Welcome to Issue No. 3 of Prime Number:

Cover.jpg

A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose

Letter from the Editors

Dear Readers,

The time has come to launch Issue No. 3 of Prime Number. This issue, like the first (No. 2), is filled with wonderful stories, essays, poems, interviews and reviews. You'll find fiction by  Richard Wiley, John Givens, Anne Leigh Parrish, Meagan Ciesla, and Jon Trobaugh; essays by Elizabeth Bernays, Randall Horton, Nina Feng, and Joe Mills; poetry by Susan Meyers, Mark Smith-Soto, Lola Haskins, and Nick Ripatrazone; and a review of Lori Ostlund's The Bigness of the World. We've also got two interviews in this issue. One is with Christine Schutt, whose novel Florida was a National Book Award Finalist. The other is with debut-novelist Emma Rathbone. We're also excited by our "cover" for this issue--a beautiful photograph by Katinka Matson: "Three Hanging Calla Lillies."

As with Issue No. 2, our launch doesn't mean the end. Come back in a couple of weeks for the first of four updates we'll post to this issue--with flash fiction, flash non-fiction, and poetry.

And a final note: Please send us your work! We're looking for short stories and essays under 3,000 words, including flash fiction and non-fiction. We're also looking for poetry of various lengths, reviews, short plays, interviews, and even cover art. (The next issue will be No. 5, so send us art that represents the number 5.) To learn more, visit our submissions page. 

We expect to publish both emerging and established writers. We don’t have an aesthetic. Our goal is to publish distinctive work, regardless of theme and style. We're looking for poetry and prose on all subjects--not just math or numbers!

One more thing: Prime Number Magazine is published by Press 53, a terrific small press helping to keep literature alive.

-The Editors 

 

Table of Contents, Prime Number Magazine

Issue 3, October-December 2010

 

POETRY

Susan Laughter Meyers

What It's Like

The Body

Home from Fairchild Tropical Garden

Dogged by Worry

Lola Haskins

At Twenty-two Months, Ava Launches Her Poetry Career

Of Dust on a White Counter

Enough

Fakahatchee

Mark Smith-Soto

To One Inspecting My Poems

Morning Dream

Nick Ripatrazone

Rats

Maria Falconetti

Salem Falls Board of Education:Minutes for Monday, January 12, 1991

 

FICTION

Anne Leigh Parrish

The Fall

Jon Trobaugh

Bugout

John Givens

The Palace Orphan

Richard Wiley

Home Delivery

Meagan Ciesla

24 Points

 

NONFICTION

Randall Horton

Ghost Enjambment

Elizabeth Bernays

Your Brain Knows More Than You Do

Joe Mills

Reading Back the Way I Came

Nina Feng

Release

 

INTERVIEWS AND REVIEWS

Interview with Christine Schutt, author of Florida and All Souls

Interview with Emma Rathbone, author of The Patterns of Paper Monsters

Joe Mills

Review of The Bigness of the World, by Lori Ostlund

 

Prime Number Decimals

Prime Number Decimals 3.2

Prime Number Decimals 3.3

Prime Number Decimals 3.5

Prime Number Decimals 3.7


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Poetry from Susan Laughter Meyers

followed by Q&A

What It’s Like

Your ten quail are eating. I’d let them loose

but I’d worry. And you know I’m no good 

when I worry. 

     Would they look for the man 

who whistles them home? 

 

The spider lilies have faded, and mushrooms 

scallop the pine stump. 

Limbs pruned 

from the myrtles lie scattered, still, on the ground. 

 

To sit on the north steps is to miss moonrise 

in silence, cicadas gone with summer. 

 

Why has the tea olive bloomed so early, 

smelling of winter? The old web 

of the garden spider 

swings in the breeze. 

 

Next time I check on the quail, will I find again

a rat snake stuck in the pen, 

bulging with bird? 

Nothing around here holds.

The pines seem taller with fall’s long shadows. 

 

Moon glow in the back meadow, too soon 

the lesser light of dawn. 

 

You tell me to talk to the quail 

twice a day. I don’t think they listen. 

How many times each night 

do I throw my arm across 

your side of the bed, only to feel it empty?

 

 

The Body

   after Dana Levin

On the lowest limb of the pine a hawk

     plucks feathers from a cardinal. 

 

Brilliant, the body pinned by talons. 

     Do you feel the pull? Lightly, light 

 

as a feather the feathers fall and turn 

     in summer’s long light. Some land 

 

on scattered pine needles. Are you glad 

     not to miss this moment’s air

 

raining its sad diagonals? 

     The hawk lowers his head again

 

and raises it, again and again

     in the rhythm of a woman stitching closed

 

the end of a pillow 

     she has just stuffed with down,

 

a woman who draws her arm wide 

     from the body, out and back.

 

Above the wound of red the hawk’s breast 

     is creamy, his shoulders a dull madder, 

 

though you might say they’re bright

     compared to pine needles. Occasionally 

 

the hawk turns his head as if to see 

     who’s watching. More feathers fall.

 

Why are you afraid, standing at the window

     with a plate of glass between you

 

and the body coming undone

     on this hot July afternoon?

 

 

Home from Fairchild Tropical Garden

First I will vacuum the sunroom carpet. 

I will think of the bright, hollow glass forms

by Chihuly, especially the reds

and they will console me. 

 

May the sun of the sunroom lift me 

to accept the yard’s gifts: leaf slivers

and pine needles and splintered 

nuggets of bark tracked inside. 

 

Next I will chant the word likelihood 

for the sound of it and for the small 

likelihood I’ll finish cleaning today.

And the gleam of the glass will console me,

 

the smooth curves of each piece, some towering 

and branching out, some bobbing on water.

After which I’ll vacuum the guest bedroom,

hoping for no guest spiders and bugs 

 

on this day before the day of the invited guest. 

On this day I will follow the machinery

of duty, its efficiency, from room to room,

and the shine of the glass will console me, 

 

some shapes blooming as if leaning 

toward light, all sprung whole from the earth.

I will think too of how, any minute now, 

I might sweep under a bed or pull back a drapery

 

only to find a shaped fragility

I could live with. Something on the verge

of breaking, something that belongs 

by not belonging, wild and unlikely.  

 

 

Dogged by Worry

At the moment when the pit bull lunges 

at what it loves most— 

today my throat—  

and clamps its jaw

 

I flail and fall back dreaming

of the hooked rug 

I once shook in sunlight, 

perfect braids of amber and red 

I could throw on the ground 

to lie down upon 

as if there were no stray dogs.  

 

No, not a rug, it was a scrap of rug, 

a dingy thing,  

chewed and unraveled,  

yet big enough to roll and roll my body in.

 

And now the teeth, having already bled 

the vein of my good mood  

refuse the first bribe:  

Let go and you’ll be famous

 

They refuse, too, the second:  

Let go and you’ll be rich

Still in the air 

is the best bribe, starting with a god 

and a bone 

but sure  

to trouble its way, soon, into begging.

 

 

Susan Laughter Meyers is the author of Keep and Give Away (University of South Carolina Press, 2006), which received the SC Poetry Book Prize, the SIBA Book Award for Poetry, and the Brockman-Campbell Book Award. Her chapbook Lessons in Leaving (1998) was chosen by Brendan Galvin for the Persephone Press Book Award. Her poetry has also appeared in The Southern Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Subtropics, Cave Wall, and numerous other journals. A long-time writing instructor, she lives with her husband in Givhans, SC. She can be reached at http://susanmeyers.blogspot.com

 

Q&A:

Q: What was your inspiration for these poems?

A: In a sense, the impetus for all four of these poems is that little voice inside telling you that something bad could happen, that all is not well. If worry and dread were talents, I’d feel better about all the time I devote to them.  

 

Q: Can you speak to the presence of birds in so many of your poems?

A: I’m completely fascinated by birds and their beauty, grace, freedom—even the aggressive, territorial instincts that some of them exhibit. My whole world is birded. When I try to shoo them from my poems, they just keep flying back. 

 

Q: What direction do you face when you are at work on your writing? 

A: I’m glad you asked, because I’d never thought about that. East. (So from now on when I’m away from my desk and writing, I’m going to turn East.) 

 

Q: Discuss your process as a poet, what sparks a poem and how you work it through to completion (or abandonment.)

A: Typically for me a poem starts with a line, or sometimes an image. (If it starts with an idea, I’m probably in trouble from the get-go.) I like to simply follow that initial impetus in whatever direction it wants to take me, and I find that sound comes into play more than it used to for me. Sometimes I’ll hold the first few lines of the poem in my head while I’m doing some mindless physical activity and work on the poem at the same time. When I work that way, the poem builds slowly. If I’m actually writing down the first draft in one sitting, it goes more quickly. This part can vary wildly, though—a few poems arriving whole as gifts, most of them coming out lopsided with missing (or extra) parts. I usually spend huge amounts of time revising, so that stage of the process can call for numerous drafts. I don’t mind admitting it: I love to revise.


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Poetry from Lola Haskins

followed by Q&A

At Twenty-two Months, Ava Launches her Poetry Career

A month ago, you pointed at the dangling Christmas colors.

Stalactites! you said.

 

Last week, your Daddy held you upside down.

I don’t like that, you said.  

 

You don’t like it? No. I’m not a bat.

 

Last night in the bath, you pressed three damp letters to the tub wall.

C-A-T, you said. Cat!

 

Asked to spell dog, you put up: DGH, then said I forgot the O,

and added it: ODGH. There’s still hope. 

 

 

Of Dust on a White Counter

Ava discovers she won’t be a kindergartener forever.

She collapses to the floor, her head in her hands.

 

The walker on the beach forgets which way between houses lies home.

 

The eyes belong to space

but touch is time’s, an index finger, gathering gray along its length.

 

 

Enough

            —Sandhill Cranes in December

The way dawn candled their wings

as they arced down,

 

singly, because even birds must land alone.  

The way their black legs descended

 

as if someone were drawing them. The silence

as they floated toward

 

the field. Then the cries, vast as an ocean

as far as you could hear.  

 

Then myriads of shadows feeding in

the early light

 

and orange giving way to pale blue

and morning slowly come.

 

 

Fakahatchee

By noon, the water’s turned such silver

I want to put it on. I know it would

only fall back to itself or flutter off

my skin like a bird too quick to follow

 

but I don’t care. I want it anyway. And 

I want that tangle of cattail and black rush

too,  the way I want to be perpetually

waking to yet another gift, like the single

 

gator stretched out on the muck where

pond has begun to thicken to swamp.  

Like happiness, it materialized so gradually

that I never, even for a moment, saw it coming.

 

 

Lola Haskins’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, The London Review of Books, London Magazine, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, The New York Quarterly and elsewhere. Her ninth collection of poetry, Still, the Mountain, has just been published by Paper Kite Press. Most recently prior to that came Solutions Beginning with A, prose poems illustrated by Maggie Taylor (Modernbook),  The Rim Benders (Anhinga), and Desire Lines, New and Selected Poems  (BOA). Ms. Haskins’s prose works include a poetry advice book, Not Feathers Yet: A Beginner’s Guide to the Poetic Life (Backwaters) and a book of essays/stories, Fifteen Florida Cemeteries: Strange Tales Unearthed, forthcoming from the University Press of Florida. For more information, please visit her at www.lolahaskins.com.

 

Q&A

Q: If you could create a soundtrack for your poem(s), what would it be?

A: Lots of my poems do have soundtracks because they’ve been on radio—what

they are varies widely—from Rye Cooder to jazz to new-age to Pacific

islanders to chanting to folk tunes to classical selections.

I’ve done readings over jazz too, and I’ve several times performed all of

Forty-Four Ambitions for the Piano with a composer and a pianist, using a

combination of classical and modern, more classical than modern.

I should say that I’ve been happy with all of the above.

 

Q: What direction do you face when you are at work on your writing?

A: I’m a monk at heart so I work facing a wall, my convenient wall faces

east—facing but not seeing the rising sun. Is that metaphoric?

 

Q: Opening move: Rock, paper, or scissors?

A: Rock. After that, it depends what the other person does.


Poetry from Mark Smith-Soto

followed by Q&A

To One Inspecting My Poems

You there outside, thumbing through my book,

Come in a while and sip a beer. We’ll play

Joni and Dylan on cheap CD’s, and tell

Each other jokes about a bungled world

Unstitching like a baseball in the rain.

The day was hot and long, we’re both

Exhausted by the work we left undone.

 

You might well ask what wares I have to offer

A wary shopper wanting a good read.

Red syllables I stole in Zanzibar,

Or the open sesame to a bright cave

Where long-eyed genies curl in dusty lamps

And wait for lust to rub them the right way?

Or do I peddle God’s most secret name?

 

I know, the irony lies heavy on the tongue.

There’s no one buys that magic any more,

The uncertain spell that spins a singing line

To cast a fly for meaning that won’t bite

But almost pulls the sun out of the water—

But, no, I won’t say no one, dammit, if you

Will still shell out a twenty for my song!

 

Reader, I’m glad you’re here. Company

Sweeter than a sister’s or a brother’s,

Your mind on my mind, your eye to my eye.

I feared you were a vanished breed, a myth

That wordsmiths must revere, or simply die

For lack of any reason to flail on.

Here, have another, stay a while with me...

 

Because we have a lot in common after all! 

I for my part have hungered just like you

To hold a language-mirror to the soul

And let the flicking tongue of poetry 

Pierce, to coin a phrase, my heart. And I

Have loved the manna of meaning in a word

More than the bread and butter of my life.

 

And though I’ve lived to be a decent man,

Ethical, slow to hate, and glad enough

To live on the honey of the ones I love,

I feel some nights that I would trade it all

To twirl hot words toward heaven like a rope

And clamber where the raging giants storm

And be a welcome party to their song.

 

So here we are instead. Oh, well. Out the night- 

Blind windows—in bumper-sticker-speak—

Prose happens. And eternity. And the galaxies,

A little further off, harmonious, ceremonious,

Circle the center of a perfect yawn. Stranger,

Companion, friend, more self than other,

I’m set for elsewhere if you’ll come with me,

 

Just two kids strolling by a sunset stream,

Sipping beers from a six-pack we stole somewhere,

Our tall tales skipping over the stretch of blue

That merges at the horizon with our dreams—

Until laughing ourselves hot, we stop and strip

To dive headlong into the murmuring water,

The elusive whisper of some shareable song.

 

 

Morning Dream

My father is an angle in the room,

A looking down, an eyebrow at the window 

So full of summer vagaries and dawn.

 

What is the meaning of this visitation,

This memory or yearning or old pain,

Spinning like a quarter in a ray of sun

 

Whose flickering quick shadows

Stripe the yawning dreamer as he wakes?

In and out of sense my father leans

 

Into clouds of talcum powder snowing

In the misted mirror and bay rum half-light

Mixing a lost fragrance with remorse.

 

Why now this forgotten sadness like a hoop

I am rising into and through, swish, swish,

Swish, from forty years away not even 

 

Grazing the rim of the hole in his heart 

Where a boy could never fit, the fathering place

He never could step into and become?

 

And now I do remember how today’s 

The birthday of his death, black lawyer’s eyes 

Fading as his very bigness went, the sheer size 

 

Of his shoulders down the hall, until nothing 

Could be smaller than his gurneyed, unpillowed 

Head, his unspoken good-bye word.  

 

I frame his gargoyle forehead in my hands, I trace 

His frozen eyebrows with the shadow of my thumbs, 

I breathe deep from the darkness where he hid.

 

And the deaf-blue air of morning ripens, August 

Yawns wide and golden outside the windows, 

And my soul gathering strength at last pushes 

 

Away from dream through a door thrown open,

And hugs the light wildly, and the empty air.

 

 

Costa Rican-American poet Mark Smith-Soto is professor of Romance Languages, director of the Center for Creative Writing in the Arts, and editor of International Poetry Review at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. A 2005 winner of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in creative writing, he’s had work in Antioch Review, Bitter Oleander, Kenyon Review, Literary Review, Nimrod, Poetry East, Quarterly West, Rosebud Magazine, The Sun, and numerous other publications. He is the author of three prize-winning poetry chapbooks and two full-length collections, Our Lives Are Rivers (University Press of Florida, 2003), and Any Second Now (Main Street Rag Publishing Co., 2006).

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for these poems?

A: The longer a poem gets, the more flaws it’s bound to have. Which explains why I’ve written more sonnets than most anyone else I know. Still, every so often a poem gallops onto the page before I have a chance to put on the reins, and “Morning Dream” is one of these headstrong and disheveled creatures that will only take so much grooming. “To One Inspecting My Poems,” on the other hand, has undergone endless sprucing up over a period of many years, and I am glad it has found a home with Prime Number so I can finally let the poor thing be.

 

Q: If you could create a soundtrack for your poem(s), what would it be?

A: Appreciative silence…

 

Q: What direction do you face when you are at work on your writing?

A: Backward, as a rule. Though often I will look up and be staring through a window…

 

Q: Opening move: Rock, paper, or scissors?

A: Rock.


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Poetry from Nick Ripatrazone

followed by Q&A

Rats

Here in Texas

we’ve got two problems:

you know the first,

now hear the second:

rats.

 

Hispid cotton; cotton

yellow-nosed; marsh rice

and southern plains

and Ord’s kangaroo,

pink tails

 

shifting sand. Norway

rats are the worst.

After police found 

one woman in her kitchen,

dead at the table,

 

they tested the molded bread

and called us in: we

ripped up the floorboards

and the smell nearly

turned me (after

 

fifteen years of breathing it).

Burrow like I’ve never

seen: tunnel like a vine

with chambers the size

of my torso, nests

 

packed with Marlboro filters,

attic insulation, rubber bands

and horsehair wigs. A few 

feet down we found the source,

nearly twenty of them piled

 

like carp at the bottom

of a drained pond, brown,

white and black, dappled

into one color, eyes

closed, hair flittering, alive.  

 

 

Maria Falconetti

After watching it for the third time, Donna wants to play the part. I’ve always wanted

to be Dreyer, leaning forward, deliberate, but she had her own ideas, kneeling 

on the slate outside, rolling up her jeans so skin touches stone. I thought we would joke

around, hold onions out of the shot to coax tears, make a hat of twigs and a sparrow

feather for a pen, but she had all of this planned, telling me where to stand, steadying

the camcorder on my shoulder. Zoom on her face, make it so wide there was nothing

else in the yard, town, world, and keep it there while she produced real tears above

her shaking throat. I looked to the side of the viewfinder to see her hands collected 

against her stomach, turning the bottom of her shirt up and out. She told me the camera

is shaking, so I stayed focused, documenting. She pulled this from somewhere;

was it last week, when I left the bed, or this morning, on the phone with my brother,

laughing. What will we do with this? She will replay the video after dinner, together

on the couch, lights off. But where are her accusers? Should I turn the lens toward

my face? We will be together, then, in the shaking film, black edges pushing us closer.  

