Welcome to Issue No. 47 of Prime Number
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.
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To see work from previous issues, check out the Archives, or order Editors' Selections Volumes 1, 2 and 3, shipping now from Press 53. These three volumes are beautiful books and contain some excellent poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Plus, Volume 3 has an interview with Pam Houston that you won't find anywhere else.
In Issue 47, we continue to bring you distinctive poetry and prose: short stories about love in Antarctica and poetry on Mars; poems about war and birdsong; essays about basketball and cellphones; an interview with Joseph Daniel Haske, author of North Dixie Highway; and reviews of two novels. Our cover photo is by Ray Scanlon.
We are currently reading submissions for Issue 47 updates, Issue 53, 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!
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Table of Contents, Prime Number Magazine
Issue 47, January-March 2014
Meditation on my Late-Deafened Mother
Leap to Able
Mother of Apples
Witch of the Pines
Local Woman in the Check-out Line at the Second-hand Store
Listening for Birdsong in the Distance
While You Shower
The Confession of the First Poet on Mars
The Scotch Runner
The Enormous Cell Phone
Postcards from London
Review of Jacob M. Appel's The Biology of Luck
Review of Joseph Daniel Haske's North Dixie Highway
Interview with Joseph Daniel Haske
Parking Lot 47
2 Poems by Lorene Delany-Ullman
Followed by Q&A
The disturbed hillside
and vacant lot breed
the hardpan soil welcomes
what is out of place.
This morning, a heron
thrusts his orange beak at a mirage
of quivering fish.
How his bluish-grey feathers
sharpen the complexion
of yellow weeds.
He mustn’t give
wings to the exuberant child—
today he’s a small boy
listening for the afternoon trains,
and soon will learn to ask for too much—
fish in an arid field,
something desirable from weeds.
Meditation on my Late-Deafened Mother
Out of the graceless clouds,
a loose strand of pelicans
fly west. White plumage
and black wing-tips
quicken their silence—
The long line of
rides the air currents
into the slate sky—
it is the most quiet
I can suffer. It is ungodly
to curse my mother
when she works
so hard to hear, while this
migrating flock of birds,
rises and skims
the heavens, songless.
Lorene Delany-Ullman’s book of prose poems, Camouflage for the Neighborhood, was the winner of the 2011 Sentence Award, and published by Firewheel Editions (December 2012). She recently published her poetry and creative nonfiction in Stymie, Lunch Ticket, AGNI 74, Cimarron Review and Zócalo Public Square. She works in collaboration with artist, Jody Servon, on Saved, an ongoing photographic and poetic exploration of the human experience of life, death, and memory. Delany-Ullman teaches composition at the University of California, Irvine.
Q: Your poem “Another Icarus” re-imagines that timeless myth in a barren landscape. Is there a painting or poem on this topic that is your favorite, and why?
A: Similar to well-known poets, William Carlos Williams and W.H. Auden, who wrote poems about Icarus inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” I’ve always appreciated how, in Bruegel’s painting, the fall of Icarus is not the dominating image. Auden and Williams both note Icarus’ splash in their poems, although in Bruegel’s composition, the eye is not drawn immediately toward the drowning about to happen. The Flemish painter’s depiction of the myth reminds me of the kind of tragedy that happens within our peripheral vision; the tragedies we are likely to ignore because we haven’t entirely noticed what’s happening right next door to us.
Q: Waterbirds, and the waters great or small that they inhabit, are important in both these poems. Discuss your favorite body of water.
A: I live about ten miles from the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve and Ecological Reserve, an estuary where up to 35,000 birds migrate during the winter months. In the suburbs of southern California, “The Back Bay” (as the locals call it) is place of refuge; a body of water I’ve known since childhood. As a fitness enthusiast, I often run “The Back Bay Loop” with friends. It is a coastal wetland surrounded by high-class homes, making the bay a surreal sanctuary for scores of wildlife. Weirdly, it is this juxtaposition of the posh residencies against the mostly native flora and fauna that gives “The Back Bay” an inexplicable aura.
Q: The pelicans of “Meditation on My Late-Deafened Mother” are silent, their presence entirely a visual feast. Is there a moment when birdsong is particularly strong in your memory–where, why, what bird?
A: A murder of crows roosts in the eucalyptus trees directly behind my house. Their squalling call is quite sharp, especially in the early morning. I consider crows to be one of nature’s alarm clocks. Mockingbirds are also prevalent in the neighborhood, but I enjoy their mimicry.
Q: Would you consider yourself a poet of the spring, summer, winter or fall? What season is most apt to be reflected in your work, and why do you think that’s the case?
A: Fall in southern California offers the most diversity—the weather can be near eighty-five degrees, and fueled by the hot, dry Santa Ana winds, there is often the threat of forest fires in the nearby mountains, or it might be cool and with drizzle. Real rain is a gift. While I realize that I live in the mildest of climates, I am fascinated by how day-to-day weather changes our environment and us. My work is often a reflection of the intersection of weather, environment, and the human element.
3 Poems by Stephen S. Power
Followed by Q&A
Leap to Able
Dorrance, Kansas, June 1938
“This dry weather could not last forever,”
Kent said to his dashboard. There a devil
made of chalk and sand whipped up and taunted
him while legions of them stormed his acres.
What few sprouts had struggled up to sunlight
they had stripped and, wailing, beat to pieces.
They could beat this whole damned world to pieces,
him included. Who’d care now, if ever?
Kent peered through the endless empty sunlight.
This field once had such a yield, the Devil
made it grow, they said. Eighty rich acres.
What I’ve done, enjoy, the devil taunted.
What his wife said daily made this taunting,
this field and their marriage of a piece.
Him she’d married, not his eighty acres.
They were all she spoke of, though, and never
Kent. Nor sons he could not have. The devil
made a graceful bow, crowned by the sunlight.
Makes the bank seem like a ray of sunlight,
they would say about his wife, not taunting,
this their way to beat back their own devils.
What are friends when banks see only pieces,
him and them indebted, bank land, never
Kent’s, however hard he worked these acres?
Kent decided. He would leave his acres.
What his wife would do, let her tell the sunlight.
They would understand, and if he ever
made it somewhere else, the news would taunt
this town till they also left their pieces.
Him, he’d welcome them and all their devils.
Him, though? No. He swept away the devil.
Making him start, something crashed on his acres.
What it was he could not tell, but pieces
Kent saw glinting silver in the sunlight.
They’re no plane’s. Cries rose from it, taunting,
“This, a babe, could keep you here forever.”
This new devil watched him, pale as sunlight.
Kent drove off. His acres, what they taunted,
made no peace with him nor would they ever.
Mother of Apples
Thor stumbles toward her through the orchard, broken
and bleeding from a hundred blows. He pulls
his bearskin off. His scars sing of the hunt
that saw him seize the ancient beast and rip
its great pelt free—as it still breathed. He lays
it on the blossom mulch, quiet as down,
his fury spent. She sets her casket down
beside it, smoothes his skin and feels the broken
bones scrape beneath the meat and grime. She lays
a graceful palm across each gash, then pulls
his blood in braids around him. All the rips
seem one now and she, mistress of the hunt.
He offers her his head. Her fingers hunt
through clots of curls to draw the cleanest down
like sunlight, soft and gold, before she rips
some out. He winces and a smile breaks
across his face. “So brave,” she says. She pulls
his wrist. He rubs his chin and lets her lay
him on the skin. His hair she twines to lay
atop the casket. It unlocks. She hunts
inside, by subtle art decides and pulls
an apple out. She points it up and down,
then says, “As root and fruitful bough, the broken
body be.” With a twist, she deftly rips
the fruit in two. She crushes half and drips
juice bitter on his lips. The rest she lays
across her own. He nods. She bites. His broken
cries shake the Great Ash as if Heimdall’s hunting
horn sounds at last. She holds him, pressing down
against the healing, though he writhes and pulls
at her the way the snake will writhe and pull
one day at him. Her body burns. He rips
her robes away. She heaves and bears him down.
Bones knit. Cuts close. He weakens till they lay
each to each, close as skin. His right hand hunts
his left so their embrace cannot be broken.
She pulls his braids around her neck and lays
her cheek on scarring rips. He sobs and hunts
for breath. They know deep down he still is broken.
Witch of the Pines
Witch of the Pines put on her rabbit cloak
and fastly hopped down a near fingerboard.
A man with blue hands there was waiting for
her Bill to either put him in an oak
or see him render up her gold-filled poke.
He fared as well as those who’d tried before.
She darted from the braken and restored
herself with just a pinch of blue-white smoke.
He knowed her and looked set in sugar sand
until she pled, “You take my cloak instead.”
Now feeling pretty middling smart, he said,
“I will.” He put it on and was unmanned.
That’s when Bill shewed. He shot the rabbit true
and gave it to her proudly for a stew.
Stephen S. Power’s work has appeared most recently in Innisfree Poetry Journal, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Lyric and Nervous Breakdown and is forthcoming in Clarion. He’s a senior editor at the business publisher Amacom, and he tweets, often about poetry and publishing, at @stephenspower.
Q: Talk about the pleasures of formal poetry, if you would.
A: I write formal poetry because I find the demands generative. For instance, I think of rhymes as guideposts that help determine the direction I should take as well as provide a little reward when I finally pass them. Similarly, as someone who rambles, I need lines of a certain number of feet to force me to be precise.
Q: You take a different angle on that most durable of superheroes, by considering his (earthly) father. Which of the Superman incarnations is your favorite, and why?
A: Although I devoured all the George Reeves TV shows in reruns when I was a kid–you can watch my favorite episode here:
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xwx2gs_superman-6x04-the-mysterious-cube_shortfilms--my favorite Superman (and Clark) is Christopher Reeve. Side note: I took his father’s poetry writing course when I was at Wesleyan. Same blue eyes.
Q: You’re a resident of New Jersey, home of the Pines Witch–and the Pines Wizard. Could you discuss this legend and how you came to address it in your work?
A: Although I’ve lived in Northern New Jersey for 15 years now and grew up in Rockland County, New York, just across the border, I didn’t know about the Pines Witch until I read John McPhee’s book The Pine Barrens last year. I was fascinated by the story and the locals’ manner of speaking, which McPhee discusses at length, and decided to try and write a folktale about her in their vernacular. She doesn’t get nearly the popular attention the Jersey Devil does.
Q: Would you consider yourself a poet of the spring, summer, winter or fall? What season is most apt to be reflected in your work, and why do you think that’s the case?
A: Fall at the cusp of winter, that is, the man poking his toe just over the ledge.
No Thor question? In that case, let me just recommend Jason Aaron’s Marvel Now Thor series. I haven’t seen “Dark World” yet because I can’t imagine it would compare favorably to his books.
3 Poems by Peg Robarchek
Followed by Q&A
Local Woman in the Check-Out Line at the Second-Hand Store
You might decide,
looking at my outsides, that I am none too bright.
You would be wrong.
Once, the county
had a lending library. Before I was sixteen, I read everything
Jane Austen ever wrote,
plus a healthy dose
of Dickens, Faulkner, George Eliot and the Walden Pond
fellow. But books
don’t make you rich,
which my daddy, to his credit, used to tell me whenever he caught me
with my nose
the covers of a book instead of my fingers wrapped around the handle
of a hoe.
Of course, hoeing
never made him rich, either. It’s possible rich is as random
of being the only one in the cornfield struck by lightning.
I did not attract
rich or pretty.
So here I stand with two under the age of four, one in my belly
and hands rough
from the hoe-handle.
Today’s second-hand booty: two like-new T-shirts that my boy
will grow into
by summer, a pair
of barely scuffed Mary Janes for the girl, a stuffed panda and a sack
full of paperbacks,
three for a dollar.
Last week, I found a Charlotte Bronte and the weeds almost
got away from me.
The back door
A person can walk right in.
Step around the kennel where
Gracie the beagle stayed
during banker’s hours.
Food in the freezer has gone bad.
How long the smell will linger
is anybody’s guess.
On the upstairs landing,
jeans – inseam 34 inches – drape
over the scarred lid of an open cedar chest.
A TV cabinet of weathered wood hovers
at the top of the stairwell.
Easy to imagine a person running
out of strength or time
Two years ago in the fenced yard she
planted gold thread cypress, crape myrtle, roses.
Dead now. Come spring, grass will grow
unchecked until the bank where she worked
walks in, finds the keys on the kitchen counter,
clears out all that was
Listening for Birdsong in the Distance
No birds sing
the first two years I live
in this empty-handed house.
Earth has been scraped bare
down to hard red clay,
all that was green and rooted
into the soil
hauled away. Vinyl-wrapped
starter homes, bland
in gray and cream, work
equally well for endings.
Lumpy sod fakes its way
into the lawn business;
juniper shrinks back
from front sidewalks, puny,
of pin oaks sprout
up and down
the blocks. Amid
of nature’s riches,
not a single place
for a bird to land,
nest, open its throat
Peg Robarchek is a published novelist, editor, writing coach, poet and a former journalist who currently lives in Charlotte, NC. Her poetry has appeared in or is scheduled for publication in Iodine Poetry Journal, Kakalak, Naugatuck River Review, Blast Furnace Literary Journal and Main Street Rag’s Final Friday and Bearers of Distance anthologies. Her blog is coachpegnow.com and her most recent novel is In the Territory of Lies, co-authored with Lois Stickell. In 2013, she also published her first children’s book, Bean Is Born.
Q: Your submission was titled “Post Middle Class Poetry,” a title too evocative to ignore. Would you like to expand a bit?
A: Each of these poems came out of my experiences with people who are dealing with a new financial reality since the economy tanked in 2008. People who have lost their homes. People whose lives have collapsed into the dreariness of barely making ends meet. People whose gift or calling must be set aside just to keep the children fed. I don’t write about these experiences to make a political or social statement, but the statement is there and it is this: Poverty is soul-killing.
Q: Would you consider yourself a poet of the spring, summer, winter or fall? What season is most apt to be reflected in your work, and why do you think that’s the case?
A: Definitely an autumn poet—and not because of age or stage of life. Despite the somber nature of these poems, my nature is to see the fullness of life everywhere I look. Autumn is the season of harvest, when life has grown ripe and juicy, bursting with color and flavor. It is the time when we are fed, when life is abundant, when we have reached the peak that spring and summer have prepared us for. I once submitted a poem about autumn that referred to “glory on the way,” which is how autumn feels to me. The editor who rejected it said she was tired of poems about the approach of death, which made me laugh—and made me sad for her, if the only glory she could imagine was beyond this life.
3 Poems by Jonathan Travelstead
Followed by Q&A
One table is jeweled in Special Forces-style Pakistani knives–
black, light-sponging blades that open
with a thumb-flick. On another table, fake Rolexes
with Japanese gearings, neatly rowed and columned,
glass lenses tinted pale blue in their bezels
to resemble sapphire, identical watch bands anodized
in metallic colors. I wander through the clamor
of airmen and merchants haggling over cheap wares,
through the teeming crowd in desert fatigues and robes,
past a booth where handbags hang like carnival dolls
and the colors of a rainbow slinky jump from hand to hand.
Even as I push past cellophaned DVDs
with movies recorded last week by shaky camcorders,
ink bleeding through their photoshopped covers
a merchant calls after me. Special price for you three for ten dollar!
Then, desperate, Four for ten! Cheaper than Wal-Mart!
but he has nothing for me. He has no salve
for not being at my Mother's bedside.
Nothing hidden in the silver tubes that contain Cuban cigars,
no hope that she will be there when I return.
But, there. I see it. The thing I can give her
in place of myself. On a table with no others
like it, a red oil perfume dropper bottle. Holding it,
I see the glass stopper’s neck has been
sandblasted for a seal. How the dauber slips into it,
occluding all air.
The gold leaf zagging around its perimeter
threatens to chip, but other than that it’s perfect.
than the real thing.
The commander allows the Kuwaitis onto the base every fourth Saturday,
caravanning in their Isuzu pickups to the rear of the white prefab building.
Fathers in their white linens and ghutrahs rest on boxes and smoke
brown beadie cigarettes while their sons truck kitsch inside
to arrange on doilied card tables.
Before duty, I sit with hajji on a slat-board crate. He pinches a beadie
from the pocket of his dishdasha, holds it out to me.
As the sun gathers from its puddle of gas over the sand
we smoke and watch his youngest son thread in and out.
Sauntering around the corner of a nearby cargo container–then between us–
the angular stray cat the airmen call ‘Joe’ curls against my leg,
and as I pet the feline between me and hajji, I am afraid.
I have seen video from a soldier’s phone
of a cat lapping a poisoned sugar cube from a Kuwaiti’s hand,
who laughed offscreen as its body hitched and seized
then, raising his booted leg,
caved in its ribs there in the dusty street.
Even if I knew how, nothing I say could change a thing.
Hajji sees me, and I wonder if my sadness for what we call animal shows.
Hajji reaches his arm into the seat of his truck for a folded paper box,
untucks a flank of seasoned chicken
which he shreds to a cottony bulb on his knee,
then gathers it into his palm. Nods to Joe, then me.
Sprinkles it like gold dust into my hand.
Two weeks home, an email from the Commander.
Police in San Juan found him with fourteen bullet holes, floating face down,
knocking against a pier’s waterlogged timbers.
I jog for hours, pounding my grief on Carbondale’s sidewalks,
sweating it out. How we met as bunkmates.
The first night I heard him, muffled cries above me.
He saw it in my face the day after, in formation,
and I never saw his hump-knuckled suckerpunch, which came in low,
doubling me over, though I was larger,
and he, easy to place in a crosspin. Then he chopped at my ankles
and took me off my feet.
If I could tell him anything it’s that you never get the grace
of picking who it is you love.
