Welcome to Issue No. 31 of Prime Number

Cover.jpg

A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose

Letter from the Editors (or jump to the Table of Contents)

Dear Readers,

We’ve got a great new issue for you—Number 31 is the third issue of our THIRD YEAR. To see work from previous issues, check out the Archives, or order Editors' Selections Volumes 1 and 2, shipping now from Press 53.

In this issue, we continue to bring you distinctive poetry and prose: short stories by Charlene Pollano, Sharron Harrigan, Elizabeth Jennings, and Mickey Laurence Cohen; essays by Jay Kauffmann, Jacob Allgeier, Ray Scanlon, and Christine Hale; a craft essay by Mary Akers; poetry by Jason Braun, John McDermott, Simon Perchik, and Scott Ward; reviews of books by David Foster Wallace and David Ebenbach; and an interview with Amanda Coplin, author of The Orchardist. Plus, we present the quarterly winner of Press 53’s 53-word Story contest! Our beautiful, snowy cover photo, just right for January, is by Alexander Zielinski.

We are currently reading submissions for the Issue 31 updates, Issue 37, and beyond. Please visit our Submit page and send us your distinctive poetry and prose. We’re looking for flash fiction and nonfiction up to 1,000 words, stories and essays up to 5,000 words (note that this is an increase from our previous limit), poems, book reviews, craft essays, short drama, ideas for interviews, and cover art that reflects the number of a particular issue (we’re looking for a “37” right now). If we’ve had to decline your submission, please forgive us and try again!

A number of readers have asked how they might comment on the work they read in the magazine. We’ll look into adding that feature in the future. In the meantime if you are moved to comment I would encourage you to send us an email (editors@primenumbermagazine.com) and we’ll pass your thoughts along to the contributors. Similarly, if you are a publisher and would like to send us ARCs for us to consider for reviews, please contact us at the above email address. We’re especially interested in reviewing new, recent, or overlooked books from small presses.

One more thing: Prime Number Magazine is published by Press 53, a terrific small press helping to keep literature alive. Please support independent presses and bookstores.

The Editors

Table of Contents, Prime Number Magazine

Issue 31, January-March 2013

POETRY

Jason Braun

Getaway

Faux Pas

Voice Over

The Man from Nowheresville

 

John McDermott

The Cliff Walkers

The Buddha of Newport

On Visiting Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island

 

Simon Perchik

Untitled

 

Scott Ward

Haircut

Pastoral Ghazal

Chemo

 

FICTION

Charlene Pollano

Angle of Repose

 

Sharon Harrigan

Eighty-Two Percent True

 

Elizabeth Jennings

In the Chambers of the Sea

 

Mickey Laurence Cohen

All Our Heroes Are Dead

 

Rebecca Morris

Untitled, a 53-word Story

 

NONFICTION

Jay Kauffmann

Mykonos (1988)

 

Jacob Allgeier

Thirst

 

Ray Scanlon

Bankrupting the Russkies

 

Christine Hale

Three Short-Shorts

 

CRAFT ESSAY

Mary Akers

Getting Away with It: Breaking the Rules of Writing

 

BOOK REVIEWS

Anne Pharr

Review of David Ebenbach's Into the Wilderness

 

Matthew Raese

Review of David Foster Wallace's Both Flesh and Not

 

INTERVIEW

Interview with Amanda Coplin, author of The Orchardist

 

COVER ART

Alexander Zielinski

Number 31

 

Prime Number Decimals

Prime Decimals 31.2

Prime Decimals 31.3

Prime Decimals 31.5


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Poetry from Jason Braun

followed by Q&A

Getaway

I fold this map up and keep 

moving. Someone else will

have to translate: jewel thief,

hard labor, the coolness

of a plum. I let my language

slip into the last river pass,

sinking in a sack with old photos,

a passport, and stolen pistol. 

I’ll make my hat and the cut

of my suit and white of my teeth

catching on a thread of the sun

do all the talking. My belt

buckle as a book report: a bullet

stopped just short of the spleen,

a buck knife blocked as it was cast 

at my belly to clean me like a fish, 

the place I hid the stones. 

Maps are no good past these hills

into Honduras. They say there,

the people haven’t invented

roads or words for gringo. 

 

 

Faux Pas

The Chief knows no mystery, the man’s married 

to endings and as always the story must go like this: 

some poor, aging gumshoe, he’s sent again

 

goose-chasing his client’s common law husband’s

mistress, finds her, the money, and a straw man, see,

they’ve got a horse racing report in hand, the couple

 

caught in a cloud of smoke, teeth, and bangs, nuzzling

in a booth. Later and later into night our sleuth mistakes

her sinister list of names for heartache and his vodka

 

for vermouth, he doubles down till high noon.

Then he’s pistol-whipped, kissed hard, boiled by the sun

and his bootless toes licked by Pacific saltwater shore.

 

Forget this dame, his friends and witnesses say,

you’ll be done-away-with, picked down to flesh,

clean by switchblade’s Tijuana spring flashing quick

 

and you’ll be tossed out with an old albacore.

None of the detectives are bloodhounds, none too wise,

but one begins to recognize the last footprint found 

 

two steps past the perimeter of the crime scene.

He looks over to see the Chief stop to put a little shine

on those same-sized, well-worn Florsheims. 

 

 

Voice Over:

And after the getaway’s got, hopping 

off a water taxi onto sandy dock. Lobsters

fight for the cool spot in your stomach.

After you’ve swum through every mermaid

in Belize and the sweat’s left in your smile’s crease.

After your legs rested, back straight, and feeling tall again,

you really think you’ll quit the grift, quick switch, 

pay up full after following this three-card monte

almost to the end. You’ll go fishing for what crooks

can’t hook at home: a nickname’s end,

a house, an old sensoria neighbor who blushes

at sight of your tattoos fading and disappearing

into a wedding shirt, covering your past

like dirt on top of dirt, like the Mayan temples

overrun, ruined, and reclaimed by wilderness. 

 

 

The Man from Nowheresville

  -After Jack Gilbert

 

I came back from my funeral and crawled 

around, pocketing small pieces of myself:

motes of dead skin suspended in hotel’s

 

halogen lights, a navy suit still smoky, and her 

brass barrette left nine years ago on my desk.

I carried it like a cricket for good luck. 

 

All my other plots will go to rot—

this final grift, born of blackjack and broken 

hands, watermarked, and forged in coffin felt—

 

must keep the goons away one month more.

Under the underground: I grow behind 

bruised fruit stands in Pittsburgh, 

 

then to Baltimore and a one-room shack,

I’m counterfeiting two tickets

back home to Nowheresville. 

 

 

Jason Braun currently teaches English and is the associate editor of Sou’wester at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He hosts “Literature for the Halibut” a weekly hour-long literary program on KDHX 88.1. He has published fiction, poetry, reported or been featured in The Riverfont Times, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, ESPN.com, Drum Voices Review, Big Bridge, Sou’wester, The Evergreen Review, The Nashville City Paper, Jane Freidman’s blog, and many more. Twice chosen for River Styx Hunger Young Poets series, he also has poems forthcoming in Rusty Nail, SOFTBLOW, Camel Saloon, Eunoia Review, Star*Line, and Mobius.

 

Q&A

Q: We were pleased to see Jack Gilbert’s name come up in your work. Would you like to discuss his poetry or your connection to this late, great poet?

A: While I was studying with Adrian Matejka he had the class read Donald Hall’s essay “Poetry and Ambition,” then tasked us all with finding three poems that could live up to Hall’s criteria. This was how “The Man from Nowheresville” came about.

Hall writes that an ambitious poet shows the “desire to write poems that endure.” Donald Justice’s poem “Variations on a Text by Vallejo” embodies this idea, as the poet sacrifices himself for the poem. Hall writes that, “Milton and Shakespeare, like Homer, acknowledge the desire to make words that live forever.” Jack Gilbert’s poem “Married” is that every attempt to make these words and this memory and this particular story live forever. Hall writes on about the idea of fame: “For Keats as for Milton, for Hector as for Gilgamesh, it meant something like universal and enduring love for the deed done or the song sung.” B.H. Fairchild’s poem “The Welder, Visited by the Angel of Mercy” is one of these poems that should transcend our time.

When I was trying to figure out what all these poems had in common, I wrote out the first and last line of each:

 

Justice’s first line: “I will die in Miami in the sun”

Last line: “turning away abruptly, out of respect”

 

Gilbert’s first line: “I came back from the funeral and crawled”

Last line: “a long black hair tangled in the dirt”

 

Fairchild’s first line: “Spilled melons rotting on the highway’s shoulder sweeten”

Last line: “standing like silent children along the western wall”

 

These poems feature death or injury, a lonely men, fruit, dirt/earth, preoccupation with memories and a delicate inventories of objects and the setting that inform the main characters (in some cases the persona) of the poem. I had tried to write a version of “I will die in Miami in the sun,” before. It is a favorite of mine. I also love the Vallejo poem it was modeled after. But that poem started as a double sonnet, was loaded with sci-fi references, and I never found the tone. I had that in mind as I stole Jack Gilbert’s first line. Then looking at his poem and doing the opposite, what would you keep of yourself if you could after you died? 

These three poets are not my top three favorite but they all work towards what Hall was calling for in his essay. Gilbert most of all was emphatic, reaching for universals, and a certainty that might only come to a romantic. 

 

Q: What does it take to be authentically hard-boiled?

A: Born in the “no coast” of Southern Illinois, just outside of St. Louis, I was always fascinated with the idea of a getaway. Crime was the first idea that came to mind as a means to facilitate that escape. 

I’ve always been around dives and rough neighborhoods. Never underestimate the ingenuity of the working class. I never went to prison but know plenty of people that did. I realize if I would have spent a few months longer jobless and living on people’s couches–things could’ve went south, as they say. 

I’ve worked construction at oil refineries in Oklahoma and at chemical plants in California. In those jobs you work with people who are away from home, up to no good, and after working all day at a dangerous job–who can worry about wearing a seatbelt or getting into a barfight? You’re still safer than you were at work. The hardboiled know that everybody doesn’t operate on the same economy. That’s something I’ve learned through traveling in Central America as well.  

 

Q: As Issue 31 will be appearing in the depths of January, what kind words might you have to say for the first month of the year, or for midwinter wherever you may find yourself?

 A: Find a kind person to get close to and share something besides words. Love is a renewable resource.


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Poetry from John McDermott

followed by Q&A

The Cliff Walkers

Newport, Rhode Island, 2012

Women in saris and baseball caps,

girls in short skirts speaking Italian,

all the world’s peoples walking evenly

along these cliffs, the ocean’s waves

droning below us, the sun high

and hot in the blue sky. A young

couple from Asia look solemnly out

to sea and teenage white boys,

Americans, in Ralph Lauren polos,

saunter by us on tan legs and deck shoes.

My toddler daughter is on my shoulders

and I’m sweating, the rotten scent

of seaweed a jarring sting to this idyllic

afternoon. The sound of the sea is muted

as if the waves are even further away

than they are, but we turn a corner

and the volume swells and she laughs,

high and loud and sweet. “What is that?”

she cries. It is her first time hearing 

the Atlantic.

On the streets behind us, blue flags

mean public mansions but flagless

private homes remain in the midst of this sea

of tourists. There’s heavy traffic on the island,

to the restaurants and beaches; it’s Sunday

in July. A kite festival launches

a hundred plastic creatures bobbing

over First Beach (it’s orderly here,

with Second Beach and Third Beach

not far away, crowded with common

folk, but there are private beaches,

too, where this march of humanity

on the cliffs can’t go). One of the local clam shacks

has café tables with muppet-haired umbrellas,

and surfers in wet suits and tattooed body-

builders wander the parking lots and sidewalks.

The Ghosts of Old Money watch

in amusement, in disdain, in silence, 

as the hoi polloi, the very people they built

these tall stone walls to keep out,

stroll in their shorts—all our exposed flesh,

some sleek, some wrinkled—trampling their lawns

and dirtying their hallways. A woman

in orange terry-cloth romper shorts and leopard

print heels films the back of The Breakers

with her Chinese-made camera and she narrates

for her friends, her accent impossible for me

to distinguish, general New England I suppose,

and her hair is bad bottle blonde. She is a Vanderbilt

nightmare, an Edith Wharton horror,

but we all are, even those of us in more sensible

shoes. What would Henry James think?

I’ve seen the New Daisy Miller and her

untamed brother running amok, howling,

pushing an empty stroller through

the crowd, while their ineffectual father

shouts, “Be careful, bud, watch for other

people.” Maybe the boy will knock an old

woman from Minnesota or Madagascar over the edge

and dash her average brains against the rocks

and maybe that’s what Henry James would want.

But no one here gets out alive, to quote Jim Morrison,

and that’s true whether you have millions or not.

Maybe this is Daisy Miller’s revenge: we

New Americans and peoples of the Third World

and steerage-class Europeans, littering their

once safe space, these refuges, and sure we pay

our twenty dollars for a tour of their estates,

the money still going from us to them,

but what can ghosts do watching from third

story windows, more silent than the watery

horizon, as condemned as the waves

to keep coming back, to stay and witness,

always lingering in their beautiful crimes,

these monstrous homes, wonders of economic

inequity (equity is such a funny word, money

and fairness always hovering around its definitions)

and they can watch, maybe recede into shadows,

but then they are compelled to come back

to the glass, and they see us with our soda-

bloated bellies and our ear buds, our tan lines, 

and our tennis shoes, we who never play

tennis and we who are the winners, even if history

tells us everyday we are expendable, we aren’t,

no more than they were, and we are temporarily

the victors this afternoon, walking over their grass

and graves, because we are not dead and they are

and we have more salt-tinged air in our lungs

than they’ve had for a hundred years, all of us now,

breathing in, breathing out,

and my daughter’s small body presses into my shoulders,

her weight delicate and heavy at the same time,

and it makes me ache, because she is beautiful now and maybe

they watch her with her common youth and beauty,

and they weep.

 

 

The Buddha of Newport

He begins alone on the grass,

behind the fence—he must be trespassing—

this man with the tattoos on his arms.

He’s handsome in a hard way, square jaw

and muscles, on the back lawn

of The Breakers. He’s shirtless

and his chest and shoulders are thick

through exercise or manual labor, impossible

to tell which in this flash of an image.

He sits, his knees up, and he holds a can

of beer. I tell him he has the right idea

and he nods and smiles, mouth closed,

his eyes hidden by sunglasses. I hold

on to my toddler’s hands as she strains

to race above the shore, just another harried

father among many. This is July and the coast

is crowded with tourists from every nation.

But here is the Buddha of Newport, the Sphinx

of the Cliff Walk, and when we return

the same path he’s gained a friend,

a golden lab who sits as tall and dignified

as the man, a still-life with beverage and dog.

I smile, he smiles again, and I think

if I return again he will have gained

a girl, the swimsuit model sort, svelte,

and on another pass he’d have a Porsche

parked on the grass behind him. His hair

is short, army-style, and I consider this:

the wishes the Genie gave him, right

after he’s flowed, spirit-form, from out

of the cramped and dusty lamp, right

after the soldier uncovered him in the dry

dirt of Tikrit or on the outskirts of Bagdad.

The first wish, a mansion, an old one

with some class. It makes sense to the Genie,

give him an empty one, sure, one of these beasts

that sprawl all over this American island.

And he wants a beer, a cold one, a never-ending

one, and a dog, loyal and quiet, and make it

a summer Sunday and am I done yet? No, 

it’s not just three? Can it get better? Get me

out of here, the soldier says, a world away

from this stupid war, sure, absolutely, Rhode

Island works, I’ve never been there, that sounds

good, it’s gotta be better than here and I’ve heard

they have good surfing and good clams. 

 

 

On Visiting Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island

Hail Mary,

Queen of Heaven,

how did you end up

here, haunting this college

on the cliffs of Newport,

neighbors to the Vanderbilts

and the Berwinds and the Wideners,

barons of railroads and coal

and the old China trade, all that nineteenth

century wealth—you who come

from the sort of girls who have babies

in barns and who marry pregnant

and whose sons grow up to be outlaws,

not the sort of girl who goes to school here

at all or who once lived in these mansions,

how can you live here,

where there are no more stables.

No, wait, there must be

because we drove by the polo club

to get here and it was a game day

(the United States versus Argentina)

and surely there are horses there.

Do you go there some quiet nights

to find the scent of hay and manure,

the rough divots of a dirt floor,

senses surely more familiar to you

than the hardness of cold marbled halls

and all this wood, polished gleaming

by the hands of a hundred dead maids?

 

 

John A. McDermott teaches at Stephen F. Austin State University, where he coordinates the BFA program in creative writing. His poetry has recently appeared in Cold Mountain Review, Pif Magazine, Treehouse, Seneca Review, and Tar River Poetry. He lives in Nacogdoches, Texas, with his wife and daughter.

 

Q&A

Q: Your poems are a vibrant meditation on the intersections of class and wealth and tradition in American life. How did you come to focus on Newport?

A: I have a good friend who lives on Aquidneck Island and when we visited him last summer I was struck by the weird static of all these elements bumping against each other. The stately homes, the history of Newport as a summer spot for the ultra-wealthy, the physical beauty of the sea and shore—and the tourists. It was a pageant of economies and cultures. Here was America at its lovely, messiest best. This might seem a bizarre comparison, but it reminded me of Nashville—another place where disparate energies bounce off each other. In that case it’s country music and Baptists and strip clubs and Vanderbilt University. And tourists. Replace a few elements (country music = country club, Baptists =Catholics, strip clubs =clam shacks, Vanderbilt University = Vanderbilt summer home) and you have the same funky dissonance. It feels very American.

 

Q: Who’s your favorite plutocrat, and why?

A: Ha, I guess I should say Vanderbilt—I do love his taste in architecture. For his liberal building of libraries, I’d say Carnegie. But my favorite is one I’ve been researching for a novel-in-progress. James Lenox, an early Manhattan millionaire, was a passionate philanthropist and book collector. He’s one of the three pillars of the New York Public Library (Astor and Tilden, the other two) and he’s fascinating in his curmudgeonly generosity. He founded a hospital, a home for the aged, he tossed his cash around pretty widely. And he was an obsessed personal collector of rare manuscripts and art, too. He spent fifty thousand dollars on books in one year—I think it was 1857. That’s millions in 2012 dollars and he wouldn’t let his book buyer—Lenox didn’t leave his house much and had a hired man in England do his shopping for him—reveal the cost. An embarrassed book buyer. I get that.

 

Q: As Issue 31 will be appearing in the depths of January, what kind words might you have to say for the first month of the year, or for midwinter wherever you may find yourself?

A: I’m a displaced Wisconsinite living in deep East Texas. I’d call it sultry, but it’s usually more like suffocating. Midwinter is the only respite we get, so it’s my favorite season. But even in Wisconsin, in the midst of snow and cold, I loved the new year. I realized a while back that one of my favorite things about teaching is the cycle of beginnings and endings. I love endings. And then the hope of starting over. My kind words? Wherever you are, whatever you do, find a fresh place in your brain. Begin again. I think “Let’s begin” might be my favorite phrase. Next to “Let’s have a drink!” and “I love you.”


