Welcome to Issue No. 43 of Prime Number Magazine
A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose
Letter from the Editors (or jump to the Table of Contents)
It's time for another issue! And we think it's a good one.
To see work from previous issues, check out the Archives, or order Editors' Selections Volumes 1 and 2, shipping now from Press 53. And keep an eye out for Volume 3, which is in preparation.
In this issue, we continue to bring you distinctive poetry and prose: short stories about academic civil wars and insurance claims adjusters; poems about film buffs and secret rooms; essays about boxers and bears; an interview with Richard Burgin, author of sixteen books including his latest, Hidden Island; and reviews of three novels. Our fiery cover photo is by Pierre Houser.
We are currently reading submissions for Issue 43 updates, Issue 47, 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 750 words, stories and essays up to 5,000 words, poems, book reviews, craft essays, short drama, ideas for interviews, and cover art that reflects the number of a particular issue. If we’ve had to decline your submission, please forgive us and try again!
A number of readers have asked how they might comment on the work they read in the magazine. We’ll look into adding that feature in the future. In the meantime if you are moved to comment I would encourage you to send us an email (email@example.com) and we’ll pass your thoughts along to the contributors. Similarly, if you are a publisher and would like to send us ARCs for us to consider for reviews, please contact us at the above email address. We’re especially interested in reviewing new, recent, or overlooked books from small presses.
One more thing: Prime Number Magazine is published by Press 53, a terrific small press helping to keep literature alive. Please support independent presses and bookstores.
Issue 43, October-December 2013
Interview with Richard Burgin
2 Poems by Dana Curtis
Followed by Q&A
For My Demons
Obsessively collecting boxes because we’ll move
again eventually no matter what
we may have collected
or what harvest is nearly complete. So much
was left to rot, left behind –
and now, I’m answering the door
in a black lace skirt and there he is – so pale
with his long slender fingers and eyes
only linguists might comprehend. Afterward,
mice surrounded the bed.
I said “sit” and they sat.
“Roll over” and they rolled over.
“Play dead” and they were very convincing.
These revolutionaries are very obedient. Afterward,
they chew through the wires, die for the cause.
When he knocks at my door again, we stare,
aghast, at the ornate brass knocker – we inhabit
this rippling world with a hollow tooth and an endless
lunatic glass pouring riot into the street – synecdoche
spells my name and he has
a box full of angry mice,
brand new and on sale.
Four Addictions for the Film Buff
(director of photography)
Wait in the place of no
understanding, the vision of thunder
like the last meal, like memory’s
grasp: in the long-ago, I was
what could be called
not quite a ghost, more
a rumor lost in editing, exhalation.
He looked in the mirror and could
not walk away. We prefer to remember
him in his finest role:
his self without soul, without
craft. Voice shadow: oh what
do we have here? Close-up. Fade out.
It was really her creation – every
word, each setting but she was
melancholy in a bottle of wine, walking
through a black field bleached with
white stones. When she said: “disappear,”
there was an emptiness that withstood
penetration more perfectly than she had
hoped. She says no.
The director has left the set, this
location was never intended. She curls
up in the gazebo. She watches
the River and her disappointment
follows her to a gravity
well and she falls. Every knife
becomes her fingers asleep
in the false red light. Our
Dana Curtis’s second full-length collection of poetry, Camera Stellata, is now available from CW Books. Her first full-length collection, The Body’s Response to Famine, won the Pavement Saw Press Transcontinental Poetry Prize. She has also published seven chapbooks: Book of Disease (in the magazine, The Chapbook), Antiviolet ( Pudding House Press), Pyromythology (Finishing Line Press), Twilight Dogs (Pudding House Press), Incubus/Succubus (West Town Press), Dissolve (Sarasota Poetry Theatre Press), and Swingset Enthralled (Talent House Press). She has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the McKnight Foundation. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Elixir Press and lives in Denver.
Q: “A rumor lost in editing” from “Four Addictions” – poets know that revision is necessary to pare the work down to its essence, but what is lost as well as gained in the process? Have you edited a poem out of existence?
A: Unfortunately, I have edited poems to death. It’s a fine line between necessary editing and unnecessary surgery. I have never learned, with absolute certainty, how to tell the difference. I like to believe I’m getting better at it. As the poet, it can be almost impossible to truly stand outside a poem and see what’s really there, what it needs and what it does not. A poem is a living thing; it should be treated as such. If you chop off the limbs, you might not be able to put them back again. If you fail to remove the unnecessary aspects, the whole poem can be dragged down. Caution is recommended. Do what has to be done without killing the patient.
Q: Might you share with us some of your favorite films, and why?
A: This is a dangerous question. You really don’t want me to get started – I can go on and on. Regardless, the best film I’ve seen in the last few years is The Dead Girl. He shows what can be accomplished with a nontraditional narrative. Many movies choose to concentrate on the murderer. In The Dead Girl, everything revolves around the dead girl. It’s one stunning piece of filmmaking. I loved David Lynch’s Inland Empire. I am also a big fan of the director, Luis Buñuel. I recently saw Buñuel’s unfinished film, Simon of the Desert which led me to some very interesting and enjoyable research on St. Simeon Stylites. I eventually wrote four poems, one of which is eight pages long, because of that movie. I also love old movies: The Thin Man, Sullivan’s Travels, The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, Casablanca,… There are so many. I love independent films and documentaries. As I said, I can go on and on.
Q: What do you hear on first waking at your house?
A: I hear the birds outside my window, I hear the buses in the street, I hear my dog whining to be let out, I hear my own thoughts scrabbling around the room.
3 Poems by B.A. Goodjohn
Followed by Q&A
o My Husband on the One-Month Anniversary of Our Separation
In the absence of children, we placed checks against animals:
four cats and hens to remain with me; the dog moved
to your side of the page along with the sectional sofa,
the king-sized missionary bed, the Smith Mountain watercolors.
While you moved out, bought new sheets, acquired
a phone number I need not learn, installed another
electric perimeter fence around four acres of real estate
I will never visit, I pet-sat my own dog;
at night she paced, chewed my baseball caps to damp spirals,
went cold turkey. Day found her insanely panicked, at peace finally
in the back of our old car, her long blonde nose resting
on the Jeep’s rough carpeting, one ear unflopped and cocked.
Last week, while you pet-sat the cats and hens, I visited my parents
to explain our separation, a situation I thought as fragile as the eggs
the Rhode Island Red had been brooding for a fortnight.
And today you drove eight miles to the airport to pick me up,
and I’m with the dog in the back of the car, her tail beating
a soft tattoo, snout burrowed beneath my leg. A strange land,
this back seat–watching your fingers upon the steering wheel,
your tanned arms, the shirt I have laundered for seven years–
and I wonder at the choices we make: at the dog’s, to hunt
down comfort in cars; at mine, to tell my mother you are stupid
but essentially a good man; at yours, to bring your girlfriend,
to open the car door for her, to give her my front seat.
Hard to Believe
(after Suzanne Gardinier’s “Impossible”)
Was that your breath trapped inside my answering machine
late last night? Still calling. Still speechless. Incredible.
This freesia swaddled in a green sheath. A bud fat pact.
A shifting to shame the loup-garou. Incredible.
Glassed incarceration of our separate cars at Main
and Tenth. Both inmate and visitor. Incredible.
Maggots dance a mole through diamonds scattered on the lawn
—the wing shadow of a thousand crystal starlings. Incredible.
Both your flawed daughters, decked in spring glitter and candied
heels. Smiling. Polite. Our dying eggs. Incredible.
Barbara T. Tom M. Benny B. Judith L. Big Jeff.
Wayne C. Shane B. Vicky D. All dead. Incredible.
My mother, content, planning her last sofa, last stove.
I, content, plan the excision of my womb. Incredible.
That given the round of graves, cremations, burials
at sea, we plant gardens, pregnancies. Incredible.
Beginner, begin with life. Don’t forget your mother,
your meds, bees. Be quiet under critique. Incredible.
Masked and gowned, crooking your day-old granddaughter, tracing
her knuckles with your finger. No, your finger print. Incredible.
Dear Breath, Here are the keys to her lungs. Come and go
as you please. No expectations. Yours, Incredible.
Conversation at Tastee-Freeze: Stage Five
We had other days, their moments
amber-locked—the lawn beyond the museum;
the swings in Miller park; your front room
with its stacked maze of magazines and mail,
cigarette smoke a mezzanine above
the baby grand—all loud with your prophecy:
how my husband would leave; how I would know
when to put the drinking down, where I might go,
who I might find there to help me.
How there are things we cannot predict:
how one day, you would call me beautiful
and I would hear you; how in three years
a beauty spot on the side of your mouth
would signal a movement, a silent protest
of rogue cells, threading like mycelium
across your breasts, into the hollows
beneath your arms to shoal like piranha
in the eddies of your brain, to feed
on everything you had left to tell me.
On the drive to UVA, we drowned
in a dearth of words, your head beating time
on the window. And in the consulting room,
packed with little-boy oncologists
in white coats, too starched, too clean
for this prognosis, your anger ricocheted
off their rookie concern. Random
phrases—Door Jamb! Bean Pole!
Cock Sucker!—snagged in the broken
nets of your memory.
What need had they for stethoscopes today?
Then silence ‘til Amherst when you tap
the steering wheel, say, Snow Queen.
We park facing the freeway, open our windows
so the wind and speeding cars might rock us.
Ice-cream smeared chocolate across your chin,
your hair wild and wind-knotted, you grab
my face between your sticky palms,
say, It’s okay, say, It’s the end
of the world, say, Goodbye, say,
Tsunami. Say, Beautiful, Baby.
B.A. Goodjohn is the author of the novel Sticklebacks and Snow Globes. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in a variety of publications including The Texas Review, Cortland Review, and Connecticut Review. In 2011, she won the Edwin Markham poetry prize. She teaches English at Randolph College in Virginia and blogs at www.bagoodjohn.blogspot.com
Q: You write that “one day, you would call me beautiful/and I would hear you.” Why is it easier for us to accept criticism than praise?
A: I wish I knew. The solving of that secret could have saved me from many therapists’ couches. I’ve never been good at handling compliments. Perhaps it is because there is a part of me that feels somehow fraudulent. When Judith told me I was beautiful that day, she meant I was beautiful inside. At the time, I was unable to accept that. I was days away from heading into a rehab, and I felt far from beautiful. Or perhaps it is because I sense that a compliment somehow brings with it a responsibility: if I accept that I am beautiful/wise/clever/talented—whatever—in this moment, I will have to go on being that thing in the future. And that’s too heavy a burden for me.
Q: What do you hear on first waking at your house?
A: Claws. My cats and the dog wake early and begin to move around the house in search of goodness knows what. I can hear their claws clip and clatter on the hardwood floors. All journeys include a layover at my bedside. It’s as if they are checking to see if my eyes are still closed. Sometimes I feign sleep and they head off again, clicking from room to room. My punishment then is to wake to my iPad. The alarm is a terrible song I downloaded for free in Starbucks, and I am sick of it.
Q: When she says “Snow Queen,” all the richness of that Hans Christian Andersen story was evoked. The Queen kisses her hostage child “only twice: once to numb him from the cold, and the second time to cause him to forget.” Was this story in mind when you wrote – or perhaps you have other thoughts to share on that shattering last stanza.
A: Yes, absolutely. That terrible day and all those that followed struck me numb for many months. It was only on sharing memories of that day at her funeral that I defrosted everything about our friendship and moved towards this poem. I’m blessed that I was kissed only once.
2 Poems by Claudia Serea
Followed by Q&A
The secret room where all the creatures go
Come with me,
I’ll show you a secret room
with furniture borrowed from trees.
Arthritic hands are knotted into chairs.
into headboards and tables,
and a piece of bark holds the mirror.
The winds blows
through empty eye sockets
and whistles through the tiny holes
in flute bones.
Don’t be scared.
In the back of the room,
the old milliner lady sits on a stump
and fashions felt hats
with ears and horns.
She sews fleece and skin
Behind her, on wooden pegs,
squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks
beg to be set free.
You can sit
and watch her needle in
and out of
the shiny button eyes.
Her hands are quick.
In this room no one speaks,
not a peep,
or an open beak.
on the furniture of time.
You’re next, dear,
and makes me a hat
of grass roots
When it rains in Rutherford
Skinny as sticks,
two shadows share
He’s an old heron
that won’t die
even though spring has awakened
seeds in his belly
and grow when it rains.
She’s a mute nightingale
too scared to talk,
to think the thoughts.
It rains in Rutherford for days,
to every moment,
the way water clings to the leaves
to the throat.
they prove they’re alive.
In the small, white house
on Maple Street,
two birds listen
to the rain on the roof.
It rains in Rutherford,
and they can hear
angels walking in the backyard,
Claudia Serea is a Romanian-born poet who immigrated to the U.S. in 1995. Her poems and translations have appeared in New Letters, 5 a.m., Meridian, Word Riot, Apple Valley Review, and many others. A two-time Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, she is the author of Angels & Beasts (Phoenicia Publishing, Canada, 2012), The System (Cold Hub Press, New Zealand, 2012), and To Part Is to Die a Little (Cervena Barva Press, forthcoming). She co-translated The Vanishing Point That Whistles, an Anthology of Contemporary Romanian Poetry (Talisman Publishing, 2011) and translated from the Romanian Adina Dabija’s Beautybeast (Northshore Press, 2012). Read more at cserea.tumblr.com.
Q: You are both poet and translator – how do you approach the words of a poet working in another language, and what can be gained as well as lost in the translation?
A: I approach every translation with a mental rolling of the sleeves. When translating a poem, the satisfaction is similar to what you feel when building something with your hands, a useful object, something that works. There are difficulties, of course. Some of the musicality and the sounds of the original language might be lost, hopefully replaced with new sounds and a new musicality. Rhyme and meter are always hard to reproduce. But, in my view, the gain is far greater than the loss. The translated poem opens a door to a new landscape and takes the reader on a trip to, say, Romania. How fun is that?
Q: You offer a surprising image of “angels walking in the backyard, barefoot.” We think of angels as lifted by wings, not earthbound. What else can you tell us about the nature of your angels?
A: When my daughter was very young, she taught me that angels (and monsters) are real, and not necessarily connected to religion. They walk among us, disguised as people, even as animals. That’s how my book Angels & Beasts was born. The angels eat, sleep, love, and make mistakes. Their wings are merely accessories they can take off and put back on as they please. I continue to write about angels, and they don’t mind showing up in my poems. They are cool like that.
Q: What do you hear on first waking at your house?
A: Birds, lots of birds in my backyard trees. Then, the alarm goes off, always too early.
3 Poems by Daniel Nathan Terry
Followed by Q&A
for Natalia Belén Guadarrama Nicosia (August 29, 2009)
In English its name is the hidden jewel. Found
in 1947 by a poor woodsman in a forest near Nagasaki,
not so far from where the bomb fell
and not so long after, it is the only wild japonica
that is red, edged in white. Adding to its beauty,
its growth is vigorous, though its habit is weeping.
To see it, imagine a flower of red fire giving off white smoke.
Or a duster of cerise feathers edged in chalk,
meant only for small hands. Imagine a cloisonné cup
of red enamel and mother of pearl—something given
by someone believed to be lost, something precious,
if only to you, now returned. Imagine a beautiful bell
Jitsu-getsu-sei (the sun, the moon, and the stars)
camellia japonica var. ‘Higo’
Favored by Samurai who believed
as much in the cultivation of beauty
as in the art of war,
the Higo has never caught on in America.
The center of its flower is a sunburst
of hundreds of golden stamens, perfectly formed.
But the single petals are small and misshapen.
Rather than shun the flowers for their flaw,
the Samurai saw the distorted petals as a reinforcement
of the perfection in the flower’s heart.
Hundreds of years before I planted Jitsu-getsu-sei
in my garden, they wrote poems to its ancestors,
and planted rootings of these Higos
by the graves of friends and lovers.
It is one of the few camellias that drops its aging flowers
cleanly from the branch onto the earth,
each fallen blossom a spirit’s face looking back
at its body, but without any unsightly clinging
to what is already lost.
Punica granatum ‘Wonderful’
In freak cold snaps, gusts of arctic air
brown the white japonicas, ruining them
like fine white linen used thoughtlessly
to wipe up a spill of tea. On those days,
even the southern gardener must look to the dormant
plants that promise, rather than display, beauty.
Look at the pomegranate tree—naked,
leafless—a bouquet of long gray twigs fanning
up from the mulch. Look closer. See
those pale green nubs every few inches
swelling from the smooth bark? Look inside
them, and believe—in a way you would never allow
yourself when it comes to your own promise—
that come Spring, a fringe of green leaves will grace
these limbs, and then more than a hundred
flame-orange flowers, as if there is no end.
And come Fall, when the japonica buds are swelling
with new blooms, this pomegranate will be heavy
with fruit that the first cold night will split, offering
their deep sweetness to your hands like casks
filled with garnets, their flesh to your lips like a wineskin.
Daniel Nathan Terry is the author of four books of poetry: City of Starlings (forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015); Waxwings (Lethe Press, 2012); Capturing the Dead (NFSPS Press, 2008), which won The 2007 Stevens Prize; and a chapbook, Days of Dark Miracles (Seven Kitchens Press, 2011), which was a finalist for the Robin Becker Prize. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in many journals, including Cimarron Review, The Greensboro Review, and New South. He lives in Wilmington, NC, with his husband, artist Benjamin Billingsley. Daniel is currently completing two novels: The Guardian (a YA Queer version of the myth of Eden) and Never Go (a Southern Gothic set in a plantation very like Drayton Hall in South Carolina, near the town Daniel was raised in).
Q: Japan has gifted Carolina gardens with lovely camellias, as you’ve written. What native plant is your favorite, and why?
A: And I have about 80 camellia cultivars in our garden here. Native plant? There are so very many that I love and look for. I suppose if I had to choose, it would have to be the Live Oak. I think of them as a higher life–they are certainly longer lived than any human, and I mean by many centuries. The ones at Drayton Hall (where my new novel, Never Go, is set) are my favorites. They struck me mute the first time I encountered them. They also feature prominently in my poetry–in fact, in my third full-length collection of poetry, City of Starlings (forthcoming from the wonderful Sibling Rivalry Press), they are in so many of the poems. I think it’s their age, what they’ve been witness to, the way they reach out rather than up, as if they love the earth more than the sky. I love them. True story–when we moved from Greensboro to the Cape Fear River basin and looked for a house, Benjamin gave the realtor two requirements for our new home: it had to be under $80,000, and it had to have an extra room that he could use as his painting and printmaking studio. My two requirements? The lot the house was on needed enough room for a camellia “forest,” and it had to have a Live Oak that was at least 100 years old. The realtor thought I was kidding, He said no one buys a house because of a tree. He soon found out that he was mistaken. And so we share our lives with a grand Live Oak at the foot of our garden.
Q: What do you hear on first waking at your house?
A: The dogs. They are still on my old landscaping schedule, and they like to get rolling by 5 a.m. My husband and I don’t mind, as we like to get to work on our art (he is a wonderful painter and printmaker) before the hood wakes. Over the summer, as I was dealing with my second of what will be three spinal fusions, I barely slept due to the pain. Then, I rose before the house and went into the garden in the pre-dawn to get some peace through beauty. It was like clockwork, the songs of others from 2 a.m. until after sunrise: first the Whippoorwill, then the Mockingbirds, then the rooster down the road, then the Cardinals, the Robins, the Wrens, and the Cicadas. Wonderful cacophony of need and desire. I miss it now that fall’s come.
Q: The pomegranate as the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge – what argues for that fruit in place of the apple?
