Welcome to Issue No. 37 of Prime Number:
A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose
Letter from the Editors (or jump to the Table of Contents)
We’ve got a great new issue for you—Number 37 is the final 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.
We would also like welcome Brandon Shuler as our new Book Review Editor. Brandon has published extensively in fiction and nonfiction and currently teaches at Texas Tech. Welcome, Brandon! Contact Brandon if you have review or interview ideas.
In this issue, we continue to bring you distinctive poetry and prose: short stories about haunted houses and unruly teens; poems about music and mushrooms; essays about oysters and shiksas; a craft essay about poetic closure; an interview with Eric Miles Williamson, author of Oakland, Jack London, and Me; and reviews of three collections of poetry. Plus, we present the quarterly winners of Press 53’s 53-word Story contest! Our beautiful, sandy cover photo is by Jennifer Hamilton.
We are currently reading submissions for Issue 37 updates, Issue 41, 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 “41” right now). If we’ve had to decline your submission, please forgive us and try again!
A number of readers have asked how they might comment on the work they read in the magazine. We’ll look into adding that feature in the future. In the meantime if you are moved to comment I would encourage you to send us an email (email@example.com) and we’ll pass your thoughts along to the contributors. Similarly, if you are a publisher and would like to send us ARCs for us to consider for reviews, please contact us at the above email address. We’re especially interested in reviewing new, recent, or overlooked books from small presses.
One more thing: Prime Number Magazine is published by Press 53, a terrific small press helping to keep literature alive. Please support independent presses and bookstores.
Table of Contents, Prime Number Magazine
Issue 37, April-June 2013
River Street Blues
Trees in Late February
Deeper than perhaps you've been
Dear Constant Barking
Dear Automated Call System
Dear Village of Mushrooms
An Incident in Brief
The Efficiency Expert
Book of Lies
Swallow a Fish
The Night I Said I Was Leaving, a 53-word Story
Dredge, a 53-word Story
The Water Guy
Waiting for Oysters
Review of William Wenthe's Words Before Dawn
Review of Aimee Parkison's The Innocent Party
Review of Charles Adés Fishman's In the Language of Women
Interview with Eric Miles Williamson, author of Oakland, Jack London, and Me
2 Poems by John Guzlowski
Followed by Q&A
River Street Blues
In the gray shadows of morning, blues
comes up River Street like a pack of dogs
ready to set you straight if you ain’t,
set you right if you’re white, the blues
comes up River like a greyhound bus,
packed with 42 tons of Gary steel –
heading for Miami or Atlanta –
that will fuck you up so bad that not all
the mothers in heaven will have enough
tears to soak the sorrow from your eyes
if you get in the way of that north bound,
south bound bus heading out of this town.
These River Street Blues know a thing or two.
They know you got to hold on, hold on to
the night as long as you can ‘cause the night
is dreaming. It’s a quiet bed loved flat
by dreaming, and not the kind of dreaming
that ends you up in sweat and sticky sheets
but the kind of dreaming that’s hungry
for oats and black bread, food you chew
longer than you know how. Food a man wants.
Dreams a man wants. Dreams a woman wants.
Dreams only a child dreams because a child
cannot yet know the truth about dreams,
how they get mixed up and licked up
how they get spewed out and shooed out,
how they grow old and raggedy, fingered
till the colors of me and you both bleed out
and all that’s left of the dreams and the child
dreaming them is the thin soup of hope
an old man living alone stores in cans
and stirs in a closet nobody ever sees.
These River Street Blues are a quiet street
of shacks built so long ago there ain’t no
granny who can tell you what the door
was colored when it first took a knock.
Hear that knock? It’s the River Street blues –
coming to tell you the world needs blues,
needs them like a baby needs candy,
like a woman needs a quick hot spring,
like a man needs the things that keep him
smiling even when the things that keep him
smiling have been gone for so damn long
that nothing is shaking but shaking.
Trees in late February
(Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield, Georgia)
The trees are hardly worth noticing.
The air around them is gray, wet,
cold, and misty—the kind of air
you find early in the morning
in the mountains. It hits you
and you breathe it, and want more
than you can possibly get
into your lungs. But the trees—
they are like the trees you see
everywhere in February.
Thin—too tall. The leaves colorless,
a lusterless brown—fallen
and lying at the foot of the trees.
This is still winter—in the spring
maybe you’ll notice the trees,
the leaves budding out, so green
and yet touched with a moist gold
—so alive, like the best living things,
full of promise, hope, youth, dreams,
energy, magic, drama, blood,
and gods. The children who see them
will be set to dreaming dreams
that will keep them alive, dreaming
until they are old and staring
at the trees and realizing they
are truly not worth noticing.
John Guzlowski’s writing has appeared in Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, The Ontario Review, Exquisite Corpse, Crab Orchard Review, Modern Fiction Studies and other journals both here and abroad. His poems about his parents’ experiences in Nazi concentration camps appear in his book Lightning and Ashes. He blogs about his parents and their experiences at http://lightning-and-ashes.blogspot.com/
Q.Did you have any blues songs/poems in mind when you were writing “River Street Blues”?
A.I grew up in Chicago, on the near north side in a working class neighborhood, listening to the blues. Blues of all kinds. Black blues, Polack blues, hillbilly blues, Irish blues. Sober blues and drunk blues. Good night blues and good morning blues. Sad blues and happy as Sunday blues. Back then men and women would walk the streets singing and playing the blues. I bet they still do. When I moved to Georgia, I was happy to hear the blues there too. Knew I was home. One of those blues singers I heard when I was a kid told me that if you don’t like the blues, you’ve got a hole in your soul.
Q.Willie Dixon said that the blues was built in man from the beginning. Was the blues also built into America from the beginning, and is it time for America to take the blues back to its heart?
A.Absolutely. The blues was not only built into America, it was built into Adam and Eve, Noah, Job, and Jesus. Whitman and Emily Dickenson too. They knew it and heard it. Listen to those long catalogues in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” In them you can hear the sorrow of the slave songs, the Parchman Farm prison songs, and the songs about the Erie Canal and the working men and women moving west. Does America need to get back to the blues? It’s never left them. When John Henry broke his heart driving steel, his wife Polly Ann picked up his hammer and drove steel like a man. It’s the same today.
Q.You have written about the “Language of Mules”—a topic near to the Southern heart. Mules, that is. And language, too, I realize. Any thoughts on one or both?
A.The book is about my parents and their experiences in German concentration camps. The Germans treated them like mules, worse than mules. It was like my parents weren’t human. They were just mules talking the language of mules. My parents weren’t mules, but I grew up knowing that there are people who will treat you like that. Bad people who will push you down, kick you. And if they aren’t doing it to me they’re doing it to somebody else. My brother or my sister. Growing up like that, you know you have to help people. And maybe that’s what the blues is all about. One person in sorrow telling another person in sorrow to just hold on and we’ll get out of this mess we’re in.
2 Poems by Rich Ives
followed by Q&A
I’ve been living in a dead tree since the first war ended,
not in the branches among birds but inside where
the firewood lives and invites a woodpecker’s knock
only to let a few of the overpopulated bugs out.
War is outside now. War is a blindfold removed
with a chainsaw. I could be the wooden soldier
in the tomb of the unknown, so I’m telling you
I won’t pound that anvil of despair again.
My feet are in the dirt now, but
there are some things I won’t eat.
My neighbors are relatively uninhabited,
but then, so am I, and the birds don’t mind.
I have my work to keep me busy,
hauling sunlight around and changing it
into food. Undressing’s slower now that
I’m considered ancient, but I sleep like a log.
It’s inhuman what happens here, and I
like it that way. There’s a slow forgetful
fight for sunlight, but I’m already starting
to give mine to the darker children. I need
to tell you I made this up, not because you don’t
know, but because I don’t, and I live here often.
Can you forget you lied to me? Can you
forget to close the door that lets history out,
as in that moment when snow announces
with irritating purity that it’s never leaving?
Such friends are always welcome if they’re
cold and determined and, of course, wrong.
My boss wears a suit of moss to work
and always stays home. He doesn’t do
anything that hasn’t been done before.
I find that an amazing accomplishment.
Everyone has to live somewhere, and
they usually make the best of it although
they often don’t think that’s what they’ve done.
A lot of things get done again, as they should.
I don’t want to have to say, “Not this again,”
because I can’t hear the disaster coming. Maybe
you live in a tree, and you don’t want to
live in a tree, but I do. I don’t have to make
the best of it because it makes the best of me.
When you’re a soldier, it’s best not to do much.
My condition is serious, and I’m still a tooth. I think maybe
I can’t stop. I have five days left to find five days.
Sometimes I keep what I need in an empty jar beneath
my bed. Sometimes I’m inside with it. I’ll go there.
What does a window hear?
Have I said he was dead yet? Have I said soul or light-bulb or
watch-chain because the connection is always tangential?
What does a window do?
There’s a guy kneeling on his head. One guy. It’s impossible.
He’s laughing at himself. Gravelly hiccups won’t stop piercing his knee.
No, what does a window do?
You have to count backwards. You have to go on. Maybe I’m a bundle
of me falling in, unbroken please and terribly innocent.
It’s what you see holding still
that makes the most horrible noise.
How many windows do you have? No, I mean what does a window see?
It’s an envelope I live in.
Others have been sent.
I’m capable of breaking in again. I eat and I eat
and I eat some more. Lesser things happen.
Five days are waiting for me to find them.
I know my name is in the window, but what am I offering?
The foreign traveler can best describe where you live,
having no personal history to color the detail. Before sculpture
became a confession and began to walk, we had already
learned to paint people as experiences and touch them with clay.
And if the behavior of inanimate objects could not be seen
as indicative of the experience presenting itself, what then?
Truth doesn’t need our feelings. Indifferent to our desires,
it became physical and teased objects awake. Slept alone.
I’m standing in my body now and looking out
at the earth’s body undressing for the lovely cold.
My house was beautiful, and it was not tied down. There wasn’t
much else to say, except to say how easy it was not to say anything.
A window hears only what a window offers.
Rich Ives has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. He is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander and the 2012 winner of the Creative Nonfiction Prize from Thin Air magazine. His book of days, Tunneling to the Moon, is currently being serialized with a work per day appearing for all of 2013 at http://silencedpress.com.
Q. For some reason, when I read “Still Waiting,” I had a flash memory of Winslow Homer’s “The Veteran in a New Field.” His feet, too, are in the dirt. As the writer of this powerful poem, do you have any thoughts on this painting?
A. Although I was not thinking of that painting specifically, it has much in common with the poem. I grew up in South Dakota among people with a very basic relationship to farming as suggested by the painting. The pleasure and suffering implicit in such physical labor haunts the poem, as does a sense of loss even in the rewards of harvesting. Currier and Ives painted “happier” versions of similar scenes though the hardships still remain clear, and yes, I am related to the latter, as well as to George Homer Ives, the first man to be hung by vigilantes in Montana, where I lived before moving to the Seattle area to teach writing.
Q. When you write, do you face a window, or a wall, or the open sky—and what do you see there?
A. I live in a log home, and I face an open doorway and a window with views of the forest and two small ponds. The birds come and go often and with great chatter and fluttering. There is an antelope skull on the wall and a tall Quaker-style adjustable wooden candle-holder that looks almost medieval in the corner.
Q. Tell us about Camano Island…
A. The island is nearly a peninsula, with only a small channel that separates it with salt water from the mainland on the north end of its length. It is accessible on that end by a bridge but extends more than twenty miles further to the south end of the island where I live. Much of the island is forested with a mix of both evergreen and deciduous trees, particularly maple.
3 Poems by Mercedes Lawry
followed by Q&A
Flattery of sky with birds.
Evening in pearl-pink, a slush
of maroon. I’ve invited a thief
to take me into his confidence.
I’ve stopped dancing and grown
weary as now and then the years
collapse. I prefer the stolen
blue hours, stray roots, the indication
of a small, hungry beast.
This shake up, earth shifting, giving in
to swallow, is no betrayal, only a current
event of geology. Fraught dip and dive.
Under a membrane sky dented by alabaster light,
we’re left to scurry and decipher
the pell-mell of our bones now lashed
by gravity. Do we make up with the dirt,
paint our faces in some tribal lie
or wash ourselves over and over in dismay
at our location? Take a dozen gods
off the shelf before the shatter, no mind
those teary prayers. Plain face of fear
follows our steps, our crawl
into corners in the slim night. We are
our own natural disaster, words chipped
and hollow like every other bit of debris.
We are the shimmy and the grab.
Last of the dancers on the perilous crust.
Victims of skewed latitude measuring
our next timid step.
Deeper than perhaps you’ve been
Even the reckless would not cross the river,
sure there were bones lodged in the pools
below hovering fish. Thieves stole
the compass of an elderly man,
criss-cross scars on his rough cheeks, lugging
a sack of flayed memories, the blood cool now.
Joining those whose preference was the deep forest,
shadowed and moss-clung, a tick of wind high
where light was slowed and parceled.
The red fox and the stag, summoned not
by the river’s fury or a dull moon, but the sweep
of late winter to green and glitter in webs
glassy with prismed dew.
Mercedes Lawry has published poetry in such journals as Poetry, Rhino, Nimrod, Poetry East, The Saint Ann’s Review, and others. She’s also published fiction and humor as well as stories and poems for children. Among the honors she’s received are awards from the Seattle Arts Commission, Hugo House, and Artist Trust. She’s been a Jack Straw Writer, a Pushcart Prize nominee twice, and held a residency at Hedgebrook. Her chapbook, There are Crows in My Blood, was published by Pudding House Press in 2007 and another chapbook, Happy Darkness, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2011. She lives in Seattle.
Q. I hear the forests of the Great Northwest in these poems, “shadowed and moss-clung.” What makes these forests, and the poems that rise from them, different from Eastern woodlands?
A. I grew up in Pa but have lived in the Northwest since the late ‘70s—when I often backpacked and found the mountains more dramatic, with a grandeur that eastern woodlands, which have their own wonderful beauty of course, didn’t quite have. I was lucky to come to Seattle before it became trendy and popular and one could still take day hikes and go camping in the mountains and be alone (or almost alone). I feel more mystery in NW forests, more secrets.
Q. What kind of light fills your writing space?
A. Given that we experience a lot of gray skies and cloud cover, I am perhaps always searching for that break in the sky – the lighter shade, eventually the blue – I love the changing sky- light that comes and goes. One of my windows has a broad view of the evening sky which is often replete with color – the best time for sky-gazing.
3 Poems by Susan Laughter Meyers
followed by Q&A
Dear Constant Barking
Afraid none can parse
your one request?
Consider the clouds, cumulus
and lacking the urgency of crows.
You could practice crowlessness.
Better yet, study harmonics.
Even wind chimes, plinking,
syncopate their notes.
Your persistence, a sign of—what?
Fire and ice. Nagging:
the phone ringing, the tea kettle’s
whistle, a child’s tug at the sleeve.
I’m beginning to feel bad
for stutter dog. No, starting to think
you could practice forgiveness
until there’s no one left to forgive.
Then what good your refrain?
Old lessons ride the air:
less is, put your money where,
do unto, catch more flies with.
Dear Automated Call System
Let me guess: you’ve been going to therapy
for passive-aggressive behavior.
I’ll guess again: holding back
my chance, making me wait,
you’re in a state of denial
and I’m the dog you won’t feed.
Yesterday I forgot my dead mother’s birthday.
There’s hope for me yet.
Last night frost turned the red maple
buds brown. Frost, always full of surprise.
Time is on no one’s side, and drought
is forecast again for summer.
I used to be a good speller,
does that count?
I used to sketch parakeets,
does that count more?
One of us in the house got a haircut,
the other refuses to use the phone.
Dear Village of Mushrooms
Each morning this week I’ve gasped
at the change. You I wake for:
daily your countless possibilities—
high and higher still, till I fear
the worst. What sludge
speculation can yield,
what winged worries.
The rain lilies near the path bend low.
A snakeskin twists
through the grill of the fire pit,
pale reminder of what? I know
where screech owls once whinnied
at dusk—not far from you—
and which trees, a little to the south,
the webworm favors. Who’s to say
when the season will peak and when
first frost. The goldenrod glows
and the salt myrtle is turning
to a sea of white.
Through your shade,
my dear pagodas, all day I’ve threaded
forgetfulness. Is that enough?
I will look for you again tomorrow.
Susan Laughter Meyers is the author of My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass (forthcoming this fall), winner of the Cider Press Review Editor’s Prize. Her collection Keep and Give Away (University of South Carolina Press) received the SC Poetry Book Prize. Her poems have also appeared in The Southern Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, jubilat, and other journals. She is a recent recipient of the Carrie McCray Nickens Fellowship from the SC Academy of Authors and the Edward Stanley Award from Prairie Schooner. Her blog is at http://susanmeyers.blogspot.com.
Q. Discuss your use of epistolary form in these poems.
A. During the summer of 2007 I began writing a series of epistolary poems with an interest in addressing abstractions, processes, and things of the natural world—rather than humans. All along, these poems have felt to me like a correspondence with life around me and its emotional tug. Eventually in 2008 I decided to teach a workshop on the form, since it readily lends itself to intimacy and, at least in my mind, to the possibility for a better understanding of the addressee. I mention the workshop, because it was important to me to have a solid footing in the epistolary form before teaching it. Well, that goal led to an obsession that’s still with me. Each letter poem creates its own emotional space. It’s one of the few instances when I’ve started with the title—and as soon as I write that greeting, I’m transported to the scene of the poem. That natural entrance into the poem appeals to me in the writing process. At the time when I first started writing these there weren’t as many epistolary poems to such odd recipients as there are now. But the rise in popularity of this approach to the form suits me just fine.
Q. Ah, mushrooms! What magnificent, alien invasions on familiar turf. What kinds/forms are your favorites to come upon in the woods?
A. Ha, I wish I knew mushroom varieties. I should read up on them. The ones I’ve seen around here are mostly various toadstool-shaped mushrooms. What has been fascinating for me during the past twelve or so years that my husband and I have lived here in a fairly rural area is the chance to come upon a whole cluster of mushrooms at the edge of our little woods—we live on three acres—and then to watch them change in appearance day by day. It’s the first time I’ve ever had that opportunity, as before I’d just come upon mushrooms on a hike, say oh how beautiful, and then never see them again. But there’s a whole miniature life’s journey of growth and decline that takes place right there in that small village in a matter of days. I think I’ve been most fascinated by the utter decay and the gnats that seem to come from nowhere—fungus gnats, I’m told.
Q. Automated calls, endlessly barking dogs – is there a third annoyance to add to a closed room in hell?
A. Oh, is there ever. Let’s see, how about this one: “Dear Electronic Alarm Clock Blinking Your Numbers after the Power Has Been Restored at 3 a.m.”?
An Incident in Brief by Connor Ferguson
Followed by Q&A
This house is wicked. And I don’t mean wicked in the sense people here use it, but in the traditional sense, something wicked this way comes. Something truly wicked.
This is the beginning of Louise Katz’s diary entry marked August 10, six days after moving into the house at 14 Everett Road.
It can easily be said that Louise had a flair for the dramatic when writing her diary. In the months leading up to the move, she mentions on repeated occasions that she believed her marriage was “haunted,” for example.
Marc and Louise Katz moved in almost a year after the death of their only daughter at the age of three years and four months. They determined that they needed to get out of the two-bedroom suburban house they had lived in for five years, the house that had been the site of Julia’s conception, the happiness surrounding her birth, the two agonizing years of her illness, and finally the site of Marc and Louise’s grief following her death. In Louise’s words, they “fell in love with the house [at 14 Everett Road] instantly” and bought it after only two visits, one to see the house, and the other to see the town, which Louise described in June of that year as “nondescript but perfect.” “I know I usually like to take more time with things, but I have a feeling about this place,” she wrote in her diary just before they made an offer.
Reviewing her diary entries from the Katzes’ first six days in the house, subtle portents of what is to come reveal themselves almost immediately. In the entry marked August 5, describing their initial arrival the day before, Louise specifically mentions feeling “not at home, almost unwelcome,” a feeling she ascribes to simply not having moved in completely, with most of their possessions still in boxes stacked in the center of each room.
Convinced that “the purpose of moving here, the whole reason we’re here [i.e. to heal from their daughter’s death] can’t begin until we’re fully moved in,” Louise becomes obsessed with unpacking and getting rid of all the boxes as quickly as possible. At this point, Marc had yet to finalize his transfer to a local office and was still planning on making the drive to Boston every day. He had only managed to finagle three days off for the move. Louise expresses her frustration with his “uncharacteristic laziness” during those days. He is not working with her same fervor, and this seems to agitate her further. “To make matters worse,” he goes to bed early each night, “even though he spent what seems like all day sitting on his ass.” She writes that the half-unpacked state of the house makes her “uneasy” and she “just want[s] the place to feel like a home as quickly as possible.”
On the morning of August 7, Marc’s first day back at work, Louise says she’s “almost glad he’s gone” because it will give her a chance to work at her own pace without feeling as though she has to “constantly get him up out of another chair every time I turn around.” The length of time it’s taking to get everything unpacked is “making [her] nervous.”
She works through the morning, and then, as her second entry later that day tells us, she starts to feel “overwhelmed” and takes a break, makes herself a cup of tea, and goes out on the back deck. Her handwriting becomes feverish and sloppy at this point, clearly written very quickly. While out on the deck, Louise feels “suddenly afraid” looking into the woods that surround the property. She writes:
It was as if I was being watched, but not like there was something in the woods watching me, but that the woods themselves, the trees themselves were watching me. I felt like I was going to have a panic attack, my heart started pounding and I felt like I couldn’t escape, even though I didn’t know what it was I wanted to escape from.
This is when Louise first considers the possibility that her state of anxiety might not be entirely due to the still-packed boxes. “Maybe there’s something strange about this place,” she says.
There is a third, very brief entry on August 7, which Louise informs us was written “sitting on a little bench under a lovely poplar in front of the library, with the late afternoon sun streaming through the leaves onto my back.” After the ominous feeling on the deck, Louise goes back inside to assess her situation. As she notes in this entry, Louise has “never been especially superstitious,” but nevertheless she is overcome with a sense of foreboding and for the first time mentions “a presence” in reference to the house, or rather the property in general.
She leaves the remaining boxes and drives to the library that day to look for some kind of town records and learn a bit more about her house’s history. Louise reports that she found “nothing weird” in any of the records.
Again, this entry is very brief—more of a nothing-to-report than anything else. She doesn’t actually retell any of the house’s history, although presumably she did read the basic narrative in the library. The house was built in 1850 by Ezra Hamlin, who owned the house and the adjacent farm until his death in 1869, at which point it passed to his son, Jacob. Jacob was chiefly notable for an unsuccessful mayoral campaign in 1876, after which he moved to Cambridge to practice law, claiming that he “did not have the constitution” for agrarian life. The house and the farm were rented to the Fitzgibbon family, but Jacob Hamlin was apparently dissatisfied with their management of the farm and in 1879 decided to divide the property into separate lots and sell. The estate’s main drive became a public road, and the houses now occupied by Louise’s neighbors began to crop up over the years. The Hamlin family retained ownership of the house and small yard until 1902. The infamous woods were in fact relatively young, planted in the mid-1920s. There is no mention of any criminal or suspicious incidents in the house or the surrounding woods, either in official records or in popular memory.
Her single entry the following day is revealing in its unusual brevity—barely longer than the final August 7 entry written under the poplar. She reflects on her experience at the library the day before and says that she “doesn’t feel any better today.” In this entry, written on the morning of August 8, she vows to finish all the unpacking that day. She also quite uncharacteristically details her breakfast that morning—rye toast, coffee, and three spoonfuls of greek yogurt with a squirt of honey and a handful of raspberries.
An explanation for her concision is found in her entry the next day, August 9. Here, two days later, she describes her experience on the evening of August 7 after returning from the library. It was on that night that she first saw the shadows.
She came home, made herself dinner, and ate alone, as Marc was not due back for some time. After eating, she cleaned the kitchen and, now that night had fallen, crossed the living room to the stairs. She says there was a “prickly feeling” on the back of her neck as she entered the room, and when she was almost at the stairs, she saw, “just outside [her] field of vision,” a shadow in the corner.