Simon Perchik.jpg

Poetry from Simon Perchik

*

You come here to heat your eyes

hide their venom though the dirt

stays in striking range 

 

s shade, lets you taunt the stones

not yet immune to tears and the stare

mourners start fires with–no stone

 

is safe and further down

slithers across your hands, both hands

o carry some small prey

 

letting the poison cool, taste

from mouths that remembers nothing

about how warm the cheek was.

 

*

Though your shadow carries names

its scent is falling off, luring piece by piece

the stone it needs for nourishment 

 

–you hoodwink these dead, stand here

the way each hillside reaches out

with the wooden carts that go on wobbling

 

as if they once had wheels, circled slowly down

smelling from fresh cut lumber and warm soup 

–it works! Your shadow has always found room

 

for you, for the creaking inside these low trees

that grow only a darkness not yet the bloom

by itself giving back so many years later.

 

*

Don’t you believe it! to be continued

distracts from the front page

brushing against some hearse

 

wants more time–this newspaper

is opened then wider as if the rattle

could be heard though you sleep

 

a lot, sitting in a chair half wood

half the way a bell will practice

till its stance feels right

 

though you are the only one

listening in some great hall, your arms

folded as if they were not yet lost.

 

 

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, New Letters, The Nation, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. For more information, including his essay “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” and a complete bibliography, please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com


Scott Ward.jpg

Poetry from Scott Ward

followed by Q&A

Haircut

You come home from the barber shop

with a buzz cut like my old flat top,

 

and suddenly before my eyes

you’re not the boy I recognize;

 

my son, my thriving epitaph,

you’re me, stepped from a photograph

 

when I wore features you wear now

in antique clothes. I marvel how

 

I see you through my father’s eyes,

bemused by old perplexities,

 

the fear of death, the fear I will

do harm. Such prospects keep me still

 

about this past you do not know,

for I determined long ago

 

to hold his goodness high above

his vices, and to call this love,

 

a stretch that keeps me in the dress

of threadbare virtues I profess.

 

All day I’m dizzy. What is true,

am I my father, me, or you?

 

You beg me for a game of catch,

and as we throw the ball, I watch

 

the way you cock your throwing arm,

just like I did, and my heart warms

 

with haunting gestures that remain

tenacious in the human gene.

 

My close faults show me as I age

how shadows clothe our heritage,

 

yet in your features I can find

my father’s face redeemed by time,

 

his stern accoutrement of face,

made lovely by your ignorance.

 

But style reminds me you are you

in your designer jeans and shoes,

 

confirms I am the older one,

a westward going, happy man.

 

I find in you, my thriving boy,

the fashion and the cut of joy.

 

 

Pastoral Ghazal

non equidem invideo, mirror magis

–Vergil, Eclogue I

 

Come with me to the fields and lay us down.

Give up the gridlocked streets, come lay us down.

 

Our walls are cedar and our roof is green,

the titmouse song is sweet, come lay us down.

 

The cardinal puts on his crimson alb

that’s bright as my desire, come lay us down.

 

Here Gilly Flowers bloom and Columbine,

and springtime still conspires to lay us down.

 

We’ll dress like rustics, try to figure out

what on earth a kirtle is. Come lay us down

 

among the Virgin’s Bower and Live-Forever.

Your body is the fairest bloom. Come lay us down

 

and wear the meadow and its earth perfumes

that last when flowers fade. Come lay us down.

 

If silliness and innocence, a formal

voice of love might move you still, come lay us down.

 

I have prepared a shelter for your comforts,

where love’s strong cord will bind, come lay us down.

 

I hold the flap back on this silken tent.

Come to this cot of love and lay us down.

 

 

Chemo

Blood’s acid bath,

swelling platelets

 

like tea leaves,

a Hiroshima dose

 

in cell walls,

striking mitochondria’s

 

gunning engine,

blasting its banistered,

 

winding stair.

Dead or alive,

 

lab coats beguiling

with flattering statistics,

 

God easing

into the crowd of bystanders

 

with the gambler’s slow

gesture sliding

 

chips toward a wager,

dead or alive.

 

Portions untouched,

the downed, domed

 

crown, reflected

in toilet water

 

till vomit spoils

that oval locket.

 

The heart’s Geiger

ticking in a poisoned

 

Chernobyl, mind’s

two headed calf.

 

 

Scott Ward, professor of literature and creative writing, is chair of the Creative Arts Department at Eckerd College, where he has taught creative writing for twenty years. He has an M.A., University of South Carolina. He has two books, Crucial Beauty (1991, Scop Publications) and Wayward Passages (2006, Black Bay Books). His poems have appeared in America, Southern Humanities Review, Hollins Critic, Blue Mesa Review, Shenandoah, and The Christian Century. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, with wife, Jana, and sons, Caleb and Garland.

 

Q&A

Q: The phrase “the fear I will do harm,” caught our attention in your poem “Haircut.” While we know how the older generation can inflict harm on the younger, in what ways does this work in reverse?

 

A: Well, I guess one reason adults harm their children is because harm was done to them by their parents when they were children. Doing harm becomes a sort of genetic transference, which is one metaphor upon which the poem meditates. I guess in some ways, “the fear I will do harm,” is the key to the poem because it seems to be about the speaker’s shoring up a variety of resources to prevent his doing harm. Recognizing the possibility of doing harm is one way. Forgiveness is another. Can one be free with people in the present while being imprisoned by others in the past? The attention the speaker pays, looking carefully at his son and seeing his beauty and illimitable potential for goodness, is another. I think the speaker realizes that he is the custodian of that potential in his son’s life and tries to live up to that duty. And finally, I think this speaker realizes the possibility of the work of joy. Oscar Wilde once quipped that a sentimentalist is one who wants to enjoy an emotion without paying for it. The speaker of the poem knows he must die, but that knowledge is not oppressive; rather, it incites him to love, to cultivate relationships, to enjoy the present—this is conveyed in the metaphor of dress.

 

Q: Talk for a moment about the joys of the couplet.

A: Ah, an excellent question. The couplet is a superlatively versatile verse stanza. In the hands of a poet like Martial, it is the murderous thrust of a knife. In the work of Pope, it arranges poetic material with elegance and wit, lending grandeur to reason’s productions and creating the comfortable illusion that the world has an ordained, discernible order. It is also good for narrative, which is how I try to employ it here, attempting to use the couplet to represent, arrange, and pace a story and, along the way, using the individual stanzas to pay off an occasional moment of lyric intensity. These are my goals, even though I fall far short. And the joy of the couplet? Well, working in each line toward the marriage of voice and measure; discovering rhymes that engage the reader with the dynamic emotional and psychological possibilities of the poem’s situation; working toward the moment of concentration when the poem begins to lead the poet in the couplet’s elegant ball room movement; crafting two-line poems that come together to make a poem.

 

Q: As Issue 31 will be appearing in the depths of January, what kind words might you have to say for the first month of the year, or for midwinter wherever you may find yourself?

A: When I read Lao Tzu, I am always humbled by his generous intention toward the reader. Here are some of his lines, which are good lines to recite at any beginning point in the year, in the heart, in the life, translated by the wonderful American poet Stephen Mitchell:

 

Be content with what you have.

Rejoice in the way things are.

When you realize nothing is lacking,

the whole world belongs to you.


Charlene Pollano.jpg

Angle of Repose by Charlene Pollano

followed by Q&A

They are casualties of war, these kids who infiltrate my office, throw their backpacks and books into a corner, and slouch down onto the floor in a tangled mass of limbs. It doesn’t matter how many chairs I put out for the group meeting; they prefer sprawling over the office floor at all angles and resemble a giant, 3-D jigsaw puzzle once they’re settled. Interesting how by the end of our session, many of them are bunched up into tight little balls—their gangly coat hanger limbs retracted into their bodies to form unyielding masses. Must be the topic we discuss—the divorces their families went through and the battlegrounds that formed as a result. Divorce, the great equalizer, does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sexual orientation, handicap or disability, religion, or socio-economic status.

arissa shows up every week, but her only verbal contribution is an occasional “Fuck—yeah!” when another member offers a story of loss and change. She shakes her blond, chin-length cornrows back and forth until the multi-colored beads threaded throughout click against each other like knitting needles. Her mother’s current husband is number four in the line-up of men who eventually find Marissa a bit difficult to manage.

Don brings his lunch directly from the cafeteria and stuffs it down, acting as if he’s not listening, but I know he is. His pale face shines like a full moon below a black knit cap pulled down over his eyebrows, hiding whatever hair he has. I probably wouldn’t recognize him in the halls if he didn’t have it on. Whenever someone starts to show the least sign of choking up because they’re recounting the latest fight in the house, he always offers some scrap of food on his tray: “Hey, have a potato puff!”

The group is open-ended, so I never know who will show up from week to week. The kids all hold each other accountable, making sure everyone understands the golden rule, which is, “Anything talked about in Ms. Callahan’s office stays in here!” When the bell rings, they rise, form a tight flank, and trudge to class.

unning a group for children of divorce is not the most uplifting activity I can think of, but someone’s got to do it. It makes sense that I would be the person to run this since I’m divorced and raising a kid of my own. Besides, where else would they air their stuff? One of the books I read on children of divorce defined the three major issues as the three L’s: loss, loyalty, and lack of control. Loss brings grieving, and grieving for a teenager looks pretty different than it does for adults. Loyalty is a shaky substance, like Jello, wavering back and forth between parents and causing crippling anxiety. Lack of control? Over their lives? They have as much control as they would have over an impending avalanche.

***

magine just one flake of snow falling on a snow-covered hillside. The flake might hit the pile of snow, causing the whole lot to fall down, creating an avalanche. Or the snowflake might stick to the hillside without anything else happening. Or it might take two or three or ten snowflakes to get ten more moving and eventually become an avalanche. The angle that the side of the mountain forms is known as the angle of repose, repose meaning sleep or rest. If an avalanche occurs, the pile reconfigures itself into a new angle of repose. 

*** 

Most of the kids who sign on for the group have already dispensed their anger and grief all over the school, their families, and myriad others who may be in their lives, including but not limited to their teachers, administrators, probation officers, shrinks, friends, and, most especially, their parents. In other words, they have some bad history that got them referred to my group. They’ve been suspended, served multiple detentions, been on probation, tried counseling, consumed medication, both legal and illegal, run away from home, and/or ricocheted from parent to parent. 

In spite of all this, they show up. I listen.

Jack is the only one who comes every week and doesn’t open his mouth. He’s a hulk of a kid with startling blue eyes peering out from a baby face. His 6’4” size precludes anyone getting on his case for not talking. He looks like he could pulverize you with little effort on his part. None of the kids knows his family history, but I do. I also know he’s going to spill his guts eventually because the muscles in his face work like hell when he listens to some of the other kids. I’m waiting for him to open the door to his heart just a bit, so I can wedge my foot in there before he can close it again.

*** 

I got a call from my lawyer recently, asking me to come to his office. He tried to prepare me by telling me ahead of time. 

“Joanna, there’s a summons here to court. Your ex-husband….blah, blah….custody….”

“Whoa!” I said. “I’ll be right over.” I know I said those words, but I didn’t recall being that rational, even though being rational is my strong suit at work. The question is whether that rationality extends into my personal life. The vote is still out on that one.

When I arrived at his office, my lawyer stood there with the county sheriff. “I didn’t want you to get served these papers in front of your son,” he said. The sheriff nodded, handed me a document, mumbled, “Sorry, Mrs. Callahan,” and left quickly. I know he explained that I was being sued for custody of my fourteen-year-old son, but a slow process of suffocation had begun, making it difficult to understand.

*** 

Avalanches spring on you with no warning, and before you can get out of the way, you’re buried, trying to fight for air and light. An avalanche is one of the phenomena known as a self-organizing critical state. They call it that since no one tells the snow to either cause an avalanche or to merely stick. The snow is critical because it is always just about to collapse. Similar behavior happens in many different systems. A “critical state” means that something dramatic is about to happen all the time. Also, no one is involved in doing any planning or designing of the system. 

***

he next week in group, none of the kids noticed I was deaf and dumb. So much for the importance of my role. As long as my body is propped up in the chair, they figure they’re all set. It speaks to the fact that, in the counseling profession, sometimes it’s just your presence that is the healing power. On this occasion, I was thankful. Of course, Murphy’s Law dictates that Jack would pick this session to begin his solitary march onto the battlefield.

“My father’s an asshole,” he said. 

All the kids turned toward him. Marissa, for once, refrained from her standard “fuck” affirmation. Don offered the last half of his chocolate chip cookie. I sat numbly, swiveling back and forth in my chair, hoping I’d make it to the end of the period. 

Jeremy, who lives with his mother and her lesbian partner, said, “So?” He has shared the same information regarding his own father, whom he visits no more than twice a year. Even though the one word question sounded harsh as it hung in the still air, Jeremy leaned toward Jack in a way that invited him to share his secrets. 

Jack looked around at all the faces now turned attentively his way. Like a jackrabbit, he leaped back into his hole, and the crack in the door disappeared as quickly as it had opened.

Teenagers, being who they are, turned their attention to Matt, a former regular who had just returned to his father’s house after living four months with his mother. He suggested that his stepfather was a man who was missing a major body part. It was much more interesting material to the group than Jack’s stone-faced withdrawal into silence.

***

If you are caught in an avalanche, you have several choices. You can get rid of all of your equipment—poles, skis, and backpack—and try to grab a tree or rock to stop yourself from being buried, or you can “swim” with the avalanche to try to stay on top. If buried by an avalanche, keep one hand in front of your face and try to clear and maintain an air space. You should also try to maintain space for chest expansion by taking and holding a deep breath. Avoiding panic helps to conserve energy.

*** 

It was about that time that Jack’s mother called me and asked for a meeting. I was a little surprised to hear from her since his father had temporary physical custody. I was also a little worried--well, maybe a lot worried--that I might not be able to remain objective with her. A battle was in progress, and, as I found out, she was losing.

he entered my office, a tiny, dark-haired woman with sad eyes and a cautious walk. She had raised the two kids, Jack and his sister, since the divorce years ago when they were toddlers. Now that Jack was in high school, Dad decided he wanted custody. My guess was, he no longer wanted to pay child support.

“Jack says he wants to live with me,” she said. “I don’t have the money to fight this in court any longer. Now they want me to have a psychological evaluation because they say I’m unstable.”  

“I’m sorry to hear this,” I said. “Jack is very upset about it.”

“Do you have children, Ms. Callahan?” she asked.

“Yes, I have a son,” I said.

“Then you know,” she said. “My children are who I am. They are my soul. I don’t know what I would do without them, or who I would be.”

When she started to cry in my office, I wanted to take her in my arms and console her, and then I wanted her to take me in her arms and console me. I felt useless, and I knew I was in trouble. Way too close, this stuff.

Group was a morose occasion the next week. Don told us that Marissa was “gonzo,” having broken her probation yet again by running away from her abusive stepfather. She was placed in a group home. He only got that many words out in between stuffing his mouth with a bag of potato chips. Herve, a striking Latino with biceps the size of Montana, pulled his long legs up to his chin—another tight little ball forming. A stream of Spanish emerged in response to this news, and even though no one could interpret the words, everyone understood. 

I asked Jack to stay after group to talk to him about the possibility of a court appearance. I was pretty sure someone would subpoena me. 

“Jack, how much do you want me to share in court?”

“Whatever it takes to keep me with my Mom,” he said. His body stood in the doorway, and the light from the hallway surrounded him like a halo. 

“How about Dad’s drinking?” I asked. 

“That, too.”

I stood for a moment looking into his eyes, seeking the secret to why a boy wants to live with his Mom. It’s against all the literature on divorce and how boys need their fathers at this age. Perhaps the experts underestimated how much boys need their mothers, too. And how much we need them. I didn’t find the answer in Jack’s eyes, but I desperately wanted to know why motherhood bestows a weight on a woman that can never be lost.

***

n avalanche occurs when the stress from gravity trying to pull the snow downhill exceeds the strength of the snow cover. They are unpredictable since snow falling on a quiet, gentle slope may cause an avalanche, where snow falling on a much steeper slope stays where it is. Each system seeks its own angle of repose. People do the same.

*** 

I went to court on behalf of Jack. I simply told them what Jack told me. His father drank—all the time. He had little to give to either Jack or his sister. Jack didn’t understand why his father wanted custody. When he lived with his mother, she worked hard at making sure they carved pumpkins and toasted the seeds, strung popcorn and cranberries for the Christmas tree, colored Easter eggs and hunted all over the neighborhood with the other kids to find them.

“She read to me every night until I told her I was too big for her to snuggle with me in my bed,” Jack had told me in one session. “After that, she sat on the end of my bed with her own book while I read mine.”

“She’s a good mother,” I said to the judge.

There was no decision that day. I went home to prepare for my own hearing, and to brace myself for any possible landslides.

A week later, I got a call from Jack’s aunt. It was the day after my own hearing. She told me that Jack’s mother had committed suicide. 

“What happened?” I stammered.

“She overdosed on pills,” the woman said. “It’s all been too much for her, losing her kids and all. Being a mother was who she was, you see.”

“Thank you for calling,” I said. When I hung up the phone, I held onto a table while the room shook and churned around me. 

*** 

When someone has survived a “critical state,” they may exhibit symptoms of critical incident stress: behavioral, physical, or emotional in nature. Some symptoms include guilt, mood swings, depression, nightmares, withdrawal from family, friends, and colleagues, and a heightened sense of vulnerability. When helping others who have been affected by the trauma, there are certain things to keep in mind. Encourage those affected to talk about how they are feeling, but don’t attempt to reassure anyone that everything is okay, because it isn’t. Remember that as a person who cares for the survivor of a traumatic event, you are a co-survivor. You must expect that you will also experience post-trauma consequences.

*** 

It’s been six months since I went to court, and I still find breathing a painful matter. My son moved in with his father, and Jack remained with his. I continue to do the divorce group simply because no one else will, or that’s what I persist in telling myself. Sometimes I think it’s because I have a chance to “play mother,” a role that has been buried in my effort to stay alive.

Marissa returned, back from her group home and residing once again with the abusive stepfather. Don continues to offer food to those he considers in need of some scrap of comfort. 

Jack doesn’t come to group anymore. I guess he’s afraid I’ll get my foot wedged in that door if it opens a crack. Fat chance it’ll open even that much. He comes to visit me alone once in a while, his grief heavy on his face. I do not reassure him that everything will be okay. We sit in each other’s presence, taking our measured breaths. 

 

 

Charlene Pollano’s short stories and essays have been published in Amoskeag, the Northern New England Review, NH.com, The Guidance Channel E-Zine, Illuminations: Expressions of the Personal Spiritual Experience Anthology, and other journals. She is the co-author of A Group of One’s Own: Nurturing the Woman Writer and the founding member of the Sea Quills, a Wilmington, NC writing group. Charlene is now using the energy she once put into being a high school counselor for twenty-five years to serve as the Wilmington/Cape Fear region representative for the North Carolina Writers Network. She lives in southeastern NC with her husband, John, and her dog, Stella.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: As a former counselor working with adolescents, my stories are about teenage boys and girls living in broken worlds who suffer a loss of innocence that changes them forever. Although all of my stories are drawn from real-life traumas, the characters, settings, and time periods are fiction. Perhaps I should invoke Kurt Vonnegut’s famous quote from his novel, Cat’s Cradle: “All of these true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” Writing them has been my only way to bring closure to a career that has given me “a window on the human soul.”  

