its lip. The Lightening is five or six blocks from their house, sandwiched between a used car lot and Speedy’s Tires on Sixth Avenue. The ashtray is a souvenir. Rick is the one who thought to filch it. She’d had her head in the toilet, wishing she was at the homecoming kegger with the rest of her senior class, vomiting beer instead of wedding cake. Rick was leaning against the bathroom door, watching her.
“Thought when you’re preggers you only toss your cookies in the morning,” he said. He pressed a cold washcloth to her forehead, sat with her on the cold tiled floor, tried to distract her with silly baby names—Boy Goop, Tommy Toot, Vince Vomit.
“It’s probably a girl,” she said between up-chucks.
Rick pressed his cheek to her stomach. “Then her name is Maggie-Mae.”
Jilleen stares at the ashtray. Her eyes blur, and one tear escapes and burns down her cheek. She swipes it away and pulls the doobie out of her pocket, allows herself one long, honeyed drag. Then she wraps herself in a green afghan and falls asleep on the couch. Images dart through dream, blend, break apart. A baby shoots out between legs. Blood streaks the horizon, runs red rivers down grassy hills. Lips tug at her breast and a nipple swells, grows purple wings. Bam! Daddy kicks her head. Rick binds it in white gauze and adhesive tape.
Jilleen kicks off the afghan, gasping for breath. A strawberry floats above her. She blinks but the berry persists, morphs into a red pincushion dangling from the ceiling. Rick is the one who tacked it up there, when Maggie-Mae had pinkeye, and Maggie had looked up at it, her body quiet with trust, while Rick dropped medicine in her hot sticky eyes.
Jilleen groans and rolls onto her side, comes eye to eye with Tyler and Maggie-Mae. They are sitting cross-legged on the floor, in a ray of dying sun, Maggie’s mouth a smear of fudge-swirl ice cream.
“I told Aunt Mona you were sick,” Tyler says.
Jilleen jerks upright. “Is she coming over?”
“Naw,” Maggie says. “Green puke too scary.”
Tyler pulls two tens and four ones from his back pocket and fans out the bills on the floor like a lottery win. He is short six bucks.
“Ice cream doesn’t cost that much,” Jilleen says. “Show me your pockets.”
He stands and she pulls his pockets inside out, finds a hole in the left one. “Christ, Tyler! You don’t put money in a pocket that’s got a goddamn hole in it.”
Tyler hangs his head, shuffles into the kitchen. Jilleen dogs him, hating how his shoulders are slumped. “Stupid carelessness,” she says. “Plain old not-paying-attention dumb.
“More ice cream,” Maggie-Mae demands.
Jilleen grabs the bowl out of Maggie’s hands and gives it a hurl. Thump. It bounces off Tyler’s back. He pauses, then darts up the stairs. And she is leaping onto the second step when, from the corner of one eye, she sees a package of wieners and a box of macaroni and cheese on the kitchen counter, Tyler’s offering for his wounded mommy, and she crumples.
Maggie squeezes in beside her on the stairs. “Tyler’s naughty.”
“No, baby, no.”
Jilleen goes over to the stove and boils up the macaroni, adds milk and butter and the powdered cheese, drops in a couple of chopped wieners. She calls up the stairs, “Supper’s ready.”
Tyler stays silent.
Around ten Jilleen tucks Maggie-Mae in the bottom bunk, then climbs to the second rung on the ladder and peers into the top one. Streetlight beams through the window and she can see Tyler is facing the wall. She lays a hand on his narrow back.
“What say we take a vacation?” she says.
Tyler chokes back snot. “Is Daddy gonna come?”
“Not this time.”
“Do we have to stay with Grandpa and Grandma, like last summer?”
“I was thinking of a high place, where there’s deer and raccoons and coyotes. A lake, too. Maybe even fireflies. We can catch them in a jar and they can be your very own flashlight.”
Tyler turns over and looks up at her. “Okay,” he says.
Jilleen goes to bed around midnight but can’t sleep. Her eyes fix on the Christmas tree nightlight Tyler gave her. It burns red up the wall. Minutes tick by slow as eternity, and the ease she craves, that place where her mind stops pacing like a caged tiger, dances beyond her. She jumps out of bed and ties on the fluffy white robe she’d pilfered from JC Penny. She tiptoes through the living room, retrieving the doobie from the ashtray. The back door squeaks as she eases it open and she pauses, cocks her head at the stairs. When no one calls down Mommy, she steps out on the back stoop.
The stars drift high and dim, not like last night, when they shimmered like silver and floated so close it felt like she could grab hold of their shine and ride it to the moon. Once, at a block kegger, a neighbor told her that his people float up the Milky Way when they die, and a crone who lives in the little dipper’s cup throws their ascending asses back to earth. She asked the old warrior if they landed in a better place, and Rick scowled, told her she was full of shit.
Jilleen lies down across the stoop’s hard length, searches the night sky. A cloud boils up and inks out the moon, and the only indication she is even there comes from the red-tipped doobie traveling back and forth from her lips. She imagines zooming towards the little dipper, her little A-frame house fading to a pin dot, and then she’s falling, falling—
Tires crunch on gravel.
She rolls to a crouch, caught in the glare of headlights. A dark silhouette stomps through her garden, through grass. A boot kicks her knee.
“How fucking far did you think you’d get?” Rick’s spit sizzles down her cheek. He stumbles over her, rips open the back door, and she hears him crash down the basement stairs. Instinct shouts run. But she waits, feet frozen to cement.
Whack! Something soft but huge slaps her off the stoop. And she’s on her back, the kids’ jeans and jammies and t-shirts raining down like dead stars. And then she’s tumbling, end over end, Rick’s mouth clamped on hers. Whiskey-breath smothers, chokes down her throat. She bites.
“Bitch!” Rick cries.
They roll faster. Tearing up grass, beheading the purple-cupped crocus. Thorny barberry strips off her robe, digs red furrows up her legs. And still they roll, snarling and clawing like feral cats. Thump. Her back strikes bark, and she’s cartwheeling over Rick’s head, soaring towards stars that wink like fireflies along the shore of a glacial lake.
But gravity spews her nose deep in mud. She heaves up to her hands and knees and starts crawling. Rhubarb stalks bend and snap, weeping raw juice that burns her crimson. She hears Rick sobbing, “Don’t run, Jilly. Don’t run.” And her mind short-circuits to that place where there is no pain, no judgment, just a long, inhale of nothing.
Laretta Andrews Mitchell: “A freshman comp professor once told me I wrote well. That was thirty years ago. I was thirty-three, and, shortly after, I dropped out of college. But nights when sleep eluded I would listen to the coyotes howl, their yips floating from behind the barn, and scenes would rattle in my head. ‘Blood-Spiked Rhubarb’ is my first published story.”
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: For me, writing always erupts from character. I saw Jilleen, in the garden, and I knew she had a secret. Beyond that it came from eavesdropping and observation, of the imagined and the real.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Louise Erdrich, William Styron, A. Mannette Ansay, Wallace Stegner, Bobbie Ann Mason, Tobias Wolff, Susan Power, Pam Houston, Alice Hoffman, Willa Cather, and the list goes on. I’ve spent many hours in pages where time stood still, where I was transported into other worlds, other bodies.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: The Cayman Islands. Or a heated nook in my garage, and, in summer, my gazebo.
Q: Who plays you in the movie?
A: Meryl Streep; she is believable in any role, though I fear I’m not as convincing. My roles bump together, break apart, and then coalesce into an ever changing collage as mysterious and full of fancy as sunrise on the prairie.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A series of short stories that are linked by location—South Dakota—and people who toy with or live on the fringe. Also, I’m thinking of developing “Blood-Spiked Rhubarb” into a novel.
by Frank Scozzari
followed by Q&A
Mowambi was breathing hard, panting like a wild animal, his leathery face wincing in the hot African sun. He had been hit cleanly through the side, the wound causing a great numbness in his abdomen. His left leg lay limp like a dead thing, the life in it taken by the bullet. But the maumivu, the pain that it made, wasn’t bad. Except when he tried to move or when he breathed too deeply. He concentrated on his breathing, short and fast, short and fast, never too deep.
Mr. Rick—on the other hand—was dead. He lay face-up on the rocks ten feet below Mowambi, where he’d been hit. The tsetse flies had already gathered around his eyes, scavenging on the moisture there.
Together, he and Mr. Rick had made a gallant rush up the dry wash, under the weight of heavy packs, laboring like horses, dodging bullets that ricocheted and wheezed past them. They had been close to the top, very close, nearly three-quarters of the way up the stone gulch to where it steepened abruptly, almost into a cliff. Then, Bam! Bam! Two shots and they were down—dropped like two gazelles on the Serengeti.
Mowambi lay now, back propped against a stone, trying desperately to hold back the blood that oozed from his side. His head was fuzzy and light, his breathing still fast and labored. The air was hot and dry and parched his throat with each breath he took. His life light, that which gave vision to his eyes, had momentarily gone out, but was back now, and his heart was pounding fiercely. He looked over at Rick Johnson, a big man, Mr. Rick, young and tall and strong. The bullet had hit him squarely in the back and come out his chest. Mowambi had seen many bullet wounds in game animals in his long life of fifty-eight years, many bullet wounds in animals, but not as many in men. He could see now how this one had taken Mr. Rick down so quickly. Over five-hundred meters and right through the big man’s heart. They shoot very well, he thought. These white men from Zambia.
“Mr. Rick,” Mowambi spoke aloud. “They got you good!” He shook his head, sadly.
He squinted up at the sun, the sweat running down the sides of his face. It was mid-afternoon, hot, and there was no shade, except for one old thorn tree, scraggly as the thin gray hairs on Mowambi’s chin. And Mowambi wore only a green army tunic and big Bermuda shorts, so his slender arms and lean black legs lay heavily exposed to the heat of the sun.
“Now they come to kill me!” he said, resting his head back against the stone and staring up into the blue, Zimbabwe sky.
He pulled himself higher on the stone, dragging his dead leg, and he looked down the wash. He could see them coming up: four, no five, of them. The three bushmen from the Kalahari and the two white men from Zambia. Their white safari hats were shining in the sunlight as they came out from under a group of huge, thick-trunked baobab trees at the bottom of the wash.
All that practice, he thought. Shooting down elephants. It has made them good shots. Now they come to kill me and won’t have to shoot well. So this is how it ends?
He began to laugh about it, but the laughter made the pain rise in his side.
They could use their hands now, or a rock, he scoffed.
Then a grisly thought entered his mind, that they would not kill him at all, but would leave him to die in the sun. He had seen, many times, the carcass of an animal out on the Savannah, left to die beneath a blazing sun, left alone to ward off buzzards and hyenas, left until it could fight no more and was savagely eaten alive. He understood how all things are connected, how all that rises from the earth goes back to the earth, but this did not comfort him. Death in the Savannah could be hard and brutal. Not a good way to end a long and joyous life. It was a frightful thought, and it made his heart hollow. Living long made dying okay. But slow dying, in a way that humiliates, was not good.
But they would have to kill him, he thought. After all he and Mr. Rick had done! They had no choice but to kill him! He smiled broadly.
“We done good, Mr. Rick,” he said. Ah, yes, we did them good!
He began to laugh out loud, a high-pitched, happy laugh.
In his mind he saw the two jeeps explode, going up beautifully, spitting huge bellows of black smoke into the sky. And then the plane. Yes, the plane! Mr. Rick was right. Just one bottle of gasoline and one match did it. And the Coca-Cola was so good! They enjoyed drinking the Coca-Cola thinking of the gasoline with which they would fill the empty bottles afterward.
This was a huge setback for them, the white men from Zambia. Mr. Rick said it would be. No longer could they so easily shoot elephants from the sky. No longer can they take the last rhinos from the Savannah.
“Sorry you cannot laugh with me, Mr. Rick,” he said. “It was a very funny thing we did.”
He looked at the packs, the packs that had ruined them, one still slung partially on Mr. Rick’s arm, the other beside him on the ground where he had fallen. They were filled with ammunition, hundreds and hundreds of rounds, ammunition for automatic rifles. Mr. Rick had insisted on taking them. After blowing up the jeeps and the plane, with the bushmen breathing down their necks, he insisted on taking them. It would be a tremendous setback, he said. The hunters could not replace them. Each two or three rounds represented an elephant’s life. Now the two packs lay there, heavily on his mind, easy pickings for the white men from Zambia who came up the wash.
He surveyed the area around him. He and Mr. Rick had made it to the point where the two washes merged. He had picked this spot, this saddle near the top of the two washes, from far away. He had remembered it because the two washes were like crossroads and he had looked up at them when they first started up the wash, using them as a bearing to know when they neared the top.
Above him was the rock-strewn ridge that they would never make. Before him was a vast view of the African countryside. From high on the stone face, he overlooked a deep valley, almost a canyon that swooped down from the mountains and opened into a large sea of rolling hills of grass. Beyond that were the flatlands, and farther out, along the western horizon, a dusty yellow haze, fading into the sky, marked the end of the Savannah. The near end of the canyon was thick with bamboo forests, out of which the hunters now ascended, following a game trail steeply up the gully.
Between him and Mr. Rick’s body, there was nothing but the rocks and stone slabs that made up the slope, the two packs, and the scraggly old thorn tree. Near his foot he saw a stick from the thorn tree. A nice, round stick—the length of his arm. He reached for it with his one good leg, pawing at it with his heel until he could draw it in. Then he reached down with his good right arm, stopping for the pain to subside, then reaching again, stretching and clenching it in his hand. It is a good stick, he thought. It will be useful.
A noise sounded behind him. He looked up and saw a large yellow hornbill perched on the stone just above his head. The bird watched him, turning its head, showing its big, curved, yellow beak. It had small yellow eyes that pulsated and zoomed in out. The bird peered at him, long and lustfully.
“So, you have come for dinner, my friend?” said Mowambi. “Leave now. I do not die yet.”
Mowambi waved at it with the stick and the bird flew up and over the small rise in the saddle between the two washes, and down into the steep gorge beyond.
Mowambi looked down at the packs. All that weight in those packs, he thought, that weight that slowed us down, that kept us from getting away free. That’s a shame, Mr. Rick. Too bad the hunters will end up getting the bullets back. It is mbaya sana, very, very bad. But we got their plane. They will not be killing elephants from the sky for a while. No, sir. We did good, Mr. Rick.
He looked at Rick Johnson again, thinking of the young American. A crazy man, he thought, here in Zimbabwe, so far away from his home, here to save elephants from the culling, the poaching, and the trophy hunters. It was not his fight, they were not his elephants, nor his home, nor land, but here he was, leading the charge, organizing the others, doing what he could to thwart the hunters. Here he was, dead because of 150 pounds of bullets that would go back into the hands of those who will use them to kill.
Mowambi was thirsty now, very thirsty, and he tried to think of something pleasant. He thought of the water flowing in the small stream down below in the bamboo forest. He thought of the Kariba, the endless Kariba, and the cold, clean water that flowed from it. He thought of the life it brought. He thought of what it would be like to have a cool drink of water!
“Nipatie kinywaji baridi, tafadhali,” he said—please bring me a cold drink!
But his mind kept switching back to Mr. Rick, his presence here, and why he should die in Zimbabwe, in vain, high on this rocky gulch overlooking the Savannah. And for Mowambi, it was wapi—the worst way to die. When you do not finish what you start out to do. It was the worst way. Those bullets, Mowambi thought, they really ruined us.
Mowambi had not known all that had taken place, until Rick Johnson told him. Sure he knew the value of ivory, pound for pound more valuable than gold, but he did not know that the culling had been authorized by the government and the ivory was being used to finance rebel armies in the north. It was bigger, even bigger than Rick Johnson had known. But for Mowambi, what he had always known was enough. The killing was bad. He worked hard to help the foreigners fight against the killing. What he saw in Rick Johnson’s eyes and what he felt in his own heart was enough for him. It was all that Mowambi needed.
The elephants were friends of the people and friends of the land. And they had always been friends to Mowambi. From the time he was a small child in his father’s village, to now as an old man, they had been a part of his life, part of the Savannah. From birth to death they all walked together on the Savannah. The elephants widened the water holes and brought life to many. “Tangu kuzaliwa hata kufa,” was the saying.
He knew how elephants cried. Even more so than humans, they sensed death and felt death. They were not thoughtless beasts. He remembered the time he saw an elephant cow crying for her lost child. He had watched her from a thicket, and had returned three days later to find her there, still mourning. He had heard elephants laughing, under the sunlight, herds wallowing in mud holes, laughing and squirting showers of water on one another. He had watched young elephants rumble on the Savannah, tripping over their trunks, fumbling with the use of that strange appendage. And he had laughed hard, so hard that he thought his belly would crack.
He had seen an elephant reach out and touch another, fallen from a bullet, and many others carrying and fondling the bones of their fallen friends. He had heard stories told of young elephants, orphaned after their parents were shot, having horrible nightmares for months on end, as any human child would. He had heard their trumpeting cries across the desert, felt the sorrow of their low, subsonic rumbles, and saw them kick up clouds of dust against a setting African sun. Elephants had brought him amusement and sadness, compassion and joy. They had brought great laughter to his long life, and he owed them for that. They belonged here.
But the hunters could not see the elephant’s soul. Their eyes were blinded by greed. For them, the prize was ivory—white gold. And the herds were diminished, as was all the world. At first, they took out the big bulls. When the bulls were no more, they took the females, often leaving the young elephants motherless. Mowambi’s heart ached for the small, clumsy babies left to die on their own.
His head was hot and clammy now. His mind was fading in and out, almost into unconsciousness. And, in the heat and clutter of his fever, he had a vision. A big elephant came to him, crashing through the forest, its huge ears flapping, ivory tusks swinging from side to side. It stormed toward him, crushing down branches, pounding the earth with each step, shaking the ground so hard it rattled him. Then it stopped and stared in his eyes, its huge head swaying from side to side. In an instant, as quickly as the elephant had come, it turned and charged off into the forest.
Mowambi was startled awake by a noise. The bird again, the big, yellow hornbill. This time, it was perched on a rock below him. It was blazing hot and the thin shadow of the thorn tree was fully behind him now. He looked down the wash and saw the men closer, laboring up, their rifles slung confidently on their shoulders.
“You want to eat me now, don’t you?” Mowambi said to the bird. “Uende! Go away again. I do not die yet.”