Now I’ve heard of how people can see things out of the corner of their eye, how your peripheral vision can be tricked and such, but in all those stories, whatever it is is gone by the time the person looks at it. But I was staring right at the corner of the room and a huge shadow, like a big, round hill was there. It didn’t go away no matter how long I looked at it. It was unmistakably the shadow of something real.
Understandably frightened, Louise followed the shadow to the vicinity of the stairs and—incredibly—found nothing that could possibly have been casting it. She moved her body, watching her own shadow slip across the wall, until she was standing right where the hypothetical object would have to be. Her shadow disappeared within the girth of the other, but she was standing in an otherwise completely empty part of the room. “It was,” she concludes, “a shadow of nothing.” The word “nothing” is underlined three times, and her pen pierced the page at the end of the last line.
Louise goes on to say that she turned on every light in the room, but this was somehow worse. In the darkness, she could see the shadow clearly, but in the light it of course disappeared, “which only drew attention to the fact that there was nothing that could have possibly made it.” (Single underline on “nothing” this time.) Not seeing the shadow, but knowing that somehow it—or whatever was inexplicably casting it—was still there, was even more terrifying than looking right at it. Finally she turned off the lights and ran upstairs, where she locked herself in her bedroom. She waited there until Marc arrived home. She says she debated whether or not to tell him what had happened to her, but when he came upstairs, he fell into bed with all of his clothes on and didn’t stir all night.
The next morning—August 8, the day of the short entry—Louise felt uneasier and more nervous still. It was a windy day, and she could hear the trees whispering all morning long. She wrote the short entry about her breakfast, “out of some sense of duty,” but left out any mention of the shadow. “Marc just fell asleep so suddenly that night and it was almost too frightening to admit it had actually happened, and so for some reason I left it out of my diary yesterday.” She was in no state to finish the unpacking, as she had vowed to do in that entry. She invented reasons to leave the house, making no fewer than four trips to the grocery store. She called Marc at work and told him she loved him, “just to hear another person’s voice, to know that I wasn’t alone in the world.” As the day wound down and the sun grew heavy and red, she found herself literally shaking with fear.
What was freaking me out the most, though, was that I didn’t know what I was afraid of. I’ve always thought of myself as the kind of person whose [sic] afraid of things only with good reason, and never just because they’re mysterious or unknown. But all yesterday afternoon, I had, I still have, this awful sense that I’m not even actually as afraid as I should be.
A sudden change in Louise’s hand separates this last sentence from what follows. Her handwriting had been, up until this point, increasingly agitated and angular. Her prose, as well, was becoming disjointed, her sentences unraveling from each other. But when she begins the description of her experience the night of August 8, her handwriting is smooth and in places very light, as if her hand were slowly being lifted off the page by a balloon tied to her wrist. She appends elaborate, calligraphic loops to the ends of words, and her narrative style (as noted above, usually peppered with dramatic flourishes) turns stilted and journalistic, almost clinically detached.
When night falls, Louise is upstairs in the hall with all the lights on, comforted by the long, straight walls and lack of furniture; in other words, the absence of anything that could make a shadow. She sits on the floor, staring at the brilliantly lit ceiling, to wait for Marc. As the evening progresses and her gaze remains fixed on the ceiling, she fears everything outside her field of vision. She imagines that the whole house, with the exception of the square of ceiling she’s looking at, is covered in darkness, and she too will be consumed by it if she looks away from the light.
This feeling seems to pass, however, and for the first time in the whole ordeal, she starts to reason with herself. She tells herself there’s no way she could only be protected by looking at the light, that the only reason she is suddenly so afraid of everything she can’t see is precisely for that reason—she can’t see it. If she turns away and looks at the rest of the hallway, it will be filled with light and it will no longer seem frightening.
But what if it’s not? The question starts pounding in her brain. What if she breaks the spell, looks away, and finds she is consumed? All she knows for certain is she is still staring at the ceiling and she is still safe. She continues back and forth in this vein for quite a while, and she almost seems to have hypnotized herself relating her struggle, bouncing rhythmically between her two minds. Her writing devolves into a long strand of curls that goes on steadily until it drops off the edge of the page.
“So I decided to look down the hall,” she picks up at last, as if it were something exceptionally mundane. She looks down the hall, and of course it is lit. No shadows.
But the door to the spare bedroom, at the end of the hall, is wide open. The quick moment of relief she felt upon seeing the fully lit, shadowless hall, is immediately replaced with a dreadful need to close the door. “I’ve never been really OCD or superstitious or anything, but that must be sort of what it feels like. It was as if a voice was screaming in my head telling me that the door had to be closed that instant.”
She gets up and, making sure not to look down into the living room as she crosses in front of the stairs, walks down the hall to the dark doorway. “Did it want to be seen? Is that why I couldn’t help going to the door to close it?” A fan of light spills into the spare bedroom from the hall, and splitting it from side to side is a thin shadow, “like there was one of those pull-up bars like Marc used to have in his office in the doorway.” She walks forward until the clarity of her shadow matches that of the bar. It passes straight through her neck. She finds she can’t move and she stares at the two dark marks converging on the floor in front of her. There is, of course, nothing casting the shadow. “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”
After this litany, she almost cheerily proceeds to describe her confession of the shadows to Marc when he arrives home. This leaves probably close to an hour unaccounted for after seeing the bar shadow. Unlike her failure to describe her experience the previous night in her August 8 entry (which she later recounts in this entry on August 9), Louise remains completely silent on what happened during this time. It may be that something unspeakable occurred before Marc arrived home. Even if, as is more likely, nothing of note happened, the absence of her usual thoroughness in recounting events is odd.
When Marc comes home, he insists that he is “exhausted beyond belief,” but Louise says she has something important to tell him, and she begins to tearfully confess everything, starting with the feelings of unease, the ominous woods, and finally coming to the shadows. He listens calmly, which surprised her at the time, but upon further reflection, “when you just spelled it all out, feeling kind of uneasy and seeing weird shadows, it really didn’t sound all that bad.” She tries, desperately, to communicate her distress to him. He reluctantly says he’ll go check out the shadows, but as he shuffles out of the bedroom, “it was like he was humoring a little kid by checking the closet for monsters. He doesn’t get it. He just doesn’t get it.”
Marc calls for her from the hall, saying he needs her to come point out the shadow to him. She tells him he doesn’t need her to point it out, that “it’s there, plain as day, plain as plain can be.” She refuses to come to him, saying she can’t be near the shadow again. She hears him go downstairs, and the next thing she’s aware of, the lights are out and Marc is sleeping soundly by her side.
This brings us to the entry of August 10, which she opens by asserting that the house is “wicked.” She says that neither she, “nor the house” can take any more. There are few details about the night before. Marc came home and once again fell asleep immediately, “without even saying a word to me.” She characterizes the previous day as “torture” and “exponentially worse than it’s been.”
It doesn’t want us, this house. The shadows are multiplying. I saw two more, two different ones last night. I feel like I’m being watched, not just that I’m being watched but that there’s someone standing right behind me right now as I write this. Always right there, just beyond what I can actually perceive with my senses, is this presence, this wicked presence. It doesn’t want us. He [Marc] doesn’t understand, but it doesn’t want us. I don’t know if he can’t see the shadows or won’t see the shadows or if something’s gotten into his head, but if we stay here we’re—I don’t know, I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s right behind me. I don’t know what it is, but it’s right behind me and if I go someplace else it’ll be right there too because it’s everywhere it’s everywhere it’s in this house and in the woods.
It’s hard not to wonder why Louise still remained in the house even as she came to this conclusion. It would be safe to characterize her as a relatively cautious person, and yet, with the exception of her trip to the library and the one day in which she went to the grocery store numerous times, she spent a great deal of time in the house even while formalizing her anxieties in her diary. A complete and thorough interpretation of these events is confounded by the fact that this is the final entry of her meticulously detailed yet highly enigmatic journal. The rest of the book is blank, except for the page immediately following the last entry, which is entirely shaded from edge to edge by her pen.
Louise Katz was, of course, never seen again. Her husband reported her missing immediately upon arriving home the night of August 10. All of the glass from every window in the house had been smashed from the inside, with some shards found in excess of twenty feet from the windows. Her car was locked in the garage. A thorough search of the surrounding woods resulted in absolutely no sign of Louise, and the trail turned immediately cold. Although the authorities were unable to produce any conclusive evidence pointing toward it, the possibility of foul play could not be ruled out.
Marc Katz continued to live at 14 Everett Road for two more years. According to neighbors, he had very few visitors and never turned on any lights in the house, even after arriving home late in the evening. He sold the house, along with all of its contents, and left no forwarding address. After his departure, it was discovered that the remaining moving boxes had never been unpacked.
Connor Ferguson grew up in the mountains of Southern California and graduated from Tufts University. His short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle Magazine and Squawk Back. He lives outside of Boston. www.connorferguson.com
Q: What can you tell us about this story?
A: The more you know about something—anything—the less frightening it becomes. It's the unknown that unsettles us. This story has very few answered questions for that very reason.
Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?
A: I read a lot of the classics—Ploughshares, Tin House—but I'm also a big fan of newer places that are really trying (and in my opinion, largely succeeding) to do something different and original, places like BULL: Men's Fiction.
Q: What would your ideal writing day be?
A: Every day is an ideal writing day for me. I'm writing all the time, even when I'm not actually putting words on paper (or screen, as the case may be).
Q: What’s happening outside your window right now?
A: Given this story, I'd like to say I'm looking out on some foggy, threatening gothic moor, but really it's quite beautiful and sunny. I just had pancakes for breakfast, and it's shaping up to be a thoroughly un-frightening day.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on a novel more long term, but I've always got a few shorts stories bouncing around in my head.
The Efficiency Expert by Andrew Beckemeyer
Followed by Q&A
The analysis was perfectly clear. The data was sound and the methods beyond refutation, all pointing in the same direction toward the same inescapable conclusion. The Argyle model had been tried and tested, and after twenty-nine years at Argyle Consulting, the last nine in the senior analyst position he now held, he was as familiar with its nuances and aware of its robust capabilities as anyone in the organization. The results confirmed his intuition absolutely, as his intuition too had pointed in the same direction long before the analysis itself had been conducted. And after all, to paraphrase the former chairman of the company, William R. Argyle, whom he had had the good fortune to know as Bill, at the end of the day it was not data or even the impeccable Argyle model but intangibles like intuition and leadership and vision that produced real, viable business solutions.
He believed in the Argyle model because it was flawlessly rational, and he believed unwaveringly and unquestioningly in what was rational. It strove for efficiency, as he strove for efficiency, and he applied it rationally of course, but nonetheless with a tremendous zeal. He enjoyed the puzzle it presented, the puzzle of dissecting the process, of sifting through the corporate culture that had accreted over years of circumstance and superstition and tradition and cutting away those parts of it that were frivolous and wasteful, replacing outdated practices with new and innovative ones that had been proven, at least in theory, to be effective. Sometimes it might involve something as sweeping and bold as the complete restructuring of an entire division: dismantling departments, reassigning responsibilities, and removing those employees who would no longer be needed in the new, more practical arrangement. Other times a day’s work might be something as fundamentally simple as moving a manager from one office to another, or putting a shared printer in a more convenient location, some minor task that nonetheless gave him the satisfaction that comes with seeing everything put in its proper place. It held such appeal to him, to make things run more simply and more smoothly. He looked upon it not merely as a job, but as a duty, as his contribution to society and a better, more streamlined and efficient world which he, through his own expertise, helped build.
It had taken him all twenty-nine of his years at Argyle to run this particular case. Of course that was atypical, as the case was atypical, and the unusual nature of this specific case forced him into accordingly unusual procedure. A standard analysis might yield tangible results in a matter of months, and although it went without saying that ideally a given case would remain an ongoing account requiring certain periodic follow-up, it would become a matter, not of less importance, but of considerably diminished effort and intensity once the original study had been carried out.
In this case, however, there were fundamental differences from the standard scenario which had required considerable deviation from the usual timeframe. The matter was not an assigned case to be pursued during regular working hours, not for a client, not billable. It was in fact a personal matter, a pet project, if you will, which meant that he could only truly devote himself to it in increments when he could spare the time. And seeing as it was a personal matter, he of course had no choice but to conduct the entire project on his own, where on an ordinary project the work would have been delegated and divided among a larger, more specialized team. There was no one he could even mention it to. Countless times he had abandoned the project, put it off, tried desperately to ignore the conclusion it had foreordained. But every time, he had come back to it, unable to escape it, driven by something deep in his psyche, some doubt that gnawed at him, some truth that compelled him beyond all else to pursue its end and see it through.
And now the model had come to the conclusion that the company no longer needed him. From the beginning he had always known it would, but now, today, the completed and indisputable proof of it was finally in front of him in black and white, with the occasional red and yellow thrown in for visual clarity in certain key charts. He himself was redundant, unnecessary, unprofitable. According to even the most conservative simulations he had run, the most likely scenario was that his associates and the members of his team would be able to split up his responsibilities amongst them and carry on just as well without him. After all, they were as disciplined and as clever and as insightful as he was, and although he felt that he deserved some credit through his influence and his instruction for their being so, at this point they would accomplish roughly equivalent successes on their own. To add insult to injury, however, a considerable number of trials, enough that they could not merely be regarded as outliers, suggested that he had never been needed and that the company would have come to equivalent or even more effective solutions if his position had never been filled. Or, to put it another way, the data now showed that a monkey could do his job.
That was difficult enough for him to take, but then even these more conservative results were only the beginning. The truly revolutionary accomplishment of this particular study, the juncture at which he as an analyst had now gone truly above and beyond, lay in a somewhat radical and experimental variation he had developed, beyond anything that any efficiency study ever conducted had even attempted to approach. In a way he had been only vaguely aware of in his previous analyses, he had come to recognize gradually as the mirror turned inward that the conservative and standard analysis was insufficient for the broader scenario he now sought to explain, resting on too many parameters that were inappropriate and assumptions that were circular and specious. The reasoning beyond the model was impeccable, yes, but reason itself was inherently groundless, truth circumspect and unattainable, and value merely an arbitrary matter of preference and taste. And when the scope of the analysis was made broader to reflect these realities, adjusted to account for these modern advances, the study concluded with near complete certainty that even the company itself was no longer needed, and had never been needed. Yes, it was profitable, but as the upgraded model now discarded profit and every other possible measure of importance or meaning to existence, the possibility of being useful disappeared from the range of potential outcomes. Even his greatest professional achievements were unambiguously proven to pale in comparison with things like the budding of a single flower or the falling of a drop of rain. What's more, the model itself collapsed under the weight of its own scrutiny, and in its collapse proved the entire notion of modeling and understanding to be fatally self-contradicting, trivial, floundering. This was his masterpiece, his most ambitious work, his great contribution, as far as there was room for such lofty phrases and terms in such a career and such a field. And beyond any statistically significant measure of doubt the procedure concluded that under no imaginable circumstances did he add value, and there was no point in his carrying on.
To be sure it was a lot to swallow, enough that the grave weight of it might very well have driven any lesser man over the edge right then and there. But great man that he was, in his small and humble way, he remained calm and carried on with his thoughts coolly, rationally. The results after all were to be expected, and this was something he had done a hundred times before, even if understandably it had a more personal effect now when it concerned himself directly. Just as in any other restructuring, what remained once the assessment was made clear was to consider the solutions, establish the most efficacious strategy for moving forward, and implement that strategy in a timely manner. He would have to be terminated. He was superfluous. In any other case, he would have done the same.
Yet even as he maintained his cool, the finality and clarity of this proclamation affected him more deeply than he would have thought possible, and inspired reactions that surprised him. In a moment of weakness he even contemplated simply throwing out the results, of sweeping the whole thing under the proverbial rug in fear. He could get away with it of course. No one would be the wiser. Although he could only imagine that the overall outcome of his analysis, the dread and emptiness that he had now established mathematically as fact, must have occurred to most or all of his colleagues in some form or another, he felt safe in saying that none of them possessed the grit and rigor and outright gall to question the benchmarks and carry out the calculations as objectively as he had done. Besides, it incriminated them too, incriminated them all.
But he was repulsed with himself for even coming up with the idea. He couldn’t throw it out. He couldn’t live that lie, couldn’t even consider keeping himself on now that he knew in no uncertain terms what he now knew. The hypocrisy of it sickened him, of simply carrying on as if it accomplished a positive good when at best he was no more than a resource drain. He took some pleasure in thinking at least that he had honor, a sense of duty, and that he lived according to some code, although his subsequent attempts to expound to himself upon just what that might mean and put it into words invariably fell short.
In the lowness of his situation he even resorted to negotiation, as though there were some room for arbitration in the matter, as though there were some faculty to which he could appeal. After all, after twenty-nine years of loyal and fruitful service, didn’t the company owe him? He was trusted by management, respected by his subordinates and juniors, and his resume had some sparkle to it, as they say, if perhaps it did not shine like the very sun. His identification of a redundant segment in the distribution process at Consolidated Lever had saved them an estimated $18.2 million per year, out of which he earned an appreciable raise and bonus. He had led a restructuring of workforces that enabled a 7% cut in labor costs with only a 2% drop in total productivity at Williams and Snull, and laid out the basic operating principles of an integrated software solution which Dug Brands credited as a major contribution to a 12% cut in turnaround time and 4% growth over the following three quarters in adjusted RLP. No, he had been paid a fair value for what he had accomplished, and kept on as long as he was useful, and he certainly couldn’t expect anything more than that. Not that it mattered now, or that in the face of the final analysis anything had ever mattered or could ever have mattered at all.
As he stared out across his small office, his attention caught on the imitation stainless steel nameplate on his desk as if it were a fabric that had snagged. The nameplate faced the other way and he couldn’t read it from where he sat, but he knew well enough what it said. David Kingsley. David. People called him Dave sometimes, and although it wasn’t what he preferred or how he introduced himself, he wasn’t the type of guy to bother to correct them when, after all, it really wasn’t such a big deal. And it was then, looking there at the back of that simple nameplate that had announced him to the world for these past twenty-nine years and now no longer would, that it really hit him in full. After twenty-nine years at Argyle Consulting, well over half his life now, he was about to lose his job.
He didn’t know what to do. It was the first time in an awfully long time, or maybe ever really, that he could remember that kind of feeling of not knowing what to do. Tomorrow morning, or maybe not quite that soon, he would find himself in bed well after the alarm should have gone off, with no place to go. Sometime in the near future some new acquaintance would ask him in the course of casual conversation, “So, what do you do?” and after answering that question without a second thought all the thousands of times he had been asked it over twenty-nine long years, he wouldn’t know how to answer. He would miss those little interactions with the people he encountered in the office, miss hearing pleasant snippets about Annie’s kids and Colin’s parents and Jill’s weekends, and when he did meet up again with people there for golf or lunch or what have you, still there would open up a distance to the conversations that there hadn’t been before.
He could look for a new job, of course. Of course he could. As an analyst he was finished, but maybe something in accounting or in management, both fields toward which his experience could be construed as applicable. After all, aside from the utter and inescapable futility of everything he had ever done, he had been good at his job, and liked by management, at least some of whom would almost certainly be willing to write him glowing recommendations. He was fifty-one years old now, but still handsome and youthful-looking enough to pass for forty-eight and he still had what it took to reinvent himself and reestablish himself at another company, in another career.
He stood up out of his chair. He really couldn’t afford to be going through this right now. Really couldn’t. He had been paid a very comfortable salary, it was true, but like most people he had put it toward leading a proportionally comfortable life. Yes, he had a bigger house and faster car than most people had, but without steady money coming in all he would have to show for it now would be a larger mortgage payment and a larger car payment to scramble somehow to pay. Under the circumstances he could be pretty sure that even when he did find work again, it wouldn’t pay him nearly what he made at Argyle now, and he could see already that he was going to be forced to make some unpleasant decisions. The loan on the house was almost halfway paid, and refinancing might help them hold on to it for a while, but still it was highly likely now or sometime soon that he would have to move his family into a smaller home, a more affordable neighborhood. He could sell the Porsche if he had to, or the boat, although he would hardly get enough for it to be worthwhile. He admitted to himself how funny it was that a man who made his living cutting unnecessary expenditures for others would have made so many of his own, but for the moment he found his sense of humor wanting.
Even if he wanted to, how could he ever go back now? In any career he might have chosen to go into and any position he might have found, still there was no going back and no escaping what he now knew. For now that he knew it, it was the pinnacle and the summit of his knowledge, and it towered over every other possibility and every other fact at a height that all the rest could not measure up to even if they were all stacked one on top of the other. That no matter what he did now, or had done then, none of it actually mattered, or could possibly accomplish anything that was worth accomplishing. The whole notion of work, the whole corporate structure, the whole of life and of being, they just didn’t do any good, or serve any end, and never had and never would. How could he ever balance another ledger or write another report or file another request now that he knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that that was true?
He picked up the picture of his family that he kept on his desk. He wished he were some heartless, unfeeling, rational machine and not a man, because he thought of them with love, such love. And it only made things harder now, because everything he did and everything he would do was for them. He wondered with such desperate hope if love could be enough, if it were enough to live only with love. For a moment he thought that maybe he could, that maybe love was what truly mattered. But it seemed so impossible, so distant from everything he had lived for up to now and everything he knew. How was he supposed to tell them that they had to leave their home? Kara loved it there so much, said it was everything she had ever dreamed of in a home, and it meant so much to him to make her happy. How was he supposed to tell Melissa that he couldn’t afford to send her back to Princeton when she had worked so hard, or Nick that he would have to take the bus to public school in the mornings now? He thought of all the things their futures held for them, graduations, weddings, jobs, children of their own. He had provided for his family, and he would provide for them now, as best he could.
He wouldn’t even have to leave the parking lot, which was for the best given the shape he was in. It was cold outside and icy, perfect conditions. When he thought of everything in terms of money, he could be cool and rational again. He was willing to consider the viewpoint that money wasn’t everything, but in a world where nothing meant anything, at least money was a clear benchmark for making decisions that were otherwise too complicated to even begin to undertake. At least money was a standard you could measure yourself against, and use to compare your successes and your worth with those of others without all the confusion and the subjectivity of things like emotions and ideals. He got into the car and started it, then let it warm up a little before he pulled out of his parking space. There was a sharp right turn to one of the on-ramps in the garage which, if over-run slightly, faced a two-story drop-off, a section that many of the employees agreed was terribly dangerous and very poorly designed. He was insured, well insured, for more than he had ever earned and more than he had ever been worth. Perhaps, he thought with a touch of levity, his survivors could even sue.
He wished he could tie himself up to a stake in battle to be killed by the enemy, the way he had once read of proud warriors from some Native American tribe or other doing when they had grown too old to fight and had come to their time to die. He took solace anyway in knowing that though it lacked the romantic valor of a death in battle, the symbolic weight of the gesture he now made was secretly the equivalent for a man in his place and of his position.
Death felt like a thousand needles stabbing him in the back.
Andrew Beckemeyer has no prior publications, literary prizes or literary degrees to speak of, but is confident that this will be the starting point to a storied and decorated career. He has a bachelor’s degree in Applied Mathematics from Northwestern University, and among other odd jobs has worked as a stock trader, groundskeeper, Japanese translator, accountant, concessionaire, software developer, education program manager, and riverboat deck hand. He has lived in San Francisco for the past five years, but by the time of this publication has left, probably for L.A. to start, maybe Mexico, possibly Europe, never to return.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I wrote this story while working in a position that was about to be eliminated in a cost-cutting move, in which my final duties were basically to help make my own job disappear. As I was writing it, I remembered a story my dad once told me when I was in high school about a friend of my uncle’s, and based David’s course of action here on that actual story and the actions that man actually took in his own similar situation. For the record, I am much, much happier being unemployed than David is.
Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?
A: I read a story in Ploughshares once that I thought was very good.
Q: What would your ideal writing day be?
A: Quiet house in the morning, then out to a coffee shop in the afternoon, where I overhear some outrageous conversation that makes perfect material for my next story.
Q: What’s happening outside your window right now?
A: Leaves rustling. Unspeakable things in the darkness.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A novel about two young professional couples enjoying a twelve-course dinner at a very exclusive and expensive restaurant, making conversation, discussing the food, and revealing their personalities and values.