That same dusty night we broke out the hooch he made from apple juice,
ketchup, and yeast rolls pocketed in his cargo pants
and plunked in Gatorade bottles, fermenting in a slit cut in his mattress.
We walked the base’s sandy perimeter
in a parched ghost of light, bathed in orange,
chasing each slug of hooch with a red gummy bear as he told me
he sent his paychecks to his Mother and three brothers without opening them.
It went this way the months we were there,
walking on the paved roads where our bootprints wouldn’t give us away,
him telling me about his Mother, who sewed clothes to support his brothers.
How a wrecking ball’s overstrained cable snapped,
sending the ball plummeting to earth, and whipped his Father in half.
Joseph, I think of you often. How we throw our hurt
into each other like a fist, are confused enough to love when it is not returned.
I’m still pounding it out, sweating my memories of you.
Hazardous materials training on the tarmac. Eight hours before
the next C-5 would touch down. It was a buck-twenty outside and you
were my partner in the simulated chlorine leak exercise.
Both of us in orange, airtight level A suits. Two layers between us
and clean air so if your tank ran dry,
you could pass out before anyone got to you. I measured your entry vitals
on the clipboard and noted your anxiety in how many Pepsis
you drank that day, your hummingbird pulse.
I kept your claustrophobia secret. When we began our mission
to plug the punctured fifty-five gallon barrel, I was just getting the chains
to secure the overpack the moment you reared the mallet over the bung,
and your eyes rolled to the heavens, knees buckled, and when
you slipped to the ground my heart beat a hole in my chest that no hands could fill.
I ripped the zipper down as if you were a breeched baby
suffocating in the womb. Your hot, dry skin, rough as a cat’s tongue.
Slit from the suit, I laid you out, flat on your back,
ringed by at least twenty airmen. Your eyes cracked open.
Smiling up at me, barely conscious, a thin stream of vomit
at the corner of your mouth. As you clutched at words like maple seeds, spinning.
everyone learned your nickname for me.
Mother, you choked.
Jonathan Travelstead served in the Air Force National Guard for six years as a firefighter and currently works as a full-time firefighter for the city of Murphysboro. He received his MFA in Poetry from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and when not on duty, he backpacks twice each year in Central America and Europe, and works on an old dirt-bike he hopes will get him to Peru in February.
Q: Even as the wars in Afghanistan and the region continue, the voices of writers emerging from the front have been many and strong. What does your generation have to say to the wartime poets and writers of the past?
A: If you catch me chuckling as I write this, it’s only because it’s strange to be placed in the position where one is supposed to speak for a generation. In spite of that, anything we had to say to the wartime poets that have gone before us would have to begin with gratitude for carving a trench through the madness that the service-person doesn’t create, but must take a part in. Also for showing us how sometimes the theater of conflict is best examined by focusing the reader away from its immediacy, and to its speaker’s tensions. Robert Graves, Yusef Komunyakaa, Brian Turner–these are personally indispensable poets that have given me guidance not only in how to broach such topics, but also in craft. For myself being overseas, my own struggles were more about the distance between my Mother and I at the time, and learning to accept the narrowing distance between yourself and others when you share experiences in a place far from home. If we were to say anything else, I’m wondering if it wouldn't be a mea culpa for not finding ways for our poems to remain poems, and still sound a barbaric yawp loud enough about what we saw over there.
Q: Your line “If I could tell him anything it’s that you never get the grace/of picking who it is you love” made us think of the Robert Frost line, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, /They have to take you in.” Any thoughts?
A: First off, I love that poem [“The Death of the Hired Man”], as much for such a movement as for its timed delivery within the narrative. As a reader, I am engaged in the quick jabs of dialogue, and, like boxing’s allegorical forgotten arm, there’s this sudden no-nonsense TKO-of-a-line and suddenly you have a goose egg rising on your forehead. These moments are the holy grails I aspire toward in poetry–not interpretations the speaker takes you by the hand and leads you to– but these ruptures from scene to an enlightenment, and it’s his authenticity that gets me there.
Q: Would you consider yourself a poet of the spring, summer, winter or fall? What
season is most apt to be reflected in your work, and why do you think that’s the case?
A: I wouldn’t say I’m so much a poet of a season as I am a poet of a climate or temperature. The poems in the issue are mostly in the desert, and what I’ve been working on most recently is kindled from my occupation as a city firefighter, so I would have to say either ‘summer’ or ‘centigrade.’
Q: When this issue appears, you indicated that you might be on the road to Peru–did you get that motorcycle running? Tell us about your journey.
A: Still chuckling. Indeed I did, and then I didn’t. The relationship I have with my motorcycle is a temperamental one, and I have the stereotypical male’s attitude towards my partner–if the clutch cable only needs some tender love and care, I tend to try to fix it with a hammer, and, more often when it is working just fine, I tend to want to do something foolish like reroute the wiring or lower the handlebars in the triple tree just to see how the steering geometry is affected. In short, I think I still have enough to learn in the saddle and the shop before I set out on a journey down the Great Divide. As for the trip? I’m still going, but I’ll be taking a flight, and then counting on my fiancee to catch us every chicken bus through Patagonia all the way to Cuzco.
Blood Falls by Andrew Bourelle
Followed by Q&A
He comes home from the clinic to his apartment of unwashed dishes and the faint odor of his own acrid sweat. He wraps himself in a blanket and collapses on the couch. He has tacked a dark sheet over the window, so only a sliver of light comes into the gray-dark room. He coughs—a ripping, wet noise—and he spits red phlegm into a tissue. He keeps a grocery bag of blood-flecked tissues next to the couch, and he tosses the new one there. He closes his eyes and breathes; it’s surprising how truly difficult it is, this unconscious act he used to take for granted. He is thirsty—his tongue like a dehydrated fruit—but once he is lying down, he doesn’t want to rise and walk to the kitchen. He doesn’t have the energy.
He is thirty years old, and he is dying.
“You beat death before,” the doctor said, “but this is something different. Do you have someone you can call?”
He closes his eyes and thinks about the person he would like to call—whose smile used to light up the darkness inside him like a torch.
He reaches for the laptop on the coffee table, which he’d bought with his travel money. He works slowly, using Google to try to find an e-mail address or a phone number. When that doesn’t work, he signs up to a Facebook account and writes “friend requests” to the handful of women with the same name. With each one, his fingers linger over the keys for a long time—as he reads her name over and over—until he finally presses “send.”
He sets the laptop aside and notices a few drops of blood on the carpet. He looks at his arms, searching the various Band-Aids for whichever sore is leaking this time. He finds it and dabs a tissue over the blood dripping down his forearm. He lies back on the couch and breathes, pushing the air out of his lungs and pulling it back in with great effort. His eyes drift to the large framed photograph hanging above the couch—a spectacular shot of Antarctica’s “Blood Falls.” The image shows a glacier perched above a frozen sea, with a vein of rock between them. With no reference points, it’s hard to judge distance in the photo, but the cliff of ice is five hundred feet tall, and streaming down the white face is a wide, trickling cascade of red liquid that looks like blood.
He took the photograph himself. He had once been a portrait photographer, back before he was sick the first time. After his remission, he was full of adventurous vigor. He had the naive idea that, with the new chance at life, he would visit every continent before he died. He tackled the hardest first. He applied to work in an international research station in Antarctica. The scientists come and go, but they need a base of people—cooks, janitors, maintenance workers—to keep the place running. He didn’t have many skills, but he could wash dishes, load and unload supplies, empty garbage cans.
He signed a one-year contract, took a flight to South America, then another in a prop plane to the Amundson-Scott Station on the central plateau of Antarctica. The bottom of the world.
He arrived during the sunny period, cold clear days with nothing but whiteness below and blueness above. He’d work a shift, spraying plates and scrubbing pans, and then he’d dry off, bundle up, and step outside for fresh air. Each inhalation hurt his lungs; each exhalation frosted his beard stubble.
The station was made up of a cluster of buildings, each connected by walkways of metal leads. In a snowstorm, the people there had to attach themselves to the cords with carabineers if they crossed from building to building. Otherwise, they would get lost in the blinding whiteness. You could die fifteen feet from shelter and no one would know you’re there.
When he met Ava, the two of them were crossing one of the paths, going in opposite directions in a storm, and they did an awkward dance as they shifted and moved and unhooked and rehooked their safety lines. They became so tangled that he gave up and followed her back to the building he’d come from. They pulled back their hoods and took off their masks, and they shook hands formally. Her smile was big and genuine. He liked the way her freckled nose scrunched and the way dimples appeared on her cheeks out of nowhere.
They flirted and spent their free time together. A hydrology doctoral student, she took trips out onto the plateau and examined ice cores. He pulled extra shifts when she was working so he could have time off when she wasn’t. He asked her questions and memorized every detail about her. She read science fiction novels, she liked to eat plain popcorn without salt or butter, and she quoted Latin in day-to-day conversations. She listened to the Foo Fighters obsessively and played air drums unselfconsciously. She preferred vanilla to chocolate. When she was a little girl, she stepped on a rusty nail and had to get a tetanus shot; for a long time after, she worried that rust was spreading inside her foot. She used a mango-scented lotion that smelled beautifully out of place on a research station in the middle of nowhere. She laughed at his jokes, and when he told one that was particularly funny, she would always reach out with her hand and touch his arm or shoulder, and he could feel the connection through his limbs and in his guts. He photographed her and little else.
In March in Antarctica, the sun sets and doesn’t rise again for half a year. The sky is black twenty-four hours a day. The station became a ghost town in the days leading up to the darkness. Most of the two hundred scientists left. Ava stayed. She said she wanted to use the downtime to finish her dissertation. He hoped it was because she didn’t want to go back to her husband.
After the last plane left, those who stayed went outside to watch the sunset, an orange ball skirting the horizon until finally sinking like a torch extinguished in the snow.
“There’s something surreal,” he said, “about watching the last sunset for months.”
“I know what you mean,” she said. “It feels like the end of the world.”
That night, those who were left sat together and watched a double feature of The Thing and The Shining, a station tradition. When the dog’s head split open and the tentacles came out, she grabbed his hand and didn’t let go. When he walked her back to her room, they talked at the threshold for forty minutes. They repeated this nightly for a week, talking at her doorstep, until finally she stood on her toes and kissed him on the mouth and pulled him inside.
She wrote while he worked, and they spent the rest of the time in each other’s arms, making love or curled up watching whatever DVD they could get their hands on. Once you’re deep into that darkness, a month, two months, you begin to feel like maybe the sun will never rise again. It feels like the blackness will last forever. The old timers who had been through it before, the few of them there were, warned the two of them about how the extended darkness could affect them. “SADOS,” one of them called it: “Seasonal Affective Disorder on Steroids.”
But the darkness never bothered him.
He was alive.
He was in love.
Both of those outshined any shadows threatening to creep into his happiness.
When it wasn’t snowing, he and Ava would bundle up and step outside. There were more stars than he had ever seen. Looking at them, and holding hands with Ava, he thanked whatever higher power there was—God, the sun, the earth—for giving him a second chance.
One night they were out there, with a full moon lighting up the snowscape, and Ava told him about an Arthur C. Clarke short story about the end of the world.
“The stars just started blinking out,” she said. “One by one.”
He told her about his illness. Lying in bed, she would trace her fingers over the paths of his surgical scars, still inflamed and red as if his body was angry with him for keeping it alive. He told her he felt he was meant to meet her—that he was given a second chance for her.
“Don’t say that,” she said.
Two months into the darkness, Ava began talking about her husband. She told him about how they could hardly speak to each other now, how every attempt at communication turned into yelling. She recounted all the details of her marriage’s slow destruction, but she progressed backward in time as she talked, and soon she was reminiscing about how happy they had been at the start. His insides roiled as she talked, as if someone was stirring his stomach with a stick. But he listened, not knowing what else to do. She told him about their first date, the way he asked her out, the way he proposed, the puppy they adopted and saw grow into adulthood before it was hit by a car. She told him about their wedding day and how she had spilled wine on her dress. She had been so happy that she had simply laughed it off and paraded around the reception with a stain on her breast like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter.
“That was the happiest day of my life,” she said.
“The happiest day of my life,” he said, “was when you kissed me for the first time.”
Time went by—days, weeks, months, all of it in darkness. She stopped smiling. She broke down crying every two or three days. They continued their routine, eating together, watching movies. But she had a lost look in her eyes. The vivacity he had first seen was gone. They would sit in bed, watching a movie, and he would always be the one to move in closer, to put his arm around her as she sat limply.
She said the ice cores were oracles, and she told him their prophecies. She talked about the industrial revolution and carbon emissions. Species extinction and anthropogenic ecological catastrophe. Omnicide.
“Humans are a disease,” she said.
“Don’t you think you’re being a little melodramatic?” he said.
“We’ve polluted everything,” she said. “The air you breathe, the food you eat, the water, it’s all polluted. There are chemicals everywhere, in everything, mixing and reacting. You can’t see it, but it’s there.”
She explained that it had taken two hundred thousand years of humans living on the planet, until the year 1804, for the world population to reach one billion people. It was up to seven billion now and adding another billion every twelve or so years.
“There are more people alive now than have ever died,” she said. “We’ve passed the point of no return. The disease has metastasized.”
Whenever he tried to calm her, she only became more aggressive.
“Don’t you get it?” she said one day. “The apocalypse isn’t going to come overnight with bombs or an asteroid. It’s going to happen over hundreds of years—and it’s already begun.”
From then on, he let her talk, not knowing how to respond.
One day, deep into the darkness, as they ate a breakfast of powdered eggs and sausage plasticized with preservatives, she blurted out, “I’m late.”
He smiled. He couldn’t help himself. He wanted to hug her, but restrained himself. He told her that she should get divorced and they could raise the baby together.
“We could have a family,” he said.
“I can’t imagine bringing a baby into the world just so it can die.”
Toward the end, they spent their days together but barely spoke. They would lie on the bed, with the TV on, watching DVDs they’d already watched, neither of them actually paying attention. He would hold her in his arms, but she would sit with a blank stare, and he knew that her mind was thousands of miles away. His mind was on the future; he couldn’t help himself. Her perspective would change once the dark period ended, and she would realize how much she loved him. She would see how great their life together would be. He pictured images—like photographs from the future—of the two of them, together, with a baby. At the hospital when it was born. Waking in the night to warm a bottle of milk. Teaching a little boy to ride his bike. Walking to the bus stop on the first day of school, holding hands with a little girl. Cheering at soccer games. Taking pictures before prom. College graduation. Grandchildren.
But he also pictured an amniotic bath with a child sleeping in it, warm darkness where the boy or girl’s fingers and toes would begin forming, where lightning would begin to flash inside the developing brain. He was in love with the baby already, even if it was only an idea.
He came to Ava’s room one day after work, and she was smiling again. A new kind of smile he hadn’t seen before: she was smiling and crying, as if her relief and regret had fought to a stalemate.
“I got my period,” she said.
That night, she laughed and laughed as they watched a romantic comedy. He was the one who sat in silence.
A week later, they watched the sunrise together, holding hands. The sun lit up her face, and her mouth curved upward into a bright, joyous smile. She dropped his hand, held up her arms, and stood in the sunlight, drinking it in.
“Thank you for getting me through,” she said.
He squinted and put on sunglasses and stayed silent, pretending not to understand the subtext of her words.
The station began repopulating. All the talk of global destruction—the human infection—seemed to be a distant memory for her.
The darkness was replaced with constant, blinding light, reflecting off the snow brighter than it came from the sun. She and her colleagues spent long days out on the glaciers. When she would come back, he would greet her with a borrowed DVD in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other.
“I’ve got to get some sleep,” she would say. “Another big day tomorrow.”
Now he was in a dark place.
He prepared a speech, and he insisted on delivering it even though she didn’t want to hear. He told her that if the world was doomed, then they should not deny themselves what they knew they wanted.
“Forget society and expectations,” he said. “Forget obligations. Just be with me. That’s all I want. I know you love me.”
She smiled and shrugged, and said, “I’m sorry. You knew what you were getting into, didn’t you? Can’t we just stay friends?”
For his final effort to save them, he paid a helicopter pilot to fly them out past the Asgard Mountains to Taylor Glacier. When they first met, they had talked about wanting to see Blood Falls, and so Ava agreed to come, reluctantly. The whup-whup-whup sounds of the helicopter blades drowned out any chance of conversation, and they sat in silence, looking at the endless white plains around them. He stared down into the wide crevasses, remembering how Ava once told him that the glaciers were a mile thick. The shallow clefts were filled with puddles of water that glowed with an aqua-blue tint. The deep crevasses were dark and seemed to have no bottom.
The sea was frozen solid along the coast and they landed right on the ice. They stood back from the icefall and watched the liquescent redness cascading down the rocks.
She told him that the substance was actually secreted from a microbial ecosystem that was locked in the ice for two million years. It evolved separately from the rest of the world. Nothing like it existed elsewhere.
“It’s primordial ooze,” she said. “Literally.”
“How do you know it isn’t blood?” he said. “If the world is dying, maybe this is one of the wounds.”
She rolled her eyes, and when he leaned in to kiss her, she pulled away.
“I can’t,” she said. “Not anymore.”
He had another two months on his contract after she left, and he could feel the new infection inside of him. The first time around, he never actually felt sick until the treatment. If it weren’t for a doctor telling him he was dying, he wouldn’t have known. But this time, he could sense the embryonic microorganisms multiplying and spreading.