A: Well, Val, I think you know I was a working horticulturist for many years, until I had to give it up, due to a lumbar spinal fusion, nine years ago. You may not know that I was also raised by a Missionary Baptist minister and his wife, my mother who is, like her mother before her a bit of a pagan-Christian. Also, my first novel, The Guardian, (as yet un-submitted, but only in need of a bit of rewriting to get it out there, which I am doing now) dealt with that. The novel is a re-imagined, gay version of the story of the First Family in The Garden, Eve’s heroic actions to defy God for the good of man, and Cain and Abel’s (who is gay and is the object of unrequited love from his Guardian Angel, Ashurel) war. So, I do have a take on the “fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.” I think it was meant to be the pomegranate. Think about how complex, hidden, difficult it is to truly understand and accept the knowledge of good and evil. The pomegranate could not be a more beautiful and difficult fruit: Its juice is like blood-wine. Its flesh is a maze of capsules and seeds. You have to work to eat it, to gain its sweetness and nutrition. And the flowers are as red-orange and bright as a fire is. I think the confusion, the reason so many argue for the apple, is really just the influence of Greek and Roman mythology upon Biblical mythology, but it is also a simple error in language–people confuse the botanical name for apple (Malus) with the word for evil or bad–Malice (or in Latin Malum). This confusion stems from the belief that Eve’s Fall from Grace was a bad thing for man. I don’t see it that way. What good is innocence and ignorance? How do either do or give anything worthwhile to our species?
Personal Earthquakes by Henry Presente
Followed by Q&A
Dear Mr. Stevenson,
I hereby resign as Volunteer Player Transporter for the Earl Stevenson Tennis Classic (ESTC). I realize that there are still three rounds left in the tournament and that my resignation may leave you in the proverbial “lurch,” but since the police have detained me upon your request, I presume you have made other arrangements to convey players to the tennis grounds.
My actions may have cost the world two of the premier talents ever to wield tennis rackets, so yes, I admit that this criminal investigation is merited. However, sir, you have responded reprehensibly to this situation and even if I were a free man, I could not continue to work for someone of your character on an unpaid basis. In my cell, alone with my copies of Tennis World, I sometimes pause to wonder how we could have worked together in the first place.
Then I think back on our interview an eternity of two weeks ago, as the ESTC was still twinkling in the future and not smeared upon the present, and I remember that you are not a bad man, Mr. Stevenson. As I showed you my driver’s license and driving record, you showed me that I was not alone in the world. When you shared your zeal for tennis legend Karlo Kassandri’s unprecedented return to the game at age 43—and his even more improbable success—my family tree grew another limb.
Neither of us could contain our excitement at Karlo’s imminent return to the ESTC, though we were not his fans. Mere fans. Simple fans who adore his laserbeam of a serve and scalpel of a forehand. How many countless tennis stars are equally apt surgeons, dissecting their opponents on the green, grassy operating table in a few short hours? It was not what Karlo removed from his opponents’ bodies and souls, it was what he transplanted into ours: hope, dignity, and gunfire.
Could anyone dispute that when Karlo pulled the trigger during those fateful Olympic Games, we all bled? Not a pedestrian red blood, but a blood as noble and blue as the sky. There he was, standing behind the podium at his press conference, accusing the scoundrels who had demanded that he throw his match. Names dropped from his lips like lead. When the truth of the coarse words he forced through his innocent throat became too heavy, Karlo spoke one more sentence before taking a pistol from his pocket.
Do you remember those words, Mr. Stevenson?
“No jugaré este juego,” he said and then fired a bullet into his own hand, leaving a hole the size of a bleeding walnut.
Perhaps you had to wait for the translation. Until the panic had subsided and Karlo’s body could be whisked away for repair while his spirit grew gangrenous. Until the television reporters could decipher his earthy Basque accent. I do not think you speak Spanish, though his words were simple: “I will not play this game.” But for me, then a humble boy growing up in the sprawl of Las Vegas, the significance shook the soil I stood upon and I felt the tremors of a personal earthquake.
For you see, in that neon city, corruption is not so much what makes the world go round as why the world is round in the first place. It is far easier to cut corners on a sphere than a cube—the work is already done. And here was Karlo, a man who would sacrifice his livelihood in tribute to the world’s amputated corners. Who would offer his own hand as prosthesis.
There is a saying for what those scoundrels, those sporting officials and so-called friends, each asked Karlo to do by lying down on his match: they asked him “to play ball.” But Karlo didn’t want “to play ball,” he only wanted to play tennis.
“No jugaré este juego,” Karlo said and fired the gun into his hand. The blood dripping down my television screen seemed to pool upon the carpet in my family’s living room. Alone, I watched the puddle grow.
My father was at the bar wagering on soccer matches he would never see. He did not keep up with the players or teams, just the fixes. His winnings were complemented by steady checks from an accounting glitch that a friend in the government had arranged. My mother was busy at her department store job, relieving her cash register of the insult of bills with small numbers. It is safe to say that growing up, everything I learned about honesty, I learned from the family’s TV set, which was stolen.
There was no one at home to ruminate upon Karlo’s early retirement with me, though my family probably would have had little to offer but confused laughter. Even under the scrutiny of nonstop news coverage, Karlo’s dignity was incomprehensibly decent. It was too simple to decipher. News anchors would sigh in exasperation trying to explain an act that needed no explanation. I could not understand either. I could only emulate.
I was a gorilla pantomiming Karlo’s virtue, yet Karlo’s example was why I refused to cheat on school exams and Karlo’s example was why I bought my gun . . . in case I ever chanced upon an opportunity to underline dignity with blood. This is the very same gun that has received so much attention in the media of late.
The police must have told you—though I know it makes little difference—that the gun is broken. It would not fire when I bought it fourteen years ago and it would not fire when I held it to Robert Sampson’s terrified—yet somehow still smug—face last week.
Surely, you know that I never intended to use the weapon. After fourteen years sitting in my pocket as my house keys’ constant companion, the gun had become just another key to a door leading nowhere except to my childhood memories. Despite media speculation to the contrary, the chance to meet Karlo was the only reason for my enthusiasm in taking the job as Volunteer Player Transporter. But I admit this enthusiasm was blunted and twisted when you insisted upon driving Karlo to his matches—all of his matches—yourself.
And so that fateful day I found myself behind my car’s steering wheel, surrounded on all sides by heavy traffic and nonstop chatter. Robert Sampson, Karlo’s third-round adversary, would not shut up. He was warming up on me. He was hitting words at me like tennis balls at a brick wall. But I bruise easily.
“I’m gonna ram that old bastard’s serve right back to him,” Sampson kept saying, promising to turn Karlo’s most potent tool against him. Despite my unwavering belief in Karlo, the certainty of this cocky prodigy from Florida punctured my cool. Because it was true that Karlo had come to over-rely on his serve to end matches before his legs would tire, and it was true that Sampson had one of the best returns of serve in the game before that day.
(His doctors assure me that he will still have a long and lucrative career giving tennis lessons. I believe it will be a satisfying one, too. Under the pretense of “giving instruction,” Sampson will have the perfect excuse to exercise his favorite mouth muscles into Olympic form.)
While Robert Sampson babbled on in my backseat, I turned the radio up. I rolled the window down. Though cold rain splashed on my face, I could not awaken from a nightmarish doubt that Sampson would win the match, cutting short Karlo’s miraculous return to the world of tennis. I grew sad and tired and I rested my head on the steering wheel. It was then that I noticed the gun-shaped bulge in my pocket, as if for the first time.
You must believe me that when I pulled out the pistol (the broken pistol, I remind you) and pointed it at Robert Sampson’s chubby face, all I wanted was to finish the car ride in silence. Yes, I admit it was satisfying to see his mouth twist in terror, though in hindsight, his expression could have just been preparation to return a hard serve.
We will never know if Robert Sampson would have bested Karlo, but I saw his reflexes firsthand and they were electric. It would have been a close match.
“Shut up,” I began, but in a flash, Sampson had snatched the gun from my grasp and cracked its butt against my skull. He grabbed the door handle and launched himself out of the car.
How could I have known Sampson would react like that? How could Sampson have known that traffic had begun moving again? How could Sanford Ignatius, proud owner of a turbo-charged Mercedes Benz, have expected a world class tennis player to throw himself in front of his speeding car?
The crash left us in strange, different, terrible places. It delivered me to this jail cell and it sent Robert Sampson to the emergency room. I imagine it propelled Sanford Ignatius back to the Mercedes dealership. But worst of all, it returned Karlo Kassandri to retirement.
Mr. Stevenson, it was only natural that Karlo assumed the dark currents swirling in the tennis cosmos had once again conspired to fix a match, this time in his favor. But you know as well as I that the outcome mattered little to Karlo, only the perceived injustice. How could Karlo have done anything but withdraw from the ESTC in a volcanic torrent of insinuations?
You must forgive his allusions that your tournament is rigged, Mr. Stevenson. You know how Karlo is. He is passionate. He gets carried away. The things he said were borne of ignorance—he does not know that Sampson’s injuries were the product of spontaneous circumstances, as you and I do. You must forgive him openly questioning your integrity.
I know Karlo’s allegations have frightened the sponsors and that the tournament’s future is uncertain. I understand why you feel a public retaliation of words is necessary to save face and business, but Karlo is not a “hot-headed rabble rouser who would rather break a contract than break a sweat” as you claimed in the newspapers. He is not “an old, bounced-out ball.”
You must stop your public relations campaign to malign Karlo’s good name. Please, sir, let the future find Karlo in the Hall of Fame. Let people remember the hope, dignity, and gunfire he brought us. Do it for the confused youngsters sitting at home alone, pondering Karlo’s actions and feeling the ground tremble. Though I may have grown dormant, I pray that the world will always shudder with personal earthquakes.
My lawyer, a well-intentioned, young man, tells me it is a mistake to send this letter. But he has not spoken with you, grasped your hand, and seen that you are more than just a man of business. Crime and criminals are my lawyer’s daily routine. He measures decency only by its distance. Close the gap, Mr. Stevenson.
As a small side note, I must remind you that I too have covered a lot of ground recently. I am enclosing receipts for the gasoline I bought while transporting players during the first two rounds of the tournament. Would you please send the reimbursement check to my attention at the County Prison, care of Officer John Brown? I may be here awhile and this income will cover my subscription to Tennis World, which will soon need renewal.
Thank you for your time.
Your brother in tennis,
Carlos Villa Real
Henry Presente’s creative juices have stained the pages of Harpur Palate, Pear Noir!, The MacGuffin, SmokeLong Quarterly, Jelly Bucket, Reed Magazine, flashquake, and Broken Pencil, among other publications. Occasionally, a Pushcart Prize nomination has sopped up some of the sauce.
Q: What was your inspiration for this story?
A: With this story, I wanted to take a tennis ball, inject it with decency and corruption and good intentions, throw it in the air, serve, and see whether it landed in or out.
Q. Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?
A: I’m a big fan of Harpur Palate and SmokeLong Quarterly.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: I start with a rough grain of sand—be it a character, a concept, or a scenario—and then I add to it and sand it down a few thousand times until there’s something smooth and polished rolling around the computer screen.
Q: What living writer to you admire most and why?
A: I like Alex Shakar for how hard he tries and how he sometimes succeeds. And I like the homeless writers in Washington, DC who sell $1 newspapers filled with their words for the same reasons.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Balance in life and being a good person. But if you’re talking about writing, then we’re talking about a new short story. Something light-hearted but intense.
The Claim Narratives by Stephen Ornes
Followed by Q&A
Stefan's job was to estimate when the end would come, and to whom it would most likely come, and what it would cost, in a variety of situations. He created statistical models, and populated those models with numbers, and ran those models, but really, the whole endeavor came down to money. He calculated monetary values for risks: Workplace injuries; surgical mishaps; automobile malfunctions and crashes; trees falling on houses; dismemberment due to farm equipment. Other actuaries consulted with him on matters of inland marine business. And other matters. Stefan was something of a prodigy in that world. Risk was his thing.
From the beginning, he'd thought of Tina as a calculated risk. They met online. She described herself as “adventurous” and “divorced.” He described himself as “ready to settle” and “perpetually restless.” Like the kid in The Giving Tree, he wrote in an email. He spent 15 years working like a hurricane, and he’d recently been promoted to an executive position at his reinsurance company. After describing himself in an email as “working like a hurricane,” he promptly followed up by explaining to her, in another email, that he was a casualty actuary who calculated risk, and he knew a thing or two about how much work a hurricane did, and how much money that work was worth. In his first draft of that email, he explained the relative merits of fitting a lognormal distribution to losses, and when a gamma or Pareto distribution makes more sense, and why his paper on mixing distributions had become something of a seminal reference in the field, but before he sent the email he deleted those details.
In a third email, he told her again that he worked for a reinsurance company.
“I like that you chose words that go against each other in your profile,” Tina said when she and Stefan met for the first time at a diner. They drank coffee and ordered the same kind of omelet, a western omelet, which at that diner meant they poured Pace picante sauce over some scrambled eggs.
“You’re ‘adventurous,’” he said because he didn’t know what else to say.
“I’d never read The Giving Tree,” she said as she tapped one long fingernail on the rim of a mug that said Peggy’s, “but then I bought a copy and I cried. Oh, I cried! I’ve been married before. No kids, but I wanted kids. I used to party. Not anymore.”
“Me neither,” Stefan said. She held up her coffee cup, and he held up his, and they toasted to not partying anymore. He felt regret even in that toast, but he suspected she did, too. She seemed like the kind of woman who was reluctant to grow up.
One night, after two gin and tonics, he told Tina that he’d gone to rehab for six months to kick a cocaine addiction. He told her that he felt like a widower, like cocaine was his dead spouse and he was grieving, always grieving. He’d finished rehab three years earlier and didn’t think it would be a problem anymore, but he thought she should know. Low risk of resuming addictive habit. (He said nothing about how he estimated the Value at Risk before starting rehab, and how close his calculations had been to the actual financial maximum loss, though that loss was dwarfed by the projected maximum loss of maintaining an expensive habit into middle age.)
“I get it,” Tina said. She had large eyes and golden skin and worked for a marketing firm. She dressed nicely. Stefan smiled because he thought she really did get it.
Another night, he told her that he’d already bought a four-bedroom house on a half-acre lot in Darien. He was renting it to a nice family—a dog, two kids with tutors—until he had his own family. She responded by saying she appreciated his earnestness and his candor, but she probably wouldn’t ever settle with him. He sold the house in Darien.
One night, at a restaurant, she asked him what reinsurance was.
“Insurance companies need insurance,” he said, “to cover their exposure.”
She burst out laughing. “You've already lost me but it sounds hilarious,” she said. “Cover their exposure!” Stefan didn't know what was so hilarious but he laughed, too.
She texted him from the bathroom. “Cvrin my xpozr rofl!” She attached a photo of a toilet paper roll and of her cleavage, taken in the bathroom mirror.
Tina introduced him to sexting. She showed him how to use letters and symbols to fashion vulgar pictures. They took videos of each other, and later of themselves. After they’d been together for two years, she spliced their camera-shot movies, and they watched them together and laughed and then stopped laughing when they got hot and bothered.
Stefan persisted with the talk about getting married and all that. Their disagreements were few and quickly resolved, often in bed. Before Tina, sex had been recreational and occasional and necessary, more like a Windows update or a new insurance model. It had been a variable, decidedly nonparametric, that was influential enough to drive him to meet people. Something interesting, but passing. Sex with Tina made sex seem more like an investment, an accumulation of carnal knowledge with both short-term dividends and the potential to lead to something larger in the future. Returns that, if one turned sex into a parametric variable, could be modeled, analyzed, and used for projections. He told her something like that, once.
She had pushed him off. “Shut the fuck off, actuarial nerd!” she cried. He fell back, surprised. For a moment, she looked horrified. Then her face broke into a smile and she pulled him toward her again. “I’m just kidding, Stefan. It’s hot. Really. I’m glad my tits remind you of work.”
He laughed. “Shut the fuck off?”
“Shut the fuck off,” she said, pushed him onto his back, and climbed on top.
Tina said she liked his dependability, and that he was predictable but still liked to have fun. He rented a yacht and on a moonless, overcast night he asked her to marry him. She couldn’t see the ring, but she gauged its heft with the cushion of her index finger. She bit her bottom lip, got caught up in the moment and said yes, yes, yes, Stefan. Yes, let’s marry.
The next day, she didn’t send a sexy text; she wrote: Baking a casserole! Hungry?
He texted back: Home after work, dear.
They thought it hilarious, this new kind of role-playing, like the day before they'd been feral, and now here they were, domesticated.
She convinced him to live in Greenwich, because she still had to go to the city sometimes and he still worked in Stamford, the reinsurance capital of the world. The nickname of that city was: “The City that Works.” Artless, accurate. A year after the wedding, she became pregnant; two years after the wedding, they had a three-month-old girl named Addie with her mother’s eyes and her father’s big head. Stefan doted, so much so that he surprised himself. Early on, he tried to build a spreadsheet that would help him quantify his affection for the child—he tried to identify his affection on a scale from 1-10, a measurement used in the same equation as what he called his “exhaustion quotient”—but eventually gave up. Tina quit her job in the city. Originally, she’d planned to go back to work but later said going back to work seemed awful.
One day she texted: Lasagna for dinner! Firing the cleaning lady! You? Neither thing was true.
Him: Humming. What else is new?
Her: Running errands, getting gas. Howz work?
He texted back: Rough day at the office.
She texted back: Bring the boss home to dinner! Kay?
And him: But I am the boss!
Her: No lipstick on your collar this time! I’ll kill her! Got it?
Things worsened about the time of Addie’s first birthday. Tina cried a lot at night, after Addie was asleep. Tina said she wondered if she was spending too much time with Addie, spoiling the child, rotting herself, though that hardly seemed possible. She couldn’t imagine going back to work, going back to the city, but maybe she needed a new job. She told Stefan she wanted to do something else. Maybe she wanted to be a nurse. Stefan tried to be supportive, but he felt the ground shift, and he made every effort to hold Addie as often as possible when he was home, to protect her from the tremors he was starting to feel, all the while his head spinning through equations that might help him minimize the ongoing losses, might help minimize the probable maximum. Tina saw therapists, enrolled and then dropped out of programs, found another marketing job. He scrambled to build models that might predict all the different ways the situation might lead, and what the outcomes and losses would be in each situation, and the probability of each situation.
“It’s like everyone pretends to be real,” she told Stefan, in tears, the night she quit for good, “But they’re not. They don’t know what matters. God, was I like that? Did I know what matters?”
“Of course you did,” Stefan said, “You still do.” He wasn’t sure what they were talking about.
“But do I? Do I?” she cried, holding him tighter. “How do you know if you know what matters? You're a . . . a human calculator! Why don’t I even know myself? How can I be a mother? How do you know? This isn't an equation! No matter where I know, people pretend to know what matters and no one does, but everyone rolls on anyway, every day.”
The texts didn’t change—they were still light, still make-believe—though he could detect changes in the tone and color.
Baby needs new shoes.
Hot enough for ya? LOL Turning to ash
Bring home the bacon fry it up in a pan.
One day in mid-November, when Addie was 18 months old, Stefan woke up and felt cold beneath his skin. The house was heated; that wasn’t the problem. Connecticut had entered November: that time of year when the world is wrapped in a dreary and damp blanket. At the beach visible from their bedroom window, cruel winds tumbled over the dark and turbulent waters of the sound and pounded the shore. Clouds washed the world in monochrome.
“It's like a slow suffocation,” was the first thing Tina said to him in the morning. She'd been looking out the window at the clouds. She had bags under her eyes, which were red, and he wondered how sleeplessness would affect projected losses.