 

Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?  

A: Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, Alice Munro, Pat Conroy, Elizabeth Berg, Virginia Woolf, Ann Patchett, Mary Gordon, Michael Ondaatje, Charlotte Bronte. I could go on….

 

Q: What’s your ideal place to write?  

A: In a room of my own, which I have….

 

Q: When did you know you would be a writer? 

A: I read Little Women when I was ten and discovered Jo March. I spent that entire summer in our 100 degree attic writing a novel. I’m not quite as dramatic now.

 

Q: What are you working on now?  

A: A fourth draft of a novel that I just haven’t been able to let go of. It was a semifinalist in a novel-in-progress contest and second runnerup in the Three Oaks Prize for fiction by Story Line Press. I believe in it. I am also working on more short stories for my collection entitled The Last Time I Wore Pigtails, all true stories that are shameless lies.


Sharon Harrigan.jpg

Eighty-Two Percent True by Sharon Harrigan

Followed by Q&A

The lies started small, benign, even comical. In retrospect, Kate knew she should have intervened. She was a documentary filmmaker, so if it was anybody’s job to ferret out the truth, it was hers. But at first she listened with relish as her daughter Maya practiced the teenage art of exaggeration. What harm could come from a little extra flourish, the verbal equivalent of a padded, push-up bra?

They had just moved from New York City to the college town of Sparta, Michigan, for Kate’s new job teaching film. The World Trade Center attacks were recent enough for the phrase “we’re all New Yorkers now” to still feel true. The neighbor girls in the back rows of Kate’s Honda Odyssey had never been to the big city except in their television dreams, so Maya could milk their gullibility. Maybe her stories would help her fit in. For once.

Faye, Lucy, Lila, and Nicole were an interchangeable chorus line of skin-tight t-shirts that showcased their pierced belly buttons. Faye, the bustiest and bossiest, took center stage, and Maya (as nerdy-looking as Kate was herself at fifteen) wore more clothes than the rest put together. The first time Kate drove the carpool to Sparta High, she took in the visuals—school buses through the windshield, bare trees and garbage trucks through the rearview, parking lots and strip malls through the right and left windows—and listened.

“See all these one-story buildings?” Maya said, as they passed a nail salon, a Mexican restaurant chain, and a bagel store that didn’t make real bagels. “That would never happen in New York.” The other girls crinkled wrappers and sucked breakfast shakes. “In New York, the city is vertical. Even parking lots are as tall as skyscrapers, and they’re full of stretch limos.”

“Did you see any famous people in your neighborhood?” Nicole asked.

“Every day,” Maya lied. 

“Ever get their autographs?” 

“That would be so tacky,” Maya said. “Anyway, they’re everywhere, you get kind of blasé about it.” 

“Do they have bodyguards?” asked Nicole.

“With guns?” asked Faye, and Kate swore she heard her lick her lips, making the last word sound pornographic.

“Oh yeah,” Maya said. “And they’re even hotter than the bodies they’re guarding.” Maya’s tone was so casual and assured, Kate found herself almost believing, too. 

The next time Kate drove the minivan, the carpool chatter was all about which girls had sweet hair, which boys had cute butts, and clothes—they talked endlessly about clothes. Maya crumpled into the middle seat of the middle row while the other girls lengthened their legs. It was amazing how much space a ninety-pound girl could spread herself over, when she was trying to crowd others out. Kate started the engine and eavesdropped.

“Where’d you get that skirt?” Lucy asked Faye, leaning over Maya and audibly rubbing the fabric between her fingers. 

“I lifted it from Forever 21,” Faye said, matter of factly, while Kate wondered if she should tell the girl’s parents.

Maya lied, “Guys were always asking for my phone number on the subway.”

“I thought strangers didn’t talk to each other in New York,” said Lila, flipping her hair so much it stirred a breeze at the back of Kate’s head.

“Usually I talked to them first, like I asked for directions or pretended I didn’t know which way the train was going.”

“Don’t you have to be careful?” asked Lila.

“I only talked to the ones who were male models or TV actors, but they’re everywhere.”

Kate opened the vent to disperse the fumes of lip gloss, breath mints, and hair gel.

“Weren’t the trains dangerous?” asked Nicole.

Kate took the shortcut through campus, past her favorite rundown frat house, which reminded her of the motel in Psycho.

“Only for tourists. And the guys who play guitar on the platform, they’ll follow you anywhere.”

“Are they famous?” Faye asked.

“They will be,” Maya said.

“Did you have a penthouse apartment like the one in ‘Gossip Girls’?” asked Nicole.

“I saw them making an episode once,” Maya said. “There’s always a film crew, looking for extras, wherever you walk.”

“Don’t you get tired of just walking around all the time?” asked Lucy.

“I’d just get a cab,” said Maya. “Wave one down and when they like you, you don’t even have to pay.”

“Taxi!” said Faye, holding up a hand so high it blocked Kate’s view out the back window.

If the girls remembered Kate was there, they’d clam up, so she kept quiet. At least that’s how she consoled herself later, after Maya’s tall tales got out of hand.

A few years before, back in New York, Maya had told another set of girls that she believed in fairies. 

“Yeah, I did too when I was five,” one girl had said. 

Maya also told these girls she’d seen basketball players ten feet tall and could talk to the dead. By the time Maya moved, no one believed a word she said anymore.

Kate didn’t chastise her daughter for having “quite the imagination,” the way her parents had done to her. Instead, she took her to a child psychiatrist. Isn’t that what good moms do? After all, she’d made a documentary, Good Moms Don’t Agree, about twelve different viable parenting styles. The psychiatrist had told Kate, while Maya waited in the other room: “For children, the lines between fantasy and reality are fluid. Then, at a certain age, the lines harden, like a baby’s skull. It’s just taking Maya longer.”

“How much?” Kate had asked.

“There’s the divorce,” he’d said. “And September 11. The line may have hardened, then softened again.”

During the next few weeks, Kate became so accustomed to her new soundtrack of Maya’s petty fabrications, she barely noticed their intensity increase every day. Until the emergency.

Maya saw the car first, stalled on the shoulder of the road, blinkers flashing, the driver trying to wave down cars with red-mittened hands. Kate called 911 but didn’t stop.

“That would never happen in New York,” Maya said.

“What?” asked Nicole, chewing gum as loudly as she could because it annoyed Lila. “Cars don’t break down?”

“Because the only cars are stretch limos?” said Lucy. Kate thought she could hear the forced air of the girls simultaneously holding back a guffaw. The audio stream of her own childhood.

“No,” said Maya. “I mean nobody stopping to help.” 

“I thought New Yorkers never helped anybody,” said Faye. “If you get mugged, people just leave you there and step over you.”

“That’s not true,” said Maya. “You heard about the guy who jumped off the subway platform to rescue a woman who fell on the track, right?”

“When was that?”

“Happens, like, every day,” said Maya. “And the pilot who landed the plane in the Hudson River?” 

“I guess,” said Nicole.

“What about 9/11?” Maya asked. 

Kate turned the dull hum of the radio off to make sure she heard right. Then she swallowed, remembering. Usually, by ten o’clock, she’d have already been at her desk at Liberty Street, within sight of the attack, but she’d decided to vote in the mayoral primary before boarding the train in Brooklyn. She never reached the polling place but stopped on the Promenade, watching, waiting, sure she wasn’t seeing right. Kate had known Maya was safely in school, close enough to see the ashes but not the fire. She’d kept trying to reach her husband Ted, but all the phones were dead.

“The World Trade Center attack?” Maya continued, “You know, 3,000 people died? A lot of them were helping other people escape. They were heroes.” 

The van was so silent Kate could hear the girls fiddling with their belt loops and flipping hair out of their eyes. “Did you know anybody who was there?” Faye finally asked.

“My dad,” said Maya. It was the first time she’d mentioned him since the move. Maya continued, in a stranger’s voice. It was like she opened her mouth but somebody else dubbed in the words. “That’s how he died.” 

The only sound was the scrape of shoe against the gas pedal, the swish of the girls’ clothes as they squirmed. Minutes passed.

“Was he trying to rescue people?” Lila asked.

“Of course,” Maya said. 

The girls discovered an urgent need to sample new ringtones. Kate tried to focus on the road. She had to concentrate on what was ahead, not behind, or somebody really would get killed. She wanted to say something, anything, to rewind and verify. But most of all she wanted to hear where Maya was going with this storyline, and if she interrupted, the conversation would screech to a stop.

They were halfway home, driving around the periphery of campus, when two college kids walked in front of the van without looking, so slowly and obliviously that Kate honked. Even after they crossed, she couldn’t lift her hand off the horn. “Is something wrong?” Lila asked. All Maya said was “Don’t make us go deaf.”

When Kate pulled into Faye’s driveway, all the girls except Maya squeezed out. Kate started to say she could invite herself over, but Maya placed a finger over her lips. Finally, Faye returned and gave Maya a hug. “I’m sorry about your dad,” she said. This was the friendliest anyone had been to her since the carpool started. 

Kate resumed driving. When they pulled into their own driveway, she said, “Why did you say that about Dad?”

“What?” Maya splayed her long limbs out across the seat, mimicking the other girls, as if trying to make herself bigger.  

“That he died in the Towers.” Kate didn’t know what was worse, being reminded of what really happened or confronting Maya’s alternate reality. Was it better to be a jilted ex-wife or the widow of a fallen hero?

“I didn’t say that.” Maya’s voice was accusing.

“What did you say?”

Maya looked out the window, buying time, then finally said, “I wasn’t talking to you.”

“Maya, I’m in the car. I can’t help hearing.”  

Maya glared back, opened the car door and said, “You should get a life.” 

Kate walked into the house, collapsed into her desk chair, and told herself that Maya couldn’t know the whole story: how she’d tried and tried to call and e-mail to let Ted know she was alive, her whole collection of modern technology a dead heap of metal and plastic. How Kate had discovered that he wasn’t really in Pittsburgh interviewing laid-off factory workers but at the Days Inn near LaGuardia Airport, with that woman. Maya couldn’t know, unless she had overheard them fighting about it, through the thin walls of their tiny Brooklyn walk-up apartment.  

That night, Kate couldn’t get the lie out of her head. When she confronted Maya the next day, she repeated her denial. “You’re the one who wishes he was dead,” Maya said, slamming her bedroom door.

Kate longed for a videotape to play back the girls’ conversation in the car. She had stacks of footage from Maya’s younger days, and she had even collaged them into her art films. But nobody shoots their kids once they’re old enough to fake a smile.

She didn’t want Ted dead. Did she?  

When Kate dropped off the girls at Lucy’s house the next Friday, all of them got out—even Maya. “OK if I spend the night?” she asked.

“Sure,” Kate said, trying to sound as if Maya’s being invited to a friend’s house were not a freakish event. “What about clothes for tomorrow?”

“She can borrow mine,” Lucy said.

Maya was unrecognizable in the morning, in the Carpool Girls’ uniform of sprayed-on pants, dark bra and almost-transparent shirt. Her shoulders didn’t slump, and her jeans were slung so low it was clear she was panty-less. 

“Go change.” Kate looked down at her own clunky boots so she didn’t have to stare at her daughter’s pubic bones. Maya didn’t budge, unless you counted the way her pants slid towards her ankles. Had Kate really moved from mean streets to small town so her daughter could dress like the twelve-year-old prostitute in Taxi Driver? Is this what she meant when she told Maya she wanted her to try to fit in?

When Kate talked to the other carpool moms on the phone to arrange schedules, or when she ran into parents at school, they acted as if there was something they wanted to tell her, and then someone said it: “I’m sorry. I heard. Your husband. How awful.” Kate couldn’t do anything but nod. 

By the day after Maya’s outburst, before Kate could even form a response, news had spread about the fallen hero. It didn’t help that Kate hadn’t updated her web page to remove mention of the World Trade Center film, the one she started before the attacks and hadn’t had the heart or funding to finish. A reporter from the local paper left her a phone message, requesting an interview. Kate was about to call back and explain that the whole thing was a big misunderstanding. But then she realized that an interview might be good publicity. Good publicity might mean better job security. Don’t mothers owe that to their daughters?

“We have to talk,” Kate said, as soon as Maya walked in from another parent’s car. “How would you explain Dad’s sudden resurrection if he appeared out of the blue?”

Maya tossed her jacket on the bench in the entryway. “Easter?”  

“Very funny.”  

Maya poured chips into a bowl. “It’s not like he’s ever coming.”

“Don’t say that.” Kate sipped the dregs of breakfast coffee, still warm from the carafe.

“If you stopped obsessing about him, maybe you could meet someone else. He’s still your Facebook friend,” Maya said.

“So? How are you so sure he’s not coming? We’ve only lived here a few months.”

“How often did he visit when we were in New York?” Maya asked. “After he remarried? How often, now that he’s got a kid, and is having another?”

“But you can’t kill him off.”

“You know what he said when I asked him to visit?” Maya said. “When he was my Facebook friend? I’ve got my own family now.”

“He didn’t,” Kate said.

“He did.”

Kate placed her hands on Maya’s thin shoulders, and Maya let her, for once, give a full embrace. It didn’t seem fair to keep interrogating a child whose father had been so cruel. Unless this was just another one of Maya’s strategic lies.

Maya started to walk away, but Kate called her back. “You’re lying about my life, too. What am I supposed to say?”

“Maybe you should have thought about that before you lied about my life.”

“When?”

“In your documentary. All those moms talked about how happy their babies were, but I bet you just edited out all the bad stuff. You didn’t even get my first word right.”

“What was your first word?” 

“You don’t even know!”

Was that the one thing Kate failed to document? 

“Whoever said those people were good moms, anyway? Did they have to take a test?”

“You’re only a small part of that film,” Kate said. “It’s got eleven other families. And everything in it is true.”

“In interviews you said it was 82 percent true.”

“You’re taking that too literally,” Kate said.

“Maybe you’re taking Dad’s death too literally.”

“He’s not dead!”

“He is to me,” Maya said. “It’s all about editing.” She snapped two fingers like scissors. “The least you can do is un-Friend him.” Maya walked over to the computer in the dining room, hovered the mouse above her father’s picture and said, “May I?”

Kate nodded, and Ted—along with his face, his profile, his Friends, and posts--disappeared.

The phone messages and e-mails piled up. “It’s a great human interest story,” the university PR director said. “Can I interview you for our alumni newsletter?” The dean said she could rustle up some funding to finish the film on the World Trade Center, if Kate was willing to go on tour and connect it with her own personal tragedy. “Now I see why you left New York,” the principal at Maya’s school said one morning, greeting her at the drop-off for the first time, braving a storm just to talk to her.

The only call Kate was ready to return was the one from Tracy, her best friend and former colleague at Stonehenge Films. “I had no idea you did performance art,” Tracy said, her words tumbling out New-York-style-fast, making Kate miss her even more.

“What?”

“I got the press release from the university. They’re funding your film, about losing your husband.”

“You know how PR people hype stuff.”

“It’s on your blog, too. I might have to fly out and help. What’ve you got, six months before festival season?”

“Would you? The dean says I can buy a Red One.” If anybody could fix the situation, Tracy, one of the best editors in the business, was the one. If only she could edit Kate’s life. 

“I’d die to get my hands on one of those cameras. Speaking of dying, how brilliant to kill him. When do you get to off someone in real life? I’m thinking of making a short feature just so I can do it in a movie.”

“You won’t tell anybody?” Kate said.

“That he’s still alive? It doesn’t matter, it’s art.”

“What do you mean?” Kate said. “I could lose my job if this leaks. It could ruin my career.”

“Lighten up,” Tracy said. “How’s Maya taking it?” 

“She’s the one who killed him.” Had she really said that? “I mean, she’s the one who said he died.” She’d better take a deep breath and think before she opened her mouth again, or they might all end up in jail.

“I didn’t mean Ted was physically dead,” Kate told the university PR person, sitting behind the desk in front of her, an MBA with pastel pumps. “He’s an absent father. A deadbeat.”

“That’s not how we read it. All I had to do was Google to see he was alive. Imagine when my boss found out I hadn’t even done that. That I believed you.” 

“Didn’t we all die on September 11?” Kate asked. “Every New Yorker. Every American, even.”

Pastel-pump woman dangled her shoe precariously. “We’re trying to figure out if we can spin this or if we have to count it as a casualty.” Then she let her pink shoe drop.

When it was Kate’s turn to play chauffeur again, she was happy to be distracted from wondering whether she’d be allowed to finish her film or asked to pack up her office. It was comforting to listen while Maya told another story about limo drivers in New York City, as if she’d ever met one. In a world where gargantuan vehicles are called minivans, where clicking the Start icon makes a computer shut down, where fathers abandon daughters and the person behind you in airport security might have a bomb in his shoe, were Maya’s fantasies so strange?

Faye spun a yarn about a movie ticket clerk who insisted that pretty girls like her didn’t have to pay. Lila talked about mixing Kahlua in her parents’ morning coffee without their noticing. Nicole said she switched her mother’s eyelash-growth pills with her father’s prescription for erectile dysfunction. Lucy claimed to have a thermos full of Mike’s Hard Lemonade in her lunchbox. Was this how trouble started, or was it harmless girl talk? The part of their brains that separated this bravado from their real lives outside the window—lives with divorced parents and “war on terror”—hadn’t hardened yet. Perhaps if Kate just kept driving, it never would. She steered the minivan past the high school, beyond the university, all the way out of Sparta, on an improvised odyssey. Who knows where it might take them? Maybe all the way to Maya’s imaginary city.

 

 

Sharon Harrigan’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative, Slice, Pearl, Pleiades, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Mid American Review, Rain Taxi, Silk Road, Hip Mama, and Apercus Quarterly. She has a B.A. in English from Columbia University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University. She is a contributing editor for Silk Road and a contributor and book reviewer for The Nervous Breakdown. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and received the Joyce Horton Johnson Award from Key West Literary Seminar. She writes a blog about Paris at www.sharonharrigan.net/blog.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: I like to take risks, and the risk for me in this story was to take a sacred subject (the World Trade Center bombing) and give it a profane treatment. I also wondered what would happen if the teen posturing I often overheard went too far. 

 

Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?

A: My MFA professors: Pam Houston, Benjamin Percy, Jack Driscoll, John Rember, and Bonnie Jo Campbell. A few others inspiring my work right now: Brady Udall, Justin Torres, Nick Flynn, Cheryl Strayed, Jess Walters, and Ben Fountain.

 

Q: What’s your ideal place to write? 

A: I love to close the door, draw the shades, and block out the world when I write. My favorite place of all is the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

 

Q: When did you know you would be a writer? 

A: I’ve written, studied, and published poetry seriously since I was fourteen but only started writing fiction recently. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My coming-of-age novel about Detroit is almost finished. I’ve started a second novel about twins, written in the first-person plural, and a memoir about Paris.


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In the Chambers of the Sea

by Elizabeth Jennings

followed by Q&A

Their voices carried. They traveled through the bar on wisps of smoke from the table by the fireplace straight to my ear, like a playground tube little girls whisper secrets into that can be heard only by the person on the other end.  