 

 

Salem Falls Board of Education: Minutes for Monday, January 12, 1991

(One)

Ellen walks in first

wearing that beige baize

sweater, collar scratching

her pale neck

 

(Two)

next is Alan, hands

pocketed, smothered in cloth

 

(Three)

you can watch the clock all you like, Ellen, but the tick 

doesn’t care about your violet-eyeshadow stare. even

if you pulled over a chair, knocked the clock down, wound

the hands forward, you would be changing your own time,

not ours, so you see such effort is useless. ask Alan.

why do you think his hands are stiff in his pockets?

 

(Four)

and what I am worried about most, really, is the quality

and not the quantity?

of education in our district. we should teach books

that speak to the human experience, books about death

and farming and sex and kaleidoscopes and cherries and

Ellen, your eyeshadow is obnoxious

purple should never come that close to your face

 

(Five)

the librarian wishes to speak

we had no idea that she could

(laughter)

I most certainly can. And I resent

any accusations to the contrary.

 

(Six)

please note that the principal has left the building.

 

 

Nick Ripatrazone is the author of Oblations (Gold Wake Press 2011), a collection of prose poems. His recent work has appeared in Esquire, The Kenyon Review, West Branch, The Mississippi Review, Sou’wester, and Beloit Fiction Journal.

 

Q&A:

Q: What was your inspiration for these poems?

A: These three poems were drafted during the same afternoon. I’m not aware of any connection between rodents, silent film stars, and school boards, but perhaps one does exist.

 

Q: Poet as filmmaker: How do you set up your shots?

A: I think phrases are the lifeblood of poetry, so I try to position a narrator who can catalog those brief images with specificity. If phrases could equal shots, then I'd love to reach within a mile of Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven.

 

Q: What direction do you face when you are at work on your writing?

A: I have two answers for that: we're in the process of moving.  At our old house I faced a stream--part of the Paulinskill. Our (hopeful) new house faces woods: perfect place to look at night.

 

Q: Other than rats, do any other creatures haunt your poems?

A: Pigs (if you count them) have made a few appearances. I credit Sylvia Plath's "Sow," Flannery O'Connor's "Resurrection," and Breece Pancake's "Time and Again."


The Fall

By Anne Leigh Parrish

Followed by Q&A

Suicides shot up that winter. By Valentine’s Day there’d been four. The victims walked out when the light was low, usually in late afternoon, say three or four o’clock. They stood by the rail, Josh Skinner, age 21, Indianapolis, Indiana, or Lisa Finklestein, age 19, Nassau County, New York, and waited while their classmates went by head-bent against the rising wind, lugging their textbooks home. Lugging their own heavy hearts, too, or so it was generally accepted, given the highly competitive nature of an Ivy League school. Then, when the crowd had thinned or was gone altogether, they jumped into the gorge. Not all went down in waking hours, though. Some crept out in the freezing night. One, Louis Kennedy, age 22, Santa Barbara, California, was found in his pajamas. He must have been so miserable, so intent on self-destruction, that even the deep cold couldn’t change his mind. 

Kirsten’s study group lost interest in their Intro. to Econ. class, and focused on the deaths. 

“They’re like a cult,” said Emily. “They need a name. How about ‘The Plungers’?”

“That’s a plumber’s tool,” said Lee.

“‘The Divers’, then.”

They all thought of bronzed cliff divers piercing the surface of a calm, sky-blue sea.

Lee wanted another pitcher of beer, and offered to pay for it himself. Lee’s father sent him money whenever he asked for it, which was often. His offer was quickly accepted.

“Look, we better study for the mid-term,” said Kirsten.

“We are. We’re maximizing our utility,” said Tom. His bushy red hair made him seem like someone you couldn’t take seriously, Kirsten thought, though he clearly was a serious person.

“Or, we’re capturing economies of scale,” said Lee. He looked bleary. He wasn’t a practiced drinker and wanted to be. He talked about drinking as if it were a sport, something you could win or lose at.

“To stand there, waiting,” said Emily. “That’s the moment your life changes.”

“Bull,” said Tom. “The moment your life changes is the moment it ends. The point of impact.”

“What about the fall?” asked Lee. “Because then you know it’s all over.”

“Okay, then, the fall, too. That long, long drop.” Tom lifted his hand and sailed it slowly down, back and forth, more like an autumn leaf floating to earth, Kirsten thought, than a body hurtling a hundred feet below.

The beer arrived and was poured out.

“No. It all happens before, when you first consider killing yourself. That’s the moment things change,” said Emily.

Emily wore nothing but black and pulled her red hair up in a bun so tight the skin by her eyes pulled up, too, giving her an Asiatic look. She had a reckless streak. Sometimes she drank too much, and went to bed with the wrong men, yet she kept up her studies, out of deference to her father. She was a good student, better than the rest of them. Kirsten was jealous of her for that. Kirsten struggled to get a B average. She sipped her beer. She didn’t like beer, and drank it for the sake of going along.

“Can we change the subject?” asked Lee. Kirsten wished they would. For several nights she had dreamed of falling, but never of hitting earth. In one dream she willed herself not to fall, but to rise, and that was terrifying, too.

“But think about it,” said Emily. “Let’s say you go to the bridge, you want to jump, you’re ready to, then you change your mind.”

“And?” asked Lee.

“You go home. It never happened. You didn’t jump and you didn’t die. No one else would ever know. But you know. You’d always know how close you came. You’d be changed, after that. How could you not be?”

“So, you’re saying that wanting to do something and actually doing it are the same thing,” said Lee.

“Yes.”

“So, our whole lives come down to what we feel, what we desire, whether there’s any physical outcome or not.”

“Right.”

“Wait,” said Tom. “Wanting to kill someone isn’t the same as actually doing it.” 

“Or wanting to die and actually dying,” added Kirsten.

She pulled her sweaty fingers through her hair. She’d just had it cut in a page boy style that even she had to admit looked like shit. The others had noticed, naturally, but said little. Emily, though, had taken her own hair out of its tight bun and let it drape around her skinny face and shoulders before lifting it once more from her neck. No doubt a way of saying, I still possess what you gave away! Before the cut, Kirsten’s hair had been long enough to sit on. The change was dramatic, and in the moments before the girl’s scissors had closed down, the moment before the first handful had hit the floor, Kirsten, in a panic, forced herself to say nothing and remember that hair, unlike lost lives, will return.

*

The bar was quiet. Tom, Lee, and Emily occupied their usual booth, fourth from the right by the game room, where two townies were shooting pool and not saying a word to each other.

Kirsten had begged off, down with a cold, Emily said. Tom felt he was closer to her than Emily was, and didn’t see why Kirsten hadn’t called him to cancel.

“She failed,” said Emily.

“What?” asked Lee.

“The midterm. Kirsten failed it. She told me when she called. She said that was another reason not to come today, because she obviously wasn’t getting anything out of the group.”

“Weird,” said Tom. He was worried about her. She’d been growing distant and quiet, even before the exam. When the group began last fall, she would laugh a lot. Tom could see she was nervous and trying not to be. Then she stopped laughing as the end of term approached. After the winter break she came back looking haunted, as if she were listening to something no one else could hear. 

Emily shrugged. They drank their beer, opened their textbooks, then closed them again. They’d all aced the same exam Kirsten failed, and it was as if they’d all come to the same conclusion at the same moment—they didn’t need to study so hard.

“What’s the deal with her hair, anyway?” asked Lee. “Major chop job.”

“Looks like she did it herself,” said Emily.

“No way. Really?” asked Tom.

“Sure. I can see her standing there, in front of her mirror, going at it with rusty shears.”

“Why rusty?”

“Oh, I don’t know. There’s just something decayed about her.”

Tom felt bad again. He didn’t like Emily. She was arrogant and cruel, but what she’d said about Kirsten was true. 

*

The Econ. exam was one of three Kirsten failed. She was up to speed in her American History course, but when she opened the exam book to write the essay, she froze. Her mind ran down one path, then up another. Words raced through, and she couldn’t capture them, or even slow them down. Geology was a multiple choice, and what tripped her up there was a sudden obsession with filling in the ovals completely— perfectly—with no lead outside the line. The moment she finished one she checked it again and again. She erased several answers to start over from scratch, and when time was called, she’d completed less than half the test. Her failures took air out of whatever room she was in. She went to the health clinic. I’ve got asthma, she told the nurse. A doctor listened hard to her breathing, and disagreed. He asked if she were getting enough rest. Well, you know, we just finished mid-terms. He said to go and catch up on her sleep.

In her Econ. lecture, she moved to the back, away from Emily, Lee and Tom. Tom turned back sometimes and smiled at her. The others didn’t. One day he caught up with her in the hall. She’d tried to escape, and wasn’t fast enough.

“Hey,” said Tom. “You have time for a beer?” She pulled back, against the wall, and hugged her backpack as if it were a stuffed bear.

“Sure,” she said. She’d broken out in a sweat.

“How are things?” asked Tom.

“Fine.”

They left the building. Their path took them over the gorge. Kirsten walked on the outside, away from the railing. The sunshine was painful. Tom put on a pair of sunglasses. He looked like a movie star, she thought. Like someone important.

“We miss you in the study group,” he said.

“I bet you don’t. At least, Emily and Lee don’t.”

“Who cares about them? You should come back. If you think you want to, that is.”

“I don’t think I’d get much out of it. Besides, I’ve got a part-time job now, well, a volunteer job, really, and I won’t be around as much.”

“Really? Where are you volunteering?”

“The counseling center.”

Kirsten had never been into the counseling center, but she’d seen a flyer asking for volunteers. Are you good with people? Do you have time to listen? No special training necessary. Call today to attend an orientation session.

With two beers in her, Kirsten relaxed a little. For some reason, for the moment she felt safe.

“We should go out some time,” said Tom.

“We’re out right now.”

“I mean at night.”

“You mean, like a date?”

“Why not?”

“Okay.”

But Tom got busy with school again and didn’t ask Kirsten for a date.

*

The moment she walked into the counseling center, Kirsten knew she’d done the right thing. The potted plants were lush. Tropical. One was red and leafy. Later she realized they were plastic, and wasn’t disappointed. Keeping a foreign thing like that alive in the Dunston air—even heated air—would be hard. Yet, when she’d first seen the town, the spring before, after she’d been admitted, having applied sight unseen, she found it full of life. Lots of thick green trees and deer off in the roadside woods. Growing up in Los Angeles meant both trees and deer were scarce. She hoped—at times she was dead certain—that coming to school there would mean a much needed renewal. Her own life taking shape, and rounding out.

Her father wanted her to go to Stanford, because he had. Though he knew she wanted to escape the house he’d spent his whole life building, and the wife/mother he’d spent years trying to improve, the moment never came when he could admit it to her. Do us proud was all he said. Kirsten’s mother was devastated. They had never been close, yet she couldn’t bear being left alone with a man who thought she was his doormat. The mother knew that her own weakness, her failure to take hold of her own life, had passed on to the daughter, who was equally meek. Yet there was a sliver of steel in her somewhere, her mother was sure. The question was where, and what would cause it to break the surface.

Kirsten was shown to an African American man who sat at a dusty desk. An ivy plant trailed to the floor. It looked real. Her touch confirmed it. She was confused. The fake plants were in front, and the living ones were in back. Which meant you progressed from death to life, when it was really the other way around. If not, that meant— 

“Pray,” said the man.

“What?” 

“Name’s Pray.” He pointed to a piece of wood on his desk.

“Odd name.”

“Even before I was born, my mother was convinced my soul needed saving.”

“Did it?”

“I’ve been pretty good so far, but it’s too soon to tell.”

His teeth were very white. The dreadlocks she wasn’t sure about. She’d always thought they looked stupid.

“So, what can I do for you?” he asked.

“I’d like to volunteer.”

“That’s great. Why would you like to volunteer here, as opposed to say, an animal shelter?”

Was he baiting her?

“Because people seem to be in trouble,” she said. “The stress seems to be building up.”

“That’s probably true. Well, Kirsten, why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself?”

It was like talking about someone else. Growing up in Brentwood, coming to the Ivy League to study—what, she wasn’t sure. Maybe theater, though she was terrified of performing; so maybe history, though the relevance of that wasn’t always clear because all of us, even historians had to live in the moment, didn’t they; so maybe Economics, since that seemed to be what made the world go around—the trouble was she’d just failed her exam, and the grade report had already been sent home, and she could just imagine how it would be received. Her father could ooze disappointment like pus from a wound (she then apologized for her choice of words). 

She talked more. It got easier. There were so many random points in her life, all these things off the side, like how her aunt tried to show her how to paint once and got fed up with her, or how she’d fallen in love with a palomino pony her father said was too much responsibility for her, or how her piano teacher once told her she was probably wasting her time. She told Pray she thought she was supposed to connect all the points somehow, like the picture puzzles kids used to do, because she was sure there was something underneath all the dots, if she could only get far enough away to really look down and see it.

Pray told her she should make an appointment with one of the counselors there. She thought he meant so she could learn what to tell people who came in, at the end of their rope. 

“It never hurts to explore these feelings in a safe environment,” he said.

The moment she realized he thought she was nuts, she stood up and left.

*

The snow came on hard. A March snow was supposed to have less force, or so she’d been told. Or had she ever been told what snow was supposed to do, and if so, when? Kirsten’s roommate spent all her time at her boyfriend’s frat, leaving Kirsten on her own. It was better that way. Celia, the roommate, talked a lot and wore perfume that made Kirsten’s throat itch. The moment she left, taking the scent with her, Kirsten stopped coughing.

The snow fell for two days and three nights, and on the morning of the third day the world had become visible once more, and blindingly bright. All the sunlight in Southern California was nothing compared to this, yet Kirsten didn’t mind squinting her way across the main quad, across the gorge where icicles hung like huge teeth, around the athletic center, past the Physics building, along the edge of College Town, then back to her dorm. She hadn’t attended any of her classes for ten days. When that time reached a total of two weeks, a letter would be mailed home, or so the student handbook had said. Her father had suffered the grade report in silence, but she was sure the letter would prompt a telephone call, or worse, his appearance at her door. But no, he wouldn’t waste his time coming all that way to fetch her back. He’d tell her to get on the next plane home. He’d make himself scarce when she did return, avoiding conversation, avoiding her, avoiding, avoiding, avoiding. Her mother wouldn’t meet her eye, and then one morning, Kirsten would awaken to find her sitting on the end of her bed, watching her sleep.

She couldn’t go home. Not after submitting herself so easily to failure. She’d have to stay right there in Dunston, and suffer it out, moment by moment.

Her room felt too small, even with Celia gone. She moved Celia’s dresser into the hall, wrestled her desk out there, too, and stripped her bed. The R.A. asked what she was doing. Kirsten explained.

“You can’t do that. This room is assigned as a double. Everything has to go back the way it was.”

Kirsten promised to replace the furniture. She locked the door. The room still felt small. She tore down the curtains, and hoped the light would widen everything it fell on. It didn’t. She needed a shower. She hadn’t had one for four days. The sight of her own nakedness had become disturbing. There were too many mirrors in the bathroom. She thought they should be painted black to spare her having to see herself. She gathered what she needed—shampoo, soap, a towel that stank of mildew because she’d never once put it through the laundry, different clothes, none of them clean—and made her way into the bathroom. She turned off the light. Without windows, she stood in total darkness. This is what the blind experience all the time. That was both fascinating, and terrifying. She inched towards the shower stall, put her things just outside it on the floor, and slid her hand along the cold, smooth tile until she found the lever that turned on the water. She stripped. She found her soap and shampoo, and got into the stall. As she was rinsing her hair, the light went on.

“What the fuck are you doing taking a shower in the dark?” The voice belonged to a fat girl two doors down. Kirsten had never learned her name. She didn’t answer.

“Oh, and you might want to close the curtain.”

Kirsten saw that she’d soaked the clothes she’d intended to wear because there’d been nothing to block the water. She pushed down the lever, wrapped herself in her wet towel, gathered her belongings, then returned to her room and wept.

*

Tom knocked on her door. He smelled of fresh air and the Indian food he’d had for lunch. His presence made the room warm.

“You look like shit, if you don’t mind my saying so,” he said. His backpack hit the floor.

“I’m fine.”

“Have you been sick?”

“No. Just working hard.”

“You haven’t been in class.”

“I needed some time off.”

He sat down on the end of her bed. She’d been sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor. When she heard the knock, she’d kicked the bag under the bed.

“You look like you could use some fresh air,” he said. “Let’s go for a walk.”

“It’s freezing.”

“It’ll do you good.”

They sat, not talking for a while. As he was leaving, he hugged her. She didn’t understand why. She felt his heart beat through his tee shirt, and flannel shirt, and the sweater he wore over all of that, and the heavy coat on the outside. How could that be? How could anyone’s heart be that strong?

The moment the door closed behind him, the room rushed outwards, spreading like a stain. That’s stupid, she thought. It’s just a room.

*

The hour was late. She’d been up all night for the second day straight. She was hungry. A candy bar from the vending machine downstairs would really hit the spot, and then the thought turned her stomach. Tom had called twice. She hadn’t answered. If she saw him, she’d say her phone had run down. Out of juice, she’d say. Like a squeezed orange.

Then the moment came when she could no longer stand the confines of her room. She dressed in layers. Ice crystals lay on the black window, brightened here and there by the street lamp three floors below. Outside, the paths were black and the snow was white, but a dim white, as if the life and power had been drained from it.

Snow that lay in darkness must have a name, she thought. Night snow? But its color. What was the color, exactly? Were colors exact or approximate? Was this something she was supposed to know? Did anyone know?

Too many questions, and not enough answers. That was her problem. How could she go through life in this state of constant ignorance? Is that why people ended it, because there were too many things they didn’t know? Or, was it knowing that they’d never find out? And seeing that death was the one big mystery, the one thing no one really knew for sure, they hastened it, rushed into it, all for that desperate need to know.

Her boots were silent as they hit the ground. No one was out. The world had gone completely still. The only thing moving was the silver plume of her own breath. She heard the water in the gorge well before she reached the bridge. The sound was like a song of defiance, because the water was stronger than the cold. The water did not freeze.

She felt nothing. Not the bitter air. Not fear. Not regret. She’d stopped thinking about the people she’d once known, how they would take her end, what their lives would be like as they moved forward without her.

The railing was under construction. Renovation, actually. A guard was being placed that would prevent climbers from being able to jump unless they snuck by at either end. She stood there, aware of the challenge, but also of a change in the light around her. It was growing brighter. Dawn was underway. She’d never been awake at dawn before, never seen the sun rise. The first and last, she thought, then felt the idea was trite.

Then the light rose enough so that an icicle hanging from a dark ledge of shale was illuminated. It seemed to glow. Kirsten had never seen anything so beautiful. She didn’t understand how the light had reached the ice before falling on anything else. Soon other icicles were coming to life, turning a faint, warm yellow.

“My god,” she said, holding the rail with her gloved hands.

“Are you all right?” a man’s voice asked. She turned. All there was of him was his thick coat and wool hat. He asked the question again.