He and Tina fought that morning, and he wasn’t sure what they were fighting about. She felt lost and trapped even though they had all the freedom and money they could want. He tried to empathize, but he didn’t really understand; he knew his limitations were painfully visible. They didn’t resolve anything; Tina slammed the door to Addie’s room. Stefan had a nine o’clock meeting and didn’t want to be late, so he calmly left the house and drove to work and had his meeting. Honestly, he didn't know why she was flailing, or how to help her. All he could do was estimate.
After his meeting, he closed the door to his office. The corner office had come with his promotion to a vice-president position. His coworkers said it was perfect for him. Out one side, the windows overlooked a string of large yachts moored to a long dock. Farther out in the sound, small islands appeared like a string of stone turtles. The other windows overlooked a small, old graveyard. The two views were separated by a 90-degree swivel in an expensive chair.
“Wealth!” said a coworker, jabbing his thumb toward the bobbing yachts.
“Or Death!” laughed another, pointing to the rotting teeth in the graveyard.
That day in mid-November, though, he closed his eyes and didn’t look out either window. The thing about risk, he reminded himself, is that it’s theoretical—until the moment something happens. A driver is fine until he crashes; a beachfront mansion stands tall until it’s leveled by a hurricane. Until a diagnosis, the risk of cancer is just a number that means nothing. Stefan believed every risk sat on the abstract possibility of a real incident. And that day felt like that kind of moment. The morning’s fight hadn’t been particularly eventful, but something about it seemed final.
He tried to ignore the uncertainty of it all. He hated uncertainty.
He texted: Big plans for the morning?
He set down the phone and stared at it. Thirty seconds later, which seemed like a long time, it buzzed with a return message.
Pedicure and bon-bons. As always.
Then: You know Addie loves Oprah.
He smiled. Maybe he’d been wrong. He turned to his work.
Then: I'll try not to leave the car running in the garage. JK!
Outside, empty and brittle trees drooped with despondence, the cold settled in and the gray sky looked like a heart attack. In his business, this time of year was known as renewal season. Actuaries reassessed existing contracts to ensure their reinsurance prices were both competitive and profitable. Actuaries scoured data and used software to simulate catastrophic events. Actuaries calculated expected values for payouts by multiplying the likelihood of an event by its expense.
Actuaries analyzed the past to quantify the future. And made lots of money.
Usually, he delegated contract renewals to lesser actuaries. But the company was doing so well that renewals had backed up, and so he set out to price one himself. He pulled a binder from a stack of binders—he preferred looking at the hard copies rather than the numbers on his dead, glowing screen—and began to read. The company applying for reinsurance was a small, Southern insurance company that insured nonprofit organizations. Stefan began absent-mindedly flipping through the pages.
Somewhere out in the office, an underwriter was on fire.
“At the end of the day,” the man barked, loud enough that everyone could hear, even Stefan in his closed office, “what matters is who's pitching and who's catching, and I'm asking you, who's pitching? Can ya tell me that, Brad? Cause I'm ready to send one out of the park. We gotta know who’s on board. This ship is sailing, Brad, and it sounds like you might miss it.”
Stefan shook his head and returned to the file. He'd never liked underwriters. He stopped flipping through the binder and landed on the Claim Narratives. Normally, he didn’t pay attention to them. Claim narratives were one- or two-sentence descriptions of tragedy; these described the claims that had been paid by the insured businesses—and, if the monetary amounts were high enough, the amount that the reinsurance company had paid.
Each line represented a very real event, a collapsing of risk into incident. Something happened, then someone had filed a claim, then the insurance company had paid money. Stefan began to read.
The first one: Goodwill warehouse. Forklift accident. Blindness.
Further down the page: Door opened on Big Brothers Big Sisters van while occupied. Passenger ejected.
And: Claimant struck by Boy Scouts of America ElderShuttle. Quadriplegic.
And: Ramp collapse. Loss of three digits. Skull contusion.
Stefan caught his breath. He began to imagine these scenes. Invariably, in his imagination, they happened on sunny days in quaint small towns where everyone spoke with a drawl. He'd never spent much time in the states covered by this company: Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, part of South Carolina. Stefan had grown up in Sacramento but went to the East Coast for college and never returned. He’d never known the South. But here were its daily tragedies.
Deceased had heart attack in disabled HomeAssist elevator
Collapsed exhibit, children’s museum. Broken arm, concussion.
He read, and read, and read. He tried to crunch some numbers. He couldn’t think straight.
He texted: Sup?
Tina texted: Park. Lib. Store for groceries.
He stared at the phone, waiting for more, but it was silent. The binder lay open. He closed it. He watched the clock on his computer monitor change from 3:00 to 3:01. Outside the sky was darkening. He called it a day.
As he left, the fight with Tina loomed large in his mind. He'd go home and talk to her. Sort it out. Figure out what had changed. Take Addie out for hot chocolate. He turned off the monitor, turned out the light, nodded to the underwriter next door as he walked by the door—the underwriter winked and pointed at him, then inexplicably raised a fist in the air three times—and walked to the elevators.
Traffic wasn't bad yet. Stefan raced up I-95 with the fading sun on his left. It took him only about 15 minutes to get home with no traffic. He pulled into the garage at 3:30 and parked next to Tina's car.
“Tina?” he called as he walked in, though he knew by the heavy quietness that she was out. “Addie?”
He took his phone from his pocket and called her number, but she didn't answer, and he didn't leave a message. He wandered absent-mindedly from room to room, staring only at his phone. Waiting for her to call back. She didn’t. The playroom: Spotless. The bedrooms: Beds made, but definitely uninhabited. The kitchen: Tidy.
Something seemed so wrong about all of this. Tina was not neat; Tina was not tidy. They only ever picked up the mess at night. But now, every room looked unchanged from when they’d gone to bed last night. It was clean last night because the cleaning lady had been there yesterday afternoon.
Stefan sat down on his bed and loosened his tie. He closed his eyes. Tina's car was still in the garage. Not running, and empty. They were probably out for a walk. Park. Library. Groceries.
He stood up and was headed for the kitchen when he peeked into the den and noticed that the laptop was open, though the screen was dark. He'd come home to fix his family, but since they weren't there, nothing would be fixed. He texted Tina.
Busy day at the office?
She texted back, almost immediately: The usual. Trying not to burn things.
He tried to call again, but she didn't answer. There was nothing to do but work, he supposed. He pushed a button on the laptop and the screen bristled as it came to life.
A browser window, open to an unfamiliar web page. An email provider Stefan had never heard of. An email address. An email, on the screen.
Hi Debbie, Sure, it's fine to come earlier. Sorry to have upset you. But no need to panic! We can take her at 9:00 or later, no problem. Let me know if there's any foods she's allergic to for lunch. Mary
Stefan scrolled down.
Mary, I don't think it's going to work, then. I don't know what to do. My first interview is at 10:00 so I really need to drop off my sweet sweet daughter by 9:30 at the latest to get there on time. I just don't know what to do but thanks for your offer. Any way 9:30 or even 9:15 will work? You are an angel you are blessed. God bless you for helping people like me. Debbie.
Stefan recognized that phrase: “You are an angel you are blessed” because Tina often whispered it to Addie at night, the last thing the little girl heard before falling asleep. Stefan told himself to close the window but read the rest of the email chain instead.
Dear Debbie, You and your sweet daughter can stop worrying for today, anyway! Bob and I will be home all day. My kids are grown and away, and I miss having a toddler in the house. We'll be up and at 'em by 10. We live at 3510 Rider Place in Darien – it's a gray, two-story house on the corner. We'll be watching for you! Blessings on you Debbie, and good luck in your interview! Mary
Mary, I feel like the luckiest mom in Connecticut. Finally I have an interview for a job, and I don't have to cancel because of my sweet Angel daughter. You were sent to me by God. I know it! And I know that my late husband is smiling down on me from heaven, and smiling down on you, too, and things are going to change for me and for Addie. I just know it. Love, Debbie
The last email read:
Dear Debbie, My husband showed me your notice on Craig's List. We are so sorry for your loss, so very sorry, and I know what it's like to be scraping by. Trust me! I was a single mom to three wonderful kids, but it was tough. They grew up. I met Bob, a wonderful man. I'm not scraping by now, and I want to tell you that things can change. Don't despair. I can watch your daughter today. I'm available and home, and I can assure you that our house is safe and we will take the best care of her. I'm sure you've received a dozen other offers, but if you still need someone, please email me back. Love, Mary Pelham
Stefan sat down. He clicked on the inbox and found other messages from other people, all sent the night before, all offering “Debbie” to take care of her dear daughter. He closed his eyes, then he opened them again. His heart raced; Addie was at the home of Mary and Bob. Or was she?
He texted Tina: 's news?
Tina: Boring day. No new tale to tell!
Him: Early dinner?
Tina: No way! The house is a mess. Maybe take out.
Stefan felt sick. He called; Tina didn't answer. He looked again through the inbox and found, the week before, and the week before that, other, similar messages. From well-wishers. They offered help to “Susan” or “Vicky” or “Sarah.” Addie had been spending many days in the homes of strangers.
Then he found email messages from someone else. Doug. One from Tina to Doug, from the night before.
Big D, and I know you know what I mean by Big, Still on for Six Flags! Pick us up at 9 – A goes to Darien, on the way. Back by 4, okay? Can't wait - Xoxo, Teen
Stefan looked out the window; snow had begun to fall.
He wrote down the address and ran to his car. He felt sick. He drove to Darien. It was 3:30.
Mary Pelham was a heavy woman with a worn face, mid-60s, standing behind a screen door and pinching her bottom lip. Her other hand was on her hip.
“My daughter's here,” Stefan said. “Addie. You have my daughter.”
Mary's eyes widened, and she put both hands on her hips.
“I'm sorry,” she said, nodding. “I think you have the wrong house.”
“Mary Pelham, 3510 Rider Place, Darien. You have my daughter. Don't you? Please.”
“Please leave, sir. You're making me quite uncomfortable.”
“My wife's name is Tina but she told you her name was Debbie. She said I was dead, which isn't true, and I think she's with someone named Doug. Addie is my daughter and I want to take her home.”
She strained to look past him, over his shoulder, at his car. He looked at his silent phone. It was 4:00; the sun was falling; a street light flickered on behind him. The light dusting of snow had left everything dreamy and white.
“Addie!” he called into the house.
“No!” Mary said, shuffling to stand in front of him. “I don't know who you are, or who Addie is, but I will call the police.”
“Yes,” he said. “Let's call the police. You will be charged with kidnapping. Addie is the little girl you were taking care of today.”
“No,” she said. “Please go away.”
“Daddy!” cried Addie, running up behind Mary Pelham. She had two braids in her blond hair, one on each side. “Surprise! Ha ha ha! Where's mommy? I am an Angel.”
Stefan tried to smile, then he looked at Mary and yanked on the screen door. It had been locked, but he pulled so hard it broke. A piece of the metal latch landed on the concrete step. Stefan picked it up and handed it to Mary.
He was about to speak when Addie jumped into his arms. She had dark circles under her eyes; she went limp in his arms. Stefan glared at Mary, then carried his daughter to the car and installed her in her seat in the back, facing forward. He started the car, turned on the heat, and told her they would leave soon. By the time he turned around, she was asleep. He stepped out of the car again.
“She didn't nap,” Mary said.
“When are the police going to be here?” Stefan asked.
“I didn't call,” Mary said. “But if you leave before the girl's mother gets here, I will. I've got your plates memorized.”
Stefan folded his arms and leaned against the car. Snow covered the lawn, but there were footprints running through the front yard. It wasn't a bad street. Mary didn't come across as a bad person. Addie had probably been safe. More lights popped on overhead; they were bright, making each passing car look like it came from a showroom. Stefan got out his phone.
Where r u? He typed.
Out there, in the dark somewhere, her fingertips dancing lightly across the lighted keys.
She texted back: Home. Making dinner.
Something harsh and tight moved across Stefan's face.
He glanced at the car where Addie was sleeping. Please don't be like us, he thought.
He texted: How's our girl?
Tina: Sound asleep. Long nap.
What's for dinner? He typed, but held his finger over “send” without pushing.
“I think that's her,” Mary said. “She had a ride to her interview.”
Stefan looked up.
“I don't think there was an interview,” he said.
A white sedan approached. It slowed as it neared. It passed under the nearest streetlight, and Stefan saw a flurry of hands in the front seat. Tina's hands. A reflection caught her face. She sat in the passenger seat; a man with a short beard drove. Stefan had never seen the man before. The driver looked confused; Tina put her hand over her mouth and stared down at her lap, right where the phone must be sitting. Time seemed to slow. She looked up again.
Their eyes met, and without looking down Stefan pushed “send.” He held her eyes as the car passed directly in front of the driveway. Her face was blank, but then her eyes quickly shifted down. The message had arrived on her phone. It probably made that annoying sound of a passing jetliner. She looked up again; she held her bottom lip between her teeth. Then she was looking backward as they passed. Then she and her companion Doug were gone, the sedan was gone, and then it turned a corner, and Stefan and Addie were alone in the driveway and it was just as quiet as it had been before. Maybe more quiet.
He thought his body would snap in a million places. In all his figuring, all the models, this variable had never appeared, never been valued, never had a probability attached to it. His face felt cold within and without. This was his hurricane; his accident; his blindness; his paralysis; his forklift. This was the promise of risk, fulfilled; this was a claim. This was an act of God.
Stefan's phone vibrated.
Lasagna. See you soon?
I'll be home late. He texted. Don't wait up. He didn't know why he wrote back. After a hurricane, people don't come out of their houses and talk about the weather. He knew that the smart way to see a catastrophe was to look forward, press on, begin the reconstruction, but for a few more seconds he appreciated having a last tether to what had already been lost.
Mary sighed. Stefan had forgotten she was there. He looked at her, saw her breath escape her mouth and envelop her like a wall. She'd come out of the house and was wearing a coat over her knee-length dress, and clogs.
“I guess I'm a fool, after all,” she said, slapping her hand on her thighs and walking away, into the house. “No cops,” she called over her shoulder.
“Wait,” Stefan said. “Wait. What do I owe you?”
Mary turned around and shook her head. “You don't.”
“For taking care... For the door. I should pay you some money.”
“Please don't,” Mary said.
“For taking care of Addie.”
But that's how we know this happened, he thought. That's how we know.
Mary walked into the house, and the broken door slammed behind her, then bounced, then shut again, then bounced less, then shut quieter, then finally was still, half-open. Stefan, alone in the snow in the yard, slowly closed his wallet and returned to the car, where his daughter was sleeping. He leaned into the backseat and cupped her cheek in his hand. It was warm and soft, and she smiled in her sleep.
Stephen Ornes writes from a converted shed in his backyard in Nashville, Tenn. His work has also appeared in One Story, Arcadia, Vestal Review, the New Haven Review, and elsewhere. Visit him online at stephenornes.com.
Q: What was your inspiration for this story?
A: I worked for a short while at a reinsurance company in Stamford, Connecticut, and I drew details from that experience for this story. Unlike Stefan, the prodigious actuary and protagonist of my story, I was not particularly well-suited for the actuarial life. The idea for the plot came from events that unfolded while I was living in Connecticut: A mother posted fabricated stories of tragedy and loss on Craig's List, soliciting strangers to watch her children while she claimed to be looking for a job. I wondered: Where could that lead?
Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?
A: One Story, PANK, Glimmer Train.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: I have three children and a full-time writing job, so writing fiction is done furtively and desperately, in small pieces, during time in-between other commitments.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm shopping around a science-fiction novel about the scientist who finds a pocket of dark matter embedded in the Earth's crust. I'm also working on a novel about an 18th century mathematician.
This Hallowed Ground by Michael K. Bourdaghs
Followed by Q&A
Mischa encountered a samurai on his second day in Tokyo. When he stepped off the local commuter train at Tama that morning, none of the other disembarking passengers paid any heed to the life-sized wooden cutout propped up in a corner of the station. As everyone else walked straight for the exit, Mischa paused in front of the crudely drawn figure. One of the samurai’s stubby hands pawed the hilt of his sword, while the other hid behind his back—a pose that relieved the amateur artist of any need to paint it. Mischa adopted an identical posture in his own rather portly body. The plywood warrior delighted Mischa; everything about Japan delighted him.
A random thought popped into his mind: how short people were in the old days! The samurai’s top knot barely reached Mischa’s chin. A second random thought: the black-and-white memory of a 1959 vacation snapshot, nine-year-old Mischa poking his face through a hole in a cutout of Mount Rushmore to pose as Lincoln. His father, still wearing his seed corn cap, took the place of Jefferson; his mother had snapped the photo.
Fifty years later Mischa found himself playing tourist again. But it was a graying Mischa who had traveled to Japan—a Mischa with a divorce and two heart operations to his curriculum vitae, a Mischa who had devoted the previous year to nursing his father across the terminal stages of a vicious compound of Alzheimer’s and melanoma. He had arrived at Tama Station on this cold March morning to inspect the flat that in two days would become his home for the year. He carried in his pocket a small map with instructions on how to get from his hotel in Musashi-sakai to the apartment, two stops away on the Seibu-Tamagawa line.
Mischa bid sayonara to the wooden samurai. Outside the station gate he was delighted to discover a small open-air market, with a fruit stand, a vegetable shop, and a fish monger. Hewing to the handwritten map, he wended his way through a maze of narrow streets before locating the building. Fuchu Heights Terrace, the sign said in English. There was no elevator. He climbed an open-air staircase to the third floor, puffing with the effort, and unlocked the door to #302. A dim light greeted him: the beige curtains were all drawn shut against the morning sunlight. He remembered to remove his shoes in the entryway. In stocking-feet, he walked the length of the flat: it took nine seconds, roundtrip. A miniature dining table with two chairs in the front room, a twin bed, dresser, and metal desk in the back. Mischa could already glimpse comic stories he would tell back home in Iowa about the telephone-booth bathroom, about the door lintels that scraped his head. It was all delightful.
He locked up the apartment and retraced his route to the station. Waiting for the train, he again studied the wooden samurai, which he decided must have been a local classroom art project. The warrior’s name was emblazoned across his chest, three Chinese characters in thick black brushstrokes. Mischa had thrown himself into studying Japanese six months earlier, when the possibility of this visiting professor gig first arose. But of the thousands of characters used in the language, his aging brain had mastered only a few dozen. By a stroke of luck, one of these was the first character in the samurai’s name: Mischa knew it meant “nearby” or “close at hand.” He pulled out the small leatherbound notebook he kept in his jacket pocket and traced the three characters.
He needed to keep moving to hold off the jet lag. Instead of returning to his hotel, he took the Chuo Line train into the city center and visited Tokyo Tower. He walked from there to Zojoji Temple, where he admired the stately cedar planted in 1879 by Ulysses S. Grant. He hailed a taxi and showed the driver a scrap of paper on which the hotel desk clerk had written “Ochanomizu” in Japanese. According to his guidebook, Ochanomizu was full of music shops. Mischa needed to buy an electric cello; he’d left his acoustic Dunov back home. A new electric cello would allow him to practice through headphones without disturbing his neighbors here in Tokyo—an issue that never arose at his Iowa farmhouse.
Mischa had been playing cello since childhood. But this would be his first electric instrument.
The Japanese academic year began on April Fool’s Day: a delightful coincidence. At ten o’clock on the first morning of Mischa’s term as Visiting Professor at Musashino Women’s University, he sipped aromatic coffee in the office of Fujiwara-sensei, the man whose unexpected invitation had nudged into motion the chain of events that carried Mischa across the Pacific.
Fujiwara’s letter arrived with perspicuous timing. Mischa’s father had just entered the grim final spiral of his illness. Moreover, at Mayo College a posse of assistant professors had burst into open rebellion, demanding a revised curriculum that emphasized relevance and seemed to center on the lowest forms of culture: animated cartoons, gangsta rap, eating disorders. It was only Mischa’s second year at Mayo—he’d resigned tenure at Southwest Tennessee State to move back home to look after his father—and he hesitated to entangle himself in internecine disputes. But he was also a lover of good novels and poetry and almost involuntarily found himself enlisted into the conservative opposition, the aging full professors who took to calling themselves the “White Guard.”