When he returned, the world seemed different. The streets were more crowded, with cars bumper to bumper in traffic, sidewalks crammed with shoulder-to-shoulder congestion. News reports of pollution and violence seemed to be on every TV station. But he knew the world hadn’t changed that much in one year. He had been the thing to change. He deleted all his photos of Ava but then framed the one of Blood Falls because he wanted to be reminded of her. He wanted his memories to hurt as much as his body did. As he became sicker and sicker, he longed for the desolation and solitude of the glacial plateau.
Now Antarctica and Ava are dreams that couldn’t have happened to him but did. The sun sets, and the one slash of light coming through the window narrows and moves and becomes a blood-orange color before disappearing and turning the room first gray and then black. He reaches in the darkness for the laptop. He doesn’t expect a reply, but his heart pounds when he sees she has accepted his “friend request.”
The image of her on the screen is like a cold blade inserted slowly into his gut. His breathing accelerates, liquid and raspy, and he coughs and gasps, and his fingers work the keyboard frantically, looking for a way to delete his Facebook membership. Without success, he slams the computer closed and paces the apartment, holding it out like a dead animal.
Finally, he opens the door to his freezer and puts the computer inside on a shelf next to an old, frosted-over carton of ice cream. He falls into the couch like it’s a pit, and he coughs and breathes and coughs more.
He can’t get the image from the computer to leave his mind: Ava, with her husband, sitting in a park with warm fall-colored trees in the background. She is smiling, and he knows her well enough to recognize the true and complete happiness in her expression. Her sweater is tight against a distended and plump stomach, rounded like she is growing a new planet inside of her.
The picture stays with him in the days that follow, a final wound as he lies beneath Blood Falls, waiting for the next bloody nose or the next coughing fit to bring up a red phlegmy bolus. He thinks about Ava. He remembers the first time he saw her smile. He remembers the warmth of her body under heavy blankets in a cold room. He remembers holding her, thinking that he could be happy forever helping her through the darkness. And he remembers that day on the ice and how, after she climbed into the helicopter, he walked alone to the rivulets of crimson pooling at the base of the falls and he cupped his hands and drank because he wanted to taste the blood of the dying world.
Andrew Bourelle’s fiction has appeared in Hobart, Jabberwock Review, Red Rock Review, Thin Air, and other journals and anthologies. He lives in New Mexico with his wife and son.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
: I sometimes participate in “flash challenges.” These can be fun writing exercises and they occasionally lead to revised and expanded stories. In the case of this story, I was participating in a challenge hosted on the online forum of Shock Totem, a horror fiction journal. The prompt was a photograph of the Blood Falls referred to in the story. I don’t think any of the other participants actually wrote about the real location, electing instead to interpret the prompt more abstractly. But something about the idea of a waterfall of “blood” in Antarctica—and all that such a place could represent symbolically—intrigued me. I was not content with the first draft (written within the 1,000-word constraint of the exercise), but I revisited the story later, expanding it with additional research and more character development. “Blood Falls” shows how a story can come from anywhere. You just need a seed and the water of your imagination.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did that happen?
A: I was an avid reader growing up, and I always loved to write stories. Throughout my professional life, I have always written, whether news articles when I was a journalist or academic articles now that I teach English. It’s a privilege to be able to make a life working with language. However, when I write for myself—when I have the free time to sit down and write for pleasure and for no other reason—I usually find myself writing fiction, which is what I fell in love with as a child.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: I like to get a full draft down on paper before making any revisions. I can usually write my first drafts pretty quickly, but they’re always very rough. I revise and revise, and slowly the mess of a first draft begins to take shape into something. One of the hardest parts is figuring out when to stop working on it and call it finished.
Q: What living writer do you admire most and why?
A: Tobias Wolff. When I read a Tobias Wolff story, I feel like every word is perfect.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m putting the finishing touches on a novel. It’s a coming-of-age story set in the Midwest in the 1980s. Like the best coming-of-age novels, I want to tell a story that evokes nostalgia for those who lived in that era while resonating with readers of all ages.
While You Shower by Rachel Jospeh
Followed by Q&A
I can't help myself anymore. The moment you leave the room I'm dodging in and out of your things. Looking, always looking for more of you than I can find.
I am sitting in your La-Z-Boy and rocking and holding my breasts tight, squeezing tight, hoping it will be enough to keep me from betraying myself. I can't rifle through your things indefinitely. Someday you will know and you'll wonder who I am. So instead I sit and rock and squeeze myself. Your chair is brown and there are a few cigarette burns in the arms. For some reason these little marks of incorrect behavior make me feel giddy and uncouth. I know there are nickels and pennies and golf tees underneath the cushions. I also know that you don't know that there are little kernels of popcorn and toe-nails mixed in with the change and remnants from golf outings. I know because I put them there when you weren't looking. While you watch hours of endless men in bad shirts hitting tiny balls, I pick at myself mercilessly and slip the remnants underneath. Filthy habits: I'm full of them.
You are in the shower. I know this because you told me you were going to take a shower and I can hear the water running and your radio playing. All this means you are in the shower. When you said, time for my shower, I ran as fast as I could into your room and watched you undress. I asked if I could touch your chest and you said hurry and I did touch your chest but I tried not to hurry. I disobeyed.
I am holding my breasts. You like to call them tits and I like it too because it excites me. I think about how you might touch them and I hold them the way I think you do when we are alone and I hope this keeps my bottom firmly on the La-Z-Boy. I am hoping to excite myself until you walk out of the shower and have a towel around your waist. (The blue towel that we call Big Blue.) Instead of going into the bedroom as you always do, you will instead come into your living room and see how I hold myself and excite myself. You will think nothing of dropping Big Blue. You will think nothing of letting Big Blue land on your beer stained carpet. You will walk to me naked and take over the controls.
I look up because it comforts me. I can see the scrapes where you got careless with a three wood. The scrapes are long and dull and gray. When you made them your buddies stood around and laughed and smoked and drank a little more. At least that's your explanation. I wish I could have seen it. I can just see you waggling and swinging and drinking. You really stole the show that night, that's what I think. I can just see you holding court and laughing and swinging and scraping and laughing even harder. I'm sure you were wearing your giant sombrero. I'm sure your friends all took turns trying that sombrero on for size. I'm sure you were proud when you went to sleep that night. Friendships are important you say to me and I know how you must have replayed the scene over and over before you slept. You especially like the parts where they laughed so hard they turned red and said, I can't breathe, I can't breathe. Moments like that make you feel like someone.
We watch television. We watch movies. We tape favorite programs. You read the sports page. I play solitaire on the computer. We do talk, we do. Endlessly. I yell loudly when you tell me to be quiet during the local news. We fuck. But, not as much as a person in a movie would. We laugh. We love each other. We don't drink or do other crazy things. Not the kind of things you used to do. Sometimes, I'd love to see you drunk. The smell of alcohol on your breath would really turn me on. I swear it would. And you have no idea how crude I can be. I wonder if crudeness would intrigue you.
How easily you trust me. I look through everything of yours. Papers, phone books, and old cardboard boxes. I look and look for all your hidden things. I'm sure you have secrets and I want to know them. I've seen scraps of paper and old letters and yellowing journal entries and nothing ever surprises me like I wish it would. I'm so sure that you have something amazing hidden underneath the surface. (You do. I know you do.)
My pledge is to you and to your eyes which are blue and wide and the same color as the sky on certain clear days. And my pledge isn't even just to your eyes—they are blue and a cliché, but also to your hands, which know how to squeeze and grip. And I pledge, as I sit here in your La-Z-Boy while you are in the shower, not to scurry about your rooms looking through your things no matter what torture it is to me. I pledge I will shove my ass deeper into these cushions in order to hold myself back. I will not snoop. I will be moral. I have ethics. Bullshit. I'm not even close to what I mean to say.
You're in the shower and I know you are naked. The idea of your nakedness makes me scoot myself deeper into your La-Z-Boy. I imagine I'm a mistress and you are madly in love with me and I am your mistress and I sit in your Lazy Boy and hope that your wife doesn't come in, all the while scooting and scrunching my bottom, my posterior, my ass, down deeper, deeper, past the nickels and pennies and golf tees and finally into some dark hole that is my life with you. My mistress life with you. I hold my tits upright hoping you will emerge at any moment. I squeeze my nipples and wait. I hope this is enough to keep me still and seated and trusting.
I am not a mistress and you are still in the shower and I am still sitting in your La-Z-Boy. I love feeling your phone book as if it is your chest. I love to hear the shower running and seeing the names of women that shouldn't be written in your handwriting and are; plain as can be: Diane, Jane, and Linda (etc., etc.). What are they doing in such a personal book of yours? That was a long time ago and very far away but still if they are gone why are they not gone and be gone and not linger on in ink. I look at those pages, those hastily written birthdays and dates to remember, and I am awed by the forces of time and the forces of love and the strength of ink. (Ink will outlast us all!) I do not want them to leave exactly. They are a mystery.
I am not looking through your phone book. I am sitting very still trying to hold my urges in. I squeeze my legs tight, fearing such desires will dribble to the floor in plain view. Instead I picture myself as your mistress and how your wife runs away to the country to see her mother and sob over the playboy you have become. All the while I'm in her bed and caressing soft yellow sheets and wearing a lavender pajama set. At night you let me fall asleep and then wake me with the feeling of you against me. You make oatmeal in the morning and we talk about all kinds of things. Especially things like sex and politics. You sputter horrifying ideas that leave my mind as soon as they are spoken. I agree completely. I nod. I say: Ah yes. How I'd love to fuck you. Mmm. This oatmeal is delicious.
I imagine all of this in hopes of distracting myself from doing the things that I know will loose you, will lose you in the end. After all obsession does not flatter a figure. Obsession isn't a turn-on, not now, not since the last Hollywood Hoorah. My god! I'd love to rifle through your mail.
And you are in the shower and the water is lukewarm I'm sure. And your chest is nice and wide and hairy—for some reason all that hair has always excited me. And you are mine and I know you and you look at me in the morning and you say—"I love you. I love you. I love you." and I respond sleepily by batting you away. The sweetest part of our ritual is how easily you take my incorrect behavior. How nice for me. I can do as I please and you still smile and still have a nice hairy chest and that's all that matters.
Of course not. I'd be a liar. I'm a big liar if I said that a big hairy chest is all that matters. Remember how I'm trying very, very hard not to get up and scramble while the water's still running. Get up and scramble for the pictures I know are hidden on your top shelf. (I shut my eyes tight. Just let me be good. Let me be still. Please.)
You have told me wonderful stories. Drunken stories with bottle-rockets rocketing up the stairs of a house. You said: “Yes! We shot bottle rockets inside the house!” Inside. Inside. I couldn't believe it but I knew that I loved you because you were standing outside and the wind was blowing and you held your hands in a certain way. Bottle rockets were everywhere where you were young. You shot them out of cars while you were high and watched them scatter from the rearview mirror. Once they sparked and flew into the rotating lights of a cop car.
(Never in my life have I been caught drunk with fireworks. I haven't been arrested. I haven't exceeded the limits of sobriety and good judgment.)
Drinking with the guys isn't the whole story of your youth. I know this. You are tactful and kind and hide other things away from my view. I get into everything. I've seen the pictures. The ones in the box on the top shelf. They are all beautiful and young and make my toenails curl. Of course you should have a past. If there weren't others I would need to be concerned, or so that's what they say on the radio.
I can't think of anything more exciting than discovering your previous life. The blonde and you would drink and drink and make out for hours in the woods behind her parents' house. We don't drink very much. Not often. We don't make out for hours. Instead we talk about all sorts of interesting things, but really talking can't hold a candle to liquor-sodden kisses.
We talk and we laugh. We don't tell jokes often but we are silly. I pretend I'm a kitten and you pat my head. Once, you taped me snoring. So, we don't tell jokes but we do have a good sense of humor.
I know the one with dark hair moved back to Portland. But what if she found her way back to where you are? What then? Would she come to your door with a suitcase in hand? Would she call twenty times a day and not even ask if someone has taken her place? Or what if you are summoned to Portland. Not by her but by a job. You have to go or you are fired! You have to go to Portland. But, how could I? I hate Portland. The buildings are dirty and the people there insist that it's clean. I disagree with Portland.
The water is still going. You take long showers and you don't like hot water, which I don't understand. That's why I sit here and wait for my turn. I wish, at times, we could take our showers together. I'd love feeling you rub soap on my back. As it is now showers and “us” are incompatible. A pity.
I'm still holding my breasts but not in any sort of interesting way. My hands clutch at my own body as if I am worth nothing more than an absent-minded gesture. I sit and rock and gesture absently all in the hope that I can overcome an urge to tip over all of your things upside down and shake them and find the crumbs of your life that you haven't yet told me about.
I look in front of me at your wall. There is a large map and I trace it often looking at all the places you have been. I want to see these places. You tell a story and I say, will you take me there? You laugh. You say, “Sure, sure.” The walls I look at are your walls because I don't live here. However, I have several drawers and hangers that I have taken hostage. I see the way you look nervously at my ever-increasing bundles of clothes. I pretend to be understanding, cool and terribly independent.
The pictures are in a cardboard box. They show you and other women standing very much in the same way that you and I have stood with our arms around each other in front of pretty houses, and flowers and mountain ranges. I can't understand why they are still here. Shouldn't the pictures be somewhere else—disappear—leave—go away—to the places these women have gone?
I can hear the shower stopping and the water from the faucet beginning. I know what you do next. Lather and shave. Listen to the news and sports and people raving about the injustices of life. Ten minutes. That's how much longer I have to plunder your things. Ten minutes of radio and then you are here again and life resumes. Why does that radio fascinate you so? Injustice bores me. What I want to know is if there is a woman calling you when I'm not here. Does she tell you how she'd love to rub up against you and kiss you and put her mouth all over you? What if you sit in this chair and handle yourself to the accompaniment of her moans. How disgusting. How could you? I haven't found the evidence yet, and it's getting harder and harder not to look.
I picture you saying I love you I love you to the one with brown hair. Did she cry like I did? Did she believe you? Did she insist that you rub her back during movies?
My hand is limp. My breast feels like an old shoe. Maybe if I just check today's mail. Just to make sure things are the same, no new evidence to accrue. What if I jump up and look at your telephone bill and the water stops and you surprise me! What if you find me with handfuls of your old flames? Oops. Would I say, oopsie? I doubt it. I would stammer and turn red and try to say things like: Do you have a pen? Do you have the time? Do you have a closet full of women and desire that I don't know about? You'll yell: What are you doing? How could you?
You'll mostly yell: “Why? Why? Why?”
I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. Look at me! I'm sitting in this chair afraid to move because I don't want to violate you any more than I have. What should I say? Shall I count the reasons I've betrayed your trust: I'm a psychopath. My dog died when I was six and my mom threw her in the trash? My dad was never around. He was around too much. My dog never died and I'm freaking out. I love you. I'm afraid that I don't love you. I want you too much. I don't want you anymore. I'm in debt. I have an addictive personality. A disorder. I'm disordered. PMS? I should be on medication. Curiosity killed the cat. I watch too much/not enough television. I am afraid that you are going to leave me. What do you think? Could one of the above satisfy? No? Okay. How's this one: I'm afraid that I will die if you leave me? Yes. But don't forget the opposite could be true. Are you sure that's what you want my why to be? Okay. But, maybe my real fear is that you will stay.
I'll turn to you when you catch me with old letters and say: Do you really want to know why? Does it matter?
I know you'll say no. You don't want to know why. You just want me to believe that you love me. You want me to stop looking for things in the past to prove something about the future. You want me to stop suspecting what I'll never find.
I have a few whys for you too. Why am I not your wife?
I can just see you trying to answer that one. Out the door with you and to the fairway. Should I ask something a little more humane? Should I ask why you never recycle the papers before they are a five feet high?
(Remember when we rolled around on the floor and almost tipped over that stack? I do. I was terrified. I didn't want to die under last week’s headlines.)
I twist myself and look behind the chair to the kitchen table and its mass of old mail. I love shuffling through it. Making sure none of the old pictures are making a house call. Today, I will stay seated. I will mind my own business. I don't want to. I don't want to mind my manners.
You told me about driving your car just as the acid was taking hold. You drove out to the farm and all your friends were with you. And the sky looked too clear you told me. And things were starting to move inside you. Rushes, you said. I listened and listened knowing each word was a clue of some sort. If I could remember them all I could have you. Right?
How did things look to you then? You say "clear." I can't quite see that? Do you mean there were no clouds in the sky? Or could you see what I've always wanted to see? Could you see the things in-between the grass and the sky and your face?
I'm a normal girl. I'm not crazy. I love McDonald's. I love watching all the newest shows in September. I brush my teeth. I preen. I fuss. I cry. I want to have true love and make it work for me. I read books about love and try to trust in love and try to communicate with loving, soothing tones. So when you discover me looking in your drawers and trash don't say that I'm nutso.
Instead understand. Tell me how relieved you are. Tell me that you do the same. Tell me that when I take my own showers that you are quick to rush over to my bag and look through all my relevant papers. You follow me to the supermarket. I thought so. I was hoping.
If I were your mistress I would be sitting here happy. Jiggling my butt, waiting to fuck you again and then ready to go home and feed my poodle. If I were your wife I'd be so unhappy I'd be happy. Always wondering what is for dinner or for breakfast or what day is your vacation again? A Thursday? Oh, no Tuesday? Oh, how unhappy.
But, instead I sit tense, in-between worlds and extremes. I'm no bride. I'm no whore. I'm just some girl that wants to know everything and wants to stick my fingers into you so deeply that we are stuck.
(Will I do it? Will I rush around looking at everything that is so wholesome about you and not find anything different. Will I give myself another case of guilty diarrhea. Oh, I hope not. I should face your wholesomeness bravely and without complaint. You did the whole drug fun thing and now you're responsible, you’re just like everyone else except you are you. And I can't quite believe how strange that is to me.)