“Look at the gorge. Look at the light. Isn’t it amazing?”

The man turned. He didn’t seem to know what she was talking about.

“It’s damn early to be up and about,” he said.

“It’s beautiful.”

“I work on campus. I have to be there by six. That’s why I’m out here, freezing my ass off.”

She said nothing.

“What are you doing out here, if you don’t mind my asking?” he asked.

Suddenly, she no longer knew. She was cold. And tired, and very hungry. She continued to look at the icicles and realized the man wasn’t going to walk off until she went, too. She gazed down, hearing the water rush, held by the dawn, feeling as if she herself were lit from within.

 

 

Anne Leigh Parrish’s short stories have appeared in The Virginia Quarterly ReviewClackamas Literary Review, Carve Magazine, Storyglossia, Eclectica Magazine, Amercian Short Fiction, where she won first place in their 2007 contest, The Pinch, where she was awarded first place in their 2008 Literary Award, Knee-Jerk Magazine and PANK, among other publications.

 

Q&A

Q: What was your inspiration for this story?

A: The student suicides in the story are based on real events at Cornell University.  I grew up in Ithaca, New York, and know those gorges very well.  I had to wonder what it was like to stand at the rail and realize you’re going to jump – or not, as the case may be.  

 

Q: Who were you, or who do you wish you had been, in a past life?

A:  Leonardo DaVinci.  He did everything, and he did everything brilliantly.

 

Q: Straight road? Or winding road?

A:  Winding road, of course!  It’s not always a good thing to see exactly what’s up ahead.  Sometimes, the things that take you by surprise are the things that improve your life the most.

 

Q: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?

A:  Getting down to the deepest layer of subtext—finding the symbolism in my own narrative and making sure its story is as strong and coherent as what lies on the surface narrative.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A:  A series of stories connected through Dunston—the same town where “The Fall” take place.  The collection is essentially complete, at this point, and I’m down to marketing it to prospective publishers.  I’m also writing a novel called “Pen’s Road.”  This, too, takes place in Dunston.


Bugout

By Jon Trobaugh

Followed by Q&A

Mother drags me half-awake through the trailer and into the black morning. I wear only my white sleep shirt, no shoes, my hair cropped like a boy’s because my head lice won’t go away. Mother’s in her ratty pink bathrobe, her peroxided hair pulled back, an unlit cigarette scissored between her long and skinny fingers. Our ’69 Beetle, faded gold with missing bumper, missing headlamp, sits running in the driveway. 

She coaxes me down the porch steps and toward the car like a momma hound, a painfully firm grip on the nape of my neck. The white stone gravel pinches my feet. Winter is coming, and I am cold. Father’s rummaging inside the house and yelling. “I’ve got her,” Mother yells back. The civil defense sirens are blaring—hurry hurry, go go.

 I pound on the glass as Mother puts me in the car. The doors are old and rusty, and I’m not strong enough to open them from the inside. Something’s wrong, and we will never see our home again. I yell at Mother not to forget my rabbit. His name is Sinclair. I have had him since Father lost his job and we moved here from the city. They will not leave him, I tell myself. They can’t leave him.

Sirens. Sealed in, I can still hear them, a roaring, rotating mess, full and screaming. Mother comes back to the car with a bundle of clothes. The door opens, the bundle flies inside, the door shuts. The bundle does not include my coat. I find some rainbow toe-socks to warm my legs. 

Hurry, go

Mother is our Sunday school teacher at the First Baptist Church, but she doesn’t read her Bible. Last Sunday, “in spite of some objections from our church family,” Mother taught the class about the book of Revelation. She said it was a message everyone “living in the shadow of the reactor” needed to hear, no matter how young. She said that when the world stopped turning, Jesus would arrive from the East to pick the souls of the dead from the ground like flowers and to reward the living faithful with a warm embrace and a call up to heaven. Our dead puppies and kittens and grandmothers would be waiting for us in the New Jerusalem, where there are rainbows and waterfalls and candy cane slides. This is Mother’s idea of heaven. She didn’t mention rabbits. 

I sit in the freezing car seat, my arm resting against my father’s tube amplifier. It is warm. He had been playing before the sirens went off. He plays when he is happy, or nervous. He never plays very well either way. The guitar lies in the floorboard. A “telecaster, ’72, gold sunburst” covered with wet potting soil from Mother’s Wandering Jew, the one she tipped over with the bundle of clothes. The back seat is a jungle. Mother brought all thirteen of her houseplants. Father gives her one every anniversary. 

The door opens again. It’s my father. He pats my head.

“Can you slide over a bit, sister?” he asks. He pushes a stack of records at me. “It’s going to be …” the door shuts, and he goes away. 

Father has talked about problems at the power plant. He has worked there for three weeks now, as a janitor. He doesn’t get to handle anything that glows. He lost his job on the line at the shoe factory. He tries too hard. He wants to make Mother happy. He wants me to be proud of him. He spends a lot of time in the shed behind the trailer. He plays guitar in there, and writes songs. Mother says he just goes in there to get away from her. I asked Father once if I could get a shed of my own. 

The early morning sky comes out of the dark as my parents slide into the front of the car. I know the bulge under Mother’s housecoat is her mutt, Delilah. I’m screaming for Sinclair. Mother yells at me to be quiet. She says that she knows I am upset, but we had to leave Sinclair because “rabbits don’t have souls.” 

“It’s okay Stacey,” she says. “I’ve told you this before. Your bunny rabbit doesn’t know anything is wrong. He is as happy as he ever was.”

Delilah’s never happy. She bites me and scratches me and pees in my room. She probably gave me my head lice. I plead for Father to go back and get my bunny. He doesn’t eat much, I say. I cry. I hit and scratch at the door. I forget that we are all going to be blown apart soon, radiated and cut up like construction paper.

The bug sputters, poking along. We gain speed as we pass a grain truck loaded down with furniture and plastic jugs and barrels. A boy is driving. He doesn’t have a shirt on under his overalls. 

Mother laughs. “He can’t possibly hope to get away in that thing,” she says. “And he has no business driving. He can barely see over the wheel.”

“Actually, Mother, I bet those barrels are full of water,” I say. “He is going to hide in a cave somewhere and wait it out. That’s why he needs the furniture.” 

“And how do you know that?” Mother asks. She turns to face me over the front seat, the dog growling at her chest. 

“I don’t,” I answer.

But I do. The boy’s name is Lyndsey. He’s a sixth grader, but he comes to our classroom during English period because he is slow. He is my desk buddy. The teacher wanted him to sit by me because she thinks I’m smart. I am smart, smarter than at least Mother. Lyndsey draws during class. He doesn’t pay attention. He has a black pen and a red pen and a gold colored pencil. 

He starts with a white piece of construction paper and colors the bottom half black except for a little square in the bottom right corner. He colors the top half red, pushing the pen hard into the paper. The teacher tells us about prepositions, and when she stops talking everyone can hear him scribbling, swirling his pen like he’s crazy. He usually stops if I nudge him with my elbow or whisper that the teacher is looking. 

 In the blank square at the bottom, Lyndsey always draws a little gold man, smiling. If the teacher doesn’t take the piece of paper away, Lyndsey will also draw a couch for the man to sit on, and sometimes a TV. He says the little man is him, escaping the fire. He says when the time comes he will take his dead daddy’s truck from the barn. He will fill it with barrels of water and chairs and canned potatoes, and he will drive to a cave and live forever.

He said that his momma’s boyfriend knows a lot about the end times and Jesus, so I told him what Mother told us in Sunday School about heaven. “That’s garbage,” he said. “Heaven’s already full. It’s like that junkyard at the edge of town. You can only bring so much in before they tell you that they ain’t taking no more. Jesus is already getting ready to come back to Earth, to make the devil pay.”

He says if the fire doesn’t come he wants to be in the Army. He says he likes the way the men say hello by putting two fingers on their foreheads. I told him that’s called “saluting.” He says he also likes machine guns and bombs. The other kids call Lyndsey a retard, but he’s not. He asked me if I wanted to come to the cave with him. I said no even though I wanted to say yes, and not just to make him feel better. He makes me feel safe. As we pull past the grain truck, I look at Lyndsey through the back glass and the dust. He puts two fingers to his forehead. I salute back, and try to smile.

The gravel road we live on hits Interstate 10, “an approved evacuation route,” but we head north through the valley because Father thinks the freeway will be blocked by all the other people trying to get away. Father says this way will take us right by our Uncle Lynn’s house. Father says he hopes that his brother isn’t home, that he’s already left. “But you know Lynn,” he says. Mother tells Delilah that the last thing we should do “with the balloon going up” is visit relatives. 

Mother had me baptized two Sundays ago. Uncle Lynn did the job because he’s the preacher. He knew I was afraid of water, so when the time came to dunk me under, he didn’t push me all the way in. He held my face, and smiled at me. My hair got a little wet, but I didn’t mind too much because afterward I got cake and ice cream in the community room. Father takes the curves quickly. The houseplants slide around the back seat. 

 We make it to the highway. Father drives as fast as the car will go, but Mother keeps yelling that we’re not far enough away yet. I don’t have much faith in our ability to run away from it. I have a lump of potting soil in my lap. The lump is cold and wet, like Sinclair’s nose when he is sick. The bug’s engine is whining. Father turns the radio on, but nothing but static and noise comes through. The bug doesn’t have an antenna, just like Father doesn’t have a pinky finger on his right hand because he lost it at the shoe factory. 

My uncle stands in his yard. He wears a white shirt, black suspenders and pants. Big black boots. His hands are on his hips and he is looking back toward town. Father drives into the grass. He stops, but doesn’t turn the car off. He rolls down the window. My uncle leans inside. His large hands grip the door. He has a goldfish tattooed on his arm. 

“Hey darling,” my uncle smiles and looks at me. “Where’s your coat?”

“She said she wasn’t cold,” Mother answers, puffing hard on her cigarette. 

“You shouldn’t smoke around her,” my uncle says. 

“Smoke doesn’t bother dogs,” Mother says. 

“You’re coming with us, Lynn,” Father says.

“No, I think your little girl is smushed enough back there. Besides, this is going to blow over. You can’t go running into the cellar every time it thunders.”

“Lynn, really, you need to come…”

“We’ll be fine. Fine.” My uncle leans his head farther into the window and looks back at me. “Now, you take care of your mom and dad, okay girl?”

I nod my head. 

My uncle leaves the window and begins to walk away. He is tall. I could climb him like a tree. I want to get out of the car, and I want to jump into my uncle’s strong arms. I want to tell him that my rabbit hasn’t had any water this morning, that if he takes me back to the trailer and lets me get Sinclair, I will live with him forever, and cut his lawn and do his dishes and cook his meals. He’s alone, but I want to tell him I will be there for him. I just need my rabbit. 

 We sit in the car for a second and watch my uncle disappear back into his dark house. The overcast sky paints everything blue. Blackbirds cover the power lines. The willows look like skeletons. Something is wrong, and I will never see the cows in the field behind my uncle’s house again. I will never see these trees again. I will never see the grain silos standing tall like giant robots beside the road again. And I will never see my Uncle Lynn again. He will become a willow when the fire comes, and everything will burn away. Hurry hurry.

 “He’s not coming,” Mother says, blowing a plume of blue smoke toward Father. “So, let’s go. Let’s go!” 

The road seems to have no end, but it keeps going up and up, and getting skinnier. There is no traffic. The ditches get deeper. The sirens whisper now. The mountains in the distance are sharp and grey. We see dark shapes ahead, and Mother begins to pray, Delilah to growl.

Trash lies scattered across the road. Boxes. And barrels. A busted table. A TV. Cages. Dead and dying chickens. 

Father stops the car. He gets out, shutting the door behind him. I smell gasoline and smoke. “Sweet sweet Jesus,” Mother says. She lights another cigarette. There are two big trucks, one smaller than the other, both smashed and overturned. Father sprints toward the wreck. “Jesus, sweet sweet Jesus,” Mother says. I imagine Sinclair at home, alone, afraid, the sirens in his floppy ears and I cry, but Mother doesn’t notice. 

Father gets back into the car. He grips the steering wheel with both hands and sits up tall in his seat. “What happened?” Mother asks. 

“It’s bad. They, they must have hit head-on. The chicken truck driver is still inside his cab. But the boy is on the shoulder.”

Mother flicks ashes from her cigarette into the car. 

“They’re both gone.”

“Jesus, sweet Jesus.”

“The road is blocked. I don’t think I can get around. We may just have to hunker down here.”

“We can’t, we can’t. We aren’t far enough away. You know that!”

Father just looks at her. He wipes something from his eye.

Mother stumbles out of the car. The dog is still swaddled in her housecoat like a baby. She wades into the water-filled ditch. She turns toward the road and bends down, holding the dog out in front of her like Uncle Lynn held me. Her breasts are exposed. The cigarette hangs from the side of her mouth. She begins praying something I can’t understand. Father gets out too. He leaves his door open. Hurry hurry, go

 I crawl over the front seat and out of the car. 

The pavement is cold. My socked feet are cold. My arms are cold. I begin to shiver. Mother and Father are both in the ditch now. He tries to retie her housecoat. She prays louder and dunks her dog into the dirty water again and again. The fire under Lyndsey’s truck is warm. If Lyndsey could ask me again to escape with him, I would say yes. I would get up early before the sirens went off, and I would grab my coat, and put Sinclair in my backpack, and run to Lyndsey’s house, wake him up, tell him the fire is coming. He would ask about Sinclair. He would make sure I was warm, and I would give him a hug. We would take the interstate.

The chickens cry inside their cages. Lyndsey is not crying. He is lying on his back. His overalls are wet now, and stained, and dark. His eyes are closed like he’s sleeping. Mother and Father are still in the ditch. The sirens still whisper. I am still. I am alone. Lyndsey is alone too. I lie down beside him on the frozen pavement, and together we wait for the world to stop turning. 

 

 

Jon Trobaugh is an Arkansan. His short fiction also appears in Knee-Jerk Magazine. 

 

Q&A

Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?

A: This story’s protagonist first came to me saying, “We left so fast we forgot to pack ourselves.” I wish I could have kept that line, but the story decided on a different direction. 

 

Q: Who were you, or who do you wish you had been, in a past life?

A: Hodge, Samuel Johnson's cat: good conversation, good literature, and all the oysters I could eat. 

 

Q: Straight road? Or winding road?

A: I'm a horrible driver, so I'll say sidewalk. 

 

Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?

A: As a story nears completion, I begin to discover bits of my personality that I've unintentionally left behind. This is always enjoyable and surprising. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A collection of short stories, along with a collection of essays and anecdotes on Bell's Palsy, a condition I've suffered with since birth.


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The Palace Orphan

By John Givens

Followed by Q&A

Mugen Bonze liked walking. A cluster of metal rings at the top of his staff served as a jingle warning for insects that might wander into his path, and the front hem of his robe was tucked up under his obi sash in the manner of the old-style foot pilgrims. A pair of piebald goats on rice straw ropes ambled along behind him obediently, and he stopped when he got to a rogue samurai who was squatting at the roadside and tending a small comfort-fire. 

Autumn’s the season for mountain rambling, said Mugen Bonze. 

Hasegawa Torakage looked up at him but said nothing. Lean as a wind-dried mackerel, his robe patched and faded, and his topknot askew, the rogue samurai could have been mistaken for a common vagabond were it not for his fine pair of swords in black-lacquered scabbards. Sharkskin held in place by black silk cords covered the hilts of his long and small, and the fist guards were black iron and without ornamentation, a money-fighter’s choice. 

A good season for napping, too, said the bonze, and for reading instructive books. 

Hasegawa said nothing. His feet and shins were spattered with dried blood, and the skirts of his robe were stained with it. 

Mugen Bonze moved his goats over to the lush grass on the road verge opposite, then looped each goat’s lead rope around the hind leg of the other and knotted it with a deft yank. Good for eating yam gruel, too, said the bonze, and fried dumplings. 

Samurai without masters could be unpredictable, and sensible people avoided them. But Mugen Bonze was on his way back to his solitary hermitage; and although he had chosen the life of a recluse and wanted no other, he was a garrulous sort who enjoyed contact with his fellows. You can carve a Buddha-image out of rotten wood. It’s still rotten. But it’s also still a Buddha. Mugen accepted his inability to find release into the truth of the Dharma. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t get there. It just meant he wasn’t there yet. Mugen was practical—perhaps a bit too practical for a follower of the austere Zen sect—and he tolerated his shortcomings as he did his fleas and lice. You get rid of what you can. What you can’t, you keep. 

The bonze told Hasegawa that he’d gone to preside at the funeral of a relative and come away in possession of the man’s goats. No one else had wanted them. They’d all just stood there looking at them. He said he hadn’t wanted them either, but the only other solution seemed to be to turn them loose or maybe kill them, and he didn’t want that. It wasn’t appropriate for a follower of the Way of Zen to own anything so he considered himself to be a guider of wayward goats. He said the word “wayward” described them well, as it did all sentient beings. If the goats were a nuisance at times, there was also a certain amount of pleasure to be gained from their company. Of course they get a little reeky, said the bonze, particularly when wet. But then I guess I get that way too. 

Mugen dropped into a squat in the middle of the road. The stubble on his bald head was the same length as the stubble on his cheeks and chin, and his black monk’s robe was even shabbier than the robe worn by the rogue samurai. 

Of course, they might become a hindrance on begging rounds. You could be standing there at the gate all solemn and deep, and with your alms bowl held out in this irresistible manner … and then realize that your goats were back there in granny’s garden feeding on radish tops. 

The bonze waited for Hasegawa to laugh or smile or say something, then said, On the other hand, they might become a curiosity. He nodded in agreement with himself. Hard to predict how a person might feel about a goat. 

The road through the barrier mountains led down to the shogun’s capital city of Edo, still several days’ walk away. The mountains were covered with dense conifer forests, and the silence of the morning was broken occasionally by the distant belling of a stag somewhere on the upper slopes. The road had been improved and extended after the civil wars ended in 1601, and the military outposts that had guarded strategic passes were replaced by travelers’ inns, public wineshops, teahouses, and brothels. Commercial traffic flowed where armies had once rampaged. Craftsmen fashioned arrows but sold them now as souvenirs. There was a certain amount of brigandage still, particularly in the remoter areas, and the remains of malefactors who had been caught by the shogunate decorated gibbets at bridge plazas or crossroads and served as a warning to others. Villages grew into towns; offer-makers lured the unwary; pleasure providers wore their obi sashes knotted loosely in front; easy-way boys followed drunks into shadows; and professional entertainers sought paying audiences at the sites of famous battles so that the spirits of local warriors who had died in the struggle against the Tokugawa family were obliged to find what comfort they could in plangent ballads praising self-sacrifice, accompanied by the rattle of copper coins in collection cups. 

Of course, a lot of people don’t even know that we have goats in this country. Probably came from Korea originally, or maybe China. Or Mongolia. He scratched himself. Or some other such place. 

