Welcome to Issue No. 23 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 new issue for you—Number 23 is the first issue of our THIRD YEAR—but first we want to welcome our new Book Review Editor, Heather Lee Schroeder. Heather has loads of experience with book reviews, including a stint as Books Editor of the Madison Capital Times. If you are a small press looking for reviews, or if you would like to write reviews, please be in touch with Heather via our Staff page.
Speaking of books, our Editor, Cliff Garstang, has just published his second book, a novel in stories, WHAT THE ZHANG BOYS KNOW, with Press 53. People have have been saying some very nice things about the book, and we think you should pre-order a copy right now.
In Number 23, we continue to bring you distinctive poetry and prose: short stories by Susan Lago, L. McKenna Donovan, Ryan Meany, and Joe Samuel Starnes; essays by Leslie Tucker, TT Jax, Vanessa Blakeslee, and Wendi E. Berry; craft essays by Heather Magruder and Josh Woods; poetry by Jan Bottiglieri, Devon Miller-Duggan, and David Salner; a storyboard by Emily Edwards; a review of Susan Woodring’s new novel; and a review of a poetry collection by Katrina Vandenberg.
We are currently reading submissions for the Issue 23 updates, Issue 29, and beyond. Please visit our Submit page and send us your distinctive poetry and prose. We’re looking for flash fiction and nonfiction up to 1,000 words, stories and essays up to 5,000 words (note that this is an increase from our previous limit), 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 “29” 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.
Issue 23, July-September 2012
23 Toy Car
Poetry from Jan Bottiglieri
followed by Q&A
is about my boy, in the kitchen, reading to me a poem.
About my boy, nineteen, reading to me a poem from a book he has picked up
casually from my stack of books, and he flips it open and begins to read.
My boy is nineteen, and the poem on the page that falls open
is called Sixteen, and he reads it aloud to me, he is allowing me.
It is a poem about a boy. The boy in the poem, the boy in the kitchen:
they become the same, one a little grown past, the other approaching.
Grinning, my boy finishes, beautiful. And in the kitchen every thing
is so: the yellow wood, the scarlet poppies on the porcelain cups
in the cupboard behind his head, the brown shock of his head. Everything
he has just read to me, he has been to me, my boy, a poem in the kitchen.
I am praising his reading, his aloudness of Sixteen, and aloud my boy asks:
It’s about him, right? meaning the poet, and the poet is a man I know,
not a young man, and my boy thinks that Sixteen is about this man. I say,
no, it is about his son, his boy. Not him as a boy? my boy says, and I see
the wonder of this poem: it makes a boy forget he is not a man;
he reads the poem and it becomes about him, and he has become the poem.
He is part boy, part poem – the boy thinking then that he must be
an old man, or that the poet must be a boy. A poem.
is about a man – no, a boy, my boy, and we are there in the kitchen,
the scarlet shock of nineteen and the porcelain cups. I hold my boy
in the way he allows me, and I fall open, holding him.
I know you
are in there,
behind my dura,
that chintzy curtain.
That’s you, rattling
at two round
in the bony wall;
you, flinging yourself
onto the flounced
grey bed. You practice
volition (those boring
offices) like a
the same dumb scales
over and over.
When will you take
your drop of honey,
your dish of milk?
When will you
You send your
susurrus down the
I’ll never, I’ll never.
You are disturbing
The Fiery Skipper
Could be wings are an affliction,/a different kind of tyranny.
— Li-Young Lee
A fiery skipper–lepidopteran,
small as a cent and colored
summer gold and bronze,
alights in the wide margin
of the book laying open
on the grass in bright sun
and first casts a scale from its wing
onto the page, where the scale becomes
the saffron dot of an invisible i;
and next closes its deepest ochre,
sorrel, sepia, between wings it holds
like a knife, edge toward sun;
and next regards its narrow silhouette,
which falls forward from
the hair’s-width feet and runs
beneath the skipper’s form
to lay plain before it on the page,
to demonstrate its shadow-body
as human, without wings: abdomen, waist,
chest and shoulders, a round
head that nods once
beneath twin antennae,
the several legs merging in shadow
to just two. The skipper lingers there,
motionless, for what may seem to a butterfly
a week of time, all in morning.
Suddenly it seizes the air:
assaults the sky flaring above
the waving tips of grass
and swings free,
like the pilot
who ejects, wild-eyed, from the burning
body of his plane to find himself
alive, hurtling in space:
and can tell at once by tenderness
that every vessel in his face,
now bruising grey and golden, has burst.
Jan Bottiglieri is a freelance writer from Schaumburg, IL. Her poems have been published in journals including Margie, Court Green, After Hours, Diagram, and Rattle. She has received two Pushcart Prize nominations, and is an associate editor for the poetry journal RHINO.
Q: “The yellow wood, the scarlet poppies on the porcelain ...” Here and in “the summer gold and bronze” of “The Fiery Skipper,” colors are intense and organic. Tell us about color in your life and work–what artist paints your vision?
A: I think that word “organic” really does sum it up for me–I respond emotionally more to color than to form or shape. I love the colors of vegetables, of flowers, of anything in sunlight. That must be why one of my favorite artists is Van Gogh. I’m also fascinated by the words for colors. Someone gave me an artist’s tin of sixty colored pencils when I was a kid, and I loved to read them almost as much as I loved to draw with them. Vermillion… cerulean… aubergine… Don’t those words feel great in your mouth?
Q: I think of Robert Hayden’s wonderful poem “Those Winter Sundays” when I read the line “You practice volition (those boring offices)” in “Homunculus.” Might that have been on your mind? Or perhaps some other reference or source(s) you’d like to discuss for this poem.
A: I love Hayden’s poem, so I’m glad it’s in my head, though I wasn’t referencing it consciously. I wrote “Homunculus” during a time I felt derailed by grief. My daily life (getting out of bed, doing dishes) seemed automatic–as if another person was controlling my actions and that imaginary person was grieving, too. Alchemists believed that feeding a homunculus milk and honey would make them nicer, but I didn’t think that would work for mine. One reference I did have specifically in mind was to the “wizard” of Oz, pulling levers behind a curtain; the dura is a membrane that cloaks the brain, and I imagined peeking behind it.
Q: Did you catch butterflies as a child, and what did you do with them?
A: I didn’t chase butterflies–I much preferred holding very still in hopes that they would land on me. They were fun to watch flying, so why would I want to catch one? I did, however, catch jars full of lightning bugs. I was a kid back in the seventies, when we’d hear a lot about the Energy Crisis, and I remember wondering why we couldn’t just make lamps using jars of fireflies. They were free, and it seems as if there were many more of them back then. At the end of the night I’d let them go because I never knew what to feed them. With “The Fiery Skipper,” I was reading in the grass when the little guy landed two inches from my eyeballs – they’re tiny butterflies, and I’d never had the chance to check one out that closely. I admired its facility for moving between absolute stillness and explosive energy, and I tried to bring the idea of that into the poem.
Poetry from Devon Miller-Duggan
followed by Q&A
Clichés about Angels or How I Decided on a New Philosophy and a New Style All in One Fell Swoop
I don’t really want to make sense of my life anymore.
I just want to find the right dress:
Something vaguely Elizabethan with a huge skirt
in midnight-green velvet. I want that dress
to eat the light. I want that dress
to turn me into an Elizabethan Black Hole in every room I enter.
I want that dress to gravitationally consume
anybody I never much liked anyway.
And not a few noisome strangers while it’s at it.
I want the petticoats, busk, farthingale, corset, laces
and 25 yards of dense, voluptuary silk velvet to
delineate the space designated by me
as me/mine/I. I want that dress to detonate
when I offer my hand to be kissed.
Whoever’s doing the kissing should find him/herself
buzzing like the nap on a wool velvet armchair—red, most likely—
with his/her ears pierced by a couple shards of, say,
windshield, or plastic champagne glass,
or a couple of feathers from a bored angel.
That dress, it’ll skip right by philosophy and become fabric.
Since I’ll have become the dress, eventually I’ll skip
right by being either a philosophy or a bird. I’ll be 25 yards of
thick silk velvet in a green so dense
it passes for black when the light’s wrong.
When I pick up those skirts to curtsey, you’ll see
I’ve gotten flocks of angels to turn into my petticoats
which look like spiral arms of the galaxy.
They’re out of fashion—the angels, not the petticoats–
and need someplace to hang out. The arms of the galaxy
have been ready for aeons to wrap themselves around something warm.
After all those years of listening to us blather on
about the velvet darknesses of space,
those arms long to know how actual velvet feels.
The angels, the galaxy, and me:
Oh, brave vibration.
Found in a Pile of Someone Else’s Postcards: An Anti-Ekphrastic
Not a postcard at all, just a photo of an
enormous Mannerist painting of The Adoration of the Shepherds.
You know it’s Mannerist because all the colors are super-charged
and it’s hard to tell how the bodies got torqued the way they are.
Except the bright baby.
He’s blond—the fuzz of hair is almost a halo—and too relaxed.
The mother holds the sheet back from him like she’s revealing
a birthday cake or a magic rabbit, and the baby’s dead,
no matter how roseate and lit up.
He often is in these paintings, and you know the point’s to play out
all those weighty questions about how the body this child inhabits
is really just a chrysalis.
The cherubim hang out above and watch the scene like it’s television,
and the shepherds beam like the glowy lump is the best word
they’ve ever heard. The Old Masters or their patrons loved this stuff—
the odd babies seated, bare-bottomed, on the cold stone lips of their sarcophagi,
or in their enthralled mother’s laps, reaching up to pinch a nipple.
You wonder whether the brain is just a museum full of Mannerist paintings
and stained documents. What’s the difference, then, between the wings of cherubim
and a thousand sheets of careful calligraphy tossed
from the upstairs window of an archive
by a scholar who’s seen enough?
You decide to settle the matter by repainting the crèche at your church.
Every piece was somehow grey—grey kings, the-same-grey animals, grey Joseph,
grey Mary, grey baby—as if he were a chameleon and was taking on
the greys of everyone else, and the manger and straw as well.
You pull out your paints mix.
The angel’s hair flames copper and its wings become pearl.
The kings wear purples and their mantles’ borders glitter.
The Virgin and Joseph shine softly in their new reds and blues.
The cow’s gone brown, the sheep creamy white,
but the mule has mulishly remained grey, though his eyes now spark.
The shepherds’ robes are all the colors of dirt, rough linen, and black sheep’s wool.
The baby’s just asleep; his cheeks bloom rosy with life,
and the straw around his head’s gone bright.
Devon Miller-Duggan teaches for the Department of English at the University of Delaware. Her first book, Pinning the Bird to the Wall, appeared from Tres Chicas Books in 2008.
Q: Why are black holes so very compelling, even absorbing?
A: Black holes are perfect metaphors for our relationship to the extra, extra large and extra, extra seductively terrifying nature of the universe—a physical manifestation of everything we don’t know. And they’re so useful to science fiction writers…
Q: You seem to have some acquaintance with the intricacies of Elizabethan dress. A past life? Have you ever donned a farthingale?
A: Nope, never worn one. I’m a creature very much dedicated to comfort and I can barely stand an underwire in a bra, so corsets and farthingales are not likely to show up in my wardrobe. I do like clothes with lots of fabric, though so I can make an entrance. Maybe in a past life. I’d prefer to think maybe in a future life. Certainly in my fantasy life.
But I’ve always been enthralled by clothes, particularly by historic costume. I wanted, for a while, to be a theatrical costumer. But then I found out how actors treat costumes…
The dress in the poem is a specific dress. It was worn to the Academy Awards sometime in the early ’70s by Sarah Miles (the Emily Prager of my generation). It was a black-green velvet Elizabethan gown. She must have borrowed it from some costume shop. She was drunk off her ass, but the dress was gorgeous. I’ve never found a good picture of it, but I’ve never forgotten it either, though I suspect I’ve altered it a bit in my head over the years, if the one partial photo I’ve dug up is any indicator.
Q: You’re planning a dinner party for the Mannerists. Who would you invite– and how should they be seated?
A: Ye gods. Michelangelo was famous for his dislike of bathwater and abrupt manners. Bronzino and Pontormo would probably need to be separated if they weren’t going to spend the whole evening talking only to each other, but I’m not sure who else I could sit with the famously twitchy Pontormo next to. Parmigianino would probably spend the whole evening trying to figure out how to perform alchemical experiments with any food he didn’t recognize.
I think I’d need to bring in some other folks if the evening wasn’t going to be a disaster. Three art historian friends, maybe, in case the Mannerists were not so good at talking about anything other than art. Several of my wittier and more socially functional friends. Michelangelo next to me because I was obsessed with him in my early teens. All the food brightly colored—that would be absolutely necessary. A white tablecloth and lots of crayons in baskets. Can I have fictional characters, too? Lord Peter Wimsey. I always thought he’d be the best-ever dinner guest no matter who else was at the table.
Poetry from David Salner
followed by Q&A
Nothing is happening, nothing but the night,
lit only by a strand of clouds, gray as a steel sheet. Autumn.
The air has a stillness, almost alpine,
pierced by a dog, barking every so often, echoing. Fresh rain
in the fields, which are stubble and mud,
slanting off in the moonlight, flat to the river’s escarpment.
The voices of men in uniform,
hushed, a uniform purling of voices shapes up, trying to sound
careless but picking the words
with care not to say certain things but wanting a part
in the exchange, on this quiet night,
as if this above all was their duty, to talk softly at night
about what most of all
boys might miss. They smile about love, as if they knew
more than they tell as they rub
their hands by a barrel of fire, share a whisper of longings—
and the deceptions, the confessions, too,
leak into the night, until all the words have dispersed
in the predawn chill, like a mist,
a dew on these ragged fields, as the fictions fade out
and the silence surrounds them
from trench to trench, deep in this basin of night, where nothing
is happening, nothing yet.
What Munzer Said
I thought of Thomas Munzer
as I was making a list—
hamburger, diet cream soda,
bag of mulch, hardy
begonias, and I included
the phone number of an
insurance company, oh,
company, not co.
I added pills to the list,
the kind with a groove so you can
split them down the middle
like seasoned wood. Later that day,
a shower caught me
coming off the mountain. I heard
a clatter of rain on leaves, high up
in the canopy of hornbeam, hickory,
hackberry. The trees filled up
with rain, leaving me
wet to the skin. Munzer said—
all things have been turned
into property, even the birds of the air.
David Salner completed an MFA at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, realized he didn’t want to teach, spent 25 years at trades like iron ore miner and furnace tender. The people he worked with have had a deep impact on his writing. His second book, Working Here, was published by Minnesota State University’s Rooster Hill Press in 2010. His poetry appears in recent issues of The Iowa Review, Poetry Daily, and Threepenny Review. He lives in Frederick, MD, with his wife, Barbara Greenway, a high school English teacher.
Q: Might you give us a few lines about Munzer?
A: I may run counter to today’s literary trends, but I find inspiration in the lives of revolutionary figures of the past, people like Thomas Munzer (1489-1525), who led a peasants’ rebellion and was later tortured and beheaded. History is full of insight and courage as well as gore. In his vision of nature and society, Munzer was centuries ahead of his time, and it’s humbling for me, like a walk in the rain, to view myself through his lens.
Q: The quiet presence of duty and of nature pervades “Nothing, Yet.” How does nature prepare us for the life that we must live?
A: The peacefulness of the night before does not prepare us very well for many human experiences, like trench warfare. But that’s life. I’m interested in the way we often remember such dramatic events through details that have little to do with the event itself. We remember seeing a rare and beautiful bird the day we first heard of the death of a friend. We remember watching the heart-wrenching scenes of the 2004 tsunami in a comfortable vacation condo. The way we remember things, hinge them together in moving and ironic ways, hints at our species’ almost limitless capacity for producing art.
Q: Hornbeam, hickory, hackberry–beyond the lovely alliteration, why are those the trees you notice as the rain begins?
A: Great question! They were actually trees I noticed when the rain had turned my hike into a rout at the bottom of the mountain. (Actually, the Catoctin Mountains would hardly be considered even a large hill in many parts of the U.S.) None of these alliterative trees are very tall, either, so they weren’t providing much shelter. Not a great day for me, although of interest in hindsight.
Swimming the Lake by Susan Lago
followed by Q&A
There was the cat in the window and the sound of the clothes tumbling in the dryer. There was the hiss of the gas that lit the flame under the pot of water on the stove, but not the sound of boiling water, not yet. There were the yellow walls and the shadows moving across them in invisible increments and drizzle shushing against the red leaves of the Japanese maple. There was Chardonnay chilling in the fridge and the amber bottle of pills waiting in the drawer for evening when it would be okay to let them out. There were all these things, Jane reminded herself.
Every few days the letters came. The writers of the letters called, too. They had warned Jane, the letters and the recorded voices, but there was nothing she could do about it now.
Dear Ms. Fuck-up, the letters began.
Dear Ms. Winston was what they really said, but Ms. Fuck-up was what they meant. Today’s letter went further, telling Ms. Winston that they, The Bank, regretted to inform her and so on and so forth. Jane put the letter on the table and turned to squint at the clock on the microwave. Ryan would be home from school soon. Each afternoon, when he walked in the door, the clock started moving at its normal speed, but for now the letter had slowed it down and had frozen the lick of shadow on the yellow wall. Even the cat was motionless on her windowsill.
The sun came out and the raindrops on the leaves turned into diamonds. There was that, Jane reminded herself. And the water in the pot, now bubbling on the stove. Jane poured in the pasta. Ryan came home from school and ate his macaroni-and-cheese. He spooned up the orange-colored tubes while pouring into Jane’s ears the story of the day he had just spent in third grade: Ms. Johnson brought them donut holes for a surprise, but Dayton couldn’t eat them because his mom didn’t believe in sugar; a lock-down drill, someone farted but no one admitted it. An A on his math quiz. And so on and so forth. Jane nodded and poured more milk and said okay, one cookie you’ve already had donut holes today, and allowed Ryan to have two anyway.
Jane’s mom, Ryan’s grandma, arrived to watch Ryan so Jane could go to work. Jane’s mom’s name was Alice and she had two deep lines that ran from her nose to the corners of her mouth. Ryan sometimes observed that Grandma looked like Pinocchio when he was still a puppet. Don’t say that, Jane would tell him then; it’s mean. But Ryan heard the smile in her voice and said it again so he could hear it again.
Jane’s mom chided Jane for letting Ryan play too many video games and grimaced when she saw Jane in her red Target uniform. Still no luck, she said, and Jane confirmed that there had been no luck in her job search. Before Ryan’s dad, Jane’s ex-husband, had left, Jane had worked for the pharmaceutical company two exits down the interstate. After the lay-offs, thirty thousand including Jane and Ryan’s dad, Ryan’s dad had decided to move to another state to see if job prospects would be better there. They were and so were the girlfriend prospects because he had both now.
Jane worked Maternity from three to ten. Tania, Jane’s manager, handed her a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towels. The maternity section at Target was rarely busy so there was a lot of time to fill. Tania’s job was to make sure that Jane filled it. Tania was twenty, but looked about fifteen. She wore her thin blonde hair in a high ponytail. The freckles scattered across her nose and cheeks reminded Jane of Ryan, but the acne, irritated and angry, on Tania’s forehead did not.
Don’t forget to get the base of each rack, said Tania. One squirt per rack and one sheet of towel, she reminded her.
Jane nodded and knelt before a rack of Hawaiian flowers in fevered fuchsia and orange. She wasn’t sure if they were blouses or dresses. Jane knelt and polished and knelt and polished until a very pregnant woman asked her where the bathroom was. In this way, an hour passed. Target time was especially slow. There was music that passed through Jane without leaving an imprint and florescent light that mingled with the smell of coffee from the Starbucks near the register.
Did you finish? asked Tania.
Yes, said Jane even though she hadn’t.
Why don’t you make sure the nursing bras are in size order, Tania said in a way that sounded like asking, but was really telling.
Jane was holding a beige 34C when she heard a male voice from behind her. You’re really beautiful, you know.
She turned. He was Ichabod Crane, but cuter, even if he was wearing the red Target uniform.
What? she said.
I think this belongs to you. He held out a package of nipple cups. I mean to this department, he said and blushed red all the way to the tops of his ears.
Oh, said Jane, taking the package.
I mean it, he said. About your being beautiful. I work over there. He pointed to Electronics, which was down the aisle on the left past Women’s. I’ve seen you. Not that I’m watching you all the time or anything. He blushed again. I’ve noticed you, is all.