Did I miss all the exciting parts?
Yes. I missed teenage sex with you and I'm so sorry. I wish we had done it in a car, in the woods, or during a matinee. I miss what we never did so much. But, someone else got that thrill. You stroked her pink cheek, her blonde—was she a blonde?—hair. You stuck your tongue in her mouth. That's what is killing me. How can your tongue go into some other wet mouth? And you were inside this teen-age dream many times. Desired this teen-aged dream much more than you could ever desire me.
I know. I did it too. I had my own you back then. He was nice. And we kissed whenever it rained because it always rained and we were always kissing. He touched me and it was unbelievable and the rain went down the windows and I watched the patterns and touched him and marveled at how strange he felt. Yes, I know. I know.
My question for you, love, is do you agonize love, over the thought that I could have loved anyone but you? Do you squirm to think that I could survive without you? Of course not. I didn't think you did. You are practical. You would never drink and drive now. Adults don't. You would never get high hold me down and get inside me without permission.
Did those pictures use up all the best parts of you?
The bathroom door opens. Your head peeks around the corner. I'm no longer holding myself. You smile and show off your teeth. Your eyes are still blue and your chest is still hairy but I, for once, don't make a move in your direction.
Hi. Hello. Good shower? Good shower. What do you want to do today? Anything I say and sink back into the La-Z-Boy. Anything at all.
And really I'd love to go drinking and driving. Let's swig back a couple of Coors. Let's smoke our heads right off! Let's endanger women and children. Won't we be something? How dangerous. What a great story between us. How we'd treasure such rebelliousness. We'll smoke grass or pot or whatever you called it when you were young. (I wouldn't know. I never had such fun.) Then we'll drop some whatever you call it. China White? No, that's cocaine or is it heroin? Never mind. We'll get real high and drunk and reek of smoke and drive out in the country and yell and shoot bottle-rockets and maybe roman candles behind us. We'll leave a trail because we won't be afraid. We might be arrested and beat up and thrown away. There will be a dangerous chase and the cop cars will tip over and spin and explode in a ditch. You'll drive real fast and I'll yell and feel you. You'll grab my tits and none of this will stop until we see the field. You will ask me if I've ever had sex outdoors and I'll say no. The field will be a big field, a vast field, filled with dirt and grass and mice. The sky will be clear and black and smattered with stars. We won't stop until we are in the middle of the field. For once we'll be quiet. You will kiss me and our mouths will be against each other. This will go on for hours. Then we will get out of the car and stand in the middle of everything. You'll say, get naked. I won't complain. It will be warm enough out for such things. We'll get naked, look at the stars, and fuck three times in a row. Wow. Three times. Of course it won't really be fucking, we will be gentle, although saying the word fucking excites us. Then we'll sleep and my legs will be wrapped around your legs and you will keep your fingers inside me for warmth. I don't think we'll dream. The next morning, stone sober, we'll drive home. All the way home, and forever after, I'll know that those smiling faces watching from that the cardboard box on your top shelf didn't use it all up. I think that will almost be enough.
Rachel Joseph has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona and a PhD in Drama from Stanford University. Her current academic book project is Screened Stages: Representations of Theatre Within Cinema. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Theatre at Trinity University. She has three plays forthcoming from Scissors & Spackle, Petrichor Machine and Eclectica Magazine. Most recently she directed her play The Screen Dreams of Buster Keaton at the Overtime Theater in San Antonio, Texas. Other produced plays include And This Before Leaving, The Message, and Blurred.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I’ve often been fascinated by objects and photographs of people I am close too. That detritus of life says lot about a person—both who they are and who they used to be before we met.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did that happen?
A: I always felt a sense of peace in writing. I think the way certain writers live slow, disciplined lives appealed to me.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: The very opposite process of the slow and disciplined life described above (most of the time). I write in great bursts, very quickly and intensely. Revising is slow and methodical, but happens in obsessive big chunks of time.
Q: What living writer do you admire most and why?
A: I love the poetry and scholarly writing of Susan Stewart. Her scholarship reads like poetry. I love the way she thinks and frames her writing through that thought. Her book On Longing has provided endless inspiration.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a scholarly book Screened Stages: Representations of Theatre Within Cinema. It is a major revision from my dissertation. I’m also adapting a screenplay I wrote some time ago to a play for a production later this year at the Overtime Theater in San Antonio. The play is called The Little Sparrow and is a big wild musical. I can’t wait to see this work come to life. Another play of mine, Stripped, is also being produced this year at the Overtime Theater.
The Confession of the First Poet on Mars by Kenneth Nichols
Followed by Q&A
“I guess we all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work.”
It happens at least once a day. A wide-eyed young man or woman stops me as I’m walking to my office, or after class or before a reading and asks me what it was like to have been the first poet on Mars. To have set down the very first lines composed on the surface of another planet.
It’s been ten years and I still don’t know what to tell them. The bright-skinned size two Mission Specialist Gardner you see in the official NASA photographs is now simply Professor Angela Gardner, a mother of two with crow’s feet, laugh lines and a bulge in her stomach that won’t go away, no matter how many crunches she does. I’ve dedicated my life to the abstract, uniquely human beauty of words and language and the magic they can make in the right combination, so it’s embarrassing when I fail so completely to be eloquent. I try to answer these starstruck fans as a poet would, mumbling something about the “majestic desolation” or the “horizon-long grandeur” I saw, but I always feel they go away unsatisfied. The little wrinkle I see in their brow exposes their belief that I’m a fraud. They’re right, but they don’t know the extent of it.
When NASA announced the Orion missions to Mars were at last going from the dream stages to honest-to-goodness planning in 2025, I was an eager 27-year-old associate professor of creative writing at Ledford College in Central New York. Even though I had grown up in the Earth orbit interregnum that consisted of Apollo/Soyuz, Skylab, the Space Shuttle, Mir and the ISS, dreams of reaching space never left me. Having waited longer than most to have children, my father was old enough to remember what it was like to look up at that big, full moon and swear, in spite of the improbability, that you could see the two fellow humans driving around on the surface, playing golf. In high school, my senior year Honors English creative final for Mrs. Iodice was a sequence of poems based upon the experiences of the doomed Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia crews.
From “Interstellar Lemon” (part of the 2022 book A Feeling in Search of its Word)
Humanity’s problems begin with a
Communication breakdown that invites a
One moment, we are safe,
Ensconced in a miracle of divine design and
An umbilical lifeline filters the parts of the world
We don’t care to taste or touch or see.
A few seconds later, the world intrudes,
Ending Grissom and White and Chaffee.
My husband, Steve, didn’t deserve to be lied to. When John Lunney from NASA came to a book signing at Intellectual Curiosity, an independent store in Orlando, and invited me, on the strength of what I call my “dreaming of space” poems, to try out for the program, Steve was immediately supportive. He was aware of all of the risks and accepted them as quickly as any other risk he assumed when he’d said “I do.”
Perhaps things would have turned out differently if I hadn’t so shrewdly negotiated a couple of terms for myself. First: I wanted to own the copyright to my poems. Even though I was technically under work-for-hire conditions, NASA agreed that my owning my poems was different from, for example, Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt expecting to own the moon rocks he recovered. The book that would one day be published as the first composed on Mars, Selene’s Dreams, would be all mine. (Selene, in case you didn’t know, was the Titan goddess of the moon. I suppose it was brash to cast myself as a goddess.) Second, I wanted NASA to have no creative input into my poems, or to have any oversight of them in the first place. I would fill notebooks no one could see without my consent. NASA was also aware of the risks they assumed when they agreed to these conditions. They could easily have ended up with the mission and program being represented by terrible poems or suffer through having a timid poet in charge of a crucial operational checklist. Hundreds of miles from Earth, of course, all duties are essential.
I had to leave Steve for weeks at a time so I could train at the Cape between semesters and on breaks. NASA doesn’t mess around when it comes to the design of a half-inch screw in the launch assembly. They’re certainly not going to send someone to Mars if she’s not physically or mentally fit to begin with. For a few years, I spent a third of my time on the Cape. If you look at the critiques I gave my students during that period, you’ll notice my handwriting is shakier than usual, as I was reading and scribbling during takeoffs, turbulence and landings.
There were some colleagues amongst the other candidates. A few of them were even far better poets than I, but I knew they wouldn’t be able to handle the psychological solitude. My friend Kate didn’t last five minutes in the sensory deprivation chamber. She definitely wasn’t going to last six-plus weeks trapped in a capsule the size of a mobile home with four other astronauts, the only view out the window the velvet-black, star-studded darkness.
Before the competition was whittled down, there was a nice moment in the commissary at KSC. Sam Tucker (an experimentalist who still refuses to work in meter) told us that he had just assigned his students to write a poem a day while he was away for two weeks. The five other poets at the table, myself included, thought this was excessive. After all, it had taken me two years during my MFA to put together enough material for my first book. None of us believed you could put together any decent work if you’re forcing yourself to squeeze out verse on a daily basis.
…We became poets to get OUT of work, Sam…
…How much of an idea well can an eighteen-year-old have?...
…These kids don’t know anything about revision, either…
Sam put his fork down on the tray and folded his arms. “The poet is in charge, not the poetry,” he said. “The point is the evolution of the idea. If it doesn’t come easily, you just have to adjust and let the next line flow. My father was a union automaker who took pride in the transmissions he assembled. He couldn’t sit back, sigh, and talk about assembler’s block. In the end, a true artist figures out a way to fulfill his obligations.” His analysis won me over then, which I guess makes me less of an artist in light of what I will soon confess.
I had no intention of lying to Congress, and I’m afraid I’m partially vindicating them now. The Real American Party and Fox News, you’ll recall, led the charge against what they saw as the double “frivolities” of the Orion Missions: the involvement of an elite East Coast liberal artist who had no previous experience with practical science.
John Lunney and the other administration officials from NASA did a fine job explaining the facts to the mostly hostile panel: the long history of training non-military, non-science personnel for space flight, the advantages of sending “ordinary people,” my excellent work in the simulators and my “exhaustive” knowledge of the history of the American space program, as well as the programs of other nations.
It was my job to argue for the intangibles. If you look up that video, you can see the sincerity in my (much younger) eyes: “The only way to know, to truly change the world, is for one of the human fraternity to be there. Those in the sciences benefitted from Darwin’s being there on the HMS Beagle. What if they had left Darwin in England in favor of another sailor, better trained to trim a sail, or a soldier, better trained to defend the ship? By sending a poet to humanity’s latest frontier, the rest of us will be able to grasp the inhospitable beauty in new ways. I will have other duties, but the benefits to the human imagination will enrich the quality of life for us all. Senators, I guarantee that the American heart that beats inside you will stir when you hear and read the poems composed on the surface of another planet by your countrywoman. A planet named for the Greek god of war will, if for a moment, represent the ultimate in peace: ploughshares turned into fountain pens and quills.”
There was plenty of time to write, particularly in the two-week lockdowns that started a year and a half before launch. I had taken a special leave of absence from Ledford, the first “interplanetary sabbatical.” When I wasn’t with Steve in our Cocoa Beach apartment, I was spending two-week hitches in the live, plugs-out simulators. Reduced crews were sealed up in the same manner we would be for the 45-day trip to Mars. No talking to my husband. I could only eat the food we had in the capsule. Mission Commander Wilson and I breathed the same recycled air and drank recycled—well, that’s not a memory I want to relive.
At least three hours a day, when I wasn’t doing experiments or sleeping or running tests on the craft, it was my duty to create. I had a dozen blue NASA-branded notebooks (11 ounces apiece, combined weight 8.25 pounds), two dozen Bic Rollerball gel pens (1.4 oz. apiece, combined weight 2.1 pounds) and as secluded a place as possible. I would curl up near the aft portal, feeling the diminishing warmth of the artificial sun. For the first time since grad school, I had nothing to do but write. No garage to clean, no student work to comment upon. Just time, time, time.
In a normal month on terra firma, I might turn out five polished poems I don’t immediately hate. If I have a book due, that number increases to ten, at most. During those two-week sessions, I never stopped writing. My imagination was stoked by the anticipation of the whole experience. The takeoff, the sudden loss of gravity, the heart-choking fear and the primal confusion fueled me. I would see the whole Earth at once, something only a couple hundred creatures had ever done. Then, I would join an even more limited fraternity and lose sight of the planet completely as it shrank into the eternity of the universe. Up to that time, I had published four books, each containing perhaps fifty poems. In the space of six plugs-out simulations, I composed three hundred poems. A lifetime supply for many.
The first interplanetary poetry reading was conducted eight hours after the successful landing of Orion 14 on the Martian surface. (It was actually the thirteenth launch, but superstitious types remain, even in the ranks of NASA.) The big crew exchange would not take place for another twenty-four hours, giving the crew the opportunity to perform a walkaround of the capsule (nicknamed Rusty, for the iron oxide that gives the planet’s surface its color). I was exempted from the standard post-landing duties; my job was to slip away, position myself in front of a window and let some flowery words flow.
I obeyed those orders. As far as anyone could tell, I was in the starboard crew compartment, surrounded by the bed and belongings of Commander Alison Watkins. I had been weightless for 45 days; it was strange to see the pictures of her children, her well-thumbed e-book reader, the blanket on her bed remaining stationary without the help of Velcro.
I looked out her window, blue notebook in one hand, pen in the other, and saw the rust-tinged world that was now my temporary home. I thought about how most scientists believed, until the 1970s Viking missions proved them wrong, that the red came from oxidation. Rust. No. This was a landscape scattered with rocks that each had its own dormant stories. The bit of crater ejecta to the left could have been deposited millions of years ago on the bottom of a shallow ocean. The moraine to the right could have been gently weathered by the wisp of atmosphere long since whisked away. I opened the notebook, bent back the fresh cover and wanted to write something legendary, something good enough to rank with Donne or Dickinson or even Sappho, had they this opportunity. I waited for the words to coalesce inside my head as they had done so often before and put everything else out of mind.
Everyone has seen the video. In nearly every country, teachers logged into the official site and saw me read “the first poem composed on another planet.” Ali worked the camera, getting me in a flattering medium shot as I reminded the audience about the dignified eloquence of Armstrong and the palpable relief of Hanley as they made their own historic post-landing statements. I opened the notebook and read from the first page:
From “A Perch for Artists to Ascend” (part of Selene’s Dreams)
Four thousands of years, humanity had no home.
Small bands of men and women spent their days
Meandering in search of food and drink,
Their precious minds distracted from the search
For what would help them live, not just survive.
Until our long-dead family settled down,
Pragmatic thoughts drowned out what dreams may come.
The arts were born: community’s fraternal twin.
With stores of grain and animals awaiting slaughter
The mind and not the legs could wander far
Once more, the brave have built society
On unexpected land. Their hard-worked hands
Ensured a perch for artists to ascend
And spend long hours deciding what life means.
It was long debated what would happen next. It was certainly possible to fade into an HD shot from one of the external station cameras and perform a graceful camera move. I decided we should go low-tech. Ali simply turned her wrist to change the focus from me to the Martian surface, where it should have been, framed by the window, a work of man’s hands, made possible by the peaceful cooperation of millions from that pale blue marble barely visible in the starry Martian sky.
The lunar station was named Hera, the mother of the planet’s namesake. For eight months, I was torn between soaking up every moment of the experience and desperately wanting to be back beside my own husband, in my own bed. I did everything else my crewmates were doing: EVAs to collect samples and geographic data, running experiments in two-fifths gravity and communicating with NASA through that maddening one-second delay.
Ten hours a week, I was assigned to “personnel-specific mission duty,” NASA’s euphemism for “scribbling poetry.” There was much more privacy in my small compartment on Hera than there had been in the Orion craft. I knew, completely without vanity, that the book resulting from my trip would be the best-selling poetry volume for several years to come. This is no testament to my skill, of course. It’s been this way for fifty years: If a poetry collection sells 2,500 copies, it is a runaway success. I never imagined that Selene’s Dreams would sell each of the 2 million copies Random/Doubleday printed for its release. Then another two million copies in the following year. Then another fifty thousand each year as Selene’s Dreams found itself in the canon of contemporary literature. If you look at the syllabus used by any college English professor (or that of a dedicated high school teacher), you will find my book among the best works of the twenty-first century. Yet, there are two differences between their books and mine. First, those books are far better than mine. Second, those books are not the result of the lie I’m working up to confessing.
When I returned from Gangis Chasma and was finally released from quarantine, I told the world I was taking another semester off at Ledford to work on my book and reconnect with Steve. All of that is true. Steve and I took a couple of road trips, woke up together every morning, ate meals together and generally reminded each other what it was like to be around each other. (We reconnected so well, in fact, that Mariana was born a year after my return.) When he was at work, I would open the fireproof safe I had purchased and dig into my blue notebooks.
This part of the process was the same as any other book. Some of my poems were better than others. I loved some of them, hated others. I spent weeks laboring over a single phrase, a single syllable, changing and rechanging it until it finally felt right. Part of my responsibility was to make my work accessible and to prove poetry can be fun, which is why I was pleased to include pieces such as the limerick on page 43 of Dreams:
This Baldwinsville girl grew up dreaming
While in space, she would see the stars gleaming.
With the launch underway,
Her insides turned to clay;
It was clear she’d prefer Star Trek’s beaming.
I thought about coming clean in an introduction to the book. Who would blame me? For most of the populace, poetic integrity is right above animal nudity on their list of concerns. I had dollar signs in my eyes and the fear of exposure kept me quiet. I did just about every television and Web program you can imagine; I even did one of Conan O’Brien’s last Tonight Shows before he retired. I answered the same questions a thousand times with the same degrees of mistruth.