It was late. My whole body was telling me it was late—the knot at the base of my neck, the ache pulsing through my temples, the tension in my wrist. I wanted to crawl into bed, but I wasn’t quite finished yet. 

“But of course there is no such thing as fiction,” the white-haired one insisted, reaching into his vest for a pack of pipe tobacco. 

(Yes, I’m sure now that he wears a vest and smokes a pipe. The younger one, the one with the distinguished touch of silver in his hair and the wire rim glasses, wears tweed.)

“Every artist writes himself—or herself as the case may be—into his work,” the old one continued. “It’s all autobiographical, it’s just a matter of degree, that’s all.”

He stopped for a moment to light his pipe. The smell of spent match followed the same path as the words. I slowed down as I gathered the salt shakers on the tables next to the wall, listening, watching, trying to get it down right.

“Take Hawthorne, for example,” he continued in his professorial voice. “There’s a passage in his journal about a search he took part in, a search for a young woman who’d disappeared. Her body was found in a pond. Suicide. The same exact words appear in Blithedale Romance. Same thing with Virginia Woolf—you’ll find passages from her journal throughout her works. The whole notion of fiction is a construct.”

Smoke had filled the whole room at this point, prompting some of the students to leave, putting their pitiful tips on the table. Only three tables were left. I looked at Ted behind the bar, shining the rim of a glass. He went to the door and flipped the sign to "closed."

"Miss . . . Miss," the younger one said, his hand raised, looking my way. I wondered how long he'd been trying to get my attention.

"Another round for us both," he said when I walked over. I considered him again. He was good looking, I suppose. I imagine some of the women students whispered stories about him. He never noticed me, though. 

(Is it possible he is gay?)  

"Thank you, George," the old man said as I placed their ales on the table and refilled the bar mix. They lifted their glasses together, then drank. 

"But I would argue the opposite," the younger one said." There is no such thing as non-fiction."

A bit of smile crept across the old man's face. "Why whatever do you mean?"

The younger one grabbed the newspaper and began flipping through. "Let’s see now—take a look at this headline—people are dying because they believe this, yet you and I know it’s not true. It’s a total fabrication. In fact, it is nothing other than a fiction."

The old man was animated now. His tobacco had a cherry scent. "But of course you don't equate fiction with lies, you're not so simple as that." 

"And how is that different from what you are arguing?"

"What I'm saying is that fiction is life . . . it is the reality that happens every day. It can't be separated as some sort of noble ideal."

(I’m not sure about this.)

"And what I'm saying,” the younger one said, “is that the reality doesn't exist any more than the ideal. What if I were to phrase it another way? What if I were to propose that there is only non-fiction? The notion is completely absurd of course." 

I set the tray of salt shakers on the bar, gleaming in the lamplight. Ted stood behind it, tall, quiet, surveying the tables, towel over his shoulder. He looked at the clock. "Gentlemen," he began. "I'm sorry, but it is indeed time."

The old one chuckled. “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME. HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.” 

Ted smiled indulgently. “The Wasteland, yes, I know.”

They both got up, put an overly generous tip on the table.

“Well, you tell us, Ted,” the old one said as he retrieved his cane. “Is there such a thing as fiction?” He turned to his friend. “Or, for that matter, is there such a thing as non-fiction?”

Ted’s face was unreadable. (Or is it bemused?) “I’ll leave that to you,” he said with the slightest bow.

The old one turned toward me. “How about you young lady?” he said as he buttoned his coat. “What do you think?”

Of course they didn’t care what I thought. I knew that. They didn’t even know I existed. I started to shrug in silence, but the words spilled out unbidden, violating my rule of never talking with them. 

“I prefer Prufrock myself,” I heard my voice say breezily as I grabbed the towel and began rubbing the bar. “It is impossible to say just what I mean.”

The men were silent for a moment but soon recovered. 

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen,” the younger one quoted. 

The old one rapped his cane against the bar. “Ah . . . but that isn’t fair at all,” he said, raising his voice in protest. “That’s poetry. Quite a different thing altogether.”

“Still, well done I’d say,” the younger one said quietly. I imagined he was looking at me, but I kept my eyes on the puddle of lamplight reflected on the bar. Incredibly, I felt my face burn a bright red. 

(This isn’t going the way I’d planned.)

I heard the door open, felt the cold rush in. “Let us go then, you and I,” the old one said laughing. They hooked arms, then disappeared in the blowing snow even before the door shut. 

Ted locked up behind them. Then, mercifully, he clicked the light off.

***

Morning sun streams in the window, surrounding my bed, destroying the fragile words and images of the night before, burning them into nothingness. And yet the faintest memory remains, the weakest whisper of what I meant to say.

The sun streams in. I feel its warmth and cannot move. There is a soft thump as the dark cat jumps on the bed, silently walks to the crook behind my knees and begins kneading. Another thump and the light cat jumps on the other side. Their purring weaves a song, sending glittering bits of dust spiraling slowly upward. They curl up in circles, Yin and Yang, a tangible magic. 

I can almost touch it. 

What, I don’t know. Eternity maybe. Or maybe time.

There will be time. There will be time.  

An hour passes, but I come no closer, in fact shrink farther away. The cats yawn and tackle one another, their ritual forgotten, the magic gone. I boot them off and make the bed. 

At my desk, my fingers caress the cover of a book: The Canterbury Tales. Its worn leather settles me, the illumination is my talisman. Yet it is a book completed not by sewing the tales together, making them whole, but by writing a retraction. My two scholars in the bar could argue why Chaucer did this. “He was employing a convention--a palinodes,” the older one might say. “No, no,” the younger one would counter. “He was creating a device to give a secret nod to the canon of his work.”  

Time yet for a hundred indecisions. 

For me, there is no question. The retraction was neither convention nor device. He meant it. Does one of us exist who would not do the same? Who would not call after their work, like a forlorn child, I take it back, I’m sorry, I take it back, please God, I take it all back. . . . 

Time to turn back and descend the stair. 

We are close kin of Anne Bradstreet, our words our ill-formed offspring. Ill-formed offspring. Yes. A dim reflection, even a mistake, but still, I think, perhaps, that something is there deep inside, something that needs just a little more work, just a little more time.

There will be time to murder and create.  

One day my muse may visit. I might have a dream. Maybe I’ll wake with images spewing from my pen like a child’s sparkler on a summer night—magical, exquisite, inspired.  

Or, more likely, I will be the mute sister, riding in the back of a horse-drawn cart, heading for the pyre, still frantically knitting the stinging nettles. It is painful. The mob would tear my work to bits and the archbishop sneers. I will not finish, but perhaps it will be enough. 

So then how do I presume? 

Coffee in hand, I look out the window at a blue, blue sky. I remember the tower. High above the city, the people looked at the sky and saw something I cannot—the sweet hereafter . . . infinity . . . the outstretched arms of God. . . . 

I don’t know, but they opened the windows, held hands and jumped. I wonder, though, when they pushed the glass aside, if they whispered courage to one another.

And how should I begin? 

Now, on the ground, alone. The time has come again. My lands are not in order, but I sit at the desk and watch the screen flicker to life.

There was something I was trying to say, something about voices.  

 

 

Elizabeth Jennings’ first book, The Button Collector, will be published by PageSpring Publishing in early 2013. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of publications, including the literary journal Apalachee Review, the e-zine Rose & Thorn, and the children’s magazine Ladybug. Her non-fiction has won several awards, including first place for special articles/health in the 2006 NC Press Club Contest. A native of Clemson, SC, she earned degrees in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Delaware. For more information, visit www.elizabethjennings.com.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?

A: The original seed for this story was the image of two professors debating the nature of fiction. I soon realized they were phantom members of the Oxford literary group, The Inklings, which was active in the early twentieth century. The story then veered into an exploration of the writing process before firmly landing as a reading of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I don’t view the poem as a social commentary; I read it as a painful delving into the creative process, especially the “hundred visions and revisions” that any writer knows too well.  

 

Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?  

A: Most of my writing is heavily influenced by authors such as Anne Tyler and Alison McGhee, who examine the details of everyday humanity. Occasionally, however, a story floats to the surface with an obviously different ancestry—Ray Bradbury, Alice Hoffman, Truman Capote, the Brothers Grimm. This always surprises me and I blame my eclectic reading habits.  

 

Q: What’s your ideal place to write? 

A: I am quite boring in this regard. I write best in my study. The only interesting thing about it is that a white squirrel sometimes climbs up to my window and peers in at me.  

 

Q: When did you know you would be a writer? 

A: I pulled together a newspaper for day camp when I was in elementary school and an extremely tolerant counselor printed it off for us. To be honest, however, I view myself as a reader more than a writer. I just haven’t found one of those jobs where people pay you to read all day.  

 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am doing final edits for my first book, The Button Collector, which is a novel in stories based on a family’s collection of old buttons. It will be published by a brand new e-book publisher and I am excited about that. I am also working on a revision of a novel about two friends and how they deal with the Fates.


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All our Heroes Are Dead by Mickey Laurence Cohen

followed by Q&A

He looked at me from across the counter. 

People had told me about him. He looks just like you, they said, You could be twins. 

I’d known about him for years but I’d never gone until now.

He looked at me. It was like looking in a mirror. He was in better shape, of course, since I hadn’t been eating well. His skin a bit darker. 

He was getting ready to leave. He was cleaning the grillroom, a little shoarma counter off the Dam. 

You want something, he said. Maybe he was too tired to formulate a proper question. His accent was just as thick as mine. I had learned Dutch by reading Lagerkvist’s Barrabas, looking up every word I did not know in a dictionary. It took me months to read that book. But by the end I hardly needed the dictionary at all. People laughed at my Dutch. You sound like a character in a novel, they’d say. 

It had taken me so long to read that book that I became Barrabas. I looked back across the counter, screwing up my face as if I really were looking in a mirror. Did he know Barrabas? 

What? he said. Arms crossed, looking me over, taking his time. It was just like looking in a mirror, except in an ordinary mirror your reflection is reversed. It’s not who you really are. 

His hair longer, thicker. His eyes not ringed like mine, his forehead not creased, even though we were still young, late twenties. Same height but broader. I’d dropped a lot of weight. 

We were both tired, though. I’d been wandering around Amsterdam all day, with nowhere to go since I was once again “between homes,” as they say. He’d been standing behind the counter since the morning. Tomorrow he’s been invited to lunch with his boss, who was also his future father-in-law; they’d spend the afternoon on the living room couches with the brothers and uncles and cousins while his fiancée served them tea. Her mother fussing about, saying: She cooked everything herself, you know. I did practically nothing. 

On the grillroom walls were posters of ancient Greece, Constantinople, the faded glory of Egypt, of Beirut, of Palestine, browned and curled and cracking from years of smoke and grease and the exhaust fumes from the tour busses that stopped in front of the grillroom while the tourists roamed the Walletjes, the red light district, snapping photographs on the sly. 

We were looking through the shop window. It had rained earlier in the evening and the cobblestones still glistened, flickering with red light and the movements of the whores in their windows. 

His feet hurt. My feet hurt too. I’d spent the day wandering about, as I often did, having nowhere to go. An ex-girlfriend had taken pity on me; she’d given me the key to the storeroom in the basement of her building. But I could come back at night, after the other residents had all gone to bed. Her bedroom was just above the closet and she’d wait for me; she had a new boyfriend by then and she wanted me to know she was in love and she was happy. 

From time to time I picked up work as a reader of English books for a publisher, but it wasn’t enough to rent my own place. The publisher’s offices were on the quay along the old port of Amsterdam, in a building that had once served as a warehouse for the famous Dutch trading houses of yesteryear, the windows tall and solid and looking out over the Amsterdam’s ancient sea. I’d type out my reports on my old manual with its skittish letter “I”. My reports were invariably negative, for my heart was black with jealousy. 

I’m closing up, he said, What you want?

He looked at me. Maybe he saw the resemblance now. Maybe he’d known there was someone in Amsterdam who looked just like him, like two drops of water, as they say. He’d been waiting for so long he was not at all surprised to see me. 

He dropped a few leftover bits of falafel into the fryer, added a handful of already cooked fries. He brought out a plate of salad, the leaves gone black about the edges and shoved that along the counter in front of me. 

People can tell when you’re hungry, when you haven’t eaten for a long time, when you’re hard up enough to eat their leftovers. They look at you like you’re a dog. They watch you eat and they half-expect you to drop to your hands and knees. They always seem disappointed when you don’t. But they don’t look at you the same after that.

He served up the falafel and fries and settled back to watch me eat. He was thinking there is worse in life than eating like a dog. He was thinking of his mother, how she’d held his father’s hand, the hand and part of the forearm, all they could find of him amid the dust and smoke and shattered windows. He looked at me and saw himself and said: So where you from? 

It’s possible he thought he was looking at a ghost. After all, Amsterdam was haunted by ghosts, Amsterdam was filled with ghosts, especially here in the center, the oldest part of town, the very heart of Amsterdam. There were so many ghosts packing the narrow alleys and twisted passages of this neighborhood, that at times, what with the hordes of tourists and the junkies and the pickpockets, the squatters and the artists, the prostitutes and the evangelicals come from all over the world to save them, it was quite difficult to move. 

But I was not a ghost. Not even a ghost! Oh, it hadn’t taken me long to alienate everyone I knew, and when they passed me in the street they pretended they hadn’t seen me, as if I’d become invisible. But I was not a ghost. I had become quite solitary, a regular hermit, I had taken to avoiding everyone, I felt disfigured, deformed, stigmatized. I was still young but I’d already ceased to exist, at least, so it seemed. By then I barely spoke at all. Days would pass, even entire weeks, where I wouldn’t speak, not a single word. 

And yet, I had become fluent in Dutch. After I’d finished Barrabas I’d read everything I could get my hands on, books, magazines, newspapers I’d pick out of the trash, advertisements, political pamphlets scattered in the street, flyers for the live sex shows, brochures from this religious group or another, love letters, grocery lists, parking violations, whatever came to hand. I built up quite a vocabulary. And only then did I begin to speak, but only to myself. I spent hours simulating conversations, inventing dialogues, or ranting on and on in long monologues, lecturing on the most diverse of subjects, debating the major issues of the day, launching into long proclamations, haranguing my imaginary audience with sermons, diatribes, tirades and prophecy. I’d tell myself jokes and laugh at them. 

Now I’m Hamsun, I’d say. 

I’d become fluent. But as I withdrew from others, as I sank into my isolation, it became more and more difficult to speak. When I would try to speak, I’d find myself stuttering, mumbling, the words sticking to the tip of my tongue, finally producing little more than a collection of grunts and groans, barks and growls. People complained they couldn’t understand me. Babel, who?, they’d say, and they gave up speaking to me altogether. 

Who? What? he asked. He was wiping down the counter, cleaning up the crumbs. Who’s Babel?

He watched me and saw himself. I watched him and saw myself. 

He was thinking if he didn’t get out of here soon he’d miss the last tram and he’d have to wait for the bus and the ride would take forever to get to his own neighborhood, on the outskirts of the city. He was thinking about how different Amsterdam becomes once you go beyond the canals and the bridges and the cobblestones, the old churches and the skinny little houses. Where the buildings look more like warehouses, where block after block, street after street, everything looks exactly alike, so that you have the feeling you never get anywhere and nothing ever changes. He looked at me with my eyes, large eyes, dark and beautiful.

Good stuff, eh? he said as I finished the food on my plate, wiping the plate with my finger to pick up every last crumb and smear. He studied me, and in English said: So where you from?

Amsterdam, I wanted to say. But Amsterdam had rejected me. Amsterdam did not want me. I already knew I could not stay in Amsterdam much longer, not like this. But I had nowhere else to go. 

That morning I handed in my last report to the publisher, three pages filled with strikeouts, bitterness and envy. The ribbon so pale by then that by the end the words were unreadable. The publisher’s assistant greeted me, looking over the pages with a bemused curiosity. They no longer required my services, she explained, gently enough. The publisher was dying of AIDS and a new editor was taking over and taking another direction altogether. She spoke slowly, her voice low and soft. Anyway, she said, we only kept you on because we felt sorry for you. We stopped reading your reports a long time ago. You’re exasperating. You like nothing. You go on and on about ghosts, writers no one remembers, Malaparte, Celine, Miller, Chandler ... All of your heroes are dead! The only one who isn’t dead is Cela. And even him…

Cela’s not dead? I said. 

Here, take this back too, she said, handing me the envelope with the manuscript of my novel. I’d spent years on it, carrying it with me everywhere because I was afraid I’d lose it or someone would steal it. I had put everything into that manuscript. I had the sensation the manuscript had become more me than myself. As if I had translated myself exactly into its seven hundred pages and crumbs. It had grown very heavy, that manuscript. 

The assistant watched me. She said: We can’t use it. And anyway, it’s unreadable. You really ought to change your ribbon from time to time. You know no one with a computer?

She reached into her handbag, brought out some bills, twenty-five guilders, placed them in my hand. She said: Maybe it’s time to go back home?

After I left the publisher’s I walked along the quay, listening to the suck and hiss of the black waters of the old harbor. It had begun to rain, the fine, persistent drizzle of Amsterdam in the autumn, which seemed to penetrate the skin and chill the bone. I hugged the manuscript to me but I had nothing to protect it from the rain. It was heavy and I was tired. 

I walked along the quay, listening to the hiss and sigh of the water, the mockery of seagulls. I looked about: there was no one. I took the manuscript out of its envelope, raised the pages above my head and tossed them. The pages spread out across the black surface of the water, like a comforter, thick and soft. I was tired, so very tired; I wanted nothing more than to wrap myself up in the comfort of my own pages. But after a moment, they sank into the water and disappeared beneath the surface.

I’m Gogol now, I said, scratching an itch on the side of my nose. 

He was watching me. He was thinking about his older brother, taller, stronger, straighter, and how they’d whipped him in the road in front of everyone, made him kneel in the dust, beating him so hard he finally shit his pants and weeping ratted out the others. They took him away after that and he was never seen again. 

There was a bit of cake left in the display box. He served me a slice of that. We watched a group of Dutch kids walk past the window, tall and blond and laughing. 

We were not tall and not blond. I ate more slowly now. It had begun to rain again and it was still too early to return to my storeroom. He brought out a broom and began sweeping up. Now and then he glanced at the clock on the wall, but he’d missed the last tram and the next bus wouldn’t leave for another hour. 

It’s good? he said, nodding to the cake. You want more. 

I counted out my coins, slid them across the table. After leaving the publisher I’d bought a bicycle from a junkie behind the train station. It was a good bike and I’d spent the day on it, wandering about the city, rolling along the streets and canals and only returning to the old heart of town at this end of the evening. He looked at the coins. I said: It’s all I have left. 

He pushed the coins back toward me, waved his hand. He opened a beer and placed it in front of me. 

I would have done the same. It is exactly what I would have done. 

You won’t join me? I asked, raising the beer. 

No, he said. But then he went to the cooler and took out a can of cola and grinned. He had my smile, the teeth a littler whiter. 

He was thinking about his uncle, his father’s brother, who’d sold everything to buy his ticket. And my mother? he’d asked, what will become of her? His uncle had looked at him, but he had the feeling his uncle had already begun to disappear. His uncle had said: I will take care of your mother.