He picked up a small stone with his good arm, and tossed it at the bird. Pain rose sharply in his side. The stone bounced off a rock near the bird, and the bird flew off again, as he did last time, over the saddle and down, laughing mockingly as it vanished over the rise.
“Where do you go, bird?” Mowambi asked.
He stretched his neck, trying to look over the small rise in the saddle. He could not see far beyond the curvature of the rock—only the sheer wall on the other side.
He grabbed a stone and tossed it over the saddle, not far enough to drop into the steep hole beyond. He threw a second stone, and the pain in his side roared so intensely that he almost blacked out.
This time, though, Mowambi heard the rock tumble, bounce, echo, bounce again, and then splash. He threw another, and again there was a bounce, an echo, a bounce again, and a splash. And Mowambi began to laugh loud—his high-pitched, joyous laugh. It would be the perfect plan, he thought. The perfect place.
At first, he went for the pack closest to him. It was scarcely an arm’s length away, but it was on his bad side, the side that had been killed by the bullet, and although he could move his left arm, it was almost numb, and his left leg was lifeless.
He felt his left thigh with his slender fingers. Nothing. Through all his years, it had been a good leg. He had traveled many miles on it, across the savannah, in the desert, through the mountains.
“Wake up, leg,” he said. “No time to sleep.”
But it was usingizi—dead—the worst kind of sleep. His only choice was to twist across his body and reach for the pack with his right. He was reluctant to try it; the pain might cause him to pass out. Yet the men were coming up, and he knew he had to move quickly. So he reached for it, at first stretching slowly, testing the pain, pacing himself through it. Then he made himself fall over on his side, in the direction of the pack. His slender left shoulder hit the rocky ground and he clenched the pack-strap in his good hand, gripping it tightly, and dragged it toward him. He took a second, resting his face in the good earth.
It is truly not bad, he thought. When I stop, the pain goes away.
He pulled himself up and rolled the pack over his dead leg, the full weight of it, nearly seventy pounds, coming against it. He was glad it was asleep now. The bullet must have completely smashed the big nerve.
Over his good leg next, and down to the rocky ground. Then he began to push and roll it up the small grade of the saddle. He turned sideways and pushed with his right leg. He dragged himself along the rock to get closer, always pacing himself, sweating and gritting his teeth through the pain. He took the stick and pushed the pack as high as he could so that it reached the peak of the small rise.
The pack was long and cylinder-shaped. Mowambi knew it would roll easily once it started down. He inched himself forward. Smiling, then wincing with pain, then smiling again, tasting victory. He reached out and placed the stick against the bag, holding it there as he readied himself. Then he pushed hard, extending his arm fully. The pack tumbled, began to roll, and fell through the open air.
There was a huge splash, and Mowambi smiled widely. He thought of an old East African saying: Kusika si kusna—hearing is not seeing. But what he heard was mzuri sana—very, very good. The splash was loud and wonderful, as good as seeing. It must be deep, he thought. It has to be very deep!
“Do you see, Mr. Rick?” he said aloud.
Hurrying now for the other pack, he dragged himself across the stone, pulling with his one good arm, pushing with his one good leg, laughing hard against the pain. His bad arm had no feeling, but he folded the numb hand around the stick and dragged it, looking back frequently to see if the stick was still there.
He laughed at the thought of himself crawling across the ground like a worm. Stretching out, then inching forward—just like a worm! A worm that would defeat the hunters! He had walked great distances in his time. How he could barely make ten feet to where Mr. Rick and the other pack lay. He was glad he had watched worms and understood their movement.
No time to laugh, worm, he thought. Time to work!
Stretching out, he extended himself completely and reached for the pack with the stick. For a moment, everything went black. Then he came to. He looked down-canyon, but was too low to see the hunters.
“I must hurry,” he told himself. “They are close.”
Then he stretched for the pack again.
The strap, still on Rick Johnson’s arm, had a nice loop in it that stood out. He tried to snag it with the end of the stick.
“Come on, stick. Come on, fimbo. Take it.”
He jabbed and poked, finally catching it. Then he pulled on it with his good arm. He reached up with his numb arm as well, holding the stick with both hands now, and pulled back hard. The pack slid from Mr. Rick’s limp arm, and began to come away, pulling the dead man’s arm with it.
“Don’t worry, friend! I come join you soon,” Mowambi said, softly.
He yanked on the stick again, this time with all his strength, and the pack came loose from Rick Johnson’s shoulder. He drew it in close enough to where he could grab it into his chest.
It was the greatest chore, inching the pack back uphill. Every time he stopped to rest, the thought of the wonderful splash it would make gave him strength to go on.
When he reached the saddle, and pushed the pack down the other side, he held his breath until he heard the deep splash—then he let his head fall back and laughed high and fast. Finally, limp and exhausted, he lay back against the flat rock, resting his head on the earth, his one good arm outstretched above him. After a few moments, he let gravity roll him back down to his original position, pulling himself against the stone, and waited.
It was not long before he heard the hunters approaching and could see their white safari hats topping the rocks below him.
“Habari! Karibu!” Mowambi said, in the nicest form of welcome.
The men came in slowly, cautiously, circling around Mowambi, and around the body of Rick Johnson. Two of them pointed their rifles at Mowambi. One of the bushmen poked at the corpse with the barrel of his gun.
“Wafu,” he said. “Dead.”
Then they looked at the wound in Mowambi’s side.
“It’s not bad,” Mowambi lied. “Sijambo! I’m fine.”
One white man, the mzungu, had curly red hair, narrow eyes and a pug nose. He turned to the bushmen and spoke in Swahili.
“Kutafuta wao! Kuta wao! Look for them! Find the ammunition!”
The bushmen immediately began searching the area, behind the rocks and in crevices, up higher in the wash, too, where it steepened. One bushman backtracked down the wash from where they had come.
The other white man, thinner and taller, with a big black mustache, looked at Mowambi.
“Where are they?” he asked. “The bullets, the popoo! Ramia!”
Mowambi smiled at him, showing him his missing teeth. He laughed at him, with his high, ridiculous laugh, until the pain from his wound made his stop.
“How do you kill now, with no bullets? How do you kill? No more elephants. No more buri. No more, pembe,” Mowambi said, using the Swahili words for tusks and ivory.
One bushman was now halfway down the wash. The pig-faced white man yelled to him in Swahili. The bushman looked up, raised both hands in the air, and shook his head.
The other white man walked to the top of the saddle, where another of the bushmen stood looking down the steep cliff at the water below. When the white man saw the water, he turned back and looked at Mowambi.
“Too bad,” Mowambi said. “Too bad no more ivory.” He was laughing, laughing and choking on the blood that erupted in his mouth.
“Kufisha,” said one of the bushmen. “Kill him.”
The man with the mustache picked up a rock and tossed it into the pool of water. It splashed so loud they all could hear it. Then he walked back down beside the other white man and stood before Mowambi.
“Black bastard,” the black-mustached one spoke. “Bastards.” He kicked at Mowambi.
Mowambi was ready. He wanted to force them to end it now. His side was hurting badly. Also, he didn’t want to be left for the hyenas.
It would be the white man with the narrow eyes of a wild pig, he thought. The ngizi.
The pig-faced one stepped forward now, his rifle barrel low to the ground. Then he raised the barrel to Mowambi’s face. Mowambi laughed again, high and silly. His mind went into a dreamlike state, and he saw the large elephant in his vision, charging through the forest. He saw the young elephants playing in the mud holes. He saw Mr. Rick, behind a pair of dark sunglasses, laughing and smiling. He saw the packs, full of bullets at the bottom of the pool, soaked and wrecked. Then he saw a white flash, and he saw no more.
Frank Scozzari lives in Nipomo, California, a small town on the central coast. He is an avid traveler, has made several trips to Africa, and once climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa. His fiction has been featured in various literary magazines, including The Kenyon Review, South Dakota Review, Roanoke Review, Pacific Review, Skylark Literary Magazine, Reed Magazine, The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, The Licking River Review, Limestone- A Literary Journal, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Thema, and many others. He was the winner of the National Writer’s Association Short Story Contest and was twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: The inspiration for this story came on a trip to Africa when I was told of how some “radical conservationists” sabotaged a group of ivory poachers.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Jack London, Steinbeck, Hemingway
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: Near the coast
Q: Who plays you in the movie?
A: Don’t know
Q: What are you working on now?
A: More short stories and a screenplay
by Gerry Wilson
followed by Q&A
Barbara thinks the model airplane, a P-38 Lightning, is too complicated for Josh, but it’s his eleventh birthday and his money. Steven watches, his chin resting on his crossed arms. Steven is seven, a pest. When he picks up a frame and twists off a part, Josh slaps his hand.
“You touch that again and you’re dead,” Josh says.
“Am not,” Steven says.
Barbara sighs. “All right, you two. One more outburst and you go straight to bed.”
It has taken Josh and Barbara half an hour to snap the plastic pieces from their frames. Barbara finds the empty frames themselves interesting—their odd spaces, sticks that go nowhere, knobs with rough edges where the pieces have broken off.
Tiny plastic parts coded in order of assembly cover the kitchen table: the A parts in a pile, then B, then C, and on and on. Barbara reads the directions again. Words like fuselage, twin engine booms, tail assembly. The model cement fumes are giving her a headache.
Josh hands her the engine boom he’s just glued together. “This one’s done,” he says. “Check it out.”
She gets cement on her hands. “It’s messy, Josh.” She cleans the seams with a Q-tip dipped in nail polish remover and gives it back to him. “Don’t use quite so much.”
“I know, Mom,” he says. And he does. More than a dozen model planes fill the shelves in his room, models he’s finished with little help from either Sam or her. He can tell you the names of the planes, their specs, when and where they were built, how they functioned in whatever war. This is the first one that’s frustrated him. She’s sorry she let him buy it.
Josh struggles to fit the propeller on the second engine. “It won’t go,” he says.
Barbara pushes the diagrams toward him. “Follow the directions.”
He sighs and rolls his eyes, that sappy, pre-adolescent thing he’s started lately.
She peels the cement off her fingers like a layer of skin. She wishes Sam were home. Her shoulders hurt. She gets up, stretches, rubs the back of her neck, walks around the table. They’ve been at this for two hours. “Let’s stop for now,” she says. “You can work on it tomorrow. Your dad’ll be home. He can help.”
Josh scrapes his chair back hard. “I wouldn’t bet on it,” he says. He stalks off to his room.
A gray morning on St. George Island. Low, threatening clouds, slate water, a blending of sky and Gulf except where the waves build far out and heave themselves at the shore, pound away at the beach and leave a sharp ledge where there should be hard, smooth slopes of sand. Today there are only broken shells, loops and tangles of seaweed, driftwood, debris.
Tire tracks on the sand. The beach patrol has come by early and posted red warning flags that whip in the wind like flames. Gulls halt and hover, treading wind like water, then surrender and settle in flocks and huddle close. Most days you can see the shallows and the deeps, know where to wade or swim, ride the waves on plastic floats, take out the Sunfish. But on days like this, the Gulf hides currents strong enough to pull a grown man under, sap his strength, and drag him out to sea.
The day that Len drowns in the Gulf off St. George Island, Sam calls Barbara from the office. “Something bad happened,” he says. “I’m on my way home.”
“What do you mean, something bad?”
The words catch in his throat. “It’s Len. Len is dead.”
“This morning. He drowned.” Sam waits for Barbara to say something, but all he hears is her breathing. “Holly’s brother is driving her and Charlie and Evan back. They’re supposed to be home around eight. We need to go over there, so get a sitter.”
“Oh, Sam. I’m so sorry,” Barbara says.
“Yeah. Me too.” He hangs up.
Sam knows exactly what time Holly called. He had just looked at his watch and thought good, eleven-thirty, another thirty minutes and he could get out of the office, go work out for half an hour, grab a quick bite.
Holly had sounded so calm. “Len drowned, Sam,” she’d said. No “I have something terrible to tell you,” just straight out. She might as well have said, “Len hit a hole-in-one,” or “Len caught a six-foot shark.” She told Sam they hadn’t found his body yet.
Sam’s stomach cramped. He asked Holly if there was anything he could do. What a lame thing to say, but he said it.
“No,” she’d said. “There’s nothing anybody can do.”
After they hung up, Sam had gone in the bathroom and vomited. Then he’d called Barbara.
He doesn’t go home right away. He sits at his desk and clenches his fists to keep his hands from shaking, and he thinks about Len. Len was a superman, good at everything. A terrific athlete, a great swimmer. Len was his best friend. How could he drown?
Sam wonders if Len had known what was happening. He wonders what it feels like to be dragged under and down and out to sea and fight it and not win. Sam doesn’t pray often, but he finds himself praying that Len had a heart attack, an aneurysm, something, anything besides gulping in water instead of air, that Len hadn’t known he was drowning.
The two couples had taken their last beach trip together the summer before.
Barbara wasn’t a good swimmer, and even though Josh and Steven were, she wouldn’t let them near the surf or the pool unless either she or Sam was with them. But Holly worked on her tan. Her boys ran wild, from the pool to the beach and back, all over the place. When Len talked Sam into going for a long swim in the surf, Barbara stood on the wet shelf of sand and watched them swim out of sight. She waited there until they came jogging back down the beach.
One morning, Len rented a Jet Ski and took his boys out. When Josh and Steven begged to go, Barbara said they couldn’t, but Sam overruled her. Barbara sat in the shallow water, her knees drawn up, her arms wrapped around them. The Jet Ski ripped through the water, slapped the tops of the waves, threw up a plume of spray. Josh and Steven took turns riding behind Len, holding on to him, waving and yelling each time they passed by. Sam and Holly yelled back. Barbara didn’t.
The last day, Len insisted that he teach Barbara and Sam and the two older boys drown-proofing. “It’s something everybody should know,” he said. “Rip currents are treacherous.”
Barbara tried to beg off. Somebody had to watch the younger boys, she said. Evan was four, Steven six then.
“I’ll keep an eye on them,” Holly said. “Go, Barbara. I know about drown-proofing. Len already taught me.” Holly lowered her sunglasses and smiled at Len. So Barbara, feeling humiliated, took a kickboard and swam out with Sam, Len, Josh, and Charlie.
The Gulf was almost glassy smooth that day, but Len showed them how to swim as if there were a riptide. “Watch out for deep, dark, choppy water,” he yelled. “The main thing is, don’t panic.” He was treading water effortlessly. “Relax. Let the current carry you. It’ll take you out for a while, but then, it’ll diverge and weaken. All you have to do is swim with the tide, whatever direction it goes. It may take a while, but eventually, you’ll swim out of it.”
Barbara quickly had enough and started paddling back toward the beach, but Len stopped her and swung her kickboard around. “Come on, Barbara. Pretend I’m a riptide,” he said. He was grinning. He held on to the front of the board and pulled her along.
“Stop, Len,” she said, but he kept swimming a strong sidestroke, pulling her fast, the swells slapping her face.
“Hey, Barb, way to go!” Len said. She hated being called Barb. Surely he knew that.
Sam shouted, “Don’t, Len! She’s scared.”
Len let go of the board, slung his wet hair back out of his eyes, and looked at Sam. “Okay, sure. Sorry,” he said. He swam away, a ferocious, competitive, Australian crawl.
Sam was beside Barbara then, and Josh and Charlie, too. “You okay?” Sam said. Breathless, she nodded. She was shivering. They swam with her back to the beach.
Holly was stretched out face down on a towel. Steven and Evan were way down the beach, sitting on the sand where the waves barely lapped at them.
Len apologized to Barbara later, but she and Sam argued fiercely when they got home from that trip. She would not go with Len and Holly again, not ever.
Holly had slept in. She wasn’t on the beach. She didn’t see what happened. Charlie saw, but he wouldn’t talk about it. All Holly knew was what other people told her.
Sam had often wondered what it would be like to do the things Len did: ride a motorcycle, go mountain climbing or skydiving, give up a six-figure law practice and take a job as a public defender. Holly never seemed to mind when Len did something risky. On the contrary, she seemed proud. “Did you hear what Len did?” she would say, looking at him like she could eat him up.
The closest Sam had come to doing something daring was the summer years ago when the two couples had gone to Belize. “It’s paradise,” Len had said. “You won’t regret it.”
Len and Holly were certified to dive, but Sam needed to take a class.
Barbara balked when he asked her to take the class with him. “You know I’m not a good enough swimmer, Sam,” she said, but she pouted for days when he signed up without her.
He talked her into going on the trip anyway. The dives would take only part of the day, he told her. They would have lots of time together. But things were sour from the beginning. Josh was only a year old, and Barbara was homesick for him. She went out on the boat, but she wouldn’t go in the water, not even to snorkel. Sam knew she didn’t want him going in either, but he did. He would never forget that first time: shafts of sunlight filtering down, fish swimming right up to your face mask, the colors in the reef. It felt ethereal, disconnected from the real world.
That night, he begged Barbara to try snorkeling. “It’s so beautiful,” he said. “I’ll be right there with you. You’ll be fine.”
“I can’t, Sam. Please let me stay here tomorrow. I’d love to lie on the beach and read and get some sun. I’ll call and check on Josh.”
“I don’t want to go without you,” he said.
“I really don’t mind if you go. I don’t want to spoil it for you.”
In Sam’s mind, she’d spoiled it already.
The next day, Barbara stayed behind while Sam and Len and Holly went out again. Holly was something to see in a wet suit that left nothing to the imagination, jumping off the side of the boat, squealing like a kid. Underwater, she was luminous in the refracted light, her movements as smooth and sensuous as a fish. Sam thought of mermaids.
Len announced at dinner that night that he’d set up a night dive. “You in, Sam?”
Sam glanced at Barbara. “Yeah, I guess. Sounds like fun.”
Barbara tossed her napkin on the table. “You can’t be serious, Sam.” She got up and walked away, and Sam followed her.
“Apron strings a little short, are they, my friend?” Len said, laughing.
Sam had not gone scuba diving since, even though Len had invited him a few times to go with a group of men. Sam resented the hell out of it, although he knew it wasn’t really Barbara’s fault that he wasn’t more like Len. That he wasn’t man enough to stand up to her.
Evan went out in the surf after his daddy told him not to. A big wave knocked Evan down. He went under. He was scared. He was making air bubbles under the water. His daddy rescued him. His daddy was the greatest superhero in the whole world.