Well, thank you, said Jane, not sure if she meant for the nipple cups or the compliment.
I’m Harry, he said and held out his hand.
He had large knuckles and long fingers. Jane shook his hand. Jane, she said.
I know, he said, pointing to her Target nametag: JANE.
She was still blushing as she watched him walk down the aisle back to Electronics.
When were you going to tell me about this? Jane’s mother asked when she got home. She waved the letter from The Bank in front of Jane’s face as if she were fanning away a fly.
Jane shrugged. I don’t know.
What are you going to do? Have you called your shit of an ex-husband?
Sh, said Jane. You’ll wake up Ryan.
Don’t shush me, said Jane’s mother. I hope you don’t think you’re going to move in with me! I really hope you’re not thinking that. Because it’s not going to happen. Jane’s mother plunged her arms into the sleeves of her puffy winter coat. She zipped up the coat to her chin and put a knit cap over her hair, pulling it down so it covered her ears, then picked up her purse. Because I have enough on my plate, she continued. It’s all I can do to keep my head above water myself with the medical bills from my operation.
I understand, Mom, said Jane.
Isn’t it enough I drive all the way across town three, four nights a week to babysit Ryan? Of course he's a love, although he’s terribly spoiled. You let him spend too much time playing those god-awful video games. She looked around the room. Where’s the piano? she asked.
I sold it, said Jane.
They both looked at the wall where the piano had been. Jane had been meaning to buy a plant to help fill in the space, but hadn’t gotten around to it.
How will Ryan practice?
We’re taking a break from piano lessons for now.
What about you? You love to play. There’s nothing more lovely than the way you play the piano. It’s like you go off into another world. Jane’s mother’s face looked damp and heated from the puffy coat and the knit cap and the disappointment.
You better go, Mom. It’s getting late, said Jane.
Jane’s mother sighed. She put the envelope from The Bank on the kitchen table and tapped it with the index finger of the hand not holding her purse. She opened her mouth as if she were going to say something, but closed it against whatever had been on its way out. Instead she hugged Jane, pulling her into the puffy coat that smelled of Jane’s mother’s dog. When she finally released her daughter, Jane could see that her mother’s eyes were wet. Jane wiped a hand across her own eyes and sniffed.
Good night, Mom, she said.
Jane’s mother closed the door behind her quietly so as not to wake Ryan. The cat came out from wherever she had been hiding and rubbed herself against Jane’s leg.
There is this, Jane thought, bending to stroke the cat’s triangle ears.
Mind if I sit down?
Jane looked up from her paper cup of coffee in its protective sleeve. Not at all, she said, and Harry sat down across from her.
I’m on break, he said.
They blew on their coffee before taking tiny tentative sips.
Hot, Harry said.
Jane agreed that the coffee was hot.
You look very lovely this evening, he said.
Jane looked down at her red Target uniform. Thank you, she said.
No, I mean it.
That’s better, he said, when she smiled.
They blew and sipped under the florescence.
I used to be in research and development, Harry said after a few moments, and he named the big photography equipment company that had recently declared bankruptcy and laid off tens of thousands of workers. I’m only doing this until something better comes along.
Jane told Harry about her job at the pharmaceutical company. She pictured her desk with its framed picture of Ryan as a gap-toothed toddler, her computer, her telephone, her pile of papers and coffee mug filled with blue and red pens. I miss wearing something different to work each day, she said.
Well, red suits you, he said, gesturing towards Jane’s uniform.
Jane liked the friendly way his Ichabod’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down when he sipped his coffee.
Want to see a picture of my kids? he asked. He pulled a phone out of the bib of his uniform and handed it to Jane. A boy and a girl. The girl had her father’s lankiness; the boy’s features were fuller, denser.
They’re beautiful, she said, handing it back.
He narrowed his eyes at the phone for another moment then slipped back into his uniform. They live with their mom, he said.
Here’s mine, Jane said, offering her own phone. Ryan was her wallpaper.
Looks just like you, he said.
When Jane got back to Maternity, Tania was waiting, hands on her hips. You’re late she said.
Sorry, Jane said even though she wasn’t late.
In retaliation, Tania set Jane to refold the two-for-one pocket tees on the display table in the front of the department. The table was about the size of a dining room table and stocked with six rows of tee shirts, three stacks deep. Each individual pile had about twelve shirts. The two-for-one pocket tees came in white, black, red, yellow, green, and blue. The table hadn’t been disturbed by a browsing customer since Jane set the shirts out at the beginning of her shift.
All of them, said Tania.
Jane refolded the folded shirts. Once she looked up and caught Harry’s eye across the aisle and when he grinned and tipped an imaginary hat to her, she smiled back and forgot, for a moment, that her feet hurt. When Jane’s shift was over, she found Tania in the stockroom. Tania’s nose was so pink that the freckles didn’t show. Her phone lay in pieces on the floor near a box of maternity support garments.
What? Tania said. Her voice had the same plugged quality as Ryan’s in the crying jag aftermath of a tantrum.
Nothing. Good night, Jane said. Then she said: Are you okay?
When Tania shook her head, strands of ponytail stuck to her wet cheeks. Jane sat down next to her and then Tania was crying into the shoulder of Jane’s uniform. Between sobs, Jane pieced together that something had happened with a boyfriend and a best friend (now former). And now I have no place to live! I’ll have to sleep here in fucking Target! cried Tania, sweeping her arm to indicate the storage room.
What about your parents?
Tania shook her head. I can’t. My dad said if I moved in with a boy at my age that I couldn’t come home again. He said I made my bed so I can just go ahead and lie in it!
I’m sure he’d—
You don’t know him, Tania said. She wrapped her arms around herself and hiccupped.
The front of Jane’s uniform was smudged with Tania’s mascara, but Jane was sure she could get it out. You can come home with me, she said.
Tania was so surprised, she stopped crying. No, she said. That’s okay. I can call a friend.
You’re sure? Jane asked, standing and easing herself towards the doorway.
Noooooo, Tania wailed.
Jane sighed. Then come on, she said.
Outside, the wind was ice. The florescent light was here too and shone on the cement balls that lined the entrance to the store. The balls were Target-red and stood about waist-high and appeared to be bobbing on the surface of a black parking lot lake.
I think that man is crying, said Tania, pointing to a man crouched next to a car with his head in his hands. The car was white and very dirty or maybe it was rust.
Jane and Tania traversed the black lake until they reached the man. It was Harry. Are you okay? Jane asked.
He stood and Jane saw that he hadn’t been crying after all. The car was jacked up and tilted to the side. I lost a lug nut, he said.
Tania and Jane helped Harry look for the lug nut, but they couldn’t find it.
Do you have Triple A? Jane asked. Harry did not.
I can give you a ride home, Jane said.
It’s late and it’s too far. I know you have to get home to your son, Harry said.
You have a son? Tania asked.
Jane pulled out her phone to check the time. Past ten-thirty. Her mother would be furious. The wind blew low and hard and all three tugged their coats tighter around their bodies to shield themselves from it.
You can come home with us, she said.
Tania and Harry looked at Jane. Us? said Tania. Really? said Harry. I couldn’t.
I insist, said Jane. I can’t leave you here.
I’m simply furious, said Jane’s mother before she was even in the door. Do you know what time it is? Do you know how worried I’ve been? Anything could have happened to you. You could be dead in a ditch for all I know. Jane’s mother took in Tania and Harry who were slowly backing away from Jane, but Jane motioned them in with a wave of her hand and shut the door behind them. She unwound her scarf and unzipped her jacket.
Sorry, said Jane.
Jane’s mother picked up her purse from the table, opened it, rummaged inside, and then closed it again. The purse was the size of a shoebox and was black patent leather. Nice, said Jane’s mother. Out with your friends and you didn’t even think to call me.
I’m hungry, said Tania. Do you have anything to eat?
Jane’s mother put her purse down on the table. Hungry? she said.
Jane ducked her head and smiled.
I could eat something, said Harry. He had taken off his coat and hung it on the coat tree next to the door.
Jane’s mother opened cabinets and peered into the refrigerator. Then there were pots on the stove and something frying in a pan. Jane’s mother cooked and talked, moving from counter to refrigerator to stove. She talked about how Ryan spent too much time playing video games and watching TV, described her knee operation last summer, and complained about her dog that refused to let her brush his teeth. She talked about her late husband, Jane’s father, and the lovely funeral they had had for him, was it two years ago now? Jane yawned and let the talk wash over her. Tania had taken her hair out of its ponytail and it floated like cornsilk around her face. When she smiled, Jane could see she still had braces on her bottom teeth. Harry told a funny story about a customer and when they all laughed, the cat leapt on the counter and then to the top of the refrigerator and glared at them with her eyes like cold emeralds.
Is this a party?
They turned. Ryan stood in the doorway to the kitchen, rubbing his eyes against the light. He was wearing his Transformer pajamas and holding his pillow.
No, honey, said Jane. We’re just having a little snack.
Ryan was hungry too so they moved into the dining room so there would be enough room for everyone. We never eat in here, said Ryan. It’s for special.
It’s okay, said Jane. This is special.
Jane’s mother served them plates of eggs scrambled with fresh dill and some boursin cheese Jane vaguely remembered from the depths of the refrigerator. There was turkey bacon and dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. There was toast and jam and a bowl of strawberries.
One more thing, said Jane, and came back with the bottle of Chardonnay, which was still almost full. She took four of her good crystal wine glasses out of the breakfront. Only a little for me, said Jane’s mother. Me too, said Tania. I’m not even old enough to drink. More for me then, said Harry, smiling at Jane.
They ate until all the food was gone. Ryan nodded in his chair. C’mon, buddy, Jane said. She navigated him upstairs and tucked him into bed. He was asleep before she turned out the light.
Downstairs, her mom was plunging her arms into her coat. Mom, it’s way too late for you to drive home; you’re staying here tonight. You can sleep in my bed.
Don’t be ridiculous. I can see myself home.
What about the dog?
He’ll be fine.
Jane’s mom went to bed, still talking as she climbed the stairs to Jane’s bedroom.
Tania, you can sleep in the guestroom, she said, and I can make up the couch for you, she said to Henry.
This is a big house, said Tania. If you live in such a big house, how come you work at Target?
Long story, said Jane.
After Jane had settled Tania into the guestroom with a pair of borrowed pajamas, she returned to the living room to make up the couch for Harry.
There’s still some wine, said Harry, who had cleared off the table and stacked the dishes in the dishwasher, and stood waiting for Jane in front of the fireplace. Let’s make a fire, he said.
Jane had one Duraflame log. She handed it to Harry and he placed it in the fireplace and lit it with the grill lighter that Jane’s ex-husband had bought for this purpose. Then they sat on the couch and finished the wine. They talked about their former spouses and former jobs, their children. Harry yawned, then Jane yawned, and then they both laughed. When he kissed her, he made a quiet sound from deep in his throat. Then he put his arm around her and Jane rested her head on his shoulder until the log had almost burned itself out.
One summer, when Jane had been eight, her brother had dared her to swim out to the dock. Jane had never swum that far before, had never been in water deeper than the height of her own strong girl’s body. She swam fast to keep up with Jimmy who, at ten, far exceeded Jane in size and wisdom. The lake was brown with darts of fairy light. There were things in the water illuminated by the light, but they didn't gross her out because she had grown up on this lake. The water was warm with surprising pockets of cold and Jane swam on after her brother towards the dock. Then she was tired and her arms felt heavy. It was hard to lift one, then the other. Jimmy, she called, but he was too far ahead. She could see his head, brown hair in the brown water. Jane stopped swimming. Jimmy, she called. She sank. The fairy lights showed her a watery brown sky. She broke the surface, striking it with her arms, willing it to hold her up. She sank again and rose again. Water filled her mouth and nose. Then her foot glanced against the grit and slime of the bottom of the lake. She put the foot down, then the other. And realized that if she stood on tiptoe her mouth and nose were free. She didn’t even mind later when Jimmy called her a baby. She didn’t tell him how she had almost drowned but saved herself when she realized that if she put her feet down she could stand and simply walk herself out.
That was long ago, but Jane remembered the feeling of relief. Mostly, she remembered how embarrassed she had been to discover she wasn’t drowning after all.
Hey, buddy, move over, Jane said, nudging Ryan to the inside edge of his bed.
We’re having a sleepover?
Yes. Now go to sleep.
Mmmmmm? Jane was almost asleep.
Can they live here with us?
Jane opened her eyes. Who?
Tania and Harry. They’re nice. And then we wouldn’t have to give our house to the bank.
Don’t be silly, Jane said. His face was inches from hers, their noses almost touching. How did you know about the bank? she whispered.
I hear stuff, said Ryan. So can they?
I don’t think so. I don’t know. We’ll see, said Jane, but Ryan had fallen back to sleep.
Now there was only the wind and shards of ice that hit the window with sandpapery rasps. There were the metal baseboards pinging with the rising heat and the lingering smell of bacon. There were the beds with the people sleeping in them and dreaming in them. There were all these things, Jane reminded herself.
Susan Lago is a lecturer in the English department at William Paterson University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Per Contra, Monkeybicycle, Verbsap, Word Riot, as well as Pank Magazine who nominated one of her short stories for a 2011 Pushcart Prize. In addition to having a Master of Arts degree in English from William Paterson University, Susan serves as a nonfiction editor of the university’s literary magazine, Map Literary.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I was inspired to write “Swimming the Lake” after the school year ended and the beginning of summer was only seconds away. Driving past my town’s beach club one day, I remembered the time when I almost drowned, the feeling of utter panic, and then my embarrassment when I found that I wasn’t drowning after all. I’ve tried to keep that in mind—the feeling of being able to save myself—when dealing with the various problems life throws my way.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, John Cheever, John Updike, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: In my house with my cat drowsing nearby.
Q: Who plays you in the movie in the movie of your life?
A: Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s the shoes.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on putting together a collection of my short stories as well as seeking representation for my novel.
Continental Divide by L. McKenna Donovan
followed by Q&A
It would have been difficult to admit what I was feeling. Easier by far to focus on the hard, Wyoming clay under my heels, or on the bitter wind that beat against me and whipped my long, heavy coat against my calves, but the mourners deserved my attention.
“Beautiful service. So sorry for your loss.” Thank you.
“So sorry. We’ll be praying for you.” Thank you.
“My dear, I’m glad you brought him back home to rest among us.” Thank you.
“So sad. I know you’ll miss him—”
—Miss him. My eyes turned to the burnished casket resting over the draped grave. Once the mourners were gone, the cemetery staff would come forward and lower the casket. After all, as the young priest had so solemnly promised from the graveside, “He was a cherished friend, son, and husband, and our memories of him shall remain untarnished and vivid.”
Vivid. Yes, indeed, our memories of him—
A hand touched my shoulder. “My dear, will you be all right?”
I startled, then turned, thankful that a lash of wind brought tears to my eyes before I glanced up at the face above the black cassock. “Yes. Yes, I’ll be fine, Father. Thank you.”
Despite my preoccupation, I realized how dismissive I sounded, and the good priest deserved better from me. I hastened to fill the silence. “Wonderful eulogy, Father, thank you. I know his mother will take comfort from your kind words.”
“You’re welcome, my dear.” His hands offered warmth to mine, but his eyes? Yes, his eyes registered my slip—the inadvertent confession that the comfort of his eulogy belonged not to me, but to my late husband’s mother.
“Julia-honey!” My grieving mother-in-law picked her way through clumps of brittle grass, stopping long enough to claim the priest’s hands. “Oh, thank you, Father. Thank you so much! Yes, indeed, his last months were so terribly difficult…so hard on me, living so far away from him. At least he’s home again. He was always such a fighter, but this? Oh, he would have loved your sermon, just loved it. He had such a way with words. A lovely way with words . . .”
Yes, indeed, ‘a lovely way with words.’
—No, no. The black dress. It manages to make you look elegant.
—No, no, no! That’s not the way to do it. Here, I’ll write your damned résumé.
—Just bring your proposal with you. No one at the barbecue will mind if you sit inside and work.
“Julia-honey?” His mother fussed her hair back under the stiff, black netting. “We’re going back to the house. Everyone will be there, and Father Murphy is joining us. You really should—”
“Mum, his friends have come to see you, and I have to drive back home. I have only three more days of leave, remember? And it’s a long way to—”
“—to Seattle, yes, yes, I know. Really, you should have flown so you don’t have to drive yourself and I hate to think of you being on the road, particularly now that you’re alone and things happen, you know—”
“—and he certainly wouldn’t have let you drive by yourself, especially at night and especially that far! Oh, dear, and it’s so hard to accept that he is gone. My beloved son. Well, no help for that. At least he’s home again. God giveth and God taketh away, you know. You’ll come back for Christmas, of course. You’re still family, no matter what anyone else says, and you’ll feel better if—”
—if you wear the black dress . . .
—if you let me do it . . .
—if you come back for Christmas . . .
* * *
The drive home was suitably long. I refused to turn on the radio, the new silence too precious to fill with empty words—words of bright-speak disc jockeys, songs of love-sweetly-lost, promises of lifetime guarantees. Besides, the jagged mountains had always felt closer, more ancient and wise and intimate without the sound of human voices. Maybe if I listened closely, the aspens would whisper their broad-rooted secrets to me—
I immediately repressed the thought, but wait . . . there was no need. Old habits die hard, and it no longer mattered that he had never understood the mystic in me. I laughed, suddenly and joyfully, and it startled me. That was the first sound I had made in over three hundred miles. I rolled down my window and sucked the frigid air deep into my lungs.
With the window still open, I headed over the pass, but at the top, a roadside marker caught my attention. Another impulse. I pulled over and stared at the sign. White letters on slate-blue background: Continental Divide. Around me the Douglas firs stood straight and tall and free to the sky, and the aspens shivered gold in the mountain wind, their leaves skittering across the first flurries of snow.
Continental Divide. Behind me, all waters flow east, back to Wyoming, but in front of me, they flow west, onward to the Pacific Ocean. In my rearview mirror, I let the darkening sky hold my gaze for a long moment, but through my windshield, the sun was warm in the western sky. I set my mind toward the Pacific, the radio still silent, and my window still open.
Late the next day, the Cascade Mountains appeared in the distance, their winter shoulders sadly bare, for the year had been dry. Then several hours afterwards, I came over the pass, and spread below me was the skyline of Seattle and the familiar waters of the sound glinting under the late-evening moon. There was time to catch the late ferry, though I dreaded the crossing. As much as I loved to sit on rocky beaches and stare at the million pricks of sunlight on choppy water, seasickness was my bane. This, however, had not prevented him from buying a 30’ cruiser. How long must I wait before selling it now that he was gone?
The ferry was filled with passengers, some subdued from a long day in the city, but others chattering, laughing, celebrating an evening’s entertainment. Always the lovers arm in arm, and always the parents with children asleep against their shoulders. I did not get out of the car, enduring in solitude the pitch and shudder of the ferry caught by the strong crosscurrents of the changing tide. It did not help to count the minutes to the dock, so it was with great relief that I was finally able to nudge my car up the ramp and onto dry land at the beckoning of the ferry worker.
An hour passed and the roads narrowed: four lanes became two, homes receded from the verge, trees laced overhead, and leaves slept in rain-washed ditches. The house was deeply still, and as I kicked off my heels in the entry, I savored the silence. And the lack of his impatient voice.
—Did they sign the contract? Yes, but—
—Did you get your bonus check yet? Yes, maybe we could now—
—We should have children soon. You’re not getting any younger, you know. Yes, I know.
* * *
It is my first morning alone. The house is open, windows and doors unlocked and unlatched and thrown wide to the freezing morning air. The rough cedar deck overlooks the canal, and I watch the sun rise on gentle toes, traveling from the tips of the firs, down through the spread of branches before reaching their night-damp bark. My coffee is warm and darkly fresh, and I cup its warmth between my palms and lean my elbows on the railing. The tide is low, and the gulls forage for shrimp and mussels left in tidal pools by the retreating water.
The air smells green and damp, a bit acrid and yet so very alive. My collie-girl hustles to the shore, head lowered, her gaze intent on the flock before her. I sip my coffee and watch. She poses for a vivid black-and-white moment, then charges. The seagulls scatter and screech in a maelstrom of loose feathers and dropped shells.
I laugh, and my delighted sound carries over the water.