He had never seen them again. He would never see them again. Even their village had disappeared, razed to the ground in a single night. He was thinking of them and we drank in silence. 

We watched the rain, the drizzle like a fine chain mesh suspended in the air, as if the rain would never really fall but would simply hang there forever. It often rained like this in Amsterdam, for days or even weeks on end, entire months of this rain that never falls. Throughout the terrible, interminable months of winter the rain hung over the city, shrouding the city in gloom. Everything seemed hopeless. The city itself as dead. 

He watched the rain. Tomorrow, he was thinking, he will visit the in-laws and in a few weeks he will be married, and soon he will have children and they will speak Dutch without any accent at all. 

So, he asked, who’s Barrabas?

He’s the other one, I said, The one they let go. 

He looked at me. He looked at me with my own eyes. He cleared away my plate and offered me a second beer and took another cola for himself. We raised our glasses. 

To your health, we both said, with the same voice. 

The church bells were ringing when we finally left the grillroom, the sound of the bells stretching out above us like a cage encompassing the city. It was very late. He had missed his tram and he would have to wait for the next bus in the cold and in the rain. 

Listen, I said, as he locked up the grillroom and shuttered the security grill, Take my bicycle. It’s my fault you missed your tram. Take my bike. It’s a good one. 

We walked over to the Oudezijds Achterburgwal, where I’d chained up the bike on the railing along the canal in front of my ex-girlfriend’s place. I gave him the bike. We watched the lights of the red light district reflected on the black water of the canal. They looked like stars. They looked exactly like the stars. 

 

 

Mickey Laurence Cohen is an American writer living in France. His work has also been featured in Atticus Review and Smokelong Quarterly. He is currently seeking publication of a novel, The History of Human Invention, while working on a new novel-in-stories, written in French, and which will include a French version of "All Our Heroes Are Dead."

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: “All Our Heroes Are Dead” takes place in Amsterdam in the early 1990s, a period marked by the coming of age of the first post-Holocaust generation, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the first signs of new and growing tensions between the "old" Europe and the Europe of the future. The story is auto-literary. 

 

Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?

A: Ha! This is covered in “All Our Heroes Are Dead!” I have always been oriented toward European writers, particularly the great stylists. I am especially indebted to the works of Isaac Babel, Curzio Malaparte and Jose Camilo Cela, but also Celine, Knut Hamsun, Nikolai Gogol, Par Lagerkvist and more recently Jose Saramago and Edgar Hilsenrath. I consider Raymond Chandler to be the greatest American writer. 

 

Q: What’s your ideal place to write? 

A: I live in the farmhouse built by my wife's great-great-great grandfather, with the sunrise over the river valley and a cock's crow as my alarm clock. Can't think of a better place!

 

Q: When did you know you would be a writer? 

A: I can't remember when I wasn't writing. When I was eight or nine I read Robin Hood—and bawled my eyes out when he died at the end. That depth of feeling... It was then that I knew I had to become a writer. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished a novel in English, The History of Human Invention, which I'm currently shopping around to agents and publishers. For the last six months or so I've been working on a French novel-in-stories, called L'Attente, which tells the story of the manuscript the character tosses into the port at the end of “All Our Heroes Are Dead.” A French version of the story will also appear in this novel.


A 53-word Story

Every week, Press 53 offers its free 53-word Story Contest with Meg Pokrass, with one winner chosen and posted on the Press 53 Blog. Each quarter, the editors of Prime Number Magazine choose one story from all the weekly winners. This quarter we have selected "Untitled" by Rebecca Morris.

 

Untitled

by Rebecca Morris

 

I’ll never forget the day I lied about the copper-headed snake because that’s the day I found out my father was a liar too. I’d brouhahaed. I’d worried mama and the girls. Daddy got his hoe. I pointed to where the snake had gone. “You get it?” Mama asked. “Got it,” Daddy said.

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Rebecca Morris is a graduate student in Texas A&M University’s English Department where she specializes in children’s and young adult literature. Her first academic book, Representing Children in Chinese and American Children’s Literature, a coedited collection, will be published in 2014. Rebecca currently teaches writing in Winston-Salem and enjoys skiing, hiking, and horseback riding in the North Carolina mountains.


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Mykonos (1988) by Jay Kauffmann

followed by Q&A

We left Athens in the evening, on an overnight ferry to Mykonos. The ship rumbled beneath us at a snail’s pace, shuddering with such violence we imagined something must be wrong with the engine. The cabin smelled of diesel so we stayed on deck, letting the warm wind wash over us and watching the sunset bleed out over the Aegean Sea. After a while, M. returned to our stateroom, complaining of a stomachache, while I remained on deck to watch the stars. As I lay there, staring up into the night sky, I had the sensation of looking down upon a buzzing, luminous metropolis—full of traffic jams, racing freeways, city blocks and skyscrapers with every window lit. The stars wheeled, darted, scintillated above me, each distinct, detonating over and over again in perfect silence.

I felt far from everything, free to re-make myself.

In our mid-twenties, we had arrived in Greece so I could work for Rococo (the Greek equivalent of Armani), who had booked me to model their suits and do their ad campaign. And, since neither of us had ever been to Greece, we decided to stay. 

M. was still awake when I returned to our stateroom—moaning and tossing in bed. She looked possessed, glassy-eyed, her long blonde hair matted and soaked with sweat. 

“My God,” I said. 

“Maybe it was the lamb,” she whispered between gasps—having eaten lamb that evening in the ship’s mess. Then, suddenly enraged, she cried out: “Why won’t this fucking boat stop shaking!” 

She continued to moan and hold herself for another hour, until finally she fell asleep. 

I figured whatever it was would pass by morning. But the next day, as we drifted into Mykonos harbor, she was pasty and green, sweating profusely, and still in pain. I helped her to shore, bags slung over my shoulder, and chose a simple pension within walking distance of the harbor. It was clean and white with a porch overlooking the sea. I left her in bed while I hurried to the pharmacy to find something for the pain.

It was an aesthetic marvel, the island: the bleached buildings with blue shutters, the stark volcanic rock, the views of fishing boats and cerulean water. But as I searched for a pharmacy, a doctor’s office, I was indifferent to it all—only thinking of M.

I passed the street market, where tourists bartered for produce, young gay men fingered jewelry and scarves, and a table of old Greek men looked on with amusement, throwing back shots of ouzo. It was only ten, but already the men were drinking, and the sun splashed violently against the whitewashed walls.

By the time I returned to the room with medicine, she looked worse. She lay writhing in bed, cramping as if in labor. “I’ll get a doctor,” I said. 

“No!” she cried. “Don’t leave!” She was naked except for a T-shirt, cupping her pubic bone, raging, hair wild. 

From between her legs, a pinkish fluid spread across the sheets. It struck me then, with staggering force: she was having a miscarriage—the miscarriage of a child neither of us knew she was carrying. A moment later, she arched her back and groaned, and the fetus appeared. I could not connect what I was seeing—the delicate, membranous skull, eyes, fingers—to my ordinary world. How could this tiny dead child exist in the same reality as, say, the camera on the bedside table, or the book (whose bold letters signified nothing)? 

M. propped herself up on her elbows and looked between her legs. She began keening softly, twisting her head from side to side. Then the wail grew in pitch until it reached a full-throated cry. I had never understood the word hysterical till now. “My baby!” she shrieked.

Was it a boy, girl? I didn’t check, didn’t want to know. I scooped it up with a wad of toilet paper and threw it in the trashcan, and then covered it with more paper—wanting to erase, deny, its very existence. 

“No,” I lied, “no, it was only blood.” 

Still wailing, she looked at me with horrified eyes.

I felt embarrassed. By what, our cluelessness? That someone might hear? I felt as if we had done something terribly wrong.

I grabbed her by the shoulders. “Stop it,” I said. But she kept screaming—a pure exhalation of grief, her voice swooping up and down.

I slapped her face (but without force). And she fell silent, aghast, mouth ajar. “You’re all right,” I said, trying to get her to look at me. I hugged her; she felt limp in my arms and shuddered. Though her pain was gone, she had withdrawn to some far corner of her consciousness and stared without focus. 

The next day, we took the first ship back to Athens, and then a taxi directly to the hospital.

. waited for hours, lying on a gurney in the hallway, with nothing but a hospital gown to cover her—her long tan legs exposed. The bleach rising off the floors stung my eyes and the pale green walls echoed with anxious voices. The doctor, when he finally arrived, could only speak a handful of English words—“yes,” “okay,” “no problem”—which he repeated at random, and then abruptly walked away. 

Some time later, an orderly appeared and wheeled her down the hall. “Don’t worry,” I said, “everything will be okay,” which came out sounding asinine. I followed, holding her hand, until we reached a set of doors beyond which I wasn’t allowed to go.

While the procedure took place, I fled the hospital to clear my mind, and found a quiet side street with thick vegetation growing on either side and forming a canopy overhead. It was late-afternoon and hot—a dry desert heat that instantly dried the sweat from my skin. As I walked along the shaded street, I was plagued with conflicted feelings of regret and relief. I wasn’t ready to raise a child or marry or even stay in one place. And I didn’t see M. as a mother or wife (more a consumed artist). But I couldn’t help but imagine what the child might have been like, the trajectory of his life. I imagined a quiet, towheaded boy, prone to bouts of giggling, with large, clever eyes. And, for a moment, I imagined the love between us—as if he truly existed in the world. 

Wherever his soul was headed, I wished it well.

When she returned from the operation, she looked shell-shocked and defeated. And with an armful of flowers and a stack of German fashion magazines, I declared my love. But something had changed between us. I felt it immediately. As she lay in bed in the recovery room and the windows darkened, she spoke of spending more time in Germany with her family, of going back to school to study photography, of settling down somewhere… in Berlin perhaps. And I understood that our journey together was coming to a close. 

As we left the hospital together that evening, she leaned heavily against me and, with slow steps, we advanced toward the taxi. It was quiet out and still warm and the tops of cypresses moved in the breeze. At once, the urge to belong flared up inside me, though I foresaw only years of wandering ahead. I looked up into the night sky, hoping to find stars, but the pollution and city lights prevented me from seeing anything.

 

 

Jay Kauffmann holds an MFA from Vermont College and has taught at Randolph College, Vermont College, and Göteborgs Stadsbibliotek. Winner of the Andrew Grossbardt Memorial Prize and nominee for a Pushcart Prize, he has work out or forthcoming in The Writer’s Chronicle, Lumina, upstreet, Storyglossia, CutBank, Gulf Stream, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. “Mykonos (1988)” is excerpted from Mannequin, a memoir about his years as an international model.

 

Q&A

Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?

A: I was surprised by how difficult it was to be true to the experience and still avoid being sensational. This is a problem common with material that is so highly charged and personal. I often tell my students, when approaching such material, to find some objectivity—take a more dispassionate stance. But, as I went through successive drafts, I found this, of course, much easier to say than do.  

 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?

A: “Let the sound guide you…” And I don’t even remember who said it, or if I read it somewhere, but I have since heard writers as diverse as Richard Ford, Virginia Woolf, and Don DeLillo say the same thing. And, yes, I follow it absolutely. There’s a music, a rhythm, distinctly mine, in my head, which supersedes logic, reason, literary rules. And it’s the only authority I trust. So, no matter how right a sentence may seem, if the sound is off, the sentence is—in the Hemingway sense—untrue.  

 

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?

A: James Salter, Paul Bowles, Leonard Michaels, Frank Conroy, and Don DeLillo.

 

Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own? 

A: I write most first drafts in bed, alone, first thing in the morning, before my rational mind has had a chance to kick in. Editing and revising I can do pretty much anywhere—airports, cafés… So, I suppose you could say the muse is in my bed.


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Thirst

by Jacob Allgeier

followed by Q&A

“I shall never get out of this! There are two of me now: 

This new absolutely white person and the old yellow one, 

And the white person is certainly the superior one. 

She doesn't need food, she is one of the real saints. 

At the beginning I hated her, she had no personality-- 

She lay in bed with me like a dead body 

And I was scared, because she was shaped just the way I was…”

 

— “In Plaster” by Sylvia Plath

 

 

It’s an unspoken truth that the moment you lie down, there’s a chance you’ll never rise again. 

 

The edge of an instrument table cuts deeper and deeper into my bare ass. I refuse to get any closer to the bed. It’s erected in the center of the room, surrounded by a cage of blinking screens and tangled wires. The sheets are perfectly folded, just waiting for a frail body to make its permanent indentation. The stench of disinfectant beckons me. 

 

A nurse sporting a “Children’s Hospital” patch on her breast stomps toward me. A pudgy hand reaches for my goose-bump riddled arm. I scurry to the bathroom and slam the door. Safe. I scan the room for a mirror, but only find tawdry wallpaper. I run my hands down my body, mapping every bony curve in my mind’s eye. Bones are the product of starvation. With every one that comes into view, the closer you are to perfection. I’m so close I can taste it. 

 

I haven’t had a drop of liquid since my pediatrician admitted me here. He called it an “inpatient program.” More like the opposite of “fat camp.” My ties with him should’ve been terminated a year ago on my eighteenth birthday, but he’s been monitoring me since I was a crying, shitting sprout of human being. I trusted him, I suppose. The day before, we had our last appointment together. Just one below-average heart rate and a dizzy-spell called for automatic deportation to this place. I trusted him. 

 

I bang the faucet knob up with my elbow and cup my hands underneath it. They remain unfilled. “Why’s there no water?” I yell, spinning the knob around like a jack-in-the-box. The nurse’s agitated voice from the other side tells me it’s shut off. “Why?” But I know why. So I won’t binge on water before the weigh-in.

 

My throat releases something that sounds like the mixture of a hoarse laugh and a scream. For years doctors have been telling me to give water a chance. I would just brush it off and down a liter of Diet Coke. Now, I deliriously pry at the nozzle. For the love of god, just a drop. 

 

The voice commands me to come out. “Not until you turn it on,” I try to bargain. No can do. “Turn. It. On.” She’s just doing her job. “Bitch.” I scowl at the dry basin and yank open the bathroom door. I’m not sure why I gave in. No matter the reason, I did, and now the bed once again taunts me with its cold metal arms.

 

The nurse wheels in a screeching scale and haphazardly slams it against the wall. With its jagged frame and white sheen it looks like a revamped medieval contraption. I glide over to it as if by instinct. The nurse’s commands commence. Turn around. Step backwards onto it. Arms to the side. Relaaax. 

 

I’ve done this so many times the past two years that it has become second nature. Every week my nutritionist would give the same sullen response: “Down,” with a disapproving flick of the head. Then we’d brainstorm the best way to shovel mounds of grease down my throat. We’d conclude with a mini-lecture on fat absorption rates, payment for her services, and a halfhearted “Have a good week.” 

 

Five months earlier when I started college in Florida, I weighed 116 pounds. I sneak a peek at the number behind me: “99.1” I’ve turned “Freshman 15” on its head. The nurse curtly asks me why I’m smiling. It has become a natural reaction to seeing the numbers plummet. I immediately drag the corners of my lips down.

 

“Did I break it?” I jokingly ask the nurse, hoping to shatter the tension between us. Her lips twist into a scowl. I find my feet shuffling backward, as if they’re being coaxed by some invisible force. I’m swept up into the bed. As hard as I struggle, I can’t summon the energy to get back up.

 

The nurse fumbles through a drawer, keeping her lips mashed into a stern slit. A tourniquet leaps from the drawer and coils around my stringy bicep like a ravenous snake. “Do I have to get an IV?” I groan. The nurse replies by jamming a needle into my bulging vein. 

 

A tube is hooked up to the needle to take a sample. It remains empty. My body must be refusing to part with the precious amount of blood it has left. The needle sinks deeper into my arm and sends a sharp pain up my humerus. Blood spurts from the punctured point and paints my gown red. Vial by vial my veins are run dry. The nurse hooks me up to an IV bag and leaves me to my blood-loss-induced-euphoria. 

 

I notice a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye. A petite woman is curled up into a ball on a pleather chair. Some call her my creator. “Mother” will do. My father drowned in smoke at a house fire when I was fifteen. Mother assumed both parental roles afterward, pulling fifty-hour weeks at her job. It shows in her sunken face and the way she hobbles around like a resurrected mummy. She wires me money monthly to buy food. Little does she know it goes straight to cigarettes and new clothes.  

 

Mother’s shut eyelids manically flutter like larvae struggling to burst through their shells. Perhaps this place has conjured memories of the beginning: a bloody bundle of flesh being torn from a gash in her abdomen. Do the screams sound the same after nineteen years? I try to say something to wake her up, but my tongue is wedged between my cheek and gums.

 

I idly turn my wrist around in front of me, as if studying a tagged artifact. The wristband reads: NAME: Jacob Allgeier. DATE OF ADMISSION: 1/27/11. They can’t keep me here; I’m finally the commander of my life. I couldn’t control my parents’ divorce. I couldn’t control my father’s affair with alcohol. I couldn’t control countless coffins being tossed into holes. But I could control food. Now these people at the hospital want to strip me of this title I labored so hard for. 

 

I dig my fingers under the wristband and try to yank it off. Almost immediately every ounce of energy seeps from my pores. When did I become so tired? I try to fight the veil of darkness slowly being drawn over me. The sheets passionately embrace me like an assassin.

 

A shrill beeping jolts me from my sleep. The heart monitor to my left is going haywire, wildly flashing numbers and lights. Something’s wrong. A nurse scurries in and pounds on a few buttons. The machine dies with a hiss. 

 

“What’s happening?” I scream in terror. Apparently my heart rate dropped to the caution level: 45 beats per minute. “What’s normal?” 90. Am I only half alive?

 

Before I can ask more questions, to get some momentary sense of reassurance, the nurse splits. The seat to the side of me crackles as Mother rolls off of it. She places the back of her hand on my forehead, as if checking my temperature like she did when I was a child. I should appreciate her ditching work to be here with me, but instead I am consumed by fury. She’s actually letting her son be tortured right before her eyes. 

 

“I want to leave,” I snarl. Mother says she understands. She was hospitalized as a teenager to fight the same demon. This little bastard that crawls into your mind and plucks at the grey matter; twists your eyes until every reflection of yourself is a funhouse mirror; hisses in your eardrum, “Fat fat fat…” It must have been passed down to me like a genetic mutation, one far more malevolent than the widow’s peak and piss-poor eyesight. If anyone should’ve seen this coming, it would be Mother.

 

The fluid in the IV bag drops into the thin tube beneath it. Plop. Plop. Plop. I imagine Old Faithful, that gaping hole in the ground that spews a colossal fountain of water every 91 minutes. I want to lean over it, unhinge my jaw, and rapidly expand by the rush of water like a balloon. I can already smell the stench of rotten eggs curdling in my nostrils.

 

Thirst keeps me from dozing off. I impatiently surf news websites on my laptop to pass the time. Seven protestors have been killed during the riots in Egypt. Charlie Sheen has been rushed to the hospital after being coked out with a porn star. The American Psychiatric Association claims that five to ten percent of people with an eating disorder die within ten years of onset. Chills ripple over my flesh. I skipped my first meal eight years ago. I try to convince myself that it’s all skewed data, but this feeling of unease only intensifies. 