After their last trip to the beach with Len and Holly, it had dawned on Barbara that she needn’t be jealous of Holly. Len was far more likely to lure Sam away from her with his escapades, his bravado. She could see the yearning in Sam’s eyes when he listened to Len’s stories about his elk hunt or the last scuba diving trip or the homeless guy he’d gotten acquitted on a robbery charge. She wouldn’t be surprised, even as much as Len and Holly seemed to love each other, if Len had had an affair. Yes. It was Len Barbara should be afraid of.
When Len died, Barbara was ashamed that the first thing she felt was relief.
When Sam and Barbara got to Holly’s house—now Holly’s, Barbara reminded herself, not Len’s—she wasn’t home yet. A dozen other friends had already gathered. They all shook their heads. Len was a strong swimmer. Unbelievable.
The kitchen was filling up with casseroles, fried chicken, pound cakes, meat trays from the supermarket deli.
Margaret, Holly’s next-door neighbor, whispered to Barbara, “Their bed’s unmade. Do you think I should make it up?” Margaret had tears in her eyes. “I wouldn’t want people traipsing all over my house, noticing things undone.”
Barbara said, “I think Holly would appreciate it, Margaret.”
Margaret nodded. She looked relieved. She headed down the hall to the bedroom.
A big, expensive black and white photo hung over the mantel. Holly, Len, and the boys, sitting on a dune, sea oats swaying behind them, the Gulf in the background, waves breaking. Holly beautiful in a white strapless sundress, her long blonde hair loose and windswept. Len wearing white linen slacks and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled, the boys in white shorts and shirts. They were all smiling, looking straight at the camera. What a good-looking family they were. Perfect, you might say.
Sam lies awake nights. If he had been there, could he have saved him?
Holly, Charlie, and Evan show up at Barbara and Sam’s about five-thirty on a Wednesday afternoon. “Is Sam here?” Holly holds out a brown envelope. “Insurance. I can’t make any sense out of it. I hope Sam can help.”
“He’s not home yet.”
Holly says, “I’d like to wait for him, if it’s okay. Are your boys here?”
“They’re upstairs,” Barbara says.
Holly says to her kids, “They’re here. Go on up.”
Evan pushes past Barbara and thunders up the stairs, yelling for Steven. Charlie doesn’t move.
Holly says, “Charlie, go on. Keep an eye on Evan for me.”
Charlie, dragging his feet, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his baggy shorts, comes up the steps onto the porch.
Barbara holds the door open. “Hey, Charlie,” she says. He passes her without a word and trudges up the stairs.
Holly follows him inside. “Sorry. He’s like that sometimes.”
Barbara gives Holly a Diet Coke and they sit at the kitchen table covered with model parts. “Excuse the mess,” Barbara says.
Holly says, “You should see my place.”
There’s an awkward silence. Barbara hasn’t seen Holly since the funeral two weeks ago. Finally, she says, “How are you, Holly?”
Holly shrugs. “We’re okay.” She looks away then, shakes her head. “Well, you see how Charlie is. Evan wakes up nights, screaming. To tell you the truth, they’re driving me crazy.” She smiles, but not like the old Holly. The flirty tilt of her head, the flutter of eyelashes gone. “I guess that’s hard for you to understand.”
Barbara runs her finger down the cold condensation on the Coke can. “Yeah, I guess it is.” She looks up. “Holly, they’re what you have left of Len.”
“I know. That’s the crazy part. I can hardly stand to look at them, they remind me so much of him.” She’s crying, and Barbara wonders if she should touch her. Hug her. Something. But she doesn’t. She gets up and hands Holly a Kleenex.
Charlie saw it all. Or did he dream it?
His dad pointed to the red flags, walked knee-deep into the water and drew an imaginary line. “You can come this far,” he said. “No farther. Got it?”
His dad settled in a beach chair with a book. Charlie walked along the beach where the water broke into foam. He watched the little shells they called angelwings bury themselves in the sand. The breakers were huge. No way he was going into that. Then he saw his brother moving out into the surf. “Dad!” he yelled, “Evan’s gone past the line!”
Without looking up from the book, their dad yelled, “Come back, Evan!” But Evan didn’t come back. A wave knocked him down and before he could stand up, another one took him under. He came up sputtering, yelled “Daddy!” and went under again. Their dad ran into the surf and lunged toward where Evan had been, but Evan came up gasping and crying maybe ten yards farther out.
Charlie watched their dad swim against the breakers toward Evan, reach him, and grab him. Then he was swimming toward the shore like a lifeguard, carrying Evan. Charlie waded out waist-deep, rode the waves and fought to keep his balance, the tide sucking at his legs, the bottom shifting away under his feet. When their dad got within a few yards of Charlie, he yelled, “Stay where you are!” Then he lifted Evan out of the water and pushed him toward Charlie on the crest of a wave. Charlie reached for Evan and caught hold of his arm just as a wave broke over them and knocked them down. Charlie struggled up and somehow held on to Evan and dragged him to the shallows. He turned to look for his dad and spotted him out beyond the breakers, his strong strokes cutting through the water, but oh shit he was swimming sideways, the way he’d taught Charlie to do last summer. Then he lost sight of him in the swells.
Charlie stood knee-deep in waves battering his legs. He was still gripping Evan’s arm when a man grabbed both of them and pulled them out of the water. “Are y’all crazy?” the man yelled. “Didn’t you see the damn flags?”
Barbara walks in the den. Sam and Holly are sitting on the couch, papers spread out on the coffee table. Holly laughs. “Oh, Sam,” she says.
“Hey,” Barbara says.
Sam and Holly look up. Sam’s grin fades. “Hey. What is it, Barbara?” he says, one eyebrow raised in that way he has, half amused, half not.
She pastes on a smile. “Holly, I thought you and the boys might like to stay for supper. There’s plenty.”
Before Holly can answer, Barbara hears yelling and the sound of something shattering in the front hall. Footsteps overhead, what sounds like a scuffle.
“Mom!” Josh yells. “Evan’s tearing up my planes!”
By the time Barbara gets to the front hall, three of Josh’s model airplanes lie broken on the slate floor. Another one whizzes past her head and breaks apart at her feet. She looks up at Evan, hanging over the banister at the top of the stairs, a model plane in each hand. Josh is trying to wrestle them away from him.
“Evan, no,” she says.
Evan elbows Josh in the stomach, Josh lets go, and Evan, grinning, sails the planes off the landing and makes a high-pitched sheeeee sound as they fall. Barbara starts up the stairs, but Charlie has already pulled his brother off the banister and he’s punching him.
“Stop it!” Charlie yells. “Stop it, Evan!” Evan covers his head with his arms and howls.
Sam and Holly are in the hall, too. Holly yells at Charlie to leave Evan alone, but Charlie has Evan on the floor, still hitting him. Sam passes Barbara on the stairs and reaches the top in three strides. He separates Charlie and Evan, and Charlie pounds Sam’s chest now, but Sam doesn’t let him go. He holds him tight until the hitting stops. Josh and Steven lean over the banister, looking down at the wreckage of Josh’s planes. Josh wipes his eyes on his sleeve.
Barbara hears Holly’s choked sob. Holly stands at the foot of the stairs, one hand over her mouth, her pretty face mottled red, tears streaming down, and Barbara wonders if this is how it feels to lose control, to fight the current the way Len must have, to hold your breath until you can’t hold it any longer.
Barbara goes down the stairs. “Come on, Holly,” she says. “Let Sam handle it.” She looks back up at Sam, sitting on the top step with Charlie on one side and Evan on the other, his arms around both of them, and Barbara feels something give way deep inside her. It’s almost audible, like a shell breaking.
She puts her arm around Holly and takes her to the kitchen. “Here, sit,” she says. She gives her a fresh tissue and takes one for herself. Barbara can hear the murmur of Sam’s calm voice. She takes a deep breath and asks Holly again to stay, hoping, dear God, she’ll say no.
“No, thanks,” Holly says. “I can’t, not after—” She glances toward the hall. “I need to take them home.” She looks at her watch, then at Barbara. “This is the hardest time, you know?”
Barbara doesn’t know. She doesn’t understand what Holly means—the time of day, or the time of grief? She nods anyway.
Holly says, “I’m so sorry, Barbara. Tell Josh I’ll replace his planes.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Barbara doesn’t tell her how long it took Josh to build those planes, how special they were. Later that night, she’ll tell Josh that model planes are just things. He can buy and build new ones. What she won’t say is, once you lose a father, you never get him back.
A few minutes later, Sam comes into the kitchen, one arm around Charlie and holding Evan’s hand. Neither of the boys looks up.
Holly says, “Thanks, Sam,” and then, like an afterthought, “you too, Barbara.”
Barbara can’t find any words.
Sam gives both boys a hug. “No problem,” he says.
Holly gets her purse and the insurance papers from the den. Barbara and Sam stand on the porch and watch Holly and the boys go down the walk, get in her SUV, and drive away.
When they go inside, Steven is sitting on the stairs. Josh is on his knees in the midst of the shattered planes. Barbara stoops and begins to pick up bits and pieces of plastic. Broken fuselage, wings, engines, propellers, rudders, tiny plastic men.
A native Mississippian, Gerry Wilson grew up in the red clay hills of the north—Faulkner country. She taught high school English and creative writing for twenty-plus years. She now offers writing workshops and private consultation. Her work has appeared in Sabal: Best of the Workshops 2011, Good Housekeeping, Blue Crow, Halfway Down the Stairs, Arkansas Review, and Crescent Review. She’s been awarded writing residencies at the Ragdale Foundation and the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts. Gerry lives in Jackson, Mississippi, where she is revising her second novel and working on a story collection.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: In “Pieces” I was interested in exploring how a bombshell event—in this case, a friend’s accidental drowning—might impact a young wife’s insecurity and jealousy: does sorrow trump these other powerful emotions?
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Alice Munro, Jane Hamilton, Amy Bloom, Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Strout, Antonya Nelson. I can’t leave out my “roots”: Southern writers William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty. I also love discovering new work that blows me away.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: My ideal place is a writers’ and artists’ retreat in north Georgia where I go as often as possible—gorgeous, solitary. Most of the time, though, I’m sitting on the couch in our den with the laptop and a jealous cat nearby. I’m not a desk person.
Q: Who plays you in the movie?
A: The younger me: Scarlett Johansson. The older me: Helen Mirren.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I just finished the draft of my second novel, Spirit Lamp. I’m also working on short stories to round out a collection.
Sonata on a Michigan Night
by Arthur Powers
followed by Q&A
Sapientia, Virtus, Amicitia
This is the story of two men. Not of right and wrong, not of good and evil. Simply of two men.
They had much in common—both born in the latter half of the 1880s, both raised on farms—Edmund McCloud here in Michigan, John Timbler in Ohio. Both had mothers who had been schoolteachers and instilled in their sons a love of literature. One would think the two men would have been friends.
Edmund McCloud came to the State Teachers College as a freshman. He was a bit raw, rugged, handsome in a boney way, with hay-colored hair. He stood erect and walked confidently, both through the physical campus and the world of studies. It was soon clear that he was among the brightest and most industrious students at the college. His senior thesis (“Not Simply Drifting With The River: Teaching Mark Twain To High School Students “) was one of the best the faculty had read. Professor Howard McCracken, dean of Literature and Humanistic Studies offered Edmund a teaching position, which he happily accepted.
His students—about two-thirds of them women—found young Professor McCloud’s classes reassuring. Most of the students intended to be school teachers, and they viewed literature as one of the subjects they would have to teach. Professor McCloud provided them with admirable structures—suited appropriately to elementary, junior high, or high school—for categorizing and presenting the major British, American, and (in the case of future high school teachers) European writers. His methods recognized the value of memorization—especially of portions of Shakespeare and the best known British and American poets—but also provided helpful information on historical periods, social influences, and various styles and schools.
Even as a student, Edmund McCloud had been a little stiff, a little formal. Although liked by his fellow male students and admired by the females, he had never been popular. With his professorship, his stiffness stiffened—as it were—a bit more. This might have been terminal had he not fallen in love with and married one of his students—warmhearted, pretty Emily Johnson. Emily humanized him. He would occasionally blush at her shows of affection, but one had only to see his eyes and face light up in her presence to know that here was love.
Nonetheless, his stiffness became a campus legend. Typical was an incident that occurred some years later. It was one of those bright autumn central Michigan afternoons when one isn’t quite sure whether it is hot or cool. That is to say, at one moment, the sun shining bright, one finds oneself sweating, then a moment later a passing cloud or breeze makes one wish one had on a light sweater. On such an afternoon, working in his office on the second floor of Warriner Hall—although his office window was opened—Professor McCloud felt uncomfortably warm. He stepped out of the office and up the adjoining staircase, opening the window on the landing. This created a cross-breeze, and Professor McCloud returned to his office to work in comfort.
It happened that three young men—students—were working on a project in the room above him. Feeling suddenly chilly, they went out and found the window open, closed it, and returned to their work. Professor McCloud, feeling warm again, went out to the hall, saw the window closed, went up to the landing, opened it, and returned to his work. The students… well so it went, until the fourth time that the students went to close the window. Professor McCloud, dignified, erect, and respectful, appeared at his office door.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “I believe we are working at cross purposes.”
The college was growing rapidly. Five years after Edmund McCloud joined the faculty, there was need for an additional literature professor. Professor McCracken interviewed a number of candidates, and hired John Timbler. Timbler had, as noted, grown up in Ohio, attended the State University there, then taught at a small college in Indiana for six years. He was a year older than Edmund McCloud, shorter, dark-haired, and slightly plump.
Students found Professor Timbler’s classes different from—and, for many, less reassuring than—Professor McCloud’s. The two men had many points in common. Both—in their way—loved Shakespeare and the great British poets. Both admired Twain and found Dreiser dreary. After the great cultural shift, when the moderns came into vogue, both preferred Scott Fitzgerald to Hemingway.
Like Professor McCloud, Professor Timbler valued memorization. He could quote extensively and at length and encouraged his students to do likewise. Indeed, every so often his class would degenerate—it would seem—into a fiesta of quotations, students and professor reciting passages back and forth in odd but somehow appropriate repartee—to the joy of everyone.
Professor Timbler delighted in the sounds of it all. He asked students to listen to those sounds. He had them delve into the text—sometimes students would read aloud at length. He encouraged them to express what those texts conjured up within them—feelings, ideas, associations, memories. Oddly, he would not comment on what they said, only nod encouragingly and turn to another student—“and you, Fred?” Although he was liked, and his classes were on the whole enjoyable, many students found them slightly disconcerting. They felt that, while they left Professor McCloud’s classes with answers, they seemed to leave Professor Timbler’s classes with only questions.
World War I came. Although a few of the male students enlisted, although the music professor J. Harold Powers (my grandfather) organized a patriotic marching band, the war itself did not much affect the campus.
But the aftermath of the War—the rapid destruction of the old order—affected the culture. Literature particularly. Professors and students found themselves reading Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, and—a bit later—Hemingway, and attempting to struggle through Eliot and Pound. Professor McCloud’s book, “Guide to Teaching Literature to High School Students,” first published in 1919, came out with a second edition in 1929 that contained a chapter on “Reading the New Writers,” and from then on required new editions every two years. (It had been followed in 1920 by “Guide to Teaching Literature to Junior High School Students” and in 1921 by the immensely popular “Guide to Teaching Literature to Elementary Students,” but Professor McCloud felt that these two groups of students had less need to engage with modern literature.)
Professor Timbler‘s first book, published in 1923, was different in nature. It was a series of essays, most dealing with individual authors. There was an essay, for instance, on Willa Cather which posed the question of how it was that her characters—at least in her Midwestern stories—are so vital, three dimensional, alive. The essay did not answer the question, but left the reader wondering why—or whether—the observations were true.
In faculty meetings, the two men were always civil, if not cordial. There was no animosity between them—neither was inclined toward animosity. But there also seemed to be little sympathy in the way they viewed the world—or its literature.
Edmund and Emily raised three daughters and two sons, attended the Presbyterian Church, and lived (from 1923—when it was built) in a big, square, comfortable stucco house three blocks from campus. John and his wife Paula (who was striking both in looks and intelligence) raised three sons and a daughter, attended the Methodist Church, and lived in a late Victorian clapboard, with a wrap-around front porch, five blocks to the south.
Both families often attended the excellent series of concerts (soloists, chamber music, small choral groups) organized by Professor J. Harold Powers. Edmund enjoyed the structure of classical music. John would sit contemplatively, absorbed in the sound.
So life progressed until 1937 when Professor McCracken decided to retire. There was a strong assumption that Edmund McCloud, as the senior professor, the most widely published and best known of the department’s faculty, would succeed to the chair. But a resistance began to stir within a certain sector of the faculty, and Professor Timbler’s name surfaced as a candidate. He did not withdraw his name.
This was the situation on a certain early June evening when Edmund McCloud took a walk. Final exams had been taken, grades handed in, and the campus was preparing for graduation ceremonies. It was a respite—a restful time—for teachers.
But Edmund’s mind was not entirely at rest. He was not thinking—at least consciously—about the chairmanship of the department. He was revising a chapter in his Guide to Teaching Junior High Students—the chapter that dealt with early American writers, James Fennimore Cooper among others. As a boy he had loved Cooper. Of course his tastes had since matured. In his late twenties, he had read Twain's essay on Cooper—it would be difficult after that to read Cooper with a grain of seriousness. But children, he thought, have a wonderful ability to overlook flaws in literature and to get into the heart of the story. If he could…and then he thought of the chairmanship.
It was a sudden thought, a pang. He was not sure how he felt about it—he was not an introspective man. It had not surprised him that another candidate had been put forward—he was aware of his stiffness, of the barrier standing between himself and most other people....
He looked up. When he left the house, the evening sky had still been light—in June, the Michigan sky remains light very late. Now it was dark—but a cloudless sky. Lost happily among his thoughts of how to restructure the chapter on Cooper, he had strolled out to the western edge of town, and he stood now at the end of the last tree-covered street, where the land opened to fields and sky. The air was pleasantly warm—with a hint of coolness now and then—and the cicadas were singing. The sky was sparkling with stars—rising up like a great glistening dome.