It was an amazing experience and I’m so thankful.
I wrote in my small berth in the Hera Mars base.
My husband was worried but very supportive.
I was so inspired that I could barely keep up with myself.
As the royalty statements kept coming in, thousands of adoring poetry converts flashed their copies of Selene’s Dreams at me as I passed them by, congratulating me on being the first in something, adding a page to the history book of humankind.
This is the first time I’ve confessed: I wrote absolutely nothing while I was on Mars. Not a line, not a sentence, not even a letter. I didn’t even write my name in the notebooks I had or brainstorm fortuitous-sounding words in the manner of a poet hoping for some foothold of inspiration.
Every valuable second of time I was allotted for creation found me staring out the three-inch window, trying to grasp what I was doing. The first three months, I was like an alcoholic with excuses, convincing myself that I had plenty of time to write, that I could simply allow the experience to sink in for a while. I could fill up the creative well, and it would surely produce later on.
The next three months, I stared at those notebooks. Hated them. Hated myself for my inability to do what I was being sent to do. What I had always been able to do without fail, even in Mr. Powell’s AP Physics class or on crowded, baby-filled planes. However, no matter how much I beat myself up, I was still able to procrastinate. I had months left to write poems that would be lauded by most anyone who could read them, no matter their literary worth. Neil Armstrong flubbed his big line, and no one cared. No one should have cared. He is considered an eloquent hero simply for making the attempt, and that is the way it should be.
Those last two months on Mars, I reached acceptance. I rationalized like a champion; I was a Hall of Fame baseball player in a slump at the plate; the only way to work through it was to relax and let instinct take over. In my own way, I had taken a million cuts in the batter’s box, and it was only a matter of time until I was producing. Words drifted through my head; ideas congealed into shadowed shapes on the red horizon, but each time I tried to carve them into my notebook, they seemed too trite. Too insignificant. A piece of writing so bad it was more desirable to lie to my crewmates, particularly Mission Specialist Akiva Alber. She started out leaving me alone, focusing on her experiments in the germination of different plants, but it must have worn her out to watch radishes and switchgrass grow, so she kept asking to hear some of my work.
Until then, I figured I was going home empty-handed. I would put my tail between my legs and tell NASA the bad news. That’s when I realized I had the perfect cover story: I could use all of the work I had done while on terra firma. No one would know the difference if I claimed those poems were written on maris firma.
The last night before I left, I made efforts to cover my tracks. No one would be examining my notebooks; I had made sure of that with my agreement with NASA. But there would still be pictures. Everything that returned on the earthbound leg of Orion 15 would be photographed. Itemized. So that night, I threw aside all pretense. I took each of my dozen unused notebooks and cracked their spines. I rolled their covers and smoothed the points of their corners. To the entire world, it would seem as though the worn-edged books had been lovingly worked in the hands of the first wordwright to slip the surly bonds of the Earth and work under the slightly less surly bonds of the Red Planet. The worst part is that I deceived everyone who took me at my word. If you see the notebook on display in the Smithsonian, you’ll note that the poems are written with a kind of pen I didn’t have on the Orion mission.
Steve has no idea, until he reads this, that his wife committed such a fraud. With my other books, I would show him the in utero drafts and ask for his feedback and, according to his suggestions, reorder the poems and add or remove images or phrases. He has no idea that I was simply repurposing work I had already done.
I have composed dozens of poems since my time on Mars, some about the experience, some about motherhood, some about the thoughts that strike my fancy. I have taught hundreds of students at all levels and made what I believe are concrete contributions to my field. But I can never be what I tricked the world into believing I am: the first poet on Mars.
From “The Gift of an Impartial Universe”
People are the same wherever you go,
And so are sunsets; with their slight, slow fade.
The rush of day becomes a whisper
And darkness kisses stars into our view.
On Mars, the stars don’t twinkle,
But their promises remain.
No matter how dire the sins
Committed in plain sight,
The universe doesn’t care
Kenneth Nichols received his MFA in Creative Writing from Ohio State. He teaches writing at two colleges in Central New York and maintains the writing craft web site Great Writers Steal, accessible at www.greatwriterssteal.com. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including Main Street Rag, Skeptical Inquirer and Lunch Ticket.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: My protagonist and I share a deep fascination with space exploration. The seed of the story emerged from my memory of the 1997 film Contact and the Carl Sagan novel on which it was based. Dr. Ellie Arroway becomes the first human being to bear witness to a particularly beautiful secret of the universe. Ellie, overcome, says, “They should have sent a poet.” So that’s what I decided to do.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did that happen?
A: I’ve been writing as long as I can remember; the desire to tell stories was always a part of me. I’m not sure how I got that way, but I’m sure I’m sure I was influenced by the fact that my father brought home books and magazines of all kinds.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: Ideas and characters are always percolating in my head. When I get a feeling an idea is ready, I tend to compose in furious bursts, sometimes longhand and sometimes at a keyboard.
Q: What living writer do you admire most and why?
A: I’m going to cop out and name a group of writers instead. My teachers and colleagues from the Ohio State MFA program are an endless source of support and inspiration. We represent a diverse range of aesthetics and we each have different goals in mind for our writing lives, yet we share a sense of loving community.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: All kinds of things! I write a lot for Great Writers Steal, my writing craft web site. I’m working on a couple of plays and a young adult novel in addition to shorter pieces.
The Scotch Runner by Elisavietta Ritchie
Followed by Q&A
…how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death…
from “Breakfast Song”
“Allergic to wine,” the man said. “I’ll bring Scotch in a jar.”
Like a specimen for a medical test. Appropriate: they were in the doctors’ waiting room. Other patients concealing recycled jars under magazines, the waiting room, frankly, smelled. Bishop’s poem ran through Sheila’s head even while talking with the stranger. An unaccustomed tranquillizer of sorts working, she accidentally invited him to Friday’s party, a pre-holiday potluck gathering. Her turn to host fellow Birders, though she dreaded their seeing her new–digs, squat, flat, inefficient efficiency, temporary quarters.
“They’ll bring food and wine. I’ve cider so no interactions with meds—”
“I’ll smuggle in Scotch.” His dose of whatever working too, he slurred.
“Not a mayonnaise jarful…” Sheila envisioned Prohibition-era bootleggers. Another friendly alcoholic? One ex-spouse was enough…
…The marriage had not been bad. In their early days, Benjamin, claiming that with her peachy cheeks and buxom bosom, Sheila resembled Renoir’s Young Woman Braiding Long Black Hair, bought the reproduction to hang over the mantel so the lady reflected in the mirror opposite. Still, Benjamin referred to her paid artist jobs as “hobbies,” and with childhood hang-ups about holidays, mid-Decembers he holed up in a hotel for ten days drinking, who knows what else. Sheila kept up appearances for Molly and Tillie: “Daddy’s away looking after Granny, she gets pneumonia every Christmas. He left checks in our stockings. Let’s refill the bird feeders, then build snowmen in the garden.”
“Snowpersons!” The twins chorused. “Snowdaddies!”
Now one of those December diversions had latched onto Ben. Twins grown, charades outgrown, all had gone their own ways, taking their pets, which had mostly been left to Sheila to tend so had bonded with her. Benjamin moved across town with his old terrier, new lady, the marital bed and other furniture from his side of the family. The twins took collies and cats to college in California. Tillie ostensibly living in a dorm, joining her high school love, Molly with an almost-fiancé put a down payment on a house bought with money from the sale of the family house back East, furnishing it with Sheila’s half of the furniture, and the menagerie. The marital split conducted decorously, Sheila and Benjamin kept in occasional contact, though she had not updated him on her medical “challenges.”
Sheila ought to view the departures of family and pets, gentle disentanglements with interim lovers, her furnished rental efficiency, and the rest of the fuzz-buzz, as mere revisions to early drafts, updates to backstories. Now as anorexic as a Giacometti sculpture, she’d left Renoir repro, mirror, and an overlooked bag of kibble on Ben’s porch.
Touching her warm cheeks now, she remembered overhearing one of those interim lovers say, “Despite the upheavals, whenever you enter a room, the place glows.” Today her cheeks glowed from walking against the wind. Better than from the occasional fevers.
“Ole Mister Death, he don’t have no mercy,” an elderly man in the waiting room announced to nobody in particular. Again Sheila thought of Bishop’s lines,
…It's just the common case;
there's nothing one can do.
“Death is built into our existence,” the man beside her said, “the way decade-old Peoples and Good Housekeepings are built into doctors’ offices…Not even an ancient Newsweek… What’re you reading?”
“Blue Highways. Not about bikers and blues singers on the road.”
“I know. Tom—my son—slid in the CD while we drove from Fort Bragg. William Least-Heat Moon’s got a great ear for regional accents.”
“Mmmm…” She unfolded a portfolio. “I must finish a layout—”
“Illustrator, mostly, now. Pays the bills… Had to Google this ‘glossy ibis,’ I’ve always wanted a live sighting, in Western Australia…The bird black from afar, close up you see the red-brown color, iridescent sheen on the wings…Author’s idea is to generate notions of antipodes, opposites, the only-apparently black-and-white, how life is not…” Embarrassed by having chattered on, as if coming on to him full force—or was he coming on to her, out of empathy? curiosity? loneliness? plain old lust?—she busied herself sketching. “Deadline tomorrow.” That word assumed new significance.
“I’m trying to meet a deadline on a book about alien species before—” he patted his pocket, “before—retirement.”
“Isn’t contemplating retirement mere intellectual exercise, neither of us expected to enjoy whatever’s supposed to be enjoyable about retirement?”
“True, no Golden Ponds for us.” He scribbled lines from Rumi in her sketchpad,
Every guest agrees to stay
three days, no more…
Time to go.
“Too soon for us to go!” she protested. “Your beard is… silvering, your cheeks weathered, but you’re still terrifically handsome—” She blushed. Such remarks to a stranger! Damned pill.
“You’re still beautiful—”
Your glasses are still on a shoelace around your neck.... She’d India-inked silver
interlopers in her hair, but couldn’t mitigate the weight-loss/wrinkle-gain equation.
Touching her arm, the man said, “Camus claimed ‘one cannot appreciate one’s life until one’s faced one’s death’.”
“I’ve not learned to appreciate …”
A nurse called, “Ms. Sheila—” The roomful must’ve heard Sheila’s unexpected sob. “Don’t worry, honey, they’ll give you anesthesia. Come along—”
She awoke on a gurney, and soon was wheeled back to the waiting room again beside that man. “They insist we lie around like zombies, to make sure nobody faints and sues.”
“S’okay, Sheila, I’ll catch you.”
Had they exchanged names?
A volunteer brought apple juice but both had already drifted back to a sort of sleep.
An hour later, Sheila asked the receptionist for the nearest bus stop.
“Post-procedural patients are not allowed to use public transportation! Or drive themselves! A reliable family member must take you home.”
“I’ve no ‘reliable family members’.”
“You shouldda arranged—”
“Wouldn’t trouble anyone, nobody knows I’m—under the weather.”
“Do stay out of this weather, dear!” As she smoothed out Sheila’s chart, ringing phones and flashing buttons distracted the receptionist.
A younger man appeared and glanced at her chart. Didn’t this constitute Invasion of Patient Privacy? “I’ll get them home, ma’am. Reliably. Her place is on our way.”
Hunting camouflage? Military fatigues? Anachronistic-hippie garb? Who—The man’s son? He hooked one arm under her elbow, the other under the older man’s, and marched them to the exit. An orderly waylaid them with wheelchairs.
“Don’t need—” Sheila and the man protested simultaneously.
“Free ride to the curb mandatory.”
The younger man disappeared, returned in a muddy gray jeep, helped Sheila from her wheelchair into the back seat. “Dad’s legs long, he’s gotta sit up front.”
“I hate to trouble—Our street’s torn up—”
“This Wrangler’s conquered plenty of rough terrain, ma’am, she’ll get you home.”
En route, she half-heard their talk of fishing for steelhead on Deschutes River, wherever that was. Did they catch-and-release? No grizzly downriver would be as restrained. Next, the wilds of the Carolinas, hunting expeditions, shotguns versus AK-47s. Lord, she’d hooked up with trigger-happy rednecks…
Speculating where the army might send him, the young man—Tom?—maneuvered around a ditch to park at her brownstone. The man asked, “Friday, here?”
“Oh….” Had she invited him for Friday, plus any wife? “Did I…say…my apartment number?”
“Penciled on your card.”
The young man took her elbow, retrieved her keys when she bent down to pick up an iridescent feather, propelled her two flights to her door. “Wish we could settle you in, ma’am, but gotta get Dad home, then myself to the bus.”
“Please, I didn’t catch your father’s name…”
“Amos, ma’am. He gave you his card.”
Nonplussed by the repeated ma’am, she managed, “Thank you, sir. Good holidays.”
“You too, ma’am. I can’t return soon unless… compassionate leave.”
Sheila added the pigeon feather to a bouquet of feathers in an antique milk-jug, then pulled up blankets on the sofa bed, and slept. Head clear, before painkillers made her groggy again she arranged her aquarelles, tackled the deceptively-black ibis on the overdue layout. That man –Amos?—had diverted her, she must make up for lost time. She completed the legs of the ibis, beige, then scanned and emailed her bird to the printers. One empty frame handy, the original of her ibis replaced Renoir’s lady. Finally she draped a shred of tinsel over last autumn’s cattails. As if tinsel could convey holiday spirit and keep cattail fluff from scattering around the apartment!
“Sensible” to have cleared and sold the house so the girls wouldn’t have this chore. “Sensible” this monthly rental, although brown, cream and off-white constituted the owners’ full palette. The kitchenette’s brown-and-beige patterned linoleum was, as the manager confided, “Useful for hiding dirt.” Not even a window-box garden, only a ledge on which to scatter crumbs for the sparrows and starlings.
The phone rang. “Amos Faulkier here. How d’you feel?”
“Oh!..Fine. Thanks for the ride…You?”
“A bit. You?”
“Too late…Too soon to hear.”
“Too late, too soon.”
“Did we mention a party?”
“My place’s dreary—”
“Someone on the other line—”
“Mine too, must run—”
Later she couldn’t remember who’d said what.
Friday morning a deliveryman buzzed.
“I haven’t ordered anything—”
He showed her the little envelope. “Enjoy your Schlumbergera! Amos Faulkier.”
Schlumbergera? Weird reptile? The man had mentioned alien species. What might jump out? She gingerly unwrapped gold ribbon from the florist’s carton, tied the ribbon around old cattails in Grandmother’s brass umbrella stand: Illusion of decoration.
The man had mentioned Heidegger, Sheila forgot why. Schlumbergera/Heidegger imperfect rhymes? She’d never dug German philosophers or politicians. If this Schlum- were another such, toss him. Philosophy anyway ungraspable.
Existence lives in paintbrushes… Reality is mopping spilled paint, milk, garbage. Time: in short supply. Divine Whatever preoccupied elsewhere. One of her fellow Birders would gladly inherit the low-maintenance plant.
Shedding possessions turned out simple as watching petals fall from overripe peonies. A future of leaving friends was awful to contemplate.
Friday evening Amos wore a tweed jacket with, yes, worn leather elbow patches,
khaki slacks and hiking boots as befitting the Environmental Sciences professor he turned out to be. No wonder he’d been so outgoing: presumably a teacher should be. He carried upstairs a knapsack, down sleeping bag, and wading boots. “Don’t want to leave them in the jeep. Later I’m off to look over a cabin my uncle is willing me, he’s 92.”
How soon will that cabin in turn become Tom’s legacy, Sheila wondered. How far along is Amos?
He extracted from his knapsack a recycled soda bottle – “Chivas Regal”— and little jars of smoked oysters, caviar, jams, pates, artichoke hearts. “Tom loaded me with bachelor fare. Can’t eat these alone.” He hung his parka on a peg. “You look spectacular!”
Tonight she wore her remaining dress, which for a decade she’d not been thin enough to wear: décolleté black velvet, black fishnet stockings and, though she didn’t expect anyone to find out, black lace bra, panties, and slip. Benjamin had called it her femme fatale outfit. A thought flashed: A femme now all too fatale, she’d leave instructions for the mortician to clothe her corpse in it, give whatever mourners a kick.
“Merry Christmas, Sheila!” Guests buzzed and trooped in bearing wine, salads, casseroles, little packets that went under the Christmas cactus, and as instructed, their own cushions to sit on. Sheila’s old classmate Matilda presented her with a long-promised homespun skirt, though now the fabric enveloped her like a cloak. Or a shroud. Over mulled wine Matilda exclaimed, “Haven’t seen you in that dress for years—You’ve lost lots of weight, haven’t you…But—” she added hastily, “you look heavenly!”
Amos murmured he had “little hope of heaven.”
“I’d like to hope for a heaven,” Sheila argued. “At least for those critters we’re working to save, a peaceable kingdom.”
“Critters live to kill each other,” Amos countered. “In their dreams, the fox pursues the rabbit, lion the antelope. Rabbit and antelope seem peaceful as they nibble away the landscape. Think what lambs and goats do. As for humans! Bless vultures, they don’t kill, only clean up other’s remains.”
“Fish eat fish,” Henry, a lawyer and birder, said. “And us if we fall in and drown.”
“Way to go!” said Matilda.
Amos blended in easily enough. Turned out he was a marine biologist but, in Tierra del Fuego during the annual Christmas week Audubon count there one year, he’d joined those birders. The wife whom he’d possibly mentioned at the doctors’ turned out to have died five years before.
Every guest took home some token: the Luna moth that had died on Sheila’s screen and she’d framed went to a budding lepidopterist; her trowel used in Jordan for an archaeologist; books and CDs all found takers. “Okay,” Henry said, “The firm could use the umbrella container. I’ll chuck those old cattails down the chute as I go.”