L. McKenna Donovan: Writing addict. Star gazer. Obsessive reader. MFA. Collie aficionado. Plant whisperer.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: At any given time, we actually carry on several conversations besides the immediate auditory one. These other conversations are found in our unvoiced (or even subconscious) thoughts as well as snatches of relevant conversations from our past. This story makes one such ‘tiered conversation’ fully visible.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Pearl S. Buck for her ability to bring foreign cultures into brilliant dimensions; Mary Stewart for her ability to bring settings alive to our senses, especially Greece and England; Aaron Sorkin for dialogue that never disappoints.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: Italy. Failing that, my office (in my home).
Q: Who plays you in the movie in the movie of your life?
A: Susan Sarandon
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Within the next two months, I’ll complete my current novel of transnational intrigue set in 1961. Concurrently, I am working on a collection of supporting short stories, which reveal life-informing events from those characters’ early lives—events which are alluded to, but outside the scope of the novel.
My website, To Write Well, is currently under construction with a self-imposed deadline of August 1, 2012 for offering two online writing courses that focus on ‘just the right word’
Things I Would Say to Certain People by Ryan Meany
followed by Q&A
One of My Students
I could have fallen in love with you the first day of class, circumstances notwithstanding. Then you spoke, and again and again, determined to show how little you knew. You were so proud of that little bit, so graceless in speaking it. Stop. For them. For you. Why not be gorgeous? Listen most of the time, for a long time. A great number of women, too many, are working very hard right now, right as you are not reading this, to be as beautiful as you are when you are silent. And that smile.
Say it, coward: I’m too simple, young, awkward, ignorant for us to be best friends. You’re heartless. I’m here if you change your mind.
Old Friend Who Called Off the Friendship
Fifteen years we were sort of together, off and on, and you tossed all of that as you might a receipt at the bottom of one of your scuffed knock-off designer purses. A year and a month and a half later I wish you would call so I could hurt you. All those blowjobs you gave me in college, and the years of sex, late-night drunken “Do you have any idea how long my day is tomorrow?” sex. What does all that sex become if it will never happen again? And all of that which was better than the sex, as I was getting better sex elsewhere: the years of conversations about our football team and murderers you were convicting and books I thought were better and my life. You do understand that all of it is now a crumple under a heap in a place people rarely visit, find no happiness in. You do know what that says about you.
I was never going to marry you. You, more than anyone, knew you were shaped like an egg. You knew how skinny and hairless I was in high school, how the girls flirted but never dared. You, of all people, knew how much of my life I would spend proving.
I’ve said everything I’ve been paid to say. Please ask someone else.
The Middle-Aged Woman I Pass in the Hallway at Work
Who Wears a Dolly Parton Amount of Make-Up
But Has Not the Means to Acquire Make-Up of the Same Quality as Dolly’s
or the Skill to Apply It as Dolly, or Her People, Do
I would totally have sex with you.
The Homeless Woman I Met Around 4 A.M. on New Year’s
I hope your daughter has found you. I hope the ending of your book was satisfying and the blankets were sufficient. I hope you found somewhere to stay when the temperature dropped even lower. I did think about you on those colder nights, when I was in my bed. I have not been looking for you though. In fact I have probably tried not to see you again. I hope you didn’t just look twenty years older than I. Do know that when I am old enough to be sure you are dead, I will regret not trying to see you again. Surely I will now.
I’ve argued the genius of Ulysses for years. I might have even inspired one or two people to read the first few pages. But what the hell are you talking about?
I know you’re a dog, don’t really fit here. But I love you, really love you, so much more than anyone I’ll be talking to. Come lick my face you sloppy dumb little love.
You’re over there praying and praying (Do you actually get on your knees?) and believing so hard and you’re doing it all, really, to avoid eternal stink and hot, and you know I’m not doing the same, so you must believe I’m going to hell.
Can you love someone you believe is going to hell?
I almost found you once, I like to believe. I searched for your address online, drove all the way to Starke, Florida where your dad took you when he took you away. (God, how did you ever live there? I mean, dude, you would think the town that executes all of Florida’s needing-to-be-executed would not actually look like a town that kills.) A nice man in the neighborhood, a few doors down, said, “Yeah, a couple women lived there. Moved about two months ago. I didn’t really know them.” After twelve years I was two months late. I wish I would have asked him, “What did she look like?”
“The—I can’t really describe her. She had short hair in eighth grade. She was then possibly showing signs that with age she might become overweight.”
“Oh, the fat one?”
“Yes. Did she have green eyes? Were her lips almost always pursed? Did she look like she would be exactly as shy and excited around me as I would be her? Exactly?”
“I don’t know. She was pretty fat.”
I will take you anyway, Vera. You could be severely burned. And I like chunkier women anyway. And diets. There are diets for us, Vera. (Now that I think about it, I don’t know if I could deal with the burns. Like if your whole left ear is gone or something? That would irritate my nice memories.)
Eighth grade. And after you and I went to Disney World with my parents to make our last memory I cried and cried in my bed that night until my mom came in and said, not in these words, “I know it’s hard now, but you’re so young and so many more are out there, young like you. You will meet them someday and they will love you and you will, eventually, hurt them worse than you are hurting right now.” I don’t think even I believed back then I would love you forever when I told you I would love you forever in fancily folded notes. But I guess the child me was warning me. I never liked that kid.
Actually, I’ve said it all already, which is part of our problem. And is why I can’t seem to start over with someone else. I mean, that was a lot of stuff I said. Who wants to do that a different way all over again?
Road-Raging Trucker Who Pulled a Handful of Hair Out of My Head
You lucky, sad son of a bitch. Only because I’m a petite man did I not follow you all the way to your next stop and beat the bad memories out of you. Oh, but had I my father’s arms and rage I would kick you back into your mother’s twat so you could start over. And if you fuck up your life this time too we can just keep on doing this until you get it right.
You were right about one thing, though. I should not have swerved in front of your semi, slammed on my breaks and jumped out of my car.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Please read this and think I’m cool enough to hang out with. I’ll trade you the “8” on my keyboard for one of your hats.
Mr. Derek Brooks
Do you read? If not, I understand. If I played in the NFL, was a future Hall of Famer—actually, if I played in the NFL and sat on the bench I wouldn’t read.
The Attendees of Mandy’s Funeral and Mandy
We must have felt similarly. Any funeral held for a suicide victim is pretty damn sad, but this one especially. Of the forty people attending, only about ten of us were truly there for her and not just for Jeff or just because we were somehow associated, and except for maybe three or four of us, we all knew we had not done much to keep her around. If each of us had spent another five minutes a week talking to her or, in most cases, had spent at least five minutes period, we might have bought ourselves time. If we could go back in time—be honest—how long would most of you continue to call her and when she didn’t answer get in your car and find her?
I sense most of you, like me, never liked her much. She was usually aloof on the rare occasions when she did socialize. Yes, I know we wanted to like her. Anyone who saw those eyes wanted to like her, a blue like blue Gatorade in a backlit glass, and the size, seemingly, because of their brilliance, of golf balls. And we wanted to like her because she had, from time to time, when she was in the mood, showed us how easy liking her was—her gooselike cackle, her capacity to shift conversation from recent psychological theory to the Simpsons to a dick joke. So good for you, Mandy. One hell of a point you made. I was mad at you for doing this to Jeff until about three sentences ago. But you were right. Fuck us all.
I sometimes think of you being in the ground, what you must look like now. The night you did Yoga on the floor in front of me and I asked you to stop, insinuating you were teasing me, turning me on, which you knew, which was, I would find out in about twenty minutes, why you were doing it: I could have never foreseen that always tugging at such a pleasant memory would be the story of Denise and Kayla arriving before the police did. They had come to see, to believe, your darkening, stiff body, the small but dense change you would force into me.
The Feminist Who Encourages Me
I found oppressive your use of the word misogyny to describe “One of My Students.” I can never convince you that I am quite capable of embracing both my hormones and women. Because I love you too, I have revised the passage:
I would have fallen in love with you the first day of class, circumstances notwithstanding. I knew some day all that potential would bloom out of those full lips and you would be loved by so many men. May they be useful, if you want them. May they not carry you but support you, not patronizingly but lovingly, if you want them to. May they see and wish to smell only you. May they walk, drive, roll over whenever you want them, and may you want them, if you want to want them, in a long life.
. . .
Please come back and tell them you were speaking metaphorically.
The People in Restaurants Who Cheer When Someone Drops Plates
You are the same people who do not look away when a man sneezes snot into his hand. You do look away from the girl in the wheelchair. And you have no trouble choosing which puppy. Oh, you hold the door open for the old man. Sure. Everyone is watching. But when you see him walking home with bags of groceries, when you are safely in your car, you drive on. You are the reason we war. You will not see the connection. So we are at war. You are the reason children are homeless. You enjoy zoos. If you have any sincerity in you at all, you are the ones most likely to hurt the ones who love you. And the ones who do not love you, have no reason to, the clerk at the gas station, you would shit on him for twenty dollars if he promised not to watch.
In that moment right after the bang and shattering, the person’s food on the floor, the waitress humiliated, even more busy than before and now possibly making even less money, you’re glad. You’re glad this time you can join in. The last time it happened, some other restaurant, some other humiliated person, you were too cowardly to join in. You’re satisfied to hide your jeering among jeerers. You are behind the lynch mob, not really part of it but absolutely it.
The Girl in the Wheelchair I Continue to Look Away From
I want to be better than this. Not because of hell but because I want everyone to love me. Understand why I do not smile at you: I do not want you thinking I’m smiling because you are down there, bent, not someone I would have sex with. (Can you have sex?) So what am I supposed to do? Say hi? But what if you want to be my friend? Come with me to the bar? I would love to have you, but I do not want people thinking I’m bringing the broken girl to the bar just to be charming, although that would be a reason. Yes, I know I’ve brought many broken girls to many bars. But because your options are limited and because I would be so carefully nice to you, you might possibly begin to love me. I do not want that. I know I just said I want everyone to love me. But from a great comfortable distance. Besides, I cannot do for them all that you must do to keep people loving you. No, I am sorry. I will start smiling at you, but that is it. It’s an entirely different matter to hurt a broken girl who can walk. You must be so beautiful.
I saw you in a movie some time ago and you were nice to your secretary, and she really liked you. It was easy to believe. You are a bit of the antichrist in the sense that Jesus was immortalized after dying for sins and you became immortalized, mainly, to embody sins. I guess the idea is if we can keep hating you for being so hateful, we don’t have to confront ourselves. Plus, it’s just too tempting to make evil about numbers (“He killed so many more people than I did”). That this line of thinking would likely piss Jesus off is not really what I want to say to you. What I wanted to say is only because you are dead do I not feel bad for you. I wish I could have been your secretary for a day when you were in a good mood—even though I realize your good mood might have been the result of your having killed a lot of people the day before, but that was going to happen eventually anyway. And I wish my video camera had been invented and I happened to bring it to work that day. After you were finished killing Germany and yourself, the Germany we beat into a monster and handed to you, I would have traveled with the circus, set up camp right next to the freak show, and shown people how nice you were to me, bringing me a flower, patting my hand, Eva in the background rolling her eyes.
Inventor of the Plunger
I refuse to research you. If you were a lunatic or a bore I’d rather not know. I’m thrilled to know you were thinking deeply about shit. I hope you were a woman, some nanny-deprived womb-ravaged mother who had an intuitive understanding of physics and refused to give the plumber one more penny. Your invention is so simple and perfect it has not been improved by time or better minds. I must apologize. While the plunger should be kept somewhere in our living rooms—if not for its brilliance then at least as a reminder that most of the horrifying moments in our futures have already been considered and dealt with countless times—we still hide it, if not in the corner behind the toilet, which is hidden in its own corner, then even farther away. But if you understood the repercussions of your genius, you understood the thanklessness of it. If you were compelled to invent the plunger, you understood our disgust for ourselves.
I would still rather not travel to the library, or call a librarian, but according to the consensus on Google right now, your name is Jeffery Gunderson. Barcaluv of Answerbag.com adds that you were a farmer in New Jersey who created this chef d’oeuvre after becoming frustrated by constipated cows. Oh I hope this is true. Please say poop-clogged cows were your inspiration.
Even Wikipedia refuses to verify you. So does Oxford Reference Online. No surprise there, really. Encyclopedia Britannica Online politely offers others when your name is searched: Robert Joffery, for example, who was a fine ballet dancer, and Lord Francis Jeffrey, who wore a wig and judged Scottish literature and criminals.
Great Great Great Grandmother
Some have said you were a hateful bitch. My cousin Kelli, who was born kind and taught herself to think, says you were the daughter of a white man and a Cherokee. Of course he left before you were born and, probably because of this, your mother despised you. By the time you were fourteen you would abandon your own daughter, whom I would know only as Granny, the ancient woman who broke her hip in our garage when I was twelve, then spent the last several years of her life, except holidays and birthdays, in a macabre nursing home, which, aside from the memories it resurrected, was still not as terrifying and loveless as the sanatorium in which she spent her first several years.
You understand why I didn’t see the point of attending your daughter’s funeral. It was a little late to care. Even though you were the first to abandon her, and the last with an excuse, left her in that ungodly home for orphans, invalids and crazies, her daughter came to you anyway, the one I would know as Memaw, an old woman who smoked and gave me Ritz Crackers, her skin like a discarded chamois. I could not eat Ritz Crackers for years because of that skin. But long before she was a gross old woman, my cousin told me recently, she was combing your hair and saw the scars on your scalp, the dents in your skull. You let her run her fingers over them but only said, “Ma was tough.”
Surely you have a lot of regrets. We are a very regretful clan. So you might be happy to know that the women who came from you have been very good to me and I have yet to abandon them.
Get an MBA and keep a diary.
If my pronunciation of your name is close, it sounds like someone falling onto a deck. This is appropriate since, if I were, for some stupid reason, given your masterpiece, the Lamborghini Murcielago RGT, which I also cannot pronounce, I would faint.
I imagine you meeting Michelangelo, saying in German (you are German, right?), “I’ve always wanted to see the Sistine Chapel. In person. It looks so awesome. How long were you up there, on your back? That’s crazy. How did you do that? You madman! Here. I have to show you this. If you’d indulge me. It’s not the Sistine Chapel, but—I’m proud of it.” And Michelangelo, in his frill and robe, stunned still by you, Mr. Donckerwolke. Awed by your— He doesn’t know what to call it. A castle? All these clean, smooth edges and objects, the alluring wickedness. All this space and light. And how is the weather so perfect?
You lead the little old man to the Murcielago, and he, one of God’s favorites, stiffens. He doesn’t know whether he is afraid, awakened or damned. You wish he would say something. Are his eyes watering? You catch him before he hits the floor. He is frail in his robe, light. You ease him onto the floor and gently slap his loose cheek. You don’t know what else to do. Did you, after such a disciplined life, just kill fucking Michelangelo? No. No, don’t worry. Soon his eyes open. He is not dead. He is petrified, and he is still in this place, and that thing still there, demonic beauty with something like eyes, a black darker than any memory of night but a black that glows. A serpent, all head. He is sure it will speak. Satan himself will exit its jaws. “God, I have not failed you!” screams Michelangelo in what, in fact, sounds to you, Mr. Donckerwolke, like the devil’s language. Until you realize it’s only perfect Latin. “I will see this no more!” Michelangelo continues. “Get me out of here now!” The old man, with all his mortal effort, stands and runs into the door. “Open this now!” You try to sooth him. “It’s only a car. Like a carriage?” He paws at the door, a scared dog. You escort him away from your masterpiece, do not dare say the only thing you can think of: “But you haven’t even seen what it can do.”
People Who Drive, Myself Excluded
If you are a fair representation of humanity, I see no hope for peace. Most of you I hate. You ride my ass or insist I ride yours. You pull out in front of me and do not accelerate appropriately or, when I pull out in front of you, you are speeding inappropriately. And you. You who uses the rearview mirror only for rosary beads. You who refuses to move from the left lane when I’ve made quite obvious I’m faster traffic. I understand why you wonder whether God likes you. Or you, the middle manager, your suit stiffer than your cock’s been in a decade, you and your crusty briefs weaving in and out of lanes like a spring breaker. The world will not miss you. And lady, seriously? Because your turn is right up here and, after all these years, you still cannot drive empathetically and think about your coupons at the same time, are you really going to cut across three lanes? Yes, of course you are. Instead of driving on to the next intersection and turning around, instead of asking yourself, “Will my destination still be there if I am delayed three minutes?”, you stop traffic. In three lanes. You risk everyone else’s spilled coffee and insurance rates because three minutes and a quarter mile are just too much to bear. I too wonder why your kids don’t call more often.
People Who Drive, Myself Included
We are not vehicles. We are people negotiating space, and we are doing so at several feet per second, and we are doing so in a hollowed-out boulder. We have not, remember, become this boulder. We are in it, and we are propelling it, at several feet per second, at other people. That we cannot see these people as we might if they were standing in line or walking down a hallway does not mean they do not exist, that they cannot die. That they cannot see us does not mean we are not, like them, still obliged to negotiate. They and we are we and we have mothers and lovers. We have cousins who want to hear from us and old high school friends who’d rather not have their next reunion ruined by our feathery obituaries.
Girl in the Wheelchair After I Smiled
You looked away? Not even an acknowledgement? Both times? After all that? We should make out.
Those Who Have Divorced Because of Money,
Sex, Interference of a Third-Party,
No shame in being the majority. We must all learn the hard way that love is a liquid, not a solid, and some of us will.
Freaks Between the Ages of Six and Thirteen
All of you, the gimps, the pant pissers, the too-tall and the late blooming, the birthmarked, the beaten, the narcoleptic, the hypersensitive, the abandoned and the all-of- the-above. The worst of you are, in fact, the luckiest. You are dumb and cannot become much smarter. You will never know how much they could hurt you. Stay with your loving mom. Or your dad. Live in his attic. Live in her basement. You’ll have many happy years before he or she dies, and then your greatest pain will probably be your last. If neither your mother nor father loves you, find the people who need to love you. They are everywhere. If even this thought scares you, color. Paint. Someone will insist on protecting you. No one knows what we are capable of.
The rest of you: get good at something, anything. Now. To hell with your childhood. It is ruined. This will not matter someday when all these beautiful people are confused and nostalgic. Ski, read, find a horn and blow. If you’d rather get laid sooner, sing or learn the guitar. Best case scenario, do both. Play the harmonica for all I care. Just play and one day love will smother you. Of course you will be hurt a lot along the way, but this is good. You will sound much better.
Unlike real people, fictional people exist only as long as they are wanted. And so you are finished. You have become irritating.
Your mother and father, whom you’ve cut from this in a grandiose act of cowardice, could have been mature and enlightened before they conceived you, one an architect, the other a pathologist, inculcating in you a firmer sense of logic, a broader imagination and a healthier notion of mortality. You could have been lovely and quiet. You wouldn’t do that to yourself, though, because then you wouldn’t need you, and then they wouldn’t have existed, nor would have Jesus, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., coupon lady, etc.
So go speak one last time to whomever. Try not to make an ass of yourself.
I hope you would call if I gave you my phone number. I can’t, though. A better writer has already done something like that, and it didn’t work out very well for him. Not to mention you would be very disappointed. If I were able to put my best self forward in real life I wouldn’t do this crap.
Even though I know how detestably you can need their affection, I suppose you cannot love anonymous people. So I won’t say I love you, even though I kind of want to. Plus, loving abstractions is childish and cruel. I had a girlfriend do that to me once. What she wished I was she stapled to my forehead like a photo of Johnny Depp. I didn’t even realize she’d done it, I was so in love, until the worst possible time: when she was dumping me. The wind—nothing more, really—had lifted the photo from my face one too many times. Ever been through that? Most deflating breakup ever. There you are dumped and for the first time realizing you hadn’t even been loved. All you can do is pull the staple out, look at the photo and weep. At least when you get dumped by someone who really loves you, or really had loved you, you can hate yourself and grow. But now, on top of that sense of your own impending desperation, you see for the first time two people can actually only think they are in love, and one of them can be you. She said things like, “Someday you will understand,” and I didn’t know whether to die or kill. No longer do I question the romances that end on the news.
Anyway, this is all to say I want to love you. I hope we meet again like this, disembodied and hopeful. You mean too much to me.
Ryan Meany’s work has appeared in Story Quarterly, Crazyhorse, Confrontation, The Pinch and other places. It’s forthcoming in Otis Nebula.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: I think I was fantasizing about telling people I know what I really really thought.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Among others: Barry Hannah, Padgett Powell, Emily Dickinson, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver (of course), James Dickey, and Robert Bly.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: On the couch, feet on coffee table.