Mischa felt wary among his own faction. His co-conspirators were all, like him, nearing retirement. Yet the others seemed more polished and urbane. They drank wine, not whiskey. Around them Mischa felt rumpled and sweaty, ever the awkward farmboy. They were genuine scholars, too; Mischa hadn’t published a serious piece in years, and he suspected they sneered at the book reviews of contemporary fiction he wrote for several Midwest newspapers. Moreover, for all their rallying around the battle flag of Literature, his colleagues seemed to have little use for living writers. When they drafted their counter-manifesto for the Board of Regents, insisting that Mayo adopt a Great Books curriculum, Mischa suggested four contemporary titles for the list. His proposal floated away unnoticed, a humble bit of cottonwood fluff in the summer breeze.
Fujiwara-sensei’s invitation arrived just as Mischa began to sense that, whatever the outcome of the curriculum wars, he would end up on the losing side. It was a wistful realization; his heart wasn’t in this battle. For more than a year, he’d spent every evening in the nursing home, trying to satisfy the dying widower’s incoherent demands. With his father’s end now mercifully in sight, Mischa had no stomach for faculty meetings spent bickering over graduation requirements. Mischa’s current desires were much simpler: he wanted to eat, drink, fuck, laugh, waltz, ice skate, play cello, smell strong coffee. He wanted to throw his arms out to hug the world and see if it might still hug him back. A year in Japan sounded, in a word, delightful.
And so on the morning of April Fool’s Day Mischa sat in Fujiwara’s office. Hardcovers and paperbacks lined the shelves in the room, each meticulously wrapped in a clear vinyl protector. They included titles Mischa remembered from his grad school days in Minneapolis: I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, William Empson. Fujiwara specialized in British Romantic poetry. But in his letter he praised Mischa’s scholarship—he had somehow dug up the old articles on Carl Sandburg, Stephen Crane, Walt Whitman.
Fujiwara seemed the most decent, cultured human on the planet. In a photograph hanging behind his desk, Fujiwara stood with several other men, all clad in somber black kimonos. That morning in his office he wore a tailored charcoal suit with a royal-blue silk necktie. His distinguished gray hair was combed impeccably, and he wore utterly unfashionable—and therefore somehow utterly elegant—steel-rimmed eyeglasses. Mischa admired the delicate touch with which Fujiwara measured out spoonfuls of coffee beans into a hand-cranked grinder. He brewed one cup at a time, gracefully decanting water from a tea kettle into the paper filter, letting it seep down into a glossy china cup that sat on a proper saucer.
“You will find our Japanese students quite shy and reluctant to speak or even to think,” he told Mischa. Fujiwara’s English preserved traces of the two years he’d spent at Oxford in the 1970s. “They are our lost generation, raised without any feel for literature. They grew up on video games and cell phones, with parents who read only comic books.”
“They sound like my students in Iowa,” Mischa said.
“No! It is much worse here. In America, you have standards.” Fujiwara’s eyes glinted, and Mischa understood there was no margin for joking here. “We even have professors at this institution who prefer to teach television commercials and comic books. You must help me hold the line. You must give our students real literature. That is why you are here.”
Mischa liked Fujiwara—the man radiated sheer decency. But this summons to battle was identical to the one that had sent Mischa fleeing Cedar Rapids, a deserter from the culture wars. Time to venture boldly forth and change the subject. Mischa pulled out his notebook and pointed to the three Chinese characters he copied down at the train station.
“Ah, yes. Kondo Isami. A great samurai from this area. In the 1860s, during the last years of the shogun, he led the Shinsengumi. It was a last-ditch effort to preserve the old order. I suppose they were what we today would call a death squad, roaming the streets of Kyoto, cutting down advocates of reform. In the end they were defeated, but they became legendary for their sincerity.”
Fujiwara-sensei picked up an old-fashioned Mont Blanc fountain pen from his desk. On the notepad, just above Mischa’s childish scrawl, he sketched in the correct forms for the three characters, his handwriting a work of art, with each figure resting in perfect equipoise. A small gesture of correction: with no fuss, Fujiwara had demonstrated the proper form, and Mischa knew that he should follow.
After coffee, Fujiwara guided Mischa to the campus personnel office to sign paperwork. In the corridor, another professor strode up to them and extended his hand.
“You must be Professor Kossorfsky. I am really delighted to meet you,” the man said, and he seemed to mean it: his face beamed. “My name is Oda. Nobuhiko Oda.” The man spoke American-inflected English, genus California. He was clad from head to foot in black, and there was not a hair on his head save for the eyebrows and a Clark Gable moustache. “I saw your review of Cold Mountain in the Chicago Tribune. I thought you captured it perfectly. Really, really terrific stuff!”
Oda seemed a lively fellow. Mischa promised to visit his office later. Fujiwara, however, preserved a frosty silence throughout the encounter, refusing even to return Oda’s initial greeting. Mischa had been negotiating the emotional trench lines of campus life long enough to read this silence: here were two professors embroiled in bloody civil war.
A week into spring semester, Mischa figured out that he could walk home to the apartment from campus. According to the bilingual map he received at Fuchu City Hall, Fuchu Heights Terrace was only three kilometers from his office, and his heart surgeon had, after all, ordered him to do plenty of walking.
He set out one warm afternoon, armed with the municipal map. Halfway home, a little out of breath, he paused before a tiny garden, an overgrown triangle wedged into an intersection formed by three oddly angled streets. One corner of the garden incorporated a miniature Shinto shrine: Mischa recognized the white paper zigzags that hung from the eaves, marking off sacred space. In another corner stood a historical marker written in Japanese. It included a photograph of a samurai—the same one, Mischa suspected, that he had encountered at Tama Station. He pulled out his notebook and compared the crude characters he had jotted down, as well as Fujiwara’s elegant blue-ink script, with those on the plaque. It was the same man: Kondo Isami. The samurai’s black-and-white face looked grim—like those old photos of Sitting Bull.
How was this spot linked to Kondo? Mischa copied down the title phrase from the plaque and resumed his stroll. He stopped in at the neighborhood Seven Eleven to pick up a boxed bento lunch, as he had done every night since moving into the apartment. The young clerks knew him by sight, knew that he would make hapless efforts to chatter in Japanese, and they smiled when they saw him coming. The bento were cheap, healthy, and tasty—even if Mischa couldn’t always identify the vegetables and sea creatures they contained. Even if they sometimes included glutinous mysteries that he had a hard time classifying as either vegetable or fish.
At the apartment he chopsticked his way through dinner. His lack of grace with the plain wooden utensils kept him amused. He used his fingers to retrieve bits of food he inadvertently catapulted across the table. After eating he turned on his laptop and linked to a Japanese-English dictionary. With some difficulty, he typed in the legend from the historical marker and worked out a translation: “Birthplace of Kondo Isami, leader of the Shinsengumi.” First random thought: I live on hallowed ground. Second random thought: might Kondo have crossed paths with General Grant when the ex-president traveled to Japan and planted that cedar?
Mischa plugged in his new electric cello. He rather liked the instrument, though it had cost nearly twice as much as expected. He poured himself a glass of Nikka Black Label whiskey: his reward for the virtuous act of walking home. He took a sip, pulled the headphones over his ears, and launched into Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Cello, a piece he had been trying to master for a decade. He bowed straight through without pausing to correct mistakes—stopping only to fortify himself with sips of bourbon each time he turned pages in the score. Even in his cloddish performance, the cello music piping into his ears filled him with a sense of well-being and warmth. His windows were open, and outside the cherry blossoms were coming into bloom. Delightful.
Mischa’s Thursday afternoon American modernism class was reading As I Lay Dying. His provisional appraisal of his Japanese students, one month into the visiting professorship: they beamed with eagerness, but as scholars of American literature they were hopeless. Faulkner’s gothic sentences escaped their grasp, like Mischa trying to eat tofu with chopsticks. Before the semester began, he planned to lecture on symbolism, on the kaleidoscoping of viewpoints, on the cultural contexts of Faulkner’s modernism. The first day of the term, however, he collided with an iron truth: he would need to devote his classroom time to dragging the students sentence-by-sentence across the pages of the novel. Each week he watched their eyes glaze over with boredom, but there was no way around it. It wasn’t only Addie Bundren who lay dying before her kinfolk; Mischa was dying here, too, and his death was going to be reenacted every Thursday afternoon until spring term ended.
Halfway through his fifth class meeting Mischa could bear it no longer. He paused mid-lecture. “Any questions? Or comments?” he asked blindly.
Ten seconds of abysmal silence. But then, slowly, thankfully, a hand rose in the back. Mischa couldn’t remember the student’s name; she had never spoken up before. Mischa nodded at her.
She spoke in surprisingly natural English. “Professor, is it true that Faulkner worked in Hollywood? Oda-sensei says that Faulkner wrote for the movies.”
Oda: Fujiwara’s mortal enemy. Mischa had learned that when Oda and Fujiwara passed in the hallway, neither acknowledged the other’s presence, like ghosts occupying different spectral dimensions. Oda was a Cultural Studies maven, the genuine article—trained at Berkeley by no less than Judith Butler. He taught classes on cinema, globalization, and digital remediation. He seemed friendly enough and always had a word of chit-chat when Mischa encountered him. Unlike Fujiwara, Oda enjoyed enormous popularity among students.
“Yes,” Mischa responded. “Like many American writers in the 1930s, Faulkner spent time in Hollywood. He was well paid—and miserable. When they cleaned out his desk after he quit, they found a dozen empty whiskey bottles and a notebook. On the pages of that notebook, he had written the same sentence over and over, hundreds of times: ‘Boy meets girl. Boy meets girl. Boy meets girl….’”
Silence for several seconds—then a tittering of laughter broke out across the room, like a soft summer rain. They understood the joke! It was the first evidence of life Mischa had seen all day.
Another hand shot up. This particular hand was attached to the body of Hiromi Kato, an alarmingly sexy junior who always sat in the second row, her casual appearance meticulously groomed: ripped-out holes in her jeans calculated for maximum impact, her tinted brown hair tossed into precisely the same flirtatious mounds each week. She prided herself on her English. The first day of class she stayed after to inform Mischa that she spent the previous summer attending an ESL program at UCLA. She made a point of asking a single question each week.
“Professor, could we watch a movie that Faulkner wrote?” she asked, flashing doe-like eyes at him. “It would help us understand him.”
A surge of energy swept through the room. Maybe, Mischa pondered. Maybe they could watch something Faulkner worked on. To Have and To Have Not? But no. No, no, no. Showing a movie in literature class would betray Fujiwara. Mischa did the only honorable thing: he lied.
“Thank you for that suggestion. But none of Faulkner’s films are available today.” The room wilted. Hiromi Kato’s eyes drifted up to the ceiling, a look of boredom spreading across her silken face. No! And so, hardly pausing to assess the consequences, Mischa strode forward into another, bigger lie. He enjoyed inventing absurd yarns, seeing how far he could push them: once, at Southwest Tennessee State, he convinced a freshman comp class that he’d been a 1960s pop idol in Denmark. “The truth is, after Faulkner died his family sued the movie studios, claiming the films damaged his reputation. The judge ordered all copies withdrawn from circulation. They were locked away in an underground vault in the Sierra Madre Mountains. There they remain to this day, under twenty-four hour armed guard.”
The class perked up again. Yes! “A few brave collectors defied the judge’s order. If you’re lucky, you can see an illegal pirate screening. I’ve managed to see three so far.” Hiromi Kato was gazing at him again. “Six or seven years ago, I was watching one at an underground cinema in Chicago when the police raided the joint. I escaped by climbing out a back window.”
Maybe he could get a copy of something on DVD. Surely he could explain matters to Fujiwara. “Would you really like to see one?” he asked, dropping his voice a notch to affect a conspiratorial tone. The classroom exploded with affirmation. “Okay, I’ll try to pull some strings. But you must keep this secret. If it gets out that I’m showing a Faulkner movie, I might get deported from Japan. I’d have to return my Ph.D. to the University of Minnesota. It’d be a very serious matter.”
Mischa fought hard to keep from grinning at his own drollery.
Mischa floated along on a stream of empyrean satisfaction as he walked home that evening. He recalled with pleasure the whopper he’d concocted. Of course, half the class was mystified by everything he said, as usual, but the other half seemed to get a little kick out of it. Literature was supposed to be joyful, and today he managed to blow a few soap bubbles of joy into his classroom. He walked past Kondo Isami’s birthplace and nodded a friendly greeting to the glum face in the photograph. He stopped in at the Seven-Eleven to pick up supper.
Back on campus, however, trouble was abrew. Within minutes of the end of Mischa’s class, the news spread through the faculty and student body like flame seeking oxygen: the visiting professor from America would screen a banned film in his class. Fujiwara received three e-mails transmitting the rumor; his fingers nervously tugged at the cap of a fountain pen as he read them. Was Kossorfsky mad? Fujiwara listened to Handel’s “Water Music” in a vain attempt to calm his agitated soul. He stayed on late in his office that night, repeatedly standing up from his desk to pace the room, only to return to the chair.
Oda, on the other hand, was deluged with seventeen text messages on his smartphone as he walked to his yoga class off campus. He toyed with his moustache as he read them. He’d had his doubts at first, given that the man was sponsored by that dinosaur Fujiwara, but Oda now rather liked this American. After yoga he returned to his small campus apartment. He spent his evening downloading illegal copies of every film listed under Faulkner’s name in the IMDB database.
Back home in Fuchu Heights Terrace, Mischa finished his bento (grilled salmon) and poured his nightly tumbler of bourbon. He sat down at his laptop. “Kondo Isami,” he Googled, Yahooed, and Binged. With each sweep across the Internet, he uncovered more webpages devoted to Kondo, the Shinsengumi, and the death throes of the shogunate. The blurry painted face Mischa had first encountered at Tama Station drew into sharper focus, as the wooden cutout acquired flesh, muscles, and bones. Kondo, it turned out, wasn’t even born into the warrior caste: he was the son of lowly peasants. In the lawless 1860s, with the feudal order crumbling, Kondo’s skill as a swordsman earned him honorary promotion to samurai status, and eventually he turned up in Kyoto with the Shinsengumi. The group’s ferocity became legend, as it hunted down advocates for reform and killed off even its own members when they failed to live up to the warrior’s code.
Kondo met his end during one of the last battles for the shogun’s cause. Taken prisoner, he was denied the privilege of committing seppuku because his enemies refused to acknowledge him a true samurai. They executed the son of a peasant as a common criminal, exposing his severed head for the crows to pick at on a riverbank in Kyoto. But Kondo quickly transformed into a martyr. Even the new Meiji government, the victorious rebels who had taken his head, came around to celebrating his memory.
First random thought: forget Tom Cruise—here was the real last samurai. Second random thought: sometimes being a farm kid really sucks.
Tap tap. Almost as soon as he entered his campus office the next morning, a brisk knocking startled Mischa. He opened the door to find Oda, a conspiratorial grin mirroring the arc of his moustache.
“Good morning, Mischa. Isn’t it a beautiful day?”
Ten minutes later, another knock, softer. It was Fujiwara, his forehead moistened with sweat.
“Good morning,” Mischa beamed, trying to project a sense of calm.
“I hope you are well,” Fujiwara began. Even in moments of panic, Fujiwara’s spoken English preserved its Oxford dignity. “Now, I’ve just heard from Professor Oda that you plan to show your students a movie—an underground, illegal movie. Oda seems delighted, but I assured him that you would do no such thing. Oda might lower standards to curry favor. But not I. And certainly not you.”
Mischa began to espy the atmospheric instability his little joke had triggered. Oda had spoken to Fujiwara! Powerful forces were in motion, pushing in directions that boggled the mind. Without intending to, Mischa had somehow opened fire on Fort Sumter. He now stood in a field of open combat, and it was not at all delightful.
“Oh, that,” Mischa began. He would explain himself using not just words but body language, too, summoning the repertoire of calming gestures he learned during his father’s illness. He reached out to touch Fujiwara’s arm. “I was just, uhm, playing around, trying to enliven the classroom. I thought I might show one of the films Faulkner worked on. Nothing illegal or underground—I was just trying to catch their attention.”
But Fujiwara looked more flustered. “Then it’s true,” he moaned. “You’re going to show movies in your class. Our students need to read, Professor Kossorfsky, they need li-ter-a-ture.”
It was a make-or-break showdown, the moral equivalent of Gettysburg. Rebellion or loyalty: make your choice. Mischa looked into Fujiwara’s eyes. The mild professor had transformed into a fierce samurai, the last man defending the final bridge of Civilization. Fine. Mischa didn’t need to show a film. No big deal.
Delicious May sunshine filled the air as Mischa walked into his classroom the following Thursday. Four dozen faces greeted him with an eagerness he had not seen since the first week of class.
He began his announcement. “I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding. I joked last week about showing movies, but of course this is a class in literature, not film. We will continue our regular practice of reading through Faulkner together.”
The room deflated into a lifeless silence. “Please take out your copies of As I Lay Dying and turn to page 72,” Mischa continued. “Miss Ito, please begin reading at the second paragraph.”
Ito, the burly captain of the college judo club, lumbered through the sentences, as if each word was a bale of hay that she needed to heft up into a barn loft. She reminded Mischa of Iowans he grew up with, farm kids yawning through the school day after their pre-dawn chores.
When Mischa had tortured Ito-san sufficiently, he asked Hiromi Kato to read. Hiromi had squeezed herself today into a spectacularly revealing outfit: short shorts with fishnet stockings, a sleeveless blouse. But even she couldn’t pretend enthusiasm for the text. “My mother is a fish,” she droned, resenting each word.
Mischa was no fool. He could see his fate. He would spend the rest of the semester dragging the corpse of his reluctant class across Faulkner’s landscape of defeat. It was hopeless. Somtimes, though, you had to make a stand—even if it was Fujiwara’s stand that you made, even if you found the politics behind it as opaque as a coffin lid.
On his way home that afternoon Mischa paused to catch his breath in front of a neighborhood temple. He decided to take a break from his walk and explore the compound, which contained what looked to be a delightful garden. Just inside the stone gate he encountered a historical marker on which Mischa again recognized the characters: Kondo Isami.
A path leading around the main worship hall brought him to a graveyard in back. A single plot stood fenced off from the others, its importance signaled by another historical plaque. On the gravestone were carved those same three characters: Kondo Isami. The final resting place. But wait: wasn’t Kondo executed down in Kyoto, his head impaled on a bamboo spike? Had someone hauled the headless body back to Edo, back to this temple just down the road from his birthplace? His ashes, perhaps? Or was this only a cenotaph?
Mischa admired the graceful, twining calligraphy carved into the monument. So unlike the plain block letters chiseled into his parents’ gravestone back in Iowa. His father picked out that granite slab a decade earlier, when his mother died—no flourishes, just names, dates, and an Orthodox cross. The stone stood half-blank in the cemetery for years, but now both sides were filled in. Nothing stood out about that grave marker or the couple whose lives and deaths it indexed. After Mischa was gone, their memory would fade away in anonymity, like a cornfield in winter.
How unlike the glorious afterlife of his new neighbor, Mr. Kondo Isami! What intrigued Mischa most about the samurai wasn’t the ironic twist everyone mentioned, that Kondo fought on the losing side of the civil war but still ended up a hero—just as had, Mischa reflected, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. What interested him, rather, was that someone not even born into the samurai class would give his life defending it. Kondo kept up the fight to preserve the shogun long after the cause was lost, long after most of the real samurai had drifted over to the enemy side.