He looked up at it—into it—and then, for the first time since his boyhood, he was not looking at it or into it—he was of it—swept up and a part of it. He was inside the night, the sky, the field, the stars—and they in him. It would not have surprised him to see a choir of angels, to hear the harmony of the universe. Except for the cicadas, it was silent—and yet it seemed to him he was in it—"inside the music," he said to Emily later as he tried to describe it to her, "as though I were inside a sonata."
Emily smiled—she knew such moments. And it was true, she later noted, that after that evening, when they went to concerts or listened to classical music on the Victrola, Edmund seemed not only to enjoy the architecture of the music (as he had always done), but somehow to be inside it.
How long this rapt moment lasted Edmund never knew. Probably not more than a minute. Eternity is infinite, outside of time. But, as he returned to the tree-lined street around him, the simply seen sky and fields, a rush of knowledge accompanied him. With startling clarity, he knew things he didn't know, yet had always known.
First among these was that John Timbler had a deeper understanding of literature than he—Edmund—would ever have. Not a greater knowledge, but a greater understanding. Edmund knew about literature—John lived it. He saw this clearly, and knew that he had known it for years.
He was an honest man. He turned almost immediately and started walking toward John Timbler's house. It was late, almost eleven o'clock, but he knew Timbler often kept late hours—especially now with no early morning classes. And he was right—as he approached the gray Victorian house with its wrap-around porch, he saw a light on in the downstairs study. He climbed the porch steps and knocked lightly on the front door.
He was half afraid that Paula Timber—whom he admired but was a little frightened of—might answer the door, but it was John himself who did so.
"Edmund," he said, his voice slightly surprised. He stepped back, holding the door open. "Come in."
"I'm sorry..." Edmund started. It suddenly came to him how late it was. He and Timbler had been in each other's homes from time to time over the years, but they were by no means intimate or given to late night visits. "I saw your light...."
"Not at all," John answered. He led the way into his study. It was an untidy, comfortable room—a large wooden desk fronting the window, a leather sofa and arm chair, a small oriental rug, shelves of books to the ceiling on every wall. They sat down—Edmund on the sofa, John in the arm chair.
"I was out walking... thinking...." Edmund vaguely felt that he should have started with something more conversational, but what that something could possibly be escaped him. "John, I've come to say that I think you should be chairman of the department."
John Timbler sat speechless for a moment. It was clear to him that Edmund was absolutely sincere—the man was transparently honest.
"Because... because you love literature."
"I. I plan about it—understand it. I know how to tell teachers how to teach it. But you...you live it. You can lead this department to a better...."
His voice died out. He could envision what he wanted to say, but couldn't quite find words for it.
They were silent for a few moments. John was looking at Edmund, Edmund looking at the pattern on the oriental carpet.
"But Edmund," John said, "I don't want to be chairman. You'd be much better at it than I would. You’re much better at that kind of thing. The only reason I was nominated...."
Another silence. Edmund was looking at him.
"The only reason was that there was a feeling, a fear, that there wouldn't be room."
"Well, yes. That things would be so structured, so practical, so oriented to teaching techniques..."
"The faculty thought that?"
"I wasn’t sure."
"John. They don't understand. We... I... need you." Edmund made a vague motion with his hand. "I'm good at structures... at setting things in order... explaining. But when I really want to understand—understand from inside—I pick up your essays—some of the others' also, but especially yours. There has to be room, space, for you.... I, for one, could hardly do my work otherwise."
The room again lapsed into silence. What needed to be said had been said. Edmund rose awkwardly to his feet, and John also rose. They exchanged a few light phrases about the end of the year, graduation, the coming summer vacation. John walked Edmund to the door.
"I'm preparing a new chapter—the early Americans—Cooper and those. Would you be willing to look at the draft?"
John nodded. "Gladly."
"And if you have anything you're working on... I'd enjoy reading it."
John nodded again.
They said good night. Edmund walked out once again into the pleasant, now cooling, magical night. A week later he was elected unanimously chairman of the department, a position he filled honorably and capably for many years.
On an early September evening of that year, 1937, John Timbler finished reading the draft of the new, substantially re-edited edition of Edmund McCloud’s “Guide to Teaching Literature to Junior High School Students.” His carbon copy had red penciled comments—not many, but meaningful.
Paula Timbler, who read everything, seated lengthwise on the sofa in John’s office, her legs stretched out, set aside the last page of the draft.
“The man’s a literary engineer,” she said dryly.
John looked at her a moment, thoughtfully.
“Every field needs its engineers,” he said. “They build the structures in which the rest of us operate.”
She looked at her husband, and a gentle smile flitted across her intelligent face.
“You’re a good man, John Timbler,” she said.
Life continued. In 1959 the college became a university, but both men had retired earlier in the decade. Many retired faculty moved away, either to escape Michigan winters or to live nearer their children (J. Harold Powers, for instance, moved to East Lansing). But Edmund and John lived on in their old homes, the university and town gradually and not unpleasantly growing up around them. Edmund continued to bring out new editions of his respected Guides to Teaching, and served as editorial advisor to a well known line of textbooks. He continued to send his drafts to John for comment, and to request drafts of John’s forthcoming essays.
Two or three times a month, the men would meet by appointment or chance. They would discuss their work, news of old colleagues, events at the university. After a while they would sit in amiable silence, then one or the other would stand up and take his leave.
If asked, Edmund McCloud—who never wanted to presume—would have said: "Colleagues. We're good—excellent—colleagues." But John Timbler would have thought for a moment, then nodded his head and said, "Yes. We're friends."
Arthur Powers is from the Midwest, but has lived most of his adult life in Brazil. H received a Fellowship in Fiction from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, three annual awards for short fiction from the Catholic Press Association, and second place in the 2008 Tom Howard Fiction Contest. In 2011, two of his stories were nominated for Pushcart Prizes. In addition to Prime Number, his writing has appeared in America, Christianity & Literature, Dappled Things, Hiram Poetry Review, Kansas Quarterly, Roanoke Review, South Carolina Review, Southern Poetry Review, and many other magazines and anthologies.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: The story simply blossomed.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: At my age (64) it is difficult to say—a lifetime of reading has brought thousands of influences. Among those I count Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Joaquím Maria Machado de Assis, Flannery O’Connor, and Sean O’Faolain.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: Any place. When working in the Amazon, I used to drive for hours in silence (relative silence, that is—if one discounts the bumping of the jeep over the dirt road, and the savannah and jungle sounds through the open car window). It was a great place to write stories—I would write them in my head, of course, and put them down later.
Q: Who plays you in the movie?
A: Nobody. My stories are not about me.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Raising our nine-year-old granddaughter.
by Eileen M. Cunniffe
followed by Q&A
Spontaneous applause rippled through the hotel ballroom in waves, a new one breaking even before the last had receded. The audience had already been primed as they made their way through the breakfast buffet. The anticipation had been palpable as the thousand or so swarmed into the ballroom after breakfast and made their way noisily into tiers of banquet seats arrayed along collapsible metal bleachers. The bleachers surrounded an impressive but temporary stage that had been erected overnight by a production crew using simple risers, aluminum piping, black drapes and lighting. All part of the magic, appropriately taking place just a few miles from Disney World.
The sales representatives—even the hundred or so novices attending their first product launch meeting—knew that the serious training had ended yesterday and that this morning’s closing session was mostly for show: a pep rally before the big game, a director’s final words before the curtain rose on opening night, a general preparing his troops to take the next hill. All week they’d been listening to clinical, regulatory, and marketing presentations. They’d had to pass written tests and they’d been graded on role-playing exercises designed to simulate sales calls. Tomorrow, one by one, they would begin promoting the new product in doctors’ offices, clinics, and hospitals across the country. Today, they were together for one last time to celebrate the wondrous little blue pills that had taken years to discover, develop, and test, and that the FDA had recently approved for the treatment of chronic asthma.
As closing sessions go, this one was proving to be especially lively. The hierarchical progression of speakers—product manager, marketing director, national sales manager, president—was intended to build to a crescendo, even as it underscored the unbreakable chain of command. With the president at last on stage, the audience knew the meeting was nearly over, so they rose to their feet at frequent intervals, simultaneously disrupting and enhancing the proceedings. The red-faced, thin-haired man on the stage—not usually one for spontaneity—didn’t seem to mind these interruptions in the least. His blue eyes sparkled. His black shoes shone under the bright lights. The collar of his new golf shirt draped neatly over the lapels of his dark sports jacket. His voice sounded clear and confident as he addressed “the best sales force in the industry.”
I watched this scene unfold from my seat near the middle of the room. I knew that within the hour I’d be on my way to the airport, heading for the quiet of my own apartment, where I wouldn’t have to share my bedroom with a steadily blinking laptop, answer to a beeper or don a name badge and wait in line to eat breakfast. I was weary from the effort the past week had cost me. I felt old compared with the fresh-faced sales representatives who made up so much of the audience. I had always been more comfortable with research scientists, clinicians, even regulatory managers than with those who “carry the bag” for a living, in sales lingo.
I glanced at my watch and calculated how many more minutes the speech would last. I tried to focus on keeping my head up and my shoulders back. I smiled along with the man on the stage and clapped my hands in all the right places, which I already knew by heart, even better than he did. I listened as he hit the right lines with emphasis, nailed the punch points and whipped his willing audience into a frenzy, one sentence at a time. By this point, I had written so many speeches for this man that I knew how he spoke, he knew how I wrote, and we rarely disappointed each other when he stepped on a stage.
If I could tell myself the story of how I got from that ballroom to where I am now without going back through this scene, I would. I have avoided the return trip for more than fifteen years. I know what lurks inside the memory, and I’d rather not see myself as I was then, a tired woman in her late thirties with a clipboard in her lap, coaxing herself to sit through one more well-rehearsed speech at one more tightly scripted sales meeting.
The new product represented a significant milestone for many in the room. Its essential molecule had been discovered in the U.S. laboratories of the European-based pharmaceutical company where I had worked for about ten years. It was the first such discovery to reach the market—a triumph for the smattering of scientists seated among hundreds of salespeople. The product’s origins had imbued the meeting with an almost-patriotic overtone. Even the marketing materials and meeting decor were done up in red, white, and blue.
After what had been a long draught, this was the latest in an impressive string of recent or pending new product launches and the first product in a new therapy area for the company, which was always a cause for celebration. All week, people had been saying the company was on the brink of something big, a breakthrough to the future. Despite a gnawing sense of personal dissatisfaction, which I mostly attributed to sleep deprivation, I felt a twinge of pride knowing that my carefully chosen words had helped to frame this important moment for so many people. Also, I could not deny a certain level of pleasure in hearing this final speech delivered from the stage precisely as I had heard it in my head while writing it.
Still, I listened in disbelief as co-workers roared at lines I had labored over, polished, and served up to the executive suite on a floppy disk. I had written good speeches before—probably better ones than this—but never had I witnessed such an enthusiastic response. The louder the audience cheered, the more I squirmed in my seat. Even as I sat there, somehow I already knew that this particular speech at this particular meeting would come to represent both the high point and the low point in my long career as a ghostwriter.
For more than 15 years, I had been editing articles and textbooks as a medical writer, producing anonymous company publications and announcements as a communications manager and—most recently and most ghostly of all—putting words into other people’s mouths as an executive speechwriter.
I slouched in my seat and briefly closed my eyes. I allowed the words to become no more than a blur in my ears. I thought back to my first job after college, in a children’s hospital, where I had helped physicians write and publish papers in academic journals and textbooks and prepare speeches for conferences. I had been so proud to carry a business card that proclaimed me to be a writer (a “medical writer,” to be precise) that for a long time I hadn’t cared that my work only ever appeared under other people’s names. Just once had a doctor acknowledged, in writing, my supporting role in his success as an author. I had rationalized away the anonymity, at the hospital and later in a medical publishing house, as valuable years of apprenticeship, years in which I had honed my writing craft, albeit within the structural confines of the scientific method and the language, mostly, of orthopedics.
When I took a public relations job at the pharmaceutical company, I was certain I was on my way to becoming a “real” writer, not the invisible partner who shaped or tweaked other people’s words. The path seemed clear at the time: after two or three years of solid business experience, I’d be ready to hang out my shingle as a freelance writer and editor, earning enough to carve out time, at last, for my own writing, whatever that meant. I would parlay my behind-the-scenes success into the literary life I’d always imagined, at least in the abstract. Now, all these years later, I found myself at a loss to explain how I’d come to be in this empty place that was full of my words, each one of which silently betrayed me as it entered the noisy ballroom.
My business card no longer identified me as a writer, but as an employee communications manager. The men at the top of the organizational chart didn’t seem to care what my business card did or didn’t say, as long as I fed them a steady stream of well-crafted speeches, written announcements and company publications. Above all else, they valued me as a writer, an irony that did not escape my notice in the rare moments when I allowed such thoughts to intrude, or when they came unbidden, like now.
Even though I had stopped listening, I knew immediately when the scene in the ballroom took a sudden turn toward the surreal. The speaker’s normally steady voice briefly wavered with emotion, and I snapped back to attention. Just for a moment—a moment I had perhaps precipitated, but most definitely had not anticipated—the man’s voice had cracked. I felt my cheeks burn as I reluctantly accepted high fives from the men sitting on either side of me, friends who were in on my secret. “Did you just get him to cry? Wow, that’s good,” one of them whispered, perhaps a bit too loudly.
Unsuspecting colleagues shot puzzled looks in our direction. The man on the stage had quickly regained his composure and was now happily playing air guitar to the chorus of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” a not-so-subtle special effect that had been inserted into the speech during the previous night’s rehearsal. But for just an instant, the man had gone off-script and the audience had loved it, although most of them seemed oblivious to the fact that there even was a script. From the bleachers, it was hard to tell that the rim of the stage was littered with Teleprompter monitors, making it possible for an experienced reader to address every corner of the room without dropping a line, missing a beat, or otherwise giving away the source of his unfaltering stream of sentences.
In the moment I felt invisible, but from my current vantage point I see myself clearly in that crowd on that day when the level of deception involved in bringing a speech to life finally seemed too great a burden to bear. Perhaps the speaker’s emotion—prompted by a few lines of reflection on his first launch meeting as a young sales representative—struck a nerve. There he stood, the mighty president of the U.S. division of a major pharmaceutical company, an achievement he could hardly have foreseen at the beginning of his career. And there I sat, handmaiden to the corporate machinery that cranked out one new product after another, quite possibly the last place in the world I would have expected to find myself at the beginning of my career.
The words themselves rang true—but then, they usually did. I liked writing speeches for this man because his style, like mine, was direct and because he would only say words that he meant, even if he hadn’t thought of them on his own. Still, as he strutted back and forth and confidently released my words into the room, I felt disillusioned with the speaker, the speech, the audience and, most of all, the role I had carved out for myself in this charade.
I longed for someone to pull back the curtain, like Toto in The Wizard of Oz, and reveal the magic that allowed the speech to be delivered so smoothly: a young man in a headset and the plain black clothes of a stagehand, lit only by the faint blue glow of a computer screen, feeding bite-sized nuggets of text into monitors for the man to read to his mostly unsuspecting audience. I even allowed myself the momentary pleasure of following this thread of thought to a place where the powerful man on the stage gestured nervously to a murmuring audience, bidding them “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” But even as I daydreamed, I knew I could not fool myself into thinking that what was upsetting me was the artifice playing itself out on (and behind) the stage, the sleight of tongue that allowed the speaker to sound so sure of himself.
I didn’t begrudge the man on the stage the words he spoke—after all, I had given them to him freely (or more precisely, swapped them for my ample salary). I didn’t envy him for being the one on the stage. It wasn’t about recognition, or the lack of it, anymore. The problem, I realized, had nothing to do with the speech, the speaker or anyone else in that vast ballroom but myself. Well, not myself exactly, but the faint outline of an earlier draft of myself, a draft I had inadvertently stuffed into a drawer or a box on my way to—what? A sales meeting? That couldn’t be right.
It was a chilling discovery, to see the ghost of myself so clearly in the eerie light of a dim ballroom. As the words coming from the stage arched toward a climax, I recalled a recent conversation with a sales manager. “This sounds so much like me I would swear I wrote it myself, if I didn’t know better. How do you do that?” My response made him laugh: “Don’t you know you’re all just fictional characters who live in my head? I conjure up your voices as I need them.” I left his office thinking I’d hit a new low in my long-running game of self-sabotage. If there were any literary stripes to be earned as a speechwriter, they probably did relate to the ability to write for other people in voices that were true for them. Somehow, though, what I did for these men felt more like a clever party trick than a writerly skill.
The audience rose for one last burst of applause, and for a fleeting instant I was grateful to be flanked by friends who knew my role in this highly orchestrated affair. Then one of the men cheered softly, “Author! Author!” and I suddenly wished I could vanish into thin air. Mercifully, his chant was swallowed up by the din, although it haunted my waking thoughts for months to come. Then the other man leaned toward me and said, “His lips are moving, but I can hear your voice.” I knew he was wrong, though, because no one—not even me—had heard my voice, my own authentic voice, in all the years I’d made a living by giving my words away.
The final, long ovation faded into a swell of upbeat walk-out music, and the crowd scrambled down the wide steps and toward the exits. I took my time reaching under the chair to retrieve my purse and the heavy laptop case that would remain tethered to my right shoulder until I settled into a window seat for the flight home. I watched the man on the stage bask in the glow of his well-received oration, surrounded by a clutch of vice presidents and a dozen other well-wishers. By tacit arrangement, I did not join in this post-speech, locker-room-like celebration, sparing everyone involved a small measure of potential awkwardness. The proud president did not need to be reminded that the flattery being directed toward him could just as easily be deflected to a mid-level manager with a clipboard under her arm. And I didn’t dare draw too close to the blinding lights that still illuminated the stage, for fear of being mistaken again for a mere ventriloquist.
I knew that in a week or so, I would be summoned to a conference room, along with the others who worked so hard to make this meeting successful. I dreaded the small ceremony that would unfold as each of us was presented with a token of appreciation from the management team: an elegant pen—a Waterman or Mont Blanc, no doubt—which I would add to the collection I had stashed at the back of a desk drawer. “Insult to injury” is how it felt each time I accepted another pen, even though I knew the gesture was well-intentioned and that it was no one’s fault but my own if I allowed the pens to remain unused for so long that the ink in some of the cartridges dried up.