Mugen Bonze waited for the morose young samurai to say something, then got tired of waiting and said, I came from a funeral, but you look like the one in mourning. 

Hasegawa poked at his fire but said nothing.  

The goats had moved off in opposite directions, each following his own inclination as to where the autumn grass would be sweetest; and they were soon bucking and hauling at each other, so the bonze had to hurry over and restore order. He squatted back down where he’d been. I guess you don’t want to talk about it.   

Hasegawa added a stick to his fire. He told him he’d killed some people. 

All right. 

I mean just recently. This morning. 

In a fight? 

A fight. He thought about it. An unfair fight. 

You said some people? 

Five men. 

And that was the unfairness? Five against one?

The unfairness was that I knew how to kill them, but they didn’t know how to kill me. 

I see, said the bonze. He gazed around at the dense forest that lined both sides of the road. You don’t seem remorseful. 

I’m not. 

But you aren’t pleased about it either. 

Hasegawa poked at his fire, sending up a flurry of sparks. I’d do it again. But I’m sorry I did it. He levered one burning stick up onto another. But I’d kill them again. So I guess that doesn’t make much sense. 

The bonze watched him. You hated them that much? 

Hasegawa began shoving the unburned ends of sticks onto the center of his fire. I guess so. 

But now you have doubts?

I guess I knew that doing it wouldn’t make me feel any better about things, but I did it anyway. 

Because not doing it would have been worse? 

Maybe that’s it. 

You don’t sound sure.

No. I don’t. 

They harmed you?

They killed a woman who was in my care. 

I see. So it was a serious matter then. 

Yes. 

But you aren’t satisfied with your decision. 

No. I am. 

You don’t seem it. 

I guess not. 

The bonze nodded to himself, considering options, as if squatting on a mountain road with a melancholy assassin was an occupation for which he had developed a certain affinity. Crow thinks he’s a cormorant. Until he gets in the water.   

I guess that must just about be the case of it, said Hasegawa somberly. And when Mugen asked why the men had killed the woman, he told him that they had fucked her without permission and were afraid she would tell someone who could do something about it. 

Meaning you. 

Meaning me. 

And this all happened this morning?  

Last summer. I just found them this morning. He poked at his fire, cracking it open. They were hard to find. 

Because they knew you’d come looking for them?  

Hasegawa poked at his fire.   

I always heard that samurai will still kill for pride.  

Some probably do. 

But not you? 

I guess that’s something else I haven’t quite worked out yet. 

The bonze picked out a stick and began arranging his side of the fire, moving things around in a helpful manner before tossing the stick back into the flames. 

So now their souls are getting ready for the hovering part. Forty-nine days of shivering with anticipation. Lined up like ants in a food file. Although probably they won’t come back very well. He watched Hasegawa staring into the shifting architecture of his fire. Probably you won’t either. 

All right. 

All right. The bonze shoved his hand into the front flap of his robe and scratched himself thoughtfully. So a flea, a horsefly, a wasp, something such as that might be about as good as you wrathful types can hope for. You were told the truth but you didn’t hear it. Do the right things. Live the right way. Simple enough when you think about it. But even if you’re only a horsefly on the next loop through, you can still be a good one.  

A good one? 

A horsefly has a horsefly’s virtues. 

Probably you’ve never had horses in warm weather. The way they’re tormented by them. 

Horseflies are a horse’s fate. 

I’d kill every one of them if I could.

Well! Another step down the slippery road to hell. 

Hasegawa looked at him, then looked away. Probably I’m just missing what I used to have. 

Such as? 

Things to look forward to.  

All right. 

People to be with, I guess. Occurrences and events. Or even just something that I can say I chose for myself. The rogue samurai sat poking his fire, then said, You really believe that about their souls? 

All our souls. 

All our souls? That it’s a return to the next turn? Each connected to the one coming? 

Thread has to go where the needle went. 

That didn’t answer my question. 

I’m not sure you really asked it yet. 

The rogue samurai poked at his fire. He said he did not believe that there was a place for him other than the one he occupied. He said he awoke to the sun in the morning and went to sleep with the moon at night. He said he’d heard things said. Promises and justifications and warnings. But he’d never found anything he thought more true than the simple assurance that when spring comes, grass grows by itself. 

By which I guess you mean you think you can’t change. 

I guess that’s just about it. 

The bonze watched his goats like a person confirming an hypothesis, then turned back to the rogue samurai and his fire. Tell me again why you killed them. 

I told you. 

Tell me better. 

Hasegawa stayed with his fire, adjusting it, scraping it around, the smoke rising up into the dark green shadows of the cedars. 

Because she was unacknowledged. An orphan of the palace, unwanted and unprotected. With no hope for a future and no reason even to wish for one. And because I was being paid to take her to a place she didn’t want to go. And then one night I found her in some bushes in a ditch. What she looked like lying there. Slashed and hacked. Bloody gouts of long black hair. Gauze robes shredded like war banners shrieking in the wind. Her throat cut so deeply her head hung sideways…

So she did mean something to you… 

Some evenings we had to bivouac by the roadside. And I listened as she told me things. She said she didn’t want me to do anything differently. She just wanted me to know what I was doing. 

To her?

To her. 

He said she told him she had been born into a world a samurai could never imagine. It was a world of unwavering requirements and ancient precedents, a world of women without function, women who waited behind screens in anticipation of moments of formal intensity that they would assess with an antique rigor, demanding the same of others and admitting no deviations. She told him there were combinations of colors that if worn together would result in a humiliation that could never be erased, notes plucked on a koto that would illicit endless jeers, written words shaped in such a way that the woman with the brush in her hand would be ostracized and not even death could relieve the shamefulness of her ineptitude. She told him that for women like her, redemption lay in the perfection of the art of the way of withholding. Women like her lived in harmony with the past, and their only necessity was to refine the expression of their acceptance of the inevitable. 

She said I was too far away from her to understand such things. She said she couldn’t imagine what a man like me might do. And when I told her I would do whatever was required to deliver her to her destination, she made no reply. 

And did you know why? 

One night we got caught in a rainstorm and took shelter in an old shrine. I woke up to find her close beside me, raised up on her elbows, her long black hair combed straight back over her shoulders and separating into ink-dark wings. No sneak assassin with a slash knife could have crept up on me like that but she had done it. 

He told him how he’d traced the shape of her nose, the curve of her lips, the soft swelling of her cheeks and the hollow under her jaw. The rain was pounding the roof tiles and bits of spray bounced in through gaps on the side walls. He told him that her eyebrows had been removed in the old style of the original court. He said her ears were small and lay flat against her head. Her neck and the nape of her neck tasted faintly of the salt of her body. Her tongue touched his, invited it, moved with it; and he eased her back and sank down beside her, her vulva moist under his hand. She sighed at the offer of his finger sliding into her and drew one scented sleeve up over her face. The silver-white haze of her night-wrapper lifted away as her legs came apart. Her thighs and belly were damp and warm in the summer darkness. She had found him with her hand and guided him inside her, and she had asked him to go slowly and feel it with her and not hurry anything, the promise he was building with the woman he had been paid to deliver was being built by her back up to him, seeking him, grasping him as he held her, asking him not to rush the wordless questions he was asking her.  

The rogue samurai poked at his fire. 

Her voice was like dead leaves rustling in a dry wind. She said she and girls like her had been raised among women who sat all their lives in empty rooms and waited for something that they knew would never happen. They called older women their mothers and were allowed to do so. Sometimes she pretended one of them really was her own mother, and she tried to model herself after the woman she’d selected. But she knew it was foolish. And fraudulent. And she soon learned to hide her yearning, and to force herself to accept not knowing.  

And did she ask you to help her? 

No. 

And did you think of doing it yourself? 

I thought of it… 

But because she didn’t ask it…  

She told me how their mothers were mocked as dreary by those who had displaced them, and their gardens and reception chambers and boudoirs had become so unfashionable that even the night visits of violators had dwindled away to nothing. Then one day it was announced that a maple tree judged to be the oldest and finest in the palace compound was to be viewed, and the divination of an unfavorable direction on the date selected meant that a circuitous route had to be followed in order to avoid provoking malign influences. The detour would pass directly along the main veranda-corridor in the part of the western chambers allocated to unwanted women. No event could have seemed more auspicious. The sliding doors on the inside edge of this corridor were replaced by hanging reed blinds with space left open at the bottom. The women configured their many-layered court robes in a manner befitting the season, and they practiced arranging their sleeve-bundles artfully so that portions of the fabrics might be glimpsed under the blinds. They studied the effects of various combinations, hoping to arrive at a mixture of colors and textures that would stimulate the august curiosity and perhaps lead eventually to an inquiry.  

None of them slept well the night before the viewing, so filled were they with yearning. She said all were in place behind the reed blinds early, their sleeves positioned as had been agreed. Finally, they could hear the sliding feet of the seneschals on the polished wooden floors and the twanging of bowstrings in the garden as guardsmen saluted what for them could only have been dim shapes moving behind white paper doors. As the procession grew nearer, the women fell silent, their heads down, their hearts pounding. But just as the august arrival began to occur, it was remarked by a trailing courtier that the weather was fine that day; and attention was awarded to the external side of the veranda-corridor in demonstration of an awareness of the source of the beauty of the afternoon glow. The procession passed by. Their display had gone unnoticed.

She told me that after that, the tedium of normal days had returned; and in the weeks and months and years that followed, the women began dying, smothered by the necessity of doing the same thing each day at the same hour and in the same way, with no possibility for any change ever.  

And you were taking her back to that? 

Hasegawa picked at his fire. That was what I was being paid to do. 

The bonze waited until he was sure he had nothing more to say on the subject, then got up and went to retrieve his goats. He stood for a moment studying the rogue samurai who seemed to him like a man willing to sit by the edge of the road until the world itself shuddered to its end. Why’d you kill all of them?    

Hasegawa poked at his fire. 

You have a group like that, and one or two will be the cause of such evil deeds, and one or two will just go along with it. But there’s also every possibility that at least one of them didn’t really deserve to die. 

Which one? 

Well, I don’t know. No way for me to know. 

Me either. He looked at him. I guess that’s another thing for me to feel bad about. I already had quite a few. 

 

 

Native Californian John Givens teaches fiction writing at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin. He got his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea for two years, studied art and language in Kyoto for four years, and worked in Tokyo as a writer and editor for eight years. Givens’s published novels are: Sons of the PioneersA Friend in the Police, and Living Alone. A short story collection, The Plum Rains, has just been published by The Liffey Press in Ireland. Other stories have appeared in various publications in the US, Japan and Europe. 

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story:

A: “The Palace Orphan” is one of a group of interlocking stories set in Japan in the last decade of the 17th century. It makes use of a convention of the Noh theater, in which an itinerant priest hears the confession of a protagonist who is struggling to accept his or her fate. My intention with these stories is to adapt classic Japanese literary forms and create a world that is self-consistent, credible and populated by believable characters authentic to their time and place. 

 

Q: Who were you, or who do you wish you had been, in a past life?

A: Probably some guy about 11,000 years ago who stopped half-way across  the Bering Land Bridge, unable to decide if he should continue on to   the New World or head back to the safety and security of good old Asia and Europe.

 

Q: Straight road? Or winding road?  

A: Various straight roads overlapping and interlacing in such a way that little actual travel occurs yet lots gets noticed along the way.  

 

Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?  

A: Editing and rewriting is by far the most pleasurable since there's often a point at the nth draft when you finally get that first slight hint of what the story might be about.

 

Q: What are you working on now?  

A: Two novels, one set in the same time frame as this story ("The Palace Orphan") and detailing the adventures of my morose rogue samurai, Hasegawa. The other is set in Kyoto in the 1970s and plunders the oddity of loving a culture not your own. I also have a half-dozen   short stories in various stages of development and/or disintegration.


Home Delivery

By Richard Wiley

Followed by Q&A

Lars Larson wasn’t a junior because of a “K” which he sometimes inserted as a middle name. On the sign above the entrance to his company there was no “K” It simply read, “Lars Larson Motors.” On legal documents, however, on his mortgage and his driver’s license, Lars K Larson was in evidence, to avoid any confusion with his father.

One rainy Monday morning in March Lars stood at the top of a ladder cleaning debris from the rain gutters of his house. The milkman hadn’t arrived yet, so Lars was drinking black coffee from one of his Lars Larson Motors bottom-heavy travel mugs. The mug sat near him on the slanted roof, the rough gray shingles keeping it from falling off. Lars didn’t really like his coffee black, but on Monday mornings he drank it that way, since he usually ran out of milk before the milkman came. This is present-day America we’re talking about, but contrary to popular belief milkmen still make deliveries, and Lars was of the opinion that such traditions ought to be supported.  So, black coffee or not, he never bought milk at the store. 

From the top of his ladder Lars could hear tires on the wet pavement and, as he scooped the muck from his rain gutter into a bucket attached to his ladder, he tried to discern without looking whether or not the tires were those of a milk truck. He had a box on his porch, insulated to keep milk cold when neither he nor his wife, Betty, were at home, but Betty had left him three months earlier, so now it was only Lars that the milk sometimes waited for, and only Lars who waited for the milk. 

Lars had to step down to move his ladder every few minutes. As he was doing so now, and emptying his bucket into a large plastic garbage bag, the milk truck pulled up, and when he turned to greet the driver he got a shock greater than he would have had his Lars Larson Motors bottom-heavy travel mug slid off the roof and landed on his head. The driver was his father, the other Lars Larson, the one without the K. 

“Dad!” said Lars. “What the heck?”

“Says here you’re down to two half gallons a week since Betty left, Lars,” said his father. He had parked his truck behind a new Mercedes Benz with “dealer” plates.

“Dad,” Lars said again, “does Mom know you’re doing this? These are supposed to be your golden years.” 

The appeal of home delivery had lodged itself in Lars’s imagination because that’s what his father had done before he retired, delivered milk. And even now his father wore white pants and a long-sleeved shirt with a blue necktie to match his jacket. Lars lived near his parents but he’d stopped going by to visit them, hadn’t been there, in fact, since the day he went to tell them Betty was moving out. “You want a cup of coffee or something, Dad?” he asked.

His father stepped out of the truck with the two half gallons of non-fat milk. “Coffee? No, I don’t think so,” he said, “I’ve got my route. Unless you could maybe splash a little for me into one of those travel mugs.”

Betty had taken all the bottom-heavy travel mugs with her when she’d left. All, that is, but the one that still sat peeking over at Lars and his father from the roof. Lars looked up at it but his father thought the look meant something else. “It hasn’t stopped raining in a week,” he said. “Your mother wants to move to Arizona. She won’t stop talking about it.”

For some reason that made Lars climb back up the ladder to get the travel mug. “Come on in, Dad,” he said, “there’s coffee in the kitchen. You can spare a minute.”

The front door of Lars’s house led to his living room, which was unused and orderly, but when they got to the kitchen Lars began apologizing. Dishes were piled in the sink, bits of leftover food littered the counters, and an absolute torrent of unread mail was scattered all over the floor. Lars had been out cleaning the gutters for the same reason he wore a shirt and tie to work every day—to keep his external house in order, though he was a crumbling wreck inside.

“I don’t know, Dad,” he said. “It sure doesn’t get any easier.”

He washed out the bottom-heavy travel mug and grabbed the last remaining clean cup in the kitchen—a dainty little tea-service sort of thing with roses on its side—for himself. He filled both with coffee and handed the mug to his father. “Listen, son,” his father said. “You’re in a rut. When Betty was here you were in a rut and now that she’s gone you’re worse. Just look at this place. I’m here to tell you, you can wallow in self-pity if you want to but Betty’s getting on with her life.”

Lars took a drink from his rose covered cup. “You’ve seen Betty?” he asked. 

“Seen her, had her over for dinner. She’s a new woman, Lars, like the girl you brought home twenty years ago, while you’ve done nothing but stay the same old man.”

It occurred to Lars that maybe his father had gone back to work for the sole purpose of coming to deliver this awful message. “Did she ask about me?” he asked. “Did she come over by herself or what?”

“She didn’t and she did,” said his father. He opened one of Lars’s new half-gallons, put some milk in the travel mug, and said, “Okay, Lars, you want to talk, we’ll talk, but I can’t ignore my route so we’ll have to do it in the truck. I’ll even let you run the deliveries in, just like when you were a boy.”

Lars hadn’t said he wanted to talk but he followed his father back outside. As a child what Lars had liked best about accompanying his father was that the seats in a milk truck were high up off the ground, the windshield perpendicular to the street.  

His father pulled into traffic, but almost immediately slowed again. “The Nixons are next,” he said. “Second floor of the Biltmore Apartments.” 

When Lars turned to look into the back of the truck he saw the Nixons’ order moving forward on a conveyor belt. Directly in front of it, against the empty mesh, he saw his own name, Lars K Larson, printed in his father’s neat hand.

“Apartment 212,” said his father. “Just knock and wait. Don’t leave the order on the floor. Neither of the Nixons can bend down to pick it up.”

Lars got out of the truck and ran under the apartment building’s awning. Not only was there no buzzer but the door was propped open by the same kinds of junk mail that littered his kitchen at home. As he bound up the stairs he worried that the Nixons might be wary of him, since he was still wearing his gutter cleaning clothes, but their door was open, too, with both the Nixons standing there waiting for him. Mrs. Nixon’s head had fallen down on her chest. 

“Half gallon of whole milk and two pints of strawberry yogurt,” said Lars. 

“Sounds good to me,” said Mr. Nixon. “Where do I sign?”

Mrs. Nixon laughed, though she didn’t bring her head up. “Where do I sign?” she said, “Oh, Dick, you kill me every time.” 

Mr. Nixon saw Lars blanch at his name and said, “I almost changed it during Watergate, but Pat here wouldn’t let me.” 

“Pat!” said Mrs. Nixon. “Oh, Dick, you kill me every time.”

 The Nixons were both in their nineties, and it made Lars pause to think that he and Betty would never reach that age together. No chance of that now.

In the truck again his father sat drinking coffee. Lars’s dainty rose-patterned cup was on the seat where he’d left it. His coffee was cold but steam still came from the Lars Larson Motors bottom-heavy travel mug. “One thing this job has taught me,” said his father, “is that you’ve got to be prepared to give people what they want. Take these next folks up here, the Wilcoxes. Three weeks out of three now, ever since I’ve been back, Mrs. Wilcox changes her order when I get there. I take milk, she wants orange juice. I take juice, she wants some other damned thing. Yet she’s down for two half gallons of non-fat, just like you are, Lars.”

Lars looked at his father. Was he saying that he hadn’t given Betty what she wanted? He reached around and brought the Wilcoxes’ order onto his lap, where he could feel the cold bottoms of the milk cartons against his thighs. They drove along that way for five more minutes before they finally arrived at the Wilcox house. It was nicer than Lars’s—on a far less busy street. Lars was startled to remember that he and Betty had looked at this house, had thought about buying it some twelve or thirteen years ago now. Betty had loved the kitchen, he remembered, and had irritated Lars by saying as much in front of the real estate agent. It was because of this house, in fact, that she always claimed to hate the kitchen at their place. 