 

A nurse slips into the room with a battered wheelchair. It’s 8 a.m. Time to eat. The phrase sounds as foreign to me as “Timendi causa est nescire.” After years of emptiness, my stomach has become a petrified fossil. There’s no restoring it back to the state it once was. 

“I’m not hungry,” I say with a wave of my hand. She points a fingernail down to the wheelchair and sternly says it’s part of the program. I heave off the bed and listlessly patter to the door. The rusting wheels block the exit. “Excuse me.” Sit. She’ll push me there. “Seriously? I can’t walk?” I retort in disbelief. Are they going to feed me breakfast choo-choo-train-style as well? Sit. I obey.

The “dining room,” which is nothing more than an unused office, is occupied by a teenage girl. She sits hunched over the bare table, her spine rippling under her skin like a snake skeleton. Her sagging face quickly sneaks a glance at me. It looks like the head of an old woman has been screwed onto the frame of a nine year old. 

 

The girl’s brows furrow as she scoots her chair to the opposite end of the table. I can sense what she’s thinking: What’s a guy doing here? The moment the pallid gowns were tossed over us, we were deemed comrades in the useless war against ourselves. The sexual organs beneath them are irrelevant. A mirror is not bias to gender; it seizes whoever stares into it for long enough. Perhaps if I were a girl, people would’ve noticed my deterioration sooner. Instead, I was labeled “scrawny.” 

 

Two covered plates are ushered in by a nurse and plopped in front of us. The girl stares down at the mystery dish; her eyes bulge from her skull. She tucks her hands as far as possible between her needle-thin legs.  

 

An unopened bottle of Evian swings from the nurse’s hand like a pendulum. The sloshing sound wrings the emergency supply of spit from my salivary glands. “Do I get something to drink?” I ask, my lips trembling. A small bottle of clear fluid is tossed to me. I hastily twist off the cap and take a swig. An overpowering taste of grimy sweat consumes my mouth. I immediately spew it onto my plate and begin to dry heave. 

“What the hell is this?” I ask, holding my breath to stifle the rank taste. Pedialyte—nectar of the false gods. I’m told I must finish every last drop. If this nurse had a clue what it tastes like, she would cherish that water of hers like the entire Earth is in an irreversible drought.

We move onto the main course. The nurse, like a warden, looms over the girl and me. Our weights combined are less than hers. I practically inhale the food on my plate, hoping the faster I eat, the sooner I can leave. The lukewarm slop leaps over my tongue and down my throat, not even registering with my taste buds. I throw out my arms in presentation at the licked-clean plate. I’m told I can’t go until the girl finishes. What more does this sadist want me from me?

I scowl in impatience at the straggler. A shaky knife slivers off a piece of beef and reluctantly places it in her mouth. Tears well in her glassy eyes. She pulls her knees up to her chest and whimpers like a lost child. The nurse has given her the almond granola bar. She hates almonds. We all know it doesn’t matter what nut is put in there. After a drawn-out scene of whining and tantrums, the girl gives in. She plucks one oat at a time from the bar and reluctantly drops it on her tongue. Her jaw grinds so slowly it feels like time is at a standstill. 

I recognize the look of dread in the girl’s face. It has stared back at me in the mirror for years like an old enemy. Those eyes overflowing with infinite hopelessness and torment. No matter how many lenses you try to filter your skewed perception through, you will never truly see reality with clarity. That distorted portrait you have created of yourself has become more real than your physical being. It is the companion who will lead you hand in hand to the grave. It is the ultimate submission. It is…

A crippling feeling of unease suddenly crashes over me. This lifeless shell of a girl has plummeted into a deep hole, one where all she can do now is dig. She flicks her eyes up at me. They seem to be screaming, “Run!” 

I can’t become her.

I burst out of my chair and make for the door. The nurse lunges at me like a bloodthirsty beast. I evade her grasp and propel off my heels into a sprint. A voice bellows for me to come back. Never.

Grime clings to the soles of my feet as I bolt down this labyrinth of halls. Left. Right. Left. With each turn, my surroundings look even more foreign to me. I occasionally risk a glance into one of the rooms. Blurry figures lie stiff on beds, entangled in coffins of fabric and wire. 

After what seems like an eternity of dead ends, I spot a sign dangling from the ceiling that reads: E.D. UNIT. I stumble to room 414. My heart rapidly beats my ribcage like an out-of-control engine. It may be atrophied, but it’s far from broken.

Mother’s head springs up from the book in her hands. “I’m leaving,” I wheeze. She says I’ve only been here for two days, that I need to give it time. “They won’t help me. I can do this on my own.”

“You’ll die!” Mother cries. The words pierce me with the precision of a chilled scalpel. She’s right.

“But not here,” I say with conviction. Mother’s pallid arms shoot up in the air like a flag. She might have brought me into this world, but I’ll decide how I’m taken out. 

Doctors speak with false concern. Try to convince me to stay. Pretend like they don’t need the bed. Warnings: dangerous heart rate; osteopenia in the lumbar spine; elevated liver enzymes; just words mechanically read aloud from a frayed notepad. 

I swing a backpack with my belongings over my shoulder. “I’m ready,” I reply. I take one last look at the bed. The mattress is perfectly flat. It’s as if no one has ever lain there. I own my silhouette.

The soda machine in the lobby slurps up a dollar bill from my trembling hand. I run my finger up and down the numerous selections, examining each caffeinated drink with a scientist’s eye. My tongue clacks against the roof of my mouth. I’m so parched I can’t even begin to decide which drink would be the most refreshing. 

Lurking at the very bottom of the row is a button concealed by a strip of paper. “H2O” is scribbled on it in nearly illegible chicken-scratch. My breath hides in my lungs. Do it. Save yourself. You are flesh and blood, not a statistic. 

For the next two years I will relentlessly fight and struggle to recover. At times, I will wish I’d just taken the easy route and let myself wither away in the hospital. This demon will continue clinging to my shoulder, coaxing me to fall back into my destructive habits. It feeds off weakness. But I will persevere. With every bite of food I take, the demon will starve. One day, I will banish this disease.

My foot darts back and pile-drives the button. The machine grates and roars like a metallic beast. I snatch up the bottle of water, tear off the cap, and throw my head back. 

 

 

Jacob Allgeier is an undergraduate student at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., and working on a double major in creative writing and literature. His work has appeared in decomP magazinE.

 

Q&A

Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 

A: I have never spoken openly about my eating disorder, so the biggest surprise was realizing how cathartic writing about it was. With each revision, my understanding of how and why I got to this point in my life became clearer. Anorexia is misunderstood, so if my readers can learn something new about it, I feel like I’ve succeeded.

 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?

A: A creative writing professor I had once said, “The key is to be ambiguous, not vague.” Sometimes I get so caught up in the “literary” aspect of writing that I forget that the goal is to connect with the reader on some level. If readers are confused about what they’re reading, then how can I expect them to enjoy the piece, let alone take anything away from it?

 

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?

A: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, Almost Transparent Blue by Ryu Murakami, and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates.

 

Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?  

A: If something’s bothering me, the only way I can get over it is to write. I will find an isolated spot outside and let the feelings completely consume me. I refuse to go back inside until all my thoughts have been dumped onto the page.


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Bankrupting the Russkies by Ray Scanlon

followed by Q&A

Just as it was becoming widely fashionable to despise America and flaunt one's tolerance of Commies, my friend Cav and I engaged in behind-the-scenes operations to help destroy the Soviet Union. Of course, we weren't crucial, nor instrumental, nor even witting, but I shamelessly claim that, like the butterfly in chaos theory, our tiny drain on the resources of the Soviet Union may have had far-reaching and dire consequences for the Kremlin.

In our early days of high school, in the mid-1960s, Cav and I used our Heathkit short wave radios to listen to Radio Moscow, and mailed them requests for confirmation of that fact. Such were the times we didn't know if it were even possible, let alone wise, to send mail to the Evil Empire, but we got the confirmations. From then on, I periodically received broadcast schedule pamphlets in the mail that didn’t stop until the KGB got wind that I’d attended a Young Americans for Freedom organizing meeting. Although it wouldn’t surprise me to find my name on J. Edgar Hoover’s private list of Radio Moscow correspondents, I’m confident that the added stress on the propaganda outlet’s postage budget helped precipitate the USSR’s financial ruin. Every little bit helps.

***

Our short wave listening happened long past radio's heyday when families sat around the console to hear Jack Benny and “The Shadow.” It was solitary, not without its charm, much like the Internet can be today. Nobody ranted about it destroying society as we know it and making us stupid; after all, it wasn't television, and many humans still had the capacity to moderate their propensity for totally ruinous behavior. From the vantage point of fifty years I can even discern some slight instructional value, though at the time we did it for the sheer joy and hell of it.

In the bargain, the Heathkit experience built character. As a grandfather, it's hard to resist telling my grandson how we did things when I was a boy: we mined and smelted bauxite and machined the aluminum for many of the radio's mechanical components. We cadged entrée to the local glass factory and hand-blew our vacuum tubes. Fabricating the other electronic bits was child's play, and actually assembling the radios was a lark, a relaxing indulgence after slaving over an English essay for the brutal Mr. Kelly.

Reality was less intense. I did learn how to etch my own printed circuit boards and had put together from scratch other modest electronics projects. Building something like a working audio oscillator gratified me, and the scent of charring phenolic from unsuccessful projects excited in its own way. I discovered that a thin strip of aluminum foil combined with ordinary household current produced a satisfying miniature fireworks display, if the fuses held. But I failed to fulfill my destiny as an electronics engineer when I was seduced by the Queen of the Sciences, mathematics. (Later, our affair in ruins, I was discarded by her and abandoned, but that's another story altogether.)

As well as giving us our minimum daily requirement of the Communist party line, our radios introduced us to the short wave English broadcasts of other, predominantly European, countries. They also delivered the standard American AM broadcast band, so we devoured adult-scaring teen music. Already heady to an impressionable teenager, the Ventures became noticeably more attractive when I knew they were coming from halfway across the country. In my Massachusetts hinterland hometown of tomahtoes and dropped ars, we heard Brother Al on WWVA, Bible-spieling from Wheeling, West Virginia. We could tell he wasn't a local boy. One of the side effects of listening to the radio is that you do hear things, and the things were interesting at least in part because they didn't come from around here. Distant equated to exotic. We got a tweak to our imaginations, a valuable hint that the world might in fact be bigger and more heterogeneous than we suspected, young as we were.

Consider a radio station spewing radio waves in all directions. Consider also a spherical mirror enveloping the Earth some fifty miles above its surface. If radio waves bounce off the Earth's surface and the mirror—and they do—there will be lots of radio waves zig-zagging away from the station to distances much greater than you'd expect if radio waves just hugged the ground and dissipated—which they also do. This, of course, is the simplified account. The mirror is a layer of particles in the upper atmosphere ionized by radiation from the sun and outer space; actually, there are several layers. And during the day the sun forms an absorbing layer between the earth and the reflective layers; this dissipates after sunset, so night is the prime time to hear far-away stations. This is a markedly dynamic system of many variables, as difficult to predict as the weather.

Because propagation of radio waves is so dicey, it was inevitable, after we accidentally heard distant AM stations, that Cav and I deliberately turned the hunt for more stations into a sport. Besides that element of randomness, some skill was necessary and perseverance was rewarded. Listening for distant stations also had most, if not all, of the qualities of any true manly activity: competition, collecting, utterly trivial stakes, and an esoteric vocabulary to mark the cognoscenti. It lacked only exorbitant expense; our radios were modest.

At the time, it seemed rather less attractive to go out Saturday nights and try to score an underage Bud than to hunch over the dials and strain to hear a new station. I'd warm up with a couple of local stations, and then maybe a couple more in New York, just to get a feel for the ionospheric tides. Referring to my collected notes and charts, I could identify gaps in the broadcast radio spectrum for which I needed to find a station. In those thrilling days of yesteryear, you dialed your three-pound telephone, kilocycles hadn't been deprecated in favor of Herr Doktor Hertz, and digital tuning had not been invented. Tuning was an art. The scale on the dial was imprecise enough so that I usually tuned to the neighborhood I was interested in and listened for a landmark, a station I knew existed. Ambiguous tuning was useful, though, when there was an overpowering strong station next to a weak one of interest. By tuning a little away from both stations you could sometimes reduce the interference from the strong station enough to be able to hear the weak station sufficiently well. 

***

So there in our rooms, Cav and I would sit, logging song titles and times and listening conditions. Signals faded in and out as the ionosphere ebbed and flowed. But sooner or later, we'd get to the magic moment of station identification, hear call letters, and flip through the trusty White's Radio Log to verify our ears. Next day, type—yes, with a typewriter—a letter to the station requesting confirmation. Sooner or later, as a rule, a gaudy postcard would come back, the U. S. Post Office enforcing delayed gratification. There was our payoff: no trophy, no Super Bowl ring, just a bedroom wall papered with QSL cards. As a bonus, I got words like QSL, radio jargon for a reception confirmation. I won't say that the girls in my class swooned when I casually dropped “ionosphere” and “Kennelly-Heaviside layer” into conversations, but it's clear to me that an obnoxiously arcane vocabulary contributed heavily to my amazing success with women.

Cav won the contest with WOAI, San Antonio. The best I could muster was WFAA, Dallas, not quite good enough for a tie. For a while I hoped to trounce his ass by bagging some pitiful five-kilowatt California station, and failed. You'd think with so little at stake the competition between Cav and me would have been fierce and bitter. But it wasn't, and though I'm sure I betrayed unseemly testosterone-induced envy, our friendship endures to this day.

 

 

Ray Scanlon. Massachusetts boy. Has grandchildren. Extraordinarily lucky. No MFA. No novel. No extrovert. His work has been published in more than one place. On the web: http://read.oldmanscanlon.com/.

 

Q&A

Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 

A: One day when I was driving to lunch to meet old friends, the Boston oldies FM station faded out, and a Pensacola station faded in long enough for me to get an ID. Fortunately, there's no need for me to decide whether it was coincidence or divine approval.

 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?

A: Get a second pair of trusted eyes, and don't rush to publish. It's common advice, so I thought there might be something to it. I generally follow it. I regret it when I don't, and I've seen my babies flourish when I do. Can't beat that.

 

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?

A: Three dead white cigar-smoking men: Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, and Wm. F. Buckley, Jr. It's good news for everyone that I lack any talent for imitation.

 

Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?  

A: Public spaces are for observing, revising in my head, and making the occasional note. The brute force work and gnashing of teeth happens at a desktop computer (Macintosh, my machine of choice since 1987), in silence, and often enough, solitude.


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Three Short-Shorts by Christine Hale

followed by Q&A

Failing to Fall

idnight on New Year’s Eve, 1973 turning 1974, I stand in an open window on the top floor of a small hotel in Heidelberg, Germany, assessing whether and how to kill myself. The window stretches floor to ceiling: French doors, flung wide, with long dusty curtains swept aside to let in the frigid, gusting night air, and a cacophony of pealing church bells. In the room behind me are some number of my college student companions—I have no memory of how many or which ones—on this winter-break junket to Europe.

My boy husband Hen is surely among them. It’s inarguable that much hashish is being smoked to see in the New Year. We’ve all been toking as often as possible for five or six days, ever since some daredevil cool-fool among us scored big in our port of entry, Amsterdam. I am eighteen, almost nineteen, a stoner among stoners to whom I have no other connection. I’ve had great affection since high school for any form of downer drug, but I’ve never had hash before this trip, and instantly I am enamored of the aromatic honey taste on my palate, and the sticky-sweet resinous smoke in my hair, and the languorous drone to which it reduces my twitchy consciousness.

But by New Year’s Eve, I’ve had so much I can't take any more. All I want is oblivion. As doped up on Baudelaire and Jim Morrison as on hashish, I summon death to take me. Shut me up, just please-oh-please shut me down in orgasmic, obliterating, pain-ending embrace.

Problem is, the top floor of the small hotel is the third floor, and I am not too stoned to reckon carefully whether the fall will be fatal. I look straight down at the ink-black pavement: insufficiently far away. I lean out, bowing slightly into the burning cold, and feel a swell of glacial joy almost take me, the way the big waves threaten to, too far from the shore at Cape Hatteras. The wild Dionysian clanging of the church bells—only once before in my life have I heard real bells in real belfries—urge me to cast aside reason, and fling myself freely toward divinity and insanity. With wind searing my skin and delirium budding in my brain cells I can almost believe that no difference, no boundary, exists between the pain that threatens to burst me and the sensory chaos of the night that beckons.

I step closer to the edge and lift one foot off the sill. I gaze down again, torn, uncertain, assessing. The drop is just not that far. I visualize my broken body on the pavement below: alive, bleeding, hurting. I do not want to hurt more than I already hurt. I imagine angry, upset people staring at me, shouting at me, handling me. Fear floods me. Fear of pain, fear of death, and fear of the pain of shame. I will be sent home from college, maybe locked up in an institution, certainly subjected to my mother’s judgment and blame. I will be, very publicly, what she has taught me most to fear becoming: a public failure and embarrassment. Scraped from the street in a foreign city, shipped home with much fanfare and injuries, maybe even lasting disabilities that will place me, indefinitely, inside her control.

No drama comes down that midnight in Heidelberg, except the crying jag into which I fall when I close the window and sag into some chair. I cry myself sick, without explaining why, and everybody who knows me is quite used to that.

Anything to avoid failing: that was the story of my life, then.

 

Her Walk

My daughter J took her first steps in the worn and grassless backyard of a secret safe house for battered women on a backstreet of a working-class hamlet in mid-state New York. I sat on the wooden stoop, a volunteer visiting for my weekly hour or two, flanked by women who’d come there to hide from men who, on bad days, wanted to kill them for failing to please. I’d begun this gig before I was a mother, soon after I quit my job in investment banking to stay home and write. I continued to visit while I grew bigger and bigger with pregnancy, and once J was born, I carried her there with me, strapped in a front-pack until she got so heavy and wiggly I put her down and let her cruise. Without ever quite admitting to myself why I went to the shelter I sought it out regularly, learning what I intuited I needed to know: how to run, what my rights were, and just how difficult and profoundly unsafe it would be to assert them.

This June day was warm and soft. All of us wore shorts. I glanced away from J and back again, and she’d done it: turned loose of my knee and set off down the gravelly path. At nine months she’d blacked an eye the first time she tried to walk with nothing to hold on to, but this time, at eleven months, she didn’t fall.

Off you toddle, my girl, in summer-gold light, unafraid—leaf shadow on your shoulders, and three bruised women behind you, cheering your impulse to get on your feet, and go. 

 

Souvenir

On some school or Girl Scout fieldtrip, I once purchased little souvenirs in a mountain gift shop for each member of my family, taking care to pick just the right emblematic thing for each person. For my father, I confidently chose a silvered-plastic loving cup, two inches high, emblazoned “World’s Best Liar.” I don’t remember that I had any direct evidence of my father telling lies, but my mother told me so often what a liar he was that the gift seemed simply perfect. It was not until I presented it to him—and he turned on his heel, unmistakable pain and fury on his face—that I considered what the designation might mean to him. I was frankly stunned to realize he had feelings.