I couldn’t have known it then, but many years and many more speeches would come and go before I finally removed one of those pretty pens from its silk-lined box, unscrewed the cap, inserted the cartridge and began to write words in a voice I knew to be my own. The man on the stage had long since retired, the product we launched that day had proven to be a commercial disappointment, and the company as we knew it then had ceased to exist in the wake of a merger. Eventually I wriggled out of the speechwriting role, and later still I made my escape from the corporate world.
My thoughts have drifted through that ballroom many times in the intervening years, although until now I haven’t dared to let them linger there for long. It’s possible, I suppose, that what I thought I saw that morning didn’t really appear until later, until after I’d left that life behind me for good.
I stepped slowly down through the tiers of banquet chairs, which were already being collected and stacked toward one side of the room. I lingered briefly near the exit, willing myself to memorize the scene, to memorize the feeling of being already gone from a room that was still alive with the echo of my words. I knew I had written myself into this unhappy corner. I had to believe there was still a ghost of a chance that I would write my way back out of it.
In 2005, Eileen Cunniffe finally made her escape from the corporate world and began to write her own, true stories. Her essays have appeared (or soon will) in Wild River Review, Philadelphia Stories, ShortMemoir.com, SNReview, Ascent, Superstition Review and Hippocampus, and in the anthologies, A Woman’s World Again and Prompted. Her prose poems have appeared in The Prose-Poem Project and 5x5. She is a program director at the Arts & Business Council of Greater Philadelphia.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: I worked in the corporate world for a ridiculously long time, although I probably never belonged there. In part, I stayed because I was valued as a writer. Once I left, I began writing about my work experiences as a way of making sense of where I’d been and what I wanted to do next. This “moment” in that ballroom had always stayed with me, and it was one I had to explore.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I write nonfiction, so I’m always aware of how difficult it is to remember just what happened, and how easy it is for two people to remember the same experience in completely different ways. At the first nonfiction writing conference I attended, one of the speakers offered a great piece of advice: you can’t always be 100 percent sure you are remembering an event exactly as it happened, but misremembering isn’t the same as making things up. You know when you’re making something up. So you need to be as truthful as you can, and let your reader know when you are uncertain. I work hard at following this advice every time I write an essay.
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: I almost always start with a pen and a pad of paper on the biggest clear writing surface I can find. I make notes to myself, jot down as many ideas as I can, scribble in the margins, draw arrows, generally make a mess. Then I move to the computer and start typing.
Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?
A: If you just looked at the books in the glass-fronted shelves in my living room, you’d probably think I have organized my library—American literature, Irish literature, English literature, some French literature, poems, plays, travel books. But if you made it to the second floor of my house, you’d see the disorganization—shelves with no method to the madness, stacks of books and journals in almost every room. I try, but I have a book problem.
The River Inside
by Michael Royce
followed by Q&A
“He simply did not see how the universe opening
inside him was the same as the river inside his mother
unwinding at its own pace, taking her away,
following the only course it knows.”
“Lightning at Dinner,” p. 17, Jim Moore, 2005
In companionable silence, Mother and I sat at the breakfast table as her beloved black and white spaniel lumbered toward us. His once-muscled body was withered; his skin marred with mysterious lumps of fatty tissue that had developed as he aged. Heaving himself ponderously onto the table, he stood on his hind legs beside Mother. His sturdy paws anchored him as he ate her bacon and casually licked her hands and plate.
“Down Mac,” I commanded. He ignored me.
Pivoting slowly, my mother’s face was closed to me. "Don't," she said. Her voice was low and flat and mad.
I understood her long-held belief that dogs should not be constrained. I knew, too, how her personality had changed and warped as the neuronal tangles in her brain flowered from the Alzheimer’s disease she refused to acknowledge. But that didn't lessen the hurt of her anger.
Life was measured for my mother in dogs. Jenny, Rose, Kiki, Jenny II, and finally Mac, her companion in the decline of her last years. Like a babushka doll, each oval of her life was encircled in time by the reign of a new dog. Had she accepted the span of each as a separate phase measuring her progress against a finite end? By the time of her angry reprimand, she had forgotten all the dogs of her past and knew only Mac.
And she also still recognized me as her son. Despite being an adult with children and grandchildren of my own, I remained forever the son in our relationship. We both lived with our own memories, our separate truths, of the different stages of our intertwined lives. But there was one immutable reality; she would be my mother for all time.
As a child, my first memory was of our home on Ogden Avenue in Milwaukee. I stood in a room alone, aware of myself and where I was. My mother is not there and no camera captured the moment. These were the days of Jenny.
A year later, perhaps when I was four, I was supposed to be asleep one night, but thoughts of death kept me awake. “Will you die? Will I die?” Needing answers, I remember my terror as I crept down the stairs to my parents’ room.
They would not have said they would never die or that I wouldn’t age. To their core, they were too rationalist to evade truth in that way. I can’t remember the specifics of their response, but in the end, it left me with the understanding that they, and finally I, were mortal. As I digested this, calm replaced my fear.
Had their answer been as simple as saying death is a long way in the future? And I, as a child, conflated time stretching so far into the distance with never?
But it was not true. We aged and, as the elusive future became the present, my parents grew elderly. Father was the first to pass away.
When my mother died, I was already old. I received the call in Vienna where I had just arrived after biking from Prague with my wife.
“Mother’s failing,” my youngest sister said, “you better come home right away.”
In a daze, I returned to Chicago through seven time zones and a dizzying assortment of airports. On arrival, I called.
“I’m sorry,” my sister answered. “She died four hours ago.”
“As soon as I can reach the apartment by taxi, I’ll be there.” I needed to say goodbye to her body, even if she no longer inhabited it.
I spent half an hour, maybe longer, alone with her. She lay on the bed, her mouth partly ajar as if she had one last uncompleted thought; her right hand was open to clasp some comfort just beyond reach. Struggling within my tears and grief, I never conceived an answer to what her question might have been, and was unable to provide what she had need of there at the end. “Goodbye,” is all I said.
Too soon, the agency, contracted to collect her remains for medical research, appeared. She would have approved the use of her body, tired and aged as it was, as a lever to peer deeper into the secrets of life and death.
When I was six, I saw my mother cry for the first time, long and hard in pained frustration.
My parents, young and unfettered after their return from France where my father worked in the Marshall Plan, lived with their three children at the summer home of my father’s parents on North Lake, which was the name both of the lake and a local town 50 miles west of Milwaukee. On the main level, the floor was tiled with high ceilings and remained cool in all but the hottest summer days. There was a large family dining area and a living room declaiming Shakespeare’s adage on aging in bold Gothic lettering above the bay window seat: “With Mirth and Laughter Let Old Wrinkles Come.”
My mother was generally disinterested in cats, perhaps because of a loyalty her attachment to dogs required. A preference so deep and unexplored, although I am the same way today, I cannot explain it with any certainty. There were interludes during my life when I had cats as pets, but I accept my mother’s truth—dogs are wonderful companions you must love and will love you unstintingly in return, while cats are merely domesticated animals.
For some reason, perhaps compassion for the outcast, my mother rescued three abandoned kittens, mewing in desperation for protection and food. This memory of cats would have faded and been forgotten as an anomaly in my mother’s canine world, except for Omie, my grandmother.
“No cats at North Lake,” Omie had declared. She was formidable, seated in the parlor of her large brick Milwaukee home, speaking German to other primly dressed matrons on high-backed chairs arranged in a stiff circle. For her, time leached any flexibility from her calcified dictates. Rigidity in their maintenance, she seemed to think, was the only reasonable course to follow.
On a sleepy dog day of August, Omie arrived in her big black car. My mother just thirty, defensive about the dependence of her position but stubborn, met her mother-in-law outside the kitchen with its screened and enclosed porch. Large limestone slabs covered the sunlit space in front of the kitchen door, and the same stone created a raised herb garden on the opposite side. If I close my eyes and concentrate, I still taste the chives casually plucked and chewed on my way in or out of the house. And I see myself, no taller than my mother’s waist, standing beside her.
Omie greeted us. Then, noting the kittens in their box, she grimaced. “What are you doing with kittens here, Margie?” She pursed her lips. “You know the rules; get rid of them immediately.”
My mother was stunned. Maybe more was said, but I think not. Suddenly bursting into tears, she bolted like a young mare, tall and long-legged. Racing across the asphalt drive toward an upper garden through a trellised arch, she circled two massive conical white firs, past the garden full of jolly flowers, into the shade of the pines where she slowed in the quiet of the needled path.
As fast as my short legs could carry me, I followed, catching her at the garden and trotting alongside until she slowed. I stood there as her storming tears dried and her sobbing slowed. When her breathing quieted, mother assured me, “It’s okay. I was upset but I’m fine now.”
I ached for some comfort from her in a way I did not understand and could not then say. My distress was not for the kittens and their fate but at this exposure to a world where my mother’s tears fell like thwarted rain.
In the summer of 1957, I was ten. Mother arranged a three-month trip for her four children while Father, like a man of his time and class, stayed in Washington, D.C., working. I’m sure Father dropped any objections to her summer plans he may have had in the face of her determination. We sailed from New York to Le Havre, France, and bought a Volkswagen in which the five of us with our luggage traveled across France, Germany, and Austria. Many thought my mother was crazy for embarking on such a trip alone with her children.
I thought she was as close to perfect as a mother could be. All our adventures she transmuted to gold in her retelling. Five of us huddled on one double bed for the night in a derelict hotel in Regensburg, aptly named Wolfish, with fly spots on the wall and a long dirty corridor to the bathroom lit by the same naked light bulb illuminating our room. At 20 cents a night per person, it was overpriced.
The family album contains photos of the “boys,” my older brother and I, on various adventures with our mother while our two younger sisters remained with family friends. For four days, we hiked from hut to hut in the mountains of the Böhmerwald in Bavaria, Chris and I in our lederhosen, which had the advantage of requiring very little changing. In a blizzard, we climbed the Zugspitz at 9,789 feet two days before my brother’s fourteenth birthday. We made the ascent in tennis shoes and wool sweater-coats. “Wie verrückt,” the German mountaineers muttered about our equipment as they passed, in a mixture of awe and derision.
During one side trip by train, mother shepherded her flock from one train to the other— but not quick enough. The train we struggled to board whistled and huffed in preparation to depart, but half the children and half the luggage were in the departing train and the rest remained waiting for transfer.
My mother asked the conductor in German, which he seemed to understand but ignored, to wait one moment. She was polite, even humble, because that was how she was until her volcano of suppressed anger exploded over a perceived wrong.
“Schedules must be kept,” the conductor was so foolhardy to say as he waved the train to take off.
Without hesitation, my mother leapt onto the track in front of the train and unleashed a stream of invective in what sounded to me like German. Despite a penchant for order, the rail bureaucracy of post war-Germany blanched, stopped in its inexorability. The conductor, wholly cowed and perhaps even shamed, not only halted the train but personally carried the balance of our luggage from one train to another. A preteen, I might have reacted in many different ways to Mother’s public display of such unseemly rage, but all I remember is awe at her fierce and unyielding spirit.
In the final confused years, I sometimes sat beside my mother on her black chintz love seat, enlivened with garlands of flowers, but shabby from decades of use and Mac’s tendency, when sleeping on it, to leak. Our grey heads almost touching, we leaned together over the journal of that trip to study its written entries, paintings, and mementos, yellowed with the passage of time.
When I was 18, I worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi, assisting in voter registration and in running a Freedom School during the summer of 1965. It was a heady and frightening time. Looking back, I’m sure if my mother had not been bracketed by adult responsibilities and two teenage girls still at home, she would have gone south to participate in the Civil Rights struggle. It was certainly because of her ideals that such a choice was a natural evolution for me.
At least ten years afterwards, she told me what she’d done during the time I was in Mississippi. She mentioned it in an off-hand, almost self-deprecating, comment. She’d located a pawn shop, probably the first one she saw and certainly the first she’d entered, and sold all the jewelry given to her by her mother. Taking the proceeds, she marched to the SNCC headquarters in the District of Columbia. Marion Barry, later mayor of Washington, D.C., and other leaders of the organization were milling around with various volunteers.
She framed her story with humor. “Into this assembly burst a well-coifed and dressed representative of the white middle class.” Recalling her feelings at that time, she said, “Almost frozen with awkwardness, I took the dirty bills from my wallet and laid them on the table. Then, while they were still recovering, I slipped out.”
I recall this story with a bitter, proud love. I see a young dark-haired mother, standing five-feet-ten inches, far outside the comfort of her middle class existence and without the slightest knowledge of a world where pawn shops are a fixture, entering and placing her jewelry on the counter to accept whatever she was given. Then, she carried the money, burning like an ache, to the SNCC office—for justice and her son.
We spent most summers of our childhood at North Lake, swimming and daydreaming in the sun or rambling the forty acres. The big, cool house, the fields of sumac we were always hacking into temporary submission, the mysterious old pump building we dubbed the “giant’s house,” quiet paths through pine woods, streams with big bull frogs, and the lake in which we swam and rowed and sailed. North Lake was all this and more.
As an adult, my visits to this paradise of my youth became rarer. One of my last visits before the house on North Lake was sold took place during the summer I turned 24.
My brother and I took long pulls of Pabst Blue ribbon as we waited in the comfort of the living room for a visit from two of his college friends. A roaring fire held back the chill of a Midwestern summer downpour.
“We’ve just seen a mad woman slide off your driveway into the brush calling out for someone,” his friends said breathlessly as they arrived. My brother and I had no doubt who that mad woman was. Within minutes, Mother reeled in carrying 60-pounds of incontinent and largely immobile spaniel. She’d carried Kiki outside to pee. As he struggled to lift his leg millimeters from the ground, he promptly fell over the side of the road into a ditch. Mother, without thought, threw herself deep into the mud to rescue her dog.
Clothed in an old tan raincoat thrown over shorts and a khaki shirt from my father’s military service, Mother entered, her regal bearing intact, carrying Kiki in her arms. Mud streaked her face and her eyes were wild with a mother’s passionate defense of her young. In her universe, dogs and children were on a complementary plane.
When I started law school, I was 30. My youngest child was born on my first day. Tired after three years of working almost full-time while charting my way through the arcane thickets of the law, I needed a break upon graduation.
Mother volunteered to watch all three of my children for a month so my wife Francie and I could travel to Europe. In typical excess, she also took on a granddaughter, grandnephew, and two stepchildren of my brother. It was a wonderful gesture, although the family laughed in universal belief that she would have found it easier, and more enjoyable, to manage two dogsleds of huskies, facing different directions as they pulled against their traces, than seven children.
To add to the chaos, Mother had three geese that would march in single file across the lawn to the pond, smug in their assurance of predominance. In fact, they were a vicious, sneaking trio that would rush up to peck the rear of unsuspecting prey.
Erika, my youngest, was three and no taller than the geese.
Realizing a critical balance of deterrence was missing, Mother issued Erika a stave larger than herself. “Get away, goose,” Erika would cry as she charged off one hillock across the dangerous flat middle ground, whirling her stick before her.
It was the natural solution of a woman who believed that the animal world included man, all equally entitled to space and freedom. If there was an imbalance, a little tweak to achieve equality was permissible…but no more.
At the end of the summer when my wife and I returned from our journey, Mother cooked a big goose dinner. Although animals were equal, there was no sentimentality on her part—a harsh universe holds us all. Erika hardly looked up from her meal except to surface once to pronounce, “I love goose.” She waved a drumstick like an ancient general lowering his baton to signal a charge into enemy trenches.
Mother looked at her granddaughter with pride.
A parent should never have to face outliving a child, but life is a river which floods and ebbs to its own rhythm. At 43, while kayaking with friends on a wild stretch of the North River, a tributary of the Shenandoah, my brother was swept into a side channel and pinned in his boat between two trees. Chris fought 50 minutes. Rescue teams could not free him and he finally succumbed to hypothermia.
This was a blow Mother never forgave the universe. Her anger lingered for years, often with different foci, but directed for a long period at my father, who she blamed—not for Chris’ death but for restricting him in life. “You never allowed him to become who he wanted to be,” she cried. It wasn’t a rational rage, but her first child was taken from her and she would live a long time with the dreams of what he might have been.
Ultimately, it was dementia that freed her from this pain.
For a week in the spring of 2006, I visited my mother in her apartment in Chicago, where she lived with a dedicated and loving full-time caretaker. This was two years before her death. Although her dementia was quite advanced, I was still able to squeeze gentle moments from our time together. But it had become harder and harder.
Mother and I walked to the corner coffee shop with my arm through hers, out of love but also fear that she would fall. Once there, I found her a seat in a corner at a distance from businessmen gulping coffee between errands and young mothers speaking with friends as they attempted to complete a full sentence between cries and demands of their combined jumble of children. I ordered us both lattes.
Mother became absorbed in the slow methodical consumption of her coffee. And I grabbed the crossword section from a deserted Chicago Tribune.
“Mother, what’s a six letter word for walk casually,” I asked. She looked at me blankly, but after several moments and my stammering something that sounded like the start of str…ooo…ll, she smiled with a glimmer of recognition. “Stroll,” she said. More and more, however, she was unable and disinterested in parsing out meaning. At one point, I feared she had caught me out as I completed the crosswords, pretending she had given me clues to the answers. Loving someone descending into dementia requires varied stratagems. Increasingly, I sat with her silently, wondering what meaning my quiet company held for her.
Returning from the coffee shop to her apartment, I decided to read her a story. Sitting on her floral-covered love seat, I put my arm around her because she was cold. Like a young couple, we sat there as I read the “One-Eyed Dunlin,” a very short story from a book that had moved me, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds by Lyanda Haupt, a Seattle naturalist.
A flock of Dunlins, brown and unassuming shorebirds, foraged on a spit of land thrust into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Haupt spotted a Dunlin missing one eye and part of its face, the likely result of a falcon attack. This Dunlin moved in separate, more hesitating, steps apart from the rest of the flock. Although the author’s training dictated that she remain detached, she can’t help but see the Dunlin as an individual and notes its inability “to fully join her flock.” It is “reduced to the basics, and ignores the rest out of simple necessity.” The poor, maimed Dunlin’s fate is clear. If not seized a second mortal time by a predator, it will starve, facing increased confusion and, at last, nothingness.
When I finish the story, we are quiet.
“Poor Dunlin,” says my mother, finally breaking the silence.
And, I think, yes, poor bird doomed for a time to live on, diminished and increasingly alone.