Through the beveled glass beside the front door Lars saw someone walking down a hallway, and that gave him the idea that he wanted to see the kitchen again, in light of the wreckage of his marriage. So instead of knocking he hurried through the side-yard to the back of the house. 

The house had a Dutch backdoor, the top half of which was open, never mind the rain and the chill. “Hello?” Lars called. “Anyone home?” He held up the two half gallons of non-fat milk. 

A head appeared at the breakfast nook window to his left, and then Mr. Wilcox came to the door. “What are you doing back here?” he asked. 

“Milkman,” said Lars. “Knocked out front, guess you didn’t hear.” 

Why he had to lie about it, he didn’t know. 

“Lorna!” called Mr. Wilcox.   

“Two half gallons of non-fat milk,” said Lars. “That’s what you ordered, that’s what you goddamn get.”

Mr. Wilcox looked at him blankly and Mrs. Wilcox came into the kitchen wearing a robe. “Listen,” said Lars, “once a long time ago my wife and I nearly bought this place. She adored the kitchen.” He spoke only to Mrs. Wilcox. “My father’s the real milkman,” he said, “I’m just helping him out.”

“The kitchen’s what sold me on it, too,” said Mrs. Wilcox. “It’s got such great light.” She unlatched the bottom of the Dutch door, swinging it open to meet its top. She asked, “Is your father okay?”

“He’s fine,” said Lars. “He’s waiting in his truck out front, probably having a conniption fit that I’m taking so long.” 

It was the first time he had ever said “conniption fit” in his life.

Though there were no more windows here than in Lars’s kitchen at home, the whole room was bathed in the kind of light that Lars had always associated with happiness, with birds and whistling and such. How he could have missed it twelve or thirteen years ago, he didn’t know. The counters were made of gray granite with flecks of gold, and the pale yellow walls seemed to dance like the shimmering skirts on hula girls. Even the Mr. Coffee machine, ordinary by anyone’s standards, perked out the last throws of a new pot of coffee like a chorus of happy frogs.  

“You don’t want to sell this place do you?” asked Lars. 

“As a matter of fact we do,” said Mr. Wilcox. “I am only home this morning because we’re expecting our realtor. Moving to Portland next month.”

“Speak for yourself, John Alden,” said Lorna Wilcox. 

“Cancel the meeting,” Lars heard himself say. “I’ll buy the house.” 

Lars Larson Motors was not the kind of business he thought he’d have when he was younger, but it had made him a very good living. “How much are you asking?” he asked. “We could split the difference, maybe, of whatever your real estate agent would charge.”

“Seven percent, if you can believe it,” said Mr. Wilcox. “And the price is four hundred and twenty thousand, so that would be …”

“A savings of twenty nine thousand four hundred dollars,” said Lars. “Fourteen thousand seven for each of us.” He was used to calculating numbers in his head. 

“Are you serious?” asked Mr. Wilcox, and Lorna went over to stop the Mr. Coffee in the middle of its climax. 

“I’m as serious as a cancer patient,” said Lars. 

Mr. Wilcox took his realtor’s card from beneath a refrigerator magnet. “No contingencies, no nothing, just a straight sale, right? Because if I call her and cancel this appointment it won’t be easy to call her back.” 

“Four hundred and five thousand three hundred dollars,” said Lars. “Twenty percent down is eighty one thousand and fifty bucks, in a cashier’s check as soon as I can get to the bank.” 

His prowess with percentages impressed Mr. Wilcox. “Lorna can show you the rest of the house while I go down to the stationer’s for a real estate contract,” he said.

“I’d better go tell my dad, then,” said Lars. 

When they walked toward the front of the house, however, things went downhill fast. There was evidence of water damage on the living room ceiling, plus a hairline crack in the picture window that looked out to the street where the milk truck was parked. “We really do live in that kitchen,” said Lorna Wilcox. 

Outside the rain had increased but Lars’s father paced on the parking strip, looking at his watch. “What is it?” he said. “Wrong order again?” when he saw them all come out. 

“Dad,” said Lars. “Sorry to keep you waiting, but I’m buying this place.”

“I’m going down to the stationer’s to get the forms,” said Mr. Wilcox. 

All three of them were smiling, and now all four of them were wet. 

“You’ll have to do the rest of your route alone, Dad,” said Lars. 

Behind the milk truck sat a Volvo S80 from 1999, the year that model first came out. Lars had two of them for sale on his lot. He’d gotten one from a guy moving down to a Volkswagen and the other from a woman moving up to a Jag. Volkswagens and Jaguars were what Lars sold. “Master Craftsmanship for Any Pocketbook,” was his slogan. Sometimes he waited behind cars at stoplights and read his slogan on their license-plate holders. 

“Well, you all better get on with it if your mind’s made up,” said his father. He seemed upset with this further evidence of Lars’s lifelong impulsiveness, perhaps upset with himself because his own lifelong reticence made him put off telling Lars what he thought.

Mr. Wilcox unlocked the Volvo and Lars’s father stepped back into his truck. Lars reached in and took his Lars Larson Motors bottom-heavy travel mug, leaving the rose patterned china cup. “Don’t do this if you’re thinking about Betty,” said his father, then he put his truck in gear and headed up the road. 

“Who’s Betty?” asked Lorna Wilcox. 

A wind had come up, whipping them with rain, so Lars didn’t answer until they got back to the house. They would have run, but Lorna Wilcox was wearing slippers and slipped on some sodden leaves, taking Lars’s arm. “Oh the chill of these Tacoma mornings,” she said. “I won’t miss them, I don’t suppose.”

Lars had the thought that Portland’s weather wasn’t much different than Tacoma’s, but he kept it to himself. He’d seen a movie once in which a housewife in a robe and slippers seduced a man who knocked on her door asking directions. 

“Betty was my wife,” he said. “She moved out three months ago.”

In the movie the housewife had taken out some maps and leaned against the stranger as he looked them over. Lorna Wilcox was staring at Lars so steadily that he feared she might have read his mind. She was a very pretty woman, prettier than Betty. 

“Want to see the bedrooms?” he thought he heard her say. 

“What?” asked Lars. 

“Do you want to see the bedrooms? And there’s a den upstairs, too.”

“Could I get a little more coffee first?” asked Lars. He held up his mug. 

In the movie the stranger had shoved the maps off the coffee table, pushing the woman so firmly down upon it that the table broke. He followed Lorna into the kitchen. Her robe was conservative, utterly circumspect. 

“How long have you and Mr. Wilcox been married?” he asked. “I mean, is this your first house, or what?”

Once inside the kitchen she sighed and turned to face him. “Nate’s the one who’s moving to Portland, Lars,” she said. “Just like you and Betty, we’re breaking up.”

“I didn’t mean to pry,” said Lars, but in a great kitchen like this one prying seemed the natural order of things. “I don’t know why I didn’t point this out to Mr. Wilcox,” he said, “but the stationer’s isn’t open yet. And so far as I know he still hasn’t called your realtor.”

“Nate knows what he’s doing,” said Lorna. “And what are you saying? You don’t want to buy the house now?” 

Except for the rain against the windows the kitchen had gotten very quiet, and was darker than it had been earlier, too. It shamed Lars deeply that all he could think of was that horrid film. 

“Of course I’m going to buy it,” he said. “Do you think I’d go back on my word? You can’t sell very many Jaguars if your word doesn’t stand for something. You can’t sell much of anything, for that matter.”

Lorna poured coffee into his Lars Larson Motors bottom-heavy mug. “There’s work to do in the living room,” she said. “And I should tell you that there’s been talk of a new roof. We even had an estimate. Eighteen thousand dollars.”

“In the automobile business we have what’s called a ‘lemon’ law,” said Lars. 

“There should be a lemon law for marriage,” said Lorna Wilcox.

They were sitting at the kitchen table by then, but the sudden lack of light made it hard for Lars to see Lorna’s face. “I don’t mind about the roof,” he said. “I’m handy, can do a lot of the work myself.” 

When Lorna smiled at him Lars got the urge to take her hand, which was sitting at the table’s edge. He looked out the windows at some water that was beginning to fall over the lip of the rain gutter. Eighteen thousand dollars. Lars decided he would ask if he could come over and clean the rain gutters even before the deal was closed. He might start tearing off the old roof, too. 

Lorna said, “If Nate thinks he’ll be happy in Portland, Oregon…” but just then the phone rang and she reached around behind her to pluck it from the wall. 

“This better be an emergency,” she said, before she even said hello. 

Lars smiled at that, and put his hand where Lorna’s hand had been. He felt a bit of warmth on the tabletop. 

“I know that, Mom,” said Lorna. “Who doesn’t know a thing like that? What do you take me for, Nate’s doormat?”

Lars thought of the comment his father had made just before he drove away, and imagined himself saying, “What do you take me for, Betty’s doormat?” 

Lorna shifted the phone from her left hand to her right, and when she turned to sit properly again she saw Lars’s hand where hers had formerly been, his fingers drumming the table top. She rested her hand on his, settling his fingers down. Lars continued looking at the solid sheet of water, pouring over the rain gutter now.  He sighed. People were nuts when it came to houses, constantly trying to turn them into homes.  

“Yes, Mother, I will,” said Lorna. “But now I’ve got company, and Nate’s not here, so I’ve got to entertain him myself.”

Lars did it then. He moved his free hand over and placed it on top of Lorna’s which was still on top of his other hand at the edge of the table. He closed his eyes and waited for her to pull her hand away, leaving him holding hands with himself. He felt her start to do it, but then, quite miraculously, her hand stayed where it was. The gutters would need replacing, too, if someone didn’t tend to them soon, cleaning them and shoring them up. Lorna’s hand felt familiar. It made him realize that she and Betty were about the same size and also that human warmth, of this most basic kind, at least, was uniform. 

When Lars finally looked across the table at her, Lorna was watching him. “You work and work,” she said. “A nice kitchen, a beautiful yard…” She put her other hand on top of his, in a way that reminded him of summer pickup games of baseball.

They sat that way for a while, talking a little but really just waiting for Nate. When the rain let up, however, they went out into the back yard to look at the roof and the gutters, and when Lars saw a ladder leaning along the fence, he lifted it up and propped it against the breakfast nook wall. “Just a quick look,” he said. “Do you have a trowel and bucket? While I’m up there I might as well dig a bit of that stuff out.”

Water was still spilling over the gutters, and as he climbed, careful of his footing, Lorna ran back into the house. He had his travel mug with him so he sat it on the roof and ran a hand down into the gutter to see how bad the damage was, his fingers slowly sinking into the muck. He nodded, then stepped back down the ladder to wait for Lorna in the yard. March was a crueler month than April, and when he looked toward Puget Sound he saw an even darker sky than the one overhead. More rain was coming, another real storm. 

When Lorna came back out she was carrying two buckets and two trowels, and she had changed out of her robe, too, into work clothes similar to Lars’s. “Tag-team gutter cleaning,” she said.  

Lars let himself go a little then, remembering that the Wilcoxes had the same standing order he did: two half-gallons of non-fat milk. He remembered, also, that they didn’t have an insulated box on their porch so he decided that he would bring them his for the time being, while the house was in escrow, for when neither Lorna nor Mr. Wilcox were at home. He would say it was a gift to seal their bargain, that milk had brought them together and they shouldn’t let it spoil. 

He looked at Lorna Wilcox and then at the ladder, and finally at the roof again, where his Lars Larson Motors bottom-heavy travel mug peeked over at him, the rough gray shingles keeping it from falling off. 

“Let’s get to work,” he said. 

 

 

Richard Wiley is author of the novels Soldiers In Hiding (winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for best American fiction, Fools’ GoldFestival for Three Thousand Maidens, Indigo, and Ahmed’s Revenge. His most recent novel, Commodore Perry's Minstrel Show, was published by the new Michener Series at the University of Texas Press in 2007. Wiley has been a member of the UNLV English Department faculty since 1989, and is Associate Director of Black Mountain Institute.

 

Q&A

Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?

A: I thought it would be interesting to try to (seamlessly) place the same coffee cup on two different roofs in the same story.  

 

Q: Straight road? Or winding road?

A: Oh, extremely winding… I hardly know anyone for whom the road is straight.  I am always looking to the turn ahead, which I hope I’ll be able to navigate without crashing. 

 

Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?

A: First creation is wonderful because of the “drilling down.”  What I probably like best, however, is the final six months or so of rewriting (on novels).   

 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Currently at work on a complex novel tentatively entitled, “The Book of Important Moments.”


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24 Points

By Meagan Ciesla

Followed by Q&A

Pete’s mother bags groceries and comes home with discounted produce. His father works in the steel mill and his ears are never clean. 

Pete pays attention to the trains that run out of town towards Pittsburgh and to Luke, the brother who is half a head taller than him. They play by the tracks after school and plot ways to jump trains.  

They draw maps in the dirt with sticks.

The boys have breath-holding contests in their room at night. Luke always wins except for once when he swears he has an itch in his throat and lets go to cough. Luke tells Pete in a whisper he’s going to grow up and drive all the trains to Pittsburgh. Pete looks up at the ceiling, notices the paint peeling in the shape of Pennsylvania and imagines thin tracks laid from one end to the other. It looks small to him, like something he could do, so he says to his brother, yeah, me too.

During the ice storm when Pete is ten and Luke is twelve, they steal trays from the cafeteria and grease them with Crisco. They wear plastic grocery bags over their socks and inside their shoes. Pete goes first and wets his pants before he lands at the bottom by the tracks. When he starts back up the hill, his sneakers slip on ice. It takes too long to find the tray next to the tree, to see Luke’s eyes staring up at the sky, red seeping out of his ears and into new snow.

By the time Pete reaches the road for help, Luke’s head is already crammed with blood. He blames himself for his slow speed, the tread worn down on his shoes. The grease, though, that was Luke’s idea.

Pete empties Luke’s school locker and brings home his belongings in a paper bag: a balled-up sweater, a worn baseball glove, a protractor. A sack of peanuts. He gives the bag to his mother, who takes out the sweater and sits with it for a while at the table. Just days later, with sorry eyes, she announces her third pregnancy. Pete throws his plate on the floor and his mother sends him to his room. He goes through Luke’s dresser and smells all of his clothes. There is an empty bed beside him but no space for anyone else. 

Pete goes to the train tracks alone and tries to climb on. The cars move fast and his sweaty hand slips from the handle. The train throws him to the ground and starts him rolling.

Pete runs around with Luke’s old friends, but it seems their limbs are always longer than his, always moving faster than he can keep up. They dare him to steal a tin of tobacco from the store when Mr. Richter’s not looking. He nearly gets away with it but trips on the store’s welcome mat and hears the tin tumble from his pocket. He sees Mr. Richter’s reflection in the glass and takes off. When he gets outside, the other boys are long gone. At home, his father has already received the call and is waiting at the kitchen table with the new baby boy on his knee; they have named him Kurt. He tells Pete there’s nothing in the world worse than stealing from a man who’s spent his whole life working hard, then puts the baby in his crib, takes Pete out to the porch. He lights up three cigarettes in a row and makes Pete smoke them all until his face turns green, then sends him to his room to think about what he’s done. Pete falls onto his mattress and feels low for stealing and even sorrier for getting caught.

In high school Pete dates Sarah Faith. He takes her bridge jumping and watches from above as she peels off everything except her bra and underwear. When she lifts her arms he notices her ribs pushing through skin.

They lose their virginity together; she wears a skirt and it is over fast.  When she asks him what he is thinking he says, I dunno, and kisses her neck. 

He takes a drafting class at school and likes the smoothness of the vellum beneath his hand, the width of the drafting table propping up his elbows. He is impressed by the logic of mechanical parts, how each serves its own purpose, all of them adding up to make something big.

Pete graduates from high school and his father buys him a new pair of steel-toed boots. Pete slides them on, struts around the house in them the rest of the night. His mother makes peach cake and they sit around the table with glasses of milk talking about how grown up he looked when he walked across the stage in his blue gown and tasseled hat. His mother says she wishes Luke was here, that he would have loved this day.

That night Pete goes to the tracks with his friends and they smash Rolling Rock bottle against the boxcars. They talk about big things—about the war and their plans and about buying some land. They ride into Pittsburgh and stay up all night. Get chipped beef at a diner then hop a boxcar back. They rest their heads on the edges of wooden crates and fall asleep on the ride home. 

There is a job at the steel mill.  Pete reduces the ore and his father does the cold rolling.  He likes that he is the beginning and his father the end. There seems to be an order to things. His hands burn and he gets used to the smell of his own flesh. He spends much of his time staring straight into sparks, his tracing the spit and flicker of light.  

Pete meets Carol after the third shift. He has known of her his whole life but has never noticed her until he is seated at the edge of the bar drinking a bloody beer. It is something about the way she makes the sandwiches, cuts them carefully into diagonals, eats the chips that have fallen off of plates. Her upper arm jiggles slightly as she shakes steak sauce into little cups. Pete likes the fact that he can’t see the push of her shoulder blades against her shirt and that she takes such care with her work. He gets nervous thinking about her now and shakes his knee when she comes over to ask if he wants another round. She is patient while he decides what to say and the smoothness of her voice steadies him. He tells her he’d like to switch to coffee.

They marry fast.

They both work overtime to make a down payment on a small two-bedroom at the edge of town.  Pete tries for a promotion at the mill, but is passed up. They bring him in on his lunch break and tell him he is a hard worker but lacks leadership skills. Pete looks around the room as they are talking and feels a great well rise to his throat. He thanks them for their time and says he understands, that it was worth a shot.

Pete’s father retires after losing 30% of his hearing.  Along with eight others, he receives an engraved watch and a banquet where they serve baked chicken and green bean almandine. Pete stays through the speech but waits outside during the reception. Carol comes out in a baby blue skirt suit that pulls at the seams. Pete admits that his eyes have been blurry from the factory sparks. On the way home, she drives the truck as he falls asleep against the window.  

Pete quits his job at the mill and gets work at the Discount Liquors late shift. He misses the noise of the mill but likes that he can fix the coolers when they leak and read when it is slow. The job pays less so they take out a second mortgage on the house. Pete finds a Shepherd in the store parking lot. Her ribs show through fur and her ears come up to his hip. After a week of no one claiming her, he takes her home. He stops at the library and checks out a few books on dogs, reads through Pavlov’s Conditioned Reflexes. He hangs a bell from the doorknob and trains the Shepherd to ring it when she needs to go outside. Carol laughs at them together, two peas in a pod.

Discount Liquors gets robbed twice in eight months.  Both times it’s kids from out of town stealing the till and cheap canned beer.  The second time they have a gun and shoot the front window’s plate glass before putting the barrel to Pete’s temple.  With the metal against his head, all Pete sees is a single bottle of Old Crow, askew, on the wrong shelf. He doesn’t tell Carol how she didn’t cross his mind.  How cold the gun felt against his brain. How he pissed his jeans.