That betrayal of him on her terms made me loathe myself in that moment and any time I recalled it for years afterward. In each bout of regret I would try for a while to become more neutral toward him but it was too late; I had the habit of dismissing him, and he did not trust me. He did not like me, either. He told me as much at some point in his last years. How superior and stuck up I’d acted; how all I’d ever cared about was pleasing her; how as a result she gave me, at his expense, anything I wanted.

But my father did love me. He never injured me and he didn’t fight with me. For most of my life he stayed out of my way and off my radar, living his life and bearing his troubles in complete silence, as far as I was concerned. When I came home to visit as a young adult, infrequently until I had children, his bear hugs at the moment of my arrival and my departure book-ended whatever chaotic emotional engagement I’d had with my mother. Each time my children and I boarded a return flight to New York or Bermuda or Florida, he stood by himself on the observation deck to watch the plane out of sight, before driving home alone to his recliner and TV in the basement, and my mother, inert and fuming, upstairs.

I felt for him then. My children had softened me, my own miserable marriage had wised me up. His lonely, unrequited, old-man devotion made me burn with shame and pity I had no words for, then. 

 

 

Christine Hale’s prose has appeared in Arts & Letters, Spry, Saw Palm, and PMS, among other journals. Her debut novel, Basil’s Dream (Livingston Press 2009,) received honorable mention in the 2010 Library of Virginia Literary Awards. A fellow of MacDowell, Ucross, Hedgebrook, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Hale received her MFA from Warren Wilson College and teaches in the Antioch University-Los Angeles Low-Residency MFA Program, as well as the Great Smokies Writing Program in Asheville, N.C. Her just-completed memoir, In Your Line of Sight: A Reconciliation, is set in southern Appalachia where she and her parents grew up.

 

Q&A

Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising these pieces?  

A: How much I could remember, once I began to remember. The key to accessing the memory vaults of my childhood and young adulthood turned out to be objects. If I began by writing about an object, seeking just the right concrete details to capture not only its appearance but its emotional resonance for me, one object led to another object and another until a feeling-floodgate opened.

 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?  

A: The best and hardest-to-follow advice I've been given is to allow oneself to take pleasure in the process of writing. Fixation on outcome—the desire for a finished essay, novel, memoir—sends the Muse packing. She hates anxiety. When I can follow this advice I am a happy and productive writer. When I forget it, I suffer.  

 

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?  

A: Inspiration for my memoir, In Your Line of Sight: A Reconciliation, (from which these pieces are excerpted) has come from Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping and A Three Dog Life, Mark Doty’s Firebird, and Brenda Miller’s Seasons of the Body, among many others.

 

Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?  

A: I write in a room of my own, a spare bedroom dedicated to my desk and my mess piled around it. I'm a neatnik in the rest of the house but my writing room reflects (I think) a creative looseness made possible by the order outside it. In this house my desk looks out on the driveway and the trees that line it (we live in the woods), but it's the window rather than the view that matters: I need to see sky when I'm feeling stuck.


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Getting Away With It: Breaking the Rules of Writing

by Mary Akers

How-to books on writing fiction are full of maxims: show, don’t tell; avoid clichés; write what you know. But many of our most beloved and renowned writers successfully break these cardinal rules of writing. So, when does conventional wisdom become too conventional? Here are fourteen commonly accepted (and disseminated) “rules” of writing, each accompanied by a famous example that artfully breaks the rule and an exploration of how and why the work succeeds.

 

1. Don’t start with a character waking from a dream.

hen he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him…In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease.

In this opening from The Road by Cormac McCarthy, the main character wakes and touches his young son in the dark to be sure he is breathing then proceeds to relive his dream for the reader’s benefit. Dream sequences shouldn’t work in fiction, especially as openers, primarily because there’s no inherent tension in a dream. All dreams end the same way: and then I woke up. But, in the case of The Road, the post-apocalyptic world is so nightmarish that it works to open with a recalled dream. It is preparing us for the 287 dream-like pages that follow. It also works because the language used to describe the dream is broad and sweeping. It reads like a fable about the end of time, or the beginning of the earth. It even employs the word fable within the text, and the fantastical images propel us forward, ever onward, down the road. 

 

2. Don’t start a story with dialogue.   

“And where’s Mr. Campbell?” Charlie asked.

“Gone to Switzerland. Mr. Campbell is a pretty sick man, Mr. Wales.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. And George Hardt?” Charlie inquired.

“Back in America. Gone to work.”

“And where is the Snow Bird?”

“He was in here last week. Anyway, his friend, Mr. Schaeffer, is in Paris.”

Two familiar names from the long list of a year and a half ago. Charlie scribbled an address in his notebook and tore out the page.

The first line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "Babylon Revisited" not only starts with dialogue, but the first word of the story is and. Talk about your in medias res. We know nothing about Mr. Campbell, and nothing about Charlie, and we attach no specific importance to their names or circumstances. So it shouldn’t work as an opening, except for the fact that the whole story is about people talking and not understanding one another. In that sense, it’s brilliant. The story’s title is the first way in which Fitzgerald gets away with it because it predisposes us to expect a Tower of Babel atmosphere in which everyone is talking but no one is listening. It also works because he keeps it short. Six lines of dialogue and then the author orients his readers. Another excellent short story that begins with dialogue is “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” by Amy Hempel. (“'Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,’ she said. ‘Make it useless stuff or skip it.’”)

 

3. Don’t kill off your main character.  

The Bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end, it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now, Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.

In "Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff, the main character, known to us only as Anders, isn’t a particularly likeable fellow. He’s become smug and judgmental in his career as a literary critic and so divorced from the real world that he doesn’t even feel afraid when he finds himself in a bank being held up by two masked, gun-toting robbers. In fact, he mocks their word usage (dead meat, capeesh) and continues to critically assess their dialogue until one of the robbers threatens him, and then finally shoots him in the head. And although the move is shocking, we don’t feel much of anything for Anders. He brought it on himself, after all. We all saw it coming. But! Once the bullet is traveling through his brain, the long list of things that the narrator tells us Anders doesn’t remember gives us a great deal of insight into his life, and we soften toward him. Then, finally, we get to see what he does remember in his last moments. Anders’s brain finds again the simple and overwhelming love for language that had come upon him as a child and had shaped the rest of his life and even though it occurs at the moment of his death, we are not sad for him because he is happy, once again, out in his field, in awe of words. 

 

4. Give readers a likeable protagonist. 

hat really attracted me to Valeria was the imitation she gave of a little girl. She gave it not because she had divined something about me; it was just her style—and I fell for it…I, on my part, was as naïve as only a pervert can be. She looked fluffy and frolicsome, dressed à la gamine, showed a generous amount of smooth leg, knew how to stress the white of a bare instep by the black of a velvet slipper, and pouted, and dimpled, and romped, and dirndled, and shook her short curly blond hair in the cutest and tritest fashion imaginable…But reality soon asserted itself. The bleached curl revealed its melanic root; the down turned to prickles on a shaved shin…and presently, instead of a pale little gutter-girl, Humbert Humbert had on his hands a large, puffy, short-legged, big-breasted and practically brainless baba.

In Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Humbert Humbert is a despicable man. How could we spend an entire novel in his sway? Well, he is despicable, yes, but he tells us this right away, on page one: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” His full disclosure buys him a little more time with readers, and then he proceeds to work a number of familiar cultural and literary references into his recounting (Annabel Lee, The Old Man and the Sea, Don Quixote, Les Miserables) so that we begin to feel that we inhabit the same world as him, so he couldn’t be all bad, could he? And he throws in erudite phrases from French and Latin that we more-or-less understand, thanks to the context, so we begin to feel smart ourselves. He has made us feel smart (thank you very much, Nabokov) and then, to clinch the deal, he writes beautifully. Even when he is plotting to deflower a young girl, describing his role in a violent murder, or critically calling out the faults of those less refined than himself, the prose sings. In short, Humbert Humbert is mesmerizing on the page. Odious, and slimy, and mesmerizing. So he gets away with it. 

 

5. Write what you know.  

o get rid of the quilt was quite easy; he had only to inflate himself a little and it fell off by itself. But the next move was difficult, especially because he was so uncommonly broad. He would have needed arms and hands to hoist himself up; instead he had only the numerous little legs which never stopped waving in all directions and which he could not control in the least.

If Franz Kafka had stuck to writing only what he knew, he could never have written The Metamorphosis, for no one can convince me that Kafka knew what it was like to flatten down inside his carapace and hide under the sofa, to skitter up the walls and hang from the ceiling, to eat with relish a few crumbs of rotten cheese. What he did in 1915—instead of writing realistically about the life he knew—was to take what he understood about loneliness, alienation, and helplessness and give it to another creature, a creature that would surely know about such things. He imagined what it would be like to wake up one morning and find oneself the sudden embodiment of all the painful aspects of living a modern life and he wrote from that place. And the life of a cockroach (or beetle, depending on who you ask) is so foreign and yet so commonplace. He gets away with it precisely because it is so weird and yet at the same time so familiar. 

 

6. Avoid foreign phrases, scientific words, or jargon.  

efore I knew it Papi was dressed and Mami was crossing each one of us, solemnly, like we were heading off to war. We said, in turn, Benedición, Mami, and she poked us in our five cardinal spots while saying, Que Dios te bendiga. This was how we began all our trips, the words that followed me every time I left the house…Toma. Mami handed me four mentas. She had thrown a few out her window at the beginning of our trip, an offering to Eshú, the rest were for me. Mami considered these candies a cure-all for any disorder.

In the short story “Fiesta, 1980,” Junot Díaz sprinkles Spanish words and phrases throughout without defining them or offering a glossary. He has said, by way of explanation, that even in our own language we hear only about 80 percent of what is said; the other 20 percent is unintelligible or simply gets lost in the act of conversing. We notice the loss more when reading because the words we are missing are sitting right there on the page, we just don’t understand them. And that reminder, says Díaz, of what we are missing, is not a bad thing. It has value. Art shouldn’t be too easily consumed or it isn’t art. There should always be some portion of mystery, some content beyond what we currently know. This pushes us as art consumers to work harder, to learn more over time that will inform future readings. He also doesn’t believe in italicizing non-English words because it marks them as other when they are perfectly viable words and should be encountered in the text as such. He gets away with it because the words work inside the larger story—its setup, setting, and the immigrant family who inhabit it. 

 

7. Use precise, active verbs.  

Monday morning, the boy was walking to school. He was in the company of another boy, the two boys passing a bag of potato chips back and forth between them. The birthday boy was trying to trick the other boy into telling what he was going to give in the way of a present. 

At an intersection, without looking, the birthday boy stepped off the curb, and was promptly knocked down by a car. He fell on his side, his head in the gutter, his legs in the road moving as if he were climbing a wall.

“The Bath” by Raymond Carver (from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) is one of Carver’s stripped-down (i.e. Gordon Lish-edited) stories. A longer version (“A Small, Good Thing”) appears in his Cathedral collection. Carver uses the bare minimum of words to get his story across and the verbs he uses are common verbs used in simple ways: was walking, passing, was trying, telling, was going, looking, was knocked, etc. There are no verbal pyrotechnics. He uses simple words to convey a simple story with maximum impact. In fact, what is not said assumes its own negative space within the text, much as a Henry Moore sculpture defines its shape by what is not there as much as by what is. Carver gets away with it in “The Bath” because we fill in the emotions for him, and also because the story is largely about the things we don’t say—things we wish we could express but can’t or don’t. 

 

8. A first-person narrator should be the main character. 

f personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament”—it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in another person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

In The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, we are told the story of the main character—Jay Gatsby—from the point-of-view of Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s next-door neighbor for the summer. From the first page, Fitzgerald sets the stage for us to take Nick’s word as truth. Nick says his father counseled him many years ago not to judge other people, not to be critical of those who may not have had his advantages in life. Then he goes on to tell us he’s always been privy to the secrets of others, and further states that he has never worked to obtain nor even welcomed the intimate revelations that get delivered to him. Because he doesn’t seek out such confidences, we trust him. “Reserving judgments,” Nick says, “is a matter of infinite hope.” How can you not trust a guy like that to give you the real story? Since Gatsby is himself a grand fabrication, he cannot accurately tell his own story. Thereby, Fitzgerald brilliantly gets away with using a secondary character as the first-person narrator for his cautionary tale about excess and the failed American dream. 

 

9. Show, don’t tell. 

he population is younger than it is now; than it will ever be again. People past fifty usually don’t come to a raw, new place. There are quite a few people in the cemetery already, but most of them died young, in accidents or childbirth or epidemics. It’s youth that’s in evidence in town. Children—boys—move through the streets in gangs. School is compulsory for only four months a year, and there are lots of occasional jobs that even a child of eight or nine can do—pulling flax, holding horses, delivering groceries, sweeping the boardwalk in front of stores. A good deal of time they spend looking for adventures. 

This passage is taken from “Meneseteung” by Alice Munro but one could find examples of telling in any one of her stories. It’s what she does. She’s a storyteller. She does show, too, though, so a better dictum might be (as Grace Paley urged) “show and tell” because we really do need both. You can’t show everything without exhausting your reader. Munro gets away with telling because of the authority of her narrative voice. Authority is a seldom-discussed part of the writing craft, but an essential one. As writers we must create a voice readers will trust, one that they will follow without fear of stumbling or missing out on important details. Munro also gets away with telling because her stories often span many years, sometimes a whole lifetime or even several generations. Just try to show all of that in a short story. 

 

10. Don’t use exclamation points. 

ecause his surgery is not until tomorrow, the Baby likes the hospital. He likes the long corridors down which he can run. He likes everything on wheels. The flower carts in the lobby! (“Please keep your boy away from the flowers,” says the vender. “We’ll buy the whole display,” snaps the mother, adding, “Actual children in a children’s hospital—unbelievable, isn’t it?”) The Baby likes the other little boys. Places to go! People to see! Rooms to wander into! There is Intensive Care. There is the Trauma Unit. The Baby smiles and waves. What a little Cancer Personality!

In the short story, “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” by Lorrie Moore, a mother finds a blood clot in her baby’s diaper. A terrifying diagnosis and invasive treatments follow in a story that contains almost 90 exclamation points! And more than 150 question marks—crazy, isn’t it? Over-the-top, even. And yet the extreme punctuation and ironic narrative tone combine to perfectly convey the mother’s barely contained hysteria, the overly cheerful greetings of the hospital staff, and her own frustration and continued disbelief as she moves through the hospital system. The repeating question marks highlight the unknowns of the situation, the crazy non-answers and the heart-wrenching dilemmas with no right or wrong solution. What to do? What to think? What to say? Moore gets away with it because her punctuation suits the voice and fits the situation: a creeping anxiety that must be laughed down, shushed down, or satirized down in order to be borne.

 

11. Avoid melodrama.  

ow the hell he ended up in this ridiculous melodrama of a life is beyond him. Bent on saving dolphins when he couldn’t even save his own wife. No wonder women saw him as a tragic figure. Hell, it’s exactly what he was. He’d be happy to quit the ADF if he could. But the dolphins were his job—his mission. He was the head and founder of the whole organization. He couldn’t quit his reason for being. He just had to wait it out was all. Wait for life after Chelsea. See what that held.

I’m going to break a craft-essay rule right here, and use my own story as an example because I believe my method of getting away with it may be especially instructive. In “Beyond the Strandline,” the story centers around a man whose wife has been in a persistent vegetative state for fifteen months, the result of a stroke while diving. He is also the founder of a dolphin rescue organization that saves stranded dolphins. As the story opens, he is unable to save a dolphin slowly dying in the shallows while his wife is slowly dying in the hospital after her feeding tube has been removed. In an early draft, an astute reader pointed out that these two situations might be too coincidental and melodramatic for readers to stomach. I agreed, but it was sort of the point of the whole story because crazy coincidences do happen in real life. So to fix it, I gave that knowledge to the character. I let him remark on the coincidence and wonder how he ended up there, showing the readers that even he knew he was smack in the middle of a real-life melodrama. Beating-the-reader-to-the-punch solved the problem. 

 

12. Avoid overlong sentences.  

onsequently the town was filled with incompleteness—half-built outhouses and roofless additions, unpainted churches, dance floors with the tin roof only partially raised, plots of ground half cleared and swiftly growing back to jungle again, bicycles half put together, motorcycles lying one-wheeled on their sides behind cabins and shops, diesel generators with gears, bolts, belts, and wiring lying in piles next to the casing, stacks of cinderblocks without mortar or sand, pyramids of sand and a bag or two of mortar with no cinderblocks, a chain saw without a chain, a fence already falling down at one end before the other had been put up.

This one-sentence paragraph, excerpted from The Book of Jamaica by Russell Banks, fills most of a page. But the overlong sentence works perfectly in the context of the world Banks is portraying. It’s the world of the Caribbean, specifically Jamaica, but generally a place where island time structures lives and irie rules the day. The sentence is a rambling accounting of a rambling state of being, a perfectly expressed philosophy detailed in the projects unfinished, the plans made but never fully executed, all presented to us through a long-winded list of physical details. The short story, “Girl,” by Jamaica Kincaid, also written about life in the Caribbean (Kincaid is from Antigua), provides another excellent example of breaking the long-sentence rule. 

 

13. Never set your story in a bar. 

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.

In Ernest Hemingway's short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” the characters (tellingly, a man and a girl, never named), have a touchy and difficult subject to discuss. They also have a train coming in forty minutes, which drives up the tension. The characters spend a good portion of the story merely alluding to what amounts to the elephant in the room (or in the hills). He doesn’t want to discuss it, she does. To his relief, she can’t say what’s on her mind, not in this public space, but she can bring it up obliquely, so she does, easing the reader into the subject as carefully as she’s easing the man into it. This talking around a difficult subject, then, becomes the whole point of the story, the said and the unsaid of everyday life. 

 

14. If you see an adverb, kill it. 

t was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

The use of adverbs in the ending of "The Dead" by James Joyce accomplishes several things. First it slows down the approaching end of the narrative, establishing a pace that mimics the slowly falling snow as it drifts into the reader’s consciousness word by word. Then Joyce’s carefully selected sound-words add to the sense of quietly falling snow because so many of them are soft or sibilant sounds, ess and eff and th. Think about the phrase “his soul swooned slowly…” Say it in your head. His soul swooned slowly. There’s no way to say that (or hear it read by one’s internal reader) quickly. It’s a slow phrase in a slow sentence in a slow paragraph in a slow ending. 

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Given these successful examples of rule breaking, one might ask, “Why even have rules?” Well, we crave them for one thing, especially when we are just starting to write. Rules give the novice writer some sense of structure, of boundaries, or even simply something to point to and say, “At least I didn’t do that.” As teachers, too, we often feel the need to lay down ground rules for the young apprentice writer, perhaps because the intangibles of great writing can be elusive and difficult to convey, even more so to teach. 

The genius behind breaking the rules (in any art form) lies in knowing when to ignore convention, and how to do so artfully. Before Picasso broke the rules of art and created a whole new movement, he drew and painted thousands of realistic studies. Time spent honing one's craft is the best way to earn the right to break the rules, but the simplest answer (and also, ironically, the most complex) to the questions “how” and “when” it is okay to break the rules of writing might be whenever we can get away with it.