My mother had firm ideas about life and death. Over the last decade of her life, I was presented with at least three Living Directives, authorizing, really mandating, me to ensure she would be allowed to die with dignity if all that remained to her was life in a reduced capacity.
Unwilling to rely on legal documents and the actions of others, she also squirreled away a stash of medicine sufficient, she felt, to free herself from a stage of life dwindling beyond her tolerance. One aspect of Alzheimer’s brutality, however, is that when the bleak winter of her life descended and enveloped her, she no longer remembered where her medicine was or of her determination to maintain control in the face of death.
The river of life wound in its own course through time until the morning I sat beside her at breakfast, devastated by her anger. I said nothing, neither apology for my action in stifling Mac’s free spirit nor justification of the need to set limits on what a dog should do.
In the silence, I recalled the years we had shared. I still envisioned the young mother running like a startled mare toward the pines. I felt pain for her, no longer the vibrant woman she had been, and sorrow for myself that I could no longer bring her the comfort even of memories.
She contemplated breakfast without indication of the snarled thoughts wrestling in her mind. Slowly, her sunspot-speckled hand, skin thinned by age, reached out and rested, almost weightlessly, on top of mine. She never said anything, nor did I.
For nine more months, she gradually slipped from life’s tenacious grip. But that last gentle touch, lingering in my thoughts, remained our goodbye.
Michael Royce writes short stories and creative nonfiction, which have appeared in the Prick of the Spindle, Linnet's Wing, Midwest Literary Review, and Fringe Magazine. His "Mississippi Freedom Summer in Eight Vignettes" was chosen as one of seven nonfiction pieces for inclusion in the 2011 Best of the Net Anthology.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: It has been three years since my mother’s death of Alzheimer’s. I felt ready to honor the wholeness of this wonderful woman, complex and eccentric, who is “my mother for all time.”
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I consistently get my best writing advice from my writer’s group—the Writer’s Grind. I have to follow whatever they suggest because they are almost always right … and certainly smarter than me.
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: When I’m ready to write, the initial draft of stories usually comes quickly. This is followed by extensive editing and revising, which I enjoy and find as creative as producing a new piece. Often the best revisions come to me in snippets—in the shower, as I fall to sleep, or as I attend to other things.
Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?
A: I’m embarrassed to admit that I organize my home library alphabetically by author. I mean, really, how neurotic. I’m mostly still a tactile, physical book reader. My library’s system of organization almost immediately breaks down as I shelve the latest book I’ve read alongside the hundreds of other books I’ve hoarded over the years.
Let Me Go Ask My Sales Manager
by Michael Brantley
followed by Q&A
I brought the old copier paper box into the house and set it down on the floor next to my desk, an old roll top I found on Craigslist over the summer for $30. In the box were the hastily-tossed contents collected from my old Honda Element the night before, the vehicle I’d said over the years I’d never get rid of until the day she stopped running.
As it turns out, the Element was more loyal to me than I was to her—like a mistress cast to the side after a newer model comes along. She never once left me on the side of the road, failed to crank, got stuck, slid on the ice, or needed costly repairs. But still, I’d stood right there, alone, in a dimly lit parking lot, on an unseasonably cold late September night, putting years’ worth of memories into a box while the dealership’s business manager happily prepared my paperwork in his office. I figured I’d just go through the stuff when I got home.
A tub of Clorox disinfecting wipes. Ten validated bank deposit slips. One very thick Carolina Hurricanes winter glove. One ice scraper.
Why is it that so many things have changed over my adult lifetime, which legally started in the late 1980s,but for some reason, buying a car has not? I can buy any book ever printed without leaving my computer. I can check prices on any item on any shelf. The veterinarian will come to my house. The doctor will email my prescription to the drugstore. With a few clicks, the grocery store will make my shopping list based on a card I have scanned every time I visit.
However, just like it was when I bought my first car the summer after I turned sixteen—a previously wrecked Chevrolet Chevette with 59,000 miles on it, purchased for $4,200—I still have to go through the same system. Salesman and Sales Manager. And when the process is over, I’ve been leaned on, pumped up, backslapped, left to wait, winked at, done a favor, given the best deal ever, and feel like I need a long shower. Because the business of buying a car is oh-so-dirty.
One white, narrow box that used to hold baseball cards, which are now gone. My daughter’s white and blue hair brush. One 3x5 notecard, with a child’s handwriting, listing potential names for puppies.
I decided to re-invent myself about 18 months ago. It seems like this happens about once a decade. Graduate school had been in the back of my mind for almost 20 years. I almost went to East Carolina University for history in 1992, going so far as a meeting with the department chair. He said to figure on about seven years to finish, part-time. Too long when you’re 23. English came up in the mid-90s, with the same timeline. Babies and a photography career came along, but I never stopped writing. Good thing, because after an all-time best sales year in 2007, the business went off a cliff, like so much of the national economy, and almost took me with it. And once again, my path crossed with an ECU professor, this time in creative writing. Three knocks on the door, it was time to answer. This meant an hour-plus commute to class in Greenville, North Carolina, on a great car, albeit one that managed to get just 19 miles to the gallon. By the end of the semester, I started having heretical thoughts. Something had to be done. School was great; $85 a week on gas, not so much. After a summer of selling off guitars and retirement accounts to keep the bills paid, the schedule on campus would double for the fall, as would my fuel bill.
The red Honda Element, paid for when times were good, would have to go. It would not be easy. Red Elements were “short runs,” I’d been told by Honda dealers and seen as evidence; only about 5 percent of production that year. In that car, I had become like Norm from the TV show Cheers. Everybody in Nashville, my hometown, knew me and the car, and every day was like a parade with me waving at folks who could see me coming. It was comfortable, versatile, and dependable. My kids thought it was cool, and I know how quickly the clock was ticking on that mindset. My wife said it was “so you.” Pragmatism would have to supplant ego. I started shopping.
One rain poncho, new in the pouch. Two bug catchers from an outdoor science kit my boys got for Christmas. One collapsible police baton. One coupon for a discount on tires at a store in Wilson.
I began searching the Internet for a possible replacement. New certainly out of the question; it was a matter of how old would I have to go. If I were to let go of “Ellie,” there would have to be one special replacement. Not overtly sexy, but smart. Kind of like swapping out the full-figured model for the shy librarian. But librarians can be sexy, right? Especially ones that get 50 miles per gallon.
Quickly, that narrowed the search to Honda Civic Hybrids or their Toyota counterpart, the Prius Hybrid. I tried to keep this search under wraps, but some of my friends found out and questioned my manhood. Secretly, I became infatuated with these two cars. They could save me money, and confound people who wanted to stereotype me a certain way because how could a conservative love the environment, buy a green car, be for getting our troops home, hate government overspending and waste, be against stimulus spending, be pro-life, pro-Social Security and pro-Medicare? It would be so much harder for my liberal friends to go after me and my conservative friends would now have to keep a wary eye on me. Nirvana.
I first spotted a great deal from a dealership in Raleigh, and emailed them for a test drive. Come on down, they said, check us out. We have the best deals around and we treat people right. I took my four-year-old as insurance. Not only is he cute, but far more observant than I; plus, he has no qualms about passing gas, having bathroom emergencies, or threatening a good ol’ tantrum with a signal from Dad that We need out, son.
We arrived at the nice, modern dealership with a cavernous showroom to drive the Prius with less than 20,000 miles on it and a price tag of $15,000. A salesman glad-handed us at the door and disappeared to get the key. He came back shortly.
“Good news and bad news, Mr. Bradley,” he said. “The bad news is we sold the car over the weekend. They just haven’t gotten if off the Internet yet. You know, we’re so busy and all.” There was one other customer in the building. “But the good news is, we have a 2010 model still here that is just $7,000 more.”
He actually said that. It takes confidence to reach for a 40 percent increase in a sale in the first 15 minutes you meet someone. He became less cheerful when I asked for clarification: was he going to offer me the 2010 for the price of the 2005?
My son and I sat in the car, and I used my iPhone to pull up another dealership in the city, one that had lots of used Prius models on their website. They advertise constantly on a Raleigh TV station, touting honesty, the best deals in town and not being like the other dealers.
We pulled up in the lot and instantly, out of nowhere, not one but two salespeople descended on us. I asked about the used Prii (this is the plural of Prius, according to Toyota) since they were nowhere to be seen. The two salespeople split up; one to an office, another back to his desk. He never came back. The first salesman returned and invited us into a high-tech, spotless “branch office” on the sprawling dealership campus.
“Well, we sold those you saw on the Internet over the weekend,” he said. “But we have some great 2011 ones out there. We’re so busy, we can’t keep up with that Internet stuff.” I was the only customer in the building. It was 11 a.m. There were eight employees sitting at a table discussing the previous weekend’s football games.
I took his business card, the one he forced on me, and didn’t look to see if he was still watching when I tossed it in the trashcan on the way out. We left.
“Why are we leaving, Daddy?” Lowell asked.
“Well, buddy, let me tell you about something they call Bait-and-Switch…”
One children’s book shaped like a John Deere tractor. Six ballpoint pens. One pair of drugstore sunglasses, with the left lens missing.
Things weren’t much better in the small, scrappier towns of eastern North Carolina either. As we left Raleigh, you could track income levels dropping all the way out to Tarboro. Housing developments were traded for trailer parks, gas and food at exits every few miles swapped out for the endless pines in the median and lining the edges of Highway 64. Even the condition of the roads change as you edge progressively eastward—smooth blacktop dropping off to old rumbly gray dropping off to patched up, cracking asphalt, as if those in the more monied part of the state need reminders to away from here unless they’re headed to the beach.
In Tarboro, we stepped inside and back in time. Faux wood paneling, popular about 45 years ago, covered the walls of the showroom, which was cramped, messy, and dreary. This dealership bragged about “no-haggle” pricing, which is just a nice way of saying “we don’t negotiate.” We drove a six-year-old Prius, one that made me wonder if it had been state’s evidence once. It wasn’t clean, there were mysterious stains and the engine light would not go off. While we were assured it was simply a “sensor” that needed replacing, we weren’t buying that story or the car. The offer for my Element was about $2,600 less than the Blue Book value for “barely running.” I asked about a reduction in the price of the car. We were assured by a paper “run from the Internets,” the saleswoman said—that this car was the best deal for 150 miles. I laughed, shook my head and walked out. Before I got home, there was an email from the sales lady urging me to come back; she had convinced the sales manager to raise his trade-in price $2,000, “just for you, Mr. Brinkley. And, you saw that Internet’s paper—the Prius is a rock bottom price.”
Which brings up another point: does anyone really believe that it is you and the salesperson fighting the evil office ensconced sales manager? That you, a total stranger off the street, or the “Internets,” has bonded so tightly and quickly that the salesperson feels a need to rebel against the boss—the person who signs his or her check every week—and side with you for The Best Deal Ever?
A rewards card from an auto parts store. A notepad. A small pouch of tissues. Business cards I never gave out.
I guess I’ve never had much patience at car dealerships. The last time I car shopped, I was asked to leave after waiting for an hour for the salesperson to go battle the sales manager. When I walked in their office, they were talking about their favorite TV shows.
“Hey, I hate to interrupt you guys,” I said, “but I have things to do. You got a price on my trade?”
The sales manager took his feet off his desk, his hands out from behind his head, and sat forward in his chair. “Well, you’ve got a V8 and nobody wants those things with $2 gas. You’d have to be crazy to buy one. We can’t pay people to take them.”
Having listened to a salesman hammer down the guy in the next cubicle over, pushing a Highlander V8, that by pre-2008 standards got about 12 miles per gallon, I pointed to the other customer. “Have you told that guy?”
“Hey, why is that man pointing at me?” I heard the guy ask.
I stuck my head out of the sales manager’s office.“They just told me you’d have to be crazy to buy a V8. They can’t give them away. There’s a heads-up for you.”
The sales manager told me I probably needed to leave. On the way out, I saw the Highlander guy get up and follow. It shouldn’t have, but it felt good.
A pack of electric fence clamps. About $8 in change. An empty box for a phone charger.
I would have bought a Prius in Kinston. Growing weary of the whole process, I lucked out and got a part-time Holiness preacher as my salesman, and I laid all my cards on the table upfront.
“You’ve got what I want. It is the nicest car I’ve driven since I’ve been looking. Your price is fair. Give me $9,600 for my Element and I’ll drive it home. Trade-in value is $11,000, worst case. Full retail is $12,800.”
Off to the sales manager.
Surprisingly, back with the sales manager, a man who defied the stereotypes I’d been experiencing. I wanted to like him. I really did.
“Hey, Mr. Bradley. Nobody will buy anything with that kind of mileage, so we’re doing you a favor at $8,500. And the deal on this Prius is unreal. Unreal. I can’t believe it has been here so long. So can we do business?”
“Gentlemen, I appreciate you being straight,” I said, trying to remain, well, straight. “There’s no hard feelings on my part, and I’m not trying to be a jerk, but $9,600 is my only offer. It’s getting late and we all need to go home. It’s the end of the month, I can drive either car home. You pick.”
I drove home in my Element.
The next day, the preacher/salesman urged me to come on back and grab that car before someone else did because there was no way it could be there much longer. I asked did that mean they had met my terms. No.
After I bought somewhere else, the preacher/salesman emailed me and told me he’d gone to bat and got me the deal I wanted. I was in class and couldn’t respond immediately. So he left me nine phone messages on my cell, at home, and at work, within a 15-minute span. It was, after all, the end of the month.
In the end, I called an old friend who had a Civic Hybrid on his lot. The same guy I always end up buying from, a friend who does business with me and whose family I know both socially and professionally. I gave him the same offer. He said he couldn’t do it. I said okay, maybe next time, and was getting ready to hang up.
“Well, hell, Mike, okay.”
So I drove to the biggest dealership in Wilson, and spent a total of about an hour there, including the time it took to clean out my car. Two employees had to spend about 20 minutes apiece with me. And the company made money on both ends of the deal. It really isn’t much trouble to buy a car.
Before I went in to sign the papers, I flipped the tailgate down on my Element. I sat for just a second in the cool air, and the weird, greenish glow of the car lot lights. It was almost eerie with no one else around. It had come to this; I was all in. No one knows that when they weren’t around, I’d named her Ellie. I’d had her longer than I’ve had two of my kids. She’d been driven to a couple of hundred farms, a Stanley Cup finals, to funerals, to bluegrass shows. I’d hauled hay, dogs, and yes, even goats in the back, and briefly even considered transporting a newborn calf (she wouldn’t fit in the dog carrier; almost, but not quite).
All my stuff, the things I’d carried and those my wife and kids had carried over almost a decade, fit in a small box that sat next to me. We had some good times in that car, and it was always the “date night” choice when my wife and I could get a babysitter. I looked over my shoulder and the black rubber interior seemed clean, empty for the first time since I drove her off the same lot years ago. Was I really feeling sad about a couple of tons of inanimate steel? Was I about to have a weak moment?
“Hey, let’s see if we can get that parking permit off the windshield,” the salesman said. “Didn’t you say that thing was expensive?”
I drove the Civic home. According to the instrument panel, I managed 42.9 miles per gallon. The salesman said I’d have to learn that driving a hybrid is a little different, and once you learn the tricks, the numbers would just keep going up. I pulled into my yard, drove up the hill, gathered my book bag, and the box of things from the Element. Just as I was about to walk across the yard to the front door, I stopped, balanced the box on my knee and ran my hand through the items. Satisfied, I opened the Civic’s left side back door and tossed the ice scraper on the floor. It was chilly out, and I’d need it soon enough.
Michael Brantley has been a freelance writer and photographer for more than 20 years, and is an adjunct English instructor at Barton College. He founded and edits the literary journal, WTF: What The Fiction. Michael has an MA in English from East Carolina University and has been admitted into the MFA Creative Writing program (Creative Nonfiction) at Queens University of Charlotte.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: My Honda Element was part of my identity. It was an unusual model for my county, much like me. All of the changes that were going on, professionally, in my life were getting turned upside down. I realized that letting go of the car and moving on to something that was better for me would be tough, and mirrored my life at the time, so it seemed a natural fit to write about it.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: When I started newspaper “stringing” in high school, my best editors stressed to me that I had to get the reader’s attention in the first paragraph if not the first sentence. If I didn’t do that, it wouldn’t matter how good the writing was later in the story. I have tried to stick by this.
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: My process is always being tweaked in some way, because it seems like I’m always picking up or learning something new I can apply to my writing. Basically, I start with an idea in my head and try to round out where a story/piece will go. Once I have a beginning or destination, I start scribbling down notes of what I want to make sure I work in. A lot of this happens in the car.
Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?
A: Organized is probably a stretch. Our family is full of readers, and we generally arrange by type, but there are stacks to read, stacks to trade, and stacks in progress. Books are in every room. From my wife and I to our 11-year-old, 6-year-old and 4-year-old, we all prefer the printed word on paper.
A Single Sentence
by Susan Grier
followed by Q&A
She lies across the loveseat in your study, torn, baggy jeans and oversized t-shirt covering a body heavy with something you cannot name, hot tears soaking the pale, freckled skin of her fourteen-year-old face.
“I just feel all wrong,” she moans, flinging her arms like a helpless child. You sit on the edge of the couch, meaning to reach for her, press her close like you did when she was small, when touch and comfort were synonymous, when the safe embrace of your arms had the power to put the world right again, but she stiffens at your approach.
“How about if I find you someone for you to talk to? A counselor who can help you figure out what’s bothering you?”
“Noooo. That won’t help.”
Your friends tell you to relax. She is a teenage girl, after all, and this is what they do. Don’t you remember? It’s hell, they counsel, sympathetic and all knowing, like wise sorority sisters welcoming the new initiate into their fold; but it will pass. You want to believe her behavior, that this state she is in is normal, but it nags at you, mother instinct in your gut, the rumble of a long-planted seed growing more restless by the day.
When Casey was small, you smiled as she slept in Superman pajamas, or followed her father around instead of you, Fisher Price tool belt around her waist. You weren’t sure what to make of the superhero action figures she begged for until you relented, perplexed but trying to be open-minded and “Free to Be You and Me” echoing in your head. When she insisted on shopping in the boys department, you looked longingly over your shoulder at the racks across the aisle, all softness and pastels, and swallowed your disappointment as she chose thick jeans and khaki shorts, the kind with zipper pockets and silver key fob, striped crew socks, grays, navies and reds. At Halloween, the furry animal costumes you sewed her gave way to astronaut, then Kung Fu fighter, Dracula, a camouflaged gun-carrying G.I. Joe.