Mischa resumed walking home. He contemplated his day—Oda’s jolly greeting, Fujiwara’s desperation, the crestfallen faces of his students. Still ten months to go in Japan. But Mischa would go down with the ship, smile on his face, just another casualty in Fujiwara’s rear-guard defense of culture. Why not?
He stopped in at the Seven Eleven. For a change of pace, he bought two shrink-wrapped triangles of egg-salad sandwiches. His heart surgeon need never know. When Mischa was a boy, his mother’s egg salad recipe was a celebrated local delicacy. At church picnics and PTA potlucks, her sandwiches were always the first to disappear. Back in the apartment, Mischa ate the store-bought sandwiches, made with the whitest of white bread, the crusts neatly trimmed away. Bland, yet perfectly edible. He peeled the bread open and sprinkled on a few drops of soy sauce. Better—but still no match for his mother’s recipe. If only he had some paprika and dill relish.
After dinner Mischa plugged in his cello and cupped the headphones over his ears. For a change of pace, he played “Dixie.” His mind wandered. First random thought: the irony of history. A native Iowan, he always considered himself a Lincoln man. But in Japan he found himself taking up the loser’s banner, the cause of self-deluded romantics trying to hold back the tide of history. Second random thought: I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten. After a dozen verses of “Dixie,” he switched to “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and enjoyed the dirge enormously. Probably his pleasure had something to do with the egg salad digesting in his stomach and the whiskey he was sipping.
He set down the cello bow and lifted his glass. “To Mr. Kondo Isami,” he saluted the room and then added, “From one farm kid to another.” He felt another twinge of delight—melancholic, yes, but indisputably real. Ghosts swirled around Mischa in the cramped Tokyo apartment, but the Union had been preserved. And he knew with certainty that he was again really living. Tomorrow, he would visit the fish monger and vegetable stand in front of Tama Station. It was time to start learning how to cook Japanese-style.
Michael K. Bourdaghs was born and raised in Minnesota, but now lives in Chicago. In between, he has called Sendai, Ithaca, Los Angeles, and Tokyo home. His fiction has previously appeared in a number of literary journals including Avery Anthology, Hawai’i Pacific Review and Colere, among others. He is also a scholar and translator of Japanese literature.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: Bill Holm, the great Minnesotan poet who died in 2009, was a family friend. His adventures as a visiting professor in China, chronicled in his book Coming Home Crazy, were one source for this story. Another was the idle daydreams I used to have when I was a visiting professor in Tokyo from 2005 to 2007 and walked past the historical marker at the birthplace of Kondo Isami everyday on my way to and from campus.
Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?
A: I like magazines that publish fiction and poetry together with serious literary criticism and scholarship—Raritan comes to mind.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: I’m a very slow writer. I mull over pieces for years, working on them intensely for a few weeks, then letting them lie dormant for a few months before coming back to them, again and again. The first draft of “This Hallowed Ground” was written six or seven years ago. Another story, “In My Room (Ganz Allein),” which just came out in Eunoia Review, took more than twenty years. In part this is because my day job keeps me busy, but I think it’s also the way my mind works—slow, plodding, but persistent.
Q: What living writer to you admire most and why?
A: The first response to your question that came to mind was, are there any dead writers? As long as they’re still being read, they’re alive. But right now, I’d pick Charles Baxter. I fell in love with his debut novel, First Light, when it was first published and I’ve stuck with him ever since. It doesn’t hurt that he gave me some kind words of encouragement when he visited a creative writing class I took as an undergraduate at Macalester College back in the early 1980s.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A piece about a fraught mother-daughter relation that’s either the first chapter to a novel or a short story with an unusually large back-story.
The Boxer's Story by Lisa Lynne Lewis
Followed by Q&A
It was late afternoon, the temporary oasis of quiet time between the end of homework and dinnertime. My home office was temporarily unoccupied. My husband, Josh, was not yet home from work, and Joey and Charlotte had settled on the family room couch to watch Pokémon. I closed the door between the family room and my home office to muffle the sounds of the show’s opening theme.
In our new house, I’d done my best to re-create the space that had once been the hub for my writing. Now, though, it had increasingly become home to more kid-related objects: stray colored pencils and crayons, along with the errant My Little Pony plastic toy or Pokémon card left behind after online games.
I missed my old life, everything from the cosmopolitan culture to the close friendships I’d built up over the years to even my local gym, now more than 400 miles away. After relocating to Southern California for my husband’s new job, my immediate focus had been getting our family settled in and helping seven-year-old Joey and four-year-old Charlotte adjust. In what would later become known as the Great Recession, Josh’s job prospects had suddenly, and quite dramatically, decreased: the once high-flying high-tech sector, where he’d spent two decades, had slowed to a limp. Even though we’d lived near Silicon Valley, he’d started applying to jobs in other parts of the country as well. We felt lucky when he finally landed his new job, even though it had forced us to uproot.
We’d tried hard to maintain our old family routines, including the family dinners and various small rituals that graced our daily lives: back rubs for the kids right before bed, family movie nights together on the couch. But the strain was still showing. Charlotte had clung fiercely to her pacifier, derailing our initial plans to wean her down to nights only and gradually phase it out entirely, while Joey had become more brooding and argumentative.
I could relate. Every afternoon, when I went to Joey’s classroom to pick him up from school, I tried to tamp down my own unhappiness and focus on my new role as our family’s social ambassador. Joining the other moms, who were usually already chatting with each other, felt a bit like walking alone into a cocktail party, but one where a hoodie and jeans was the preferred attire. At least at a cocktail party there was usually a bar, a place to hang out temporarily and order a cocktail to ease the way. But here, of course, everyone was sober, the conversation likely to be about the kids’ weekly homework packet or the fall fundraiser.
I usually sat at the picnic table outside the classroom, trying to gauge the appropriate distance so that I’d be close enough that I didn’t seem like a loner but not so close that I was butting in. I knew how it was to slip into familiar patterns and I had to remind myself that their ease with one another wasn’t a conscious effort to exclude me. Every so often, I’d see another mom standing off to the side and go over and try to engage her. “Which child is yours?” was my usual icebreaker. Then I’d introduce myself as Joey’s mom and quickly rattle off our just-moved-here status. But there were days when this felt like too much work: the knowledge that if I didn’t initiate the conversation, it probably wouldn’t take place.
Even in mid-September, the daytime temperatures rarely dipped below the mid-90s. To fill the long, hot hours between the end of the school day and dinnertime, I tried to distract the kids with the novelty of our new pool. “Watch, Mom!” Joey shouted one afternoon as he alternated between cannonballs and pencil dives. It was only 3:30, and I was already worn out from hearing them bicker on the way home. The heat was making us all cranky, but I’d convinced them to leave the air-conditioned house to go for a swim.
Charlotte, still wearing inflatable water wings, paddled her way from one end of the shallow end to the other: “Look—I’m swimming! Mom, you’re not watching—I’m swimming!”
“I am watching. I saw you,” I finally retorted, in a more irritated tone than I’d meant to use. “You don’t need me to watch every single move you make.”
But actually they did. Until they felt comfortable, they needed my extra reassurance, whether or not I had the reserves to give it.
I was still all too aware of what I’d left behind. For the first time as an adult I wasn’t working: I’d ended my previous freelance writing projects and taken on the strange role of trailing spouse.
For a while, I was able to immerse myself in the immediate tasks of our move: the unpacking, the sorting and folding, the decisions about where each item in our myriad boxes should go. I spent time thinking about the best homes for our various belongings, such as where to store the kitchen utensils I knew I relied on most often.
But others, such as the folders of notes about my grandfather, were simply transferred, unexamined, to a file drawer in my home office. When we’d moved here, I’d boxed up all of my research materials about him rather than cull through them. Now, though, I was starting to think about his story again.
I had first tried to write about Lenny a few years after his death. In the fall of 2000, I’d started an MFA writing program, where I’d immersed myself in the colorfully tangled narratives of other people’s lives. Up until that point I’d given little thought to my own family stories or to tracking down more details about his life.
I knew that he’d been featured in a front-page Los Angeles Times article in 1976, on the 35th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was the biggest media coverage he’d received, but I was eight years old when it came out and hadn’t thought to save it.
Earlier in 2000, though, my last surviving grandparent had died, bringing to a close an entire generation. My children were not yet born, and in this pause in the flow of the generations, before each level advanced into the roles the previous generations had held, I felt compelled to try to grasp after what was already lost.
Perhaps this is how I found myself in the basement of the university library searching for a copy of the Times article. The campus was quiet that Saturday afternoon, suspended in the rich gold of the Bay Area’s Indian summer, the leaves just beginning to deepen to burnt orange.
Downstairs in the windowless basement, I loaded a reel into the microfiche reader and watched black-and-white articles, photographs and ads whiz by. I kept hitting the forward button, then the pause button, trying to see if I’d gotten to the December 7 edition yet. Each time the text slowed, another image from the past would crystallize on the screen: Billy Carter visiting with President Carter, the Chowchilla kidnappings, ads for electric sideburn trimmers. Then finally I saw it, an article called, “Pearl Harbor – Memories Still Vivid After 35 Years.” There was a large picture at the top of the USS Arizona enveloped in fire and black smoke, listing at a 45-degree angle as it sank after being bombed. And there, in the middle of the page, was my grandfather’s face, my own personal link to these anonymous rolls of microfiche stored in metal file drawers.
“Every December 7 the first thing I do before I get out of bed is thank God I came through and say a prayer for the guys who didn’t,” Lenny told the reporter. He’d been on liberty, he explained, and had watched from the shore that fateful morning as his ship, the USS Arizona, was engulfed in fire. The photo that ran with the piece showed him glancing back over his right shoulder as if looking into the past.
Lenny had been a model survivor, immediately recognizable in his Pearl Harbor Survivors baseball cap decorated with commemorative pins. He favored brightly colored Hawaiian shirts, stretched taut over his round belly so that the buttons strained. His recollections were dramatic and richly detailed; in one radio interview, he described both his role as a gunner on the ship and his breakfast at Sneeky Pete’s on the Sunday the USS Arizona went down. His story had grown brighter over the years as he nurtured it.
There was just one flawed detail, obscured at first by the filaments of fact my grandfather had woven around it: he hadn’t been at Pearl Harbor. The identity he’d built for himself was false, a final attempt to cast himself as a hero. I stared at the backlit photo on the screen as if it might help me divine what had led to his alternate version of history.
I’d seen other, older photos of Lenny, but it was hard to reconcile them with the genial, rotund grandfather he’d morphed into in middle age. That was the Lenny I remembered most distinctly, the one who waxed the ends of his moustache into upturned points and who carefully tended to and displayed his Pearl Harbor persona like an expensive watch. It was impossible to meet him and somehow miss the Pearl Harbor connection: the physical evidence, like the bumper stickers on his large silver sedan or the commemorative pins on his cap, unmistakable markers of how he presented himself to the world.
But he’d had an earlier identity. A photo that hung on the wall in my childhood home showed him in a boxer’s crouch, fists up and ready to strike. In the photo, he’d been young and lithe, his dark hair parted and slicked back. He stared straight at the camera as if it were an opponent. Back then, as a teenager on the South Side of Chicago, he’d been a bantam-weight boxer with promise. Scrappy, determined and quick on his feet, he’d won two YMCA championships by 1937 and boxed in the Golden Gloves.
It was this Lenny who interested me more, the one whose accomplishments were rooted in fact. I’d seen other keepsakes from his boxing days, including his blue satin boxing shorts and one of his YMCA medals. I wanted to know more about this younger Lenny, the one who’d once dreamed of making it as a professional boxer.
Nat, a friend who’d grown up with him in Chicago and had seen him box in his teens, told me Lenny had “the killer instinct.” They’d both boxed in the mid-1930s at the 105th Armory near Comiskey Park, earning $2 a fight. Lenny had moved West with his parents to Los Angeles in 1938; Nat had gone on to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942 as a navigator before eventually settling in Los Angeles himself. Eventually, they’d reconnected at a meeting of the Jewish War Veterans.
Boxing had been Lenny’s enduring identity. Following his family’s move to Los Angeles, his parents had opened Dorf’s Ringside Café, near the Hollywood Legion Stadium. Outside, the sign advertised “None better – Chili and Beans 10 cents.” I knew Lenny had kept boxing in amateur bouts in Los Angeles but with diminished success: by 1940, he was working on the railroad to help make ends meet. Later, in 1945, he’d enlisted in the U.S. Marines and been a boxing instructor at the Recruiting Depot in San Diego, training thousands of young men how to box before they shipped out. After the war ended he returned to L.A., participating in staged burlesque boxing bouts that were more comedy routine than sport. He eventually become a barber and opened the Ringside Barber Shop, decorating it with boxing memorabilia and old copies of Ring magazine.
This was a simple chronology of events, mere outline rather than explanation. I wondered what it must have been like to downgrade his dreams when professional boxing hadn’t panned out. And I wanted to learn more about boxing, to understand the sport that had driven him for so long.
As I continued to delve into his history, accumulating more newspaper clips and more information, I realized I’d need to do more than just read about boxing. I needed to see it first-hand.
King’s Boxing Gym was located on a dead-end Oakland street near the freeway; overhead, the BART trains rumbled past. I was there as an observer, dressed in street clothes and carrying my notepad. I knew nothing about boxing except that I felt terribly out of place.
The floor was bare concrete; the ceiling bisected by long horizontal metal piping that anchored black heavy bags hanging from thick metal chains. Nearly every inch of available wall space was covered with boxing memorabilia, from a vintage poster promoting a Joe Louis—Max Schmeling matchup at Yankee Stadium to a more current publicity photo of champion boxer Gina “Boom Boom” Guidi, a curly haired blonde who trained at King’s. But the centerpiece was the raised boxing ring, an expanse of royal blue vinyl encircled by red, white and blue ropes where two young men were sparring.
The two fighters circled each other, their gloves raised protectively, moving in to jab at each other and then bobbing away. “That’s it—keep it coming!” a trainer yelled from the corner. “Now get in there!”
“Are they training for a fight?” I asked another trainer, an older man with a graying beard who was standing nearby. I raised my voice to be heard above the staccato of punches.
“They are,” he said, pointing at the ring. “But a lot of folks just want a good workout.” I followed his gaze to the heavy bags, where several other men, and a few women, were whacking the bags repeatedly. “You should come try it sometime.”
“Do they get in the ring too?” I asked, pointing to the women.
“Sometimes,” he said, shrugging. “Depends on whether they’re ready.”
I turned back to watch the woman closest to me, who was now slamming her fist into the bag with a series of resounding thwacks. She looked like she could easily pound me into the ground. I politely declined.
There was definitely something primal about it, I thought as I drove home. From the looks of it, boxing probably hadn’t changed much from my grandfather’s time. Even if I wasn’t ready to re-live his boxing days, I was intrigued.
How many afternoons had he spent in the gym, honing his punches on the heavy bag or in the ring? I tried to picture the Lenny from his boxing promotional photos, a young man who’d worked his way up from the neighborhood bouts in Chicago’s Humboldt Park to the city’s annual Golden Gloves tournament, fighting in front of a crowd of more than 20,000 spectators. He’d been 19 and 135 pounds, a young fighter with promise in the city that had been the birthplace of the Golden Gloves. If he’d racked up another win, he might have gone on to a long boxing career like local hero Barney Ross nearly a decade earlier.
As I continued to work on my thesis that spring, I immersed myself further into his world. Sitting in the audience at the Golden Gloves tournament at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, I tried to imagine him in the ring. Would he have been quick and unrelenting, overwhelming the other fighter with a flurry of punches? Perhaps he would have bided his time, stalking his opponent before moving in to strike. I marveled at the taut fluidity of the young fighters, watching them lock onto one another as they circled each other in the ring, waiting for an opening. I waited too, transfixed, for the moment when the first punch connected with the other boxer’s body with a solid thwack, the fight suddenly unfolding with its inevitable power, and felt a vicarious rush.
By now, I’d picked up enough boxing terminology to try to re-create scenes of my grandfather’s boxing days. By inhabiting his world, I hoped I’d eventually be able to understand what had driven his later choices.
But there were too many details I didn’t--and couldn’t--know. Despite all of my research, I was still just as hazy on what had led him to reconstruct his past, placing himself at a seminal moment in history. Of the 80 or so pages I wrote to fulfill my MFA thesis requirements, only the boxing scenes felt real.
Occasionally, friends from my MFA days still asked what became of “the Lenny story.” I’d come up with a pat explanation of how I’d finally put it aside, leaving out the sense of failure I felt. For more than a decade, I’d sat in a gray cubicle, surrounded by other people sitting in gray cubicles, and written news releases and employee newsletters for a living. When I’d finally tried to break out of that rut by enrolling in the MFA program, I’d gone only part-way, ultimately abandoning Lenny’s story and focusing on freelance writing projects that at least partially made up for my loss of salary.
With our move, even that had finally ground to a halt. At the edges of the new routines we’d settled into, the two new schools and the extracurricular activities I’d tracked down for the kids and the myriad household tasks, my own unhappiness was seeping out.
“Let’s get Mommy mad,” Charlotte whispered to Joey one evening at dinner, grinning slyly. Their bowls of spaghetti sat ignored, still barely touched, while the kids bonded temporarily over their plans. Behind them, the silhouettes of the orange trees in our yard blended into the darkening sky. The windows in the breakfast nook where we ate all of our meals together now reflected back the image of our family. I gazed past Joey and Charlotte, focusing on their mirror images, and knew I needed an outlet.
I can’t really say how I finally got up the nerve to try kickboxing; perhaps it was a general discontent with the gyms I’d found so far, coupled with a need to release my pent-up frustration. Somehow, I finally got up in the nerve in early February to visit D.K.’s kickboxing studio.
My first impression wasn’t promising. Framed quotes about Jesus hung on the walls – not unexpected in my new hometown, perhaps, but certainly not a sign that I, a lapsed Jew, belonged there. Thankfully, though, Jesus didn’t come up once during my initial one-hour session with DK.
The rest of the décor was much the same as I’d seen several years earlier at the boxing gym in Oakland: utilitarian rows of immense black heavy bags hanging from metal chains and a full boxing ring. DK was dressed in a loose-fitting grey tank with an exaggerated scoop in the back, showing off his broad shoulders. He was also fairly taciturn, although I couldn’t tell if it was because of dislike for newbies like me or because he wasn’t entirely comfortable speaking in English. He spoke in clipped sentences, with a strong Korean accent.
The first thing I learned was how to wrap my hands. Taking the loop of one of the long red hand-wraps, he hooked it over my right thumb so the fabric hung across the back of my hand, then swiftly wound it around my wrist, around my knuckles and through the dips between each of my fingers, finishing with several extra layers around my wrist. I attempted to do the same with the wrap for my left hand, trying to remember the sequence.
“We’ll start you off slow,” he said, giving me a combination of punches to try on the heavy bag.
“No no – let me show you,” he interrupted as I landed a right hook on the bag. “Turn your hand out like this,” he said, twisting my glove so that the back of my hand faced out rather than up. “Now try it.”
I punched again, self-consciously.
“That’s right,” he said, then showed me a brief combination of punches for me to follow. “Ten sets,” he ordered.
For the rest of the hour, I followed his lead, trying to remember the combinations and the form he’d shown me. The sounds of a religious music station played softly in the background, reinforcing the awkwardness I felt. But as I concentrated on executing the series of moves, trying to remember the proper stances and positioning and sequence, I didn’t really have time to think about it. I needed to focus on counting, on form, and on not losing my balance. Afterwards, following an hour of sustained exertion and concentration, I realized that I feel clearer, calmer.