Book of Lies by Gerry Wilson
Followed by Q&A
Poised at the top of the ski slope, Robin looked down. Her husband, Howard, waited a few yards below her. This trail was a blue. For beginners, he had assured her.
Howard shouted, “Angle across the slope, not down it!”
Robin took a deep breath and pushed off with her poles. She picked up speed.
Howard was skiing alongside. “Okay! Now, make a V with the skis.”
She locked her knees, nudged her ski tips together, and made the wedge.
“That’s good! You’re making a right turn, so lighten up on the right ski and shift your weight to the left.”
She tried to do what he said, but her skis drifted apart.
“Weight on the left ski!”
“I know!” Instead of making the turn, she skidded sideways down the slope and landed in a drift near the trees.
Howard skied to where she sat. “For God’s sake, don’t cry!”
“I’m not. My nose is running.”
One ski had come off. Robin released the other and jabbed her poles into the snow. When she tried to stand, Howard grabbed her arm, but she jerked away and struggled to her feet. “This part I can do. I’m going in.”
“You’ll catch on.”
“I don’t think so.” She wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “You should go ski with Carl.”
At eleven, their son Carl was a natural. He’d been making parallel turns since his first day in ski school. He was skiing with friends while Howard tried to teach Robin what a private instructor hadn’t been able to do in three lessons.
Howard took off his gloves and goggles and rubbed his eyes. “You sure?”
He put the goggles and gloves back on. “Okay, then.” He skied away from her, making clean, sharp turns down the slope and a sweeping stop at the bottom. He headed for the lift and didn’t look back.
Robin hated the cold and the snow. She hated feeling clumsy and watching Howard eye pretty women in spandex, flying headlong down the slopes or draped on the leather couches around the hotel fireplace. She hefted her skis and poles over her shoulder and trudged through the snow. People skied past her. One guy stopped and asked if she needed help. She forced a smile and said no.
That morning, their younger son David had cried and begged not to go to the ski school, but Howard had made him go. Robin could see the lodge below and the little kids on the bunny hill. It wasn’t hard to spot David. He would go a few feet and sit down. She couldn’t see the look on his face, but she didn’t have to. She would take him out of the school and they would do something fun. He was only six. He had plenty of time to learn to ski, if he ever really wanted to.
Back at the hotel, Robin and David drank hot chocolate in front of the lobby fireplace. She tried to call her sister, Laurel, but got no answer. The room phone was ringing as she unlocked the door. When her brother-in-law, Paul, said her name, she knew. Something had happened to Laurel.
The Drive Home
They checked out of the hotel as soon as they could pack. The trip home to Memphis took eighteen hours. Around four in the morning, Howard was all over the road, driving across the reflectors that divided the lanes, weaving into the breakdown lane. It made Robin crazy. She insisted she drive. It was better than thinking. The rush of passing eighteen-wheelers slammed their Honda like hard gusts of wind. She kept a white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel and tried not to picture her sister dead.
Robin left Howard and the boys to unpack the car and went straight to Laurel’s house.
“I’ll come over as soon as I get cleaned up,” Howard said.
“Please don’t. Stay with the boys. What can you do?” She walked away before he could answer.
Laurel and Paul’s tiny bungalow sat on a tree-lined street in a quiet old neighborhood. One of Laurel’s friends met Robin at the door. Paul sat in the den, ashen and shaky. He stood and hugged Robin and held on for a long time.
When he let her go, she said, “Where’s Molly?”
He looked around. “Playing. Somewhere.”
Robin found Molly under the dining room table, curled up with her favorite blanket, sucking her thumb. Robin crawled under the table. “Hey, Molly.”
Molly looked up at Robin. “I can’t find my mommy.”
Robin pulled her onto her lap. “I know, baby. I know.”
She held Molly and breathed in the baby shampoo scent of her hair. Robin wanted Laurel to walk in that room, to look under the table, and say, “There you are! I’ve been looking for you!” Laurel’s absence knocked the breath out of her. She held on to her sister’s child and cried, silently, so Molly wouldn’t hear.
What Paul told Robin: he had called Laurel from the hospital around noon, and she’d sounded so good. Not depressed at all. He called a couple of hours later, and when nobody answered, he thought Laurel had taken the children out for a walk. When he kept trying and still got no answer, he asked another intern to cover for him and went home. He found Laurel in the tub, naked, submerged, and three-month-old Jack, his head nestled face down between her breasts. There was an empty bottle of antidepressants on the floor. He should have counted the pills, he said. He should have locked them up. The coroner had come and gone. Robin’s death would be ruled a suicide, Paul said. “But the baby’s death is considered a homicide. Can you believe that?”
What Robin told herself: she shouldn’t have gone on the ski trip with Howard. It hadn’t fixed the marriage. It hadn’t fixed anything.
Paul asked Robin to take care of Molly until he could find a nanny willing to stay nights. Molly could go back to daycare, but he was on call every third night and every other weekend. Robin had known it was what she wanted before Paul asked. She couldn’t bring Laurel back, but she could take care of the child.
Paul would finish his internship the end of May. He had applied for an internal medicine residency at several hospitals, all out of state. He would take Molly with him, or he might send her to live with his parents, a thousand miles away. Either way, she would lose Molly. For now, though, Robin could have her.
She called her school’s principal to ask for an extended leave of absence. He told her not to worry, to take all the time she needed. She didn’t discuss it with Howard. When he came home from his law office the next afternoon, Robin was sitting in the den reading to Molly. He didn’t seem surprised.
“Hi, Punkin’,” he said to Molly, went to the kitchen, poured himself a bourbon.
Paul tried three live-in nannies. Each time, after a week or two he brought Molly back to Robin. By then it was May, and he had accepted a residency in St. Louis, three hundred miles away.
He asked Robin to keep Molly a while longer. “I’ll take her as soon as I get settled and can find decent help.”
When Robin hesitated, her voice choked with tears, the yes stopped in her throat, he said, “If you can’t do it, I’ll work something out.” He got up and looked out Robin’s kitchen window. Carl was pushing Molly on the swings in the back yard. “I want her. You know I do. It’s just . . .” He turned and raised his hands, helpless. “God, she’s so much like Laurel, you know?”
So Paul moved, and Molly stayed. It was Laurel she missed. “I saw Mommy,” she’d say.
The first time, Robin was stunned. “You did? Where?”
Molly saw her mother everywhere: in the backyard sandbox, on the swings at the park, in Molly’s room at night, telling her stories that Molly repeated to Robin. Molly never mentioned her baby brother. Then one day, she simply stopped talking about Laurel. Robin gathered all the photos she could find of Laurel and Molly together, and Paul, too, from before Molly was born to the most recent ones that included Jack. They were happy pictures, Robin thought. She put them in an album and used it like a picture book to tell Molly stories, sometimes real, sometimes invented. She hoped the stories would help Molly remember Laurel, but if she were honest, she knew the stories were really for her, for keeping Laurel alive.
The First Summer
Sunlight on water. Relentless wind, flotillas of thunderheads, rain in the afternoons. Molly digging in the sand where the waves make foam, Robin beside her. Carl and Matt flying kites, swimming, catching crabs. Just Robin, the boys, and Molly, empty spaces where Laurel should be, and Howard too, living in an apartment since the first of July. Finding himself, he said.
The summer Molly turned six, Paul brought his fiancée Claire for a visit. Claire was everything Laurel had not been: tall, model-thin, outgoing. She dressed well. She sold real estate. There were trips to the zoo, the parks, movies. Robin told herself she had to give Claire a fair chance. She waited all week for Paul to tell her when he and Claire planned to take Molly. Finally, the day before they were leaving, she asked him.
“Not right away,” he said. “We’ll need some time.” After the wedding in August, a month went by, and another.
Robin had resigned from her teaching job a couple of months after Laurel died. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to put Molly in daycare. The divorce had been civil, and Howard was generous. Robin could afford to stay home, but she felt guilty; her own sons had gone to daycare while she taught and stole a few hours here and there to paint in a little rented studio. She justified her choice to stay home with Molly. Her boys had had her; Molly’s mother was gone.
After Molly started kindergarten, Robin taught a couple of art classes three mornings a week at a community college. She bought new oils and canvasses, and on the other mornings, those long hours without Molly, she painted for the first time in two years. The paintings she finished, she hid away. One of them started out as a portrait of Molly but had turned out to be Laurel at five instead, unsmiling, wistful, looking off at something beyond the canvas.
When Molly entered first grade, Robin took a job teaching art at the Catholic high school. She liked having a routine. It would be good when Molly went to live with Paul and Claire.
Molly didn’t leave, though. Paul and Claire had decided a move over Christmas would be easier. Then Christmas became just another visit, and when Paul brought Molly home, she was subdued. She had reverted to sucking her thumb.
Robin confronted Paul. “It’s not fair to Molly. When is she moving?” It’s not fair to me, she thought. Paul was selfish, selfish.
He looked miserable. “Molly’s not happy there. I keep hoping—”
“You hope what? You take her and you love her. She’ll adjust.”
“Look, it’s complicated. Claire’s . . .” He smoothed his hands on his trousers. When he didn’t look at Robin, she understood.
“You mean Claire doesn’t want her.”
He shook his head. “Claire says having Molly will be like having Laurel in the house. She says I’m still attached to Laurel.”
Robin felt a guilty rush of satisfaction. She hadn’t liked Claire from the beginning.
Paul said, “She’s given me an ultimatum. It’s her or Molly.”
“And you choose Claire? How can you do that?”
“I told you, it’s complicated. I love Claire. I know it sounds trite, but it’s a chance at a new life.” He picked up a photo of Laurel off the table and one of Molly next to it. “I’m not sure I can do it. Ever.”
He left without saying goodbye to Molly. He said it was better that way.
Molly at Seven
Molly was under her bed. Robin tried to coax her out while Paul waited downstairs to take her to St. Louis for her summer visit. Six long weeks. “I don’t want to go!” Molly said.
“I don’t like Claire!”
“Molly, don’t be that way. Your daddy will be so disappointed if you don’t go.”
“I will, Molly,” Paul said.
Robin hadn’t heard him come in. She mouthed, “You try.”
“Come on out, Molly.” Paul got down on the floor. “Well, I guess I have to stay right here until you come out, baby girl.”
Molly kicked the bedsprings above her. “I’m not a baby.”
“Oh? Big girls don’t crawl under the bed and hide from their daddies.”
Robin stood back and watched. Paul was halfway under the bed now, talking to Molly. Robin couldn’t hear what he was saying. Finally, he crawled out, then Molly.
“That’s my girl,” he said. He gathered her into his arms and brushed tears off her cheeks. “Hey, it’s going to be fine. You can talk to Aunt Robin and the boys every day.” He looked up at Robin. “Right, Aunt Robin?”
“Right,” she said, but it irritated her. She had never been Aunt Robin; with Molly she was just Robin.
Molly’s things were already in the car. Paul carried her down the stairs. The departure happened as Robin had imagined it: she and Carl and David on the porch waving and smiling, Molly’s forlorn little face pressed against the car window. It’s only six weeks, Robin reminded herself. And yet she closed her eyes and imagined Molly moving away from her like a lesson in perspective, lines converging until she became a finite point on the horizon and then disappeared entirely.
Molly takes a half-gallon of ice cream from the freezer and eats out of the carton.
“You’re late,” Robin says. “Where were you?”
“I was at Beth’s. I told you. Test tomorrow.”
Robin sighs. “Okay. Get to bed.”
Molly puts the ice cream away and tosses her spoon in the sink. She walks around the island. It seems she’ll do anything these days to keep from touching Robin. She runs up the stairs and slams the door to her room.
Robin supposes she should have expected a rebellious streak. It’s harder now that it’s the two of them, with Carl in grad school and David away at college. Paul’s moving back hasn’t helped. He and Claire and their two young daughters live in a fine house only a couple of miles from Robin’s. They have let Molly decorate her own room in that house, but Paul hasn’t asked Molly to move in with them permanently. Robin expects it any time.
“Anything I want,” Molly tells Robin. “Paul says I’m getting a car when I turn sixteen.”
Robin isn’t surprised when Paul calls and says he needs to talk to her. They arrange to meet for lunch at a nice restaurant on Saturday. “My treat,” he says.
At the restaurant Paul orders each of them a glass of wine. They make small talk, and Robin wonders when he’ll get around to what he really wants. Then he tells her. “Molly wants to move in with us.” He shakes his head. “It won’t work. She’s better off staying with you.”
“For God’s sake, Paul. What’s all this about then—the room, the clothes, the money? No wonder she thinks she can move in. You’ve been courting her.”
“It’s not about anything. I want her to know I love her. I’ll take care of her.” He drains his wine glass.
Robin sets her own glass down. “You know she’ll blame me if you don’t let her.” She thinks, Claire. Claire’s to blame.
He leans back in his chair. “I’ll tell Molly. I’ll explain everything.”
The following Thursday, the attendance secretary at Molly’s school calls Robin and tells her Molly was in her morning classes, but she didn’t show up for her sixth period. “She’ll have to be disciplined for this, Mrs. Stevens,” the secretary says and hangs up.
The knot of anxiety builds in Robin’s chest. She waits until after four to call Molly’s friends. Nobody’s seen her since lunch.
Robin calls Paul’s office and leaves a message. He calls back a little after six, and Robin tells him Molly’s still not home.
He says, “Don’t you think she’s probably at a friend’s house?”
“Don’t you think I’ve called everybody I know? Come on, Paul.”
“Let’s not overreact. Did you call Claire?”
She has not. He says he will. He calls Robin back. “She’s not there, either. I’m leaving here to make rounds. I’ll keep my cell on. Let me know when she gets home.”
Robin slams the phone down. She goes around the house and turns on every light. She imagines the house a beacon in the dark, calling Molly home. The door to Molly’s room is closed. Robin opens it and finds the light switch. The room is a shambles. Something smells. Incense? Pot? She opens drawers, takes things out, puts them back. She’s about to leave when she notices the photograph album she had made for Molly all those years ago, when she first came to live with her. The album is open on Molly’s bed, the pages empty, photos in the trashcan beside the bed, all torn into tiny pieces. So much for the stories of a little girl and her happy life.
Lies. All lies.
She dumps the torn photos on the bed. Fragments of Laurel here, Paul there, Molly, baby Jack. She drops them back in the trash, gets up, turns off Molly’s light, closes the door, and goes downstairs. She grips the banister. She feels lightheaded, her knees like jelly.
Robin waits in the den, turns on the TV, turns it off. Gets up, goes to the kitchen, makes tea, doesn’t drink it. Around ten, she hears a car. She looks out. It’s Paul and Molly. He puts his arm around her, but she pushes him away. When Robin opens the door, Molly brushes past her, slings her book bag down in the hall, and heads up the stairs.
“Wait just a minute, young lady,” Paul says. “You come back here!”
Molly doesn’t slow down. A door slams upstairs, and Robin and Paul stand there looking at each other.
“Come in,” Robin says. “It’s freezing.”
Paul drops onto the couch without taking off his coat. He has snowflakes on his shoulders, in his hair.
“Where was she?”
“She wouldn’t tell me. She said she failed a geometry test, and that’s why she left school. She was at our house by the time I got there. She’d walked. All that way in the cold.” He runs his hands over his face. “She was so agitated I thought she might be on something. She said you’d be furious and she couldn’t come back here, so could she stay over. I told her no. I said you were worried sick, and she can’t treat you this way after all you’ve done for her.”
“Oh, Paul. Why am I always the bad guy?” Something, not sound or movement—a shadow, maybe—makes her turn. Molly stands in the doorway.
“You went in my room,” she says. “Don’t you ever, ever do that again!” Molly starts back up the stairs, stops halfway, turns. “Why are you still here, Daddy?” Then she’s gone.
Robin has never heard her call Paul that.
After he leaves, Robin curls up on the couch. She has no intention of falling asleep. What if Molly slips out? But Molly wakes her at six-thirty. She’s dressed for school.
“Will you write me a note?” she says. “Say I got my period and messed up my skirt. I was embarrassed. That’s why I left.”
Robin writes the note. “Want some breakfast?”
Molly shakes her head. She pulls a paper out of her backpack. “You need to sign this.”
It’s the geometry test. An F. So she wasn’t lying about that. Robin signs it and doesn’t comment. “Promise me you’ll come straight home.”
“Sure.” Molly stuffs the test paper in the backpack, grabs her jacket, and she’s out the door. Robin watches her run for the bus that’s rounding the corner. Robin calls her own school to tell them she’ll be late.
Robin grounds Molly. There’s some hysteria Friday night over the grounding, and Molly locks herself in her room. Robin leaves trays outside her door that remain untouched.
Sunday night, Molly comes downstairs. She’s drying her hair with a towel. Robin says, “Let me do it.” She’s surprised when Molly sits down and hands her the towel and a comb. Robin works the comb from the ends to the scalp to get the tangles out, like she used to when Molly was little.
“There,” Robin says when she’s done.
Molly gets up and goes to the window.
Robin looks out too at the February darkness. “I think I’ll make hot chocolate. Want some?” Molly nods.
Robin makes hot chocolate the old-fashioned way—cocoa, sugar, whole milk. She brings two mugs on a tray. “Sit,” she says, and Molly does. Robin grips her mug to keep her hands still. It’s time. “There’s something I need to tell you, Molly.”
Molly starts to get up. “I don’t need another lecture.”
Robin puts her hand on Molly’s arm. “Please. Stay.”
She tells her then that Laurel’s death wasn’t an accident, that she killed herself and the baby. While Robin talks, Molly stares at her hands. “She was sick, Molly. None of us knew just how sick,” Robin says. “You look like her, but you’re nothing like her. Not that way.”
When Molly looks up, her gaze is cool, unemotional. “How do you know I’m not?”
“I knew your mother. I know you.”
“You think you do.” Molly shakes her head. “You thought I didn’t know what she did?”
When Robin finds her voice, she says, “Nobody knew. We told everybody it was an accident. Everybody.”
Molly bites at a hangnail. “Daddy told me.”
Robin can’t breathe. “He what?”
“He told me. I was visiting in St. Louis, the summer I was thirteen. I threw a tantrum and broke one of Claire’s precious vases. He got angry. He said I was going to be like my mother. He told me what she’d done and how she did it. And then he cried and said he was sorry. He was pathetic. I asked him what he was sorry for—for telling me? And he said no, he was sorry about her and about me. He made me promise not to tell you I knew.”
Molly gets up and crosses to the fireplace and stands with her back to Robin. Robin doesn’t know if she can believe her. She wants to call Paul, but he would probably lie.
“We tried to protect you,” Robin says.
Molly turns and faces her. “And you try to be my mother, but you’re not.” She takes a sip of her hot chocolate, sets it down. “Paul and I talked last night. Claire’s taken the girls and gone back to St. Louis. He says I can stay with him. For a while, at least.”
There’s a rushing in Robin’s head like wind. Claire, gone.
“I’m going. You can’t stop me.”
“I know that. I wouldn’t try. Just please tell me one thing. The pictures in your room— tell me why you tore them up.”
Molly looks beyond Robin at the dark window. “I wanted to be rid of her.”
Robin’s mind reels. “Why now, if you’ve known for two years?”
Molly shrugs. “At first, after Daddy told me, I’d take the pictures out and go through them. I tried to imagine what my mother would be like if she’d lived, but I couldn’t. I kept imagining what she did and how she took the baby with her.” Molly’s chin trembles. “Why didn’t she take me, too? Why, Robin?”
Molly crosses the room and stops in the doorway. “And you know what else? I don’t know if Daddy told me the truth. What I don’t understand is why you never did.”
Molly’s been at Paul’s a month when she calls Robin at two on a Saturday morning. “Come get me,” she says. “Daddy’s gone ballistic just because I came in late.”
“I can’t do that,” Robin says.
“What do you mean, you can’t?” Molly says.
Robin takes a deep breath. “You need to work things out with your dad.”
Robin hears Paul yell, “Give me that phone!” Then, “Hello? Who’s this?”
“It’s me, Paul. Molly called me.”
He sighs. “You don’t need to be mixed up in this. I’ll call you tomorrow.” But he doesn’t.
The Last Summer
David comes home for the summer and gets a job working in a restaurant kitchen, but he’s in and out of the house with his friends. He watches a movie with Robin occasionally, and he gives her a peck on the cheek when he leaves the house. Robin is happy for the extra cooking, the ringing phone, the music drifting down the stairs.
David asks her how Molly’s doing at Paul’s.
“I don’t know,” Robin says. “I don’t see her.” She’s peeling potatoes. She looks up. “It’s okay. That’s where she needs to be.”
“Huh,” he says.
In a couple of days, David tells Robin that Molly wants to have lunch. “How’s Thursday?” he says.
“With me? I doubt she wants to see me.”
He hugs her. “I’ll be there, Mom. It’ll be okay.”
Robin’s been waiting at the restaurant ten minutes when her cell phone rings.
“Hey,” David says. “Molly there yet? I tried her cell, and there’s no answer.”
“No, she’s not. Where are you?”
“I have to work the lunch shift. I can’t come.”
“Oh, David. You knew you couldn’t be here, didn’t you?”
“No, Mom. Honest. Tell Molly I’ll call her. Gotta go.”
Robin looks up and there’s Molly, standing in the entrance. Robin waves at her and Molly turns like she might bolt, but then she pulls out her cell phone, walks over, sits down, and fiddles with it for a full minute before she snaps it shut.
Robin says, “Hi, Molly. David’s—”
“Not coming. I know. I just got his text.” Molly cocks her head. “What do you think? Is this a setup to get us together?” She waggles her fingers in the air like a sorceress.
“I don’t know. Anyway, here we are. How are you?”
Molly rolls her eyes. “Claire’s back. Did you know that?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“But it’s okay. In fact, I sort of like her. She’s stylish, you know?”
So this is what lunch is going to be, Robin thinks, one sting after another. They order. They eat. Robin asks about school and gets yes and no answers.
Then Molly says, “I have to tell you something.” The emphasis on you.
“Oh? What’s that?”
“I’m going away to school in the fall. I thought I should be the one to tell you. No more secrets, right?” Molly looks expectant.
“If it’s what you want, Molly, I’m glad.” But Robin’s not sure it’s what Molly wants. It has Paul written all over it, or maybe Claire.
“I’m seeing a counselor. It’s one of Dad’s conditions for living with them. The guy’s actually pretty nice. I’m working through some stuff.”
Robin feels dull, stupid. Why can’t she come up with something to say?
Molly says, “I’m not in trouble. My grades are good. I just want to . . . go somewhere, you know? Away from here.” Molly looks at Robin, and for a moment her expression changes, and Robin sees the little girl hiding under the table, wondering where her dead mother was.
When they part, Molly hugs Robin tentatively. Robin sits in her car for a while before she can drive home. When David comes in late that night, she’s lying on the den couch in the dark.
“What’s wrong, Mom?” he says.
“Don’t turn on the light,” Robin says. “Sit.” He does, and as hard as it is, she tells him the whole story. When she’s done, she feels emptied, and oh so much lighter.
The middle of August, David goes back to college. Molly goes, too, to a boarding school in Virginia. Molly calls Robin to say goodbye. At least there’s that.
Robin wanders through the house. She goes in each child’s room (no longer children, any of them), dusts Carl’s sports trophies, straightens David’s books. It’s Molly’s room that’s lifeless. Robin is ashamed that she misses Molly most.
At night the empty rooms yawn dark and open like mouths. Robin closes all the doors. She turns on the TV for the noise. She sleeps little and forgets to shower. She stands in her studio and stares at an empty canvas.
She calls Carl. “I need to see you,” she says. “Is next weekend okay?” He says yes too quickly, and she wonders if David called him. No, she thinks. She’s the game player, not her sons.
Molly and Laurel
October. A letter from Molly postmarked Chatham, Virginia. Blank paper. A photograph of Laurel at the beach, holding two-year-old Molly. Sand like snow, water the color of topaz. Laurel’s smile, the visible swell of her belly. Robin’s sharp intake of breath, the rush of tears. On the back, in Laurel’s handwriting: July 1997. Underneath that, in Molly’s hand, “You should have this.”