Q: Who plays you in the movie in the movie of your life?
A: Someone with little more than a Wendy’s commercial and community theater on his resume.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A poem about a maiden on a horse with a knight who has just saved her from a dragon. So far she’s bracing herself for the terrible things about to happen to her.
Its Eyes Was Flickering by Joe Samuel Starnes
followed by Q&A
June 17, 2009
Memo to the Honorable Franklin T. Stone III, Interim Director
Georgia Bureau of Investigation
From: Agent Ward “Sonny” Hawkins Jr.
RE: Inactive Status Case Request GBI-2001-4356
Dear Honorable Director Stone, This memo pertains to the investigation of an incident that has been under GBI purview since May 29, 2001. It has been thoroughly investigated by me and local sheriff’s authorities with no leads since the date of the incident. There have been no reported or alleged sightings of the suspect other than that of an eyewitness at the scene. Fingerprints of the suspect were not obtainable but we have created sketches of him and circulated these in the Georgia/Alabama vicinity. Achieving a resolution to this case became more difficult recently with the passing of the only eye witness. The death of the 90-year-old witness reportedly was due to a lingering infection in his leg stemming from an old hunting accident unrelated to this case. I am requesting your approval to declare the status of the investigation Inactive until leads or witnesses come forward, a situation that is highly unlikely. Case File GBI-2001-4356 attached. Signed and Attested: Agent Ward “Sonny” Hawkins Jr.
PS Note for Wanda: Please be sure to move this one from the “unsolved” files to the “inactive” files in order to make the upcoming annual statistical report collate accurately.
May 27, 2001, 4 p.m. ET, Sunday Afternoon
Achena County Sheriffs Incident Narrative Addendum Report
Filed by Sgt. Ricky Knox Jr.
Complaintant called the sheriffs office and said we had had a 10-58 down at RON GENTRYS Old Feed and Seed at the Duck Hill crossroads. Its not a feed and seed “anymore” although everyone calls it that. Its an ice house establishment with beer and beef jerky. Sometimes he serves sausage biscuits his mamma makes in the months after she has killed a hog. He also has a bait shop and video poker machine store on the premises. His mamma works at the store in the morning. MR. GENTRY 81 of 3 Drowning Creek Road in Duck Hill works there in the evenings. Or I should say WORKED there. He is the VICTIM. Mr. Gentrys mamma GERALDINE 97 also of 3 Drowning Creek Road was not present at the time of the alleged incident. I tried to contact her but neighbors said she reportedly goes to sleep for the night at 3:00 pm Eastern Standard Time in the afternoon and turns off her telephone. She will be notified in the morning.
I got to the scene approximately thirty-four minutes after the alleged 10-58 and confirmed that it was in fact a 10-58 and ALSO a 10-44. I was belated in my arrival to the alleged scene as the first two dispatches on the radio were unbeknownst to me in my fishing boat. I thought Sheriff Bragg was on duty but according to Norene he had took off to the lake his own self. At the crime scene I found Mr.WILLIE P SLAUGHTER 82 of 5 Drowning Creek Road playing video poker on a machine situated rightways inside the entrance by the front door. He is a regular fixture at the video poker machine at Mr. Gentrys store. I interviewed Mr. Slaughter and he gave me a statement but he refused to stop playing video poker during the interview because he said he was up $130 dollars for the day and almost $275 for the Memorial Day Weekend. He paused briefly to show me his roll of cash as evidence to this amount. He also refused to write his statement down because his “AWFULRITIS” was too painful to permit him to use a pen although he seemed to be working the buttons on the video poker machine just fine. I pointed out the alleged DISCREPANCY in the situation. He said the motion required to mash the button delivering new cards in the poker game was different. He said it does not require a grip. He held up his hand and demonstrated he had a hard time bending his fingers. He then proceeded to make a few unChristianlike jokes about things that required a grip until I asked him to tell me what happened to Mr. Gentry.
Mr. Slaughter said the 10-58 happened in a JIFFY. He said he was nearing a royal flush just short of a King when a tall black man with a DOO RAG on his head busted into the store and committed the 10-58. He said he got a good look at the man who had bright GREEN EYES. He said there was no point in his trying to help Mr. Gentry cause he can not move too fast due to a bad leg that he injured in a hunting accident years ago. He lifted his pants leg and showed me that he has only half a withered calf muscle on his right extremity. He said it had been hurting him something awful lately because the bone never had healed right. He said he was not scared during the aforementioned incident. “If my time was up my time was up” he stated. I asked him why he thought the man did not try to rob him and he said he did not know. Slaughter said the big black man looked a little bit like O.J. SIMPSON on a bad day only DARKER with fewer teeth. He said the man drove an EL CAMINO that was red or green or orange. He said his vision is not too good and he might be color blind. He said he could hear the GUN pretty good which must have meant it was loud cause his hearing ain’t much either. He said he played video poker throughout the incident and only took a short break to call the sheriffs office. No point in stopping he said. He said his luck cooled off about the time of the incident as he did not get the King he had hoped for to fill out his purported royal flush. I put out an APB for the El Camino and the alleged O.J. look alike to all local sheriffs offices and the City of Piney Police Department that afternoon. There were no REPORTS. Volunteer firefighters Lts. Adams and Wolfenbarger heard the call and drove around looking for him. They radioed later and said they had not spotted him but that they would be interested in buying the El Camino from the sheriffs office if the suspect was incarcerated.
I waited almost two hours for Coroner Melvin “June Bug” Riggly to show up to CONFIRM the 10-58 while Mr. Slaughter played video poker. June Bug was late because he had been umpiring a girls softball game across the state line in Alabama that went extra innings. June Bug said three shots probably from a RIFLE killed Mr. Gentry. Specifically the shot in his THROAT and the one that pierced his HEART right through his chest. The third shot hit him somewhere in the TESTICULAR regions June Bug said. June Bug said the heart and the throat Mr. Gentry had needed but the testicles he had not used in a long time. At that time Mr. Slaughter laughed until he fell into a coughing fit. He stopped playing video poker and came around and slapped June Bug on the shoulder. Slaughter then peered down at Mr. Gentry and said “welp” and went back to video poker. June Bug who was still in his umpiring uniform except for the chest protector used a pocket knife to pry the BULLETS from the chest wound and the throat. He said he did not think investigators needed the bullet from the testicles. Two was enough he said.
The funeral home hearse then came and picked up Mr. Gentry. After they left I checked for strange FOOTPRINTS but could not find any due to the heavy traffic in and out of the door. I inspected the CASH REGISTER which was wide open and there was UPON INSPECTION no cash in it. I happened to encumber upon a safe below the counter that was unlocked and empty save for a .22-caliber pistol and a box of shells and autographed pictures of Bear Bryant and Rusty Wallace. I wrapped CRIME scene tape around the front door and the counter where Mr. Gentry had lain for a while. I left the store in the custody of Mr. Slaughter. He is a cousin and next door neighbor of Mr. Gentrys. He showed me his key to the store and said he would clean everything up. I told him that he should leave the store like it is but he got angry and said Mrs. Gentry had a business to run and could not afford to just shut down the store. I let him go ahead with it. Mr. Slaughter was polite then and said he had been around a long time and remembered my daddy from way back. He said he was sorry that he got killed and that it was a shame they never caught the killer. He said it was also a shame somebody got murdered in Duck Hill about every thirty-five years or so. He said I looked just like my daddy and must be about the same age as he was when he got killed. Mr. Slaughter said my daddy was a good man and would not have given him a ticket for an expired drivers license like I did about ten years ago. But he said that to show that he had no hard feelings I could have a Coke or something else to drink for free. I declined his offer. When I got back to the office I called the GBI hotline in Atlanta and was told an agent could not come out to dust for FINGERPRINTS until Tuesday after the Memorial Day holiday. They said the eye witness description of the perpetrator should be circulated statewide which I did.
March 7, 1991, 4:30 p.m. ET, Thursday Afternoon
Achena County Sheriffs Incident Narrative Addendum Report
Filed by Deputy Ricky Knox Jr.
On this day at the aforementioned time I was driving down U.S. 27 and I noticed shards and shatters of busted WOOD and CHICKEN WIRE strewn across the roadway for about a hundred yards. It appeared as that somebody or an influx of rush hour somebodys had run over a DOG BOX or CHICKEN COOP. There were no chickens or dogs to be found except for Flossie Gibsons black chow that had been run over about two days ago and pushed off to the side of the road. I concluded that this was a different incident as I had seen this particular carnage before.
At the top of this river of debris was an old truck pulled off to the side of the road. Mr. William Prighaskins Slaughter 72 of 3 Drowning Creek Road was standing by the truck with a .22-caliber REMINGTON a Rimfire Model 597. He said he was driving along when the end of the barrel of the rifle fell out of the gun rack and DISCHARGED blowing a hole in his back window near the passenger side. I inspected the window and confirmed this account. The gunshot scared the two bird dogs he was carrying. The dogs forced their way out of the dog box in the back of his truck and jumped out. The commotion of their escape BIFURCATED the aforementioned dog box from the back of the truck and caused it to go “SMASH” in the roadway and befall victim to the grilles and tires of oncoming vehicular traffic.
Mr. Slaughter said the dogs would be OK and probably just run on home to his cousin Mr. Ron Gentry. He said his cousin Mr. Gentry had been riding with him at the time the gun went off. Mr. Slaughter said Mr. Gentry went after the dogs and would walk home after them. He said the bullet did not even come close to hitting Mr. Gentry.
I did a routine check. Mr. Slaughters drivers license had EXPIRED twenty-six years ago in 1965. He also had no insurance. I wrote him a ticket for this. He protested mightily. He said he had tried to get his information current. He said his ex-wife who he had returned to recently and was living with again had reported him dead in the late sixties after he left. His whereabouts were unknown for more than 20 years. To CLARIFY he said he knew where he was the whole time but she did not. He said he was on the county DEAD rolls. He said he had come back and done explained some things to her and was not IN FACT dead. He requested my assistance with this court matter but I told him to check with the clerks office. He cursed at me and left stating that he did not see the point in a dead man having to renew his drivers license or use insurance. I considered filing HARASSMENT charges but decided not to due to the subjects status and as an ELDERLY CITIZEN.
December 5, 1986
Memo to Achena County Administrator Wyman Wombles
From: Sheriff Bedford Thompson
RE: Incident Report Storage
Hello Wy, This note is to officially record a house cleaning of our records. We will be storing all of the incident reports prior to January 1, 1975, in the new storage facility near Interstate 20. We were able to store the data from all the reports back to 1975 in the computer, but I don’t have the manpower to computerize all the records, therefore, all prior reports will be boxed and put away. I have leased a 1,000 (one-thousand) square foot storage shed for which you will begin seeing a monthly bill of $50 (fifty) from Shorty’s Storage and Small Engine Repair Inc. I will evaluate again in a few years and may destroy the records if there is no need for them. Most of this information makes it into the courthouse files anyway when charges result and therefore is doubly duplicative. Yours Truly, Sheriff Thompson.
August 25, 1967
Letter to the Editor
Piney (Ga.) Post
This letter is to express all the gratitude I can to everyone in Duck Hill who sent cards, flowers and brought food out to the house in honor of my husband, Sgt. Richard Knox, who was called to be with Jesus last week when he was killed in a traffic stop along the interstate. My infant son, Ricky, and I can’t tell you how much we appreciate your prayers. We have faith that he’s in a better place and his cold-blooded killer will be brought to justice one day, maybe not on this earth, but certainly in Satan’s fires of hell. Yours in Christ, Sandra Knox.
Oct. 19 1961, 12 p.m. ET, Sunday Afternoon
Achena County Sheriffs Incident Report Attachment
Filed by Sgt. Richard Knox
Mrs Fob Knott called the sheriffs office to report a deer hunting ACCIDENT on her property. Said a man with one good leg and one very bad bloody one limped up screaming to her house and said he had been SHOT. He had been shot in the bad bloody LEG below the knee she reported he said. The man was MR WP SLAUGHTER. Mrs Knott said the only other person she knew hunting on the land that day was RON GENTRY. I found Mr Gentry at home asleep later that afternoon. He had apparently been drinking moonshine or some other type of intoxicating beverage and was incapacitated incapable and inaccessible to make a statement. I could tell his RIFLE a Winchester 284 situated in the gun rack had been FIRED. It was warm to the touch. Empty THIRTY OUGHT SIX shells were in the bed of the truck.
I went back to Mr Gentrys the next morning. He said the previous day he thought he had seen a deer as he walked out across the big grassy field in the edge of the trees. ITS EYES WAS FLICKERING he said. He said he shot his gun and thought he had hit it solidly enough. He walked across the field and saw a trail of blood but no deer. He said he did not see a MAN either.
I located and spoke to the victim in the hospital MR WP SLAUGHTER who reported that he had been deer hunting and shot in the leg by someone UNBEKNOWNST to him. He said he knew that his half brother MR GENTRY often hunted there but he did not think he was there that afternoon. I told him that Mr Gentry was there and I suspected he was the SHOOTER. Mr Slaughter said he did not want to file charges. He said that he would be able to walk again. He said they were FAMILY and they would work it out sooner or later. At his REQUEST I closed the investigation.
Joe Samuel Starnes was born in Alabama, grew up in Georgia, and now lives in New Jersey. NewSouth Books published Fall Line, his second novel, in November 2011. His first novel, Calling, came out in 2005. His journalism has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and various magazines, as well as essays, short stories, and poems in literary journals. He holds a bachelor’s degree from University of Georgia and a master’s from Rutgers University in Newark, and he is working on an MFA in creative nonfiction at Goucher College. He was awarded a fellowship to the 2006 Sewanee Writers' Conference.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: This story has its genesis in the late eighties and early nineties when I worked as a reporter for small newspapers in Georgia and Florida. I scanned the police reports daily and often wondered about the undiscoverable stories that lurked between the lines and off the page. The title “Its Eyes Was Flickering” came from a line in one of those reports.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Flannery O’Connor, Larry Brown, Harry Crews, and Carl Hiaasen.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: Anywhere quiet without distractions, usually shortly after dawn.
Q: Who plays you in the movie in the movie of your life?
A: Even in my wildest delusions, I’m not biopic material.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A fifth-draft of a crime novel called The Bass Fisherman and a nonfiction book proposal about my conflicting emotions regarding the game of football (tentatively titled The Dark Side: Second Thoughts About Football by a Lifelong Fan).
Teeth by Emily Edwards
followed by Q&A
Emily D. Edwards was a producer and journalist before she joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The writer/director of many films, Edwards has also published books and articles on popular media. Her films have screened on national television, in theaters, and festivals. They include documentaries, narrative feature films, animations, experimental films and shorts. Her most recent publication is a chapter in From the Arthouse to the Grindhouse (2010), a book dealing with cinematic transgressions. Her most recent screenwriting award is the King Family Foundation Award for the narrative feature screenplay, Rude Planet.
Q: What was your inspiration for this work?
A: I belong to a writing group in Greensboro, The Greensboro Playwright’s Forum, The group meets once a month as a reading and critique group and provides a monthly prompt for writers, sometimes in the form of a line of dialogue, an object, setting, or a picture. In this case the prompt was the line of dialogue: “If you touch me again, I swear I'm going to—“ Interestingly, I ended up cutting that line in the final version of the storyboard, but that line of dialogue is what inspired the story. Though this writer’s group is intended for live theater scripts, they have been very generous in allowing me to bring in storyboards and screenplays. And their wacky prompts usually get me going on a story where I would otherwise still be swimming the cosmic sea of possibilities.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Doris Betts, Bailey White, Clyde Edgerton, Eric Roth, John Lee Hancock, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers, Fannie Flagg, Stan Lee.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: Inside my head while swimming (adult lap swim at the public pools in Greensboro), then I take the story and characters back to the office computer to put into a script or storyboard format.
Q: Who plays you in the movie in the movie of your life?
A: There isn’t a producer alive who would consider investing in something with such weak box office potential.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I just finished a chapter for a new book on Spider-Man, "Webs We Weave: Women's Pleasures in Spider-man's Journeys," In Robert G. Weiner and Robert Moses Peaslee (Eds.) Web—Spinning Heroics: Critical Essays on the History and Meaning of Spider-Man. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.
Rubber Gloves by Leslie Tucker
followed by Q&A
I’m appalled at how much I hate cops. Virile young ones whose muscles ripple as they swagger, flaccid old ones with jiggling bellies, even well-intentioned ones at my car window, faces simpering with those how’re-ya-doin’-today-Ma’am smiles. And the official gear of uniformed authority makes me nauseous—the badges, the belts, the visors, the guns, the holsters. I’m sixty-two and well educated, the daughter of a law-abiding lawyer and a pearl wearing homemaker. I’m disappointed in myself. I should be over it.
Last week I had a blowout on South Carolina Highway 101. It sounded like a gunshot and I swerved to the side of the road across from the O’Neal Baptist Church. A young, spit and polished Greenville County Sheriff’s Deputy pulled up behind me, leapt out of his vehicle, and hustled over to my window. My reflection glittered in his mirrored sunglasses. My skin crawled.
But on an August day in 1990, I gripped a well-worn Hartmann carry-on bag, wore a white T-shirt, short denim skirt, and an L.L. Bean backpack. I trotted down the jet way toward U.S. Customs in the International Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport, relieved that it was almost empty. Most passengers off our jam-packed 747 from Paris had gone to baggage claim. I prided myself on how efficient I’d been, packing for a month in Europe and checking no baggage. In and out in a flash, I thought. Then I spotted them.
Two U.S. customs officers flanked a pillar in the mammoth hall; legs spread wide apart, hands clasped in front of their crotches. I was returning home, and at forty-two, was elated to have performed Mendelssohn’s Op. 49 Piano Trio with German string players at the Gastheig in Munich.
I chose a green-lighted aisle and moved toward its conveyor. A hefty customs officer with fluffy blond-haired forearms blocked my path. His partner was tall, skinny, and black. Both appeared to be about thirty and the hefty guy barked orders, “This way, Miss. Follow me.”
The other officer exhaled on my neck as we tromped through the gargantuan hall to the farthest aisle, then grabbed my carry-on bag, plopped it down and shot his spindly forearm at me. “Give me the backpack.”
A third officer took my passport, pivoted on his heel, and took off. “Wait, where...?” My stomach lurched. I knew I should have my passport with me in transit.
A fourth officer, with a bigger badge, stepped behind the counter and unzipped my bag and dumped the contents onto a dirty plastic tray. He poked around; glanced at the officers on either side of me. “Start with this stuff, open the cosmetics.” He removed a small razor knife from a leather sheath on his belt. “I’ll get the clothes.”
“Wait, what are you doing?” I was bewildered, felt anger boiling up.
He barked at the hairy-armed guy, “Get Morton.”
“Yes sir.” He darted into a closed door and returned in an instant with a mound of woman. She was stuffed like sausage into her U.S. Customs uniform, white shirt starched stiff as construction paper and creases as sharp as steak knives in her navy blue trousers. The patent-leather visor of her hat was as shiny as my childhood Mary Janes and covered most of her wide forehead. I spotted a rubber glove protruding from her breast pocket and broke out in a cold sweat. It had been more than twenty years, but I hadn’t forgotten.
The ’64 Chevy van was rusty but presentable because it was black and there wasn’t much contrast between the rust and the faded paint. My friend Rob’s dad owned florist shops and used the van for deliveries, but didn’t need it on this particular Saturday, so Rob had offered to drive the four of us to Canada. Kids we’d known in high school were having a grasser in Ontario, somewhere near Sarnia, and we were primed to cut loose.
Grassers were outdoor parties held in the grass of open fields. Guys set up kegs and barbecue grills and hooked up speakers to blast rock n’ roll. We all chipped in a couple bucks for the beer and chips, brought whatever we wanted to grill, and pot, if we had any. This Saturday we didn’t have any. We spread our blankets on the ground, slurped the froth off our Stroh’s and settled in, figuring we’d see old friends and share exploits of our college freshman year.
Sam, Rick, Rob, and I were ready to rip before starting our summer jobs the following Monday and I recall that “Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday, who could hang a name on you…” was blaring in the breeze. My parents were watching my baby girl for the night, were thrilled with my stellar grades and, stepping out of character, told me to go have some fun. They were even getting used to my single motherhood.