 

 

Mary Akers is the author of the award-winning short story collection Women up on Blocks. Her work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Mississippi Review online, The Fiddlehead, Brevity, and other journals. She received a 2012 Pushcart Special Mention and has been thrice awarded a Bread Loaf work-study scholarship. She is editor-in-chief of the online journal, r.kv.r.y.


Into the Wilderness

David Ebenbach

Washington Writers' Publishing House, 2012

Reviewed by Anne Pharr

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The byline for David Ebenbach’s website states that he’s been “preoccupied with the human condition since 1972.” His recent and prizewinning book, Into the Wilderness, gives wide-ranging evidence of this decades-long fascination. 

This collection of fourteen stories introduces a variety of characters: a single father struggling simultaneously to establish parental boundaries and connect meaningfully with his children during a weekend visit; a mother deciding whether to be alarmed at her five-year-old daughter’s worrisome behavior; an adult daughter remembering the unresolved relational strain that accompanied her now-deceased father’s final days; a childless couple deciding whether to have a baby; a gay/lesbian couple meeting their son’s need for a male role model; a father surprised by a college-aged son’s unscheduled visit; a husband observing his wife’s frighteningly determined attempt to resume a physically demanding activity, only seven months after delivering their son; an infertile couple continuing to move forward in the midst of unrelenting grief.

The characters range anywhere from benevolent to violent, protective to detached, certain to befuddled, and Ebenbach’s subjects are both comical and serious, often tragic, but with glimpses of exuberance that are just fleeting enough to be believable. Throughout the collection, the unifying subject remains that of family—siblings, grandparents, children young, old or unborn; parents new and experienced; families, nontraditional and traditional. And each family consists of individuals captured in the sometimes-menial and often baffling midst of the human condition.

The separate narratives also hold together through four stories about a Judith, who herself isn’t holding together so well. In these stand-alone but connected texts, a young, professional single woman navigates an unexpected pregnancy. Much of Judith’s struggle derives from her inability to name her daughter. Yet she—like many of the characters—is quite capable of naming, and embodying, her fears, foibles, qualms, and shortcomings. This undercurrent of human struggle is a constant reminder that, as with all people, “something dangerous” may very well be “close at hand.” Perhaps ironically, it’s his artful acknowledgment of these imperfections that makes Ebenbach’s prose shine.

As the title suggests, Into the Wilderness takes readers into the rougher terrain of the human condition while remaining grounded in the near-mundane details of the day-to-day. The effect—part Raymond Carver, part Jane Smiley—is a seamless cast of players, each “a person in a long chain of people trying very hard to figure out how to get life right.” Their foibles are evident, yet Ebenbach keeps an eye on hope, rendering “a statement about a wholeness that is available in the universe” but—as the characters and events constantly remind us, “by no means inevitable.” 

 

Author Photo by Donna Danoff

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Anne Pharr teaches English and writes about spirituality at her blog, shadowwonder. She is working on a collection of poetry and linked essays.


Both Flesh and Not: Essays

David Foster Wallace

Little Brown, 2012

Reviewed by Matthew Raese

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Both Flesh and Not, the new, posthumously published collection of David Foster Wallace’s non-fiction is about half of a good essay collection. The longer form essays included in this volume are the heady-but-accessible meditations on popular culture and life that Wallace readers have come to expect. But even these essays lack the heft of the writing in Wallace’s previous collections such as Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again.  

Both Flesh and Not comes four years after Wallace’s suicide, and as a result, a good portion of the collection is filled with short reviews, notes, and other Wallace ephemera that, while interesting and fun to read in their own way, are not the well-wrought pieces of literature that Wallace fans expect. The selection of works for this volume is equally puzzling for an author who specialized in lengthiness: only five of the fifteen collected essays break 25 pages.  

The lead essay “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” opens with what Wallace describes as a “Federer Moment,” the sudden realization of intense beauty and awe at the level of tennis champion Roger Federer's play. This essay, originally published in 2006, in some ways reveals a consistent current throughout Wallace's work that highlights the importance of wonder and of living in the moment. This is what drove Wallace to write in praise of athletes who “catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter.” Wallace insists that we need reminders that we are in the world. What makes Wallace such an astounding talent is that he has the power to craft sports writing that is compelling to those who do not follow sports. After reading the two essays putatively about tennis in this collection, Wallace had me personally convinced that I care about tennis (which I do not). What is moving about Wallace's work is that, for the space of a piece of writing, he inspires in his readers the same enthusiasm that he felt.  

 

“Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” previously published under the title “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” explores what Wallace identifies as an emerging style of fiction from star-novelists such as Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis. But, as is the case with the best of Wallace's nonfiction, this essay is not really about what it is about. What begins as a critique of young postmodernists turns to the role that creative writing programs have on the kind of fiction being published and the role that other forms of entertainment, particularly television, have on people's psyches. It is in this essay that Wallace famously skewers the hollowly ironic notion that “simply by inverting the values imposed on us by television . . . they can automatically achieve the aesthetic depth popular entertainment so conspicuously lacks.” Essentially, Wallace worries about the loss of affect or, to put it more properly, the pose suggesting a lack of affect that he saw as so pervasive in popular culture. For Wallace, this affectless-affectation exposes the nihilism of postmodern irony. He worries that creative writing programs teach writers to put on certain attitudes that work to distance them from their own realities, emptying their work of meaning. In this instance, irony is anxiety-producing for those concerned with a connection to the moment and a desire for sincerity.

The concern for sincerity in literature continues in the next essay, “The Empty Plenum: David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress.” This “review” of Markson's novel is the longest piece in the book and is actually a plot summary of the novel, an explication of Wittgenstein's philosophy, and another opportunity to lecture the reader on the proper ends of contemporary literature. Much like the preceding essay, “Fictional Futures,” Wallace uses this piece as a platform from which to criticize contemporary literature by the younger generation of authors. Here, however, Wallace finds much to praise in Wittgenstein's Mistress.  

Although not among the longer pieces of the work, “The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2,” is a prime example of the reason that Wallace has always been able attract such a wide audience. Riddled with footnotes (seventeen in just twelve pages) and filled with Wallace's folksy style (he refers to Arnold Schwaezenegger as “Ahnode” throughout the piece), the essay applies high criticism to a popular cultural form in a way that is gratifying to the intellectual and popular consumer, alike. Written as a critique of Terminator 2, the essay becomes a means of praising director James Cameron's other work. In one particularly compelling footnote, Wallace admires Cameron's portrayal of strong female protagonists in Aliens and the first Terminator movie. Wallace also clearly delights in poking holes in T2's silly plot devices and general clunkiness. Wallace finds value wherever it lies: in tennis, in irony, in under-appreciated literature, and in blockbuster movies, but his relevance has always been in finding legitimate cause for joy in these widely differing aspects of culture. 

The balance of the work in this collection is made up of reviews, notes and other oddities that do not represent the Wallace his readers have come to expect. Many of the short works in this volume possess the requisite linguistic flair but lack the heart and purpose of his best writing. Short blurbs such as “Mr. Cogito,” on the English translation of Zbigniew Herbert’s book of poems by the same name, have limited appeal and lack vigor because, at just a page long, this piece was clearly written for cover copy. “The Best Prose Poem,” Wallace’s “Indexical Book Review,” is disjointed, written in the style of Harper’s Index of Harper’s Weekly. Wallace questions the prose poetry genre and generally destroys the majority of the contents of the journal, but he also falls over himself to praise those poems he finds value in. Wallace justifies his use of this quirky style by announcing “The words preceding each item’s colon technically constitute neither subjective complement nor appositive nor really any recognized grammatical unit at all; hence none of these antecolonic words should count against R.T.’s [Rain Taxi] rigid 1,000-word limit.” Interesting as this foray into indexical format may be, the review is too distracting and too cute to excite.  

Other pieces, such as “Overlooked: Five direly underappreciated U.S. novels >1960” and “Twenty-Four Word Notes,” are fun to read but are pretty clearly pieces that were never intended to be included as “essays.” Even these pieces are valuable for their intelligence and kindness, though. There are elements of “Twenty-Four Word Notes” that I intend to include in my classroom for their terse explanation of grammatical rules and style tips.

It isn’t so much that Both Flesh and Not is disappointing as that it feels incomplete and, ultimately, is incomplete. Wallace was at his finest when he was focused, when his essays had thesis claims and when his agenda was clear (especially to himself). If there is a central reason that this collection does not completely work, it is that, unlike Wallace’s earlier collections, Wallace’s hand is not in it. Those earlier collections contained essays, fully-fledged works that Wallace himself restored from their edited and previously-published conditions to their original titles and dimensions. Now, due to the circumstances of Wallace’s death, the essays in this collection appear as they were published, and many of the short notes seem to be included simply to fill out the pages.  

Both Flesh and Not will not be disappointing to Wallace's fans, but it should not be considered a proper introduction to his work. This collection aims to please readers who know and love Wallace’s work, and thus, while it might not be the best David Foster Wallace volume to be published, it still reflects the wide range of his work. There will be many readers, including this reviewer, who are grateful for it.

 

 

Matthew Raese received his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee in 2012. He teaches English in Knoxville, Tennessee.


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"Writing a novel for me is an all-consuming occupation. There is no stepping away from it, for better or for worse. 'Obsessive' is probably a better descriptor than 'disciplined.'"

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An Interview With Amanda Coplin: The Orchardist

By MaryAnne Kolton

 

With prose that flows like a honeyed river, and a story that mesmerizes the reader from page one, it’s no wonder that Amanda Coplin’s stunning debut novel, The Orchardist, was snatched up by HarperCollins as soon as they heard about it. Distinctive in its narrative and setting, this book is intelligent, strangely elegant and seductively drawn.

 

MaryAnne Kolton: Please tell us a little about your childhood: home life, family, favorite books, and who first encouraged you to read.

 

Amanda Coplin: I was born in Wenatchee, Washington in 1981. My parents divorced when I was four years old; around this same time my grandmother married a man named Dwayne Sanders, an orchardist who lived just outside of Wenatchee, in a small community called Monitor. I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ place, which was surrounded by orchards. My grandfather, who had been a bachelor until he married my grandmother, tended his own acreage as well as that of his mother, which he and his brothers tended together. I drew to my grandfather immediately because of his kindness, quietness, patience, and humor. He and I forged a special bond.

I was struck also at that time by the beauty of the surrounding orchards, which I now visited regularly. My grandparents let me and my brother and cousins roam freely, and I often did so with a book in hand, spending long hours lounging in the sun-warmed grass.

It was my mother who taught me to read. Every night before I went to bed, she would read to me. There was a special rocking chair we would sit in, and the room would be dark except for the lamp behind the chair, which illuminated the page. I think that atmosphere was important: the lamplight, my mother’s voice. We read The Little House on the Prairie series, and Beatrix Potter, and the Serendipity books.

When I began to write, as a child, my mother was my first audience. I remember writing a story about a teddy bear that travels to outer space. My mother took the manuscript to the copy shop and laminated it and bound it. She has always been my most enthusiastic supporter. That has not changed at all.

 

MAK: In an interview with the Seattle Times you said: “In middle and high school, in the Ridgefield (Clark County) School District, I had really great teachers who took me aside and said, 'If you want extra help, I can help.' At my high-school graduation, my English teacher, Mrs. Falk, said, 'I know I’ll be reading your novel one day.'" 

Your mother and your teachers, all encouraging you and cheering you on. How wonderful is that? A literary child prodigy. Did you actually know that early on that writing was to be your career, your passion? Have you ever once thought of pursuing anything else?

 

AC: I think, when I was very young, I told my mother I wanted to be a pediatrician. But I think I might have only admired that word—pediatrician—for how it sounded, and how it looked written down on the page.

I have always been sensitive to the desire to get something down just right, to generate emotion by arranging particular words in particular order. I think it comes from a childish desire to please one’s parents and family and teachers—I have always been a people pleaser—but now, as an adult, I write to please myself. Of course there is the accompanying knowledge that in following my own vision others will participate in it and hopefully benefit by it. It is so wonderful, so satisfying to state something correctly: I think I sensed this even as a child, and knew I would never find true happiness outside of it.

 

MAK: The first two pages in your novel The Orchardist are an almost perfect example of detailed character description. Talmadge comes fully alive on those pages. Through your words we begin to know what he looks like, how he views the world his values. We feel his loneliness . We perceive his trustworthiness and kind nature. If he is based on your grandfather, in what ways are the two men different?

 

AC: I know Talmadge a lot better than I ever knew my grandfather, who died when I was thirteen. I have a child’s recollection of my grandfather, which is highly skewed. To me he was perfect, a king among men; and while I still believe he was a king among men, I also understand now, as an adult, that he must have had his fair share of imperfections. The problem is that I’m unsure what these character complexities were, exactly, which keeps me from knowing him fully. I cannot speak of him, I cannot evaluate him, in the way I can with Talmadge, whom I know intimately.

 

MAK: All of the females in The Orchardist are drawn as women of formidable strength – yet all have a shadow of immense vulnerability. Will you talk about them a bit?

 

AC: There are three main female characters in the novel who we follow throughout: Caroline Middey, Della, and Angelene. Caroline Middey is a midwife and herbalist who has lived in the region for most of her life: she is quiet, ruminative, and harsh in her judgments. She often tells Talmadge what to do, and he appreciate what she has to say, but he doesn’t listen to her, and this largely leads to his demise. There is this sense with Caroline Middey that even though she comes off as being resolute and harsh, though fair, she immediately second guesses herself when she tells Talmadge to stay away from Della, for example. Even though she dispenses advice seemingly without qualm, she is regretful. What if? she is always wondering. What if we are better off doing the thing that our heart tells us to do, instead of our heads—is that better? When she is alone, working in her garden, we see this indecision, and finally this is what characterizes her. To the world she is a staunch old woman telling her friend what to do with his life, but as readers, who see this indecision, we see her as confused, vulnerable, and lonely.

With Della, too, we see the side of her that the outside world cannot see. To outsiders she is the epitome of recklessness and toughness, almost blind to physical danger. As readers we understand the source of this recklessness, which is despair: she does not know who she is, or where she is going. She cannot see the shape of her life, and so she tries to outrun it, somehow. As readers we witness this, and hopefully suffer for it.

Angelene, the third female character we really get to know in the novel, is outwardly the least abrasive of the three. I see her as shy, but gently stoic. Inwardly, she is strong: she has known love and companionship, she has a great sense of self. She is more openly vulnerable, which affords her a gentleness and depth, a lack of defensiveness, which is missing from the other two characters.

 

MAK: Would you agree that the reader might be struck by a slight sense of magical realism wafting about the places and people in your novel?

 

AC: Magical realism is stretching it a bit, I think, but I’m intrigued by your observation. I certainly feel that I was interested in spinning something mythic about the orchard and about the pattern of peoples’ lives—that each character was living his or her own unique experience but was also shadowing or complementing, or even extending, others’ experiences in the novel. I guess this is part of my vision as a writer, to understand and depict how the characters are all connected. And this has to do with the place as well: to show how each characters if formed by the landscape, and vice-versa: that relationship is of ultimate importance.

 

MAK: Your work has been compared to that of Marilynne Robinson, John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison, among others. You have said:  

“There’s something powerful that happens when you read about the specific place where you’re from, and about the people who live there; about how the air smells in certain seasons, what the weather is like, how the natives are, how they talk and think about the neighboring towns, for example.” 

Will you elaborate on how the comparison to other iconic writers resonates in the quote about specificity of place?

 

AC: Well, I think that in the work of the writers you mentioned, place is fundamental to understanding the story they are telling. When I say ‘place’ I mean the landscape, but also the culture and the time period. This is of course very important in the works of Toni Morrison. Steinbeck writes of struggling migrant workers in The Grapes of Wrath; he is able to capture the pain and humiliation of a particular kind of labor, while also showing its rewards. That is a very difficult and at the same time very necessary thing to show: how being embedded in a kind of landscape, a kind of labor, a kind of life, can provoke contradictory emotions. In Marilynne Robinson’s work—I’m thinking primarily of Housekeeping—she uses landscape to illustrate the girl’s, Ruth’s, interiority; she, Robinson, uses the landscape to spin and reveal a complex philosophy. The more a person knows about a place and experience within the place, the better able she is to use those depths of knowledge for effect. Without that knowledge, work comes off as flat, shallow. To write something meaningful, you have to engage with the landscape, with how things are; you have to move beyond the surface, recognize the details and let them ignite an atmosphere around you.

 

MAK: Tell us a bit about the eight years it took you to write The Orchardist.

 

AC: I started the novel while in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. It was a great time to begin a project because I was supported both financially and community-wise. I think any artistic project, but especially in the beginning, requires a lot of time, solitude, and freedom to really stretch out and make a lot of mistakes if necessary. I felt I could do that in grad school. By the time I left the program, I felt I had a solid foundation under me in terms of what I wanted to do with the project; I had conceived it, and needed only (!) to flesh it out. That took a long time, but I had confidence. I don’t think people understand what goes into fueling that kind of confidence, which isn’t arrogance (or I hope it isn’t) but is rather a clarity of vision. After grad school I was able to get adjunct teaching jobs when I needed them, teaching creative writing and composition. Once, at a dental college in a suburb of the Cities, I taught study skills and speech. When the recession hit, however, a lot of those positions that I had depended on were no longer available due to hiring freezes. I did some freelance work, writing company newsletters and editing manuscripts. For a while I was a barista at a coffee cart in a hospital. Also during this time I received residencies that supported me, the most significant being a 7-month long residency from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Whenever I had support like this, I wrote as intensely as I could, to prepare for the time when I had to find outside work again.

 

MAK: On the up side, you sold this debut novel to Harper Collins in practically no time! You come across as a person who is quite disciplined. How about your writing process—controlled or haphazard?

 

AC: I think my writing process is neither controlled nor haphazard. I only work when I want to, and that just happens to be all the time. I have great bursts of composition, and between these I'm constantly reading work that fuels the book I'm writing, and taking notes, and walking around absorbed in the project at hand. Writing a novel for me is an all-consuming occupation. There is no stepping away from it, for better or for worse. "Obsessive" is probably a better descriptor than "disciplined."

 

MAK: What do you do when you are not writing?

 

AC: I read, I write, I write letters, I cook food, I take long walks in the city. I watch movies, I meet friends.

 

MAK: Are you currently working on something new?

 

AC: Right now I'm reading a lot, refueling, taking notes, searching around. I have a few ideas for projects but they are premature.

 

 

Amanda Coplin was born in Wenatchee, Washington. She received her BA from the University of Oregon and MFA from the University of Minnesota. A recipient of residencies from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the Omi International Arts Center at Ledig House in Ghent, New York, she lives in Portland, Oregon.

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MaryAnne Kolton’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary publications including the Lost Children Charity Anthology, Thrice Fiction and Connotation Press among others. Her story “A Perfect Family House” was shortlisted for The Glass Woman Prize. Author Interviews have appeared most recently in the Herald de Paris, LA Review of Books, Her Circle Zine, The Literarian/City Center and January Magazine. MaryAnne’s public email is maryannekolton@gmail.com. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.


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Alexander Zielinski is an undergraduate student majoring in physics and mathematics at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. Early in high school, he took an interest in photography and graphic design, and today is the photo editor and a graphic designer for Eckerd's award-winning newspaper, The Current.