He takes the Shepherd to the train tracks and lets her race the cars. When she runs, her ears stick up like a jackal’s. She waits at the top of the bridge as he jumps into the Conemaugh, then leaps when he signals. Pete dives under, tries to skim the bottom with his stomach. When he surfaces, he laughs at the worried dog barking angrily from shore.

Carol gets pregnant. He starts to feel small beside her as her stomach swells. He scrapes the walls and paints for a nursery while Carol stays at her mother’s to avoid the fumes. When he’s done he drinks a six-pack and throws the cans at the Shepherd to fetch. She brings them back to him in her mouth and drops them at his feet. He trips over the drop cloth, brushes his back against the wall and smears a patch of fresh yellow paint. He looks at the dog, patiently awaiting his next command, and tells her to go on and get.

The baby is a boy and they name him Hank. At the hospital Pete notices the blotches on the child’s face and checks the other babies in the nursery to make sure nothing’s wrong. He holds his son for the first time and worries the roughness of his hands will scratch his fresh skin. He goes back to find Carol in the room, asleep. Lifts up her gown and sees the extra skin on her stomach hanging on like a loose sweater.

He watches the baby during the day while Carol works. He reads him the paper and counts the baby’s toes with newsprint smudged on his fingertips.

Pete sets the baby next to him on the couch while he watches Lawrence Welk, then gets up to pee.  The baby wriggles off the sofa and Pete walks in to find him wailing on the floor. The Shepherd licks his downy head. He shoos the dog, picks up the baby, is relieved to see the boy’s tiny tonsils vibrating from his scream. Pete re-counts the baby’s toes before setting him into his crib.

Carol comes home and asks how it went.  Fine, he answers, just fine.

Pete’s father dies in his sleep and the wake is filled with men from the mill. Carol and Pete’s mother make casseroles and cookies. Kurt comes in from Mississippi where he sells flood insurance and when the visitors leave, they all sit around and eat whether they’re hungry or not. They tell Hank stories about his grandfather’s sleep walking. How his grandmother would wake up in the middle of the night to find him standing over the sink peeling orange after orange. 

The Shepherd’s back legs sag and she starts to pee in the house. Pete loses his temper, boots her in the ribs then regrets it when he hears her yelp. He mixes in peanut butter with her food for a week to make it up to her, but she sulks around in corners, learns to stay out of the way.

They go to the river the summer that Hank turns ten. Pete wades in close to shore and watches the boy skim the bottom. Hank pleads to jump off the bridge and Pete finally agrees, holding onto his shoulder until the moment the boy’s toes take to air. He pays attention to Hank’s descent, how his shoulders have widened since the summer before. Pete tracks the top of the boy’s head until it sinks and then resurfaces. He applauds him once his eyes open, wild and ecstatic from the fall.

 •

Hank is good at math. He does well in high school and plays varsity soccer. Pete still works the late shift, but makes his home games when he can. He doesn’t cheer, but stands on the sidelines, hands in his pockets, watching how fast the boy can run.

Hank talks about college. Carol signs him up for course catalogues and he checks the mail every day. He spreads the glossy pamphlets on the carpet in the living room and sits cross-legged as he reads each one line-by-line. Pete sits back in his recliner and watches Hank crawl on the floor to reach a pamphlet under the couch. He worries about money and thinks how fast Hank has grown, how there is never enough time.

After college Hank has a job lined up at an advertising agency in Pittsburgh. He will start with office work but they assure him there are chances to move up. Pete and Carol help him move into his first apartment. They give him their old bed and two oak side tables that had been sitting in their garage for years. They order pizza and stay the night but Pete can’t sleep. It is hot and humid and he sweats through the sheets.

Before they leave Pete slides fifty dollars cash into Hank’s palm. Just in case, he says, then grabs his bag and follows his wife to the car.

Pete and Carol get a new bed. It is the first time since they got married and they spend a Saturday picking it out. Carol sits on each one and bounces up and down. Pete looks at the price, weighs the benefits of a warranty. Carol has her heart set on a pillow top. She takes Pete’s hand in her own. Tells him, for once, to throw caution to the wind.

They have a hard time working the mattress through the door. When they do, Carol flops down on it with the plastic still attached and Pete sees the backs of her arms jiggle. She opens the bed’s new sheets then starts on dinner. They eat chicken potpie and canned corn.  Pete whisks butterscotch pudding for dessert and serves it up in a dish with Cool Whip.

Carol takes a bath and heads to bed. Pete follows soon after. He feels her back against his, the gentle push of her shoulder blades as she breathes in and out and thinks how good it feels to know she is there.

Pete has never had allergies before and has no way of knowing he’s allergic to the down. Or that the anaphylaxis will work fast to constrict his breath, slow his heart.

He closes his eyes. Considers peeing, but decides it can wait until morning; he likes the feel of the new mattress under him, holding his weight.

 

 

Meagan Ciesla’s novella Me, Them, Us was published in Fall 2009 by Iron Horse Literary Review. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online and has appeared in Redivider and Heat City Literary Review. She is a graduate of University of Wyoming’s MFA program and a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: What I intended to do with this story—and what took many revisions—was to find an alternative to a traditional narrative arc. Most of all I wanted these moments in Pete’s life—big and small—to define his character. Since a person’s life typically lacks a real climax or epiphany, I leaned heavily on sentence construction and suggestive imagery to keep the story’s momentum going.

 

Q:Who were you, or who do you wish you had been, in a past life?

A: I wish I knew! For no reason at all I’m terrified of walking on ice. Sometimes I think that’s how I met my end in a past life. Maybe an ice fisher?

 

Q: Straight road? Or winding road?

A: They both lead to the same place, so either.

 

Q: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?

A: Getting a story to the point where I know it’s where it’s intended to be. It’s not over- or underwritten, but just right.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m finishing a collection of short stories titled Me, Them, Us that will include my novella by the same title.


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Ghost Enjambment

Ghost Enjambment

By Randall Horton

Followed by Q&A

What becomes clear after spending years negotiating a society that places emphasis on order and structure is that these confining constructions become the dominant discourses in one’s daily activities. The formation and continued reliance on capitalism as a means of fulfilling the needs of our society erodes the mind and what it imagines it can create. I would like to look at order and structure in relationship to language and how they function inside poetics, or, more precisely, how these constructions once functioned inside my poetics as I searched for a new poetics. My introduction to poetry came via performance and the slam circuit. What intrigued me about the poetry I was producing at that time was the aural pleasure I received from tonal inflections, and the way I could formulate certain words to create vivid imagery. From the outset, without ever having read a complete poetry book, or seriously studied poetics, I knew I did not want my poems to rhyme. Somehow rhyming spelled hazardous for me and I never crossed that imaginary fence. 

I became disinterested in slam. Performing was pleasurable, but I felt there was something else functioning in language that needed to be explored. There were times during my literary journey when I felt like Amiri Baraka must have felt in the early ’60s when he picked up The New Yorker and read poems that made him weep. Baraka did not cry because the poetry was of some exceptional character, but because he knew and understood he could never write like those poets featured. I felt those same emotions Baraka did, and I kept on writing, which led to the eventual publication of my first book, The Definition of Place.

After replicating standard forms of structure and technique in poetry, I began to work on another book while maintaining an acute awareness of the trends in poetry. I subscribed to various poems-of-the-day listservs and read book-award winners that were supposed to represent all that was innovative in poetry. There seemed to be a central motif in most of the poems I read in terms of presentation. Imagistic and metaphorical language dominated the poems to a point that they became rhetorical and formulaic. This led me to explore the poetry of Nathaniel Mackey and Ed Roberson. Admittedly, I did not understand their works when I initially came to them. The readings proved difficult, causing me to return to passages to grasp hold of something. Oftentimes, my mind wandered in different directions as to meanings behind the words. There wasn’t a complete narrative, or so I thought. The syntax was disruptive and discrepant. Nothing followed logical progression. When I finally began to grasp what these poets were doing with their work, I realized I had been a willing participant in the mechanization of art. I had gotten comfortable in my writings. It was like I was my grandfather, who woke up every morning knowing he was going to work for eight hours at the steel plant, come home to a meal, go to sleep only to wake up and do it all over again. 

I do not want live a rhetorical existence. I am interested in not only how folklore and religion manifest themselves in African American culture, but also in how one can formulate a poetics that best represents the merger of these cultural relatives. First of all, one must remember that African slaves and their descendants were skillful in using verbal misrepresentation and satire in straight face when communicating in the presence of their oppressor. Deliberate linguistic misdirection, willful ambiguity, and double meanings were critical to how these slaves transmitted information. These are some of the things I considered when I began to think about the manner in which I wanted to keep evolving. 

I tend to agree with Andrew Joron that “language is a self exceeding system that can never be fully present to itself. It is the kind of ‘ghost condensate,’ existing everywhere and nowhere at once.” One of the ways I can achieve some of the characteristics of the two cultures I mentioned above is lyrical play (echoes of Derrida) in relationship to enjambment, or, more specifically, “ghost enjambment.” When I speak of ghost enjambment, I’m speaking about the relationship an end word has to the lines that precede and follow it. Then too, the line may act as a stand-alone entity. What this creates is, perhaps, three possible ways in which one can read a line in a poem that is constantly challenging conventional norms of syntactical structure. Stephen Jonas is a poet who practices ghost enjambment. Consider the following excerpt from his longer work Exercise for the Ear:

 

LXXXVI

 

long before the first

robin comes

the girl upstairs

does

it’s that old inner

spring    of hers

that maketh me

to sit up

& take note (61)

 

One possible deconstruction of the poem could render a meaning in which the robin (bird) is precursor to the speaker being aroused by the girl upstairs having sex on a squeaky box-spring mattress. However, an alternate reading of the poem makes robin a woman (Robin) who lives upstairs. This reading will render a conclusion of the narrator taking note of the youthfulness or the spring in Robin’s vitality. The third possible reading can occur if the reader chooses to take arbitrary end points for breath, like: “long before the first/robin comes.” In the process of reading Jonas’s poem we are caught in the breaks and cuts he creates by running thought and meaning away from one another into alternative narratives. The reader then enters the caesura (space), bouncing from one terminal of interpretation to the next. 

Ghost enjambment challenges the reader and hearer of the poem not to focus on one set of finite principles, but to think about the infinite possibilities and the ranges of interpretation available when one reaches an end line. Of course, the full effect of this practice cannot be achieved unless there is disruption in conventional modes of production as done by Jonas using words like “first” and “robin.” The insertion of space instead of conventional commas and periods enhances this effect.

Such use of space helps to achieve a moment of indecision, a created doubt as to which direction the poem is going. Is the line continuing? Is it the end? Is it the beginning? These are viable questions in this poetic process. Ghost enjambment, in terms of spatiality, is the created lyricism of a multidirectional, polyphonic poetics. If, from the onset, the poem engages in these erratic mechanisms (space and word play), not only is the reader and hearer forced to rethink, but also the inner ear begins to focus on a lyricism that when read over and over again never quite tunes in to the same frequency. The poem manages to achieve a level of distraction that allows the poem to breathe and not become a staid thing. This failure (or achievement) to fall into the dominant discourse increases the poem’s longevity, as language struggles to find new structures in which to strive for aesthetic beauty. 

 

 

Works Cited

Jonas, Stephen. Stephen Jonas: Selected Poems. Ed. Joseph Torra. Hoboken: Talisman, 1994.

 

Joron, Andrew. The Cry at Zero: Selected Prose. Denver: Counterpath, 2007.

 

 

 

Randall Horton is a former recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize. He is the author of the poetry collections The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street, and The Definition of Place, both from Main Street Rag. Randall is an Assistant Professor at the University of New Haven and the Managing Editor of Tidal Basin Review. He also a founding member of The Symphony: The House that Etheridge Built. 

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?

A: The inspiration for "Ghost Enjambment" came after reading the work of Stephen Jonas, a poet who is oftentimes overlook in this commodified age of poetry. I took what he was doing with enjambment and, borrowing from Charles Olson’s ‘projective verse,” came up with my own poetic theory in terms of ghost enjambment.  

 

Q: Who were you, or who do you wish you had been, in a past life? 

A: In a past life I would have like to think that I had a little Nat Turner in me. 

 

Q: Straight road? Or winding road? 

A: I have never taken the straight road or the winding road. I have taken roads with detours and stops and starts, crisscrossing and intersecting. The straight road is too boring. What would you learn? Nothing. 

 

Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process? 

A: I love to edit because the real writing begins. 

 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am working on a group of poems about a mythological city called The District. The poems are very urban but place is not important. What is more important is the relationship between language and being human.


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Your Brain Knowns More Than You Do

By Elizabeth Bernays

Followed by Q&A

Dick Shelton, a Tucson poet, often covers the computer screen when he is writing. “It helps to stop that self-editing process,” he says. Like many other writers he also finds it useful to write quickly whatever comes into his head without too much thought, and without analysis, because he finds that among the lines written that way are his best ones, even though others are nonsense. According to Alfred Corn, no one seriously questions that the first source of artworks is the unconscious.

Some years ago, and before I met Dick, I engaged in “timed writing” with two other women. We met at Borders every couple of weeks. One of us would open a page of verse at random, take the top line and read it out. Then each of us wrote as fast as we could, anything that crossed our minds for just ten minutes. After that we each read our writings to the other two. The most obvious thing about the process was how different and yet individually consistent our products were. Julie always had beautiful images with such heartfelt emotions that she often began to cry before she could complete her reading, apparently surprising herself. Ann invariably invented some strange fiction, and I usually had some kind of mixture of nature and nostalgia. I recently revisited some of the pieces I wrote and found some of the most interesting sentences I had ever written, convincing me that indeed processes of a subliminal nature were at work—inner thoughts that had not come into my conscious brain. There was a me in there that I didn’t know a lot about.

Because the results of these timed writings engaged my interest I began to read more about the process, often called “free writing,” in which writers intentionally try to suppress their logical thoughts and just let the words come. Sometimes the products are surprising to their authors, and so perhaps it is to be expected that for some people there is something supernatural about it. Thus there are many who believe that “automatic writing” is a way of obtaining some kind of message from a spirit or dead person.

Freud said, “The most complex mental operations are possible without the cooperation of consciousness,” and psychologists have built heavily on this, perhaps sometimes to excess. At any rate, for me, the ideas and wording that emerge, apparently automatically, don’t conflict with who I am at all; they are just better ways of saying things than I come up with when I concentrate on trying consciously to express my thoughts and feelings. Some abstract artists also say that their pictures best “paint themselves” when they don’t try too hard to do anything in particular.

Where is the person inside that we don’t know? How can there be a sophisticated personality about which we are not quite conscious? As a scientist I used to think that processing of problems did occur unconsciously because it was so common for me to suddenly find that an answer sprang to mind with little thought, but when I discussed this with a theoretician in neurobiology he said it was more likely that it was to do with random neural activity. In other words, at different times the starting point in the cacophony of brain activity differs and sometimes, by chance, a suitable starting point leads quickly to the right solution. But that was just his idea. More definitive answers are starting to come. 

In some recent studies, neurobiologists have been trying to understand how we have sudden moments of insight, those “Eureka” moments when suddenly we see an answer to a problem or discover some principle. Invariably there is an element of surprise as well as excitement. Our brains contain such an amazing and infinite set of ideas and associations, yet it turns out that as soon as the particular solution appears, there is a rush of special waves in the right hemisphere’s frontal cortex, and only after that does the revelation become something we are conscious of. In other words, there is a part of the brain that recognized the insight before we become aware of it. 

The process has been studied with brain imaging during events of insight that develop during the solving of carefully invented problems. A discovery or insight, and the wide eyes or “aha” exclamation, is preceded by an intense spike of brain activity thought to come from the sudden development of a new network of neurons across the cortex, which is then able to enter consciousness. According to the neurobiologists at work on this problem, there has first to be some focus on the issue, allowing new associations to get to work. Then there has to be some relaxation in the cortex, letting the more remote ideas in the right cortex provide new insight, and allowing the brain to become more receptive to new and unusual ideas. In fact, such relaxation can be monitored by its own type of brain wave, and it is possible to predict which subjects will come up with a new insight by examining which of them is indulging in the appropriate relaxation of focused thoughts.

And so it’s not hard to imagine that a warm bath, a long walk, a game of tennis, might enable the relaxation necessary for problem solving or production of novel ideas. In fact, the bathtub was where Archimedes discovered that by displacement of water one could measure the volume of objects, and there are thousands of similar stories. The big ideas have, more often than not, come when the person’s mind wandered, or the person was doing something quite unrelated to the question at hand.

It has been known for decades that a mental effort followed by a walk away from the effort consistently leads to higher levels of mental performance. Darwin had his garden walk, Haldane meditated, Google has ping-pong tables. Some use music, or yoga, others go to topless bars or go surfing, tube-riding inside the hollow curve of a wave. For myself, I gaze at sunrises and clouds where my mind rides free and seems to think of nothing at all. It is there that I have had my best scientific insights.

So what about the humanities? Artists know about the need for relaxation, because it allows moments of intensity of imagination and feeling. They, too, alternate between focused effort to think things through or manage form and then wandering mentally to allow the creative process free rein. Perhaps new inspiration comes in the same way as the insights do as found in neurobiological studies. In those timed writing sessions of years ago I let my mind go free, and I found the best writings. 

Maya Angelou plays solitaire when she writes her poetry, claiming that by using her ‘little brain,’ she was unlocking her ‘big brain.’ Others say that writing in poetic forms can be effective and liberating because focusing on the puzzle of the restrictions like rhyme leaves one open to ideas and themes that wouldn't otherwise have been considered. No doubt there are thousands of ways to encourage the parts of the brain engaged in unconscious thought, and it may be that doing so is important not just for insights, discoveries, problem solving, and creativity of all kinds. It may be just what we need for all our decision-making. The psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis said that when an important decision comes up he gathers together the relevant facts and gives it all of his attention at first. Then, he says: “I sit on things and rely on my gut.”

My print of Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles,” the original of which I saw in the National Art Gallery in Canberra, represents the unconscious in painting. Supposedly, when he created his paintings he would slip into a trance in which no conscious act was to manifest itself. Action painters such as Pollock supposedly let the paint drip onto the canvas while dancing, or even standing in the canvas, letting the paint fall where the subconscious mind wills, thus letting the unconscious part of the psyche express itself. However, it is difficult to interpret such paintings because they are supposed to be unconscious manifestations of creativity, and the viewers are left to make up their own understandings, or simply to enjoy whatever color, shape and vigor comes to their eyes. And so with “Blue Poles” I look and imagine ships’ masts, utility poles, tall grasses, railroad ties—new things come to me frequently, all on a wonderfully dynamic mess of orange and red and black and white. For unexplained reasons the painting is exciting and I leave it to my unconscious. It probably knows something that I don’t know.