A lifelong Mississippian, Gerry Wilson grew up in the red clay hills of the north. Her story, "Pieces," appeared in Prime Number 19 and in Prime Number Editors' Selections: Volume 2. Her work has also been published in Sabal: Best of the Workshops 2011, Good Housekeeping, Blue Crow, Halfway Down the Stairs, Arkansas Review, and Crescent Review. She’s been awarded writing residencies at the Ragdale Foundation and the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts. Gerry lives with her husband and a neurotic Siamese cat in Jackson, Mississippi.
Q: What can you tell you us about this story?
A: What happens if one’s life becomes a lie, no matter how well intentioned that lie is? That’s where “Book of Lies” comes from: a tragedy begets a lie that can’t be sustained.
Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?
A: The Missouri Review, Southeast Review, Bellingham Review, Poetry . . .
Q: What would your ideal writing day be?
A: I’d wake up with a breakthrough idea after I’ve been stuck for a while. The idea stays with me until I can write it down, and then everything flows from there. I work all day, and I’m not just shoving words around. This is good; it’s working. Somebody else cooks and brings me my meals, cleans up, does laundry, and takes away my Internet so I can’t check email or Facebook. Perfect.
Q: What’s happening outside your window right now?
A: Right now, it’s pouring rain. There’s a dove nesting in the ligustrum right off our deck. She has remained steadfast, even through a hailstorm last week, so we should have baby doves soon.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a couple of short stories in the works. I’ve also started a novel based on “Book of Lies.”
Swallow a Fish by Madeline Perett
Swallow a Fish
by Madeline Perett
Followed by Q&A
“I was drowning.”
It’s the middle of the night and my husband is sitting up in bed panting.
“There, there,” I say and pull him back down to his pillow. I rub his shoulder and kiss his neck. “It was just a dream,” I whisper.
“It was just a dream,” I say louder.
“You don’t have to yell.”
“Sorry,” I say and kiss his ear.
“It was really quiet,” my husband says. “I was in the middle of the ocean and I couldn’t hear a thing.”
“This reminds me of something.”
“And I couldn’t scream. I was deaf and mute and drowning.”
“I’ve heard this before.”
“It’s recurring, sweetie. It’s a recurring dream,” he says.
“I’d hate to be deaf.”
“I’d hate to die that way. Drowning.”
“I dated a deaf guy once.”
“Hmm? You never told me about that one,” he slurs, sleep in his voice.
“It didn’t end so well.”
He yawns. “Did he break your heart?”
“No. I ended it.”
I’m ready to tell him the story but he’s already falling asleep. “I was a bad person then.”
“Uh huh,” he says and turns on his side away from me.
His name was Daniel Cole. He was a regular guy except that he was deaf. He could read lips, but I had to talk clearly. I mumbled. I rarely looked someone in the eyes for more than five seconds. It bothered me. I have a gap in my front teeth and I’ve never embraced it, though others told me it was a unique characteristic to be proud of. I was uncomfortable with him always staring at my mouth, afraid that he saw only the gap and not the words.
I had developed an early habit of turning my face away to speak. I was shy, self-conscious, like my father. We both mumbled. My mother on the other hand was loud and confident and, like everyone else, never bothered to hear what I had to say. In the middle of a sentence I would trail off because I realized that what I was saying probably wasn’t important enough to be heard.
But then I met Daniel. I worked at a café downtown. He worked across the street at a Parks & Recreation site in Boston Common. He would walk into the café with so much confidence and look directly at me. I didn’t figure out he was deaf until he spoke. He said “How are you?” in that nasal voice so characteristic of deaf people.
The first time he came into the café, he appeared no different from any other guy. He was average and forgettable. He was white, a little shorter than me, and wore a Boston Red Sox hat. But when I discovered he was deaf, I scrutinized every detail about him. He was interesting, a creature to be studied.
He looked young. He had a baby face. But when he smiled, the deep creases of his forehead, his laugh lines, his crow’s feet, made him look his age. He always wore paint-splattered boots and worn, dusty jeans. His shirt always advertised a New England sports team.
Sometimes I would watch him at work. I could see him from where I was behind the counter in the café. There was another guy he worked with who appeared to be deaf or at least was fluent in sign language. I loved watching them converse. The animated facial expressions, the fluid hand movements, it was like an art. It was different; it was foreign.
He began to come in regularly.
I was overly nice to him, always smiling and locking eyes so he could understand me when I spoke. I also wanted him to see that I was not as mean as I appeared. The furrowed brows, the frown—that was my neutral face. My fake cheery voice was lost on him. He saw only my smiles and bright eyes. He was the one customer I acted kindly towards. I gave him pity, as if he needed it.
One day he came in, got his usual soda and sandwich, and said, “When we going out?”
“Me and you?” I said, pointing.
I hesitated, unsure if he was serious. I’d been fooled by other boys before and I assumed he wasn’t being sincere.
I used to believe that no guys liked me, and so I never played with them like other girls did. Once, in sixth grade, a boy I liked had sent me a note in class. He knew I had a crush because he caught me staring at him. His note had read, “Wanna date?” I had replied excitedly with a “Yes.” He’d sent it back saying, “I was just kidding.” That was one of the first cruel boyhood jokes I had fallen for. I did not understand the game, and it hurt me.
I finally replied, “Today?” I know he didn’t hear the uncertainty in my voice, only saw by my face, my raised brows, that it was a question. Maybe he thought I said it as confidently as he might have.
He said, “I’m off at four. You?”
“Five,” I said, holding up my fingers.
He took me to Doyle’s in Jamaica Plain. It was a quiet night. There was one other table of people across the room. We were seated at a booth and the high booth backs secluded us. I kept looking down at my placemat, rereading the same advertisements: “Sunshine Roofing. Got a pesky leak?”; “Fat Ram’s Pumpkin Tattoo: Boston’s Premier Custom Tattoo Studio.” Now that I was so close to him and in a somewhat intimate setting, I could no longer look him in the eyes. And I had no idea what to talk about.
We sat in silence for a while. He had ordered a beer and he was gripping the pint glass. He stared at the beer and then at me.
“The first time you came into the café, I made such a fool of myself,” I told him.
He smiled and was silent. I was afraid he hadn’t understood. But I continued.
“You were looking at the menu above my head and I asked if you needed help. You didn’t reply so I waved my arms to get your attention.”
He was smiling still and gripping that pint glass.
“That worked but you looked like you were ready to spit on me.”
He laughed and reached across the table to pat my hand. “It’s OK,” he said. His hand was cool and moist.
“I feel really bad about it now. It was so stupid.”
He squeezed my hand and said, “Don’t worry.”
He stayed holding my hand.
I asked him if he was born deaf. He said he was and that his parents were also deaf. He smiled at this. He was proud of this hereditary deafness.
When our food came, he devoured his burger in a matter of minutes while I picked at my quiche. He looked up from his plate and watched me eat as he ate his fries one at a time, chewing each one slowly.
“What kind of music you like?” he asked.
“Lots of different stuff.”
“I like rap,” he said.
I didn’t think to ask what music he listened to.
“If I play it loud enough,” he explained, “I can feel the vibrations. I can feel the bass.”
I nodded and took a bite of my quiche. “I like rap, R&B too, and some rock. But I like to read mostly. How about you? Do you like to read?”
He showed no sign of understanding. Then I realized I had been talking with my head down, talking to my plate.
“Do you like to read?” I asked, facing him this time.
He shrugged. “I want to read more. What do you read?”
He nodded. “I like you.”
I looked down at my placemat. “You’re very nice,” I told my plate. I remembered to look up. “I like you, too.”
“Tell me more about this deaf guy,” my husband says.
We’re at the grocery store in the produce aisle.
I pick up a bunch of grapes. “What do you want to know?”
“How did you two talk to each other?”
“The same way as you and me,” I say and put the grapes in our cart.
Communicating with Daniel was easier than I thought it would be. He was great at reading lips. And when we had a hard time understanding each other, we wrote in a notebook. I never had to talk if I didn’t want to, but I did, and I would sometimes talk a lot. He gave me so much attention, and I talked more with him than anyone else.
“He was a good listener,” I say.
My husband narrows his eyes. He’s holding an apple. “Is that a joke?”
“No, he really was.”
He was the only person who really listened to me. He was the only person who forced things out of me, pushed me to my limits. He asked me questions and compelled me to be honest in my answers. I used to lie all the time, not necessarily on purpose; it’s just that I didn’t always like what I had to say. Sometimes I wouldn’t say anything at all. Silence kills some people but what did that matter to Daniel, for that was all he knew.
I spent some time at Daniel’s apartment one rainy day. His apartment was messy but he didn’t seem to care. His roommate, who was also deaf, was home. Daniel introduced us, then his roommate disappeared into another room. We sat at the kitchen table across from each other. Sometimes, we would spend hours just staring at each other or touching. We would have a day only of sight and touch. He would stare into my eyes, then stare at my hands, holding them, then rest his hands on my knees.
This day, I put my hand on his cheek and stared at his lips. He had stubble from a day of not shaving and his lips were slightly chapped.
“What?” I said.
“You’re beautiful,” he said.
I should have been flattered. I should’ve said thank you. But instead I only stared back at him. I didn’t believe him. I had never been called beautiful—cute, pretty, maybe. But never beautiful. Not even my mother called me that. “You’re such a pretty girl,” she always told me. “When are you going to find yourself a nice guy?”
He waved a hand over his face and repeated, “Beautiful.”
“Is that how you sign it?” I asked.
He nodded and signed something else, wiggling a hooked index finger into the air. “Butterfly,” he explained, and then added, “You’re a butterfly.” And we both laughed. Then he signed “giraffe” and pointed at me again. He laughed a loud, honking laugh. He would sometimes joke around like that and tease me.
One prank he always pulled was pretending he couldn’t understand me, forcing me to repeat things over and over, making me write things down, and he would still not understand. I always fell for it. I was afraid to accuse him of his prank. Whenever he tricked me, he told me I swallowed a fish and signed the idiom, running his finger down his throat then wriggling his hand forward.
I’m going to give my husband a heart attack. We like to play this game where we try to scare each other. The first time was an accident; I get so easily startled. I was sitting in the office and didn’t hear him come in. When he put his hand on my shoulder I almost fell out of my chair.
“Sorry,” he said, smiling.
It’s like a game of tag. I scare him, and then he scares me. Tonight, I hear him in the kitchen as I’m coming in from work. It’s deathly quiet throughout the whole house. I creep to the kitchen doorway and wait. When he starts making a racket with the pots and pans I see my chance. I sneak up behind him and stand still as a statue. When he turns around he inhales a startled breath and says, “Jesus Christ!”
We’ve never had children; we probably never will. We’re both in our late 30s. I’m 37, he’s 39. It’s ridiculous, but we still feel like children ourselves.
He is laughing now and asks me, “Do you ever feel like an adult?”
“Sometimes,” I say. “Sure.”
“Yes. Don’t you?”
“No, never. Never ever.”
Daniel and I went to Macy’s one day to browse and wander around. We never had to do anything too exciting. He seemed to be happy just to be in my company and so was I with him. The store was neat and bright, not one thing out of place. He didn’t seem to fit in. He was wearing raggedy jeans and a dirty hat. I kept turning around, expecting to see a security guard following us but no one paid us any attention; not even the clerks offered their assistance.
I was trying on some perfume when I turned around to test it on him and he wasn’t standing next to me. He wasn’t anywhere in sight. How could he have snuck away so fast? I started to panic a little. I didn’t like this game. I was nearly an adult but really still a kid, only 20. I was afraid of so much.
Daniel grabbed me from behind and I almost let out a yelp. He laughed and I slapped him on the arm.
We went back to browsing and when he was looking at watches I decided to play his game. I backed away slowly and hid in a circular clothing rack. I used to love hiding in my parents’ closets behind all their clothes. It was always so quiet and safe. I used to imagine I was hiding from burglars and I would hold my breath so they couldn’t hear me. I peeked out of the clothing rack and watched Daniel. A woman pushed some clothes aside and startled when she saw me. We stared at each other for a moment, and then I put my finger to my lips and pointed to Daniel. She nodded and mustered a smile then walked to another rack. When Daniel noticed I was gone he looked upset. I felt bad hiding from him then. Why wasn’t it okay for me to play his silly games? I always pitied him. But then a smile spread across his face and I knew he was going to look for me. When he found me we decided to keep up this game. We used the entire store. Bathrooms were off limits. I found him in Kitchenware behind a Le Creuset display. He found me in the Children’s department amidst some baby shoes. He even hid in the lingerie department. It was my turn again to look for Daniel when a security guard approached me and said we had to buy something or get out.
“This isn’t a playground,” he said.
I found Daniel and told him it was time to go.
Boston was hit with a bad storm in early February that year when I was with Daniel. I was at his place when it started to snow. I told him it wouldn’t be a bad storm, just typical Boston hysteria, but that I should get going. He asked me to stay with him for the night. He hated to be alone; his roommate was staying at his girlfriend’s. I hadn’t spent the night with him yet. We’d been dating for almost a month.
He brought out a bottle of red wine after we ate dinner. We drank the whole bottle, then made our way to his bedroom. I felt good but my nerves killed the buzz. I sat at the edge of his bed while he undressed for me in the bright light. He was very hairy and rail thin. For a moment he left his hat on. He must’ve noticed me staring at his head because he snatched the hat off, then let out a drunken snicker. He turned off the lights and got into bed and undressed me, slowly.
He was confident. So I calmed down. We held each other and kissed for a while. Then he started to touch me all over. I tensed up a few times when his hands went below my waist. This was only my second time with a man. He got on top of me, and then he entered me. He was gentle. He was quiet. He kissed me intermittently. Then finally, almost simultaneously, we both started feeling it. Our breathing deepened. I muffled my sighs, but he was loud; he breathed out throaty prolonged moans as if he was in pain. When he came, he collapsed on me, breathing heavily into my neck, and said, “That was great.”
He looked at me with an expectant smile and I nodded. He rolled off me but held my hand. We stared up at the ceiling. I heard a snow plow go by outside and its lights cast a shadow of Daniel’s profile against the wall, and then it was dark again and very quiet. Daniel’s breathing grew softer and I knew he was asleep. I tried to block out all the sounds of the night as I imagined what it was like to be deaf. But then sirens burst through the silence and red lights flickered across the ceiling. I looked over at Daniel who was undisturbed and in a deep, peaceful sleep and I thanked God that I was given the gift of hearing.
My husband and I are at a reading by an Irish writer. The writer has an assistant, a woman with red hair. She sits in the front row, and I watch her as he reads. She seems as enraptured as the rest of us. At one point, he refers to her as his “beautiful assistant.” She laughs and leans away from him; a curtain of her red hair falls over her face. He has a slight Irish accent, nothing indecipherable or distracting. He is easy going. The excerpt he’s reading is very interesting but I’m in danger of being lulled to sleep by his Irish lilt.
After the reading, my husband tells me, “That old guy over there fell asleep.” I laugh behind my hands, then take my book to get signed.
His assistant stands next to him and looks over his shoulder at every book he signs. She smiles slightly at every flourish of his pen. I think, She loves him. She thinks he’s perfect, every last word he’s ever spoken and written is perfect. I understand how she feels. I felt that way about every guy I dated, at least in the beginning. I feel that way about my husband. I felt that way about Daniel Cole.
I can’t say that everything about him was great. That would certainly be a lie. I’ve made him sound much better-spoken than he was. In reality, his sentences were broken and he mispronounced words. But I was able to decipher what he said and sometimes I just filled in the blanks. It was easy for me to ignore his imperfections.
Once, when we were communicating through notebook pages, I wrote, “Why don’t you get a cochlear implant?”
“I don’t need one,” he wrote back.
“But it could be so good for you.”
He banged his fist on the table and yelled, “I’m happy the way I am!”
I flinched. I don’t know why. It wasn’t that I was afraid he’d hit me. I knew he wouldn’t. I was afraid of his words and the anger in his voice.
I still have those notebooks. There are several of them. I looked through them recently and saw how broken some of his sentences were. The words were all there but they were sometimes out of order. “Sound you happy,” he wrote once. “What do you will?” I had to reread it several times before I could understand: “You sound happy. What will you do?” I can’t remember now what we had been talking about.
The Irish author is signing my book. I tell him my name and can think of nothing else to say except, “I like your accent.”
He smiles and hands me my book. My husband is laughing beside me.
As we’re leaving, I open the book to read the inscription: “All best wishes. Many thanks.”
“He spelled your name wrong,” my husband says. “Also, he left the ‘s’ off ‘thanks.’”
I read it again: “Many thank.” It looks like an unfinished thought.
One day, Daniel and I decided to go to the New England Aquarium. I always chose simple activities that he would enjoy and benefit from. The Aquarium was very visual. I didn’t realize I was treating him like a child.
We decided to take the train. But I was slightly embarrassed by him. He always had a hard time knowing how loud he should talk because he couldn’t gauge the train’s sounds. He didn’t know if the train was rumbling over his voice, so he was almost yelling as he spoke to me.
I overheard some kids sitting only a few seats away.
“That dude retarded?” one said.
“Hear the way he’s talking?”
Daniel saw me looking and turned to the kids.
One of them said, “Retard,” then looked away and cackled.
I hoped he hadn’t seen it. He turned back to me and asked, “What are they saying?”
“Nothing,” I told him.
We were quiet the rest of the way to the Aquarium.
When we got there, I pointed at things and smiled dumbly at him. On the ramp by the right whale skeleton, I watched him read the information plaque. He mouthed each word, and I saw him stumbling over some phrases. He stopped in midsentence and looked at me. He wasn’t happy. I raised my eyebrows in question.
“What were those kids saying?” he asked.
“What kids?” I said, looking around.
He gave me a stern look and said, “I saw one of them say ‘retard.’”
I was guilty. Blood rushed to my face. My heart thudded in my ears. I felt wrong because I said nothing to those kids. I guess I could’ve told them off. I could’ve told them he was deaf and that they shouldn’t have treated him any differently. But I didn’t think of it. And I was not brave enough.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Years ago. I was. . . twelve. Walking home. Some kids pushed me. Called me retard.” He looked at me. He opened his mouth as if to say something else. He was struggling to find words. Then he started signing, quickly and fluidly.
He pulled words out of the air without pause. I don’t know what he said. He never explained. By his facial expressions, I knew he wasn’t just angry. He was disgusted. He was so beautiful in that moment. He had found places for himself in both worlds—the hearing and deaf community. But this was where he was most comfortable. ASL was his first language, his mother tongue.
He stopped abruptly, then walked away up the ramp, into the black lights, his white shirt glowing a bright, scary blue. I followed after him, leaving the right whale skeleton swimming in midair.
Even after we had stopped dating and I stopped working at the café, I used to hope to see him in random places. Because he looked like any other guy, I would see him in every man’s face. I’d look for guys wearing Red Sox hats and ratty clothes. If I noticed two deaf people conversing, I’d look to see if he was one of them. I’d be on the train and see quick hand movements out of the corner of my eye, then stare at the person signing.
One day I did see him. I was sure it was him. He was looking around, probably hoping to see someone he knew. His face was open, like always. He probably would have been glad to see me but I did not stop for him. He had put his head down for a moment. I hoped he wouldn’t notice me but sometimes you grow familiar with every aspect of a person, his walk, his voice, how he carries himself, the kinds of clothes he wears, recognizing all these things in a split second out of the corner of your eye. I thought he might recognize my steps. I thought momentarily of disguising my walk, but I didn’t. Instead, I rushed by, staring straight ahead, never knowing if he looked up and saw me and thought to stop me. But perhaps he was playing the same trick that I was.
Later that night, after our trip to the Aquarium, I talked to him while he slept.
“You’re a good person,” I told him. “You’re very special.”
He stirred and woke as if he heard me, then turned over so I was talking to the back of his head. The shades were up and the moonlight shone on his bald spot. He was only twenty-six then but already going bald. It’s why he always wore a hat.
“You’re very different,” I told the back of his head. “You don’t seem to care that you’re deaf. You’re so happy. And comfortable with yourself. There’s something that makes you better than me. I’m missing something very important. I can’t be with you.”
I knew I would have to lie to him because I couldn’t give him the real reason why I didn’t want to be with him. I was incredibly self-conscious but even more conscious of who he was. I was going to lie to him and I had to make him believe it. I didn’t know what I was going to tell him but I had to believe it myself. I could never trick him. He could always tell when I was trying to play a joke. He must’ve picked up on the ticks of my face. He was amazingly observant. He was smart.
“You’re so cool, so bright,” I slurred out, drifting to sleep, those ridiculous last words lingering in my subconscious as I dreamed of ways that I could break his heart.
Madeline Perett is a graduate of the creative writing program at UMass Boston. She lives in Boston where she works at a bookstore downtown. This is her first time being published.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: There actually is a deaf guy who works at a Parks and Rec site in Boston Common across from where I work. I don’t know him personally and have interacted with him only a few times. But it was enough to kick start the story. Of course I had to do some research on deaf culture so I could make Daniel a convincing character.
Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?
A: Glimmer Train. Before I had any idea of where to look for a good literary magazine, one of my professors gave me a copy of Glimmer Train. There are so many magazines out there. So what I end up doing is going for anthologies, like the Best American series and any collection by The Paris Review.
Q: What would your ideal writing day be?
A: I think I’m an afternoon/evening writer. I don’t always have my wits about me in the morning. So I’d have to do something productive during the day to wake up my brain, whether it be working or doing chores at home. After that, I’d still have energy to burn. But first I would relax and collect my thoughts. Then I would get down to business and write through the night.
Q: What’s happening outside your window right now?
A: There are some people walking by, some cars driving by. It rained earlier so the ground is wet but the clouds are clearing. I hear sirens in the distance.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A story inspired by my grandmother who passed away several years ago. It’s still in its early stages so I don’t have much to say about it right now.
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. But this quarter we have selected two: "The Night I Said I Was Leaving" by Patricia Ann McNair and "Dredge" by Brad Efford.
The Night I Said I Was Leaving
by Patricia Ann McNair
He stole my shoes. In the silver dawn on my way home from the club, I saw him in the weeds near the road. I slowed the truck, but he didn’t turn around. He hurled a shoe into the field, wiped his face, hurled another. “Last call!” He yelled at the sinking moon.
Patricia Ann McNair is a professor in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago, where she received a nomination for the Carnegie Foundation’s US Professor of the Year. McNair’s collection of short stories, The Temple of Air, has received a number of honors, among them the winner of The Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year, Southern Illinois University’s Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award and the Society of Midland Authors Finalist Award. www.PatriciaAnnMcNair.com
by Brad Efford
They pulled the boy from the river, heavy as the sadness of death, sorrow of mystery, of not knowing where to look for answers.
That night, busy animal sounds of police-work through the phone line—and there again the officer’s voice, cracking, a rough stone dredged from the muddy pocket of a creekbed.
Brad Efford was a finalist for Shenandoah's 2012 Graybeal-Gowen Prize for Virginia Poets. His work can be found or is forthcoming in Juked, Monkeybicycle,The Fiddleback, The Monongahela Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Roanoke, VA, where he's an MFA candidate at Hollins University. Find more of him at http://bradefford.tumblr.com.
The Water Guy by S. Justin Platt
Followed by Q&A
One day, one of their number would write a book about all this, but none of them would believe it, because none of them would remember it that way.
-James Jones, from Thin Red Line, 1962
This story is true, to paraphrase Tim O’Brien, but I’m not telling a war story.
For more than a few months, he’s been in my life. I pass him crouching under the almond trees, squatting with legs of iron gained from years spent pretending to be humble. Lower to the ground than I could go, he smiles an unbelievably bright, big-toothed smile for someone with such a small head. His name is Yazim. I anglicize it here through my own ignorance, not out of disrespect. His family name could be Gul or Sabari, or Wardak—any number of proud Pashto names here in Afghanistan’s east—but I don’t know it and never will. I simply know him as the water guy. We know each other by face. We greet each other through nods. I’m only half kidding about his humility.