“We’ll pick fresh cattails tomorrow,” Amos said, whatever he meant by “we.”
His tastes she could only guess. He mentioned owning the same books as those on her shelf. Finally she handed him her CD of Dylan Thomas reading his poems.
Nobody wanted her bouquet of feathers.
After cleaning up from the party together, talking non-stop, Amos embraced her in the usual farewell-thanks-so-much-for-the-nice-party hug. This hug lasted. He extracted a little travel toothbrush from his knapsack, slipped into the bathroom. She slipped a painkiller in her mouth. Perhaps he did the same with his meds. Wordless, half-clothed, they fell into her bed, managing only desultory cuddling before falling asleep.
She awoke in the night with this near-stranger curled tightly around her. Suppose the doctors miscalculated or misled him, and he died in the night, here? Or she? Neither was yet, surely, that terminal—
No pussy-footing around words anymore. The artistic image of Death with his Careless Scythe had to be squarely visualized. Perhaps illustrated? Tomorrow…
She heard Amos sigh, felt his fingers smoothing her hair, then fell asleep again.
Still dark when she woke as both twins at once were recording on her answering machine. Anyone else she would have ignored. “I’m here—wait till I—”
“Big news!” Tillie, in real time now, exclaimed.
“Martin’s parents are renting a villa in La Jolla, a family reunion Christmas week,” Molly explained. “Perfect for us to get married! Gotta discuss what you’ve gotta do for the reception—I’ve a list—”
“I’m coming with Jonah,” Tillie broke in. “We’ll all be in the wedding.”
“Why not you two get married too?”
“Oh, we’d wait till after graduation,” Tillie said. “If—”
“If Jonah is really it,” Sheila said, “seize the day.”
“Since when were you so impulsive, Ma?” Molly asked. “Granted they’re already living together here weekends. Sorry, Ma, to shock you, but—”
“’Course not. Just that by June—” She’d not intended to relay her own news until the last, so to speak, minute, if at all. Afterwards the lawyer could contact them, fax copies of her signed will, mail letters she must get to writing. Meanwhile she’d not spoil her daughters’ happiness. “June’s far away.”
“Jonah and I are different,” Tillie said. “He’s so city-minded, business-oriented… I’m joining the Peace Corps.”
“My dream too…Was…Along with exploring Tasmania.”
Amos was saying something to her.
“Meanwhile—” Sheila said, “Tillie, I’ve met a young man about to be shipped overseas—Oh, already! Yesterday morning… BS in geology, aiming for a—What, PhD?...I think – Yes?…Yes. A mountain climber and kayaker like you. A what lieutenant?... First… You’re a good letter writer, Tillie, or rather emailer, he might like a pen pal—though probably has plenty of girls writing to him…Apparently not…APO something?... Email…something dot.com…So if—”
“Okay, give him my address. Hey, who’s there feeding you information?”
“Ummm… well…his father…”
“At this hour? Mother! Three a.m., here!”
“’S okay, Ma,” Molly said. “Google a plane reservation for L.A.X. right away.”
“I’ll try to come…”
“Only try? Ma! You’ll come! I’ve bought a gorgeous organdy. Pack your paints to do our portrait in wedding attire. Tell Daddy bring his tux. You bring summer cocktail dresses, a mother-of-the-bride formal.”
“My only dress is black… I’d have to find something new. Lost weight.”
“Lucky you!” The girls chorused.
“I’m shipping more furniture, silver, what’s left of the china, so don’t buy anything.”
“Reordering my environment. A craving for space….Here’s to beautiful weddings…”
Exhausted, she switched off the phone, lay back in bed. Amos hugged her. “You want a two-fer?”
“Gotta pack it in, as the girls would say. Yet all that shopping, traveling, monster airports, cross-country flights, shuttles…” And she didn’t admit dreading plane crashes.
“I’ll get you to the plane on time. Promise you’ll be back in a week? I could even escort you…”
She leaned over and kissed his brow. No way she’d shock future in-laws by inviting a strange man along. Anyway, he surely had holiday plans. And Benjamin would be there.
Amos fingered the black lace slip she was still wearing.
Neighbors overhead began their day with loud rock and children rampaging like elephants. She expected him to take off.
“Might I shower,” he asked, “unless you want to be first?”
“Clean towels on the shelf…Only old waffles in the freezer …Tea? Coffee?”
“Tea... Sometime I’ll make real waffles for you…For now, let’s get the hell out of town. Cabin’s in a marsh, I remember from childhood. Uncle Rob lends it to old-boy hunting and fishing buddies, but nobody this weekend. He swears everything’s in decent condition. If we can find it…Drizzling outside now, but it’ll clear.”
Amos, in sniper garb, hung last evening’s clothes in her closet, knocking over her half-dozen unfinished canvases she’d never be able to complete.
Disconcerting, this stranger presuming to arrange her calendar! As for the dangers of being outdoors in bad weather…Still, Sheila showered, pulled blue sweatpants and sweatshirt over long silk underwear, tied on sneakers. They made sandwiches, filled backpacks with extra socks, water bottles, party leftovers, the Scotch he’d barely sipped.
“Yes, Tom might like hearing from your Tillie.”
“He mustn’t mention my—situation,” Sheila urged. “The girls assume I’ll be working forever on one or another deadline—”
That word again. Merely mentioning work, however, energy returned. She tucked a small sketchbook and drawing pencils into her backpack. He tossed their gear onto the back seat of the jeep, revved the motor and gassed up for the three hours wherever they were heading.
“I’m organizing a collection of my articles on invasive marine pests,” he was saying, “such as the European green crab in Australian waters. Carcinus maenas…Karkinos. Greek for crab. Yes, ironic, now…You could illustrate it…”
“I always wanted to swim with the dugongs, snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, and—”
“But not off Darwin where the box jelly fish are literally lethal.”
“And I’d like to spot a Tasmanian tiger—”
“We’d have an interesting time looking… Supposedly extinct…And the waters around the island are apparently alive with mini-critters—Let’s think about all this…”
The Metropolitan Opera matinee came on, Tristan and Isolde. At the entre-acte he said, “Let’s forget ill-fated lovers,” and slipped into the CD player the Dylan Thomas disc, three times replayed “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”
They left highways, secondary roads, and reached the end of a dirt road abutting a marsh. Deer leapt from the bushes and, snorting, disappeared into the woods. Birds exploded from everywhere. Sheila inhaled the damp air fragrant with pine and bayberry, and buttoned her parka.
“You don’t want to muddy up those sneakers.” Amos extracted a smaller pair of wading boots.
Amazing, a pair to fit me, she thought. Of course, his late wife’s boots…
Shouldering packs, they set off through the tufts of eelgrass and cattails onto a beach of spongy sand and mud. Fragrance now of…marsh gas. Vociferous Vs of geese flew overhead. “Strange angels,” Sheila said, picking up a shed feather, twig of blue spruce, one cattail. Amos led the way to a cove full of small diving ducks, white with jet black heads, and scribbled down notes. He pointed with his binoculars past the ducks, to coots moving as if snared in one invisible seine. “See beyond—”
See beyond, indeed! Rain was seeping into their parkas. Her pack heavier, fatigue draining her veins, the borrowed boots rubbed her heels, new-born blisters hurt. The ghost of the previous owner taking revenge? Ghosts of late wives could be fearsome.
“Those waders belonged to one of my favorite grad students.”
“Consorting with grad students happens with professors, especially single ones, nobody cradle-robbing.” Sheila hadn’t meant to sound peevish or tactless. No point in possessiveness about anything or anyone anymore. Unusual jealousy nonetheless welled up.
“He returned to Arizona, left his waders,” Amos explained.
Sheila felt even more embarrassed, her heels hurting too much to feel relief.
Whatever am I doing out in ever-wetter wetlands with this man? But in a figurative swamp is where most affairs end up. Soon so will this— mini-fling.
They circled around the marshes, planning to loop back to the car. Behind them, however, tide was creeping over the beach. “All that rain, full moon somewhere, neap tide—” he said. “Ridiculous to be caught out here…”
“How about along the riverbank?” A mistake, or was it? They followed it through scraggly cedars toward a ramshackle pier, came flush against a high chain-link fence. Tide by now completely cutting off their retreat, no key for the lock, the only option was to climb it. “How to fit the toes of these boots—” She’d not admit her fear of heights.
With the can-opener blade of his Swiss Army knife, Amos pried a top loop of the thick wires holding the fencing to the rail. He unraveled the wire and pulled the sides apart, creating a gap to scramble through. “My first job was teaching science in a rough neighborhood,” he explained, answering her unvoiced concern about the origin of his skills. “The boys taught me. Some were certified juvenile delinquents.”
The wooden cabin was set on cinderblocks three feet above the ground. Two boat trailers held skiffs under tarpaulins. Plastic floats hung from an airy architecture of chicken-wire crab pots stacked against the back wall. Narrow high windows, shuttered, probably the cabin doubled as a duck blind…They searched under sills and eaves for a key. Remarking again about skills learned while teaching, Amos slid a blade into the lock, forced back the spring bolt and push open the door, dislodging festoons of spider webs. After opening shutters, they lowered their packs onto an overturned green canoe inside, themselves on a crate.
“Thank God for Scotch.” He unscrewed the lid and held the soda bottle out for her.
“I don’t usually…” Her teeth chattering, she stuck her wintry bouquet into an empty beer bottle, and in the dim light looked around. Seaweed-webbed crab traps, nets, a broom, rods, oars, paddles, canvas cots, decoys, bumpers, buoys. What good any life jackets and life-preservers now?
Amos shook the Coleman lanterns. “Out of fuel.” He produced his key ring holding a small penlight. “No telling how long the batteries last in these silly things. Heavy-duty flashlight back in the jeep. You distracted me.”
“Pain distracts…” she began, then busied herself arranging things from her damp knapsack on the overturned canoe. By unspoken agreement, neither mentioned illness. Her present pains were in her heels. She removed boots and sopping socks, and inspected three blisters. He extracted a small plastic pouch from his backpack, and taking her cold feet into his lap, dressed them with ointment, then Band-Aids, rubbed her feet until the warmth flowed upward, then as if she were a child, pulled on her clean pair of socks. Her tears welled at his simple gesture.
“Even when the tide ebbs we’d have trouble making it back to civilization before dark,” he said. “Any pressing engagements? Christmas shopping?”
“I sent everyone subscriptions to National Geographic.”
“I took Tom to our bank, added his name to the house deed, signed forms so every month money goes into his account toward his master’s degree. GI Bill should help. Ordered him sci-fi books, geology and geophysics journals, lifetime subscriptions.”
Military service hardly ensures longevity… “You really are—” she almost said preparing to die, instead managed “sensible.” Trying to be sensible in the moment, Sheila inspected a potbellied stove. “But what fuel—”
“A baggie of charcoal in my knapsack, and look—” He stood in the doorway shaking insects from a tarpaulin covering a woodpile, then laid a fire in the stove, struck a match to it. “Rain’s let up. Need to pee?”
“While you were tearing the fence apart…”
She spread the dishtowel over a crate, and, hands shaking from cold, arranged smoked oysters on black bread. “I forgot cups....”
“Our germs are environmentally-friendly. Scotch is germicidal, good for the heart…You’re thawing my heart after its long sojourn in the freezer. Your heart?”
She wanted to say, Thaw mine too, please. Or something equally flirtatious, but her mouth was full of smoked oysters. How can one decipher the inner life even of those with whom one spends much of a life… If she were to sketch him, would that reveal more than surfaces? Here they were, ostensibly strangers, who in the compression of time, knew each other deeply. Terrible cliché, also terribly possible. As if from inside an aquarium, they watched curtains of water pour from the roof over the windows.
“Dark early at the winter solstice…We can boil rainwater for the tea bags,” he was saying. “Don’t you need a sip of Scotch to warm you?”
“Mostly need you—”
This time his mouth was full of smoked oysters. “We’ll save the tea for breakfast…”
At some point, rain stopped, the full moon shone through cabin cracks and windows. By the tardy first light, the shore remained solid and dark. The pier was paper-thin, as if stretched between pencil shafts over crumpled foil, and the heron on a piling an unseasonable mosquito on a matchstick. Only with the sun would anything out assume substance.
Sunrise illuminated the cabin: she found her sketchbook, burrowed for pencils. When she looked up, Amos was writing in a notebook.
They reached her apartment, threw muddy clothes into the washer-dryer, showered together, heated canned lentil soup, contemplated her unfinished canvases, and toasted with the scotch which they still never got around to finishing. More lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem resounded:
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so.
Sorting the clean dry laundry, she found their socks, shirts, sweatpants and underwear entangled with each other, and burst into tears.
“What’s wrong?” Amos asked in alarm. “Pain?”
“It’s only—forgive my sentimentality—I’m happy—”
He scooped her up, and carried her to bed.
At dawn, going to her computer, he began checking the Internet for domestic flights to L.A.X., then after New Year’s, by Quantas on to Sydney.
Sheila contemplated her unfinished canvases. Thank heavens for insomnia. Let planes crash, tides rise, Tasmanian tigers prowl among the pines, box jellyfish undulate in the waters off Darwin.
Elisavietta Ritchie's fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, photographs, and translations from Russian and French have appeared in numerous publications including Poetry, The American Scholar, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, National Geographic, New York Quarterly, Confrontation, Press, New Letters, Kalliope, Nimrod, Canadian Women's Studies, Calyx, Maryland Poetry Review, Iris; anthologies including When I'm An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple; If I Had My Life To Live Over I Would Pick More Daisies; The Tie That Binds; If I Had A Hammer; Grow Old Along With Me / The Best Is Yet To Be; Generation To Generation; Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend; and many others. For more information, visit her website.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: It came all of a piece, then much tinkering. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem I read/reread about the same moment. All fiction including the characters. None based on anyone I know. What are real are the wetlands, though the wetlands and cove surrounding us are not quite like those in the story, except for the wildlife. And I do know what medical waiting rooms are like. And how a woman’s career/job/profession can be denigrated by thoughtless remarks, though this is not what launched the story.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did that happen?
It just happened.
1) A few years ago in the attic among her treasure a notebook of my haiku-like poems she had written down from what I had spoken, in English and in Russian; Mainly, I was blessed by this Babushka, 1933 émigré from Leningrad; she lived with us, and although her English and French were perfect, with me she spoke only Russian, and had me reading Russian picture books for children; a Grandmama from Kansas City who not only had McGuffie’s Reader but all the St. Nicolas magazines my mother had kept as a child; a mother who preferred Keats and Shelley and the French poets, and was horrified that my Russian émigré father (whose English was perfect and he learned a bunch of other languages) loved to recite not only Kipling but Robert W. Service—so at school instead of writing a paper on Keats or Byron or Shakespeare I shocked both my mother and the teacher by choosing to write on Service). (Thus later I was drawn to the French writers who scorned the ivory tower and were engage dans la vie) (as were the poets/writers/ playwrights in the Far East who were in trouble with their governments and turned to poetry because the censors tended to scorn it—but then, in the USSR a poem could land a poet in jail/gulag or exile).
2) About age four I wrote “a book”—but the writing was illegible/unreadable/ undecipherable until my mother held it up to a mirror. [Later when my third child was having trouble reading and writing, letters reversing themselves, etc., I was able to help until at age ten suddenly everything straightened out of its own accord. And when as a poet-in-the-schools I encountered in a Montessori school up the road a couple of bright boys who at ten still could not write, I had the hard-won patience to work with them one on one, letter by letter, week after week, until at the end of the year they could write.)
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: Process? I write. And rewrite. Depends. Poems and stories usually come full blown, it is just a matter of filling in the interstices and writing and rewriting and rewriting—making changes even after they are in print. An article for the paper of course demands a different way of going about it.
Q: What living writer do you admire most and why?
A: Which one of many? What day of the week? Living in the flesh or in my mind? Kingsolver I like. Allende. Marquez. Camus (for me he is immortal). As Chekhov is immortal. Stanley Kunitz, another immortal. Arnost Lustig. Romain Gary. Brodsky. Akhmatova. Lermontov. Pushkin. All are alive in my mind. A bunch of Indonesian poets. And I’ve discovered –
Now much of what I read are manuscripts submitted anonymously (though as the mail drop/pumpkin I know the authors’ names) to Washington Writers’ Publishing House, and we have published some wonderful writers of whom you may not have heard—David Ebenbach, Hilary Tham, Melanie Hatter, Gretchen Roberts-Shorter, David Taylor, Elizabeth Bruce, Catherine Kimrey, this last year Kathleen Wheaton, and currently I am reading a manuscript of short stories by a Vietnamese émigré Khanh T. Ha.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: What day of the week? What hour of the day or night?
Among the current manuscripts I am reworking are
1) the 50+ new poems that have come since Tiger Upstairs on Connecticut Avenue went to press last April/May, came out in June. Tentative title of new collection: LIONS IN THE WINGS. Most too new to be submitted around, but a handful accepted individually;
2) a bunch of short stories in a collection of short fiction, some of which have been published, some always needing tinkering;
3) THE CALDECOTT CYCLES, a novel in verse started in the 1990s and just resuscitated;
4) GLAD I GAVE TO ART MY ALL: POEMS IN THE VOICES OF THE ARTIST, HIS WIFE, HIS MISTRESS, HIS MODELS, HIS DOG. Most have been published individually and reprinted in my recent books, scattered among other poems;
5) flash fictions now and then;
6) and then whatever comes along. Just in print this week are a couple of reviews of two books whose authors asked me to review them…
7) but right now, late as it is, I have to go over the preface of a 500-page memoir long in progress and just “finished” this evening, by my husband, Clyde Farnsworth (whose name may be familiar if you read the New York Times until about 2000).