I didn’t recognize the guy who approached us with the weed and he didn’t look like a student from any of the Birmingham-Bloomfield area high schools. In 1967, most guys I knew had long hair, but they were clean. This guy was oily, with a dirt-ringed neck, filthy jeans, and foul body odor. He was bold, smacked his ass down on the big gold M on our Michigan blanket and leaned in too close. I was uneasy from the start.
“Hey, want a dime bag? I’ve got some amazing…”
I shook my head; I wasn’t in the mood, and knew I’d be dropped off at my parents’ house. “Nah, I’m good with the beer.”
Rob spoke up, “Wanna sell a couple joints? Don’t want a whole bag, gotta drive back over the border.”
The oily guy shook his head, “Shit, man, what a pussy. People take stuff back and forth all the time.”
Rob was cool. “Yeah, Canucks don’t care but the U.S. guys do. They’re cracking down now, it’s summer, kids are out. Can’t risk it, man. Wanna sell some or not?”
The stranger sprung up off the blanket, “Fuck no, I’ll do better.” He was right, scores of kids were arriving and he’d have no trouble selling all he had.
It got dark, music got louder, people danced, paired off, and some took blankets farther into the field. Rob and I were friends; he was devastated over a recent breakup and I listened, slapping mosquitoes off my arms and neck. We were exhausted after finals week, had a couple beers, and dropped off; dead sound asleep in the midst of the crowd. I woke up an hour later. No Rob. I waited another hour. No Rob.
Rick and Sam showed up without the girls they’d met earlier and hoisted our cooler. We headed back to the van and found Rob sprawled out, snoring in the back seat and I started bitching. “God, you just took off and didn’t come back for hours. What the hell?” Then I smelled it—the unmistakable odor.
“That sleaze ball found me and I bought a joint…must have fallen asleep.”
“Shit. I have to get back. My parents will call out the National Guard.”
Sam drove toward the border and I sat up front with him. We left Rob in the back, still drowsy, bare feet in Rick’s lap. I dozed, and the next thing I remember is blinding white light shining through my window and a fist pounding the glass. An array of circular red lights flashed in front of the van. We had arrived at the border crossing.
Sam had decided to go home through the Detroit Windsor Tunnel instead of across the Blue Water Bridge, the way we’d gone over, and there was no lineup at U.S. Customs on the Detroit side of the tunnel. Empty lanes were strange for a Saturday night, when crowds of Detroiters went to Windsor for dinner or to strip joints. The lineup was usually eight or ten cars deep at each booth, but oddly, our van was the only vehicle in sight.
“Pull over there and park it.” Sam maneuvered fast and clicked off the ignition.
“Everybody out. Nice and slow.”
I fumbled on the floor, “My shoes...”
“You don’t need shoes where you’re going.”
The side door of the van slid open. “Out. Now.”
Customs Officer Morton gaped at me, and I noticed orange makeup around the rim of her white collar. The airport aisle where we stood had been closed and my aqua nightgown, a khaki skirt, bras, panties, and the ivory silk blouse, my only purchase of the trip, were spread down the length of the rubber counter. Morton and another officer were fingering garment hems and slitting them open at random with razor knives. He slashed the seams of the ivory blouse and it tore like toilet paper. I poked my thumbs through the loops of my jean skirt to steady my hands.
The third officer took a tongue depressor and scooped out the jar of Pond’s Cold Cream, landing a blob on his belt buckle. “What’s this for?” Before I could answer he tossed the jar aside, ripped open tiny travel packages of Bayer Aspirin and dropped them, wrappers and all, into a bucket of sludge marked “U.S. Customs.” He unscrewed the cap on a bottle of Revlon Touch N’ Glow and emptied the creamy liquid into the bucket. Toothbrush, lipstick, and two hair bands tossed into the muck. “Cosmetics and toiletries, clear,” he barked. “What about the clothing?”
He scowled, “Where are you employed?”
“I’m self-employed. I’m a classical pianist and piano teacher.” Edgy, I rambled on. “I have my own studio and…”
“What was the name of your hotel in Paris?”
“I didn’t stay in a hotel. I stayed with a friend, in his apartment. Then we went to a chamber music conference in Munich…”
“Are you married?”
“What does that have to do with…”
“I asked you a question regarding this investigation. Are. You. Married?”
“I’d like to make a phone call.”
“That’s priceless.” He turned to Morton, “She’s been watching TV, wants to make a phone call.” His eyes narrowed, “We have Federal authority. Federal authority supercedes all authority. You’re not entitled to any phone calls.”
I sucked in a deep breath and scanned the chaotic scene. Customs was teeming with passengers from two international flights, most jockeying for position in the shortest lines, trying to beat the rush hour traffic outside the terminal.
The three officers surrounding me were aggravated. The skinny one held out my passport, which had miraculously appeared, but thought again. “Shouldn’t she be patted down? Morton’s right here. Been waiting all this time.” The guy with the biggest badge scratched his sweaty neck. “Nah. It’s crazy in here. We’re behind. Let her go.”
“What about my clothes? They’re ruined. How can you…”
The officer snatched a pad from under the counter, ripped off a sheet and scribbled. “Make a claim if you want. You’re free to go.”
I clamped my mouth shut and folded the shredded ivory silk tunic. I zipped my bags, dammed up my anger, made a beeline for the double doors and felt a tap on my shoulder. The skinny black officer was following me.
“Do you understand what happened, Miss?” I glared at my feet, livid, afraid of what I’d say if I spoke.
“You fit a profile, Miss, a government profile. Attractive female, traveling alone, checks no bags.”
“Drug mule, Miss. You fit the profile.”
Four burly guys with sleeves rolled tight on their biceps and badges clipped on their belts burst out of the U.S. Customs building and surrounded Rob’s dad’s van. Two of them carried flat tool kits, flipped the latches and slapped them open on the pavement. A bald guy growled orders. “Start inside the van. Get the door panels off.”
“It’s a Chevy. Set screws are blocked…”
“Then saw them off, but get inside the doors.” He turned his attention to us. “All of you. Inside. Now.” Rob tried to walk next to me, but the officer blocked him. “Single file, Buddy.”
Beige plastic chairs were scattered across speckled linoleum and stale cigarette smoke blanketed the room. Cheap wood paneling covered the walls, except in one corner, where a stained, orange curtain hung over a doorway.
“Mona here yet?”
“She even working tonight?”
“Gotta be. Or she’s gotta get a sub. Need a woman here on Friday and Saturday nights.”
A voice boomed through a closed door. “Keep your pants up. I’ll be right out.”
I’d never seen a woman like Mona. In her mid-forties and over six feet tall, she weighed about two-forty and had crimson hair with an inch of gray roots at the center part. She grabbed her cap off a chair and yanked the visor down tight.
“Well, well. What do we have here?” Her eyes rolled up and down my body before she turned and lumbered over to a desk. She opened the bottom drawer, grabbed a pair of ivory rubber gloves and sneered. “You got any dope, honey? ‘Cause now’s the time to give it up if you do.”
“I don’t have any dope and my friends don’t either.” I was immature, didn’t know when to shut up, and kept blabbing. “Some guy was selling weed but we didn’t buy any, and we wouldn’t be dumb enough to bring it back through here if we did.” I shivered with terror in the stuffy room. I’d heard stories about what Customs officers did to people suspected of bringing dope across the U.S. border.
“Yeah, right. If I had a dollar for every one of you hippies that told that story I wouldn’t be working in this joint. You think we don’t know about the orgies over there on the weekends?” She held the orange curtain aside for me.
“Be my guest.”
Mona yanked the drape shut behind her and stepped in with me, but she shifted her weight, turned, and the drape slid open about a foot. Two uniformed officers stood outside smirking, and didn’t avert their eyes when I looked straight at them as Mona spoke said, “Get your clothes off and hand them to me, one piece at a time. Nice and slow.”
Once I was naked, Mona tossed my clothes out to the officers and got down to business. She braced my chin in one of her palms, fingers digging into my cheeks to immobilize my head, and jammed the index finger of her free hand up each nostril, high as she could stick it. “Nice and clean,” she grinned, “but then nobody’s dumb enough to stick stuff up their nose these days.” Ears next. She stuck a finger in one and rotated it; same job on the second. “Yawn big for me, open up.” She ran two fingers around my gums and I tasted my own earwax before she grabbed a tongue depressor and pushed hard on my tongue until I gagged. “Now we’ll see what’s what.”
She grabbed my shoulders, turned me around. “Arms up, elbows above your head. C’mon, grab them and bend over.”
Tears flooded my face. “Why? What are you…?”
"Do I need to get one of those guys in here?” I froze. “You resisting me, Missy?”
I bent over and she dug in, whirled one finger around and around my anus, came up empty and ordered me to stand up and face her. Sobbing and snuffling, I obeyed as two or three fingers jabbed into my vagina, prying up, up, and farther up, until I yelped. Mona yanked her hand out.
"Nothing. Not a goddamn thing.” She peeled off the gloves, tugged the curtain aside and tossed them toward a trash basket. She grabbed my tangled clothing from an officer and thrust it at me. I was breathless, jerked the curtain shut, blocked the view of the two uniforms, and struggled into my clothes.
I stepped out of the cubicle, gazed through a smudged picture window, and saw that the van was dismantled. The unhinged doors lay on the pavement, the stripped interior trim panels beside them. Rob, Rick, and Sam sat on a bench, pale and speechless, and I slouched over and sat between them. I wiped my nose and chin with my hand, saw blood, and realized I’d bitten through my lower lip. Rob started to speak, but I held my flat hand up like a stop sign. He looked at me with wet eyes.
None of us said a word all the way home.
After more than four decades to gain perspective, the abuse I endured by U.S.Customs officials still seems unprovoked and undeserved. In both incidents, I appeared when the Customs areas were almost empty. When the Detroit terminal was suddenly flooded with other passengers, officials let me go. Although I fit the 1990 government profile for a drug mule, “single woman, traveling alone, checks no baggage,” Paris to Detroit was not a drug highway then, nor has it ever been one. I assert that trained law enforcement professionals would have known the difference between a young drug mule (most are under thirty years of age) and a bedraggled, middle-aged piano teacher in Reeboks and crumpled white athletic socks lugging a backpack full of Beethoven Sonatas.
It can certainly be said that in 1969, longhaired teenagers in vans were suspected of anything law enforcement officers could conjure up, and, animosity between rebellious teenagers and law enforcement personnel was growing across the United States. But marijuana was carried into Canada, to be smoked at grassers Canadian authorities knew about and considered harmless. There were no gangs or drug cartels, just kids smoking weed, listening to rock ‘n roll outdoors and going home to the Detroit suburbs in their parents’ cars.
I come to one conclusion about the cops’ motivation in both situations: They were bored.
In 1990, when I stepped through the double doors at Detroit Metro and out of U.S. Customs jurisdiction, I saw Dad waiting, his smile beaming, and I didn’t tell him what had just happened. I knew then, just as I do now, that Dad, who’d been an Army officer and a prosecutor at Nuremburg, believed in law enforcement, that he trusted designated enforcers and respected their authority. I talked about the thrill of my Mendelssohn performance and blocked out the horror of what had almost happened to me, again. Dad didn’t know much about Mendelssohn, or chamber music, but he was spellbound as I raved about the velvet tone and dazzling finger dexterity of the German cellist.
In 1969, I didn’t tell my parents about the incident at the U.S. border because they had no idea I’d left the country. I probably said we were going to the movies and out to eat, which was the story I usually told. They weren’t hip parents and couldn’t imagine that I was part of the reality of change that was occurring in our country in the late 1960s. Mother often pointed her manicured finger at the TV, spouted harsh judgments about demonstrations and “longhairs,” and both Mother and Dad preached about the imminent danger of large gatherings of college kids. I was queasy with shame after the brutal body cavity search and could never have risked confiding in them.
In 1969 and in 1990, when I was detained and searched by U.S. Customs, now U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the searches were legal. CBP may search travelers and their belongings at the American border without probable cause or a warrant, under the “border search exception.” The “border search exception” is a doctrine of United States criminal law that exempts searches of travelers and their property from Fourth Amendment warrant requirements. Part of it reads: CBP may conduct “routine” searches without any level of suspicion, while “non-routine” searches must be supported by “reasonable suspicion.” The officer present when a traveler is detained determines reasonable suspicion. Searches of a traveler’s property, including luggage, briefcases, wallets, and other containers are “routine,” while searches of a traveler’s body, including strip, body cavity, and involuntary x-ray searches, are considered “non-routine.”
What they did to me was legal then and it is legal now.
On some level, I’m still afraid of uniformed authority and when confronted, my mature rationality is overruled by visceral bias. A close friend recently asked, “Don’t you get it, that all cops aren’t bad?” Of course I do, but when I face a uniform, I become anemic and vulnerable. The abuse I endured as a well-scrubbed student, who happened to be in a van with longhaired males, is tattooed on my psyche. I believe I’m over it, and don’t think about it for decades, but when I do, the old terror splashes up like emotional acid. I’m nineteen again, and my long braids are brushing the floor as I bend over for a matron behind an orange curtain.
The South Carolina sheriff’s deputy was bulky, squeaky clean, and yes, stuffed into his uniform. He approached my Prius and tapped two fingers to the edge of his flat brimmed hat. “Need some help, Ma’am? Be happy to change that tire for you.”
“Thanks, but there’s a truck coming. I was on my way to the dealer anyway, so I called them.”
The truck from Stevens Towing arrived a moment later and the deputy stayed and helped the driver change my tire. It took less than five minutes. The tow truck pulled away and left the deputy standing in the sunshine, arms dangling from his beefy shoulders.
“Go on and start her up Ma’am. Just want to make sure you get on your way safely.”
Leslie Tucker, a Detroit escapee, lives on the side of a South Carolina mountain and refuses to divulge its exact location. She is an avid hiker and zip liner, a dedicated yogi, an ACBL Life Master in sanctioned bridge, and enjoys anything that requires a helmet. She holds degrees in music and business. Her work has appeared in the 2010 Press 53 Awards Anthology, The Tarnished Anthology, So to Speak—A Feminist Journal of Language and Art, Fiction Fix, and Shenandoah Magazine. She recently won first prize for Creative Nonfiction in the 2012 Press 53 Open Awards Contest, and her work will be featured in the upcoming anthology.
Q: The scene of the strip search and others are vivid and disturbing. What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was equally surprised, and horrified that more than forty years after the incident mental images of the strip search retained such clarity.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best writing advice I’ve ever received was: Just go ahead. Tell the truth. I’m trying to meet that challenge.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Barbara Kingsolver’s compelling narrative voices in The Poisonwood Bible inspire me each time I go back to it. Ann Patchett’s ability to weave individual plot sequences and seemingly unrelated characters together gets me fired up, most recently in State of Wonder. As a transplanted northerner, I particularly admire two Carolina writers, Charles Frazier, for his haunting story, Nightwoods, and Ron Rash, for unexpected plot twists in The Cove.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: My writing space is in my home and affords me a view of wooded mountain terrain, a deciduous feast for the eyes.
Resume of an Unemployed Writer by TT Jax
followed by Q&A
Job Objective: To secure employment in which I can reasonably work as myself while a) using my true strengths and abilities, b) enjoying access to sufficient healthcare, c) supporting and feeding my family without the need for the Department of Family and Children Services, and d) refraining from harming myself or others.
Part One: The Motherfucker Knocked Me Up
Home Health Worker Savannah, GA 2003
She’s naked in the shower and I’m here because heat gives her seizures. Seizures in the shower can lead to drowning, so even though she can wash her own tits, I sit on the toilet and keep her company in case.
Of all my clients, she’s one of the few I’ve gotten close to. She’s in recovery, so we can talk about Narcotics Anonymous and stuff, even though I haven’t been back since I was fifteen. She thinks I belong back in the program, I’m sure.
We also talk about the married man she claims she isn’t dating. Besides me and her dad, who is mostly an ass, Drake is the only other person who comes out here to see her. She lives alone in this trailer with her cat—and let me tell you, she loves her damn cat. God, himself, would have to let this beast chew on his head in the pretense of affectionate grooming lest he incur the wrath of Marla. Last week, I drove her and Sweetie to the vet to get the foul thing fixed because she’d been yowling and rubbing her ass on my leg with a specific kind of need.
So Marla is in the shower and she suddenly says, “I don’t think I’d want a man or a lesbian caring for me. Or a bisexual.” I stiffen on the toilet when she says this because I’m definitely the latter and potentially the former, but we won’t even touch that one right now. I actually hear this kind of thing a lot from clients; they feel like they need to announce how much they hate gays to me.
“When you first came here, I thought you were a SCAD student,” she says next, which is sort of a local euphemism for one of those artsy faggots fucking up our town. “But then I found out that you go to Armstrong and that you’re dating Don.” Both of these are true: Armstrong is a local school and Don is a man, neither of which excludes me from the bisexual category, but we both fail to point that out.
She turns off the shower and pushes back the curtain, standing naked with her hair straggling down her face as water pours down the drain. I stand up to help her out of the bathtub; her epilepsy is caused by cerebral palsy, so although she can walk she is unsteady and sometimes falls. I hold her wrist in my palm and she lays her forearm across mine, tucking her elbow between my arm and my tits. With my other arm, I reach around her side, not touching her but ready in case she stumbles. In this semblance of an embrace, familiar now to us both, she leans her weight on me and steps onto the bathroom rug. I back up so she can reach the towel rack.
“You know, if you were bisexual, I think I’d be okay with you caring for me.” She looks me right in the eyes as she says this, head sideways and shaking slightly as she rubs at her hair with a pink towel.
I consider telling her. But telling her risks the agency finding out, and then what would I do? So I smile, say nothing.
She pulls on her usual pink nightgown, eschewing underwear. I sit in the armchair so the cat can chew on my head. She walks in with a towel around her head and sits on her old brown velour couch, smiling at me as she lights herself a cigarette. Sweetie propels herself with a mew to the back of my chair, fangs at the ready.
“You act just like Drake when you’re upset,” she says, smiling indulgently like my mother does at my stepfather when he’s being a prick. “I can always tell, but I know you won’t say a damn thing about it.” Marla pulls her knees up and slightly apart, presses the soles of her bare feet to the couch, toes coyly arranged. This, of course, hikes up the hem of her pink nightgown, baring her twat in a frame of pink ruffles. Nonchalantly, she exhales smoke; the Velcro-tongue of the cat roots through my hair in search of flesh.
“So, how’s Don?” she says, and shifts her ass a little.
Vector/College Student/Bookstore Hack Savannah, GA 2003
There isn’t really a nice way to put this: the motherfucker knocked me up.
The smell of his breath makes me vomit. At this point, that doesn’t say much. Pregnancy makes the world smell noxious: a quickening as well as recoil. I think, though, that my body in particular rejects the smell of Don; he’s the one who did this, after all.
My job now, I’m told, is to grow a healthy baby. That’s easy: I did that for two months and didn’t even know it. Despite the rum and cigarettes, the little fucker survived. Of course this is after I’d finally gotten my ass into a real university.
But now, who knows. Who knows anything? Nights I lie palm to gut over the perilous little being inside. A survivor, for sure: an embryonic trickster secreted in internal waters, swilling liquor and breathing fire to be—to be born.
Don begged me to abort: literally knees to the carpet, tears tracking down his cheeks as he looked up at my widening ass with terrified blue eyes, fist in fist with his knuckles going white. But the lady at Planned Parenthood reminded me it’s my body, my decision. My body, my decision. So I told Don: It’s my body, my decision. You can walk if you need to. I sort of wish he had.
I’d always assumed that I would abort. How the fuck could I, fuck-up-drop-out-failed-stripper-twice-homeless me—ever raise a kid? And I’ve been such a slut for so long with spotty protection and nary a ripening that I’d come to believe I was barren.
I have this shit job at the SCAD bookstore, selling art supplies to fresh-faced art students. My shame as a local is complete: I am bearing the offspring of a SCAD graduate, and now I work for them.
The thing is, I don’t think I can abort. The thought of being strapped to a table with my legs spread and some stranger rooting around inside me with mysterious contraptions makes me more nauseous than Don’s breath.
I think I would, if I could, but maybe not. Palm to gut I lie at night, almost loving this tough little parasite—a survivor, like me. So much would change. But I’m not afraid of change: it carries me. To new and new and newborn; I could do it, maybe, I could do it, nurture and sustain. Sometimes I am touched, palm over new life surviving even in a gut as twisted as mine. I forget to be afraid of dark, of death. Don sleeps and new life comes to be.