Soon I was showing up a few times a week. “Keep your hands up!” DK admonished if I started to lag. It took sustained concentration to keep my place in the series of moves, remembering to follow a kick with a set of alternating hooks followed by jabs. I learned how to place one foot back and to the side, facing out, before whipping my other leg around in a roundhouse kick, and how to follow it with a squat to duck out of the way of an imagined opponent. Slowly, the combinations started to feel more familiar. For the first time in my life, I even had the strength to do a set of pushups balanced on my toes rather than on my knees. With the basics of form now less shaky, I could concentrate on being quicker and hitting with more power.
I wondered if my grandfather had found a similar form of release in his long hours in the gym and in the ring. Even with my own limited experience of boxing, I had a much better sense of the intensity that had once driven him. Had it been an outlet for him as well? What had driven him to maintain his identity as a boxer, long after his prospects had faded?
It seemed curious, too, that he’d enlisted in the Marines in 1945, leaving behind his wife and toddler. Perhaps he’d seen the war as another chance to prove himself; in letters home to my grandmother, he’d written with a mixture of trepidation and excitement how he expected to ship out to Japan.
But I knew the war had ended before he’d gotten his chance to prove himself. The Marines he’d trained as a boxing instructor had gone on to see combat overseas while he’d remained stateside. Afterwards he’d returned to Los Angeles, to a marriage that was troubled and eventually ended in divorce. I knew too that he’d been ineffectual as a father: when my mother was growing up, he hadn’t been there as her protector.
As a parent now myself, I wondered what it must have been like for him to look back on his life and acknowledge this failure. Perhaps, I thought, at some point the heavy bag he’d used to hone his punches had instead become a target for his frustration and disappointment.
With his post-war burlesque boxing and then his Ringside Barber Shop, boxing had become an identity he’d clung to long after its actual promise was gone. And somehow, in coming to terms with this, he’d re-invented his own past.
I would never know his specific reasons. But now, more than a decade after I’d first attempted to understand his story, I could see the parallels. Here I was, at the mid-point of my own life, having neglected, in any real way, to achieve the career as a writer I’d once envisioned.
Glancing at the clock at the bottom of my computer screen, I listened for the strains of the Pokémon theme music that would signal the end of the kids’ TV episode. I still had at least 10 minutes left, I figured.
I pulled Lenny’s photo out from my files and studied his picture for the first time in several years. Even though the photo was just a head-and-shoulders shot, I could see the pattern of his Hawaiian shirt. His hair had already gone gray but his moustache was trim and dark.
At the time of the Los Angeles Times coverage, I realized, doing the math, Lenny had been nearly 60 years old, his active duty and his boxing days both long behind him. From what I’d gleaned, it was at some point during the previous decade that he’d re-created himself as a Pearl Harbor survivor.
Had Lenny faced his own moment of self-assessment? At the time the news photo was taken, he’d already looked back on his life and found it lacking. I wondered what he saw as he glanced over his shoulder, knowing that his tale was hollow at its core.
I closed the file and returned his photo to the drawer. I thought about the various Pearl-Harbor-related mementoes I’d inherited from Lenny: the dinner-plate-sized flask of Jim Beam decorated with a large metallic gold eagle clutching a bomb in its talons, the 1976 35th-anniversary commemorative medallion. The whiskey now sat on a shelf in the dining room next to some vases. I hadn’t seen the medallion in some time; I wondered where it had ended up after our move. Perhaps Joey, who’d recently started collecting foreign coins, might want it.
It was too soon, I knew, to foretell how our lives here would play out. In time, I hoped the kids would find new friends and activities, that we’d settle into a rhythm as a family. I might even find a way back to my own earlier goals. I was surrounded by the evidence of my efforts but unclear on whether I’d actually ever achieve them.
I pictured Joey and Charlotte sprawled out on the sofa in the family room. If I ever found the collectible medallion to give to Joey, I decided, I’d focus on the actual facts of Pearl Harbor and omit the part about his great-grandfather, about the difficulty of relinquishing an earlier vision of how you wanted your life to be and of the choice, ultimately, of how to live with that. At some point, Lenny had found it easier to adopt a new identity rather than accept how his life had turned out.
Sitting here in my office, surrounded by all of the reminders of my own earlier goals, I realized the Pearl Harbor memorabilia I’d inherited was a symbol not of Lenny’s heroism but of his longing, of the inevitable recalibration of ambition that came with middle age. I understood this in a way I hadn’t when I’d first tackled his story: in turning once again to his story and his own search for a lasting identity, I was addressing not just the narrative of his life but of my own.
Lisa Lynne Lewis currently writes for Literary Mama, and has also been featured on Modern Love Rejects. Lewis spent many years doing corporate communications; along the way, she also freelanced for magazines including Better Homes and Gardens and Redbook. She has an MFA from Mills College and an undergraduate degree from U.C. Berkeley. She lives with her family in Southern California.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: This essay is a stand-alone excerpt from a larger work that I started more than a decade ago about my grandfather. In this piece, I’ve tried to convey the evolution of my writing process: how I finally found a way into the story once I was able to connect my experience to his.
Q:What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I recently had the opportunity to talk with Katrina Kenison, who’s written several memoirs about motherhood. During our conversation, she described the importance of deciding on the end-point for the story you’re writing, even if the events you’re writing about are continuing to change and evolve. You have to be able to view what you’re writing about as an entity that’s separate and distinct from the ongoing events of life. I’ve tried to keep this in mind as I contemplate the larger piece I’d originally embarked on!
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: In terms of creative nonfiction, I’d say Katrina Kenison (mentioned above). I also recently talked with Natalie Serber about her first short-story collection—it was inspiring to hear how she’d fit in time for writing while raising her children, and to be reminded that writing (and eventually, publication) takes time! I also love Anne Lamott’s advice from Bird by Bird about shitty first drafts: as she says, you need to start somewhere, knowing it certainly won’t be perfect but that once you have something on paper, you can start to shape and refine it.
Under Control by Jim Miller
Followed by Q&A
met Tyler in the waning weeks of 11th grade. He walked into Health class after the bell, wearing his oversized leather jacket and a Misfits t-shirt. He looked around the colonized room with the preppy girls up front by the jocks—with the grease monkeys and the stoners in the back. He sat next to me—the short, skinny kid with plain old clothes and messy hair.
“I’m Tyler,” he said. “Today’s my first day.”
I gave a nod. He stunk like pot and cigarettes. His hair was long—like a girl. He was obviously a back-of-the-room kid, yet he sat in the middle, with the ghosts, with me. It was as if he didn’t understand the social pecking order.
“I got expelled from Creekridge High,” he continued, with a big-ass grin.
“For what?” I asked.
“Pot. They found a dime in my locker. And they think I broke in and stole a radio from one of the classrooms.”
“I broke in, but I didn’t steal anything. I don’t steal.”
“Do you do that a lot, you know, break into schools and not steal shit?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I do do it a lot.”
I rolled my eyes and put my head down on the desk for my nap. But Tyler kept at it.
“Dude, who’s that chick? Do you know if she’s got a boyfriend?”
“Dude, what class do you have after this one?”
“Dude, I got some weed, do you want to skip next hour?”
“Dude, man, do you gotta car? You’re sixteen, right, can you drive?”
Skip class? Smoke weed? A car? Who was this guy? I lifted my head, “Dude,” I said. “I’m trying to sleep.”
“I just need to find a ride to work. Thought if you had a car, maybe you could do me a favor.”
For the rest of the class period, and all of Biology, I learned nearly everything about Tyler. I learned he had a sister, a year younger. His dad was an asshole and not just because he grounded Tyler for the weed—took away the keys to his car, a 1970-something bright-orange Gremlin. According to Tyler, his dad was an asshole for tons of reasons. Tyler told me he worked in the produce department of a grocery store, Shop–N–Save, the same chain I worked at. So along with the move to a new house, a new school, he was transferring to a new store, my store.
“Dude, that’s cool. I thought it was gonna suck at a new store, but now we can hang out.”
“Cool, dude,” I said without enthusiasm.
Those first few weeks I knew Tyler I was a complete dick, but he never took the hint. I ignored him best I could when he talked to me at school and at work, but he was always around. In the morning, I’d walk into school and find him hanging out by my locker, waiting.
“Dude, what’s up?”
I’m not sure why he tried so hard to be my friend. Tyler wasn’t stupid. Maybe the booze or the dope fogged up his perception a little, or maybe he saw through my “dickiness,” straight through to my loneliness.
At work, he’d turn up in the break room, talk to me while I was trying to read a book. It wasn’t just that he was there. It was the fact that he never shut up. When he wasn’t talking about heavy metal or getting laid, he was asking me questions, personal questions, questions no one ever asked before.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Are you still a virgin?”
“A virgin, you know, sex. Have you ever done it?”
“Why would I tell you that?”
“You haven’t done it,” he said and my face flushed. “You ever smoke weed?”
I thought about lying. Since I didn’t really have any friends, I was sheltered, in a way, from the cool sins of high school. And because I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t really know what I was missing. Now here was this kid, Tyler, who had lived life and who was constantly pushing me to confess. And for the first time I wanted to confess. Except I had nothing to confess. I wanted to say, Hell yeah, I smoke weed. I smoke it all the time, dude.
“No,” I answered.
“Did you ever get drunk?”
“Once,” I said, a little proud that I had one of his badges sewn on my sleeve.
“Dude, you got some catching up to do. I got a feeling that this is going to be a great summer.” He lit a cigarette and handed it to me.
In Health class, the teachers and counselors warned us about the dangers of peer pressure. They said, just because your friend does something, doesn’t mean you have to. They said, following the pack doesn’t make you cool. What they didn’t know is that we don’t cave to peer pressure because of our friends or because we want to be cool, we don’t fall to peer pressure because we want to follow the pack. What they never understood is how fucking horrible it feels to not be in a pack. I took a drag from the cigarette and coughed until my eyes hurt.
I was stocking empty beer and pop bottles on my 17th birthday. Tyler found a pallet of liquor fresh off the truck. He picked off a fifth of vodka. “Happy birthday,” he said and we each drank from the bottle—a big swig, then another.
“The idea is not to get stupid,” Tyler said. “But to feel good enough to not really care.”
The vodka warmed me up. And for the first time in a long time I wasn’t worried about anything.
“One more?” he asked, handing me back the bottle for a third drink. “Next time we’ll smoke some weed. Pot is the best.”
Instead of sorting the bottles, I sat around talking. Instead of pulling the brown bananas off the shelf and replacing them with green bananas, Tyler sat around talking. He told me about his parents’ divorce. How his mom lived in another state now so he never saw her—but she always sent birthday cards filled with money. “And I talk to her on the phone sometimes,” he said.
I told Tyler a little about life in my house—all Jesus, all the time. I told him how my dad worked every night and half the day and how he didn’t know what was going on. I told him that I had enough money saved for a car and my dad promised to take me out one day and find one. “But then my stupid stepmom keeps saying I’m not ready for a car and my dad keeps having to work on the weekends so I don’t think I’m ever gonna get a car.”
I told him I wished my parents would get divorced. I wished that my step-mom would move out of state. “And she doesn’t even have to send me birthday cards.” Maybe it was the vodka or maybe it was simply the fact that someone was listening; whatever the reason, the words ran from mind to mouth without restraint.
“Dude, can you get me a ride home tonight?” Tyler asked at the end of his shift.
“My stepmom’s picking me up and she doesn’t like to pick me up, much less drive friends home.”
Truth: I didn’t want to ask her. She would if I did. She never passed up an opportunity to testify the Lord Jesus Christ. So I stopped introducing my friends to her. I stopped talking about my friends. In fact, I pretty much stopped having friends. And if I did introduce Tyler to her, with his long hair and heavy-metal leather jacket, then she would try and convert him, and Tyler would stop being my friend. For me, it was better to keep Tyler in the shadows, hidden away in a box and brought out only when it was safe.
“Can you ask her, just this once?”
“Dude, even if she says yes, which I doubt, then we will have to listen to church the whole time.”
“It’s only a couple of miles, how bad can it be? Just this once?”
It’s an act. It’s always an act. She started with “Tyler, it’s such a pleasure to meet you. Please, call me Mom.” I was slumped in the back seat behind her, out of sight from the rearview mirror. Tyler sat up front, next to her.
“It’s nice to meet you too, Mom. Thank you for driving me home.” He gave her a genuine smile.
“My pleasure, anytime, really.”
I flipped off the back of her seat.
“So tell me how to get you home.”
She put the car in gear and turned up the radio—Amy Grant singing her praises to the lord. She sang. She raised her hand to the ceiling as if she was in church and sang. After the song ended, she turned the radio down. “I just love that song. It moves the spirit through me. Do you like Amy Grant, Tyler?”
“Never heard of her. I like Metallica and King Diamond. Do you like them?”
“I don’t listen to secular music anymore,” she answered as she stopped at a red light.
“Oh, they’re not secular, they’re heavy metal,” he said. “I have a tape. Do you want to hear it?” I was confused. Perplexed. Was Tyler playing around or was he trying to have a serious music conversation with my stepmom?
“No, Tyler, that music is of the devil, and it does not get played in my car.” Catching my eye in the rearview mirror, she said, “Right?”
“Right,” I mumbled. Tyler looked back at me. I shrugged.
“You see, Tyler, I used to live a worldly life but I have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ.”
“Green light.” I blurted.
As we continued toward Tyler’s house, she told us how the sins of the world will damn us to hell—not might, will. She told us of the one and only way into heaven. I had heard it all before; I could give the speech. I watched Tyler nod in understanding. He was listening to this. I wondered what would happen if he believed it—if he chose to convert.
We pulled into his driveway and I held my breath; for a half-second I think we all held our breath. I imagined my stepmom was preparing to ask the big question. I imagined, I hoped Tyler was preparing his escape. Me, I only wanted Tyler out of the car.
“Tyler,” she said, “Jesus can save you from a life a sin, he can save you from an eternity of pain and suffering. All you have to do is pray with me right now, turn your life to Christ. Will you pray with me right now? Will you accept Jesus into your heart?”
I hate you.
“No, thanks, Mom. But thanks for the ride,” Tyler answered with his genuine smile. He opened the car door and got out. Before he closed the door, he stuck his head in toward the back seat. “Happy birthday, dude. See you tomorrow.” He shut the door and I released my breath quietly.
It’s cold, but not that cold, so my car starts. The engine roars. Black smoke, then white blows out the tailpipe. I jam the gas, jam the car into gear, and sidestep the clutch. It’s pretty pathetic, actually—this piece of shit blue hatchback burning rubber down the street lined with autumn-red, orange, and yellow-leaved maple and birch trees—puking toxic smoke everywhere.
I race down the street, trying to outrun my anger. I wonder why I don’t tell her to fuck off. Let her try to throw me out, I think. Dare her to. I imagine what life would be like on the street at 17. I can sleep in my car—park it in the woods—til it snows anyway. I want a cigarette so I speed up. 60 in a 25. That’s a hell of a ticket. But there’s never a cop here. 65. Then 70. Then slamming the brakes to turn into Tyler’s driveway.
When I open the front door, I know by the musk of burning pot that Tyler’s dad has left for work early—a meeting or a sales trip to Ohio. In the family room, Tyler watches cartoons and smokes a joint. I take a hit and grab a Marlboro, light it, then plop on the couch.
“You wanna cut out today?” he asks.
“Can’t. I have too many skips in third hour. One more and they’ll send the note.”
I take another hit from the joint. And another. “Dude,” Tyler says, taking back the joint, “what’s up with you? You never burn this early.”
“That sticker shit again.” My anger resurfaces. “That stupid fucking Jesus bumper sticker. She wants it on my car.”
“Just tell her no.”
“I tried. She says I’m booted if I don’t.”
“So put it on. I don’t see the big deal.”
“The big deal is that she wins.”
“So she wins.”
“And I look like an asshole driving to school with that on my car.” I watch the cartoon mouse put a stick of dynamite under a cartoon cat’s ass. “What if I don’t? What if she does throw me out? Can I stay here?”
“My dad won’t let you stay here. He don’t even want me here. He keeps telling me I’m gone as soon as I turn eighteen.” Tyler hands me the joint and I breathe in more haze.
My anger doesn’t fade; it rages. Sitting on Tyler’s couch. Then sitting in class. At lunch. The drive home. Rage. Then the house. Parked outside. I sit for a while, engine running. And there she is, at the front door, watching me. With nowhere to go, what choice do I have? I could say no.
“No,” I said out loud, hoping it sounded strong, confident—like that time Tyler told her no. He said no and walked away. It worked for him. Why doesn’t it work for me?
“No.” It sounds weak.
And she is still watching. I get out of the car with the crumpled sticker in my hand. She’s smug. I peel off the slick white backing and place Jesus on my bumper.
Picture this. Driving down the freeway, Pink Floyd on the car stereo—Goodbye Blue Sky. Birds tweet in the background. I round a curve, jump on the gas, and climb the ramp of the overpass. In my speakers, a kid says, “Look, Mommy, there’s an aeroplane in the sky,” and I jerk the wheel—steer the car off the overpass. The car drifts ever so slowly to the peaceful rhythms of acoustic guitars and Roger Waters singing.
A few weeks into my senior year of high school, this dream invaded my sleep—nearly every night for months. And each time, I’d wake before impact. I didn’t wake in a start. My heart wasn’t racing. I wasn’t freaked out or scared. Only disappointed. Disappointed I woke before the impact. Disappointed I woke.
After a couple of weeks of the dream, when I woke, I’d sneak out my bedroom window to my car, insert Pink Floyd into the tape player and drive that stretch of freeway. At first, I would start the tape on different tracks so that when I got to the overpass the kid would say, “Look, Mommy.” When I couldn’t time the song so that the kid spoke at the right time, I started adjusting my speed, going slower, then faster, trying to set the time just right. I practiced all fall, all winter, I figured if the kid ever said it at the exact right time—like in the dream—then I would do it. I’d jerk the wheel.
In early spring, three weeks before my stepmom moved out, five weeks before prom, nine weeks before high school graduation, ten weeks before my father filed for divorce, I did get the timing right. And I did turn the wheel. I didn’t jerk it…just sort of leaned into it. As soon as the tires hit the shoulder, I jumped on the brakes. A cloud of dust, gravel, and burnt rubber surrounded the car. I leaned my forehead on the steering wheel, breathing, and I listened to the song. Then flashing blue lights.
“Is everything okay?” the officer asked.
“Yes, sir,” I said. I was steady now, but still not right. “No, sir, I haven’t been drinking. No drugs, sir. Insomnia. I couldn’t sleep. Some kind of animal, a rabbit I think, maybe a deer, jumped out and ran across the road, sir. I’m not hurt. I was trying to get myself under control, sir, because for a minute, I thought I was going to drive off the overpass. I thought I was going to die, sir.”
The policeman followed me for a mile or so as I drove back home.
The next morning, before Tyler went to auto shop and I went to co-op, we drank a vodka shot and I told him what happened. I told him about the dream, the test runs, and the cop. I told him I thought I really wanted to do it. I told him I chickened out.
He said, “I’m glad you didn’t do it, buddy. I mean it, man.”
He said, “You’re the only brother I’ve got.”
It didn’t matter that it was Prom Night, my curfew was still 11:15 p.m.—the time my dad left for his midnight shift at the auto plant. And because my dad had to work that night, leaving no adults in the house, I hosted the post-prom party. Two cars loaded with Tyler’s friends and friends of his friends and trunks loaded with beer waited four houses down. “Wait five minutes,” I told Tyler. “Make sure he’s gone. Then come on in.”
By 1 a.m., the crowd was gone. I was drunk and Tyler was bored. We had to get out of the house—so we wandered the subdivision and talked. He told me he was thinking about joining the Navy. He said there was nothing here for him. War—real war—never crossed our minds.