Wrapped in the traditional clothes of a devout Muslim, Yazim executes his daily task with precision. He gives us life. His task? Deliver water, and lots of it. Pallets upon pallets of shrink-wrapped bottled water arrive daily to the Forward Operating Base near Khost by air and ground, and Yazim is there to greet them like relatives he expects but isn’t thrilled to see. Yazims throughout Afghanistan perform the water unloading ritual daily, as regularly as their prayers. Whether it’s Kinsley or Cristal, controlling interests of each company ultimately owned by European or American companies, he unloads the pallets from the truck by hand, stacking the 12-bottle cases in their covered shanties without prejudice. The Khost area is mostly desert, so clean drinking water is precious, though you’d never know by the abundance of plastic bottles available at water stations located everywhere inside the perimeter wire. A hallmark of the U.S. military is its ability to turn a square of desert into a fully-functioning base in a matter of months, and create a mini American-style city that offers a secure, sustainable environment from which to wage peace. But we need water. We need Yazim.
Not to oversell his physical importance, he’s one in a long line of day laborers under contact from companies like Fluor or KBR to do the tasks we won’t. He is replaceable, but our combat power is precious. Too precious to squander on some of the routine tasks associated with sustainment. At larger bases, we want entry control point guards and tower guards. We want quick reaction forces. We need staff for our operations centers. We can’t spare anyone. We don’t think about water. Yet almost unnaturally, I think about Yazim and those like him every day. In my career so far, I can count on one hand the times military logistics have failed me in a way that meant failure of my mission. I don’t even have to put up all my fingers or my thumb. The U.S. Army has an incredible ability to safely conduct missions anytime, anywhere, and with sufficient logistics in tow. Give us long enough and we’ll make our temporary houses (permanent) homes.
Part of making ourselves at home is a willingness to accept that we don’t know everything. Afghans like Yazim understand our challenges with operating as guests in their culture, and understand, too, we must be sincere and humble to succeed. Humility is a well-regarded trait, so when we screw up we must ask properly for forgiveness. Under tenets of the Pashtunwahli code, the wronged party must give it and there can be no revenge. Sincere requests for forgiveness are essential for earning trust in Afghan culture. As soldiers, we can’t just talk the talk. Lip service is easily dismissed by an intent stare from a weathered face. We must act, because asking forgiveness in the Pashtun way takes courage.
I have seen an Army lieutenant colonel struggle to load a grown sheep into a waiting Blackhawk helicopter. He was on his way to conduct a condolence shura (meeting with local elders) and offer the community livestock as part of the appropriate forgiveness ritual for an accidental death caused by military action. I have also seen a hardened infantry platoon sergeant break down in tears. He had gone to make hero payments to the families of our Afghan National Security Force partners killed by insurgents while in the line of duty. I have also seen a gracious general officer wear native garb, eat local cuisine, and drink chai until the pot was empty. He had gone to seek an immediate solution to a long-term problem. But these acts are essential. They’re all part of the necessary humility that grounds the five-thousand-year-old culture of Afghanistan’s eastern tribes. Humility is all around, more noticeable than I remember in the places I consider part of my America. Perhaps too, Yazim and his countrymen’s humility is progress of a parallel kind.
Walking back from the base mess hall one evening, a fellow staff officer and I were discussing how to measure our progress. Both of us had been beaten down by the endless questions from higher headquarters imploring us to show demonstrable progress on key issues by using a combination of PowerPoint slides, buzzwords, and pretty pictures. Our route back to the office took us past a construction zone. The same group of local workers we passed twice a day was resting on top of the scaffolding, chatting excitedly in Pashto as their supervisors stood on the ground with hard hats and clipboards gesturing skyward. As we entered the security gate to our compound, my friend pointed to the half-erected building, the future brigade conference center.
“See that, man. That’s it. That’s how we do it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Just like that. No real power tools, just hard work, all by hand. That’s progress, man. At the end of the day it’s something you can touch.”
Not wanting to get too abstract, I agreed with him. I have always enjoyed working on large projects like decks, patios, additions, and even building small boats, and this was a feeling I recognized. Manual labor requires humility, but the trade-off is satisfaction in a job well done. To be a craftsman is an honorable designation and the local workers were nothing if not proud, sitting on top of the newly-completed brick wall and sipping their bottled water. They smiled like Yazim, bright white teeth standing in contrast to the darkness of their beards, skin, and hair. They waved. We waved back.
“There is something to be said about manual labor. It’s hard, but it’s fulfilling,” I said.
“You know, I’d like to do that. Maybe I can just walk out of the ops center for a few hours and help them build. At least they wouldn’t yell at me when I point to that building and say ‘there’s your progress—right there.’”
One of my favorite poets, Carl Sandburg, creatively narrates how progress is a rallying cry for a growing nation. A socialist until his dying days, Sandburg often wrote of the grief, struggle, and triumph of the people who built America. His first poetic backdrop, Chicago, was also my first experience with progress and modernity I hadn’t yet discovered in my small Midwestern town. Growing up about 50 miles east of downtown lent itself to frequent family trips to its museums, zoos, and ballparks. Every time we drove the Chicago Skyway in my dad’s brown Buick Park Avenue, I invented stories about the skyscrapers before me. How did they get there? When? Did they use cranes? Helicopters? How many people did it take to build something that could touch the clouds? My sisters and I competed to be first to discover the giant structures emerging from the haze and smoke of Gary, East Chicago, and Whiting by climbing over each other for a better view through the windshield. This was, of course, in the time before mandatory seatbelt laws.
Building (an) Afghanistan is hardly the same, but the dedication of the workers building our conference center by hand reflects Sandburg’s words, penned almost a hundred years earlier in a growing city on the shores of Lake Michigan. My mother introduced me to Sandburg’s poetry accidentally by leaving a volume of his first collection Chicago Poems in the lift-top of the old school desk we used as a phone table. Appearing in this collection, his poem “Chicago” speaks of the city’s population as a living force and engine of change:
Under the smoke, dust all over his
mouth, laughing with
white teeth, Under the terrible burden
of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse,
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
But Chicago is far from Khost spiritually, culturally, and physically. I don’t pretend to ascribe motives of a dead Midwestern poet to the Afghan contract workers, but I can’t help but think their hard work similarly ties them to their land. The Pashtuns will endure. They will celebrate and they will laugh. Maybe a talib among them will return years after we’re gone and point out to his sons the work he created. Together they’ll laugh about the American’s brief stint in their land. They’ll smile at the ridiculous monument left to mark our time, now part of their land once again. They’ll know their humility and patience delivered this building, inshallah. Today as I pass, however, I am ignorant.
After only a moment of stares, we move by the workers and continue to the headquarters building. I hadn’t really paid too much attention to the men and their attitudes before. They looked satisfied. They were proud. Now, as the setting sun silhouetted them against the day’s progress, I thought of what it took them to construct the building. There were no motorized lifts—bricks were thrown upward to the masons who quickly set them into place. Concrete was mixed by hand with jugs of water, filled from the well tap several hundred meters away, and raised by rope to waiting forms. No electricity. No power tools—simply sweat and muscle. I would never know if there were complaints; I would only know them by their progress. A new conference building was sure to be standing ready for occupancy later in the fall. My admiring stare partly validated their accomplishment. They were not too proud to work hard at the repetitive task of laying bricks. I’m sure they were often thought backward by many who passed, smirking about their lack of machinery. But in the end, they won. They had something tangible and I was a bit envious. I combed by thoughts, attempting to reconcile my envy by telling myself I, too, have achieved, am achieving, and will be capable of achieving progress like this. But for me, it never came naturally.
Sometime in the summer of 1987 I failed as a farmhand. My parents took me to meet distant relatives in Ohio. I have always been impressed with my mom’s ability to recall the history of kin long gone, hardly seen, dead, or improbably related in a way that would frustrate even a professional genealogist. The Mayers were just such relatives. True, these relatives weren’t so distant. They were my mom’s aunt and uncle, unassuming farmers in southern Ohio. Devoid of pretenses, they were who they appeared. Farmers. Lutherans. Buckeye fans.
We traveled by car to the growing regions bounded by the Scioto, Muskingum and Ohio rivers, smug in their blessings of black dirt, plentiful water, and predictable growing seasons. As a teenager and a city kid my experience with rural agricultural was limited. Nonexistent, in fact. Farms were just farms. Food came from the grocery store. Vegetables were chores to eat, not to raise. Cows were for tipping. I scoffed at going out to the country under the guise of a family reunion. I had friends who quite possibly would die if I was gone for a week and didn’t see them. Lengthy car trip aside, the excursion to the farm wasn’t high on my list of pleasurable activities. True, I came from a farming state, one which many used as the butt of jokes, but at least I was better than them. I didn’t live anywhere where I could smell manure.
It wasn’t more than fifteen minutes after we arrived that my mother announced we weren’t just staying for the weekend, rather we were going to be guests of the Mayer family for a whole week. My father, the lucky man, had to return to work on Monday, but he would be back the following Friday to collect us. Joy. What to do on a farm? I thought porch swings. Starry nights, and crickets. I thought rides. Hayrides, horse rides, tractor rides. I thought big meals and boredom. What I got was quite different. I got sore muscles and a bruised ego.
What my mother failed to tell me was that in their old age, Wally and Ruth, her uncle and aunt, had taken it easy. They were only farming for feed to support their dairy herd, on a scant 1,300 acres. The Mayers had leased out the rest of their land to other members of German-Lutheran community, mostly children of second-generation immigrants, many of whom were reluctant farmers themselves. But they were farmers nonetheless, and farmers need people. Farms need “hands.” Hands is a bit of an understatement, because it takes much more than a few hands to haul, and pick, and till, and irrigate, and fertilize. I was to be one of the hands detailed to help another family work their lease.
Though I wasn’t present in the adults-only kitchen discussion that occurred shortly after our arrival, I imagine it went something like this:
“The whole week, why Kathleen, bless the Lord, how fortunate. We’ll let the Meirs and the Meyers and the Meijers know. I’m sure the congregation will want to do something too,” the aunt might have said.
“Oh yes, if you’ll have us. The timing’s just right. Steve’s in court all week, and with the kids out of school, you know,” my mother would have said.
“How old is that boy of yours now?”
“Old enough—he’s a teenager. He needs the exercise. Football tryouts are coming up again in a few weeks,” my mother would have said.
“You know Wally played too, for Concordia, of course, but that was before the war. Your cousins too. So it’s settled.”
“Oh yes, he’ll have so much fun,” my mother would have rationalized. “ Just think of it, working with those college kids.”
And that’s how I got calluses and prickly heat.
There’s early, then there’s farm early. Farm early, akin to military early, means that you are ready to work before the sun comes up, not merely awake. When a relative came to wake me at four a.m., I remember almost falling down the narrow, poorly-lit stairs from my cot, tucked high up in a converted corner of the farmhouse attic. I brushed, shaved, showered and came into the kitchen. There, looking back at me, was the day’s crew of hands, all intently staring at the pale city kid over their half-empty coffee cups. Was I late? It wasn’t even half past four. After a brief introduction around a room filled with Marks and Johns, and Matthews, all good biblical names well matched to their protestant work ethic, we set off in the pickup, followed by the tractor, bailing machine, and a large white crew-cab pulling the hay wagon. It was still dark.
Essential things farmers don’t tell city kids bailing hay: wear long sleeves, preferably flannel; carry two bandanas—one to cover your mouth and nose, and one to wipe away sweat; use waterproof sunscreen; use leather gloves. Obviously, I’d forgotten to do these and before the sun was over the trees I knew it was going to be an uncomfortable day. Through the grace by which they’d been indoctrinated, the farm crew managed to get me a long sleeve shirt and an extra bandana. I was on my own for the rest, and ill-equipped to make it through the ocean of hay to the paved road, our goal for the day.
Somewhere between the lessons on what to do if the wagon tips over and how to position your body to avoid losing necessary appendages, I grasped the seriousness of the task before me. I was now fully-awake. I never knew hay was such a serious and dangerous business. The position I drew in the crew was one of the pickers. I would slowly walk behind the bailing machine and use a set of steel hooks (which looked more like medieval torture devices than farm tools) to pick the bound bale and walk it to the wagon. Simple enough tasks. Bend. Hook. Jerk. Carry. Lift. Drop. Repeat about 3,000 times in 13 hours. I didn’t know a bale of mostly dry feed hay weighs more than 60 pounds.
When we had filled the wagon, one of the Matthews said it was time to go in. Awesome, I thought. We’ve only worked eight hours so far. Not too bad. I could get back early enough to try the farm things I read about like swimming in the pond and whittling on the porch swing. My mom would be happy that I got to do “real” farm work. I would have a good story to tell my friends on Friday about how cool it was to pretend to farm for a few hours. I forgot about the unloading.
When ancient Scottish farmers dug small covered pits into the earth to store their winter feed, they were on to something. The grains were gathered in whole stalks and bound tightly. Vegetables were picked and wrapped in sacks. The farmers knew gravity was on their side, as they lowered the harvest into the ground for safe keeping. Somehow, over the centuries, this practical knowledge had been lost by the agrarian community. Today, American barns are tall, imposing structures that serve as both work spaces and storage areas. While this is a good technological development in terms of usability, it is a bad idea in terms of labor efficiency. As romantic as the fantasy of a good old roll in the hay may be to many of us, I guarantee spending the better part of an afternoon and evening loading bale after bale into a hay loft, against gravity, will disabuse you of that notion quickly. The real purpose of an American-style two story barn with a hay loft is not storage capacity, but torture.
We arrived back at the hay barn and began to unload the wagon, now setting heavily on its springs and leaning precariously to the left. Out of nowhere, an older, stout farmer whom I hadn’t yet met appeared in front of the wagon with an automatic hay elevator. This contraption resembled a conveyor belt mounted on the back of a tractor, tall enough to reach the second story of the barn. Somehow, like a life-sized Tetris puzzle, we were to take every bale and load them into the half-full loft. “Stack ‘em to the rafters, boys” was the older man’s call. Easy for him to say. He was sitting on a stool running the machine. Of course, I was in the hay loft, sweating under the oppressive heat caused by summer, humidity, lack of ventilation, and thousands of drying bales.
For almost six more hours I hooked and jerked bales off the conveyor under close supervision of the oldest member of the team, stacking as I had been instructed. Like the bailer, the conveyor was rumored to eat hands and fingers of the unaware or uncoordinated who came too close. I kept my distance, preferring to take the bales as they fell from the end instead of following the others who deftly pick the moving rectangles from the belt, all the while talking about girls. By the time we finished, I itched all over. My bandana, long since filled with hay particles and sweat, rode low on my neck. All I wanted to do was take a shower and collapse in my bed. The corn would still be there in the morning. So would the porch swing. The pond could wait. Friday couldn’t come soon enough. Perhaps neither my memory nor my math is accurate, but I think I lifted, pushed, struggled with, and dropped about 40 tons of hay that day. The next morning I couldn’t move my arms or shoulders enough to get out of bed. That was my one and only day as a farmhand.
Here is not the part where I insist I had an epiphany about the values of honest work and manual labor. That wouldn’t come until decades later when I was digging my rollover pit in a firebase, preparing for the eventuality of incoming mortar fire. This is not the part where I claim that the work was hard but I overcame adversity and completed the task. That wouldn’t come until years later when I almost didn’t graduate West Point because a knee surgery hindered my ability to pass a physical fitness test. This is not the part where I claim the work got me in touch with my spirituality. That wouldn’t come until hours later, when I was lying on my cot in the attic, staring at the cobwebs until I fell asleep. But after my farm experience, I was proud. Exhausted. Happy. I had succeeded at the work at which I scoffed. Baled hay was in the loft. A field was mown clean, standing ready for the late summer planting. I accomplished something tangible.
I learned not to overlook the simplest task of picking up hay. It was a monotonous and repetitive task. It needed to be done correctly each time, and I did it. Surprisingly, the plainness of the harvest process gave me joy. I was satisfied. When I meet Yazim’s smile again as I write this, he seems to have figured this out, too. For every nod we share, I understand a bit more about him. Though his task is simple and repetitive, he’s not. He hides the complexity of his life behind green eyes. He hides circumstances and places that I won’t ever discover because I’m not meant to. He smiles and squats, perhaps feeling sympathy for me and the complexities both of my life and my government that have brought me here to pass him each morning. His smile isn’t one of guilt but of a contentment I wish I could patent.
A few weeks after the workers completed the roof of the conference center, I noticed Yazim wasn’t unloading water as he should be. For the next few days, I looked for him all along the gravel path running between the mosque and the basketball court, never going out of my way mind you, but looking out of curiosity. Part of my routine was missing. I missed the smile and nod. I was proud that I had made a “friend” in this country. I had someone who recognized me and I him, even if mutual gesturing was the extent of our friendship.
There was now a taller, less timid man doing Yazim’s job. Another water guy. His eyes weren’t as kind as Yazim’s and he looked a bit sad. He performed the unwrapping and stacking as efficiently and productively as Yazim had done. Nothing seemed to be out of place. After more than a month had passed, I finally approached the water crew supervisor, a short, hairy Pakistani with dark glasses and a large belly. I asked after Yazim. He feigned ignorance, muttering something, and put his hands up as if to say “I don’t know. I don’t care. Why are you bothering me?” all in one oddly mechanical motion.
His shrug confirmed what I have suspected. There’s always another Yazim. Did he quit? Take a higher-paying job in Dubai or United Arab Emirates? Is he working elsewhere on the base? Is he dead? People disappear here all the time. Yazim and a hundred thousand other fathers, brothers, sons, and grandfathers run an incredible risk working as contractors for American and NATO forces. In the reality of a country in a continual state of conflict all of my questions seem possible. Ultimately, the best I can hope for is he and his smile simply went away.
I won’t ever see Yazim again, but he’s given me faith enough to know we will always have enough to drink, especially if we do what we should.
S. Justin Platt has nurtured his love of reading and writing while serving as an Army officer in various worldwide assignments. As an assistant professor at the United States Military Academy, West Point, he has taught Composition and Literature. Now assigned to the Pentagon, he continues to edit his collection of personal essays written during his recent deployment to Afghanistan. He and his family live in Northern Virginia.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: It took two years. I composed and revised the first draft in a month of Sundays, writing when I wasn’t on duty. I continued to revise almost monthly from then on, up until a few days before I submitted it. I have several versions now, each offering a unique voice.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I’m truly a Bird by Bird writer. Anne Lamont’s advice about “down” and “up” drafts has been helpful for me, because I’m reminded I have to just get something down for the creative process to begin. There’s always time to fix up the piece—it’s important to me that my writing and memories last a lifetime, so I’m committed to the process.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Carl Sandburg’s poetry, namely Chicago Poems and The People, Yes have inspired me; these are America’s true tales, imagined well. Atlas Shrugged remains one of my favorite novels, though I’m partial to Jonathan Franzen’s sardonic grasp of the everyday. Katrina Kennison’s The Gift of an Ordinary Day moves me to tears.
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 wrote this essay in a plywood and canvass C-hut overlooking an orange grove, with distant views of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush range. At home, my writing space is my desk and laptop. I’m not a café composer.
The Closet by Judith Barrington
Followed by Q&A
Lorca said “to burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves.” I recognize this punishment. But did I do it to myself or was it done to me?
In my mid-twenties, I’d still never heard of anyone living an openly gay life and there was plenty to be afraid of. Family and friends threatened rejection without having to say a word, decent people were ready to shun me, and the bad end that perverts always came to in the stories of the time was waiting to grab me. There’s that. And then there’s this: I deceived everyone I knew. The honorable schoolgirl who had always dropped her pennies into the “uncollected fares” box transformed herself into a liar.
There are times when I can only see the schemer and other times when I am simply a victim; it’s almost impossible to bring them together in a tidy bundle. And there’s a third piece to this puzzle: wasn’t I also the young woman who was willing to listen to burning desire and find a way to keep it alive? My heart refused to be silenced. Put that on the scales too.
The closet as an expression is threadbare these days. Closet soap opera fans, closet Pepsi drinkers, closet shoppers—they all conjure up a vague sense of hiding. Yet my closet was about much more than hiding. Sure, I skulked around when lighting up my most incendiary lesbian moments, but the closet is about what goes on inside—inside the human, not the cupboard.
When I try to describe it, I shy away from recollections of desperation and from the rotten smell of my own dishonesty. Instead of looking inward, I find myself summoning up the large, ornate wardrobe next to the bed in my first rented room: curlicues, carved wooden roses, ill-fitting doors with hanging latches. I invoke lesbians and gay men huddled, a long, long time ago, in a dark box with musty overcoats and moth-eaten tweed trousers. Or I remember the game where, as children, my friends and I would fan out through someone’s big, old house and squeeze ourselves into narrow spaces between bookshelves, creep underneath beds and pull the bedspreads down in front of our tightly closed eyes. Waiting was the name of that game. Waiting to be discovered.
But I wasn’t playing a game and couldn’t allow myself to imagine being found out. My terror wasn’t a metaphor; it was alive and inseparable from my infatuation with women—an integral part of the lovely thing, the soft, perfect thing. That was Lorca’s “punishment:” to live with love and fear so thoroughly intertwined that it would take decades to unravel them.
It’s the terror that breeds deceit, though at the time it doesn’t feel like lying. I refused to think of either of my two separate lives as untrue; instead, lifting the dusky, opaque veil that hung between them and ducking under it, I slid easily from scene to scene.
It’s the infatuation that pumps the blood and keeps the energy flowing. And never doubt that it takes a whole lot of energy to maintain parallel lives. My old diaries record that I drove 80 miles at night after work to a party where I met a boyfriend who did, or did not, believe in me as a likely girl. On the way back, fairly drunk and skidding around the tight turns on the motorway, I found myself planning where to find a phone box: that other life—the lesbian one that I never thought of in those words—had started tugging at me, demanding contact, endearments, a desperate plea for a night together somewhere. It was the infatuation, too, that taught me high-level organization: a trip through France with a plausible explanation; an overnight stay while a husband was away on business. Not exactly lying I tell myself, since I believed my own lies, which was surely pretty close to not lying.
Edmund White called this dual life “essence versus existence.” Essence was simple: I felt, thought, lusted and loved as the lesbian I was. Existence was the problem. It involved being careful with words—especially pronouns, dressing and acting in a way that disguised the essence, and trying to love people of the wrong gender—wrong, that is, for me. This existence felt like walking around with a sack on my back filled with waterlogged clay so heavy that I couldn’t even lift my head to look anyone in the eye. Gray water dripped from it until my back and legs were sodden; then it congealed and hardened, forming a kind of shell. True to my astrological sign, I became a crab.
Before I started hiding, I had been given only to minor deceptions of the kind a teenager cooks up to go to a rock’n roll concert her parents disapprove of. At twelve, I had lied to the hospital when I’d gone in with a fractured arm, my story about the bicycle accident a fiction designed to protect the boy who had actually caused it, but even then I’d been prone to such pangs of conscience that I’d woken up in the middle of the night and confessed the truth to my mother. As I moved into the secret life, the burden of deception was no less difficult to bear, but I no longer had a mother nor the courage to confess. The effort it took to hide in plain sight marked me for life.
Both the faces I presented to the world felt like fictions, but neither one exactly fit. While I operated in the commonplace, normal world of work and boyfriends, the life in which perversion lurked was the fiction. But when I was with Sophia, I knew that pretending to be normal was by far the greater invention; it was so hard to pull off that furiously heterosexual act. I picked up salesmen on planes or took off clothing for beer-bellied journalists whose names I was never able to remember later, even though one was quite famous. For years after the quick gropes, I noticed his byline—much more exciting than his novel approach to sex, which, as I dimly recall, involved hauling me to the very edge of his bed while he crawled around on the floor, popping up and down in the vicinity of my legs.
Somewhere in there, I got engaged to a man I met on a flight to Scotland. There was a small ring and a notice in the paper, which appalled my family since neither they nor I knew anything at all about him. It became clear later when I could actually think again, that I couldn’t picture doing anything with him—not even a week’s holiday, much less a house with the two of us in it. He appeared to have no family and no friends, though I wonder now if this was simply because he might have been already married. When he took me to Danny LaRue’s gay cabaret, I wore a glamorous wig; maybe he liked cross-dressers and recognized me as one of them in my coarse ash-blond topknot and pale gray chiffon trouser suit that resembled pajamas.