Part Two: Laid and Laid Off
At-Home Single Mother To-Be Atlanta, GA 2004
I wore a dress for my 21st birthday, a black one. I still looked six months pregnant, my tits filling an enormous F cup. For my 21st, I draped a scarf over them; a scarf I don’t like, but I needed something. They leaked constantly, so I stuffed absorbent pads into my hideous ivory nursing bra; it’s the only one I could find to support tits so large they could reasonably suffocate someone. For my 21st birthday: a black dress, a scarf I don’t like, suffocation-sized tits, sour milk pads, a babysitter, and an overnight date with Don.
This is motherhood.
In the sleep-dep dream of raising new life, rich and deep and thoroughly exhausted, I count diapers full of shit, wash perpetual piles of laundry, sing a screaming baby to sleep while breast milk sours on my thighs. Like an amoeba, she split from gut and body, a slow drift separation rife with uncertainty; she screams, struggles to wrap lips and tongue around my swollen nipple, already stiff and spilling milk. And I know now: simple personal realizations that I must own if I wish to truly show her how to freely and fiercely be in the world.
But I’m all clammed up, guts secreting nacreous secrets that lift, harden, and roll smoothly iridescent behind tight dry lips like a pearl in the damp beneath my tongue. Nights I pull them from between my teeth, examine closely, string them together one by one to admire: a necklace of moments; epiphanies; tensile, silver lustrin threads spun from heart valves. One pearl: the subtle sparkle of morning sun through sink water on her skin. Another: the golden spiral eloquence of a single tendril of her hair. I’m moved to tears, even as I’m picking cradle cap from her scalp with chewed-up nails. And other pearls: new knowledge, explosive truths that, once revealed, would blow this mishap house of cards to hell.
Such as nacreous truth number one: while I may be fond of dick, I’d generally prefer it be detachable, and frequently my own. Meaning: this bi-thing cloaked in straightness doesn’t cut it for me. I have got to lose the straight man, however much I love him. I am queer.
Or try nacreous truth number two: as wildly unlikely as this seems, even to me, I think that I may be a guy. I know that I was a boy. As a child, I never questioned, although I accepted tomboy. Then one day in 7th grade at the Statesboro movie theater, Michael J asked me, Why do you always wear boy clothes? And so consciously and deliberately at the age of twelve, I put on girl every morning because it seemed as impossible and improbable to me as to anyone else that I may, in fact or fantasy, cerebrally or hormonally or in sanity, be a guy.
This pearl grows, as I work it in my mouth. Sometimes I want nothing more than to spew. I sit holding a month-old child and wonder if could split myself—live two lives each as secret and as false as the other.
The night I turned 21, he fucked me from the back in a hotel room downtown, milk spraying from my tits as they swung heavy between stiff arms. I felt fat and sick of everything. We got drunk a little before, more afterwards. There was some comfort in his body and his company, but space grows wider between us—space his arms and cock can’t breach. The pearls thicken and work feverishly beneath my tongue. We walked, scarf trailing, downtown on slick, wet cobblestones that reflected long streaks of city light, oddly empty. A guard let us walk through a closed bank, apparently host to a brief art gallery. Overhead, enormous bronze statues of naked women flung bent knees, stiff scarves, irregularly long arms frozen in dance above us. In their shadows, I slipped his hand in mine and chose to love him: a friend at least, across expanding distance.
Special Education Paraprofessional Hinesville, GA 2005
Every day, I come to work in discount boxers under women’s clothing.
The women’s clothing I actually sort of enjoy: overdone, outlandish, twirly tweed skirts with big vomit-colored brooches and fake plastic flowers affixed to the matching lapel jacket. I am a caricature of myself, or the self I’m pretending to be.
I wear the boxers to remind me that something has changed. Something I never thought would change. Something I didn’t know could change. I saw Boys Don’t Cry like most everyone else in the trans guy community, and it sent me back in the closet more thoroughly than even Glen or Glenda could. Rape and murder has a way of doing that.
So I work as a woman. At home, I am a guy. A trans guy.
Home now is my mother’s garage. Between Don and me, it’s debatable who left who first. But he did help paint the garage more cheerful colors, turning it into sort of an efficiency/kid’s playroom. The kid walks, talks, and sings now. She insists that she’s a dinosaur.
I work with an older woman, Ms. Adera. For most of her life, she’s been at home, raising children and, later, a grandchild. Now her grandchild is entering kindergarten, and she’s returned to work. We’re both paraprofessionals, teaching remedial reading in an elementary school. I share everything with her, everything but those pearls that are starting to taste more like broken glass. She’d be a friend, if I weren’t what I am.
I know not to tell her, or anyone that I’m trans. I hear how they talk. This is small town, deep South, mostly military families. I keep much to myself, boxers damp against my skin. I can’t cut my hair any shorter than it is. They’d know, somehow. Maybe they already do. There is a woman here who wears men’s clothes and uses a male nickname; she won’t make eye contact with me because she knows, and she knows that I know. She makes sure to extra-loudly proclaim her sexual affinity for men. I don’t. I just wear these ridiculous skirts and pretend not to hear the shit they talk about us both.
There’s a kid here, too. He’s a young male child who grows his nails long, wears his sister’s clothes. He came to school in a dress on Halloween, and everybody flipped. The teachers ran from room to room, shouting and laughing about it. The principal said the boy looked too comfortable in a dress. They confronted his mom.
I said nothing, sitting miserably in blue seahorse boxers under a twirly tweed skirt. Ms. Adera asked me if something was wrong, but I just shook my head.
Assistant Early Education Teacher, Two Year Old Room Savannah, GA 2008
Noontime, I sweep the floor, and then go from child to child in the dim of naptime to rub their backs. I rub in smooth slow circles, their shoulder bones like little wings beneath my hand. They breathe slowly, deeply, eyelashes dropping like feathers on flushed fat cheeks. I breathe deep and slow with them, fingers loose over the small ridges of their spines.
“Uh oh,” the lead teacher once said to me, grinning as one of the little girls tried to curl up sleepily in my lap. “Your little girl will be jealous.”
When they are awake, of course, it seems surreal to have ever agreed to be a responsible adult in a small room with twelve two-year-olds. They shit themselves and scream, shred books, break things, pound on each other, cry, dash around the room roaring in football helmets and pink sparkly tutus, thwacking each other with soft foam blocks. Most often I am greeted with a little shriek of NO! in response to a Hi, and one child, in particular, is intent on proving that she does not need to do anything I ask of her, nor will she ever like me. Her heart is as tough and sharp as her little chin, framed in soft brown ringlets. I alternate between admiration and an obstinate, ill-driven desire to prove my power over her. The two year olds are rubbing off on me, it seems.
It was this girl who asked me why my name was Jax. The whole class perked up at this; I’d been working there for only a few weeks, and we hadn’t had a chance to hash out this particular issue yet. I'd long since left the skirts behind, and now wore my hair as short as my boss allowed. Between the male clothes, the male name, and the conspicuously female voice, I anticipated questions.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” she asked.
I was ready for this one. “What do you think?”
“A boy!” some in the class shouted.
“A girl,” countered the others.
The instigator of all this leaned in and stretched up to closely examine my face. “No,” she said. “A girl.”
“A girl!” a chorus of girls agreed.
Then the child’s face was still and serious as she further studied me. “A boy. You’re a boy.”
“Why do you think that?” I said. I’d decided when I took the job that the best route was to talk about their ideas of gender, rather than the specifics of my own.
But they’d moved on. The little girl loudly announced to the lead teacher that from now on her name was Brad and she was a boy. The lead teacher immediately launched into an age-appropriate explanation as to why people can’t change their genders, but the little girl had already torn off her shirt and stolen someone’s truck.
Abortion Clinic Health Worker Atlanta, GA 2009
We work together: Laura explains the procedure, smiling, guides the patient to lifting and spreading while sufficiently supplying the straps. The anesthesiologist slips a needle into a vein: the patient falls asleep. The doctor lifts a sterile instrument, gleaming in fluorescent light, and inserts it (in the slim face of steel we are all reflected: mercurial, distorted, pulled across the surface as it moves). The woman on the table jumps.
Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturday afternoons, we flip a switch. Suck, gurgle, aspirate. Saturday mornings, it’s more complicated—tug-tug, pull, twist, and scrape until we’ve gently emptied a womb. Something hotly contested in name and meaning dies, if it wasn’t dead already. Through a steel window, we pass the small body packaged in paper or glass. We lift the patient as if she is nothing, still bleeding, jaw slack in sleep, her head swaying gently on the rolling gurney. You stay to scrub the blood from the wall.
One room over, the sink is full. There’s a fucking eye clogging the drain!, Keeley says, and passes instruments wet with what looks like semen or milk to me through another window. She counts phalanges, sorts a spinal cord, ear, and elbow from a puzzle of parts. Nothing can be left inside the woman who now shivers in a recovery bed, shifting as she stares with a headless animal cracker in her fist.
A nurse comes in, paints the bottom of a baby foot with ink, and presses it to an index card. The patient has requested this—to remember six months of internal stirrings she could not sustain. A footprint in ink: proof of passing what flashed through steel windows while she slept.
In the third room, I wrap instruments in birthday packages of blue paper and slip them into a hot mouth of steel and steam for cleansing. The door of the autoclave pops like a snapping clavicle when I seal it shut. Across the window, plastic crackles; a nurse double packages the necessary kill in sealed red bags. Later, someone will take it with many others to burn to ash. For now, she stores it in a box marked hazardous in red block letters.
There is no smell on earth like this barrage of body and materials: cardboard, latex, steel, steam, blood, shit, pungent chemicals specially formulated to dissolve organic matter—all sharp like splinters to the nose. Burning paper, coffee grounds, clean bleached cotton linen. And the bodies: secret interstitial spaces split, cavities within cavities lined with tissue torn open to the world for the first time, torn to reveal fresh fluids and pockets of gas releasing a pungent first breath never drawn. This death smells sharp and new; the pathology room air tastes like a belly full of yeast rising on only three hours of sleep. This smell clings to us, our skin, our hair; we eat with it, laugh with it, wear it in our teeth as we smile.
We leave when it’s dark, unfamiliar to each other outside of our scrubs. None of us has died today, and the purple and black ribbons pinned to our shirts are light in their reminder that this is not inconsequential. The hill we walk down is steep, pocked with shadow in street light. A guard sees us safely to our cars. I drive slowly, chain smoking contraband menthols as the road unravels to home. When I open the door, my daughter rushes to hug me; I am unprepared for the brush of her cheek on mine, her quick and insistent pulse. She wishes me to hold a rock she found, but my palm is full of a woman’s tears.
Hack Photographer Atlanta, GA 2009
I never told Brad that I worked in abortion—an abortion worker and a school photographer? Sometimes I still see and smell the clinic, the blood on linoleum, women on white sheets crying as they cling to my hand, which is unsettling, since my job is to lure small children into beatific smiles.
Before they laid me off, I’d been solidly sick for about two weeks—head buzzing, eardrum stretched taut, dizzy and dumb headed. I called Brad and told him I was sick. Just bring the equipment, he said, someone will meet you at the school to set up and shoot for you.
So I did. And each day no one ever came. Just me, and a whole school-full of kids and faculty dressed to have their photographs taken.
Wheezing, snarling, dizzy, and greenish, I told kid after to kid to Look this way! Tilt your head, now—a little more, just a tiny bit. Excellent! Now look this way again! Scoot forward, great! Beautiful, perfect smile—smile—got it! Beautiful, thanks so much!
They whispered about me in their lines, giggling over my disheveled hair, my Grinch-like pallor, my obvious gender ambiguity.
“Now look this way,” I said. “Smile!”
“Are you a girl or a boy?”
I glared, eyes swollen, and said again, “Smile!”
“I think you’re a boy.”
“Good for you. Now, smile.”
My eardrum finally burst. I screamed, pounded the wall, punched a damp twisted pillow as it slowly, steadily tore. I spent hours in the indigent emergency room, and then days in line at the indigent hospital’s ENT satellite.
At night now, when I lay sweat-stuck to my pillow on my right ear, I hear pips, pops, boops, beeps, and an insistent maddening ringing as my brain amuses itself in the absence of sound.
When I turn to my left ear, I hear crickets. Rolling, clean, reassuring as a heartbeat, cricket song drowns out the tinnitus as night shadows move familiarly over white walls, a slight breeze stirring the slender branches of a tree outside.
They finally laid me off in early October. I joined a long line of people in worn coats and lopsided hats; the line stretched erratically around the parking lot of a derelict strip mall. We steamed the store fronts of abandoned buildings with our anxious exhalations. Slowly we wore a shuffling path through used tissues, muddy cellophane wrappers, cracked Styrofoam cups with dirty brown rings. Dead grass, still frosted, poked wearily upwards through cracked concrete. A torn plastic bag blew across the grimy asphalt like something alive but wounded. Whispering occasionally, mostly silent, we waited together in the six a.m. chill of deepening fall for unemployment.
Unemployed Writer Townsend, GA 2010
We moved again, my child and I, back to my mother's house. This time to the boatshed instead of the garage, and this time, I painted without Don.
There is no possibility for work down here. My body has become a minefield of gendered contradictions: small hands, square jaw, shaved head, high voice. I bind my breasts, wear men's clothing, and even took hormones for some months back when I worked at the clinic. Still, cashiers wrinkle their foreheads when they look at me. They pause carefully before words. “Hello...Sir? Have a great day...Ma’am?” One guy switched back and forth- “Ma’am, no Sir…sorry, Sir, I mean Ma’am!” He blushed furiously and shoved my stuff in a snapping bag, and finally said, “Oooooh, whatever!”
With no employment, the full fear of that bitter pearl beneath my tongue so many years ago has now become realized. I listen to the lonely ringing in my ear: a warning, an alarm. I can be hurt in body and in mind; I can die this way.I watch my child run a stick along the chain-link fence of my mother's yard. She is so much older now, slender and fast with hair the color of a turning leaf, and I think of how much we risk when we live in the margins.
Today, I write. Sometimes it is published, sometimes I’m even paid. In a few months, I will take a train to Los Angeles for a writing fellowship. Every time I think of it, the buzzing in my ear gets louder, like cicadas in alarm. Could it be this simple? To finally accept the truths and talents of your life? And then to hold on to them so goddamned hard that your nails crack, your fingers ache?
Then heart-scarred but back strong from labor, lifted, light like bird-bone wings, you take a leap, and another, and another, and between the dips and levitations, the rush of take-off, free-fall, and cross-winds, a new faith begins to feel a bit like…flying?
Or like a stone falling in a perfect, simple arc—sure and free—into water.
TT Jax is a parent, partner, mixed-media artist, and writer currently living in the Pacific Northwest by way of 28 years in the deep South. He blogs about parenting, homelessness, unemployment, killer bacon cheese dogs, and a host of other trying topics at www.ttjax.com.
Q: No doubt our readers will be struck by the undeniable energy and brutal honesty within this essay. What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was surprised with how easy it was to maintain an emotional distance. Although the essay covers some pretty intense events that I at one time lived, I now have enough emotional distance that I could enjoy the lyric and crafting of the piece, rather than the emotional purging and hangover that comes from writing about things that I feel closer to.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best writing advice I actually received was from my ceramics 101 instructor. He was this crazy, Catholic-raised Southern guy who made, exactly, the kind of art that made me clap my hands and pee myself a little. I shocked the hell out of him, but he loved me for it. He told me to follow my bliss, wherever it led me, to stay true to what thrilled me. I made a life-sized toilet on wheels for his class; the toilet bowl had a bloody tampon and ceramic feces in it, and the tank was full of porn. On top was a plastic flower altar to a fiber optic Virgin Mary, and the whole thing was looped by a heavy chain. He didn’t really know what to say. He was actually a pretty conservative guy, but he recognized that I worked from my center, my gut. To this day I try to write the same way.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Tennessee Williams, Anna Joy Springer, and Stephen Beachy. To name a few.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: Oh, definitely the cave. I’m sitting at my desk right now. It’s actually more of an altar than a desk; I have gathered around me all the little bits of things—my grandmother’s glasses, an egg my child painted for me, a Star Wars figure, a small brass pig—that represent the bliss that I try to work from. I have candles, incense burners, old love letters, the whole nine yards. My work is exploratory, rather than escapist. I prefer to delve more deeply into what I’ve known than to create all new worlds, and my cave reflects this.
The Lightness of Absence by Vanessa Blakeslee
followed by Q&A
When I was twenty, my cousin Cara was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. We were both attending college in Florida at the time. I was at Rollins in Winter Park, the posh suburb of Orlando, and Cara was at the University of Tampa. But the two of us couldn’t have been farther apart. Throughout childhood, we had been as close as sisters, but as newly-minted young adults, our lives had diverged dramatically. Even now I can’t think of her death as a singular event—indeed, the unfolding of life, the linking of seemingly insignificant choices to their inevitably larger, earth-shifting outcomes—makes that impossible. For I have become good at many things, but I was never good at guilt.
For me what happened to Cara began on the Monday before she was killed, the first week of March 2000. She called that evening; it would be the last time we spoke. “I want to tell you something,” she said, “before all of our relatives find out. It’s so embarrassing. I’ve really screwed up this time.”
“Did you get kicked out of school?” I asked, thinking, she’s pregnant.
“I had an abortion.”
I said little as she pieced together the choppy events, her life akin to an afternoon talk show. I had reacted with the same poised indifference the year before, when she had confessed to me about her drug overdose. Her friends left her in the street, flopping like a fish after she’d taken too much GHB, or liquid Ecstasy, at a nightclub; “g-ing out” they called it. I had just stared at her and the calm way she let the details emerge. Her main concern had been what sort of lie she could make up to explain the emergency room bill to her parents.
But that Monday night, she sounded adamant about getting her grades back up, and studying abroad the following year. “I’m a little worried, though,” she said. “After I told my boyfriend off, he threatened to call my parents and tell them everything. He didn’t realize they already knew. I won’t even tell you all the other craziness he’s told me.” She then, of course, proceeded to do just that. I’d never met Cara’s boyfriend. Even as she told me he’d threatened to hurt her after he’d found out about the abortion, my thoughts drifted to the Modern Lit assignment due the next day. I agreed that it sounded like she needed to sever ties with him, and that she had also probably done the right thing by not having a baby, deciding to stick out college. And I was sure she’d be fine.
“My friends and I were just in Orlando to party last weekend,” she said. “Cyberzone. We got so wasted. I didn’t have your number, but I’ve got to come and visit soon.”
“I’m really pretty busy,” I said. “Mid-terms are next week.”
When I hung up, I told my roommate, “If my cousin Cara calls asking for me, tell her I’m not here.”
I might feel guilty now, looking back, except for what I chose to do next that night. And to think that at the time, my actions had stirred up uneasiness, youthful suspicions of betrayal—actions which, had I chosen not to take them, would certainly haunt me now. Just a year older, I felt a sense of birth-order seniority and responsibility. I told myself if her parents didn’t know yet that she’d had an abortion, it would be one thing. But they already knew. They were just sleeping with rosary beads wrapped around their clenched fingers, praying their daughter wouldn’t end up in hell.
So I dialed my parents and held my breath through the rings. When my father answered the phone, I told him about Cara’s abortion. Just as I had told him about her overdose the year before.
What I didn’t know was that my father would tell my mother, or that they would call an aunt, who would pray for my cousin whom we had all suspected was rapidly heading down a troubled road and had been for a while.
So I’d acted on a gut feeling. Yet I never could have imagined where it all would end.
Friday morning of that week, I attended my nine a.m. class with a slight hangover; I was in an especially good mood as I had met someone the night before, soon to be my first boyfriend. When I returned to my dorm, I checked my messages from the night before. Ten voicemails, all left by my parents, imploring me to call home. By the third or fourth message, I exited and dialed, trying not to panic. Dread twisted inside me for whatever bad news I was about to find out as my father picked up.
The word murdered did not have a place in my active vocabulary. I repeated the word and it sounded foreign on my tongue, as if I didn’t know what to do with it. Just as Cara was no longer pregnant, she was no longer the voice on the phone from four days before. She’d been stabbed, the way you stab a piece of meat; my God, no one ever stabs anything alive, I recall thinking. But her ex-boyfriend had stabbed her to death in a Tampa parking lot where they had agreed to meet and exchange personal items. She was dead and had been dead for more than twelve hours. At the time of her death, I was her only blood relative within twelve hundred miles, and I had been singing along to a CD, dressing to go out for the night.
I wandered out of the dorm to one of the gazebos by the lake, and wept.