You envied the mothers whose daughters wore bows in their hair and played with My Little Ponies, daughters who seemed to possess an innate alliance with the female world of their mothers, while yours wanted nothing to do with it. Often, you felt yourself watching from the sidelines, disconnected, while she followed some other internal lead to which you were not privy. Had you done something to make her this way? Was it because you divorced her father when she was small? Was your life as a female so objectionable to her that she watched you and thought, I don’t ever want to be like her?
Yet a part of you was fascinated by this daughter you had produced—you, who had come up below the Mason-Dixon Line a country-club debutante, born to a strict set of codes that governed your every move, shaped and molded you from the moment you were born, the roles laid out like stepping stones leading to the promised land of marriage and children, the full embodiment of southern femininity. You strayed from the path when you dared to leave your first husband, though you had quickly remarried in an effort to redeem yourself.
Okay, you thought, okay, secretly proud of this daughter who was, apparently, impervious to anyone else’s expectations, including yours, not all meek and accommodating the way you had been. In school, she was bright, confident, and fast on the playground. At home, you marveled at her ability to be assertive, opinionated, determined, even when it exasperated you. This is good, you thought. She is her own person; no one will ever walk on her.
Nevertheless, your brain assessed and reassessed, watchful, alert, weighing and balancing the evidence, the pros, the cons, the frantic pedaling of intellect and rationalization. She wasn’t the daughter you expected, but you cheered at her feisty spirit, her strength, and you loved her fiercely even as you counted the days until puberty, when surely her body would awaken to itself, tell her brain it was time at last to be a girl.
There was a glimmer of hope near the end of grade school, when New Kids on the Block stickers appeared on her notebooks, stacks of fan magazines by her bed, Donny grinning from the poster she hung above it. She wore pink stretch pants and glittery tops, got her ears pierced, tried on your lipstick. You tucked Maybelline blush and lip tint alongside the usual chocolate and jellybeans in her Easter basket, expecting delight. But she scoffed, as if sensing your need, or perhaps suddenly self-conscious, as though faced with the actual ownership of makeup had jolted her back to her former self.
“Why did you buy me this stuff?” she demanded, glaring at you.
The earrings disappeared, black pants replaced pink, and her thick, auburn hair—short to begin with—assumed the asymmetrical shape of a skater cut, of which she was immensely proud. One evening you found her lying on her bed, face to the wall, her cheeks wet with tears.
“What’s wrong, Casey?” you asked, stroking her back.
“At lunch today I tried to sit down with the other girls, but they were mean to me.”
“What happened? How were they mean?”
“Joanna made a face at me and said, ‘who invited you?’”
They were the same girls who had come to her birthday parties year after year, accepted her just as she was, and now they had turned on her. You hated them.
She developed curves in the right places, got her period, grimly, and that is where it ended, any likeness to other girls, at least the girls you knew, the girl you once were, you who couldn’t wait to wear a bra, lipstick, or the navy blue mascara you bought with your friend Trudy in seventh grade, giggling as you admired each other’s iridescent lashes back at her house, Davy Jones crooning on her record player. For Casey now, at fourteen, there are no packs of girlfriends, no marathon phone calls or trips to the mall, no interest in boys or clothes, no perfumed bottles of personal care products on the bathroom counter.
She spends hours behind closed doors on the family computer. You know she is journaling; she has told you that much. One day when she is not home, you cannot help yourself. You sit down at the computer, click on the folder that is hers—so effortless, that simple click—and the door to her private world, a door that should be massive and heavy for all the weight within, swings open. You scan the list of documents, open and close one after another until a file name catches your eye, The Fire Beneath My Skin, and your right index finger hesitates over the mouse for only a second. It is a poem and you read it fast, its meaning clear and unmistakable, speaking the language of desire—for a female classmate.
A part of you is not surprised. You saw this coming though eyes clouded by denial. Her body, lean and athletic in childhood, has become thick and formless. She dresses in bulky jeans, blue work shirt shoved beneath a chunky belt, heavy black boots on her feet. When she doesn’t pull her thick hair back into a stubby ponytail, it hangs unkempt around her face. More than once, her stepfather has looked on her with contempt, called her dykey behind her back. It is a word that fills you with dread, a harsh, intolerable truth edging its way toward you.
Please God, you pray to the computer screen, don’t let her be gay.
You develop a habit, when she and her younger brother are away for the weekend at their father’s house, of going into her room. You go there not to search, but in search, and there is no way to describe what you are searching for except for her, this child who has become a mystery to you, this child you do not want to be gay. Long ago you vowed you would never be the kind of parent who snooped in her children’s rooms. Now you know things aren’t that simple when you are the mother of a child you cannot read, your hand homing to the hard pebble in your pocket that is rutted and worn by the circling of your anxious fingertips, as if the antennae of tiny nerve endings packed within their soft pads have detected some urgent message you cannot translate, try as you will.
You do not snoop, in the usual sense. You visit her space with a quiet expectancy, as if it has something to tell you, as if it is a holy shrine that will reveal answers to questions you don’t know how to ask, answers you pray do not include the word gay or dyke or lesbian. You stand before her bookcase scanning the spines of her childhood reading, titles you once took as proof she was like other girls: Little House on the Prairie; A Wrinkle in Time; Sarah, Plain and Tall; The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe; Ann of Green Gables.
You move around the room slowly, looking for what, you are not sure. You stand before her dresser and stare at the items on top, picking them up one by one: a worn cigar box holding Red Cross swimming cards and paper clips; a small, turquoise deity figurine you brought her from Mexico; an old Coke bottle, thick and green; the shimmering blue lava lamp that long ago stopped working. Sometimes you open a drawer just to touch its contents, as if your fingers might read the folds of her faded t-shirts like tea leaves.
Please, you beg the cigar box, the Mexican deity, the T-shirts, the books, tell me my daughter is normal.
One Sunday afternoon, alone in the house, you find yourself drifting from room to room. Something is calling to you, pulling you up the stairs. Laundry, you think. I should do laundry before the kids come home. But instead of moving toward the hall closet that hides the washer and dryer, you gravitate toward your daughter’s bedroom door. It is closed, her signal for you to stay out. You hesitate, push the door open, slowly formulating a plan as your eyes come to rest on the navy blue footlocker against the far wall beside her unmade bed.
You turn and walk to your room at the other end of the hall. Inside your top dresser drawer, you find the key to your own footlocker, worn and army green, a relic from your father. Though it now holds precious items from your children’s past, years ago it traveled with you to summer camp, where you quickly learned what all summer campers figure out soon enough: the short, square keys which open these ubiquitous trunks are all the same, each able to unlock any of the other trunks lined up beside the bunks of your cabin mates.
You return to Casey’s room, go straight to her trunk, pop the lock, your hand shaking with regret and determination. You are tense with guilt as you lift the tray and pick through the contents beneath, looking for something, anything, that will tell you who your daughter is.
Layered on top are mementoes from childhood: a cloth book your mother made her, several albums of photos taken with her father’s family, middle school yearbooks. Buried beneath these you unearth a thin, gray spiral notebook, college ruled, the kind found among the school supplies at Wal-Mart. You leaf through it, disappointed to find the pages blank, offering nothing. You flip through it again just for good measure and something catches your eye, one single sentence penciled in your daughter’s small, neat print across the top of a page in the middle of the notebook, the sentence that will change your life as a mother forever:
“I am a transsexual man.”
You stare at the page, icy fingers slowly tracing the sides of your neck, clutching your shoulders, the tiny pebble in your pocket now a stone in your chest, your breathing shallow. Your eyes see the words—four simple, one horrifying—and the guard at the gate of your brain cries out, no, not here, wrong house, wrong family, wrong mother, wrong child.
You kneel, frozen. You have wanted answers for so long, and here, finally, lies the one explanation you have never, not once, admitted into conscious consideration. Now it stares up at you, that tiny penciled declaration, Casey’s words, her own hand telling you who she is, or at least who she believes herself to be.
You close the notebook. In slow motion, it goes back in the trunk, its fellow contents restored to their previous order, the lock pressed shut, your daughter’s bold statement re-buried in its dark, airless space. You move from the room, closing the door behind you, your body weightless, numb, floating itself back to your dresser, where you return the key to its drawer. You stand at the mirror, search your face as though it might tell you what to think, how to feel, who you are now, this you who is not the you who stood here only minutes before.
Now you are grateful there is laundry to do, grateful for the mindless sorting, the intimacy of familiar fabric in your hands, the clean smell of detergent, the efficient click of knobs setting load size, speed, and temperature, the rush of water in your ears like a sudden downpour, or the current of a swollen river after a violent storm, barreling downstream with its startled debris of splintered limbs and dead leaves, branches torn from their trunks, tender seedlings uprooted.
The four words swirl along the surface like innocent grains of silt: I am a transsexual man.
When your husband returns from his afternoon run, you do not confide in him. Your children return from their father’s house, cranky and tired. You make tacos for dinner, the four of you sitting down at the kitchen table. You are steady and even through the routine of last-minute homework, showers, and reluctant bedtimes as though it is any other Sunday evening.
In bed, your husband asleep, the silent darkness feels like comfort, relief, a hollow space that holds you, asks nothing of you, soothes you with its stillness. You do not know what you will do, how you will handle this discovery, how you will proceed from here. You pray it will come to you somehow in the night as you lie, suspended, in this dark, hollow space, poised between the day you are leaving behind and the one you will wake up to tomorrow.
Susan Grier writes memoir and personal essays. Her work has appeared in Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women; Shaking One; Impact: An Anthology of Short Memoirs; and Trans Forming Families: Real Stories About Transgendered Loved Ones. Her latest essay can be found in the forthcoming YOU: An Anthology of Essays in the Second Person. She holds an MFA from Stonecoast/The University of Southern Maine, and is at work on a memoir about growing up southern and raising a transgender child. She lives and writes from her home in Southern Maryland.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece? In other words, why tell this story and why tell it now? Questions all memoirists have to ask themselves at some point….
A: I have a much larger story to tell that is slowly taking shape as a memoir—the story of being brought up very properly southern, raising a daughter who turns out to be a son, and, at midlife after two marriages, falling in love with a woman. There are so many layers to this story that I have been writing it in pieces, and this is one of the pieces. The entire story is timely, given the increasing openness and acceptance of non-traditional lifestyles, and especially important for parents of transgender children. But the motivation behind this particular piece is more personal. I’ve tended to write about the experience of having a transgender child in a voice I call “the good mother,” who rose to the occasion and bravely soldiered on, putting her emotions aside for the sake of her child. This essay, about the moment I discovered that my teen daughter identified as male, was an effort to dig deeper inside myself by slowing the story down, second by second, and accessing the devastated mother, who finds the discovery so abhorrent and unthinkable, she reacts with shock and numbness. Having found this connection, I’m hoping that now, rather than writing in the voice of the good mother, I can explore her and why she needed to bury her sorrow and grief in the months and years that followed, as if the loss of her daughter did not affect her.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: “It’s all about getting your ass in the chair every day.” That’s from Michael Steinberg, who led the very first workshop of my MFA program. I find it hard to sit down and write every day because I have a full-time job. Even though I am not a morning person, I did manage to get up early for several months and write for an hour and a half every morning. I actually enjoyed the time alone in the quiet of the house with my coffee and my words, and I was able to be fairly productive. Then my father died and I stopped getting up; I haven’t done it since.
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: My best writing comes out of giving myself the freedom to first write without concern for anything except getting words on the page, just to see what comes up and where the story wants to go. I am often surprised by the things that emerge, especially if I have the patience and the discipline to keep at it rather than give in to the urge to agonize over word choices and sentence structure. I think that need for control is poison if it wins out too early in the process. Sometimes I even close my eyes or squint at the screen as I type, so as to block out my inner critic. When I allow myself to free-write liberally, I may end up with a lot of garbage, but I also have a lot more to work with as the piece begins to take shape and form, and sometimes it’s pretty amazing.
A: Having recently moved, I have the opportunity to organize differently than I have in the past, and I’m not sure how things will end up. All I can say is that I like to keep my favorite books front and center, those near and dear to my heart for whatever reason regardless of genre, and they can change. After that, I tend to group by genre, with the most loved categories, such as memoir and poetry, more within reach than others.
Mad for Meat by Kevin Simmonds
County Clare, Ireland: Salmon Poetry, 2011
Reviewed by Zara Raab
These are the poems of a young, gay, black, Southern male from a religious family, coming of age in the closing decade of the 20th Century. Their themes are the sexual proclivities, courtship rituals, politics, family heritage, music, and yes, carnivorous habits of his generation and culture, both inherited and adopted. The book’s marvelous title gets glancing reference in at least three poems: In “Gift,” a man divines the future by reading cuts of meat rather than tea leaves; in “Inheritance,” the poet is left “toothless/mad/for meat” when his mother leaves what should have been his inheritance to a senile stepfather; in “Bad Catholics,” a mother serves meat to her numerous boys and men even during Lent, as a coping mechanism.
We kept the butcher’s block bloody
Calm coming over us like gravy
at the sight of pot roast
A strew of slowed cognition
we were blunt in our surrender
Five boys & a husband
mom knew to do this decades ago
& kept an eye on the butcher
his tender wrists & special discounts
whenever dad made the trip alone
to bring home the lamb
swaddled in white paper
Simmonds is often at his best doing what many American poets do so well, writing autobiography––skipping the ideal for the un-troped, un-rhetorical actual, to borrow from Dan Chiasson––autobiography in which the various strands of race and sexual identity entwine even in early childhood. Simmonds is adept, capturing the subtle nuances of different social realities inevitable to a black child growing up in New Orleans, and his grasp of what can be for some the emotional underpinnings of a homosexual identity is astute and moving. “Something Owed” in the poem of that title is both a mother’s debt to a man for his attentiveness to her young son, and, ironically the debt the man whom that boy became has to the man for his pedophiliac restraint, the way he “serenaded himself inside his herringbone trousers” without demanding much more than the boy’s presence. And in the poem “bouquet of scalpels,” the poet imagines castrating his father, and giving “the wound finally/a mouth/a smile on each wrist”
i could castrate him
he who led me to doubt
black men could love
observe him without seed
his rightful & clean erection
observe as meat falls
there would be no lesson in that
i take cover
in another man’s body
as he takes cover
I met Simmonds one summer a couple of years ago, when I rode with him up to Squaw Valley for the poets’ retreat there, and we’ve stayed in touch by email in an occasional, lazy sort of way. I know he’s a handsome young man, which is perhaps why his understanding of regret and shame in some poems took me by surprise, regret often being a taste in an older person’s mouth. But “Our mistakes [are] mouthwatering rich/ in regret/ daily allowances to break /down swallow keep /down,” the young Simmonds writes in “Cud.” The prose poem “Tornado” enacts a scene of incest in a fallout shelter during a tornado, when the poet’s brother molests him and “though I couldn’t see his face to know anything for sure, I bet his lazy eye would no longer be his greatest shame.” “July in St. Helena” further reveals Simmonds’s knack for chronicling the ways people affect each other:
what’s sweat without the breeze
my stepfather would say
in his wide brimmed hat staring
at how delicate I would always be
how scared he was of that
Many of these poems are rife with sexual imagery, energy and evidences of promiscuity characteristic, perhaps, of young people displaced from their original environments, and free and able to travel the coasts and the world, as Simmonds has done. Simmonds does not flinch for the actual, often gritty, physical embodiments of experience. In “Tenor,” the fatherless boy becomes a faggot looking for his father in the urinals:
left to wonder
he images how
to build a father
a father needs to be seduced
at the urinals
sure you’ll swallow
after the fuck
even the shit on the tip
In “Little Dolly Parton,” the poet says, “I saw men I wanted to be//The goateed drama teacher/ in grade school//the Jeri curled choir director//the Jesuit priest at Corpus Christi.” Simmonds also writes about the gay scene in New York City and Harlem, in San Francisco, where he now lives, and in various Asian cities where he has traveled. In “Saigon,” the poet goes to a masseuse in that city and confesses, “I’ve come for the metaphor about the entrance/Golden Smile / And isn’t this why we fought in Vietnam // the commerce between us / baby oil unifying skins / the opal of us shimmering / before my shot of silver.”
Simmonds’s use of image and metaphor is striking and original, with only an occasional lapse or misstep. The grammar of the prose poem “Summer, 1982” leaves it unclear, and in the prose poem “Witnesses,” I wanted more from the poet. The latter poem describes the visits of Watchtower evangelicals to his childhood home in the French quarter of New Orleans. “Momma would shush me as we watched them. . . . Momma never said anything bad about them. She just taught me to wait out the truth” (italics mines). I have an idea of what’s meant here, but I would rather know, more precisely and directly.
It isn’t surprising that a handful of poems by Simmonds, who was raised in New Orleans, feature music, especially the great black vocalists and singers like Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and Leontyne Price, as well as the popular singer Eartha Kitt, as well as Dolly Parton. Simmonds’s religious upbringing provides another recurring theme and a backdrop to several poems. “Plots” warns against tracts, “plots too narrow/for living men” and urges the reader to “bolt from anyone/gripping one.” “Sermon” is another poem on this theme: “Our cellular bodies are prosthetic to spirit.”
Simmonds doesn’t neglect the politics and history of being black. A poem like “twang” vividly enacts racial fear and the threat lynching posed for blacks in the South. So deep-seated is the fear that when his mother hears “the tight strings of a banjo,” she immediately tenses. “Book Lover’s Minutes” describes the decision of black men to boycott the Charleston State Fair in 1946. There are also poems about Oscar Grant III and Emmett Till. The background of many of these poems is clear enough, but this volume would have been helped by end notes to clarify certain details for the reader. The poem about Denmark Vesey, the Charleston freed slave whose planned rebellion was thwarted by tattlers in 1822, is a case in point. The poem is called “Charleston Inferno,” and the name “Denmark” is mentioned in the poem, but I had to do a little research to learn the circumstances of this short, powerful poem. Denmark’s testament, Simmonds writes with a typical striking metaphor, was “the slipped halo round his throat.”
Zara Raab lives in Berkeley, but she grew up on the North Coast, where her ancestors farmed, raised cattle and harvested tan oak. Her poems appear in River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, Evansville Review, and elsewhere. Her most recent book is Swimming the Eel (David Robert Books, 2011).