Some of the boyfriends who populated my faux-hetero life were sweet and trusting. Giles, for example, took my emotional absence to be a natural response to my parents’ recent deaths. Others, though, fluttered around me sensing I was a bit of a perv. Like the fiancé who was into transvestites, they were intrigued by something about me—something I had no idea they were picking up on, as indeed I didn’t pick up on it myself. With Bruce, it might have been his own gayness, though he fixated on the lure of mine, without either of us knowing it; with Martin, perhaps he was rising to the sexual challenge I presented: unlike most of them, he studied up on female anatomy. But I was always far away in my other life, even while we trod carefully across the dance floor in one another’s arms.
My parents had clung to the respectable side of our hometown, although I picked up that Brighton had a somewhat vulgar reputation. Music hall jokes and stories of illicit weekends (nudge nudge, wink wink) invariably took place where I lived as a child, but were delicately ignored by Ma and Pa. What I didn’t know, and wouldn’t find out for decades, was that Brighton was the gay capital of England—that there were gay bars, gay pubs, underground networks of closeted working-class guys, flamboyant networks of upper-class, high-church men, and at least one lesbian hangout. Even the villages of Sussex where I rode my horse, were full of lesbians, some of them famous but none of them visible to me.
Actually, that’s not exactly true: they were visible and I must have known there were queers in the world, but I’d learned very early what not to notice and what could never be spoken about. After all, there were lots of dykes at the horse shows I went to—women in breeches who judged our competitions or ran the pony club. What if one of them had let on that she lived with that other woman who showed up in a landrover and brought her a sandwich lunch? Or what if the pony club camp leader had brought a pretty woman along when we all slept in the hay at the red barn? Suppose I had woken up and seen them kissing? What then?
At my girls’ school, many of us had been preoccupied with “amours,” which sometimes became the subject of teasing, but were fundamentally respectable. The object of our desire was called a “pash” and mine was the captain of the first lacrosse team—as tough and muscular a girl as that position demanded. In spite of hating lacrosse, I went out on the coldest, rainiest days to watch my beloved tearing the length of the field, twisting past defenders with the ball tucked securely into her stick, which she cradled in time with her thudding feet and held dangerously close to her face. It was not unusual for good lacrosse players to get their teeth knocked out, but my heroine was immune, so swiftly did she run on her shapely legs, so deftly did she duck and weave through the defense line. For a year, I’d written her initials all over my notebook, sometimes twined into a heart.
But somehow, I knew there was a line we could never cross. I have a blurry but insistent memory of someone whispering that two girls had been expelled from school. Although they hadn’t been in my form, I knew immediately who they must be. One was big—a solid presence with widely spaced brown eyes; the other has faded except as part of the inseparable couple—the two who walked hand in hand and sometimes lay in the long grass around the edge of the lacrosse field, hands touching in the jungle of clover, perhaps even holding each other face to face when they thought no one was around.
My old school friend, Sue Bannister, and I met for lunch one Sunday at her parents’ golf club. For thirteen years from kindergarten through sixth, we had been irrevocably connected by the simple fact of our consecutive names on the class register. Now we were both in our twenties and Sue had become an operating-room nurse at Westminster Hospital. Vitality emanated from the top of her carefully bleached head down to her burgundy Italian shoes.
My best friend—except when Carol or Ann or some other interloper had temporarily usurped me—Sue had been the only one who refrained from comment when, at ten, I got my hair cropped by a barber who used electric clippers and left stubble, just the way I wanted, above the collar of my school blouse. At twelve and thirteen, when I was still a tomboy and growing sulky, we stayed friends and, as Sue started blond-rinsing her hair and charming the Brighton College boys who hung around the school gates, I became a good listener to her boyfriend dramas. When I went off to Spain and she to nursing school, both of us acquired new circles of friends and met only occasionally for lunch or a drink. Our connection had belonged primarily inside the school walls that would forever provide the floor plan for our dreams.
Tucking into mounds of rare roast beef, we gossiped about school friends. Sue as usual, knew everything about everyone since she corresponded on her personalized notepaper with many in our class. In that familiar dining room where the two of us as kids so often ate Sunday lunch with her parents, for a second I felt young again, the future full of possibilities.
Sue helped herself to more roast potatoes and asked me if I remembered her friend Bobbie. I thought for a moment: hadn’t she been at the holiday cottage that time I’d gone with Sue to meet a group of her friends in Cornwall?
Sue leaned forward, glanced around, and whispered: “She’s dead. Committed suicide last week.” I looked at Sue: it had always been hard to read her emotions.
“She got involved with a woman. You know—involved…”
A frown furrowed her forehead. What was I supposed to say?
I continued pushing overcooked beans around my plate thinking about that word involved, until Sue reached across the table and grasped my wrist.
“It’s awful, Jude. She overdosed last Thursday!”
A noisy crowd of men surged into the dining room, guffawing. I glanced up at Sue, and then looked away, my fork frozen in a fierce grip. The only thing I could remember about Bobbie, and I suppose it had been in Cornwall, was how she had closed both her hands into loose fists in front of her chest, the knuckles not quite touching, and jerked them down in quiet triumph, hissing “Yes!” as if her whole life was packed into that sibilance.
There above the harbor, the evening had passed in a haze of red wine and Scrabble games until the jovial midnight discussion about where Sue and I, the last to arrive, were going to sleep. Someone had rummaged through a closet and hauled out a collapsible camp bed made of canvas strung onto a folding wooden frame into which the two of us—strapping girls that we were—barely fit.
The following morning, sunlight was angling through the small kitchen window when I woke with a vague dread of having done something wrong: perhaps I’d rolled into Sue and our breasts had touched. But she looked unperturbed, already sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee amid the chatter.
“How’d you two sleep?” someone asked, popping bread into the toaster.
“This settles it once and for all.” Sue’s laugh had been nothing but good-natured. “I’m never going to marry Jude!”
All through the closet years, I considered my lovers to be straight women. Mostly they had, or used to have, husbands, and I never doubted that if I loosened the grip of my charm, if I relaxed out of my relentless pursuit, they would revert. I didn’t consciously think of myself as a lesbian either, and never talked with any of them about what exactly we were doing together. Our bodies were acting out a drama that our minds refused to witness as if somewhere in the desert a jagged crack had opened up in the earth’s surface, my body on one side, my mind stranded across the chasm, looking determinedly the other way.
Jane, was, like Sophia, twenty years older than I and had a daughter only a few months my junior. She had raised her alone, holding down two jobs to pay for private schools. The father was some kind of brass band musician in the army, but he’d disappeared when the pregnancy showed up. Not only did mother and daughter live together, they worked in the same office—a Brighton insurance agency where I was sent as a temp during my winter break from tour guiding in Spain. Tanned and blond and long-legged, I was ogled by all the men who sat in their fusty cubicles, but it was Jane who took me home for meatloaf and spaghetti, tales of my life at the Spanish castle, and, when her daughter acquired a boyfriend, evenings à deux by the fire with foot rubs and slow ballads on the record player. Jane was a Tom Jones fan. She liked his thighs, she told me, trying to boost her rapidly fading credentials as a brassy heterosexual. At night, she was head receptionist at a seafront hotel where Richard Burton and Liz Taylor sometimes checked in: he, too, got plenty of play as the man of her dreams.
But male thighs notwithstanding, we ended up in bed—the double bed in which, astonishingly, she still slept with her daughter. Thus, life started to revolve around the comings and goings of the young one with the new boyfriend—a young woman who thoroughly deserved to be jealous of me, moving in on her mother every time she went out the door, but who managed, mostly, to keep it in check.
Jane had never been out of England, so I took her to Spain. For a while, the freedom to be alone without explaining ourselves was exhilarating, but then, at our hotel by the beach, a flirty German man flashed a gold tooth in her direction. Unlike her model daughter, I was consumed with jealousy while she and this man sat together drinking wine, presumably because she couldn’t risk appearing too attached to me. The intruder probably thought I’d escaped from somewhere as I prowled around the perimeter by the azaleas in ceramic pots, glaring at them.
Like Sophia, Jane thought our affair just a phase and always encouraged me to go on dates with men. I wonder now about jealousy, about possessiveness, about whether she wanted to slug my latest boyfriend on the chin, as she was quite capable of doing with her solid arm muscles and efficient hands. In any case, she and I motored through Europe, sharing feather beds and paellas, and later, even while I was married, we got together surreptitiously.
There’s no denying that there was a kind of crippling caution to this life, but if I’m honest I have to admit that there was also a thrill attached to secret sex. Moving in for an illicit kiss made my blood gallop through my body as rapidly as driving the hairpin-bend road over Cabo Creus. Even after I had well and truly finished with secrecy, the allure of a forbidden flirtation or the challenge of an impossible conquest remained a turn-on. Without it, I could learn to be happy rather than hysterical, I could even come to know what joy felt like, but for a while all I experienced was a kind of emptiness where the thrill had once taken up so much room.
Through those years while I was going back and forth to the job in Spain, Franco was still in power and lesbians weren’t talked about. Gay men, on the other hand, were sometimes spat about, which is how I found out that one of them had ended up dead on the road to the military camp, the story hissed between clenched teeth by young men I knew to be good-hearted. By then, already having been in love with more than one woman, I couldn’t control my blushing, as if the unspeakable transgression were my own.
I felt the tug of female attraction there by the Mediterranean, especially with my boss’s wife, who took me boating and rubbed suntan oil very slowly onto my back. But nothing happened except when Jane came to visit—nothing, that is, except the ongoing, tedious flirtation with those nice young men: rituals that interested me very little, although they did provide a storehouse of camouflage. All those dates, rides to the bay and its nightclubs, all those cuddles on beaches under the stars with Spaniards, provided me with an excellent public persona: young woman sowing her wild oats, soon to settle down as she damn well oughta.
I met Helen at a different job in a London office. She was one of the ones with a husband and I tried to get along with him, but he was lumpy and oddly suspicious of me. Well, perhaps not oddly, since I slept with his wife whenever he was away and even when he hadn’t gone away, we sometimes contrived an afternoon off at my place.
Once, we took ten days’ leave and I drove Helen to Benidorm, which even back then was a fairly gruesome cheap resort full of pseudo-Spanish shows, already accustomed to pairs of English women having a good time together at its flamenco bars. In our case, we simply failed to pick up a pair of wandering Pedros or Pepes, as most women did after a few drinks.
I don’t know how Helen felt there—perhaps less uptight than I since she had the husband she could drop into any conversation—but I know my own pit of fear never dispersed, not even after a table load of rum and Cokes and not even behind our locked door. It wasn’t the common kind of fear: not like worrying I’d smash up the car, lose the keys or my passport or my money. Not even like those deepest fears of illness, death, or abandonment. There, in the confines of our cheap, whitewashed hotel room, the terror continued to wind itself tightly around the ecstasy.
Judith Barrington recently won the prestigious Gregory O’Donoghue Poetry Prize and gave a reading at the Cork (Ireland) Spring Poetry Festival. She is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Horses and the Human Soul and two poetry chapbooks include the Robin Becker Award-winning, Lost Lands. Her memoir, Lifesaving, won the Lambda Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. She is the author of the best-selling Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art. She has taught literary memoir for the University of Alaska’s MFA program and at workshops across the U.S., Britain and Spain. http://www.judithbarrington.com
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was surprised to recall how chilling and difficult it was to lie to so many people, including those I was supposedly “close” to.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Don’t do it unless you love doing it—even when it’s gruesomely difficult. You must be happier when you’re writing than when you are not. And yes, I did, and do, follow that advice.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: The late Adrienne Rich for her ability to blend politics with the highest standard of writing, and for not compromising by trying to entertain the audience at readings. Maxine Kumin for her craft skills and her bravery through the adversity of a terrible accident, all the while writing about it. And Thomas McCarthy for his poetry, his memoir, and for teaching me so much through his writing.
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 used to go to the downtown public library, which here in Portland, has a writers’ room with four desks. You have to be on a list to use it and I did for a long time. It was a perfect place. But having had some mobility and health issues, I now find it easier to write at home, especially since I invested in a ridiculously expensive, but wonderful chair. Cafes occasionally work, but they usually play music too loudly for my musings.
Waiting for Oysters
by Kathryn Hively Lane
Followed by Q&A
never cared for oysters. Boiled, baked, fried, or raw, it makes no difference to me. I’m not eating them. Yet, oysters and my family have a history. Inexplicably, they appear at special occasions, twice on Christmas alone. While most families feast on pancakes or cinnamon buns to celebrate the birth of Christ, my family has oyster stew for breakfast. And let me tell you, those disgusting grey blobs floating in milk can kill a Santa buzz in no-time flat. To add insult to injury, the foul little creatures insinuate themselves into dishes throughout the day: oysters baked in stuffing, fried on a plate, or slippery raw with a shot of hot sauce before dinner.
I’m not saying my family has an oyster fetish (though in nearly a decade of weddings, birthdays, Easters and graduation parties with my husband’s family, I have yet to see an oyster). Bivalve molluscs just have a way of ending up on the menu whenever my family gathers. It probably has something to do with the fact that the land-locked inhabitants of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where all four of my grandparents reside, reserve oyster eating for special occasions. And since moving north, I typically return to the area in times of celebration, which means oysters, oysters, and more oysters.
Though my parents raised me in such far-flung places as Roanoke and Richmond, Virginia, the farmlands between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains are where I “come from,” genetically speaking. Generations of my mother’s family have been christened, married, and put to rest in a tiny, tucked-away church that stands beyond the relative bustle of a two-stoplight town called Bridgewater, off single-lane roads bearing the names of the families who once lived there and some who live there still.
I first visited Beaver Creek Church as a toddler to attend my great-grandmother’s wake in the basement fellowship hall. I have no recollection of Granny Jordan, but my earliest memory of childhood is twirling across the church basement in my fancy dress, unable to comprehend why no one would dance with me.
In twenty-five years, the church hasn’t changed much. The pew cushions are the same scratchy, maroon fabric and the windows still overlook the well-kept graveyard where Granny is buried. And without fail, each Lenten season the oyster supper draws a crowd eager to commit gluttony on sacred ground before the food runs out at the all-you-can-eat buffet.
During my last visit to Beaver Creek Church, I waited two hours in the sanctuary for my family’s turn to gorge at the Lenten Oyster Supper. Given the historic popularity of the event, we arrived before four in the afternoon to take a number and wait until the meal began. We waited as the first diners, who I assume arrived immediately after lunch, feasted. Once a group relinquished its table, those with the next lowest ticket numbers would be called to pile their Styrofoam plates high with a lard-fried version of the creature. I would say that this was nothing out of the ordinary, but everything about this particular trip to Virginia felt strange.
My extended family had converged on the Shenandoah Valley from a scattering of places to visit my grandfather, who had recently become blind. One by one, my aunts, uncles, and cousins from places as near as Bridgewater and as far away as California squeezed into the first two pews, talking over one another and laughing loud enough to catch the attention of the more demure families waiting for oysters. We had journeyed as a collective to offer “moral support,” yet I imagine some had the same need I had: to confirm with their own eyes that Pop Pop could no longer see through his. Despite what the doctors had said, what family living in the area had seconded, the disbelief that someone as vibrant as my grandfather could go blind in a matter of days lingered with me.
Pop Pop’s blindness came suddenly as a result of misdiagnosed temporal arteritis, an easily controlled condition with limited side effects, if detected early. By the time he finally began steroid treatments to reduce the swelling in the blood vessels bringing oxygen to his eyes, the damage was severe and irreversible. Still, he spoke cheerfully on the phone whenever I called from South Jersey, bragging about each new task he’d mastered sightless and his heightened sense of taste. Since he had gone blind just after Christmas, he was particularly excited to re-experience oysters for the first time at the Lenten Supper.
After the initial shock of seeing my ninety-pound Nana navigate her six-foot-tall husband through the same sanctuary where he usually led her, his hand reassuringly on the small of her back, I began to marvel at how well Pop Pop had adapted. He seemed to accept blindness as just another challenge in life, like driving an egg truck at fourteen to help his family survive the Great Depression or serving in World War II.
He has always believed in soldiering up, getting the job done, and above all else, not complaining. And though his authoritative nature sometimes borders on dictatorial, he’s the type of man who dresses sharply out of respect for others, inscribing the purchase date on the soles of his shoes with a permanent marker to ensure they are replaced before looking too worn. For the oyster supper he had donned a pressed shirt and sweater vest. Each strand of his thinning white hair was meticulously slicked down.
Before Pop Pop lost his sight, he would have walked to each pew in the packed church, drawing person after person into conversation until the entire room buzzed. A few minutes into our two-hour wait, I was relieved to see that his aisle seat had become the magnetic center of the sanctuary. The conversation inside Beaver Creek swelled to a pleasant roar as people filed by one at a time to speak with him. Pop Pop’s pale blue eyes stared vacantly ahead as he chatted with each visitor, yet somehow he was the only one looking directly at the camera in every snapshot. (My family’s obsession with oysters can only be rivaled by an unabashed need to capture each moment on multiple cameras, from multiple angles.)
“Make sure to take pictures with my camera,” Pop Pop commanded.
The unease that everyone had tried so hard to conceal in his presence surfaced as half the group looked in vain for his camera while the other half, who knew that no one had thought to bring a blind man’s camera to a church oyster supper, just looked guilty. Finally, Nana confessed to Pop Pop that, for the first time in his life, he was attending a social function sans camera.
“Then make me copies from the others,” he huffed.
A half-dozen flashes ignited in reply.
Compounding the already surreal nature of the trip was the fact that I had traveled south without my husband, Jeff, who would have taken one look at the crowd waiting for oysters and turned heels, vowing to go hungry rather than idle so long on a packed church pew. Having grown up in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia, he was unaccustomed to the thrill of simply sitting still for a while. After a half hour passed and the sanctuary became uncomfortably warm, I began to feel relieved that he was with a group of other dentists learning about dental implants rather than sitting beside me, shaking the entire pew with his impatient leg jiggling.
I did, however, miss his running commentary of the event. Over the years, I had come to enjoy his outsider’s perspective of my family and our traditions. His questions about the food: “Is there anything that isn’t fried or covered in mayonnaise?” His wonder at all things Protestant: “Well that was nice, but it felt more like a Broadway show than Easter Sunday.” His amused smirk the first time he saw a business in the front, party in the back haircut: “I counted five mullets,” he once whispered at a cousin’s wedding. “Five!” The first few times Jeff pointed out the oddities of my world, I defended my culture as any well-brought-up Southerner would. So what if some of my kin were a bit outdated? They were at least polite enough not to smirk in public. But as I surveyed the crowded sanctuary I realized, with no small amount of horror, that I was counting mullets and smirking.
Before my husband joined the family, the closest anyone had come to fraternizing with a Yankee was when my mother married my father, a native Virginian whose parents had migrated south from the treacherous state of West Virginia. Life with Jeff had opened my eyes to an entirely different normal, one where being polite meant not wasting time with empty pleasantries and where mullets existed only as store-bought pieces to ironic Halloween costumes. Now, it seemed, I was teetering very close to becoming the dreaded Yankee bitch I’d been warned of in childhood etiquette classes and books for young ladies with titles like Pretty Me. (Of course, the classes and books referred to these women as “some people,” but we all knew who they meant.) I quickly reeled myself back from the brink and smiled warmly at no one in particular.
But as I looked around the pews again, I continued to notice differences between the people in Beaver Creek Church and my neighbors, in-laws, coworkers, and friends in New Jersey. Many of the women had an almost child-like brightness to their eyes, a soft mixture of polite interest and magnetic appeal, rarely seen elsewhere. In general, the men possessed a quieter confidence than their Northern counterparts, many keeping their hands in their pockets as they spoke. No one jabbed at the air to emphasize a particularly important piece of conversation; rather they would pause, allowing a measure of silence to captivate the listener’s attention.
I immediately became self-conscious and began to wonder what I looked like to everyone else. In Jeff’s absence, had I become the outsider? After shoving my hands onto my lap, from whence they had mysterious flown at some point during my conversation with my mother, I quickly scanned the sanctuary again and noticed more than a few questioning stares aimed in my direction. More likely than not, the curious folk were just wondering if my ticket had a lower number than theirs, but I scrunched down in my seat all the same, convinced the entire crowd was questioning how a woman with such aggressive hand gestures had discovered their oyster supper.
Truth be told, I’ve always been straight forward bordering on blunt by Southern standards. The hand gestures, which are surprisingly necessary for communicating in the North, simply add to the effect. It’s not that I set out to be rude. I simply refuse not to speak my mind, regardless of who may hear me. This egregious flaw has often mortified my mother, a woman who could muster a beaming countenance despite a foot-long run in her panty hose and a wicked case of diverticulitis. During my teenage years, when our arguments were both frequent and heated, she would pause mid-sentence and plaster on a megawatt smile whenever someone happened to step within earshot. “Why do you insist on smiling like that,” I’d hiss as the stranger passed us by. “I don’t care what they think.” My mother would wait, grin firmly in place, until we were alone again to flash me a glare that could freeze hell before turning to smile warmly at the world.
Yet despite my lack of true Southern charm, in the North I’m universally acknowledged as a sweet, capable person, even if I occasionally misplace keys and back into parked cars. I start conversations with strangers and smile at waitresses. I hold doors and write thank-you cards. I did these things in the South as well, but if living in different regions of the country has taught me anything, it’s that sweetness is relative.
When Northerners hear my slight accent, they expect me to be charming, so, inevitably, I smile wider and bring forth a repertoire of endearing phrases and thoughtful compliments designed to assure the shopkeeper or mailman or interviewer that, yes, there is something special about Southern women. My family, on the other hand, expects me to be unpleasant, so I usually roll my eyes at things they say, all the while wishing I could be as universally likable as my mother. But it’s more than mere expectations. My personality actually shifts whenever I enter the South. I feel younger somehow, as if being with my parents makes sense for the teenager I was, but not the woman I’ve become. The perils of navigating the Delaware Memorial Bridge, 95 South, and the Vortex to Hell, as my father calls the Capital Beltway, serve as a reverse rite of passage. I slide back into the headstrong, self-centered way I once muddled through life, attracting drama like fuzz to a lint roller and otherwise blundering about, aggravating everyone, myself included.
Jeff’s absence at the oyster supper seemed to exacerbate the inevitable regression to adolescence pettiness that accompanies any visit with my family. As the wait continued for food I had no intention of eating, I lost the emotional composure I had finally acquired as a twenty-seven-year-old and quickly became offended by my family’s gentle teasing of my life above the Mason-Dixon.
“I don’t suppose they have dinners like this up there,” a cousin said.
I quickly learned that up there, a catch-all phrase for anywhere farther north than Woodstock, Va., was often a euphemism for a place the speaker had never been and had no intention of going.
“We do,” I snapped. “We just don’t wait hours to eat.”
“Well, that’s nice, but I don’t see how people can live with all the snow and traffic up there.”
Within an hour, I wanted to abandon them all for a solitary meal of beef jerky and Mr. Pibb at the gas station in Bridgewater. After an hour and a half, I briefly contemplated a life of complete exile in the state my closet kin so lovingly referred to as “New Joisey,” on the rare occasion the conversation required something more specific than simply up there.
But even I must admit that there is some truth to the Garden State stereotypes reckoned by my family. The shock of relocating from picturesque Colonial Williamsburg, where Jeff and I met and attended college, to the gritty congestion of Newark, New Jersey, where Jeff attended dental school, nearly broke me. My first winter outside Virginia was harsh even by local standards: an entire month without seeing the ground after a marrow-numbing cold settled in February. I took solace in the fact that my new husband hated Northern New Jersey, as well, and longed for the relative warmth and calm of South Jersey. On the surface we adapted by buying waterproof boots and learning to push our way through pre-snow grocery mobs, but with the stress of dental school Jeff morphed into a nervous, introvert I aptly nicked-named “Dental School Jeff.” The changes in my personality were equally dramatic. In college I churned out short stories faster than I could proof them, but within a few months of moving to New Jersey, I stopped writing. My fiction had always been written exclusively in Southern dialect, a voice that no longer felt authentic to my life in the North. As more time passed, I convinced myself that I had forgotten how to write in a dialect that I no longer heard every day, before coming to the painful conclusion that perhaps I wasn’t really a writer, just an intrusive stenographer who spat out pieces of overhead conversation from shopping malls and dinner tables. In the struggle to comprehend the rushed speech that surrounded me in New Jersey, I was unable to retain a sense of the untold stories beneath. I had lost something of myself in the move north.