Hoosier Hysteria by Michael Backus
Followed by Q&A
There I was in the opulent, spacious lobby of Harrison Hall at Purdue University on a Sunday afternoon in July, a chest high stack of soggy pizza boxes on the floor next to me, the room swarming with young boys ages 10 to 13 here for a week of basketball camp. In that week, they stayed in the dorms, bussed back and forth to Mackey Arena for drills and scrimmages, and ate dorm food morning, noon and night except for Sunday evenings when they were expected to get their own dinner, though since they were not allowed to wander, four West Lafayette area pizza places including the one I worked for were invited to set up and sell our food.
In some ways it should’ve been the perfect gig for me. I didn’t necessarily look like a basketball player, dressed as I was in a bright green paisley-covered button up shirt with one side seam ripped all the way open, black jeans covered in leather patches with a red bandana around my neck and hair past my shoulders. But I am tall and more to the point, I played basketball, two or three times a week at this point—full-court pickup games at the University Co-rec and on the Levee outside courts down along the banks of the Wabash River—and was pretty sure I knew as much or more about basketball than any of the delivery guys for the other pizza places set up on either side of me, the big boys of Dominos, Venos, and Pizza Hut.
The problem was, the regular delivery guys weren’t manning their booths. Instead they hired Purdue University basketball players to hawk their pizza, giant, watery soft drinks and foil-wrapped sandwiches. Ten feet to my right was Keith Edmonson, who went on to play in the NBA and was at that moment slated to be their best player in the Fall because Joe Barry Carroll had just graduated, and on my other side, Jon Kitchel, something of an Indiana high school basketball legend, and ten feet to his right, Roosevelt Barnes, who ended up playing four years in the NFL as a linebacker for the Detroit Lions. All three were members of the Purdue men’s basketball team that had just three months before made it all the way to the Final Four, losing to UCLA in a game played in Indianapolis 65 miles away. Every one of these kids knew exactly who each of these guys were.
It wasn’t that they loomed over me—Kitchel and Edmonson were only an inch taller than I was and Barnes was probably shorter—but dressed in their crisp Purdue colors sweats and looking so completely and utterly like basketball players, they exuded that vibe, a loosey goosey mix of physical grace and low key jock presence, a kind of cool swagger that other ballplayers recognize the way two of the same species of bats find each other in a dense jungle, even though there are hundreds of other bats who look more or less the same. I liked to think I had some of that swagger on the court—I’d been playing ball since I was old enough to walk—but even at my most delusional I couldn’t pretend to be in their league as a player. I was just one of those endless number of Hoosiers who had played the game their entire life, could shoot and pass, knew how to set and use a pick, how to roll to the rim, how to block out on rebounds and step over on defense. And I was wearing the same basketball shoes I grew up playing in—high-top Chuck Taylors—but it had been a decade since anyone had actually worn Chuck Taylors to play in and my wearing them here gave me no props from the energized gangs of young boys roaming the space in front of me, all of them wearing much fancier basketball shoes and sweats.
I’d argued with my boss Al that we should go for quality—double cheese and meat and a sign saying exactly that—but as always, he did it his way, putting half the cheese and sauce of a regular pie, figuring the only thing that really mattered was we were there and had pizza. “They’ll come around to you eventually,” he said.
Al’s restaurant was called Club Caboose (no “The”) and sat in a large weed and dirt lot just over the Wabash River in Lafayette, a bare bones raw wood building attached to an actual train caboose converted to a diner, which was something of a joke because we really didn’t have walk-in guests and were only busy on site once a month or so when fraternities rented the whole place out. Al made the bulk of his living via deliveries and did it by outlasting the competition, staying open a half hour later than Dominos or Venos, which meant we did half of an entire night’s deliveries after 1 a.m., always to the dorms across the river. Many nights I was at the restaurant alone; I’d take a delivery order on the phone, make the pizza and put it in the oven, call Al who’d drive over and watch the place while I delivered the pizza and returned, then he’d leave again until the next delivery. Only at the end of the night would he stick around for the after 1 a.m. rush. I’d graduated from Purdue in December with a degree in Journalism and was sticking around town because I had a girlfriend still in school. Within a year, things would be over with us and I’d be living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but at the time, I was willing to do anything to stick around and wait for her.
I also made what might have been in retrospect a mistake, eating two small stems of psilocybin mushrooms I had found in a baggie in my freezer at home and had stuffed into my pocket on the way out that morning, thinking I’d scope out the situation. And when I realized I wasn’t going to see a kid for at least 45 minutes, I’d chewed them up and forced them down with a swig of soda. They were so old I had no memory of putting them in there and assumed they’d lost most of their potency. I was wrong. And because I hadn’t eaten lunch, they hit me hard and fast. Still, I would’ve been fine if everyone just stayed away from me for a few minutes until I could settle into it and it seemed to be going that way, the waves of laughing, shoving, farting (yes, there seemed to be a contest), whispering children parted around me like an island in a stream, aiming towards Edmonson, Kitchel and Barnes (more or less in that order). Things were happening all around me. Outside the large bank of windows, streams of birds made black streaks in the sky that turned to colors then to letters before dissipating like a jet’s contrails. And inside, every single person was moving in a strange, herky jerky stop motion animation way, like Harryhausen creatures from any number of movies over the past 30 years. It was at this point that a single kid approached my table.
I tried to ignore him and concentrate on the birds outside and their lovely way of being in the world, but I could see the people all around me in my peripheral vision and it was coming to be something of a problem. In all those Harryhausen movies, it was the Cyclops, serpent women and flying harpies that moved that way and even if I knew the truth, I was having trouble tamping down the rising panic of being surrounded by monsters.
“I said,” the kid said, as if weary and put out, “What do you have?” Apparently he had already spoken to me.
“For pizza, what kind of pizza?”
The kid was tallish, flabby on his way to being fat but not quite there (it could go either) and had long, draping arms and huge hands for a kid and he was demonstrative, flapping and swinging his arms to reinforce whatever point he was making, which in context felt ominous and unnatural, his body seemingly contorting into inhuman shapes.
“Pizza?” was all I could think of to say. It was those damn fighting skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts, burned into my brain at an early age, when I was most susceptible.
“Yes, of course, pizza.”
“You’re freaking me out, kid.”
“Just join your friends.” I meant the columns of kids to my left and right, in Keith Edmonson and Jon Kitchel’s lines.
“They’re not my friends.”
There was something about the way he said it, the catch in his voice just below the surface, the hint of revulsion that someone might think he was friends with these kids and a bitterness that he wasn’t, and just like that, my head cleared. I could see right into that kid, see a life he didn’t understand how to navigate, a kid who was here because he was a real player and he was a real player because he had spent endless hours by himself shooting baskets at a rim somewhere. Being on mushrooms made the clarity and certainty with which I saw all of this unbearable. His sadness loomed. I had to get rid of him. I dropped the top pie on my stack on the table and pushed it towards him.
“Just take it.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a good pie, just take it.”
I picked it up and shoved it at him, forcing him to make an awkward grab at it and a $5 bill which he’d obviously been gripping popped into view. He looked at the bill, at me looking at it, back at the bill, which seemed to be announcing itself to me.
“I’ll take that,” I said and snatched the five.
“Thanks?” he said, backing away as you might from a wild animal before turning and walking briskly towards the bank of elevators.
In the end, it went the way Al expected it to. The Big Three ran out of pizza and sandwiches about 45 minutes in and the stragglers had no choice but to come to me. I sold everything I had, staying an extra half hour to do it. The drug remained remarkably steady and strong, though by then I’d acclimated. On the way out, I walked past Edmonson who was leaning on a wall talking to a girl who was wearing a tennis outfit and seemed to be two impossibly long, tanned legs with a head sitting on top. No body. I said to Edmonson in the spirit of shared labor, “Some day, huh?” and he nodded and fake-wiped sweat off his brow and shook it out, but the girl narrowed her eyes and curled her nose, like I was a bad smell, and her head swelled and her face changed into something demonic. I was pretty sure she hissed at me. I pushed through to the cool evening air, which altered the mood considerably to the better. Later I’d realize she had braces.
Walking to my car, I saw the kid. He was shooting baskets by himself on a court attached to the residence halls, even though there was a group of camp kids playing a sloppy game at the opposite end. I was gratified to see he had a natural stroke and shot above his head, which was unusual at his age. He had that mechanical focus, firing one shot after another, chasing down the misses, setting up in different spots on the court. And when he made shots, the ball really popped the net just so, sending it spinning back to him. I’d spent endless hours shooting baskets at our single rim over the garage, but most of the time, my father was there with me, playing horse, or rebounding for me or especially playing one on one. We played one on one as a way of settling everything; who would mow the lawn, walk the dog, wash the dishes after dinner, whether my sister and I got to watch for the 100th time The Wizard of Oz, who picked first in our annual bet on the Indy 500. I recognized the kid’s life, time spent alone on a court because it was better to be there than anywhere else, but it wasn’t mine.
I was having trouble shaking the girl’s reaction, I was used to something closer to benign disinterest from sorority type women on campus, but I’d never seen such furious and instantaneous hostility. It was hard not to take it personally. I decided I’d go to Kroger, buy some sun-dried tomatoes, fresh pasta, parmesan cheese, and arugula (it was my go-to recipe, simple with some elegance) and show up at my girlfriend’s door after her shift at the student newspaper is over and make her dinner and after, we’ll sit on her couch and watch TV with her roommates and I’ll slip my hand inside her shirt when we get a moment alone and she’ll throw her legs over mine and we’ll hold each other until that image of the girl’s demonic face is gone.
I still had much of an afternoon to kill. I angled over to the kid who stared at me with a blank expression and kept shooting. I rebounded a miss and fired it back to him.
“Your pizza sucked,” he said.
“Really sucked,” he said.
“This is not news,” I said.
He tossed me the ball, I stepped out to the three point line and shot and hit nothing but net just so he knew where I was coming from, then I bounce-passed the ball to him and for the next hour, let him shoot and shoot and shoot in rhythm, without him ever having to worry about chasing down his misses.
Michael Backus’s work has appeared in One Story, The Portland Review, The Sycamore Review, Exquisite Corpse, Verb, Storyhead, The High Hat, The Writer, and Hanging Loose. A novel, Double, was published in the Fall of 2012 by Xynobooks Publishing. He teaches creative writing, composition, and film studies classes at Marymount Manhattan College and fiction writing at Gotham Writer’s Workshop. He has an MFA from Columbia College in Chicago and lives in East Harlem, New York City.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: It was a non-fiction piece so I had a good idea where it was going, but it also happened some time ago and when I got to the section where my character rebounds the basketball for the outcast boy, I had to ponder my motivations. I remembered doing it but why was a whole other thing. When I started, I imagined that the motivation was I saw some of myself in this kid, but as I wrote, I realized, that’s not true. I didn’t spend hours shooting baskets by myself as a kid because my home life sucked, I spent hours shooting in our driveway with my father. It was a completely different dynamic from my perception of this kid’s life. This realization actually added a nice layer to the piece and allowed my character to step forward as an adult in this situation, something (him being an adult) that wasn’t at all obvious in the lead up to the ending.
Q:What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: That the only way to learn to write is to write. It’s the same advice I give my own students. There’s something reassuring about the simplicity of this advice, how easy it is conceptually and how difficult it can be on a practical level. I have tried to write every day for the past 15 or 20 years and have (I hope) succeeded more often than I’ve failed.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Flannery O’Connor was the first writer whose work made me think about the process of writing itself and after that, the short stories of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Joy Williams and Denis Johnson formed a kind of conga line of influence. I’d toss in Robert Stone, who opened up worlds both literal and spiritual, and Jim Harrison, who continues to have such a lively mind, it’s inspiring.
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 essentially write in two places, home and work, and since my laptop became because of age and various piddling malfunctions essentially a desktop, I can no longer go to public spaces to write, though I’ve had some success with that in the past. One thing that really works for me is I’m currently using my television as a monitor. This is useful beyond the obvious benefit of having a very large monitor. Writing is hard and painful and I’ll often use any excuse to do something (anything) else, with watching TV high on that list. But with my current setup, that’s not possible. It’s either computer or TV, so I’m spared the indignity of sitting in front of the TV with my computer on my lap, half-assing my way through writing AND TV watching.
The Enormous Cell Phone by Jason Kapcala
Followed by Q&A
“Can you hear me?” Felice, my girlfriend of four years, asked.
I shifted my cell phone to my other ear and backed away from the window, thinking maybe the reception would be better in the kitchen. I was a junior at Penn State, majoring in English, and it was the first cell phone I had ever owned.
I asked Felice to say something.
“Can you hear me now?” she said.
She was being cute, mimicking the latest Verizon Wireless commercials, which had turned that common question into a popular slogan for reliable cellular service. I wasn’t playing along.
Though I no longer remember what we were discussing that late October afternoon in State College, I clearly remember the apartment—a six-story eyesore tucked behind a Citgo station. It was fully furnished, though the windows had no curtains and the sofa was nothing more than a dozen two-by-fours overlaid with mismatching patio chair cushions. My bedroom overlooked an all-night mini-mart, and beyond that, the intersection of College Avenue and Atherton Street.
I also remember the phone. A bulky, silver Samsung. It was enormous by today’s standards. Only slightly smaller than an eyeglasses case. Its buttons glowed neon blue when you pressed them. I’d purchased it for one reason: it had a slide up display window that you triggered by pressing a button on the side—an unusual design feature I found stylish, even masculine, at the time. When receiving a call, you answered by pressing the button, and the top half of the phone sprang up, revealing the microphone. Its design let everyone know you were in demand. It made you feel like a business executive or James Bond.
The phone had flaws, however. For one thing, the sliding display didn’t cover the keypad. So you had to remember to activate the number lock, or it would accidentally speed dial your loved ones’ every time it rubbed up against the loose change in your pocket or the textbooks in your bag. But that wasn’t its most prominent idiosyncrasy.
It also picked up the conversations of strangers.
Felice paused long enough to give me the opportunity to respond, to laugh or to mock her for her lame joke. When I didn’t say anything, she said, “I crack myself up.”
“Well, at least you crack someone up,” I said, trying to sound amused.
She hummed, and I imagined her in her apartment across town, her eyes shrinking into little crescents, her lips tightening into a thin band of pink. Even after four years, neither one of us was quite sure what to make of the other. We had been friends long before we dated, but I knew her parents still harbored doubts about me.
As I moved around my apartment, searching for clear reception, I heard the low clamor of two people fighting. At least, I assumed it was two people fighting; I could only hear half of their conversation.
“So you haven’t changed at all then? You’re still the same person you were five years ago? Oh my God, I’m so sick of being the only one who works at this.” The strange voice was no louder than a whisper, but even so, it was clear that somewhere a woman was making an effort to keep her composure.
“Is it better now?” Felice said.
“I can hear someone else’s conversation,” I told her.
“What are they saying?” she asked.
The next morning, at the Forum building, Felice paused while jotting notes about the life cycle of stars. “You know, if some rapist jumped me at night, I’d stab him in the eyes with my keys,” she said. “Then I’d run. And scream for help.”
I didn’t ask why, in the midst of a lecture about supernovas, her thoughts had turned to sexual assault. It was a more innocent moment in time at Penn State, a time before the Jerry Sandusky trial. I knew the answer would have to do with the string of rapes that had taken place on the University Park campus and in the town of State College since the start of the semester.
A recent story printed in the student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, told of a woman who had fought back against her attacker on Calder Way, an alley that ran parallel between the two main streets downtown. It wasn’t really an alley. There were narrow sidewalks and old buildings with iron scaffolding that had been renovated into fancy boutiques—a cheese shop, a chocolatier, a florist where I bought bouquets of carnations for Felice on Valentine’s Day, and a small bakery where I ordered her birthday cakes. The woman was a psychology student. She had been taking a shortcut at night from one basement bar to another, or to her apartment, or to campus, when a man stepped out from the shadows of one of the doorways and grabbed her from behind. According to the newspaper, she’d struggled free and ran until he stopped chasing her. She didn’t know her assailant and couldn’t describe him beyond his approximate height and his race. But she’d been lucky.
That fall, the climate on Penn State’s campus changed. People spoke of a serial rapist, using the pronoun “he.” Crude police sketches of the attacker cropped up in the newspapers—white male, early- to mid-twenties, chin and forehead smaller and wider than any chin or forehead I’d ever seen in real life, eyes two sizes too small. The university installed extra lighting between buildings. At night, blue-light emergency phones shone like little beacons all across campus—freshmen followed them home like a trail of breadcrumbs from the fraternity houses on the west side of campus to the dorms and stadium on the east side. Various women’s rights groups rallied at the main entrance of the HUB student union and passed out “night maps” of the campus, which used gradient shading to show which areas were well lit. Red “Rape Free Zone” signs appeared in dorm room windows. The university sponsored lectures and colloquiums on sexual assault awareness, and when a former conservative columnist for The Daily Collegian wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that the “hype” about rape was nothing more than a feminist scare tactic, I was one of a dozen readers who crucified him with a response letter.
Still, come the weekend, few people seemed to remember the threat. From Thursday nights until Sunday nights, College and Beaver avenues teemed with students making their way to the bars or to fraternity row. I saw them from my apartment window. It was business as usual.
Sitting in our Introduction to Astronomy class, I didn’t ask Felice what she would do if her self-defense plan failed—what she’d do if she couldn’t struggle free like the girl in the paper, if the rapist grabbed her from behind and didn’t let go, if he chased her down before she reached the end of the street. I knew she wouldn’t have had an answer to those questions.