Curtis Smith interviews Marc Schuster
The Grievers by Marc Schuster
The Permanent Press (May 2012)
Reviewed by Curtis Smith
How do we mourn the dead? It’s not an easy question, especially when the deceased was a person we weren’t terribly close to, a once-friend we’d allowed to slip away. Heighten the stakes and make it a messy death, a death that leaves the living with no easy answers or solace. Marc Schuster’s latest novel, The Grievers, paints a portrait of grief and friendship in a tale as touching as it is comic.
Comic? Yes, decidedly comic, and it’s this vein of humor—sometimes uncomfortable but always intelligent and deeply empathetic—that gives The Grievers its undeniable charm. There’s Charley, the main character, a man who opens the book with an argument with his wife concerning the heat gun’s place amid the manly pantheon of power tools. Charley also has a day job—a human placard marching outside a local bank, his dissertation put at bay while he sweats inside a cardboard box shaped like a dollar sign. Want more? How about a delusional friend who’s producing a Broadway musical based on Hogan’s Heroes. A memorial service that morphs into a fundraising festival/carnival sideshow. An incident at a local restaurant over the appropriate use of apostrophes.
But beneath the laughter, deeper questions lurk. What do we, the living, owe the dead? This is the question that vexes Charley, a young man lost in the haze of graduate work and a prolonged adolescence. His friend’s death leaves him with a sense of guilt, and it’s this burden that sometimes steers poor Charley off course, his best intentions hijacked by confusion and a simmering anger born from his inability to wrap his head around his friend’s sorry fate. Of course there are deaths to be expected, from the old and the sick and the chronically reckless, but the deaths that come from out of the blue, especially the ones that claim the first of our peers, can be jolting. There is no roadmap for the healing process, our efforts to cope often clumsy or, worse yet, self-destructive.
Redemption waits not in the fruitless quest to understand but in our relationships with our families and friends and loved ones. An underlying theme in The Grievers is the reward to be found in letting go of old grudges, especially the grudges of adolescence, a time when small, sometimes casual slights can feel absolutely crushing. Schuster deftly takes this motif and applies it to the larger concern at hand. We can have our grief, but in the end, we must let go of it and its pain if we hope to move on. In The Grievers, Marc Schuster provides us with an example of this, a picture rendered in the most tender of emotions—in sadness and bewilderment, friendship and love, and, finally, acceptance.
Curtis Smith interviews Marc Schuster
Curtis Smith: What's with all the funny in a book about grief?
Marc Schuster: Initially, Charley’s grief is really for himself. He’s an extremely self-centered individual and essentially a clownish figure. It isn’t until later in the novel that he starts to feel true grief for the passing of his friend. So the humor is there, at least in part, to underscore the fact that I don’t see him as especially heroic, particularly in the early goings of the narrative. Another reason for the humor, of course, is to lighten the mood of what could otherwise be a very dark book. It's also how I deal with a lot of serious issues in my own life. That is, I tend to make jokes out of them. I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t always the best of strategies, but it’s one of the few coping mechanisms I have at my disposal.
CS: Along those lines, Charley Schwartz, your main character, is lovable but he's also a mess. Tell us some important ways you and he are alike and different.
MS: I’m about ten years older than Charley, so I have the benefit of hindsight, at least as far as my twenties are concerned. I also hope I’m a little less self-absorbed than he is. As far as similarities go, we’ve had almost identical experiences with respect to our schooling. We’ve both been through prep school and clawed our way through graduate school. Then again, I’m not sure Charley ever made it to the end of that particular endeavor. There’s a good chance he’s still seeking extensions on completing his dissertation to this day.
CS: I love the Philly backdrop. What is it about the city that influences what we see in The Grievers? Would it be a different story if it were set in Atlanta or Los Angeles?
MS: I’ve never really lived anywhere other than Philadelphia, so it would be difficult for me to set the novel anywhere else. If I did, I’m sure readers would know I was faking it. But what I find especially endearing about Philadelphia, particularly as far as The Grievers is concerned, is the diversity of the city’s neighborhoods. I can have Charley living in a somewhat blue-collar suburb while his nemesis Frank Dearborn lives in a much more exclusive neighborhood just a couple of miles away. Meanwhile, they’ve both gone to a prep school in a fairly rundown part of the city. Bouncing between all of these worlds is easy in a city like Philadelphia.
CS: Charley's got a crappy job. What was your worst job?
MS: I worked at Everything’s a Dollar when I was in college. The chain had gone bankrupt by then, and we were slashing prices every few days. It got particularly demoralizing when everything in the store was marked down to thirty-three cents. What made the job worse was that people still wanted to haggle with me over the price of inflatable guitars and plastic roses. I guess thirty-three cents was still too much to ask for some of the junk we were selling.
CS: So is a heat gun really a power tool?
MS: I’m going to have to go with Charley on this one: You plug it in, don’t you? It makes a noise, doesn’t it? And I probably wouldn’t operate one while under the influence of cough medicine. So, yes, I think it qualifies.
Curtis Smith’s stories and essays have appeared in over seventy-five literary reviews. His latest books are Bad Monkey (stories, Press 53), Truth or Something Like It (novel, Casperian Books), and Witness (essays, Sunnyoutside).
Ghosting by Kirby Gann
Curtis Smith interviews Kirby Gann
Ig Publishing (April 2012)
Reviewed by Curtis Smith
Ghosting is not a book for the faint of heart. In these pages, we encounter poverty and desperation, abandoned dreams, bodies broken by illness, bodies broken by other men. Cruelty is inescapable, a malevolent tide that oozes from the hardscrabble backdrop of rural Kentucky. In Ghosting, Kirby Gann allows an unflinching gaze into the shadowlands of commerce and history and human hearts. We, Gann’s readers, emerge rattled. We have walked with monsters and their victims, and long after the cover is closed, we feel the chill of their shadows. And yet, we are also left with a glimmer of hope, a chance for salvation, a hint that glows all the brighter for the darkness from which it emerged.
The plot is deceptively straight forward—a young man, James Cole, wants to know what’s become of his missing stepbrother, a drug runner who’s made off with a kingpin’s marijuana harvest. Simple enough, yet beneath the surface waits an inescapable dissonance, a labyrinth of twisted histories and veiled motives. Little is as it appears, and we soon realize Cole, a man-boy who once desired to escape the world he was born into, has become whisked away on tides he doesn’t fully comprehend. He allows the few opportunities he’s allotted to extirpate himself to pass, poor decisions that carry him deeper into a tangle of death and crime. As the story progresses, we fear for James Cole. Ahead, through the darkness, waits a brand of trouble that pulls him—and us—like a bad gravity.
A rich supporting cast accompanies Cole on his journey. There are the gangster inheritors of the backwoods moonshine tradition. There are the children of privilege destined to leave this place and the impoverished who are bound to remain. There are addicts and sadists and believers. We have known their kind forever; they are like a chorus in an ancient tragedy, calling to both the reader and young James Cole. They remind us of fate’s heavy hand and the duty born of blood, forces that often trump the notion of free will.
Gann, who also wrote the well-received novels The Barbarian Parade and Our Napoleon in Rags, captures this tale in prose sometimes lush, sometimes harsh, but always stunning. I read this book slowly, often rereading passages, allowing the beauty of the language to resonate. Consider the novel’s opening paragraph. It’s both a bold invitation and an assurance that the reader is in good hands:
Three shadows steal across a field of forgotten seed corn, stumbling over fallen husks rotted to the ground—three shadows bent low scurry past rough leaves that scrape the skin like cow tongues. Late November, deep night. Misting rain that once hung like fog sharpens into pin needles on great gusts of wind. The loamy mud sucks at their ankles, white breath blooms before their faces, and their bare arms burn with the cold as they surge over the sodden field, wild with trespass.
We are all surrounded by ghosts. James Cole travels among the living, but he is haunted by what may be and what has been. He has chosen to chase a ghost, and in doing so, he has plunged himself into their nightmarish realm. Gann’s mastery of page and plot allows us to go along for the ride. It’s a journey well worth effort.
Curtis Smith interviews Kirby Gann
Curtis Smith: The prose in Ghosting is strikingly beautiful. Tell us a bit about your rewriting/editing process that takes you from first draft to final product.
Kirby Gann: In the first draft I just try to find out who these characters are and what they want to do and what happens to them because of what they do. I try to pay attention to language as well, but it’s mostly about discovery at that point. Once the story is settled in my mind, I start over, with tone and diction my central concern—how to relate scenes and thoughts to the reader in a way that underscores what it feels like for the character on the page. It’s nice of you to say the prose is beautiful; that is my hope, I guess, but what I’m most concerned with is simply revising until a scene sounds “right” to my ear. I want the sound and rhythm of the sentence to reflect what it describes or states. And then also the attention to language here is a way of respecting, maybe even recognizing a degree of nobility, to the endeavors of the characters in Ghosting—whose lives, one has to admit, are pretty low on society’s totem pole.
CS: The story is pretty dark. There’s menace all around. Yet you end with a note of hope—or if not hope, then at least a hint of it. Did you always know this was the ending you wanted or did that change from your initial plans? If so, what caused the change?
KG: Well it’s not like Cormac McCarthy dark, with cannibalized babies and all. But the story runs through drugs and false faith and the desire to fill a God-sized hole in every life, so how skippety-doo-dah could it be, right? Seriously, though: no, I didn’t always know that the story was headed toward a degree of hope. I don’t start with much in terms of initial plans. I started with those three young people breaking into the abandoned seminary on a cold and rainy November night, and thought I had a short story begun; by the time I figured out who they were and why they were there I knew it was a novel. And there were the obvious southern gothic undertones and I wanted to play with those, see if I could turn up anything new.
The original ending was darker, almost cruel. But it seemed tacked on, and although I knew I wanted to have a degree of ambiguity about the fates of a few characters, that ending was too murky—in fact it pretty much ignored nearly all that came before it. The character Shady Beck required some continuation, a glimpse of the aftermath of what has happened to her, and her ignorance about the final outcome of events she had a large part in starting. She’s protected, you could say, by being from a higher class than her friends. She has opportunities. I thought about how to write that final chapter for weeks, and ended up one Saturday morning writing it out in a single setting, and hardly revised it after.
CS: You give us a landscape of rural hardship. How important was this element of setting? What first-person experiences do you have with this backdrop?
KG: I grew up in Kentucky, and although I’m primarily a city boy, it used to be that you could drive ten minutes in any direction and be in the “landscape of rural hardship.” This has changed; the rural hardship is still there, but further out from the city, except for these random pockets that you can fall into here and there, such as the lake area in the novel.
CS: You’re the managing editor at Sarabande Books. How does this impact your writing? Is it difficult to work on another writer’s manuscript and then return to your work?
KG: Actually it affects my writing in a positive way, mostly, in that spending so much close attention to manuscripts, and finding mistakes, or noting where the pace slackens or the prose gets clumsy, helps me to spot the same problems in my own work. That said, if I’m working closely with an author on a project it can burn me out on thinking about my own writing for a time.
CS: The best books you’ve read in the past year are . . .
KG: The Last Fair Deal Going Down by David Rhodes; War on War by László Krasznahorkai; Saul Bellow’s letters, and Samuel Beckett’s letters. Actually this list could get very long; there’s all kinds of great books out there.
CS: Beatles or Stones? How come?
KG: Jimi Hendrix.
CS: What’s next on the writing front?
KG: I have a few projects rolling around, but in general I take time off after finishing a long project like a novel, and read.
Curtis Smith’s stories and essays have appeared in over seventy-five literary reviews. His latest books are Bad Monkey (stories, Press 53), Truth or Something Like It (novel, Casperian Books), and Witness (essays, Sunnyoutside).
Why So Long, Memoir?
by Maria Giura, PhD
One day, my brother-in-law, Philip, who knows I’ve been working on a memoir for the last eight years, said, “You’ve spent so much of your life on this book.”
There wasn’t any sarcasm or discouragement in his tone; rather I’m sure I heard concern as if he were really saying, “Will this be worth it for you in the end?” or “Aren’t you giving up too much of your life for it?” Or even possibly, “Don’t you think you might be taking too long?” He’s not the only one. I’ve heard this concern from other family members and close friends over the years. I’ve heard it especially from my mother, the person who knows more than anyone else how much of my life I’ve dedicated to the memoir, except she’s been less subtle. “But you finished your memoir five years ago,” she has said more than a few times. She’s right. The first version of the memoir was my dissertation for my PhD that I completed and successfully defended. It had most of the scenes and characters and detail I needed. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it still lacked that necessary component that sets memoir apart from most other genres: perspective. And not just perspective, but adequate perspective.
Memoir has a lot in common with fiction, but one way in which it differs is that the story in memoir is not just what happened but what the memoirist has made of what has happened. Of course, you can, and often do, have elements of this in fiction, as well; narrators, for instance, who try to make sense of what has happened in their lives or the lives of their characters. But in literary memoir, perspective or self-reflection is not optional; it’s necessary. It shows the reader what the memoirist has learned from the experience, that the memoirist has in fact learned something.
In her text, Writing the Memoir, From Truth to Art, Judith Barrington instructs students that memoir has its roots in the essay, and that the father of the essay, the French thinker Montaigne, explained that “in an essay, the track of a person’s thoughts struggling to achieve some understanding of a problem is the plot, is the adventure” (qtd. Barrington 20). Without the memoirist trying to achieve some understanding and perspective of the portion of her life she’s writing about, memoir has no plot.
Such perspective, however, can take several years or decades to cultivate. I clearly remember my dissertation director instructing me and my classmates to choose something that happened at least eight years prior so that we’d have some perspective on what happened. The problem was the story that I had to tell—the one that wanted to be told—had only begun to happen five years prior and was still unfolding. It’s only been in the last year or two, that I’ve found myself far enough away from the experience to gain the kind of perspective necessary to avoid what Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in their text, Tell it Slant, Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, call “revenge prose” and “therapist’s couch.” In “therapist couch” prose, the writer is still overrun by “confusing emotions” and “feelings of self pity” and only wants to share those emotions with the reader (44). In “revenge prose” the writer seems intent on getting back at someone who wronged him or her. Miller and Paola continue, “In both cases the writer has not yet gained enough perspective for wisdom or literature to emerge… [and is the one] who comes out looking bad” (44).
Few readers are drawn into a memoir where the imperfect memoirist places blame on others for her own imperfections and mistakes or who has not taken the time to understand the people in her life who have become the characters in her book. Memoirists, like fiction writers, must aim to write fully dimensional characters with all of their humanity intact. They must be even more willing to look at themselves as unflinchingly as they would any other character. There are exceptions to this, of course, as in the case of memoirs about abuse, specifically child abuse. A child who is abused is always wronged, never wrong. However, even in such cases, Miller and Paola argue, and I agree, that the best writers of nonfiction show “a marked generosity toward their characters even those who appear unsympathetic or irredeemable” (45). It’s a tall order, especially in stories of abuse, but any memoir regardless of subject matter should aim to follow the Do unto others as you would have them do unto you rule; in other words, Write your characters and their flaws the way you would want them to write you and yours. It means looking at oneself and the others in one’s memoir with a balance of honesty and compassion, which doesn’t mean that the writing is void of emotion or urgency. As author Terry Tempest Williams explains, the writer must “channel” that emotion—anger, insecurity, jealousy whatever it may be—“so that it becomes nourishing rather than toxic” (qtd. Miller and Paola 45).
Memoirs about child abuse aside, writing memoir also means owning up to those parts of ourselves that are less than virtuous or appealing. It means attempting to see oneself clearly. In that first version of my memoir, I had not yet figured out that the choices I’d made in my life were just that: choices. I saw myself more as a pawn being moved about my life by God and circumstance and fate. I saw myself as a victim of circumstance rather than a participant. This has been a critical discovery for me. First and foremost, it has made me grow up and take responsibility for my life and choices, but it’s also helped to mature my writing voice and storytelling.
But there’s no denying that all this candor can be hard to muster. Writers of all genres face the censor, that voice in their head that says among other things, “You’re going to write that? You’re going to say that? What are people going to think? Are you even a good enough writer?” But at least fiction writers have the form to disguise any autobiographical content that might be part of the story. With memoir, you have no form to hide behind. If you have the added irony of being a highly private person, like I am, the censor is even more unrelenting: “What are people going to think of you for writing this? What is your family going to think? Everyone’s going to leave you.” Owning up to all the embarrassing and intimate components of being human—like feeling jealousy and anger, insecurity and desire—in such a public way is unnerving. That’s why having adequate perspective is even more important. All the soul baring has a chance at being well-written and worthwhile for the reader to read.
It was Socrates who declared the unexamined life is not worth living, but I, along with a long line of thinkers and writers on memoir, would go on to say that, in the case of memoir, the unexamined life is also not worth writing. It’s perspective that helps to make the genre, and it often takes a long time to cultivate, if it’s ever fully cultivated. And maybe that’s the catch, that there comes a point when the perspective one has cultivated on an experience is enough. Maybe there’s something for me to learn from my brother-in-law and mother’s seeming impatience. In fact, maybe there’s a part of me that’s been relieved that it’s taken me all this time to develop adequate perspective, a part of me that somewhere along the line started stalling because of my fear of revealing myself. Maybe I finally do have enough perspective. No, correction: I do now have enough perspective. It is time for me to finally finish, to plow forward doggedly, so that if I have read my brother-in-law and my mother’s concerns correctly, there will still be a lot more life to live after the memoir.
Barrington, Judith. Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 2002. Print.
Miller, Brenda and Suzanne Paola. Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004. Print.
Maria Giura PhD teaches first year writing and memoir at Montclair State University where she’s also an assistant director of the First-Year-Writing Program. Her poetry has been published in The Paterson Literary Review (PLR) and in VIA and has won awards from the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Contest sponsored by PLR and from the American Academy of Poets. She was a finalist for the Milton Center Fellowship, which supports emerging writers in bridging imagination and religious faith, and has read excerpts from her memoir at various conferences of the Italian American Studies Association. She is currently revising her memoir for publication.
Cath Barton lives in Abergavenny in South Wales. One of her photographs was used for the cover of Issue No 11 of Prime Number Magazine. Her recent publications include photographs in Vine Leaves Literary Journal and Blind Oracle Press, as well as short stories in Luna Station Quarterly, The Pygmy Giant and the on-line audio magazine 4’ 33”.