Jeff and I both freely admit that, despite ample affection for one another, the first years of our marriage were soul-sucking awful. They were also necessary. I needed to experience every terrible New Jersey stereotype firsthand so I could appreciate the way of life in the Philadelphia suburbs, where Jeff eventually joined his father’s dental practice. Slowly, without even noticing it, I began to like South Jersey: the overly zealous Eagles fans shouting “Go Birds” to one another in Target, the bizarre Mummers with their spectacularly sequined costumes strutting down every parade route they can find, the boardwalks, and beaches. I started to write again, stories without dialect, but centered in Virginia and other Southern states where I spent my vacations as a child.
But despite years of living outside the Commonwealth, I have never stopped thinking of Virginia as home. I cry every time the mountains begin to shrink in the rearview mirror and worry that I will forget how to be Southern or, worse yet, forget how to be a part of my own family. I miss the cadence of a nice country drawl. Yet after only a few years in New Jersey, I talk too fast for some members of my family to understand. I crave hushpuppies and smiling strangers. But lard now upsets my stomach and the stone-cold expression I’ve perfected for walking the streets of Camden has frightened more than one sweet soul of the South.
As we waited for oysters, I looked at each member of my family, noting the increased number of gray hairs and wrinkles that marked the passage of time since my childhood in Virginia. Overall, the people in the pews had changed about as much as the seat cushions in twenty-five years: same fabric, just a bit saggier. I wondered if my relatives reverted to an earlier version of self as well during these gatherings, their constant personalities further mitigating the subtle changes of time and exaggerating the apparent differences between us. My aunts, uncles, and cousins seemed remarkably the same, yet there was a tangible difference to this oyster supper.
I glanced again at the pew behind me where Pop Pop was seated and found an older gentleman standing in the center aisle, griping my grandfather’s shoulder. It’s a gesture common among men their age, a firm embrace of flesh less intimate than a hug, but conveying the same emotion. There was a surprising sadness in the man’s eyes as he pounded Pop Pop’s back reassuringly. I was so confused by the man’s expression, so much at odds with the general mirth, that it took me a moment to realize that my grandfather appeared to be crying.
While I watched Pop Pop’s face contort in ways I had never seen, I regressed further into my childhood and scooted closer to my mother on the pew like a frightened child. To see the patriarch of my family crumble was downright horrifying. He had fooled everyone with his optimistic phone calls and dapper sweater vests, and yet there he was, being comforted by someone I didn’t even know.
According to Nana, Pop Pop had spent one night in solitude after becoming blind, sleeping apart from her for the first time in years, but otherwise showed no signs of mourning the loss of his sight. Not that his family would have let him. Everyone was being so damn charming that he had probably felt obligated to appear upbeat. I felt ashamed that my grandfather needed the support of this man to express himself when he had every reason to be upset.
He could no longer spread his daily newspaper across the kitchen table and read it cover to cover. He could never again hop into the driver’s seat and call out a partial pre-flight sequence before putting his Chrysler in gear: “Clear,” he’d say, checking his side mirrors. “Clear,” he’d say checking the rearview. “And rolling.” Even in his eighties, he never stopped flying; he simply sailed through the streets of Staunton in a minivan when the licensing board required a full physical to renew his recreational pilot’s license. A few months before losing his sight, he had even investigated the types of light aircraft he could fly without the fuss of government papers. Now he could only be a passenger. Even worse, he would never take another photograph or see the glossy-paper faces of his loved ones smiling up at him in a captured moment.
I glanced nervously at my mother and was more confused to see her smiling. Perhaps she was unaware of what was happening behind her, but why was everyone in Pop Pop’s pew still laughing? It didn’t make sense. Who were these cold, heartless people? We had always masked bad situations with laughter and an overabundance of celebratory oysters, but I never thought my family could cackle while one of our own cried.
I looked back at the man gripping Pop Pop’s shoulder and was startled to see that he appeared to be laughing now as well, yet the sadness never left the man’s eyes. Though I didn’t want to see it, I forced myself to look again at Pop Pop’s crumbled face. His cheeks remained dry though he appeared to be sobbing with increased force.
I wanted Jeff beside me then, shaking the pew with his impatient leg jiggling, so I could ask him what the hell was happening. I relied on his superior social skills to help me through situations like these before I snapped and shouted obscenities at my elders. Not to mention his mere presence served as a constant reminder that I was, in fact, an adult and not a hormonal teenager.
I was on the verge of screeching at my entire family to stop acting so fucking fake when Pop Pop tucked his chin and wiggled his head from side to side. It was a familiar quirk of his, something he had always done with a particularly good laugh. I stared at my grandfather’s vacant eyes and realized his cheeks were dry because he had not been crying. Rather his quiet laugh had been lost in the roaring din of the sanctuary, leaving only an expression of joy still unfamiliar to me.
The sadness in the man’s eyes may or may not have been for my grandfather, but the man’s sorrow remained hidden from Pop Pop while they chuckled. Even after the man moved away, a smile lingered on my grandfather’s face as he sat perfectly still, listening to the multitude of conversations that hummed around him. Seeing that her husband was without a visitor, Nana leaned into him and said something that made him laugh again. He patted her gently on the knee, decades of constant proximity making sight unnecessary to execute the gesture perfectly.
It would take me some time to adjust to the changes in my grandfather’s facial expressions, but as I watched him that day, I realized that though change is inevitable, it need not take the best of us. So with a deep breath, I sat taller in the pew and joined the rest of my family, laughing, and waiting for oysters.
Kathryn Hively Lane earned an MA from Rutgers University and an MFA from George Mason University. She has taught at Rowan University and is currently completing her first novel. Though a Southerner at heart, she has settled into life in South Jersey with her husband and daughter. Her fiction has recently appeared in Philadelphia Stories.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was shocked by the misinformation in family stories circulating about my grandfather. In one draft, I had a sentence about Pop Pop driving an egg truck at 13 to help his family during the Great Depression. My mom insisted he was 14. Turns out, he never drove an egg truck at all. He delivered groceries after World War II (which I’m sure included eggs), but his first job was thinning corn. The money he earned then, a whopping ten cents an hour, was his to spend on such luxuries as moon pies.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I’m a fiction writer by nature and a corporate writer by profession, so I had a difficult time putting myself, honestly, in the story. I gave several drafts to my friend Erin Whitmer, whose nonfiction has left me sobbing and laughing on more occasions than I can count. She kept pushing me to be more of a presence in the narrative.
I’m a bit uncomfortable thinking about how my family will react to such a personal story, but I’m glad I followed her advice. It’s one thing to write a short story with a bickering mother-daughter duo. It’s quite another to have your mom call you in tears and say, “It’s a good thing I love you so much,” after she reads the final draft of your nonfiction piece.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Faulkner and Welty were huge influences on my work in college. More recently, I’ve fallen in love with Jhumpa Lahiri. There is a subtleness and universality to her writing that I find captivating. She can tell a story about an immigrant community in Massachusetts, and somehow I feel as if I can relate.
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’ve always needed a quiet space to write. However, as a working mother of a small child, I’ve had to find some creative places to write. I’ve been known to compose drafts or edit stories in my car during lunch breaks.
Shiksa Paradox by Mickey Dubrow
Followed by Q&A
Claudia was a secret. I couldn’t let my parents know that she was my girlfriend. I wasn’t allowed to date non-Jewish girls, a.k.a. shiksas.
“After what happened with David,” Dad said, “We think it’s best if you only dated Jewish girls.”
My brother David had dated a shiksa. Her name was Tina. She had long straight hair, a little button nose, and smooth fair skin. She was petite. She was delicious.
David brought her to the house and hung out with her in his bedroom in the basement, the Stones and Hendrix blaring from his RCA stereo while the two of them did God knows what. God knew, but my parents didn’t, and that drove them crazy.
David and Tina’s high school romance lasted almost all of senior year before Tina decided to move on. David took the break-up hard. Losing Tina messed him up so badly, he had to go to Israel to live on a kibbutz for six months. It was an expensive lesson for my parents. Keep your nice Jewish boys away from the shiksas.
I resented being judged by my older brother’s actions. I felt I deserved a chance to make my own decisions and my own mistakes. If that meant getting my heart broken by a shiksa, then so be it.
Besides, the whole date-within-your-kind thing made me feel like I was a purebred dog. Was my only purpose in life to mate with a Jewish girl so that I might sire pureblood Jewish children? Were my parents worried that if I went sniffing around the shiksas, I might end up fathering a litter of interdenominational mutt kids?
Besides, I had known every Jewish girl within dating age since birth. Chattanooga had a decent sized Jewish community, enough of the chosen people to support three synagogues (Orthodox, Conservative and Reform) and a Jewish Community Center, but there weren’t that many of us and we tended to stick together.
We lived on the same cul de sacs. We joined the same Jewish social clubs. I attended the same nursery school, Hebrew school, and Sunday School as every other Jewish kid my age. Dating a local Jewish girl would be like kissing your first cousin. It would have been like committing incest.
Claudia was Southern Baptist. Her parents knew she was dating a Jewish boy and though they weren’t happy about it and preferred she didn’t bring me over to meet them, they didn’t tell her she was going to hell or suggest she try to save me.
Claudia and I started dating when I was fourteen. We didn’t live in the same part of town, so we met once a week at Eastgate Mall. We were mallrats before the term existed. The first time I met her, I thought to myself, that girl looks like an Afghan Hound, but in a good way. She was tall and thin with straight auburn hair that covered the sides of her long face. She had sleepy eyes that never seemed to open completely and her thin nose stuck out from between her sheets of hair.
Claudia thought my Jewfro was exotic. Most of the Jewish girls I knew had the same poodlelike curls, so mine were nothing special to them.
I felt like I could talk about anything with Claudia. The Jewish girls weren’t interested in talking to me at all, because they also viewed me as immediate family. Having someone to talk to you was great, except that Claudia had a tendency to try and sound more knowledgeable than she actually was.
One Saturday at the mall, I told everybody that I had just been to my cousin’s bris, the circumcision ceremony.
“I had a bris,” Claudia said.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Positive,” she said. “When I was little, I had a bris.”
“Well, it must have been the worst bris any Mohel has ever performed,” I said.
My friends were rolling with laughter at this point, so I whispered in Claudia’s ear what a bris was. Her sleepy eyes woke up and her cheeks turned red.
Only once did I make the mistake of going on a date with a Chattanooga Jewish girl. A Jewish friend of mine needed a guy to go with his girlfriend’s best friend on a double date. It was one of the rare times my parents saw me go out with a girl. It was so proper, four nice Jewish kids out on a Saturday night.
After dinner at Shakey’s Pizza, we drove up to Missionary Ridge to a small park that overlooked downtown. In the center of the park was a Civil War monument flanked by old cannons. You can’t swing a cat in Chattanooga without hitting a Civil War monument. My friend and his girlfriend quickly disappeared behind a tall granite column engraved with the names of Confederate battalions. My date and I were left alone, sitting on a stone bench, counting the city lights.
My date’s name was Rona. She was my age. She was a slow-witted pudgy girl who used too much hairspray. She once confessed to the other girls in our Sunday school class that she shaved her pubic hair. She was curious what it would feel like, so she just did it. This was decades before shaving pubic hair became fashionable, so Rona was a true pioneer. The other girls immediately told everybody what Rona had done and from then on she was known as “the girl with the bald pussy.”
Since we had some time to kill until the other couple was done making out, I figured Rona and I might as well make out, too. She had colossal breasts, so I tried to cop a feel, but she was wearing a really tight bra with a complicated set of hooks. It was more of a wrestling match than a make-out session. After a while, we got bored with each other and went back to watching the city lights.
The next day, after Sunday school, my sister gave me a detailed account of my date. Rona had told all the girls about Saturday night’s activities and had spared no details of what did and did not go on between us.
“Rona told us how you tried to feel her tits,” my sister said.
Apparently, I was right about Rona’s bra being more of a barrier than most women’s undergarments, because she added that there was no way I would have been able to get past her “industrial strength bra.”
“The way Rona described the scene really cracked us up,” my sister said. “Marsha and Jill wondered if maybe you have some sort of breast obsession. Do you?”
Yes, I preferred the shiksas. They were never going to tell my sister what we had done the night before. Still, I felt cheated. I missed out on a normal dating life. I was never able to go on a real date with Claudia where I borrowed the car to take her to a movie and picked her up at her house and said hello to her dad. The secrecy may have added thrills, but it also added resentment. Why did my parents have to be so rigid?
I never asked my parents why they didn’t want me to date shiksas, because I already knew the answer. All parents want their children to date their own kind, but Jewish parents had an extra reason why it was essential that Jewish boys procreated only with Jewish girls. That reason was the Holocaust.
The Holocaust made my parents more paranoid about the survival of the Jews. They were young adults living in America during World War II. The Holocaust happened to Eastern European Jews during their lifetime. If the systematic murder of six million Jewish men, women and children didn’t make you xenophobic, then nothing would.
At Sunday school, my classmates and I were shown Holocaust films. We bore witness to the piles of dead bodies, the emaciated prisoners, and the lamps made from human skin, all in grainy black and white that made it even more grim, like home movies from hell.
Over the years, we were shown the Holocaust films many times. There was no age limit; you didn’t have to be this tall to see the human devastation. Instead, we were required to watch the horror again and again so that we would never forget. Our elders wanted the images to be tattooed on our brains.
The repeated exposure desensitized us. Oh look, here’s the part where the bodies go down the slide and into the pit. Whoop! There’s the oven with the human residue caked on the side. Yuk!
I didn’t think about the burden the six million Jews slaughtered during the Holocaust placed on my life. I didn’t feel that I was supposed to be living for them. I thought of the films as a warning. Don’t trust the Gentiles. At any moment, they’ll turn on you.
Intellectually, I understood that assimilation and intermarriage were real threats to Jews and Jewish culture. I understood my parents’ desire for us to live in a self-imposed American shtetl.
Emotionally, I wanted a girlfriend and I didn’t see that happening with any of the Jewish girls I grew up with in Chattanooga. I wanted it both ways. I wanted to be a Jew without the having to worry about our survival.
Claudia wanted to be my girlfriend. A girl wanted me. I could think of nothing more simple and amazing. I was always going to be a Jew, but when I was with my girlfriend, I wasn’t anything more than her boyfriend.
I wished my parents could have understood that. I wished Claudia didn’t have to be a secret. I was proud that she was my girlfriend. I wanted to show her off to everybody, even my Sunday school class, even the Holocaust survivors.
Claudia refused to surrender her virginity to me until we were seventeen and then we did our best to make up for lost time. Our birth control method of choice was the rhythm method. I have to wonder if this method has ever worked, because it certainly didn’t work for us.
We each told our parents a story about where we’d be over the weekend and took a bus to Atlanta. We didn’t decide to have the abortion because of our differences in religion. We did it because neither of us was ready to have a baby.
I paid for the abortion in cash. I thought we’d done a damn good job keeping it quiet. The only thing that changed for us was that we started using condoms.
On my eighteenth birthday, Dad caught me having sex with Claudia in Mom’s car. How this happened is a long story unto itself. Dad waited until he had a chance to speak to me alone. He told me he knew I was dating her. He knew about the abortion. He knew everything. Apparently, Dad had been keeping secrets of his own.
“It’s okay for you to have your fun with this girl,” Dad said. “But you have to be more discreet.”
“If you already know,” I said, “then can I stop hiding? Can I finally be normal and date Claudia openly?”
“No,” he said. “I’d rather you kept it a secret. But don’t worry. If there’s a break in the family, your mother will survive.”
That one sentence with its insistence that the charade continue and the old cliché that dating a shiksa would kill your mother, was crushing, but not in the way Dad intended. I wasn’t ashamed. I was disappointed in my father. The smugness in his voice as he said that one sentence didn’t help. He had dismissed my relationship with Claudia as if it was nothing more than sexual recreation. Until then, I considered him to be a more understanding person. I was devastated to find out how wrong I was about him.
Fine, I thought, just fine. We’ll do it his way. I will keep Claudia a secret. But if she was a secret, then all my future relationships would be a secret, whether I dated a shiksa or a Jewish girl.
For many years, I stopped talking to my parents about anything personal in my life. As far as they knew, I never dated and had no friends. Occasionally, my mother asked me if I was seeing anyone and I always changed the subject. Dad never asked. Plenty of things happened during those years, but I couldn’t tell them about it. I was a secret.
Mickey Dubrow’s work has appeared in Creative Loafing, The Atlanta Jewish Times, and Atlanta Intown. As a writer and producer for television, he is the recipient of several broadcast writing awards, including a 2011 Telly Silver Award and a 2007 Promax Silver Award. He blogs at mickeydubrow.blogspot.com. Mickey lives in Atlanta with his wife.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I thought repeatedly watching Holocaust documentaries as a child had immunized me against their horror. Instead, I found that I felt the pain deeper and carried a certain amount of resentment toward my local Jewish community for overexposing me at such a young age. The films were shown from first grade on.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best cure for writer’s block is to lower your standards. I follow that advice and it works every time. It frees me to take chances I otherwise wouldn’t take.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black by Cookie Mueller; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut; and The Moon of Skulls by Robert E. Howard.
A: I have a home office in what was, before our renovation, the master bedroom. I have a large industrial desk and on the corner of the desk is a cat bed. One of our three cats is always napping in the bed as I write.
Is it Over? Finding Poetic Closure by Jessie Carty
Closure is generally defined as the state of being closed: a definition looping back on itself. Closed can mean: having boundaries, explicitly limited, restricted, self-contained, and self-sufficient. These definitions all say that being closed is to be inside; that closure exists within a specified time and space. How does this notion of closure, then, apply to the writing of poetry? How, as a poet, can you tell that your poem has reached closure? Or, should it?
There aren’t a lot of academic sources that deal specifically with poetic closure. Of these limited resources, the 1968 book Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poem Ends by Barbara Hernstein Smith is the most substantial. How does Smith define poetic closure? Surprisingly, and perhaps appropriately for the post-modernists, Smith doesn’t provide a definitive definition. If I had to pull a definition from her book, however, it would be this, “Closure, then, may be regarded as a modification of structure that makes stasis, or the absence of further continuation” (Smith, 34). The closing portion of a poem, therefore, should create, “in the reader a sense of appropriate cessation. It announces and justifies the absence of further development” (Smith, 36).
Smith’s analysis of poetic closure largely revolves around formal poetry. She writes, “a more common source of the sense of formal completeness, in poetry and elsewhere, is, in fact, that use of repetition that we refer to as symmetry” (Smith, 27). The use of rhyme figures prominently in Smith’s discussion which makes sense given that before the popularity of free verse most formal poetry found closure, at least in part, through the use of rhyme. Smith uses the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost to illustrate successful formal poetic closure:
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay. (Smith, 223)
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” uses a simple rhyme scheme made up of couplets with the first two lines and the last two lines also rhyming with each other. Smith writes that, “rhyme provides, in fact, . . . an additional ‘grouping’ factor [which] binds them even more closely as a single perceptual form” (49-50). Using rhyme, therefore, in a poem gives the reader a structure, an expectation for the poem. A rhymed poem promises a pattern that will be fulfilled. If the pattern is not continued than one would assume there was a purpose for the deviation.
Beyond the use of rhyme, Frost also sets up a circular structure for this poem. The title and the last line of the poem are the same, which creates an echo. Between these lines Frost poses the thesis that, “Nature’s first green is gold / her hardest hue to hold” (1-2) which he then explains by the final line with the truth that “Nothing gold can stay” (8). There is a sense of satisfaction reached with this “answer.”
Why do we seek this satisfaction? Smith turned to Gestalt psychology in an attempt to address this question. Gestalt psychologists argue that humans fundamentally seek a “need,” and that once we assimilate that need we reach a sense of equilibrium. Gestalts believe humans are always seeking equilibrium (Smith, 32). Is that true for everyone? Do all cultures and people seek that kind of balance? Would all cultures and people find satisfactory closure with “Nothing Gold Can Stay”?
Perhaps one can find an answer to the cultural question by looking to another genre. Christopher Vogler writes in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers about the mythic journey as it pertains to cinema. He states that Americans see “a circular form in which there is a sense of closure and completion.” But in Asian, as well as some Australian and European, movies there is a more open-ended approach to storytelling that may include “unanswered questions, ambiguities and unresolved conflicts” (Vogler, 217).
How then can we define acceptable closure when, as a people, we don’t see endings the same? Smith’s definition of poetry definitely comes across as more traditional—American. Smith’s work helps the reader to find closure in formal poetry, or one can at least justify that a poem satisfies the form. What are we then to do with free verse? Smith says that “although the line in a free-verse poem is not constant, it usually reflects a limit of variability” (86). This means that the poet often develops a norm within each individual poem whether it is through such devices as syllabics, sound, or syntax. Smith goes on to say, “the sense of closure in much modern poetry is not very strong, and there is a good reason to suppose it is often not intended to be” (95).
Lyn Hejinian addresses some of the issues around free verse endings in her two essays on closure. Hejinian approaches the issue of poetic closure from a more European/International and post-modern outlook. In May 1985, she published an essay entitled “The Rejection of Closure” in Poetics Journal. (The essay, as well as Hejinian’s other essay which I will reference, are now online and excerpts are quoted from those online sources). Hejinian writes, “Whatever the pleasures, in a fundamental way closure is a fiction—one of the amenities that fantasy or falsehood provides.” She argues for an openness of a text versus closure. Hejinian continues her conversation against closure in the 2001 essay “Continuing Against Closure” when she writes that, “a pet and a pot have much in common, but it’s the fact that they have something not in common (i.e., one has an e where the other has an o) that allows us to recognize each and say something with and about either” (Jacket Magazine/Salt Magazine).
While Smith and Hejinian’s arguments seem to contradict each other, they actually serve as excellent juxtapositions on the topic of poetic closure. They are both responding to the poetic tradition, just from different sides of Frost’s theoretical fence.
Are there only these two types of closure: the circular, formal and/or modern writing and the more post-modern, open-ended approach? I don’t think closure can be so black and white. I pull again from Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers for additional examples of how one might define closure. Vogler writes that there are four ways to look at film endings just as there are four ways to end a sentence: the period, the ellipses, the question mark, and the exclamation point (225).
The period—full stop—is the most direct and common way to end a sentence and may be the most common way to end a story or poem. “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is an example of this type of ending. To examine the other three possible ways to end a poem I will discuss poems from the award winning contemporary poet Ocean Vuong’s chapbook, Burnings. There are many reasons I chose to study Vuong’s work for this essay which include: the quality of his writing, the variety of poems even in a quite short collection, and my interest in his take on closure as a Vietnamese-American poet who is also young and openly gay.
In Vuong’s poem “More Than Sex,” the images pull the reader through a very specific sexual event with lines such as, “His body trembling / in the brilliant ripples / of orgasm” (1-3). But, as the poem progresses, I feel the speaker is wanting more than just that singular sexual experience, and perhaps by extension, from the poem and/or life itself as he begins to question, “Is it right to love / this hunger which binds” (8-9). By the end of the poem the speaker says he gets what he came for, but what he came for is described as, “a sea of lilacs / unfurling / their withered petals” (21-23).
Vuong presents an image/situation, analyzes that item and the implications surrounding it before he provides a conclusion. Vuong’s poetic presentation in “More Than Sex” fits a standard well-thought out argument, and yet, what do those last few lines mean? What exactly has the speaker of Vuong’s poem found? The mystery of this final image is more open-ended. There is more than one possible interpretation, even tone, you can take away from those three short lines. Is the speaker now happy? Is he, in fact, satisfied with his closure/decision/sexual moment? This type of open-ended closure has more in common with Hejinian’s anti-closure arguments than Smith’s discussions of the matter. This particular poem ends with an implied ellipses. For Hejinian this open (elliptical) ending is the preferred form of poetic closure versus what she calls “the unimaginable closed texts” that if they could contain everything “would be insufferable” (Rejection of Closure).
In addition to the period and ellipses as ways to end a sentence/story/poem, there is also the question. A question invites inquiry. A poem that ends with a question, much like one with an ellipses, may not specifically end with a question mark. Having a question (or an implied question) at the end gives the reader a moment to think again about the work presented before the poem ended. A question poem leans more toward avoiding closure as it asks for the reader to reflect on the question the poem raises.