We walked up to my old elementary school. Behind the school was a hill. When I was little, third grade—maybe fourth—all the boys would play king of the mountain. Tyler lit a joint as we sat on the hill overlooking the playground—the monkey bars, dodgeball court and the lone tetherball pole. Behind us a few hundred feet away was the baseball field where my team almost finished in first place and the track where I walked during recess with my first-ever girlfriend—holding hands and confessing how scared we were to start junior high.
Tyler handed me the joint.
“If I join, will you?” he asked.
“The Navy, you could join too. We’ll travel the world.”
“You were serious?” I asked and handed him back the joint.
“Yeah, I think I am.”
Tyler often had these weird ideas—random declarations that later would be forgotten. Maybe it was the pot—or maybe I was still too drunk—but this time, right then, there was something in his voice. Maybe he was really going to do it. It was too much to think about.
“Do you see that door on the corner?” I asked as Tyler handed me the joint again.
“That’s where I would line up to go into class. Fourth grade. My teacher was Ms. Lewis. I remember she was so tall. And she had really long black hair—so long it touched her ass.” I took a hit and handed the roach to Tyler to finish.
“This kid Mitch—he was my best friend until fifth grade—he moved—he used to joke around about how long it was. This one time, he said he thought that her hair got wet when she sat down on the toilet to take a shit.”
Tyler laughed and coughed out his smoke and I laughed like crazy at the image of this thought.
“You wanna go inside?” Tyler asked. “I can get us in.”
“It’s easy,” he said. “Let’s go.” He took off running toward the back corner of the building.
He was serious. He was going to break into the school. If we got caught I could go to jail. We could go to jail. For a second, I had no idea what to do. I was thrilled and scared and confused. I watched Tyler run. I never asked for his friendship, but I had it. At times, he annoyed me, made me uncomfortable; he pushed me from the safety of my solitude and somehow he became my best friend, my brother. Yeah, we were both a little fucked-up but still mostly harmless. He did his crazy shit that could’ve gotten him in a lot of trouble and I did mine. Now we were going to do this shit together.
I ran after him and by the time I caught up, he already had a door open.
“How the fuck did you do that?”
“I’ll show you next time. Let’s go.”
As we stood in the hall, I remembered, like flashback, all my trips up and down the glass corridor. Trips to the gym, to the art room, to the nurse’s station, to the principal’s office.
Tyler lit a cigarette and said, “I am going to join.”
We stood quiet for a minute.
“I don’t think I want to,” I said.
“So now what?” I asked.
“Now? Now, we look around.”
“Because we’re not allowed to.”
And because we weren’t allowed to, we went to my old second grade class, then third, and then fourth. By the time I stood in my old sixth grade classroom, I was surprised how little everything changed. All the rooms had the same coat racks and closets. They all had the same bathrooms and the same desks, except now everything seemed so small.
Jim Miller received his MFA from the University of South Florida. Publishing credits include: Midwestern Gothic, Palooka, Fiction Fix, Prick of the Spindle, Fiction Fix and others, with work forthcoming in C4. He is the Co-Founding editor of (ĕm): A Review of Text and Image and is the Graphic Nonfiction editor for Sweet: a Literary Confection. You can visit his website at http://www.miller580.com.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: “Under Control” has been hanging around for quite awhile. I tried to push bits and pieces into their own thing—hiding them behind the masks of different characters. But no matter how hard I tried to let them hide in the safety of plausible deniability, they escaped and gathered in this space. I think what has surprised me most is how this story never gave up on me—no matter how hard I tried to break it—to leave it untold—it kept on until it was satisfied.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: One of my first writing teachers—an adjunct at a community college—told me after reading some really, really bad poems from the previous class that I had strength in prose and should focus on that. But that wasn’t really advice…that was a fact. Did I mention that the poems sucked? The advice ha gave was during our end of the semester conference. He handed me back my two short stories. He pulled a Matrix on me…offered me a choice, he would either tell me what he thought of my stories or he would tell me what he really thought of my work. I had been working in advertising for a while and had pretty thick skin so I asked for what he really thought. He told me that my stories were ok—but if writing was something that I really wanted to do, then it was time for me to quit fucking around and write. He said storytellers don’t need to act clever and demonstrate that they own a thesaurus…they just need to tell the story. He said that only when I was ready to tell the story would people want to read what I wrote.
I’d like to think that I have followed his advice. I’d like to think that I do tell stories. But I guess that’s for the reader to decide.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: I draw inspiration from my old school literary heroes—ranging from Virginia Woolf, Fitzgerald and Vonnegut to contemporary writers such as A.M. Holmes, T.C. Boyle, Junot Díaz, and yes, Stephen King—all of which have their own unique voice entrenched in the American life.
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: These days, I am writing everywhere from Panera, to the Kitchen table. Sometimes I write in a small bedroom with only an air mattress, a desk, and a 1980’s TV. The rest of the time, I write in my not yet renovated mess of an office where I am surrounded by cardboard boxes stacked as tall as me and large pieces of wood that will one day be my desk.
Bearanoia by K. C. Wolfe
Followed by Q&A
The summer I moved to Anchorage with my girlfriend, Rich and Kathy Huffman celebrated their sixteenth wedding anniversary with a kayak trip down the Hulahula river in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Huffmans were a well-seasoned backcountry couple, the kind who floated down the Hulahula on two-week trips, who grilled their bush pilot on his credentials and emergency equipment, who stopped their kayaks at one spot to eat dinner and at another, miles downstream, to camp. They traveled armed, as one should in that country: cans of bear spray and a .45-70 Alaskan CoPilot, a shortened, lever-action rifle popular with Alaskan hunters and campers because it could blow a hole through an elephant. The Huffmans knew exactly what they were doing. And they were, precisely, what Sarah and I wanted to be: smart, prepared, mobile; as wise to the country as one could possibly be without forfeiting the joy of being in it.
Our first spring trip as Alaskans was into the Chugach Mountains, 900 miles south of where the Huffmans had celebrated their anniversary. On our third day, we hiked back to the car from a place we camped at called Willawaw Lakes, a steep taiga valley with small kettle lakes carved out in a cul-de-sac; cliffs and snow rising a thousand feet from both sides and in between a rocky lawn painted with lichen and forget-me-not and salmonberry. The valley was ten miles from the car and felt secluded, safe, all this rock surrounding us and nothing but Dall sheep scattered in the heights. I had slept well in the tent the night before, after navigating a long, muddy trail that wound through mazes of alder. Wide drifts of late snow gathered as the valley climbed. At some parts we had to stop to put snowshoes on or risk postholing—where one of your legs crashes through the snow, a cheap joke. You have to curse loudly and remind yourself to lighten up, you’re in untouched land, then unhook your pack to dig yourself out.
The previous day we had seen brown bear tracks and some scat near the trail, but no bears and none of the territorial signs—scratches on trees, ravens or crows scavenging a food cache. At one point as we crossed a stream on the hike in, the mud looked as if a dozen bears had been there, deep scratches in the ground and a mess of paw prints as wide as my size twelve boots were long. But Sarah pointed out that the paw sizes were uniform and it was probably just one waddling individual, dopey and fat, sniffing around in circles.
I thought myself pretty wise to bear country then. Before we’d left New York, Sarah and I studied as for an exam, in the way that those diagnosed with rare diseases will consume as much information as they can about it. To control by familiarity. To tame. And what remained, after training on how best to avoid a naïve, scornful demise, was a profound, almost mystical fear of bears. Not wolves or inclement weather or bush crazies or the alarming rates of rape and sexual assault in the Great Land. But bears. Browns and polars and blacks. The places we headed were full of them.
By the time we were hiking out of Williwaw lakes, Sarah was calling this bearanoid. There were dozens of rules for bear safety that fed bearanoia: don’t run, don’t be alone, don’t feed bears, don’t carry a small-caliber weapon, don’t keep anything with a scent in the tent, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. We ate all this up. We read account after account of attacks, notes from naturalists, and the exhaustive biology of the Ursus genera, as if scientific knowledge of this creature would keep it from eating us.
But there was little control, after a certain point, which made all of that control we were planning on exercising seem a bit like a charm or spell. No matter what we did to prevent it, any of the state’s 120,000 bears could lumber into our camp or surprise us from the brush or stalk us down trail. We could take every precaution, pack every means of defense, be as wise to the country as Rich and Kathy Huffman were that summer we had moved up—everything done expertly right—and still, like them, get mauled and dragged out of our tents in the early morning by an otherwise normal grizzly, with no time to chamber a round, or dose pepper-spray, or even, despite all prevailing wisdom, to run.
Logically, I can point to my fear of bears as a result of statistical irrationality, like playing the lottery; when you know the odds are stacked wildly against you but you fall prey to the fantasy of slipping through them. More people get struck by lightning each year than get attacked by bears. Far more people get shot by other human beings, or physically assaulted; raped, robbed, murdered, fatally crash their cars, slip in showers, mauled by dogs, crushed in elevators. In my hometown of Syracuse, NY, more people were murdered in a five-year period than were killed by bears in all of North America in the last century.
So, for this trip: no gun, despite the .357 magnum our friend Jerry had left at our apartment before we’d departed. I was sold by the statistical wisdom that says you’re more likely to die of a gun accident in the backcountry than a bear attack. In fact, statistical wisdom could have sold me anything at that point. My fear of the possibility pushed me further and further into the welcoming arms of probability. I felt that our sound choices—the way we camped, the way we hiked, wind direction, commonsense—were enough to keep us out of trouble. If we stayed bearanoid, we’d ride the bell curve through the backcountry.
We hiked that morning in flat light, and before the valley emptied us I must have taken fifty photos: lakes like pools of mercury, boulders covered in the green rust of lichen, pale dots of Dall sheep a thousand feet up the granite. On the trek out we had met a couple in their mid-thirties, rosy cheeked and NorthFace clad, who said they’d seen a big brown bear a few hours earlier where the trail leaves the valley and winds its way past one of the peaks. They had taken a break on a small rise of land halfway between Williwaw valley and the trailhead, a place I knew from our hike in.
“Came out twenty yards behind us on the trail,” the man said, “sniffed, then moved right along.”
“He must have been 1000 pounds,” the woman said, widening her arms to demonstrate girth.
Of course it was 1000 pounds. No one tells you that the brown bear they saw was the runt. We thanked them, but I wished they had said nothing. What would we have done differently? We reached down into the well of bear wisdom and moved on slowly, making as much noise as possible, trying to keep a loud conversation going over our out-of-breathness. I could tell Sarah was nervous. She wasn’t really making sense as she told me about the greatest meal she had ever had—just grunts and ands and uhs—but we had planned on all of this. I suspected, hoped might be the better word, that maybe beneath the surface she was as secure as I thought I was. I thought about that, took pride in it even, this collective coolness we carried as we trudged through black mud and the trail came out on a small ridge over Williwaw creek, a shaver of a stream that ran the bottom of the valley. We stopped and dropped the packs, did that immediate lurch back up to stretch our backs, and settled in for jerky and sunscreen, right along the trail. She was catching her breath, and I was catching mine, and as I bent over and dug through my pack for the Coppertone, Sarah said, “Oh shit. Bear.”
I laughed before I looked up, began to say real funny, but when I finally did, I saw a monster of a brown bear across the creek, twenty or thirty yards away, close enough to see black mud caked on its legs, the cloud of flies following it. It was sniffing at grass and lumbering slowly, the fat and wet fur bouncing back and forth like Jell-O across its back. I put the jerky away and released the safety on the pepper spray and realized, immediately, how hopeless a weapon it was. If there was any wind, as there was that day, you were missing your mark, and probably suffering, one way or another.
Sarah grabbed my hand. I flashed, briefly, to Jerry’s unregistered firearm. To the narrative of our naïve death back home in the Syracuse newspaper. To the snickers of all the high-shouldered Alaskans who doubted everyone else who showed up out here. The bear circled his snout around, feeling for scent. We ducked down on the trail—I have no idea why, there was nothing we could hide behind—and I watched as the bear caught our human fragrance, edging its nose in the air and looking downstream for a moment before rotating back and freezing on us.
My heart to my throat. My stomach quickly into the lower half of my body. An unseen cloud of terror out of Sarah, her legs weakened, face pale, the feigned confidence she squeezed from my hand. The thing was enormous, had to be eight feet tall, moving its snout around in circles to get a better taste for us and swinging its paws at its sides to keep balance. It went back down on all fours and then popped up again and watched us. It stood, catching its balance, and watched us watching it.
I hadn’t been thinking then like I was supposed to. There was an idea that if you could swallow your fear somehow, your pheromones would communicate some kind of confidence to the animal and it wouldn’t treat you as prey. The thought arose, but it was as foreign as getting up and flying home. I was no sociopath or Zen master. I was a guy who, a few months before, had been an accountant in Syracuse.
I took my camera out and snapped a picture as the bear went back down. If we were to be mauled, I thought, someone could at least see the thing that did it. I don’t know why that would have mattered, but it struck me at the time as a very simple and sensible thing to do as a final gesture, as if the thing had already made the decision and was bounding its way through the stream and up the slope, snarling.
He watched us for five minutes. Five long, long minutes. Up on hind legs. Then down, as if ready to ford the stream. Then back up. We stood frozen, speaking to it like one would a dog. Get on going, buddy, get out of here, go home. And then it was back on all fours and lumbering along, giving us a few looks as it headed east toward the end of the valley, where we had just broken camp.
We watched the bear until we could no longer see it, until it had blended into the wildflowers next to the stream and became another piece of the valley.
“Is there a chance he comes back?” Sarah asked. She was pale, shaky.
“No,” I said, but that was just hope. Always there was the chance that he was circling back, that we were headed toward some decomposing fauna he was interested in keeping from us, that there were more nearby following path and scent, mates or friends or enemies, cubs or mothers, rival boars.
We tightened our packs and poked onward. Every time I looked over my shoulder, Sarah was looking over hers. And then I knew he was gone, and he was gone because we had done what we were supposed to. We hadn’t pissed our pants or peppered sprayed ourselves. We hadn’t made a headline in Syracuse’s Post-Standard. We hadn’t run. There’s a weird pride in a moment like this, and even now I can’t parse out whether it was from seeing a bear in the wild or not being killed by it. Are those separable?
We were calm in the aftermath, but unconsciously hurried, and as the trail wound through a patch of brush at the south of the valley, we found ourselves suddenly walking over bear tracks. Fresh. Tracks dug deep into the black mud. The moisture still settling into the hollows. When I turned around, Sarah’s hand was on her face, aghast, staring. The tracks headed in the opposite direction, toward us, and they belonged to our bear. They followed the trail for a half-mile through a maze of alder, a dense tunnel of three-inch thick branches that could have stopped a speeding truck. We walked slowly over the tracks. The trail so narrow that we walked in them. This was a path with no shoulder, no emergency pull-off. Head on collisions unavoidable. We had just accidentally missed one by five, maybe ten minutes.
“Fuck, are you kidding me?” Sarah asked, to no one in particular. And after that we must have hiked a mile without speaking, lost in our heads. That weird pride gone, probably forever. The feeling that we had done something right, gone—even though we probably had. It had just stopped mattering.
The alder thinned out. When we came out of the maze the valley widened to the west. The trail cut out ahead of us into a field of olive-colored patchwork, and one could sense the vast space that hung ahead of us, the slopes of the Chugach coming down steep into Cook Inlet, and Cook Inlet stretching slowly, massively, into the Pacific. I don’t know what I was then, a fusion of alarmed and grateful and withdrawn and humbled. I only remember thinking what we must have looked like from above: two backpacks moving along in silence; bright colors against the dull earth.
K.C. Wolfe is a founding editor at Sweet, and a nonfiction editor at Sweet Publications. He has worked as a freelancer, as nonfiction editor at The Journal, and in various editorial and management positions in corporate publishing. He teaches creative writing at Eckerd College and Syracuse's Downtown Writer's Center. His essays and short stories have been published in Redivider, Under the Sun, Gulf Coast, Swink, Joyland, and other publications.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: It’s length. There was a lot more research included in early drafts, which ended up in a different essay, mostly because it upset the tone. I think what surprised me most was that I thought I was writing a different essay when I began. I cut down continually to focus the story in this draft.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best advice I’ve received is that labor solves problems—story problems, character problems, voice problems, whatever. I’ve got a lot of techniques and methods and such that have paid off tremendously, but work has done the most to put those into action.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Barry Lopez. Annie Dillard. Charles Wright. Cormac McCarthy. Housekeeping by Marilynn Robinson.
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 work out of a home office, pretty consistently, but public places do the job occasionally, especially if I’m travelling.
David Jauss's Glossolalia: New & Se;ected Stories, reviewed by Chase Dearinger
Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories
Winston-Salem: Press 53, 2013
An alcoholic arrives at his ex-wife’s house for his son’s funeral. A boy copes with his father’s breakdown. A dying woman has her last conversation with her husband. A slow-witted, sociopathic woman leads a girl to her worst nightmare. Guatemalan natives deify a sixteenth-century Spanish missionary. A serial killer explains the events leading up to his first kill. These are just a handful of the stories in the latest collection from David Jauss, Glossolalia.
Tightly crafted and diverse, these stories come from Jauss’s previous collections, Crimes of Passion and Black Maps, as well as his uncollected works. Jauss draws his characters against a backdrop of entropy and loss, and shows us the often-heartbreaking results of their attempts to fight these forces. A wide range of diverse characters makes this collection a success; the Carver-esque, divorced alcoholic is penned with the same sense of loss as the serial killer and the nun.
In the title story, “Glossolalia,” a sixteen-year-old Danny is forced to come to terms with his father’s dysfunction at a time when he’d rather be coming to terms with his own. “I was sixteen then, a tough age. And he was forty, an age I’ve since learned is even tougher.” Danny witnesses his father crumble on the kitchen floor after the loss of his job at Goodyear and an outburst of violence, a state that Danny has never seen him in before. After his father returns from a brief institutional stay, things seem to return to normal, a fact that Danny still wonders at as an adult. “It amazed me that a life could break so utterly, then mend itself.”
Not all losses mend themselves, though, which becomes a truth too brutal to sublimate in one of the collection’s toughest and most rewarding stories, “Rainier.” Alec is too drunk to recognize his own son’s name when his ex-wife calls to tell him that his son is dead. What follows is a story about the farce of control in the face of entropy, of delirium tremens and grief. Alec goes to stay with his ex-wife and her new husband to attend the funeral. He’s given strict orders not to drink. “If you can’t stay sober out of consideration for me and Gale,” his ex-wife tells him, “I hope you can do it for Chuck.” Whatever the reasons—pride, spite, sincere remorse—Alec is able to stay sober until the shakes finally prove to him that he’s not in control. His wife angers, but not not much matters to Alec anymore.
“I wasn’t drunk, not anymore, but it didn’t matter. And it didn’t matter that Barbara and Gale were angry at me. Nothing mattered now. It was all over. And suddenly I felt numb, almost peaceful, even though I knew it couldn’t last, that any minute now all the pain and sorrow could come back, maybe even worse than before.”
Like so many of Jauss’s characters, there is nothing to be done about the decay of our world.
While these more quotidian stories—stories with characters that look and act and speak a lot like you and me—are powerful and well crafted, Jauss demonstates his capacity for great storytelling when he wades deeper into negative capability, putting on the second skin of missionaries and nuns, serial killers and hook-handed lovers, Dominican minor league pitchers and nineteenth-century Russian newspaper editors. One of the most moving and frightening examples of these stories is “Deliverance,” which takes the shape of a transcript from a psychiatric evaluation. The interview is with Deliverance Egg, a possibly disabled woman with extreme, sociopathic levels of unreliability. She lies to the interviewer; she lies to other characters; she lies to the reader. Her lies, too, are at the heart of the matter.