Later, a friend handed me an article from the Tampa Tribune website: Man kills girlfriend in hospital garage, attempts suicide. The lead: “A man suspected of killing his girlfriend in the parking garage of Tampa General Hospital apparently attempted suicide by hurling himself into rush-hour traffic, police said.”
I remember the showers from that weekend, how I longed for the hot water to wash the horrific events down the drain, but as I learned more details, I only had more scenes for my imagination to repeat. As the water pooled on the tile, I saw my cousin’s blood pouring over the concrete. “The man, conscious, told police that he had done ‘terrible things’ and said the stabbed woman was his girlfriend, Tampa police said.” The newspaper lines echoed every time I thought of Cara’s killer. Terrible things.
Perhaps the funeral is where I exhausted my share of shame: that I should have been in Florida the previous semester to watch over Cara instead of studying in England, and a thousand other things. Why hadn’t I reached out to see how she was doing when I returned to Rollins? Then at least she might have felt she could call me when she discovered she was pregnant. Thinking about the last few lonely weeks of her life made me sick with guilt.
In youth we can be quick to judge, and I resented my relatives’ tears. They were crying for an angelic girl they once knew, or so I thought, not the crude-spoken Cara who had rattled off her story over the phone a week earlier. She had been regularly using drugs: marijuana, acid, Ecstasy, and who knows what else. I had known she was hanging out with the wrong crowd since she’d started college, but I didn’t say anything, because what could I have said that would have stopped her behavior? In a way, she had been lost already. Perhaps she was too lost to ever find herself.
So, too, I dreaded the procession up to the casket and the line that ended at my aunt and uncle. What could I say to them? Look at how your daughter ended up? Where were you the last two years of her life in Florida? Where were you the last decade when you left her home to babysit her siblings from the age of nine? What could I say when I walked off the plane from Orlando, while my cousin arrived in a box?
They dressed Cara in an odd dark green blouse with a high-buttoned collar to hide the gaps that had opened her neck and spilled out her life. It looked like something purchased in a store for a woman my mother’s age, the collar almost Puritanical.
In the end, I said nothing to my aunt, uncle, and cousins, because I couldn’t. There was no one to blame except the individual who had carried out the act himself.
What I couldn’t understand then about grief was that my relatives were mourning more than I could yet imagine—how they could foresee, unlike the rest of my cousins, how we would grow up, attend each other’s weddings, welcome newborns—that it was the greater loss of a lifetime never to be lived, rather than the nineteen years that had been taken, which had been the focus of my preoccupations.
In the years immediately following the murder, and after the young man who killed Cara succeeded in ending his own life while awaiting trial, I reasoned as best I could. Cara’s death was the result of a series of poor choices that had spun her into a perilous situation, and poor choices determined cause and effect. She might have ended up an addict, I thought, unable to escape such an abyss. I reasoned one possibility after another until I couldn’t reason anymore.
My cousin, once a childhood best friend, has disappeared almost entirely from my memory, and worse, from my emotions. Now, there is—nothing. Just absence. What do you call it when even the weight of loss has disappeared? When all that’s left is the lightness of absence.
Vanessa Blakeslee’s fiction, essays, and reviews have been published in The Paris Review Daily, The Southern Review, The Globe and Mail, Green Mountains Review, The Good Men Project Magazine, among many others. Her short story “Shadow Boxes” won the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize. She has been awarded grants and fellowships from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Ragdale Foundation, and was a finalist for the 2012 Marguerite and Lamar Smith Fellowship at the Carson MacCullers Center. She recently completed her first novel, set in South America. Find her online at www.vanessablakeslee.com.
Q: Your opening line is gripping. What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The most unexpected aspect to arise during composition was the ending. I had written a memoir of Cara’s death about six months after the event, which I filed away for years. I had been too close to the experience for the requisite amount of reflection to take shape, although I’m grateful that I recorded the sequence of events as they unfolded, as well as my thoughts and emotions at the time, since my memory of those is fuzzier now. From that long, rough, raw essay, I trimmed several thousand words until I got to the essentials, and was left asking myself—how does this matter, now? I was not expecting to arrive at absence and a meditation on what that really means in terms of loss.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I’ve filled notebook upon notebook with writerly gems over the years, but one of my favorites was given to me by Doug Glover, my instructor at Vermont College. In one of his monthly letters critiquing my fiction, he asked, “Where are the great stories of love and death?” I still find myself writing that across the top of my notebook pages, whether I’m sitting down to begin something new or stuck. Another phrase I hold dear—I can’t remember where I heard this, but I love how it applies to character, that your job as a writer is to “hold their feet to the fire.”
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Too many to count, of course! But in terms of pivotal moments in my evolution as a literary writer, I would say Edith Wharton—I vividly remember writing a long paper on The Age of Innocence for 11th grade Honors English, the immense satisfaction of delving into her work, and thinking, this is what I’m going to do the rest of my life, study and write literature. Reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina on the eve of grad school set the bar as far as what can be achieved in the novel form; that said, I’m a great admirer of Margaret Atwood’s novels (namely The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin, Alias Grace) and believe she is one of the greatest novelists working in English today. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio for revealing the advantages of the linked story form and especially for capturing small town America. And also Flannery O’Connor, not only for her mastery of the short story, but the wisdom and advice in her essays and letters on writing: Mystery and Manners and The Habit of Being.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: Both. I cherish solitude, and the majority of the time I write sitting on the red couch in my living room, the coffee table cluttered with index cards, printed drafts, books to review, mug of green tea, etc. All my nonfiction is composed there, because I don’t write nonfiction by hand. But if I’m writing fiction, specifically first drafts, I’m writing longhand, and so alternate between the couch and a select group of cafés. The hubbub of public places used to bother me, but at some point during the last few years that has changed, and on some afternoons I feel almost summoned to certain places. And I love to edit hard copies outdoors. I’m a Florida transplant, and there’s nothing I crave more than the sun, fresh food, the bustle of people going about their day—in the words of Hemingway, a “clean, well-lighted place.”
Letting Go of Lee Smith
by Wendi E. Berry
followed by Q&A
The first time I let go of literary legend Lee Smith it was my own damn fault. The second time, I was coerced and too much a coward trying to fit into graduate school to speak up. The third time, I had to—I don’t think Lee appreciated my grip on her arm at a Richmond book signing, nor my pleading, “Lee, I need endurance like you’ve got. Could you give me some, please?”
But the first time, I was living in Durham, and rather than just continue to dream about becoming a better writer, sitting at my desk in my little duplex on Chapel Hill Road, I decided to learn more about what readers like and how to reach them. I got a job at the local paper as an editorial assistant and quickly established myself as someone who could be counted on to do book reviews. I reviewed Robert Morgan’s Gap Creek, and based on the fact that I didn’t screw it up and obviously loved literature, I was awarded the opportunity to interview Lee Smith for the launch of her fourteenth and soon to be a New York Times bestselling book, The Last Girls.
I’d read two of her novels, Saving Grace and Fair and Tender Ladies, and one collection, Me and My Baby View the Eclipse, and was beginning to be able to articulate what I admired most about her writing: Southern women with real problems, who were multi-dimensional, emotionally complex, and seductive on the page. These women were not trying to be Northern. Behind all that wonderful character development was a sort of gothic drama that, in my humble opinion, only four other Southern authors reached in scope: Pat Conroy, Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner. Based on this opinion, I was thrilled with the chance to interview Lee. I was also very intimidated. After all, Lee Smith, to me anyway, is the dark goddess of fiction writing. As professed to author Jill McCorkle in an online interview, Lee stated, “I have always been a person who takes a dark view, I guess. I was an often sickly, very emotional, and profoundly weird little child who read all the time, loved ghost stories, and asked unanswerable questions in Sunday School.”
The art editor at the Durham paper put me in touch with Lee’s research assistant, and next thing Lee was inviting me to come to her house for an interview. Do you know what this greenhorn did? Declined the offer.
I look back at that time, and wonder what was I thinking? Even though I’d been entrusted with the assignment, I was new to reporting. I didn’t realize when you get a once-in-a-life opportunity to visit the writer whose work you admire most, you go. I believe my 42-year-old reasoning went something like this: I knew I was horrible at shorthand, had trouble recording exactly what people say and was thus prone to embellishing, and I believed that if I went to see Lee Smith in the flesh, I might easily get distracted by her house, the kind of furniture she’d chosen, the family photos, the way Lee looked at me with such attentive, searching eyes—she always seemed to have such searching eyes on all her book jackets—and not only that but Hal Crowther (journalist and essayist and Lee’s husband), might walk into the room. I’d read his columns in the Independent Weekly. I was just plain nervous about the whole thing and didn’t want to mess up. So I did what I thought was safe; I spoke to the dark goddess of fiction writing over the phone.
After taping and transcribing our conversation, I put in a few asides, arranged the text how I liked it, and showed it to the art editor who made a few suggestions. A photographer went to Hillsborough to get the photo. I still have the clipping from Sept. 27, 2002.The caption reads, Lee Smith: On Her Way to a Best Seller.
To remember what I let go of that time, I keep the clipping in a laminated scrapbook, second shelf on the bookcase next to my desk. In the photo, Lee’s wearing a sage green jacket with a pressed silky buttery looking blouse and hand-carved turquoise jewelry, and she’s leaning back in an elegant but sturdy office chair. I imagine the wood in that chair is mahogany or a gleaming oak. There are green plants reaching behind her with long palm-like fingers. Her eyes are bright, her teeth white, and she looks as majestic and thoughtful as someone of her writing prowess should.
Ten years later, the image still holds up behind the laminate.
Five years after interviewing Lee, I approached her again, this time for my Master in Fine Arts at Queens University. There are several requirements to graduate, and second only to finishing and revising a thesis signed off by an advisor was the requirement to lead a craft seminar. I had an idea. I was going to learn, and ultimately teach my fellow students, how to write complex characters such as the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in a way that not only invites the reader to enter the world of the character but to sympathize and become complicit in the character’s actions. Flawed characters have more to teach us about life, my craft advisor pointed out over coffee, because they allow us to look at our shadow sides from a safe distance—through a book.
My advisor generously came up with two examples for me to study: O’Connor’s grandmother and Amy Hempel’s narrator who abandons a dying friend in the hospital in the story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.”
Later, through research, I would come across other examples, my favorite from Lee Smith’s 1985 novel Family Linen, Fay, who sleeps with, is abused by, and has a child by her sister Elizabeth’s husband. Someone kills Jewell Rife in the book but I wasn’t sure who because Fay’s niece Sybill seems to think Elizabeth did it. By that time, I’d read more about how to make characters believable, even unreliable narrators, in Janet Burroway’s instructive text Writing Fiction, and I’d read and re-read Family Linen. I emailed Lee Smith with questions about how she set about making the character of Fay so compelling. I wanted to know what was making me empathize with Fay. Was it Fay’s delusional and yet believable way of relating to the world through TV shows and tabloids? Fay’s inner rambling, "JR was so mean to dig up Pamela’s first husband it was as Elizabeth would say in poor taste" reveals a fear of discovery for possibly what she’s done, burying her sister’s husband in a well. Then, later, “Lively Ann-Margaret grew up in a funeral parlor which is where Elizabeth is now” shows the glittery distance from which Fay begins to process that her sister is dead from a series of strokes.
I also needed to know, who killed Jewell Rife?
In her customary way, Lee was responsive and revealing about her characters. She wrote, “Fay is unreliable because she’s crazy; others might be unreliable because they are too old, or too young, or have a particular axe to grind. To answer your question directly,” she continued, “Fay probably ‘came to me’ because there has always been so much mental illness in my family. I grew up with a strong empathy for people like Fay. I didn’t think of Fay as unsympathetic myself; in fact, I sympathized with her entirely. Jewell had taken advantage of her; had sex with her, abused her—and apparently had promised that he would take her away to the beach on a trip—something he never intended to do, of course.”
Lee confirmed, “So Fay DID kill him.”
After gathering all this material, and other examples from contemporary authors, I wrote my craft paper and sent it to my advisor. When she read the parts about Lee’s character Fay, she commented “Will others know the story?” Where I let her influence me the most, however, was what she wrote in a separate letter: “Stick to three stories to illustrate your points. You can reference classic works that everyone has, or should have read, but that’s it.” She also wrote, “Trust yourself.”
Sadly, for me, and for my grad school peers and faculty, I did not trust myself. If I’d trusted myself, I would have kept the example of Fay instead of replacing her with my advisor’s suggestion, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Everyone knows Bovary. I could have introduced someone new—someone my fellow students might initially say they’d never met before, but then after reading, might identify as family or a friend, or even themselves, who were as vulnerable as Fay, seduced and then betrayed. Given similar circumstances, what might happen? What might people do if their lives were different and no one was watching?
I wanted to talk about Fay.
I’m sorry, Lee. I don’t why I didn’t trust myself to stand up to my advisor from the New York publishing world and share what I’d learned from you.
The last time I saw Lee was two years ago in 2010. She was reading a selection from her collection Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-eyed Stranger, “House Tour,” at Sam Miller’s in Shockoe Slip, and I was in attendance with colleagues, who were fellow adjuncts from the University of Richmond. I’d moved to Richmond, the city of my birth, where I’d gotten the sweetest teaching deal.
After Lee read, I stood in line for her to sign my book, and when it came my turn, I said, “Lee, it’s so good to see you. I interviewed you for the paper and you recommended me for my MFA program.”
Then Lee Smith put her hand on my arm and pulled me closer. “Tell me what you’re working on now,” she said, and I unloaded about the thesis and how I was finding it difficult to teach and write and keep my head clear to hear what my characters really wanted to say, or according to her, what I really wanted to say. I said I needed endurance to keep writing. She reached for the book I’d brought for her to sign—on that day it was On Agate Hill—and she wrote: To Wendi—a wonderful writer—cultivate endurance!
I thanked her and wrapped my hand around her arm. I did not want to let go. Maybe I was hoping for some sort of transference of writing energy, or that through touch she would impart the wisdom and the generosity of her essence.
Then I realized there were about thirty people waiting behind me, probably with the same hope, and that this was the third time I’d have to let go of Lee Smith.
[Editor's Note: Wendi Berry's craft essay will appear in Issue 29.]
Wendi E. Berry is a native Richmonder who also happens to love North Carolina, particularly Durham and the Outer Banks, though through the years, she’s developed a fondness for East Hampton, her sister’s influence. She teaches college composition at the University of Richmond and J. Sargeant Reynolds. Don’t ask what her favorite song is and expect her to stick to that answer because it changes every day.
Q: This essay represents a powerful metaphor about how to live life, in general. What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this?
A: I’m not sure what you’re noticing when you say “how to live life.” I guess I can say there’s a three-part structure; three times I interact with Lee, and each time I let go. Some might say that those three times could signify a beginning, a middle, and an end. I hope that won’t be the last time I see Lee. Guess we all have to live without knowing where the middle is because the end is assured. That’s what is surprising me now as I write this, that I have no way of knowing where “the middle” is.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: “Put more love and more light in your writing. It’s too dark. If you care, the reader will care. Show what the character wants and have her go after that.” That was from David Payne during my first semester at Queens University of Charlotte. Every day, I do my best to do what he suggested.
Q: Besides Lee Smith and her work, what three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: I read a lot fiction because that is what I spend most of my time writing, and it’s what I want to write. When I was living in San Francisco in 1990, I read Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and fell for Lucy Marsden in the scene when she’s in a rest home competing with another woman for the one man still kickin’. I believe a main reason I moved to North Carolina was because of that book. I wanted to meet Gurganus, and I did. Living in Durham for 15 years, I read mostly North Carolina writers: Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies, Jill McCorkle’s The Cheerleader, Doris Betts’ The River to Pickle Beach (I named a cat after Doris.). I remember David Payne’s Ruin Creek affecting me profoundly because it’s a sympathetic story of a family in trouble. I received an advance copy as a gift from someone I was dating in 1993. Now that I’m back in Richmond, all I want to read is Dostoevsky because it’s so psychological. Katya’s betrayal of Dmitri, the sensualist brother in The Brothers Karamazov, is terribly astounding, and yet it’s inevitable.
A: When I was finishing my MFA, there were many mornings when I wrote at Panera Bread on First Colonial Road in Virginia Beach because my little beach cottage there was such a disaster. Let’s just say, mice would die under the floor and they smelled. Now that I’m back in Richmond, I’ve made a nice quiet place in my apartment in the Museum District. Sometimes the guy in the apartment above drops his weights on the floor and his seven cats run races over my head, but most of the time it’s a good deal and I get something done in the morning before I teach. I had two Richmond friends die within 12 months of each other this past year, one from cancer, the other from suicide, and they’re my patron saints. The other day I saw a little girl dressed as Wonder Woman, and I felt like Britta was watching over me.
Goliath, by Susan Woodring
Goliath, by Susan Woodring
St Martin’s Press, April 2012
Reviewed by Marjorie Hudson
Susan Woodring’s second novel Goliath shimmers with images of the confines of small town life and the possibility of escape. When a teenager named Vincent finds the body of Percy Harding, the town’s richest citizen and founder, crushed beside the railroad tracks, the boy keeps looking upward, at anything but death. In this moment, Woodring describes a flock of blackbirds crossing the sky in a “shifting amoeba” and a sky so bright that “it seemed he could plunge his open hand into its blueness.”
Sad and confused, the townspeople of Goliath avoid facing the questions raised by the suicide of Harding who employed virtually everyone at his furniture company and who seemed a paragon of leadership. He inspired both loyalty and love, most deeply in Rosamond Rogers, his secretary.
A rash of strange behaviors overtakes the town after Vincent makes his discovery. At the high school, a girls’ suicide-poetry cult deposits pink-construction-paper messages in odd places, defending the “right to choose death.” Vincent swallows bugs and lit cigarettes.
Rosamond, the abandoned wife of a traveling salesman, and the town’s most discomfiting oddball, tries to make sense of Harding’s death. In the process, she cleans her house so thoroughly that by the end of her efforts all that’s left is her orange swing coat hanging in the closet. She has been known to visit the town bar after midnight, drink gin and soda, and dance with married men, but now, townspeople who ordinarily shun Rosamond begin to lean in close on the street, in bars and in stores and confess their shameful secrets.
Goliath’s street preacher, Ray, gears up his message of love and redemption, while his father, Clyde, the police chief, prowls the streets at night, watching for people who need help more than law enforcement. For Rosamond and her daughter Agnes, old loves keep showing up like ghosts of the past.
After a second suicide—of a despairing teenage girl—the town is shocked into uncomfortable self-awareness. The townspeople soon learn that Harding Furniture is bankrupt and realize that they have no place to go but gone.
But before the town’s citizens can leave, Rosamond decides to plan an event that will unite the entire community one more time. She realizes that “it [is] possible to get rid of yourself . . . by walking into big sadness or hope.” Her event, a perfect reflection of her oddball nature, brings more than a few surprises.
Full of rich characters and home-town philosophers, Goliath is a meditation on how communities avert their eyes from difficult neighbors and difficult truths. Far from despairing, Woodring’s novel is a compassionate, eyes-open love letter to a place where For Sale signs have taken over whole neighborhoods and where capitalist heroes are in short supply. In such a place, Woodring suggests that unlikely leaders can bring people together just as those same people are making plans to scatter to the wind.
Marjorie Hudson’s debut story collection, Accidental Birds of the Carolinas, was a PEN/Hemingway honorable mention for Distinguished First Fiction, and her creative nonfiction exploration, Searching for Virginia Dare, was a North Carolina Notable Book. She teaches creative writing at Central Carolina Community College and through her own Kitchen Table Workshops. See more at www.marjoriehudson.com blog: www.kitchentablewriters.wordpress.com
The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, by Katrina Vandenberg
Milkweed Editions, July 2012
Heather Lee Schroeder,
Book Review Editor
In a 2009 interview with Line Break, an online journal of poetry, poet Katrina Vandenberg pondered her writing lineage saying “I’m glad I had teachers who made me write 300 lines of blank verse, be articulate about 16th-century sonneteers…So many of the more experimental visual artists and musicians I admire departed, knowledgeably, from tradition.” In her latest collection, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, Vandenberg uses her knowledge of poetry’s craft and lineage to depart from the expected in unexpected ways.
The collection sweeps the reader from the Phonecian alphabet, through several personal tragedies, to a wistful reminder of a child’s awkward transition to adulthood. The collection opens with “Prologue: A Ghazal” in which Vandenberg interweaves a meditation on the various ways in which the letter “a” manifests itself in everyday life while talking through the pain of a miscarriage. She writes “Apple of my eye,” your father used to say, A for the round red/embryonic sac. Aardappel, Dutch for potato, starts with A— /ground apple, aard meaning earth, sounds like hard, it’s a hard/world sometimes, hard-packed under oxen feet.”