 

 

Elizabeth Bernays is an entomologist and writer. She grew up in Australia, became a scientist in UK where she worked for the British Government on pests in developing countries. She immigrated to the United States as a Professor at the University of California Berkeley, following which she became Regents’ Professor at the University of Arizona, where she also obtained a MFA. As well as many technical papers and books, she has published 25 essays and a dozen poems in literary journals and won several awards for her writing.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?

A: I was inspired to write this piece by reading the research of several neurobiologists, including Ap Dijksterhuis, Earl Miller, Joy Bhattacharya and Jonathon Schooler.  The interesting findings seemed to mesh exactly with my experiences.

 

Q: Who were you, or who do you wish you had been, in a past life?

A: I think I only had one life, but in the past I was a biologist and loved it very much, and now it is again wonderful, to write.

 

Q: Straight road? Or winding road?

A: My path was not straight as I was, as a teenager, deemed subnormal. I was lucky however to have found myself in more ways than one.

 

Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?

A: I like it best when I manage to find the right words for an idea. I don't know until I have put it away and looked at it again later, but if it seems right then, I am very happy.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My current project is a series of nature essays where I look for the intersection of wild places and human activity.


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Reading Back the Way I Came

By Joe Mills

Followed by Q&A

We are often told that we are what we eat.

 In our world since the printing press it might be

 more accurate to say we are what we read. 

How each of us digests what we read is a mystery.

 And what people really read is sometimes

 as puzzling as what they really think. 

- Daniel Boorstein, Introduction to Louis L’Amour’s 

The Education of a Wandering Man

 

... long ago he cultivated the habit of all wise travelers

 in wild country, of turning to look back.

 Faced from the opposite direction,

 a trail can look vastly different ...

- Louis L’Amour’s Fallon

 

I tell people that northern Indiana is a good place to be from because everywhere else is interesting in comparison. Abraham Lincoln, who lived there as a boy, described the state as “unpoetical as any spot of the earth.” A grid of farms long ago replaced the forests, and oceans are a concept in books. The area’s main features came from the glaciers. They scraped flat the upper half of the state like the arm of a bored god sweeping across a tabletop, and, when they receded, the melting ice formed thousands of lakes. My grandfather built a wood cottage on one, and, growing up, I spent each summer there.

Three doors along the shore lived Mr. Stewart, a man who loved bass fishing. He was the type of fisherman that people call “avid” when they’re being polite and “crazy” when they’re not. I found him intimidating. A man of barbed hooks and guns, Mr. Stewart lived at the lake year-round while the rest of us went back to the cities in the fall. Each wall of his house displayed mounted game heads and shellacked bass nailed to plaques.

Knowing I was an avid reader, people loaned me books, and I often asked to borrow what I saw in their cottages. With Mr. Stewart, however, I can’t remember the initial exchange. Did I ask, or did he offer? It’s possible that I scanned his shelves, and, seeing an interesting cover, my desire made me bold enough to approach a man I usually avoided. This version makes me heroic, but I doubt that I ever would have had such courage. In a more likely scenario, Mr. Stewart hands me a paperback and suggests I might like it. Maybe he doesn’t know he makes me nervous, or he may be trying to ease my anxiety with a thoughtful gesture. Or, he might be making a public statement, showing his neighbors that he doesn’t just fish, he reads too. The truth is I don’t know exactly how, as an eleven year old, I ended up holding Mr. Stewart’s copy of Louis L’Amour’s Hondo.

Since I had never heard of the book or author, I was that ideal, innocent reader. What was my reaction to this story of a rugged loner who knows the way of the desert and the Apaches and who finds romance with a rancher woman trying to raise her child? I didn’t think much of it. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it. I didn’t have an affinity for deserts or single mothers, but frankly I’m not sure why it didn’t interest me. We often can pinpoint the reasons for our loves and our hates; our indifferences are more difficult to explain. Considering my response, it’s surprising that when I returned the novel, I borrowed another. Perhaps I was afraid to tell Mr. Stewart I didn’t like it. Even more surprising, the book triggered an intense L’Amour reading phase.

Over time, Mr. Stewart and I reached an agreement. I could freely enter his house to take and return books as long as I confined myself to the living room where they were. I read his two dozen L’Amours, and, when I had finished, I read them again. Sitting on the porch swing or lying in the boat, I immersed myself in tales of grub-line riders, gunmen, and gamblers. Soon I began buying my own copies. Combing through flea markets, I built a collection which I read and reread until my junior year in high school when suddenly I stopped. Again there was no easily identifiable reason. Maybe I simply became bored with the repetitive narratives. 

I didn’t think about L’Amour again for almost twenty years. Then one day in a bookstore’s children’s section, my eye kept returning to a particular color pattern. I pulled the book out. It was Dr. Seuss’s McElligot’s Pond which I had owned as a child. It felt strange to hold a book I had read years ago and to which I had a visceral reaction, but whose story I couldn’t remember.  With my back propped against the Tiny Tots Story-Hour Table, I read it again.

A boy is fishing in McElligot’s pond when a passerby begins to mock him. There’s no fish in there the adult tells the boy. There’s only garbage and old cans, bottles and abandoned shoes. The boy insists the pond may be deeper than people think. It may have a passage that leads to the ocean. There may be mysterious fantastic fish below its surface. He refuses to quit.

I finished the book stunned to realize how much of its philosophy I had adopted. Don’t be deceived by the surface. As the boy says, “... you never can tell/what goes on down below!” Exotic fish may exist somewhere as yet unknown; the imagination can transform our garbage-filled world into a beautiful, mystical place. Theoretically, I knew books shaped me; here seemed to be a concrete example. I began to wonder about my other reading. How had all those L’Amours affected me?

I decided to go back to L’Amour’s work and explore what happens when we reread. Can we gain insight not only into the story, but into who we were then and who we are now? Can rereading serve as an exercise in self-analysis?  

I considered trying to locate Mr. Stewart. If he lived close enough, I could borrow his copies again. We could talk about what L’Amour meant to him, and why he had let me use his library. Was it because his own son didn’t read very much or share his tastes? Back then, I didn’t understand what it meant to loan a book, how you’re offering up your taste, sharing a part of yourself through another’s words. When the person likes the book, it validates you. He must have taken pleasure from my pleasure. Since I knew him only as Mr. Stewart, however, he would be difficult to find. I gave up the idea and headed for the library.

What I discovered there stunned me. Several dozen books stood in a uniform edition: The Louis L’Amour Collection. Bound in brown faux leather, they were volumes to be displayed. I was appalled. These hardbacks required two hands to hold. They couldn’t be casually carried around, shoved into pockets, or read while lying down. What was worse, the covers evoked no memories. This collection was not my L’Amour. These were not the books that I had read.

I went to Borders in search of paperbacks. To my annoyance, I realized many of the designs had been changed. Fallon, for example, had a “new” cover similar to the old one, yet significantly different. Both portray men at card tables, staring up from under their hats, but the new one had a younger, rougher looking model. He looked callow rather than cool. Suddenly, I had a disturbing thought; was I so much older that the figure looked young?

I began searching for earlier editions. L’Amour’s incredible sales figures means almost any yard sale or used book store has his work. I easily found the paperbacks I used to own. I started with my favorite, Reilly’s Luck, which tells the story of a professional gambler who is tricked into taking care of a young boy, Val. Like most of L’Amour’s novels, the book chronicles the process of an education. Reilly gives lessons not only on how to live, but how to live well. He emphasizes an appreciation of good books, clothes, and food. He educates Val, and by extension the reader, about what to value. In one of my favorite scenes, Reilly asks Val how many windows a building across the street has. Val doesn’t know and Reilly explains that’s because he’s looking without seeing. I used to test myself in a similar fashion, stopping and asking, “How many cars are in the parking lot you just passed?” I always failed miserably, but, even now, I continue to insist to my students and myself, “Pay attention.”

After rereading Reilly’s Luck and Hondo, I realized that they were similar narratives. Each is about a loner who takes responsibility for a small boy. Hondo takes his charge into the desert, and Reilly teaches his about the urban wilderness. Why had I loved one and not the other? Perhaps, because Reilly’s advice seemed more useful. I could apply what he tells Val: “A gentleman never cheats ... but you will not always play with gentlemen, and it is well to know when you are being cheated.” I might someday be in situations where I would have to face other men, where there would be money at stake, where we would raise, call, and bluff. Hondo’s knowledge of the desert was interesting, but irrelevant. When would I need to know that chewing the twigs of yerba del pasmo was good for a toothache? Living in the Midwest, I would never be a cowhand or a rancher, but I could play cards. Or, I could at least adopt the gambler’s philosophy. Yes, we live in a world of chance, and you never know what hand you will be dealt, but you do have a certain amount of control in how you play the game. In the absence of religion—my family had stopped going to church—this philosophy offered a substitute world view, a way to deal with the apparent randomness of the universe. 

L’Amour’s work insists on the importance of knowledge: of books, of woods, of people. And, L’Amour looms over all as the wise one, the ur-father and teacher. He pontificates on almost every subject from how to make a bowl out of bark to how to choose a wine. Perhaps this was part of his appeal. Long before my parents divorced, their problems were evident. Reading was an escape, but was I also looking for advice? Did L’Amour’s authoritative tone resonate with a kid whose father was working all the time to avoid coming home to a woman he no longer loved? 

The one area in which L’Amour offers little advice is relationships with women. His heroes are more comfortable talking to their horses than the opposite sex. The gunfighter Kilkenny looks at the house where his love sleeps and says to his mount, “She’s there, Buck, old boy, there in that house. Remember her, Buck? Remember how she looked the first time we saw her?” Rereading these scenes I cringe, in part because as an adolescent I loved them. I may have even talked to my bicycle about my grade school crushes. (Certainly, I named it and pretended it was a horse.) While my classmates were getting an education from Henry Miller, Erica Jong, and Hugh Hefner, I remained unenlightened. Kilkenny does kiss Nina: “Roughly he took her arms and pulled her to him and she reached hungrily for his lips and they melted together and deep within him something seemed to well up and the cold dams across his feelings were gone.” Just as this scene might become informative, however, Kilkenny “pushed her away” saying, “It’s no good . . . no good at all. You’ve too much to waste on me.” When I finally did kiss someone, she neither moved “hungrily” nor melted. I remember thinking, “Is this it?” And, it was her who pushed me away saying the equivalent of “It’s no good ... no good at all.” 

L’Amour offers romances for men, stories where Horatio Alger goes West. They follow predictable patterns, and this is part of their appeal. When I read Ride the Dark Trail and the protagonist didn’t get the girl at the end, I was discomforted in a way few novels have affected me since. I was the Kathy Bates of Misery, the obsessive reader demanding the same narrative. I wanted familiar texts that offered familiar lessons on how to deal with an unfamiliar world.  L’Amour’s books with their repetitive narratives, characters, and attitudes provided a reassuring constancy. Is this why I stopped reading him when I did? As I grew older, did the world no longer scare me or seem so dangerously changeable? During my “L’Amour years,” my family moved four times among different cities, and I changed schools several times. After we moved back to my hometown and regained a geographical stability, I moved on to other authors.  

As I reread these novels, it became obvious how many of their values I have embraced. Take care of the land. Don’t look for trouble. Don’t brag about what you’ve done. Appearances deceive. Stop and assess the situation. Be patient. Work hard. Educate yourself. In fact, the values exemplified in L’Amour’s work, such as a respect for education and an insistence on concentration, are those a good reader should possess. These paperbacks made me the person that I am, in part, by making me the reader that I am. They strengthened and validated my love of books.

L’Amour’s heroes respect literature. At times the narrator begins the story almost illiterate, and by the end he is reading classic texts, such as Plutarch’s Lives.  So many characters quote Tennyson’s “Ulysses” that I sought it out and memorized it. The protagonists work to improve their minds, but, of course, they can handle themselves in violent situations. They shoot, punch, and quote poetry. Will Reilly pins a man’s hand to the table with his knife and then reads him poetry. Kilkenny goes into a hotel and orders from the French side of the menu, telling the waiter, “I’ll have the Paupiettes de Veau Provençal, and tell your chef I’ll have nothing but Madeira in the sauce.” How could this not appeal to an adolescent male? Was it a coincidence that in high school I signed up for wrestling and French or that while earning a graduate degree in literature I took a karate class?

In L’Amour’s work, reading is more than a skill; it is a metaphor for living. In The Daybreakers, Tyrel Sackett discovers that it has a practical use: “... I got a surprise by learning that a man could learn something about his own way of living from a book.” However, he also realizes it is a way of perceiving relationships. At one point, he has a revelation: “Suddenly I knew I didn’t have to kill him. Mayhap that was the moment when I changed from a boy into a man...Reading men is the biggest part . . .” You can read people, and you also can read the land. The character Conagher uses this very phrase, telling his son, “look upon the land, Laban—there are stories everywhere.” Reading is a way of seeing and thinking about the world.

Books can protect you. In Reilly’s Luck, friends of Val put together a library for him. One of these works literally saves his life when an assassin shoots at him, and the bullet, which would have struck his heart, instead lodges in a book he holds. 

Books also provide company. Will Reilly tells Val that poetry can be a “companion” in lonely hours. Although protagonists in L’Amour’s work insist that they are loners, this is not true because they read avidly. Even when people insist that a man must rely only on himself, each story emphasizes the need for social relationships. Many of these novels end not only with the hero finding love, but embracing friends. Such a loner/friends dichotomy gratifies the reader because reading itself is the paradoxical act of isolation and communication. Removing us from human friends, books offer as compensation the company of the author and characters.

In fact, when we loan books, we are making social introductions. What Mr. Stewart was saying when he handed me Hondo was “Here’s a friend of mine. I think you’ll get along.” He was right. For a while, L’Amour and I became inseparable companions. Rereading these books was touching base with a best friend years ago. Forgotten memories emerged, and I gained a clearer understanding of what happened in the past and why. As is often the case, however, there was the realization that we have little in common anymore. It was nice to catch up, but we won’t maintain steady contact. Perhaps in ten years or so, I’ll look him up again. We’ll spend time together, a night or two, we’ll go back over the old stories, and I’ll discover who I have become by remembering who I used to be.

 

 

Joe Mills currently holds the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship of the Humanities at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. In addition to writing two editions of A Guide to North Carolina's Wineries with his wife, Danielle Tarmey, he has published three volumes of poetry. His most recent collection is Love and Other Collisions.

 

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?

A: On college applications, I listed Louis L’Amour as a favorite writer. At the time, I didn't realize that the work of certain writers has a cultural capital and the work of others does not. Four years later, however, I had learned that there were books you read and talked about, books you talked about, but had yet to read, and books you read, but never mentioned. It would be more than a decade after graduation before I would admit to a childhood spent reading L’Amour.

 

Q: Who were you, or who do you wish you had been, in a past life?

A: I wish that I could have been a member of Lewis and Clark’s expedition.

 

Q: Straight road? Or winding road?

A: James Thurber liked to quote a professor as saying, “A straight line is the shortest distance between two points, and it’s also the most boring.” But, the honest answer to this question for me is straight road on weekdays as I have to get my kids to daycare, get to school, get to the next obligation, and winding road on weekends and during the summer. My preference is always for the latter, but my schedule frequently demands the former.

 

Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?

A: There often comes a point in the revising process where I can feel the pieces fit together in a tight way. It’s like the solving of a jigsaw puzzle.  I can almost hear the click, and I think, “Ah, there it is.”

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a novel tentatively titled “Carolina Crush” and set in the North Carolina wine country, a young adult novel called “The Time Shaper,” and a manuscript of poems about reading and teaching.


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Release

By Nina Feng

My face has developed kind lines, ones that cradle my eyes, stitch my mouth to my cheeks. I lie in the dark, run fingers along these lines that tie together body, entwined in places where the skin has worn blood beating blood beating thin, braided trails of ancient ruptures. Hard, I press my palm against the scar on my neck.                                                     

_

Folding his hands around her small hips, he watches sharp bones emerging between thumb and forefinger. He imagines cracking her open—tense belly erupting in a jagged rift. Billowing silk rising. He rests his cheek in the shallow curve of her body.

_

I get out of bed. Trace rings of smudged light with my stare. Strings of glistening white snake through the black road outside; I cannot stop following each line to its end, pulling it in with my eyes, down my throat, piling wet rope. My eyes are also kind, kind to carry the bruised weight that clings underneath, kind to let me see into their murky choking choking choking world. Slow, I blink.            

_       

He gazes as she falls back asleep, her tensely coiled body pushing out knots of backbone.  Placing his fingers in between the fragmented arc of the rounded islands on her back, he feels them spread and tighten with her breathing. He wonders if she didn’t exhale—flesh swelling taut, vertebrae slipping apart, rough little mouths ascending until they pierced—she would pour into his arms. He curls around her body, spine like tiny fists against his chest.  

_

Blow him a kiss with open hands. I watch him leave, feel the places warm where he touched me last. He is the only one who knows this body like I do. Must know how kind it is. Harsh morning light spills.  Scalds away the creases, the lines, the wrinkles of my body. Unfastened skin. I look for leftover breakfast; can still feel the fullness of food in my mouth, food scattered all around, food I begin to devour. I barely chew, swallowing whole to engorge my throat, needing the bulk in my belly. Keep eating until it is all gone.  I want to be solid filled. Then I can feel every inch, every part of me spewing spewing spewing anchored. Fast, I cover my mouth.

_        

He comes back with opened arms. Clasping them around her, she leans against him. He whispers to her, how he imagines her eyelashes dropping off delicately, tiny obsidian knives tracing ruby paths over her cheeks, gliding over her soft throat with a blushing wake, skating gently on the surface of her chest, green veins suspended languidly.  Circling and circling, brilliant black flashes slicing deeper, until, finally, she is exposed.

_  

A glimmer of pulsing red encased in pale peach ice. He would see the movement of her heart.  He presses both his hands against her breast, waits for a beat. Almost everything sounds like a low hum.  He speaks to me sometimes and I only see his lips move. I want to hear his voice, clear and warm, flow into my ears.  It is a strange quieted hope, as if I dwelled underwater, looking up at the surface with my hand outstretched, fingertips barely brushing the underbelly of the fluid creature that encapsulates me. The voices I do hear are always screaming. All I can hear now are screams, screams pumping in until my ears seem to be cupping pure pulp, feel like they are bleeding bleeding…bleeding.

_  

My hair is damp. I touch my neck. I look at my fingers, crimson wet. Adorning my earlobes, beaded red drops. Soft, I smile at this unkindness.

 

Nina Feng is a writer living in New Orleans, finishing her first book.


Clifford Garstang Interviews Christine Schutt

Christine Schutt is the author of two short story collections, A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer (Triquarterly, 2005) and Nightwork (Knopf, 1996). She has also written two novels: All Souls (Harcourt, 2008), a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize; and Florida (Mariner, 2005), a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award. Her fiction has appeared in NOONThe Kenyon Review, Post Road, and other literary magazines. Schutt has won two O. Henry Prizes and a Pushcart Prize and was the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship for 2008. Her work has been anthologized in the The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (Anchor, 2004) and KGB Bar Reader (Quill/William Morrow, 1998). She lives and teaches in New York City.