“Now I call that a lie, and I ought to know because I lie all of the time.”
Are you lying now?
“No, I’m not, but would I tell you if I was? My point is, if I wasn’t such a liar, I wouldn’t be here talking into his dumb tape recorder and Riviera would be giving some pimply teenager the business in his apartment.”
Deliverance’s best friend is the young Rosy Blue, a child whose admiration is the most important thing in the world. Deliverance recounts her initial lie to Rosie—that a man with a gun attempted to rape her—and how that encouraged Rosie to run away from home with her. What follows is a night in the city with an unlikely pair of travelers, comical in its absurdity and devastating in its implications. The journey is shaped by Deliverance’s lies, all of which are designed to evoke loyalty and devotion from Rosy. Deliverance’s need for Rosy’s protectiveness reaches unconceivable heights when she leaves the child alone to an unspeakable fate. Was Deliverance responsible for what happened? “Not any more that God is, and I don’t see you ‘assessing’ him. He’s getting off scot-free, just like he always does.” Deliverance attempts to control the narrative through her lies, to assert her place in an unstable universe through storytelling. She wants to control who she is, but by the end of all of her stories, it just beyond her reach, and we see her for what she really is: a monster.
Jauss gives us seventeen dark and moving stories with Glossolalia. He presents a manifold of characters, all inked with the same sense of loss. What makes these stories eminently readable is the univerality of their characters’ struggles to control the uncontrollable. For Jauss, those that live their lives at the edge of the universe are twisted and contorted by the same forces as those that live their lives at the center of it.
David Jauss’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous magazines, including Arts & Letters, The California Quarterly, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, The Nation, New England Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, upstreet and The Writer's Chronicle. Jauss teaches creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and in the MFA in Writing Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
In addition to the O. Henry Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and a Best American Short Stories selection, Jauss’s awards and honors include the AWP Award for Short Fiction, the Fleur-de-Lis Poetry Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a James A. Michener Fellowship, a fellowship from the Minnesota State Arts Board, three fellowships from the Arkansas Arts Council, and the Porter Fund Award for Literary Excellence.
Chase Dearinger holds an M.F.A. from the University of Central Oklahoma and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Texas Tech University. His fiction has appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Eclectica, Short Story America, and others. He serves as managing editor for both Iron Horse Literary Review and Arcadia.
Pamela Erens's The Virgins, reviewed by Michael Palmer
Portland: Tin House Books, 2013
Pamela Erens’s The Virgins depicts the 1979 boarding school romance between Seung Jung and Aviva Rossner, considered to be the most sexually experienced—even exhibitionistic—couple on campus. As the narrator of the book, Bruce Bennett-Jones, says: “They are famous, they are the sexual and romantic templates for the rest of us” (252). The Virgins explores the relationship between Jung and Rossner from that voyeuristic point-of-view: Bennett-Jones both describes how the relationship appears from the outside, and re-imagines its interior.
The novel is written in pieces, with short, segmented chapters interspersed with much longer chapters. On the level of language, The Virgins is full of lyrical and surprising descriptions and insights. Erens effectively renders compelling teenagers who are simultaneously vexing and sympathetic. She captures the expectations, excitement, and shame of being young, in love, and sexually inexperienced—without sounding nostalgic or patronizing. She writes evocatively about the desire for something beyond ordinary experience; what Seung thinks of as “the inside”: “Only rarely does that inside reveal itself; mostly it teases him with transient glimmers of radiant energy in a field of grass, the panting of a dog, the mute mouth of a doorway” (91).
As interesting as sentences like these are, what most stands out about the book is the way it is narrated. The narrator, Bruce Bennett-Jones is, to say the least, an unreliable narrator—someone recreating a romance he observed but did not participate in. Augmenting the level of narrative discomfort, early in the book, Bennett-Jones tries to rape Aviva in a boathouse. Now, from a retrospective and supposedly penitent perspective, Barrett-Jones is telling her story, both through recall and imagination. As a character in the book, he acknowledges to himself: “I’ve imagined every part of her: her body, her thoughts, the conversations she has with her friends, with her brother and father and mother, the things she says to him, Seung, the books she reads and the fantasies that make her touch herself” (253).
The reader is aware of the ways that Barrett-Jones is carefully controlling and creating the narrative from the beginning, because he calls attention to it: “I am going to slow down the action now, relating this; I want to see it all again very clearly” (15). Early on, in a stand-alone chapter, he writes: “I’m inventing Seung, too, of course. It’s the least I can do for him” (24). One thing this narrative position affords the text is the understanding gained by retrospective distance, which works simultaneously with the prose that renders the immediacy and urgency of the time.
By positioning Barrett-Jones as the narrator, Erens also lends a profound unease to the entirety of The Virgins. Aviva is a character who “can’t bear the idea of being watched, studied for signs of grief and distress, or their absence” (268). That Barrett-Jones is the one controlling her story means the book has to be read, not as providing generous access into the vulnerability and mystery of a young couple in love, but more as though, as Barrett-Jones puts it, “Their mystery has been leached out of them” (240).
Of course, it is not as though this is some oblivious error on Erens’s part. Indeed, Barrett-Jones himself is aware of his problematic position in the story: “Over the years I’ve come to understand that telling someone’s story—telling it, I mean, with a purity of intention, in an attempt to get at that person’s real desires and sufferings—is at one and the same time an act of devotion and an expression of sadism. You are the one moving the bodies around, putting words in their mouths, making them do what you need them to do. You insist, they submit” (61) By having Barrett-Jones tell the story, Erens is asking the reader to interrogate the idea of narration—and perhaps specifically, narration from white males, as Barrett-Jones takes control over a story that is really about Aviva, a Jewish woman, and Seung, a Korean-American man. It might be an achievement of the novel that even the most tender, lyrical moments between Seung and Aviva seem invasive when you think about who is compiling and telling them.
Barrett-Jones is a reprehensible enough villain that at times I wish the book could just be told from the perspective of a neutral observer, or an omniscient narrator—all of the lovely sentences with none of the culpability. However, in many ways that critique is a call for less complexity—and the narrative position Erens chooses, as well as her willingness to leave the reader feeling uncomfortable, undoubtedly add to the novel’s richness. The Virgins is challenging and beautiful, but it’s also searing and sometimes excruciating.
Pamela Erens's debut novel, The Understory, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including New England Review, Tin House, The Millions, The New York Times, and many more.
Michael Palmer is a nonfiction writer living in Lubbock, Texas. His work has appeared in The Georgetown Review, Wag's Revue, Dialogue, and other journals.
Richard Burgin's Hide Island, reviewed by Joseph Daniel Haske
Huntsville: Texas Review Press, 2013
Five-time Pushcart Prize winner Richard Burgin’s latest release, Hide Island, highlights many of his numerous merits as a writer: a knack for conveying the complexity of human relationships; a depth of ideas through descriptive, yet concise, prose; and a fearless treatment of topics that are, if not taboo, generally avoided by the politically correct establishment. Many writers, even the greatest writers amongst us, tend to lose momentum over time, running out of fresh ideas or cranking out books for the sake of publication, but Hide Island provides ample evidence that, despite the publication of nearly a dozen volumes of fiction, Burgin’s work is stronger than ever and that he is not merely content to rest on his laurels. Burgin draws his latest fictional masterpiece from a seamlessly never-ending well of ideas, and his prosaic style and complex plot twists have remained consistently sharp.
In his novella, The Memory Center, Burgin further develops a concept from a story, (“Memo and Oblivion”) in his previous collection, Shadow Traffic (Johns Hopkins, 2011) as he infuses a futuristic, sci-fi world of memory-altering drugs with Kafkaesque allegory and Borgesian metaphysics. The drug, Memo, increases memory while Oblivion, aptly, wipes out memory. The novella’s protagonist, Greg Foster, is an admitted Memo addict who seeks “memory replacement” surgery with the notorious Dr. Rohr as treatment for his severe depression. While awaiting his treatment at The Memory Center, Foster develops an intriguing relationship with an Oblivion addict, Nadine, and has second thoughts about submitting to Dr. Rohr’s therapy, as unexpected events unfold in Burgin’s thrilling novella. At the beginning of the novella, Foster notices a sign on Dr. Rohr’s wall that foreshadows relevant plot twists and some of the more significant themes of this work: “If you forget everything you’re an animal, if you remember everything you’re a monster” (159).
In stories such as “The Reunion,” Burgin effectively revisits one of his greatest authorial strengths: the exploration of complex human relationships in unusual or awkward situations. When an aging man reencounters a woman who had taken advantage of him years before, he exacts revenge for her cold behavior while struggling with memories of his difficult relationship with his mother. In stories such as this, Burgin reminds us how previous relationships of all types result in our eccentricities and affect our current relationships, even if we are not always cognizant of the correlative complexity of such human interaction. Furthermore, stories such as “The Reunion” convey realistic life situations, in which courting and conversation often prove awkward and uncomfortable for many people, an issue not thoroughly addressed by many fiction writers, but a verity that Burgin perpetually demonstrates through his characters’ thoughts, actions, and interactions.
In stories such as “From the Diary of an Invalid,” Burgin shows a somewhat lighter, perhaps optimistic, side to human relationships. With experience, one often learns to accept the various assets and liabilities of relationships, especially where family is concerned. The narrator in this story struggles with the complications of aging and subsequent decline of his health, but the tradeoff is a loving, albeit unconventional, relationship with his son. The narrator’s appreciation of this father-son bond, as well as his fondness for the imaginary world they share, increases as he acknowledges that a “healthy body is the great diverter from thinking about the world” (115). “Diary of an Invalid” exposes a brighter side of Burgin’s often bleak literary world and reminds us that life experiences are often simultaneously uplifting and dark.
In all, Hide Island serves as further evidence of Burgin’s adept fictional prowess and perpetually keen treatment of the human condition. This impressive assortment of fiction, each tale as compelling and well-executed as the next, clearly demonstrates Burgin’s fictional range as well as his acute insight to human emotions and intellect. The artful compilation of stories into a unified collection, not unlike the creation of a great musical album, one that engages from cover to cover, appears to be a dying art; each individual work must leave an impression while ultimately augmenting the work as a whole. Fortunately, writers like Burgin still appreciate such complexity and craftsmanship, and every piece in Hide Island enhances the next, with the attention to quality one has come to expect from a true master of the genre, and one of a very select few writers who, over time, has managed to stay consistently true to himself while advancing the art of fiction.
Richard Burgin is an American fiction writer, editor, composer, critic, and academic. He has published sixteen books, and from 1996 through 2012 was a professor of Communication and English at St. Louis University.
Joseph D. Haske is a writer, critic and scholar who teaches literature, creative writing and other courses at South Texas College in McAllen, Texas. He is the author of the novel North Dixie Highway and his fiction appears in journals such as Boulevard, Fiction International, the Texas Review and Pleiades. His poetry and fiction are also featured in various anthologies as well as in French, Romanian and Canadian publications.
Interview with Richard Burgin by Joseph Haske
Joseph Haske: Your forthcoming book, Hide Island, contains both a novella and a collection of short stories. It seems these collected pieces share several thematic bonds, one of them being relationships that are sometimes unfulfilling. Could you describe those bonds between the characters in Hide Island?
Richard Burgin: Relationships of one sort or another are the inevitable theme of all fiction, even if done in an “abstract” way as with Samuel Beckett, or, with Franz Kafka, in a metaphorical way. We can no more escape from writing about relationships than we can escape from being part of our own species. So, really it’s a question of what one focuses on, what aspects of human relationships one concentrates on in a given work. I would say that the stories in Hide Island deal a lot with family relationships: mother-child, father-child, as is the case, for example, in “Atlantis” and in “Hide Island.” That would also be the case in “Cold Ocean,” where the son is trying to deal with his mother’s death and that becomes a barrier against getting close to the woman he meets on the beach. It’s kind of an unconscious act of fidelity on his part to his mother—though she’s dead physically, she’s still alive in his mind—and that’s what makes him, ultimately, rob the woman he sleeps with as a way of punishing himself for betraying his mother. So sometimes it isn’t as obvious what aspect of a relationship I’m writing about because a lot of times we do negative things to people as a way of proving our love towards other people, especially our parents. Similarly, in “A Letter in Las Vegas,” while there’s a lot of dishonesty and narcissism in the character’s actions, it’s ultimately a story about two brothers coming together. While there’s a lot of darkness in the story, I would say that it ends on a somewhat optimistic note. And certainly, the most overtly warm or positive story is “From the Diary of an Invalid,” where the closeness of the father and son is pretty transparent throughout.
JH: Although there is a positive ending to some of the stories you’ve mentioned, you do typically take on darker, often taboo, topics. Even in some of the stories with happier endings, there are sometimes unhealthy sexual relationships, Freudian complexes and so on. Do you believe that this book pushes the envelope more than your previous books?
RB: I’m aware that it’s a little darker than previous books, but some of these stories aren’t necessarily representative of a new direction in my writing because some of them were written years ago, they just didn’t happen to be put into books for one reason or another. But yes, I think you’re correct: the overall effect may be darker and edgier than previous collections. Still, sometimes, almost as often as not, stories end in a somewhat optimistic way. For example, in “Atlantis,” the first story, there’s certainly a lot of cruelty and darkness but it ends on a positive note of forgiveness and the lovers mutually demonstrating more empathy toward one another. It reminds me of a line in a song that I wrote, “Love is darkness that you see through.” I think these stories, about half of them, have that kind of hopeful ending. “The Escort” is another one, where the man becomes friends with the prostitute at the end of the story.
JH: Speaking of your more recent work, let me ask you about another of your collections, Shadow Traffic. I’ve heard a great deal of positive feedback from readers regarding that collection as well. It seems to me that “The Memory Center” in Hide Island is a continuation of the story, “Memo and Oblivion,” from Shadow Traffic, correct?
RB: Yes, definitely. I don’t know if I’ll go on and develop that material into a novel as I had originally planned to do. It’s hard to foresee that at the moment. Sometimes I’m asked why I concentrate on darker themes such as those in “The Memory Center,” but I think that writers, in a sense, don’t choose their subject matter, it chooses them. That is, at a certain point, you have to be yourself, put very simply, and what’s ultimately going to come out is inside of you and you can’t really worry about whether it’s dark or light or politically correct or in vogue. Your writing is not going to work on the most authentic level unless you live by the words of Polonius, “to thine own self be true.” You can’t really manipulate the way you perceive things and your attitude towards them. If you intentionally try to, it’s like dodging who you are, and it’s going to show in the writing. It won’t be as convincing or powerful, although it may be more commercially accepted work. So, you really can’t avoid who you are in your writing, nor do I think you should.
JH: Your fictional world tends to be one in which writers, academics, and other upper-middle class and upper class characters meet up with the so-called “underworld,” and it’s one of the things that I thoroughly enjoy about your writing. You often treat topics such as prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse, issues that many politically correct writers avoid at all costs and that some critics despise. Do you think some academic types, critics, and readers in general, might distance themselves from your work because of the subject matter? Has it been a problem, staying true to yourself?
RB: A long time ago I made the decision to always be true to myself in my writing, and so once you’ve done that, you have to accept the consequences. Yes, I don’t think my subject matter has necessarily increased my popularity. But, as I said previously, at a certain point, you can’t help being who you are, and if you aren’t, it won’t work artistically. I mean, Samuel Beckett couldn’t worry that he didn’t have any “realistic” characters or situations. It’s kind of amazing that people have read him to the extent they have since the usual things one can hang one’s hat on like a plot, characters, or a love story, are missing in Beckett, yet he managed to be a great writer when all is said and done. If he had he tried to write about the fashionable subjects of his time, in the approved style of the day, in the commonly used language of the day, the world would have been deprived of Beckett. The same thing is true of Borges, Celine, Proust, and Bernhard—you can go right down the list of great modern writers. I think you just can’t worry about whether or not subject matter coincides with what the general populous wants to read and what appeals to them in achieving popularity or sales. One is lucky when the two things coincide, when you write about things that are topical or in the news and it really comes from your inside, your true self. If not, there’s not much you can do about it. If you’re trying to write literature, you can’t write someone else, you have to write yourself.
JH: It seems that political correctness has found its way into academia. Perhaps it’s always been something akin to the acceptance of the masses, but now it’s invaded academia as well, and it seems that many writers tend to be safer these days. We all know that the great writers have always tended to offend the masses, but now we have a situation where most writers, critics and scholars are squeamish about so-called “taboo” topics and it’s rampant even in many MFA programs that are producing writers who are taught not to offend, to perhaps, not be true to the nature of what they are. It all seems rather anti-literary, infecting the very institutions that have traditionally served as safe-havens for literature, wouldn’t you agree?
RB: Yes, I agree, and I’ve actually written about this. Specifically, my characters have thoughts quite similar to what you just said in both my novels, Rivers Last Longer and Ghost Quartet. Yes, I agree, I think political correctness is the most toxic literary disease of our time.
JH: Many literary writers don’t become a household name, gain mainstream validation within their lifetime in most cases, if at all. I know, in your case, you have many admirers among fellow writers, critics, others in the literary community, myself included. How would you describe your legacy thus far and your contribution to American letters?
RB: I couldn’t possibly do that objectively. I’m going to have to plead the Fifth Amendment on that one. We’ll leave that one to the people whose job it is to decide.
JH: Who are some great writers, then, who have influenced your work?
RB: There have been a fair number. Dostoyevsky, I love because he is able to dramatize ideas, to write about ideas, which is something you don’t get a lot of in American fiction, to put it mildly. Also, his understanding of the neurotic sensibility of the underground man is extremely impressive. Actually, he coined that term, “underground,” in his wonderful novella, Notes from the Underground. Dostoyevsky is a big influence on me. Proust is also one of my favorite writers, and Remembrance of Things Past, one of the world’s great books. He’s also a profound psychologist and a great social satirist. He’s able to combine so many different elements in his fiction and he was one of the first writers to write about so-called “sexual deviancy” in the last part of Remembrance of Things Past. Faulkner has also influenced me a lot, especially his conception of time and Thomas Bernhard, the late Austrian writer, and author of the brilliant novella, Concrete, has influenced me as well. His tone of voice and his mix of humor and dark psychological exploration is really amazing. Well, those are some influences who immediately come to mind. There’s also Borges, of course, with whom I had the honor of collaborating on my first book, Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges. In that case, he influenced my view of the world more than my writing style. He’s the first writer, since Dante, anyway, who has written about infinity and who really has a metaphysical as opposed to a psychological approach to his work. More of an influence on my world view than my actual writing, but you can’t really separate the two, so I’d name him as well. That’s a reasonable list, I think, although one could go on.
JH: Well, I look forward to the release of Hide Island this fall. Any final words about the book?
RB: Well, what can I say? It may be a little darker but it’s not about despair. Some of the characters are in a world of darkness but eventually they see through it. Even the character in my quasi-science fiction novella, “The Memory Center,” experiences freedom and reunion and release at the end, so I would hope that it would be read in that spirit, because that was the spirit I intended it.
Richard Burgin is an American fiction writer, editor, composer, critic, and academic. He has published sixteen books, and from 1996 through 2012 was a professor of Communication and English at St. Louis University.
Joseph D. Haske is a writer, critic and scholar who teaches literature, creative writing and other courses at South Texas College in McAllen, Texas. He is the author of the novel North Dixie Highway and his fiction appears in journals such as Boulevard, Fiction International, the Texas Review and Pleiades. His poetry and fiction are also featured in various anthologies as well as in French, Romanian and Canadian publications.
Pierre Hauser is a photographer and writer who lives in New York City. His photographs have appeared in Town & Country, Camera Obscura, Adirondack Review, Alligator Juniper, Wild RIver Review, and other publications. His short stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, BOMB, Confrontation, Crab Creek Review, and other literary journals.