With this nuanced and exquisite opener, Vandenberg puts the reader on notice: these poems will demand one’s full attention because they hover between the narrative and the experimental. Make no mistake, though: the mix works splendidly. Vandenberg’s intricate matroyshka-like writing may require a second and third read, but the reader will quickly realize this effort should be given without regret.
More importantly, Vandenberg’s arrangement of The Alphabet Not Unlike the World is nothing less than masterful. Her ideas twist out of one another and create a larger through-line of narrative where one might not seem likely. Thus, she is able to talk about her sister’s ex-boyfriend who may or may not have killed a child and then switch effortlessly to a lush rumination on the horrific rape of a massage therapist and the nature of forgiveness.
In this collection, words shift tectonically beneath the reader as the poet plays with words, punctuation, line breaks, and meaning. In “C Ghazal,” Vandenberg journeys from the heady abstraction of language’s meaning, “the letter “c” in the Phonecian alphabet, gimel or camel, a work-beast ruminant with one hump,” to the reality of everyday existence in “the things Katrina carries toward the horizon’s starry hump.”
Vandenberg stands witness to sadness, atrocity, human foible, and disappointment, but she isn’t immune to hope. In “Z Ghazel,” she writes “The author should say something has changed by the end. /What if Z hasn’t always been the alphabet’s end?... The stars threw down their spears. One of the hunters/had bad aim. Now Z is a wandering path, not the end.”
A Technique for Writing the Impossible and the Unreal
by Josh Woods
Borges once argued that storytelling follows the model not of psychology or of worldly events but instead of magic, and he literally meant magic, as in the causal and sympathetic relationships between seemingly unrelated things. While explaining this point, he revealed a technique—not a theory or mindset, but a clear, pragmatic maneuver that writers can learn, imitate, and use—for making the impossible and the unreal seem believable. This technique was not the point of his essay, nor did he directly note the technique, so whether he knew what exactly he was revealing is unclear(1). He highlighted an example from the beginning of William Morris’s The Life and Death of Jason, where the homeland of Jason is described in a list-style, and in the innocuous middle of the list comes this line:
“Where the bears and wolves the centaurs’ arrows find.”
This line does more than prepare the larger context for the centaur to appear later; it also, within the single line, uses the technique I propose, which is this: Prefigure the impossible or unreal subject with two or three images that are both acceptable to the reader and related to the subject.
In the above example, the unreal subject is the centaur, a mythical, dangerous creature of the forest. So the centaur is prefigured by a bear, also a dangerous creature of the forest, but the bear is not at all mythical, or at least it would seem. Actually, even though we all believe in bears, very few of us have encountered one out in the wild, beyond the safety of zoos or pictures, so to call up the image of the bear is to call up the image of something we accept but that is essentially alien or other, exactly the mindset required for accepting the centaur. The next image is of a wolf, which doubles up on the same effect as that of the bear. Then comes the centaur, and the technique is complete.
Two questions (at least) emerge at this point: (1) Why are specifically two or three prefiguring images necessary, or why double up on the effect of the bear? And (2) what do we mean by belief? For even after reading this line, no one is expected to believe that centaurs are as real as bears and wolves.
The second question first: better than using the term belief, we should think of making the impossible and the unreal acceptable. Our readers should be willing to take the impossible or unreal image we present and hold on to it alongside other images that they happen to believe are possible or real. At best, readers hold on to these images for generations, as they have done with Frankenstein’s monster, Hamlet’s father’s ghost, Dracula and his brides, and many others. Belief can be a handy word, and I use it casually, but it actually implies the marriage of faith and fact, and there is simply no need for that marriage in fiction.
For the first question: Why are two or three prefiguring images required—specifically the numbers two or three? Because in order to prefigure something, we need a pattern. And how many items does it take to create a pattern? One item is only an example, a case. With two items we have either siblings or a metaphor. Three or more items create a pattern against which the last item can be compared, against which it can seem related but unique(2). In this way, the last item—the impossible or unreal subject—can stand out as such against the two prefiguring images (for three items total) or against three prefiguring images (for four items total). But piling on too many prefiguring images can burden the reader who tries to carry them all, so conciseness adds power, and a maximum of four total images (three prefiguring and the one subject) can do the job without turning into an inventory(3).
Borges pointed out another example from Morris, this one prefiguring the deadly Sirens:
“As o’er the gentle waves they(4) took their way,
The orange-scented breeze seemed to bear
Some other sounds unto the listening ear”
The first image is that of the gentle waves, a thing of softness and of the sea like the Sirens are, and a thing that, while a bit odd, is acceptable to the reader. The second image is the orange-scented breeze, a thing of sweetness and of air like the Sirens’ songs are, and a thing that, while a bit odd, is acceptable to the reader. But then the other sounds come, the hints of the actual Siren song, which is the beginning of the unreal image of the Sirens themselves.
Now let’s leave Borges and look at other famous examples. Here, from Mary Shelley, is the very first glimpse of life from Frankenstein’s monster:
“It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle
was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of
the creature open;”
The first image is the hour: one in the morning. This is not only an unnatural time for activity, but it is also an off-kilter hour, not balanced like midnight is. The second image is the rain on the panes, nature against the man-made window. The third image is that of the dying candle, which implies far too many things to enumerate here. I will simply note the use of the “related” part of the prefiguring technique: the yellow flame dies as the yellow eye opens, which is the fourth image, the impossible image of the dead come back to life, the unreal image of a monster born.
Let’s now turn to Shakespeare, to the very first sight of Hamlet’s father’s ghost:
“Bernardo: Last night of all,
When yond same star that's westward from the pole
Had made his course t' illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one—
The first image is of the star that has circled the pole like a backward clock, an image acceptable yet intangible, unearthly(5). The next image is the tolling bell, the sound of the dead, and—perhaps it’s part of the same image—the time is one in the morning, that off hour. Finally, image three, the ghost enters. The additional maneuver here is that this description is not strict narrative introduction of the ghost; it is a character describing a past sighting of the ghost, and because he prefigures it correctly, his description causes the ghost to materialize. This happens to follow the model of magic, by the way.
Again, the technique is this: Prefigure the impossible subject with two or three images that are both acceptable to the reader and related to the subject.
So since I say impossible subject, does this technique work for subjects that are not actually supernatural, only impossible in some other way? Let’s see by going Faulkner, a realist who is highly impossible and unreal. Here is the famous beginning to Barn Burning:
“The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish—this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood.”
The end point, the impossible image, is that of a boy smelling the alchemy of bad emotions and the old fierce pull of the blood. This is, of course, impossible, and it is even an obnoxious affront to the cherished sense of smell in literature, so no sensible reader should accept such a careless image on its own, and if it were its own sentence, or if it weren’t prefigured, we would reject it as poor metaphor, poor imagery. Yet we do accept it, and we do so because Faulkner prefigures his impossible image with two images that are related and that are acceptable. I should note that Faulkner takes the technique a bit further and makes the prefiguring images progressive in their impossibility. Image one, the smell of cheese, is without question. Image two, the smell of meat in sealed cans, is actually impossible, but we believe that a hungry boy can believe he smells it, so we accept the second image and, because we have done so, are now in the mindset to accept the impossible. In the third and final image, the boy smells something no one could ever smell, or ever even think he smells, but the technique is complete, so we accept it.
Many more examples exist, of course. Go back to those impossible or unreal images that have stuck with you and look to see if this technique is born out. Then try it in your own writing and make the impossible real by making us believe the impossible and the unreal.
(1)But knowing Borges, he probably intended for you, right now, to be reading my questioning of his intention, and he probably intended for me to wonder even this, while you read my realizing it.
(2) Fairy tales use this technique of three for this same reason, for definition by comparison. Compared to her other two sisters, the young Cinderella is worthy. The youngest son of the three princes shall be king, as Michael Corleone becomes. Ender is not his cruel older brother nor his weak older sister, but instead the worthy hero by comparison.
(3) To make our world fathomable, we condense it into patterns of threes (land, sea, air; body, mind, soul) or even fours (north, east, south, west) but not fives, which is generally too much.
(4) Jason and his crew, not the Sirens
(5) In 1998, Don Olson, Russell Doescher, and Marilynn Olson, of Texas State University, searched back through time to discover which star this must have been. They found that it was likely Tycho Brahe’s 1572 supernova—the death of a star.
Josh Woods is editor of The Book of Villains and The Versus Anthology. His fiction has appeared in Surreal South ’11, Surreal South ’09, and XX Eccentric: Stories About the Eccentricities of Women, among other places. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of the Press 53 Open Awards in Genre Fiction. He graduated from the MFA program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and is currently an assistant professor of English at Kaskaskia College in Illinois.
The Nature of Character:
Learning to Read the Natural Landscape and Use it to Develop Characters
by Heather Magruder
The dock rises roughly nine feet above the water level, and so even farther than that above us, as we round the corner intending to turn upstream to the ramp from which we launched just a few hours before. Of the six people in our little kayaking group, none of us remembers this dock, the name Emma painted in broad, white strokes just below the high-tide mark on one of its legs. In the time we’ve been meandering through the salt marsh, the landscape has changed; this salty water has drawn down, revealing pluff mud mounds on which herons perch, exposing previously submerged oyster beds. We can no longer see, as we could at the start, over the tops of watery fields of waving spartina grass. Now we must navigate moment to moment, the legs of docks, the water-stained roots of the grass, the shallows and all that lives there. This is the nature of the South Carolina salt marsh system.
The spartina grass that grows here may look, at first glance, like just so much grass. A close observation of this environment, however, reveals layers of relationship, which reach outward, up the coast and beyond. Spartina grass, in fact, forms the basis of the whole Atlantic ecosystem. Anyone interested in this larger ecosystem can glean much from a close observation of this small marsh. For writers, the same kind of close observation—the ability to read a landscape like this one and to discern the relationships in it—provides tools that can be used to develop characters and to reveal their interior lives.
In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula LeGuin writes, “A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in particular, powerful relation to one another and to us” (153). These relationships reveal “[t]he most essential element in characterization…this inward life” (Kellog, 171). The Nature of Narrative goes on to offer some of the ways in which “a narrative artist can project the psyches of his characters” (171). Direct narrative statement, interior monologue, and narrative analysis are among the tools Robert Kellog lists.
I think that landscape can be added to this list. The ability to read a landscape and to place characters in relation to landscape can be a powerful way to show a character’s development or to reveal a character’s interior. Although all kinds of places offer opportunities to develop and reveal character, the natural environment offers the greatest range. By natural landscape, I mean anywhere that has undergone minimal human manipulation. The wilder, the better, with completely untouched being best. The place needn’t be large, however. A small, wooded area might work, if it lies outside the boundaries of what gets manicured. I prefer this kind of environment because I believe that cultivated landscape offers a limited range of opportunities for interactions. Even a state park has been manipulated in the sense that some planner somewhere has determined what elements of the environment are to be emphasized and what elements are minimized or, in some cases, removed. The more urban the place, the more manipulations involved. By the time you’re in the city limits, you’re living in the creation of the architect, the city planner, the traffic engineer. In these human environments, every interaction—light and shadow, what rain hits when it falls, where plants grow and what animals are allowed (if any)—is somewhat contrived.
What I seek, in terms of knowledge I can use in revealing characters, is to read the landscape so well as to begin to understand it. Barry Lopez puts it best. In Crossing Open Ground, he writes:
"Draw on the smell of creosote bush, or clack stones together in the dry air. Feel how light is the desiccated dropping of the kangaroo rat…These are all elements of the land, and what makes the landscape comprehensible are the relationships between them. One learns the landscape finally not by knowing the name or identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it—the sparrow and the twig" (64-65).
In any natural landscape, there are relationships that are revealed in brief moments, an afternoon or a day, as in what’s revealed in the tidal shifts of the salt marsh. Repeated visits to, and readings of, the same landscape reveal more layers of relationship, the ways the elements of the ecosystem interact in times of harmony or health, as well as the ways in which they respond to traumas, drought, flood, or sudden storms, for instance. Further revelations become evident in visits to the same spot from one year to the next, discovering what blooms again, what survives, what happens to the fallen. Find the wildest place you can, give it a close reading, similar to the way you read narrative, then do some research to deepen understanding of the relationships you’ve observed. You have a new palette with which to work alongside your characters.
Taking up the practice of reading the natural environment closely doesn’t mean that you have to write stories or novels that are set in wild places. There are plenty of examples available from writers who use landscape in this way in a variety of settings. Lopez, Annie Dillard, Eudora Welty, Charles D’Ambrosio, Annie Proulx, and Andrea Barrett are a few. Some of these writers prefer to set their works in raw, wild places while others choose more civilized settings. All of them have read the natural world closely and used their observations to hold the landscape and character in the kind of relation to each other that LeGuin writes about, and in so doing to develop or reveal character. A couple of good examples are Proulx’s “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” and Barrett’s “Theories of Rain.” The Proulx story works in the wild, using the landscape as a character that shapes others; the Barrett operates in a far more civilized setting. Here, landscape works to reveal the interior and to facilitate intimacy between characters.
“People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” opens with a landscape that is almost Homeric in its clarity, simplicity, and power. "Cloud shadows race over the buff rock stacks as a projected film, casting a queasy, mottled ground rash. The air hisses and it is no local breeze but the great harsh sweep of wind from the turning of the earth. Dangerous and indifferent ground: against its fixed mass the tragedies of people count for nothing although the signs of misadventure are everywhere" (99).
Here, Proulx gives us the land as the first character. Between the cloud shadows racing and the end of the story, she will hold her characters in relation to the land again and again. Presented in its full expanse, land is the protagonist. The other characters will discover that the land is the beginning and the end, mother and father, insistent upon respect, punishing in the face of disobedience, relentless.
First to experience this place is Isaac “Ice” Dunmire, who comes almost hissing into the story, appearing to be compatible with the environment. He works himself, his ranch, and his sons with little regard for pain. It is through these sons, the eldest in particular, that Proulx shows how landscape can develop character. With their mother gone and their father working the ranch, these boys are left to be shaped by the land. "When they were still young buttons they could sleep out alone on the plain, knees raftered up on the rain, tarp drawn over their heads, listening to the water trickle past their ears" (101).
As the story moves forward, these boys continue to have their psyches formed by this “dangerous and indifferent ground.” "Jaxon, the oldest, was a top bronc buster but torn up so badly inside by the age of twenty-eight his underwear were often stained with blood" (102).
When he can no longer ride broncs, Jaxon keeps the books for the ranch, then finds work as a windmill salesman, which takes him, once again, outdoors, "bumping over the country in a Ford truck to ranches, fairs and rodeos…The jolting was enough that he said he might as well have been riding broncs" (102).
By the time they are grown men, Jaxon and his brothers have "seen it all: prairie fire, flood, blizzard, dust storm, injury, sliding beef prices, grasshopper and Mormon cricket plagues, rustlers, scours, bad horses…The Dunmires measured beauty and religion by what they rode through every day… there was a somber arrogance about them, a rigidity of attitude that said theirs was the only way" (103).
In case we’re in any doubt about what this exposure to the harsh land means in terms of character development, Proulx offers us a glimpse into the Dunmire home. There, we witness the greasy leather sofa, the static-spouting beehive radio, the sideboard with its hoard of private bottles marked with initials and names.
In this kitchen, Jaxon and one of his brothers consider a story they’ve heard about one of the neighbor’s adult sons, Ras Tinsley, who has been badly injured in a car wreck, has come home and now roams the land, exposing himself to girls on neighboring ranches. Jaxon responds to this dilemma in much the same way as the “dangerous and indifferent” land might, considering what he and his brothers need to do to stop Ras and pondering how much he will miss his brother’s relish in the same breath.
Before he heads too far afield, Jaxon pays a visit to the Tinsleys. Something is, indeed, done about Ras; he is emasculated with a rusty knife, dead within days.
In the end, despite having been shaped by the land and having become dangerous and indifferent, himself, Jaxon is no match for that which has made him. "The morning light flooded the rim of the world, poured through the window glass, colored the wall and floor, laid its yellow blanket on the reeking bed, the kitchen table and the cups of cold coffee. There was no cloud in the sky. Grasshoppers hit against the east wall in their black and yellow thousands. That was all sixty years ago and more. Those hard days are finished. The Dunmires are gone from the country, their big ranch broken in those dry years" (117).
Barrett’s “Theories of Rain” presents a place altogether more civilized—two aunts raising the orphaned Lavinia in their tidy little house and garden in 1810. Barrett uses the natural environment as a whole and characters’ relationships within it—the aunts and their tidy garden, William Bartram and his rambling one—to illuminate character and to facilitate some of the human relationships in the story.
Aunt Jane finds whole months too damp or hot or fertile to bear. The scent of box hedges and song of the mockingbird overwhelm her.
In contrast to a woman so in need of a closed tidiness as to be distressed by whole, lush months, Lavinia tries to sort through her feelings about herself and whom she might love. "Once we [Lavinia and James] met in the woods, his woods, he out marking trees for felling and I walking furiously away from the aunts, filling my lungs with air, around me the wild profusion of tulip trees and witch hazel and honeysuckle, the beeches and myrtle and sugar maples, magnolias and pitcher plants" (107).
Although theses images of the land reveal character, Barrett goes further, using the theories of rain and other hydrological phenomena as a kind of interior life that parallels that of the protagonist. "A rain that moves in swirls and gusts, pushing the leaves against the limbs, pushing my hair away from my face; then a rain hardly more than a mist… In it I am sleek and slender and smooth…a woman someone might love" (108).
Lavinia has a deeper relationship with rain, along with other forms of precipitation, than she has with the aunts. It is through rain, and the theories behind it that Lavinia finds the greatest revelation. Lavinia seeks to understand herself and her loss through an understanding of rain and other hydrological phenomena. As she makes sense of the natural world, so she makes sense of herself.
Rain obscures and reveals, facilitates conversation, and acts as a matchmaker for Lavinia and Mr. Wells, revealing what’s inside each of them. When he explains a writing about Niagara Falls, Lavinia turns to rain for an answer: "The blinding fog and cascading water, the birds losing their way in the cloud of vapor rising from the rocks. Ducks and geese and swans, their wings weighed down by the mist until they drop from the air and tip over the cataract…“What is the theory, I wanted to ask, that might make sense of this?"(116)
Mr. Wells asks her what makes her happy and she tells him that is it to be outdoors at night. "On a clear cold night when the dew is heavy, to walk on the grass between the marigolds and the Brussels sprouts and feel my skirts grow heavy with the moisture. Or to go further, into the hayfield, where the mist hands above the ground, rising nearly to my waist" (119).
As she realizes that she will always be invisible to James but that she can have a relationship with Mr. Wells, she finds her expression through water. "As the mist rises to my waist, my shoulders, my head, I am standing in a kind of rain: and in that rain I am beautiful, at least to one man. Above me a meteor cuts the air and hot stones shower down. In that light, across the field, is all I will never have. Next to me is all I will" (120).
In each of these stories, whether the characters are in the wild or in a confining civilization, whether the story uses a wide place like the prairie or focuses on one element, the natural world facilitates the characters' opening and development. Taking the time to learn to observe the natural landscape, to see the relationships within it, and to feel the truth of, provides another range of possibilities for illuminating the inner lives of character, regardless of the length or style of narrative.
Barrett, Andrea. “Theories of Rain.” Servants of the Map. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.
Kellog, Robert et al. The Nature of Narrative. Oxford University Press, 2006.
Lopez, Barry. Crossing Open Ground. New York: Random House, 1989.
LeGuin, Ursula. “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” The Ecocriticism Reader. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Proulx, Annie. “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water,” in Close Range. New York: Scribner, 2003.
Originally from Scotland, Heather Magruder is a freelance writer, teaching artist, yogi and trail runner now based in South Carolina. Her fiction recently won The Baker Prize in Scotland and has recently been published or is forthcoming in Northwords Now, in the UK, and Six Minute Magazine. "The Nature of Character" is an exploration of a lifelong interest in the connection between the natural environment, people and culture. When Heather isn’t tromping over hills in the southeastern United States or in Scotland, she’s playing the bagpipes or spending time with her three children, two grandchildren and dogs. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte.
Visit Michael Spengler's website for more information and images.