 

Cliff Garstang: This isn't going to look much like a normal interview. I asked the questions I wanted to ask--mostly about the two novels, Florida and All Souls--but the questions only seem to get in the way of the beautiful, lyrical answers I got back. In some ways, Christine's response is like her fiction--elliptical, spare, and mesmerizing. And so I present the answers without the questions--the result is a fascinating discourse on writing.

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Christine Schutt: You ask how my life has changed since the publication of Nightwork in 1996.  The gifts are these: more teaching opportunities, occasional requests for stories, more editors inclined to read a story through to the end. More pertinent to writer-readers of your magazine is the fact that language is as intractable as ever; stories wilt; confidence is shaky at best. I once asked Elizabeth Hardwick what she thought most needful in the making of a writer, and she said character. She was right about character and the well-known secret that every writer has at least one novel in a drawer. 

At eighteen I began reading biographies of writers: where had they gone to school? Were they married, childless, published before age thirty? Were they mad, alcoholic, suicidal, dead at forty? I was not so unhappy growing up that I did not fear the loneliness that seemed to come with being a writer; many of my favorite writers had dispiriting lives, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to suffer if that is what it took, but I did want to write. Suffering comes in many different styles, of course; mine involved years of writing and rewriting paragraphs—typing, deleting, typing again and again before giving in to a watery glue of dialogue.  (Writing dialogue most often makes me cringe. Recently, I discovered that verisimilitude or interest can be had in columns of dialogue if every other line is crossed out.) To be embarrassed by a story of one’s own making that dissolves after the first wrought gesture is one way of suffering. 

     In my early twenties I read and re-read all of John Updike’s stories—all the stories he had written up to 1975—and gloried in his sentences. And some of his stories, “The Lifeguard,” for instance, were meditations that should have been doable, but my imitations failed. Not until I encountered two stories, both published in the ’70s in The New Yorker, “Brownstone,” by Renata Adler and “Story in an Almost Classical Mode,” by Harold Brodkey did I conceive of writing lyrical, excessive, elliptical stories, hardly tidy or concluded. In Brodkey and Adler were failed, neurotic, self-flagellating narrators—not just the intoning wise or existential voices, and I thought yes, I have heard this sound before. I spent the next few years at Columbia trying to write the Brodkey story.  

     At my MFA thesis conference, my teacher Frank MacShane said I had an unusual way with words and that my sentences were surprising, musical, poetic.  The other teacher present on this occasion, Hannah Green, agreed about the sentences but said, quite bluntly, “You may not figure out how to write a story for another twenty years.” I was appalled but she was right. One story from my MFA thesis was published; the story won a Pushcart and that was the end of my publishing career for the next ten years—encouraging rejections but I never followed up. This is where Hardwick’s character ingredient was called for, but I could only dedicate myself to writing a small part of every day—through motherhood and teaching, through divorce and abusive rebound. These fragmented days account in part for the way my fiction is fitted together in pieces, mostly short. In years I now wish I could have enjoyed, I often felt quite desperate; my consolation was the material being gathered in simply living. At forty, the cruelties receded. I lived with my sons, taught, and wrote. By then, publishing, or who was in and who was out, did not matter quite so much; I had an identity as a mother and teacher; the man who had wished me dead was dead.  Everything had been said; nothing would ever stun me in quite the same way—and hasn’t, frankly. At forty, I was up for whatever any editor might say; I had spent a long time fashioning pretty sentences. Gordon Lish taught me how to use those sentences. 

The stories in Nightwork come out of my experience with Gordon Lish as teacher and editor. In no other book is my prose quite as consistently ornate—I indulged every fancy of the ear and heart. For the subsequent books, the novels, Florida and All Souls, as well as the second story collection, A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer, Diane Williams has been my most important reader and editor.  What would I do without Diane Williams? 

This remarkable writer has read the last forty pages of a novel I have been at work on for too long to feel confident about it, except that Diane Williams has read the book with what she insists is a clearer eye for what is there and what is not.  She says I am close, close, close to being finished.  So to your penultimate question is anything new about to happen?  I hope.  

To your last question, how to break into publishing?  Better ask how to break into a story. 

Clifford Garstang is the Editor of Prime Number Magazine.


Sharon Harrigan Interviews Emma Rathbone

Emma Rathbone’s debut novel, The Patterns of Paper Monsters, was published by Little, Brown and Company on August 9, 2010. The book has been called “irreverant, perceptive, and achingly funny,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Napoleon Dynamite,” and “one of the best books of the year.” It’s a hilarious and touching coming of age novel in the outrageous and inventive voice of Jacob Higgins, a seventeen-year-old boy at a juvenile detention center.

She was a Henry Hoyns Fellow at the University of Virginia, where she received her MFA. She has taught fiction at the UVA Extension Program and WriterHouse in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she lives. 

Sharon Harrigan: I thought you did an impressive job getting readers (even hardened readers like me who are parents) to empathize with a seventeen-year-old boy with anti-social and criminal behavior. When I started reading, I was intrigued to see if you could pull it off through the whole book, and you do. Not only did I not get annoyed with Jacob, I wanted him for a friend. How did you do that?

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Emma Rathbone: That’s a really wonderful question, and I’m so glad you felt that you could relate to him, while seeing him for who he was. I think that it’s hard not to empathize with first person characters, especially if they’re written as honestly and unpretentiously as they can be. Because Jacob was writing in a journal, he could share his deepest thoughts. He didn’t need to hide anything. It’s easy to relate to people when they’re being honest and when they’re being as specific as they can be about their own feelings.

SH: He’s also so self-aware you have to love him for his insight.

ER: He sees a lot, and he’s sensitive to how people react to him. He can see the tapestry of what’s going on in a given situation, so I think that probably contributes to readers’ empathy. And even though he is angry, rude, and grumpy, it’s evident that he’s not a cruel person. David [another boy at the juvenile detention center], on the other hand, is cruel, and putting him in the book helped me show the contrast between David and Jacob. 

 

SH: How did you figure out Jacob’s voice, which is the driving force of the novel?

ER: His voice was the jumping off point for me. I found it really easy, maybe because I grew up with two brothers and have good male friendships. I also don’t think that girls and boys think that differently.

 

SH: It’s not just that he is a boy. It’s that you got the vernacular. Instead of saying: “Who’s that?” you say “Fuck’s that guy?” You got the music of his language. He has a street voice, but he also talks in colorful and surprising metaphors, and you make them sound authentic.

ER: I think I just hit a vein. I got lucky in that way. There were other things that were really hard for me, like how to move the story forward and how to describe the juvenile detention center.

 

SH: You did research for that?

ER: I went to a youth corrections facility and walked around with one of the people who worked there, and that was really helpful. I had a lot of questions about the procedures and routines, what everything looked like, what they ate, what they did from hour to hour. My mom had a friend who worked in the court system, and she read some of the manuscript and gave me tips. I think it’s accurate enough. It is fiction, and it’s filtered through Jacob’s brain, which isn’t supposed to be objective.

 

SH: Another way Jacob won me over was through his humor. 

ER: The humor is one of the hooks that kept me in the book. I didn’t sit down thinking I was going to write a funny book. But copying the way Jacob spoke and thought, it ended up being that way. Jacob isn’t trying to be funny; he’s just observing the world in his prickly, sarcastic, Jacob-specific way. And using his voice allowed me to be a lot more inventive and gave me the energy to sustain the writing. 

 

SH: Part of the humor comes from Jacob’s exaggeration, like when he says that his therapist’s whole office is made of denim. His descriptions and lists are hilarious.

ER: That was one of the cool things about having him write in a journal. You can list things. You can fully describe something. You can take the twists and turns a teenager’s mind would have when writing in a journal. That format was inspiring. It allowed me to be inventive and imaginative. 

 

SH: Is your next book in the first person?

ER: So far it’s third person, three characters. I’m excited about trying something different. I’m enjoying the ability to get both in and out of my characters’ heads.

 

SH: What’s your writing process? 

ER: I wrote the novel piecemeal. I did outlines as I went, but they were constantly changing. I was always thinking about a mile ahead, not looking over the whole landscape. I write in the morning or afternoon. After about six o’clock my brain is not good for anything creative. I try to write every day, because I like the momentum I get from building on what I had the day before.

 

SH: At the end of the novel, you recommend some books that you read as a teenager and that Jacob might have read. What about adult books that influenced you?

ER: Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Edith Wharton. It’s so delicious and so good, and I was totally surprised. She’s so deft, so great at nailing social interactions. That’s something I’ve been really inspired by lately. 

 

SH: Not the same social world as in Patterns.

ER: No! I’m always afraid of reading something similar to what I’m writing because I don’t want to accidentally start copying. 

 

SH: Who do you imagine as the audience for Patterns?

ER: I was writing for my peer group. I would read it to friends on the phone and if they thought it was good and laughed, I figured I got it right. But I also hope that it appeals to a much wider age range. I’m going to be giving readings at some high schools, so I’m looking forward to seeing how teenagers respond to the book. 

 

SH: I love the way you describe the setting, almost as if it’s a character: “It’s not the northern Virginia of freshly painted highways and wincingly bright glass buildings. It’s not the northern Virginia of tailored town centers with marble walkways and aggressive-looking plants. It’s a land of deserted concrete plazas, slumping strip malls, and schools with losing sports teams.” You’ve lived in a lot of places, from South Africa to Texas. Why did you choose Northern Virginia as the setting for Patterns?

ER: We moved to Northern Virginia when I was twelve, so it was the thing I knew. But then I found that I had a lot to say about it, that Northern Virginia is a very specific, bizarre landscape that’s different from a lot of places. 

 

SH: The setting allows you to talk about class, especially when you introduce David who, unlike the other inmates, is from the wealthy part, not the rural part, of Northern Virginia. 

ER: The contrast between the classes in that part of the country is pretty noticeable. When I was writing the book, Fairfax County, in Northern Virginia, was designated the wealthiest county in the whole United States. That’s very weird, because that’s where my family lives, and they are not super rich. But when you drive around in Fairfax, you see huge gated communities with gigantic houses, which are weirdly close together. They have enormous security systems and no one’s ever outside. Then you drive not far away, into some parts of Springfield, and it’s a lot more depressed. Loudoun County, also in Northern Virginia, is the richest this year, and I think it goes back and forth between Fairfax and Loudoun.  I thought it was so interesting that you have ornate castles that have sprouted up and then the county still has some more rural, poorer parts to it. 

 

SH: David, the one from the wealthy area, turns out to be the most dangerous.

ER: I’ve always been interested in white male rage that keeps popping up in our country, like Columbine and Virginia Tech, and other random shootings. A lot of the times these people are not poor, they’re people like David. 

 

SH: How long did you work on Patterns?

ER: About three years. 

 

SH: Did the novel change much from your original conception?

ER: It went through a lot of changes. One of the first drafts was a series of columns that Jacob wrote for the juvenile detention center’s newsletter. That was a fun gimmick and it’s what got me into the voice, but once I tried to make it a larger piece it was not sustainable because I couldn’t talk about what he was thinking. Then I wrote another draft, in which I decided to have him blogging from the juvenile detention computer room, and that was a left turn into a really bad idea. I started all over, and from the ground up, I wrote it as journal entries. Even then I had to be careful that readers didn’t get too distracted by the fact that he’s writing it in a journal to actually experience the story. I had to find the frame then make it seem to disappear. There were definitely several drafts and incarnations. And there were times when I thought I was never going to finish it. 

 

SH: What does the title mean?

ER: I wanted the title to reference the format, that Jacob is writing in a notebook. Also, one of the questions of the book is whether people can break out of their previous ways of being, their patterns.

 

SH: At your last reading, you had everyone in stitches and tears. How’s life after publication?

ER: The reception has been wonderful. The thing I’m most proud of is that people have voluntarily finished the book. I’ve had people whom I only vaguely know come up to me and say they loved it, they read it in two days, or they stayed up all night to finish it. They didn’t have to say that. It’s gotten some press; I’m still waiting for it to all unfold. The launch date was August, and I think that’s kind of a slow time. You’ll have to ask me a year from now how the book did. But it feels great to see it in a bookstore. I saw it on the shelf when I went to get something else, and I felt happy, relieved, and excited, though it’s a roller coaster ride waiting for the reviews to roll in. I did a reading in Richmond and that was really fun. I read in Charlottesville, and I’m reading in Northern Virginia and New York City. I just got engaged, and I’m lucky to have a partner who is not involved in the publishing world at all. It’s nice to have Adam say, “Calm down, relax. There’s a whole world out there besides this book.”

 

SH: Do you also write short stories?

ER: I’m not a natural short story writer; I keep gravitating toward the novel. It’s rare that I think: That’s a great idea for a short story. Which kind of sucks, because I love short stories, and I love the idea of writing and getting it out into the world quickly, but I can’t seem to work that way. 

 

SH: Tell me your journey to publication.

ER: It didn’t take that long. I went the normal route of looking for an agent and having the agent shop the manuscript around. I wrote a query letter. I found an agent who agreed to represent the novel, and about two and a half weeks later we had an offer. My agent didn’t ask for any edits, but my editor did. I feel lucky that the first novel I wrote got published. I did think about the novel for a really long time. I started it in 2003, so the idea, the whole world of it had been percolating for years and years. It’s not like I just sat down and said, I’m going to write a novel and then did it. 

 

SH: Do you have any tips for other writers?

ER: When you’re feeling really frustrated, like you have no idea what to do with something, put it down for a while. That’s one of the hardest things, but one of the best things you can do. Time can be such a tonic to your brain. So many times when I’ve been stymied, I waited a week or a month or longer and then knew exactly how to get out of my problem. 

 

SH: What are you working on now?

ER: I’m working on a new novel. I’m really excited about it. I’ve told myself it’s OK if for a month if I’m distracted by the first book and can’t write, but now I’m starting to feel that yearning again to sink my teeth back into it. I’m hesitant to say too much about it, because I started a novel about a year ago and worked on it for about six months and abandoned it, so this is the thing I started after that.

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Sharon Harrigan has fiction published or forthcoming in Slice Magazine and Pearl  Magazine. She is a features writer and columnist for Albemarle Family Magazine and is getting her MFA in fiction from Pacific University. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.


The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund

(University of Georgia Press, 2009)

Reviewed by Joe Mills

A few years ago, I was at a dinner party hosted by a woman who could have been nominated for a June Cleaver award. Married with two kids, she kept her three-bedroom house immaculate. As the discussion turned to parenting, she mentioned that after the birth of her first child, she wasn’t sure what to do with the placenta, so she put it in her fridge. She did the same with her second child’s. Both were still there behind the ice cream. No one knew what to say, but I remembered how Barbara Billingsley, the actress who played June Cleaver, once explained she wore pearls for the role to cover a tracheotomy scar. 

Or, as every fairy tale insists, don’t expect stereotypical behavior because someone has a stereotypical appearance. The most normal-seeming people have odd habits and unexpected attitudes, and the behavior of lovers and family can be inexplicable. You may live with someone who takes a trip, returns with a shaved head, and doesn’t explain why. You may have a parent who insists on keeping broken appliances and frozen meat that will never be eaten. You and a lover may stop desiring each other although you share a bed each night.

Lori Ostlund explores these moments and the various ways our relationships form and fall apart in her wonderful collection, The Bigness of the World. With an impressive sensitivity, Ostlund chronicles our wrenching everyday yearnings, failings, and misunderstandings. Although the settings of these eleven stories range from Minnesota to Malaysia, they’re all concerned with the enigmatic workings of the heart. 

Many of the characters in this collection go abroad, sometimes in an attempt to change a life with a dramatic gesture. In doing so, they often don’t understand what they see or even their own behavior. In “Nobody Walks to the Mennonites,” two American women visiting Belize City are determined to find a Mennonite community that a guidebook says is nearby. It becomes a quest, but when they finally arrive, they realize “they did not know what to do” or why they thought of the Mennonites as a destination. The story explores the unsettling dual voyeurism of tourists looking at natives who are looking back.

Ostlund suggests that even when we think we share a common understanding, it’s either an illusion or only temporary. In “Idyllic Little Bali,” a group of Americans hang around a hotel pool because “they are all tired of dealing with non-Americans, tired of having to explain themselves and of having to work so hard to understand what others are explaining to them.”  They want the familiar comfort of a shared set of cultural references from Ted Bundy to Olivia Newton-John. Despite having these, however, they still cannot connect with one another in a meaningful way, and, when a tragedy occurs, their isolation becomes clear.

Ostlund captures the emotional dislocation involved in traveling and living abroad, and how, even though we ostensibly want to discover “something” about ourselves, what we find can make us uneasy. In this sense, her work fits into a literary lineage from Henry James to Paul Theroux, and journeys are both literal and metaphorical. Ostlund, however, never relies on easy symbols or pushes obvious ideological points. Nor do these stories depend on twists or offer smug self-discoveries; instead, they develop in unexpected ways that feel emotionally satisfying and honest.

Several of the characters in these stories teach, and their insistence on the precision of words and numbers contrasts with, and probably stems from, their inability to manage their personal lives. In “Upon Completion of Baldness,” when the narrator discovers someone has written on her classroom board, “MISS LUNDSTROM & MISS SHAPIRO ARE LEZZIE LOVERS!!” she has the discipline to take her students through a lesson on grammar and style, getting them to correct the sentence until it reads, “Ms. Lundstrom and Ms. Shapiro are lovers.”   Her composure remains intact as long as she can concentrate on syntax; however, later, having fully absorbed the impact of her lover’s departure, she falls apart in front of her students who stare at her with “looks of sheer terror and helplessness.”

Writing about teaching allows Ostlund to explore relationships predicated on communication and examine how teachers often reveal more than they realize and pass along less than they know. In “Dr. Deneau’s Punishment,” a teacher attempts, as he sees it, to maintain standards among students full of “apathy and laziness and disdain” and to resist the demands of idiotic educators who misguidedly feel “we are the keepers of our students’ self-esteem and, as such, must never allow them to feel they have failed.” He clashes with his principal, who refuses to let him call a group of slow learners “The Donkeys,” and parents complain about his unorthodox methods of discipline. Although Dr. Deneau easily could be a figure of parody or a stereotype, Ostlund portrays him, and all her characters, with a remarkable empathy and generosity.

This collection exemplifies what superior fiction can accomplish; it allows us to experience life more intensely and understand it more fully. All of us, no matter our age or experience, are trying to grasp the bigness of the world. When we read the work of a writer like Ostlund, it almost seems possible.

Joe Mills currently holds the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship of the Humanities at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. In addition to writing two editions of  A Guide to North Carolina's Wineries with his wife, Danielle Tarmey, he has published three volumes of poetry. His most recent collection is Love and Other Collisions.