Returning to Vuong we find the poem, “In Defense of Poverty,” which ends with a question. In fact, each of the poem’s two stanzas end with a question. In the final stanza we find the two characters in the poem “curled in front / of the oven’s mouth” (12-13) “listening to rats” (14) in the walls. And yet there is music and comfort in these scenes of seeming lack. The final question Vuong poses is:
Darling, in that absolute darkness.
why did you try to hide it, when I knew,
by the way your finger twitched
inside my palm, that you were smiling? (17-20)
The answer I found from this final question is that the poem’s speaker finds safety and satisfaction in simplicity, but I doubt that is the only interpretation. Throughout Burnings, Vuong raises implied questions as the speakers of his poems deal with questions of identity.
The final type of closure is what I discovered to be my own poetic demon: the exclamation point. There probably aren’t a lot of poets who use many exclamation points in their poems and especially not at the end of their poems. I’m not the only one, however, who has the desire to end a poem with the effect of an exclamation point. The effect of an exclamation point is usually described as an attempt to show strong emotion and/or surprise. Vuong does not use any exclamation points to end his points and, in fact, I don’t think he often goes for that type of ending but I think he comes close with the poem “My Mother Remembers Her Mother.”
This is a dark poem that opens with, “My eyes close into night / thickened with ash and blossoms” (1-2). This is a poem that takes place in a war zone. There is a woman giving herself up to a GI, a soldier that is part of the speaker’s heritage. The speaker of the poem has to reckon with that soldier’s DNA when he says, “a white man / rages in my veins” (28-29) . The words throughout the poem burn, and the poem ends with the very dramatic, “I tell them I was born / because someone was starving” (30-31).
This ending satisfies me as a reader. The starkness of this final image is a revelatory moment that makes me want to reread the poem. With each reading I find more subtle examples of how the hunger ending was inevitable. Vuong writes “hunger neglects pride” (11) and he shows soldiers leaving what we can assume are payments for sexual services via “liquor, salt” (15). The poem’s strong use of imagery creates a pattern that Smith mentions in her discusses of modern poetic forms of closure that don’t involve rhyme and/or other forms/rhythms.
An exclamatory ending can definitely work as Vuong’s poem clearly shows, but a problem arises when the drive to do so, as it is often for me, becomes overused to the point that your work becomes predictable and your readers may find themselves only reading your work to try and find the punch line. I think the tendency to the surprise/twist ending, for me, comes out of a desire to tell a story or to spin an anecdote. Perhaps it is part of my Southern childhood that makes me want to be the best storyteller at any given family gathering.
Some may ask if there is anything wrong with being predictable, especially given that that is the kind of poetic closure that it seems Smith’s study of Gestalt psychology would favor. I would argue that there isn’t anything wrong with being known for a particular type of writing, but if that is the only thing we do are we really growing and/or adding much to the conversation of poetics? Who wants to be a one-trick poetic pony?
When, therefore, is the poem over? This is still a question I struggle with in my own writing. Having these four possible ways to evaluate the endings of poems gives me at least a small light to shine upon my own work. As I try to revise my poems, I can think of the period, the question mark, the ellipses and the exclamation point and ask myself if the particular poem I’m examining is leaning toward one of these types of endings. Not all poems will or should be placed into one of these four categories, but they can be a guide to move one toward the best poetic closure possible for each individual poem because the last thing you want to do is have a poem end just because it has reached the end of the page.
Hejinian, Lyn. “The Rejection of Closure.” Postmodern American Poetry. ed. Paul Hoover. New York: W. W. Norton & company, Inc., 1994. (653-658) (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/essay/237870)
Hejinian, Lyn. “Continuing Against Closure.” Salt Magazine. Issue #13, 2001. Print. or (http://jacketmagazine.com/14/hejinian.html)
Smith, Barbara Hernstein. Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968. Print.
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition. Studio City: Michael Wiese Publications. 2007. Print
Vuong, Ocean. Burnings. Alexander: Sibling Rivalry Press. 2011. Print
Jessie Carty's writing has appeared in publications such as, MARGIE, decomP and Connotation Press. She is the author of five poetry collections that include An Amateur Marriage (Finishing Line, 2012) as well as the award-winning full length poetry collection, Paper House (Folded Word 2010). Jessie is a freelance writer, teacher, and editor. She is also the managing editor of Referential Magazine. She can be found around the web, especially at http://jessiecarty.com.
William Wenthe's Words Before Dawn, reviewed by Christine Adler
Words Before Dawn
Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press, 2012
Of all the universal threads, art and love are perhaps the most similar. Subjective and enigmatic, both impact every individual in some way, across centuries, across cultures, and across continents. Both possess boundless potential for form and expression. Most important, both have the power to transform our views of reality and the world.
William Wenthe’s third collection of poetry, Words Before Dawn, is interwoven with both of these threads. Between bookends of poems on parenthood (its own unique and moving tale of love), the collection captures the world at large and presents it to the reader as something wholly original, as if newly hatched. In free verse, prose poems, and traditional meter, Wenthe situates the rough beauty of the broader world beside the intimacies of familial devotion, illustrating the ways in which art and love connect and ground us. Here, we touch moments both large and small.
At the beginning and end of the Words Before Dawn, Wenthe writes from the perspective of a new father. In the hour before dawn, spent with his infant daughter, Wenthe notes how the word uhte, for which the poem is named,
has haunted me—wondering how that hour
had first called forth a need
to be distinguished by a sound.
Did that first, faint ash of light
augur grief, or gratefulness: uht-care
of the lamenting wife, or uht-song
of the monk’s orison? For me,
in this fulcrum hour, it’s a balance
between body’s sleep-longing, and rest-
lessness of mind.
By this early light, Wenthe foreshadows the poems to follow: meditations on nuances in history, of culture, and of the natural world.
Wenthe’s poems call attention to the subtle ways in which perspective can shift perception. A large city shrinks down to a single street; mundane moments explode in a rush of beauty. In “Stone On Stone: Israel, 1980”:
Two Bedouin women, seated on paving stones old as Herod, only their eyes
and hands appearing from robes and veils. For sale on a blanket before them,
cheeses wrapped in palm leaves. White as bone, dry as sand, tasting mainly of
Sirocco—sandy grit in the teeth. A sunbird hovering by the tumbling springs of
Ein Gedi. And in the desert, by the border with Jordan, the Indian silverbill
nests in the razor wire.
Through this cinematic zooming in and panning out, Wenthe’s pictures of the world become revelatory in both their panoramic scope and intricate detail.
Another example of this cinematic quality is found in “Canard,” the last in a sequence of poems about the Russian jeweler Karl Fabergé:
the Bolsheviks have banned
that art be representative.
What to make, then, of this objet
de fantaisie? A salt-cellar, crafted
in the form of a bidet—
a functional vessel
designed to represent
a vessel for bodily function.
Sepia and opalescent
enamel over turned gold
simulate the seat-back of brocade,
with seed-pearls for tacks;
its gold legs and frame
support a bowl of Siberian jade.
This close study of such an elaborate object through the wider, darker lens of war magnifies its splendor while simultaneously calling into question the very relevance of art. All the while, we stare in fascination.
Fans of Wenthe’s previous collections, Not Till We Are Lost and Birds of Hoboken will also find many birds in this book, such as in the villanelle “Bird Market on the Île de la Cité”:
Plumed crowns and crests, collars, bands, and rings;
turquoise, coral, saffron; feathered iridescence
to provide us with loveliness: prisoned little things
that do no work, and yet are robed like kings.
Seeds and sawdust, though, their meek inheritance,
crowded in wire cages. Some still sing—
Even though Wenthe’s verse is serious and reflective, the collection is punctuated with moments of humor, such as in “Great-Tailed Grackle”:
How you huff your shoulders
like a bodybuilder, lower
your head, crane your neck
till feathers prickle,
and yellow eyes boggle
—two whistles, lark-sweet,
a radio static crackle
and hiss, a bacon-fat
squeal and gurgle, punctuated
by a sort of self-inflicted
The divergence of the collection’s tone—from the intimate view of a new parent to that of international traveler and back again—may feel disjointed to some. But just as parenthood is an opportunity to re-examine the world and be moved by moments that might previously have gone unnoticed, so is the experience of the reader in the hands of a capable poet. Trust him. Through Wenthe’s attentive eyes, Words Before Dawn takes us from the warmth of the nursery on an extensive, unhurried tour, flush with all the grit and the grace of the wider world, then brings us safely home again.
William Wenthe is the author of Not Till We Are Lost and Birds of Hoboken. He has published widely in literary journals, and has received Pushcart Prizes and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Born and raised in New Jersey, he now teaches at Texas Tech University.
Christine Orchanian Adler’s poetry has appeared in Inkwell Journal; Coal: A Poetry Anthology; Penumbra; Tipton Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Her articles, essays, and book reviews have appeared throughout the Northeastern United States and Canada. She blogs at www.feedalltheanimals.blogspot.com, and lives in New York.
Aimee Parkinson's The Innocent Party, reviewed by Cathleen Calbert
The Innocent Party
Rochester: Boa Editions, 2012
Aimee Parkison is a lovely and dreamy writer, so it is unsurprising that the stories in her latest collection, The Innocent Party, have a gauze of poetry wrapped around the frightening narratives. In fact, the first story, “Paints and Papers,” left me with something of a dream-hangover. In this sensuous and ominous tale, an addled, angel-seeing painter, having been clubbed by a youth on the beach, watches and relishes the youths’ bodies and their doom: “the children don’t know they are winos,” but “they are only as lovely as they are lost.” Under the eye of a leering, godlike painter, the denizens of the beach seem both Eloian and a poetically compressed summary of the spent youth of many a wine-soaked beach-goer. They are swimming around my head still.
Thinning and obsessed, artists in other stories here express a violent devotion to their arts. Even the young arsonist in “Shrike” is regarded by our narrator of shifting names as a creator: “I thought of him as more of an artist than an arsonist and more of a gardener, really, than a fire starter. The fire was his creation.” Appropriately, the collection ends with a theater-director whose aesthetic is informed by and devoted to Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. All of these figures might cause a reader to wonder: is this Parkison’s own sense of her work?
Certainly, Parkison taunts and teases, turns surreal, turns cryptic. Her characters change their unnatural hair colors (“so marvelous false, so oddly colored”), change not only names but also their entire identities, morphing into other people. Everyone’s hands seem to tangle in everyone’s hair, even in the clay locks of a sculpture. Oh, what a tangled web we weave? At times, the stories can seem a bit overloaded in their dreamlike symbolism, such as in the dog-children of “Alison’s Idea” and the ghostly lover, who has a new name and a new character after death, in “Dummy.”
Still, I’m bowled over by the sheer beauty of Parkison’s language—she really does write terribly well—and what seem to me her sturdier plot-lines. Stories such as “Warnings” and “Call Me Linda” do more than intrigue me: they move me and satisfy my thirst for narrative. Here, I feel the characters coming to life: I hear them; I see them. Moreover, the paradox of our desire to both create and destroy feels woven into the web of the believable scenes:
“We’ll leave you alone if you just tell us why you did it.”
“Did what?” he asked.
“Shot the crows.”
“Because I liked them,” he said.
Perhaps the description of crows at the end of “Call Me Linda” might serve as my own summation of Parkison’s stories. Our narrator imagines the young murderer of the murder of crows looking through his new rifle’s scope at the black birds on the wing:
Each creature traveling indistinguishable from the others. Nameless, homeless, myriad, free. Unprotected and unspoken for, they found a way to change us from far away, a swoop of dark wings across gray sky.
Parkison accomplishes two interesting things in this ending: we, as readers, are taken into the perception of Isaac, the boy who has destroyed what he delighted in, yet, even after the shootings, the birds still, in our imaginations, fly.
Aimee Parkison writes fiction and poetry. She has an MFA from Cornell University and is an Associate Professor of English at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she teaches creative writing. Her first story collection, Woman with Dark Horses, won the first annual Starcherone Fiction Prize. Parkison's work has appeared in numerous magazines, including Mississippi Review, North American Review, Cimarron Review, Quarterly West, Hayden's Ferry Review, Fiction International, and Denver Quarterly.
Cathleen Calbert is an American poet and writer, author of five poetry collections. Her writing has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, and elsewhere.
Charles Ades Fishman's In the Language of Women, reviewed by John Guzlowski
Charles Adés Fishman
In the Language of Women
Albuquerque: Casa de Snapdragon, 2011
For a lot of contemporary poets, the main and only subject is the self: its moods, its observations, its dreams, and its urges. These poets apparently are following Walt Whitman’s admonition in “Song of Myself” that the poet sing the song of the self. We see such songs pretty much everywhere, in print creative writing journals and in online ones, in new journals and established ones. Such poems seem to be the dominant form today. We read about poets having dreams about their fathers and mothers, watching campfires, going to friends’ funerals, finding seashells, eating dinner with their daughters and granddaughters. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with such poems. I’ve written them myself and would be happy to email them to anyone reading this.
Poetry in part exists to explore the self. Poets write poems to discover what they are writing about and what they think about the things they are writing about. I don’t know what that melon sitting on the table means to me until I try to set it down, until I write about it.
Contemporary poets seem obsessed with singing the song of the self. They seem to have forgotten Whitman’s other admonition in “Song of Myself”—that poets sing the songs of others also, those who don’t have a voice or the wherewithal to sing with it. We see this in those sections of “The Song of Myself” where he celebrates others: husbands and wives, farmers and hunters, laughers and weepers.
Poet Charles Adés Fishman has never forgotten Whitman’s second admonition. In his long and successful career he has written about Holocaust survivors; high school students attending proms in Freehold, NJ; the last speaker of a dying language; and the victims of Hiroshima. Fishman is a poet who listens to others’ songs as much as he listens to his own.
We see this clearly in his latest book, In the Language of Women. In its first poem, “Sisters, The Water is on Fire,” he signals his intent in words evoking Whitman’s own poetry, his bardic voice and openness to others :
Sisters of all nations, this poem is for you. I see that now, as flames of the night sky
stream out above me. . . .
Sisters, I give my voice to your memories, to honor them. I give my words to the music
of all you wish to say.
Fishman’s poems give voice to a variety of women from different historical periods, cultures, and places. Some like Catherine of Sienna and Georgia O’Keefe are well-known, but most, like Natalie Pasca, a friend of Charles Fishman, are not. If one opens the book expecting only to find stories of a certain kind, celebrating for example the empowerment of women, one would be surprised. Fishman is a much better poet and observer than that. Take for instance the poem, “Diwali Morning,” one of two in the book celebrating the life of his friend Lathan Mohan. Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights, and the poem focuses on her memories of how the day was celebrated:
On Diwali morning
her childhood returns: dew
on the burnt grass, birds in flight
singing, pampering by her aunts,
the rustling of new dresses,
delectable meals and sweets
prepared under Grandma’s guidance.
The memories here move toward the joy she feels on that day and her sense of specialness, her knowledge that she is “the victory of light over darkness” and the “most beautiful child in the universe.” Fishman captures the magic of youth in language that is clear and resonant, images that are crisp and universal.
The poems that follow, focusing on other women and other lives, unite real life (sometimes mundane) concerns with moments of heightened luminescence. We read about women going to concerts, holding cats, having childhood fights with their siblings, sledding, shopping, dreaming of marriage, falling asleep with their children, getting lost in the woods at night, swimming, riding busses, watching husbands die, traveling to strange places, learning to write, listening to children cry, visiting Dachau, and cooking with basil, dill, and turmeric.
And often these concerns move subtly toward the spiritual and toward illumination, the sorts of whispers of truth and revelation that for all their quietness seem truer than the big moments of revelation that you see in writers like Whitman, T. S. Eliot, and Mary Oliver. This is probably what speaks to me the most in these excellent poems, the quiet search for meaning, truth, and joy that Charles Adés Fishman offers in In the Language of Women.
Charles Adés Fishman won the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association's Long Island Poet of the Year Award (2006) and the 2007 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. His books include Mortal Companions (Pleasure Dome Press, 1977), The Death Mazurka (Texas Tech UP, 1989), an American Library Association Outstanding Book of the Year that was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (Time Being Books, 2007). His most recent poetry collections are Country of Memory (Uccelli Press) and 5,000 Bells (Cross-Cultural Communications), both 2004, and Chopin's Piano (Time Being Books, 2006). He is currently poetry editor of Prism: An Interdisciplinary Journal For Holocaust Educators and consultant in poetry to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
John Guzlowski is published in The Ontario Review, Atlanta Review, Exquisite Corpse and other journals. His poems about his Polish parents’ experiences in Nazi concentration camps appear in his book Lightning and Ashes. Regarding the Polish edition of these poems, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz said the poems are “astonishing.” Guzlowski blogs about his parents and their experiences at http://lightning-and-ashes.blogspot.com/
Interview with Eric Miles Williamson by Brandon D. Shuler
Eric Miles Williamson
Oakland, Jack London, and Me
Hunstville: Texas Review Press, 2007
Portions of this interview appear in a review essay in Texas Books in Review, published by Texas State University, San Marcos.
Novelist Eric Miles Williamson’s third book and first full length work of literary criticism is at once irreverent, politically incorrect, pugilistic, scathing, confrontational, bold, and, yet, in its daring blue-collar and lyrical prose—beautiful. Williamson, as he writes, “was spawned” in the same East Bay ghettos that produced Jack London a hundred years before. The realities of survival in conditions of abject poverty etched deeply into both authors’ minds, yielding distinctive writing styles that burn brutal and unwavering opinions of right and wrong onto the pages of both men’s works. Williamson writes, "Oakland is a town I understand. It has rules that are clear, and in Oakland you don’t sue people, as is the fashion when offended these sad days; you beat the hell out of them, or, better, you shame them." (Oakland 49)
This type of Darwinian attitude and personalized idea of the Nietzschean Ubermensch is etched deeply into Williamson’s developing psyche. When he was a child, his father dropped him off on a street corner in the Oakland’s inner-city to demonstrate where he would find himself if he “fucked up” in school. To Williamson, he had just two options: become a denizen of what London called The Abyss, or struggle tooth, nail, limb, and mind to climb out of the slums. He chose to fight, and he’s now Professor of English at The University of Texas, Pan American. Williamson has recently been named one of America’s Best 50 Authors by the prestigious French magazine, Transfuge. I interviewed Williamson about Oakland, Jack London, and Me:
Brandon Shuler: Literary criticism is usually presented as being “objective,” even “scientific,” without personal information or attitude on the part of the critic. Your Oakland, Jack London, and Me, as the title suggests, is anything but objective. Why?
Eric Miles Williamson: Objective criticism, right. Since when? Literary critics are often human beings, and human beings have attitudes, political agendas, predispositions, prejudices, sometimes even thoughts. This tenure-grubbing manufactured notion that criticism can be objective is absolutely bogus. Feminists look at texts to root out with their snouts naughty male oppression, Marxists examine the world to display the cruelties of capitalism, Queer Theorists try to turn Hemingway and Jack London and Norman Mailer into repressed homosexuals. If you know a critic’s schtick, you can predict what they’re going to say about any given situation or text, including a Chinese takeout menu or the liner notes to the latest Snoop Dogg CD. Why bother reading them if you already know what they’re going to say? Critics don’t even read each other’s essays.
So I decided to dispense with the Big Lie and just admit it: I’m a biased, judgmental, pompous, self-righteous, howling and bombastic and aesthetically conservative literary critic who thinks he’s right about everything except questions of astrophysics and fashion. To be sure, everything I have to say is based on my own experience as a reader, critic, author, and, not incidentally, person living on this spinning hairball we call earth.
BS: The Atlantic Monthly called Oakland, Jack London, and Me “one of the least politically correct texts of our time.” That’s a pretty tall order for a book of literary criticism. Dr. Williamson, you’ve joined the ranks of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter! Do you have a response to this accusation?
EMW: Well, first of all, I don’t see it as an “accusation” at all. I take it as the highest of compliments. Politically incorrect. What’s politically incorrect is making students read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening over and over again simply because she’s a 19th century American female, even though she’s a dreadful writer. What’s politically incorrect is force feeding The Narrative of Frederick Douglass to students who haven’t read Thoreau, Emerson, Homer, Cervantes, not to mention Shakespeare. If being politically correct means trying to socially engineer the world through teaching inferior books to students, then I’m certainly a very bad man, because I don’t and I’m not going to participate. In Oakland, Jack London, and Me I try to be as honest as I can about how books become that thing we call Literature. The truth in academia is that politics, not aesthetics, dominate literature departments across the country. In Oakland, Jack London, and Me I reckon I say some things that might not delight my more caring, understanding, sympathetic, kind, gentle, egalitarian, sentimental, nurturing, tolerant colleagues and readers. Good. I don’t tolerate mediocrity. I can’t tolerate intellectual trendiness. I won’t tolerate careerist charlatans. It ain’t my job to please people. I leave that to psychiatrists, social workers, and strippers.
BS: You are obviously a champion of the Canon, writing about it reverently. You write that you actually “worship” it.
EMW: Is it possible not to if in one’s writing one aspires to the condition of Art? To be an artist of any variety, one must worship the great dead predecessors. Then one must flog them mercilessly. With a blunt instrument, preferably. There is not enough time in life to read books written by silly or stupid people.
BS: You believe blue-collar authors to be a growing force in the next wave of canonical writers. Will we see London and the rest of the “People of the Abyss” accepted soon, or do you think it will take generations to see the Canon to reflect reality?
EMW: As I write in Oakland, Jack London, and Me, the canon is not formed by English professors, that merry band of poseurs teaching novels, short stories, poems and plays, even though most of them have never written a novel, short story, poem or play. The canon is formed by those who attempt to enter it. So by definition, since the working class in America has had access to higher education for two full generations now, has been producing emulation-worthy books since World War Two’s G.I. Bill, the working class has already begun entering the pantheon. Witness Dagoberto Gilb, Paul Ruffin, Chris Offutt, Barry Hannah, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin. Be on the lookout for Marc Watkins, Steve Davenport, and Larry Fondation.
BS: What do you think your contribution will be?
EMW: As concerns my own writing, I’d not presume to venture an answer to this question. However, as an editor of American Book Review, Boulevard, and Texas Review, I’ll admit I have a bias against Ivy Leaguers and people who drive SUV’s and riding lawnmowers. I do my utmost to sponsor writers from backgrounds that are less than privileged.
BS: What do you have on the table next?
EMW: On the table, meat and potatoes. On the desk, my third novel, which will be published this summer and which I hope will be seen as even more politically incorrect than Oakland, Jack London, and Me. After that my second book of criticism will be published the following year, so I’ve got to clean that up and organize it. On top of that stack of work, I’m currently drafting my fourth novel.
I suppose I got a few more things to say before I shut up.
Irreverent, bold, and abrasive but worthy—Oakland, Jack London, and Me’s demeanor and prose reminds me of an old Duracell commercial—remember, the one with the gruff, burly guy that places the battery on his shoulder and affronts you to “Come on, knock it off. I dare you.”
I crossed the literary tracks and took the dare, survived, and came back with a greater understanding and renewed love for the literature the Ivory Tower told me I should not read. If you read one critical book this year, make it Oakland, Jack London, and Me.
Eric Miles Williamson's first novel, the internationally acclaimed East Bay Grease (Picador USA, 1999), was a PEN/Hemingway Finalist and listed by the Los Angeles Times Book Review as one of the Best Books of 1999. David Brown, producer of such films as Jaws, Driving Miss Daisy, The Player, A Few Good Men, and Chocolat, has recently optioned the film rights and begun project development. Williamson's second novel, Two-Up, was listed by the Kansas City Star and the San Jose Mercury News as one of the best 100 books of 2006, a distinction earned by only 26 novels. His most recent works are Welcome to Oakland (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2010), a collection of short stories, 14 Fictional Positions (Texas Review Press, 2011), and his second collection of criticism Say It Hot (Texas Review Press, 2013).
Jennifer Hamilton is a New Hampshire-based photographer and writer with a serious case of wanderlust. Her quest to travel to all 50 states will end this year with a planned trip to ND, MT, and ID. You can see more of her work and read about her latest adventures at wordspergallon.com.