Instead, I said, “Be really careful, okay?”
I realize now that it was a stupid thing to say. Patronizing in its assumption that she wasn’t careful enough already, that carelessness was even the problem. But I said it anyway. To fill the silence.
Later that afternoon, waiting in the Thomas building’s seven-hundred seat auditorium for my Sociology class to start, I overheard two guys in polo shirts and baseball caps talking about what they would do if they stumbled on a rape in progress. They agreed they would tear the rapist’s testicles from his body and feed them to him.
Everyone had a plan.
In John Cheever’s famous short story, “The Enormous Radio,” one of the protagonists, Jim Wescott, purchases a radio for his wife, allowing them to tune into the private conversations of everyone in their apartment building. In spite of my quirky cell phone, which frequently intercepted other people’s calls, Felice and I weren’t much like Jim and Irene Wescott. Cheever’s Jim and Irene share a moderate income, two children, and a marriage of nine years: “they lived on the twelfth floor of an apartment house near Sutton Place, they went to the theater on an average of 10.3 times a year, and they hoped someday to live in Westchester.” By contrast, Felice and I were college students and had no income. There were no children in the picture. We lived separately.
However, we did have one thing in common with Jim and Irene: we went to the theatre at least ten times a year. On those nights, we dressed up and dined in the banquet room at the school for Hotel and Restaurant Management. The future-chefs there prepared dishes like grilled salmon and shallots in sweet Vouvray sauce and duck confit with green beans almondine, at prices even a college student could afford. Then we walked to the Eisenhower Auditorium, a three-tiered Arts complex, where we watched Gregory Hines or Savion Glover, Compañía Nacional de Danza or the St. Petersburg Ballet. We heard the Kirov Orchestra and The Royal Philharmonic, The Mikado, Madame Butterfly, La Bohéme. We sat in the front row for Ragtime and for Othello, close enough to see little bits of spittle whenever the actors turned their heads into the stage lights and enunciated, and we pressed ourselves against the balcony of the Grand Tier to get a better look at Wynton Marsalis when he blew the house down with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
Irene Wescott had striking attributes, “a wide, fine forehead upon which nothing at all had been written” and “a coat of fitch skins dyed to resemble mink.” On the nights that I remember best, Felice wore a tan suede jacket and a pink cloche hat. She smiled a lot, even when her teeth chattered on our brisk walks home in the cold.
I didn’t take Felice out to celebrate on her birthday that year. It fell on a Thursday and I needed to wake early the following morning for a midterm. Instead, we made plans for the weekend: I’d cook her dinner, and we’d settle in on the sofa with a four-pack of Jack Daniel’s Country Cocktails and watch the Audrey Hepburn movies she’d asked for as a present.
Her friend, Mel, was taking her on a birthday bar hop. They planned to hit the G-man, and Phyrst, and the Rathskeller, and others. “It’s a good old-fashioned girl’s night out,” Felice said, but from where I sat between classes on the steps of Paterno Library, her voice sounded far away. I caught snippets of someone else’s conversation, someone else with plans to hit the bars. The intrusions persisted even when I stepped down into the quad below.
“I don’t know; the usual places probably. Arena, you know. . . .”
“Why would you go to Arena?” I asked.
“We aren’t going to Arena,” Felice said. “Haven’t you been listening?”
Jim and Irene Wescott’s supernatural radio picks up mundane conversations for the most part. However, after a while, the most routine scraps of their neighbors’ lives strike them as inhuman, base, depressing. In the heat of her addiction to eavesdropping, Irene overhears “demonstrations of indigestion, carnal love, abysmal vanity, faith, and despair.” She eventually comes to realize that her own life is every bit as sordid.
I can’t claim to have had such an epiphany; I only overheard the kinds of things people are willing to say to one another over a cell phone—stories about getting drunk at tailgates, cooking questions, baby talk, and the occasional death throes of a young relationship. I didn’t have the luxury of tuning in whenever I wanted—the phantom conversations came and went of their own accord—and most of the time, I wandered my apartment looking for spots where I could avoid eavesdropping. I’d move to and from the window. Sit on the edge of my bed. On the couch. On the kitchen floor. Even in the bathroom, though the echo made it difficult to hear.
I didn’t share Irene Wescott’s fear of being overheard, but I did experiment a few times to see if my phone’s prying was a two-way street.
“Hellooooo,” I would call into the phone. “Is there anyone out there? You—the woman making stuffed cabbage. Yes, you brown the beef first. I can hear you. Can you hear me?”
But I never got a response. No one ever said, “Yes, we can hear you, already. Now shut up.”
When my cell phone rang on the night of Felice’s birthday, it startled me awake. I recognized her ringtone. My digital alarm clock read 12:38. I had to be up in six hours for my midterm.
The springs of my bed were so soft I’d had to jam a sheet of particleboard between the mattress and the frame, and still I sank toward the floor as I leaned across to the nightstand and struggled to grab my phone. Groggy, I wrenched my feet around and pressed them both flat on the ground; then I fumbled with the slide-up display. Felice’s name appeared. I said, “What’s up?” trying hard not to sound irritated.
I heard a half-dozen different noises. A muffled, scratchy sound. Heavy wind or someone breathing directly into the mouthpiece. A loud scraping. The clatter of the phone being jostled or dropped. Garbled human noises that sounded like people yelling. Distorted whooping. And every so often, I caught a word or a phrase. It was like listening to a warped cassette tape or a record played backwards.
“Hello?” I said. “Felice?”
“Please, don’t,” said the voice on the other end. At least that’s what it sounded like to me. I heard crying and the words repeated again, the imploring phrases, “No, don’t. Please, don’t.”
“Felice, are you all right? Where are you?” I said.
But there was only static.
My hands shook, and I tried to keep my voice calm and steady, but it felt like every nerve in my body was struggling to fire at once.
“Felice, if you can hear me, press one of the keys,” I said, using a trick we’d developed—a way for one person to tell if the call had been dropped or not. I hoped to hear a touchtone—some indication that Felice was still there with me on the line—and yet I dreaded what it might mean. I repeated the command a half-dozen times, but got no response. The line was quiet.
When the connection broke, I tried to call her back, but my call went straight to her voicemail. I pulled on a pair of sweatpants and rushed to the door. Then I walked back to the living room and sat down on the couch. I didn’t know for sure that the noises in my receiver were the sounds of Felice being raped. It wasn’t the kind of thing I could call the police for—what would I have said, I believe my girlfriend is being attacked somewhere in the vicinity of downtown State College? There was no way to know where she was—not in a town of eighty-thousand people. I remembered some of the bar names, but there were at least fifty bars in State College, and if she was attacked, it would likely happen somewhere in-between them on one of the side streets, anywhere in the tight grid of downtown or the sprawling nine-mile campus.
I told myself the noises had been a figment of my imagination, my ears misleading me. I tried to rationalize the foggy, half-heard call. She’s with Mel. There are thousands of people out tonight. It’s not even that late yet. It’s probably just another case of interference. My mind generated plenty of explanations that didn’t include rape, but I didn’t believe any of them. I couldn’t go back to bed. I stood up and sat back down. I’ve never been prone to hysterics, but I kept imagining Felice struggling for her phone, and I began to wonder if she had held down her speed dial button in hopes that I would figure out what was going on and find her.
Then I was out the door, running down the stairwell and out into the night. I had no plan. I sprinted past the glass and brick water tunnel building where the university tested torpedoes for the government, and I cut between a Kinko’s and the low concrete laboratory that housed the weather station. A heat-pump whirred to life. Steam rose from the grates in the pavement. I didn’t know what to do. Even running flat out, it would have taken me fifteen minutes to cross town, and then who knew how many hours to comb every side street.
I kept trying to call Felice, but the line went straight to her voicemail every time, her sing-song voice saying, “You’ve reached Felice’s phone; I’m not here right now. Hit me up after the beep. Thanks.” I tried not to panic.
When people talk about near catastrophes, they often say, “It was the not knowing that was the worst part.” They would rather receive confirmation that tragedy had struck the people they loved than wait in limbo. There must be something comforting in letting go of hope and resigning yourself to recovery. But I didn’t feel that way. Not knowing for sure that Felice had been raped was the only thing that kept me from falling apart. Combing the streets made little sense, but in some small and selfish way, running made me feel better, less panic-stricken. It was a rescue attempt, but only for my psyche.
When Felice finally called me back twenty minutes later, I was standing alone in the dark on Calder Way. “Hey, babe, you called?” she said.
Nine years later, and I still don’t know what I heard that night. We figured out that her phone must have jammed against something in her purse and accidentally speed dialed mine—there’s even a term for it: pocket dialing. I was so relieved when I found out that Felice was safe, and I felt so sheepish, that I didn’t bother to consider the fact that I might have intercepted someone else’s call, that I might have heard someone else being raped, until a few days later when Felice said, “So, who did you hear then?”
It’s the kind of question that sticks with you.
According to Penn State’s annual crime reports, there were over two hundred known forcible sex offenses on and off the university’s main campus during the two years that I owned my first cell phone. Still, the older I get, and the farther I am from the immediacy of it all, the more skeptical I am about my former self. Now I wonder if the rash of rapes and assaults at the time didn’t color my perception, if I didn’t project that onto whatever I heard with my ear pressed to my phone. Or maybe the frequent rapes lend credence to what I heard. It depends on what you want to believe.
I don’t want to believe that I heard a rape. I’d like to think it was only the ambient sounds of college kids having a good time at whatever bar Felice and Mel were at, the sounds of chapstick tubes and apartment keys brushing against her phone. I want to believe that I fabricated the better part of that story, and that everyone went home safe that night. And yet, if I did hear an attack, if I heard the worst moment of a woman’s life, her pleas and her struggle, then I don’t want to pretend that nothing happened. I don’t want to stuff fingers in both ears and hum.
Hindsight is not always 20/20, no matter what other people might think or say. I am still convinced that I heard a rape, as unlikely as I know it to be. I don’t have a choice. I know how afraid and helpless I felt when I thought I heard Felice calling for help, and I suspect that on that night, somewhere in State College, someone else answered a phone and heard the same things I did. Even though the memory has faded some, I can’t get that voice out of my mind. I wake up to it some mornings. “No, don’t. Please, don’t.” It’s too clear to be anything else. What I want doesn’t matter.
In November, a year and half before my graduation and the expiration of my two-year cellular service plan, I purchased a new cell phone with money I had been saving toward a vacation with Felice to Plymouth, Massachusetts. We’d broken up that summer, and instead of going to Plymouth, I stayed in State College. During that time, the reports of stranger rapes at Penn State stopped. (Presumably, the person or persons responsible had graduated in the spring.) Today, Felice and I no longer keep in touch, but the enormous Samsung sits hidden away in the drawer of my old desk at my parents’ house, and I don’t overhear other people’s conversations anymore.
Jason Kapcala lives in northern West Virginia along the Monongahela River where he finds inspiration in the frozen industry of Appalachia. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in journals like Blueline, The Summerset Review, Santa Clara Review, Cleaver Magazine, Saw Palm, The Good Men Project, and elsewhere. He is currently shopping a novel Hungry Town, and is working on his next project, a novel tentatively titled Welcome to Accident about a small-time rock band from a ghost town in Pennsylvania. His website is www.jasonkapcala.weebly.com.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I think the biggest surprise was probably just how much I remembered of this experience. I had been nine/yen years, and (of course) it was the kind of incident that sticks with you, but generally I’m not someone who has a very sharp memory, which is why I don’t write a lot of nonfiction. Still, when I sat down to write about this, it came back to me in an especially vivid way, and so I didn’t find myself “filling in the blanks” very much.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best advice I ever got came from a mentor Darrell Spencer who said that when you think you know what your story is about, you should work to make it be about something else. The point being: don’t write with blinders on, don’t write to preconceived endings. He was speaking about fiction then, but there remained an element of this even in working on this essay. Obviously, I knew where the events ended already, but the way I structured the piece (the parts about the Cheever story, for example)—I didn’t have any of that in mind originally. It just sort of came out, and then I worked to develop it as I revised.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: An impossible question! Ethan Canin’s Emperor of the Air, and Kent Haruf’s Plainsong have both been really influential, but beyond that there are just too many writers/books to choose from. Clint McCown. Jennifer Egan. Phillip Meyer. I’m omitting way too many writers here. I keep a big list on my website that I keep updating every time a new book hits me hard.
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’m not real great about writing in public. I can do it, but mostly I get a lot of work done in the morning and at night, at the desk in my apartment where it is quiet. I keep a lot of mementos on the desk—some pictures, beautiful postcards from a writing friend, little trinkets I’ve accumulated over the years, and a toy Jacob’s ladder, which was given to me by one of my first teachers Joan Connor after I published my first short story (titled “Jacob’s Ladder”).
Postcards from London by Stephanie C. Martin
Followed by Q&A
I left my heart in Terminal 3
I left my heart in whiskey cokes and tea with two sugars; on trains rides with good friends and disposable cameras; on the sofa with my best friend talking about the lives we want to live; on the motorway at 5 am with my dad and Bruce Springsteen on repeat; in a house party filled with 70 people dressed up in Halloween costumes; on a trampoline with an intelligent boy discussing literature and SpongeBob; in kind embraces and late night banter with new friends; in sarcastic conversations and quick comebacks; in fish and chips with salt and vinegar; in endless tube stations and horrible coffee; in the cab as he kissed me one final time.
I left my heart all over the place, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
You are the curator of words; stringing together letters with the beat of your steady heart and free flowing hand. I fall slowly into a daze, breathing in your heavy words, exhaling out every ounce of uncertainty that I have carried with me for as long as I can remember. I can see the difference in the stars tonight; I see them shining every bit brighter, reminding my nerves that I am every bit alive.
I let your voice surround me with maps of future roads, while looking back at photographs that have gathered dust in the corners. The same boy who laughed too loud is beside me, and we are both young again. We are both teenagers sitting in the park, wide eye and dying to move – to feel something that will consume us late into the night. Teenagers who didn’t know better than to wish upon 11:11 and airplanes in the sky. The locations may have changed, but we are still the odd pair wishing on empty tomorrows and writing down stories on paper napkins.
Wearing your coat, I let my skin feel the weight of your world through layer after layer. I breathe in your familiar smell, a mixture of cigarettes and coffee, and feel the knots inside me let loose. I can feel the love that keeps rushing back to me, deep within my bones; the kind that fills me up to the brim and reminds me that souls are worth loving, that even the ugly parts are worth loving. All of our roads have taken us here, after years of the-right-person-but-wrong-timing. But yet, I find comfort and peace within each of our reunions, a celebration that time has lost the battle of disconnecting two beating hearts.
As we grabbed the quiet moments of the morning, I feel you in everything that goes and comes around. I feel you in the sun rays that touch my arms, teasing me with the promise of a beautiful day; I feel you in your soft voice, whispering smiles and lullabies gently into my skin. I even feel you in my laugh, loud but sincere. I see the long forgotten version of you in your wide-eyed and hopeful look. I should have spoken beautiful words as the morning sun placed a golden hue on your soft face, but my heavy eyelids were winning the fight with my heavy heart. Five more minutes I told myself; five more to bring with me on the road; five more to hold me until I see you again. Because these delicate moments are the memories I would remember you as when I am 6,000 miles away; when I can’t hear your heart racing as I kiss you, when I forget how your soft touch feels at the curve of my back. These are the moments I will grow old with.
The airhostess is pointing to the safety exits closest to me, and I think of my friends and living in this city; the space and life I could create in the great unknown. The trains and buses I could take that would bring me to them, and most of all, to you. They would bring me autumn nights and Christmas with holly; new years with too much champagne and summers with your family down South. I wish my life away until I run out of letters to thread together thoughts, so I use numbers to calculate how I feel - the distance between us, the days until I see you again and years we spent trying to piece together two brittle lives. Numbers are absolute with little room for error, where as words dress up ideas in pretty dresses. Ironically, I told you to feed me your pretty words; to sing me songs that would fill my ribs up with hope.
With you, my bones had a place to call home; and without you, I will wear your words as a coat to protect me from all that I know.
Stephanie Martin is a collector of words and musical instruments. Some say she is fueled by coffee and tacos. She also has a degree in Film and Music from the University of Liverpool, which now sits proudly above her toilet. Her writing can be found on www.stephchowmartin.blogspot.com. She also hates writing about herself in third person and can’t take writing her bio seriously.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The serenity that one can find writing in the transit area of airports. Who would have thought?
But on a serious note, I was also surprised at how quick the words poured out onto paper. It was as if my pen wasn’t quick enough to catch them falling out of my brain.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: ‘Write because others can’t.’
The Editor-in-Chief at a newspaper I worked at told me this when I was an intern there years ago. (I guess I struck gold at an early age.) This probably falls more into the context of journalism; but regardless, it has pushed me to write passionately for myself, and those bounded by social limitations that restrict them.
Also, ‘just write’. It’s really is just that simple.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath and The Lord of the Flies. The first because it shook the way I viewed narrative structure and ways to express the complicated workings of the mind; the later because it was the first book I read that scared me. John Green because he made me fall in love with YA fiction. Lastly, David Wallace Foster, because he taught me what a real novel should be like.
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 usually start out on paper, but end up finishing the final piece on my laptop (because my spelling is horrendous and spell-check is possibly the best invention known to man). Also cafes seem to distract me, so I usually sit at my desk at home and write until frustration takes over – then I drink too many cups of coffee and start all over again.
Jacob M. Appel's The Biology of Luck, reviewed by Clifford Garstang
Jacob M. Appel
The Biology of Luck
Ashford: Elephant Rock Productions, Inc, 2013
Larry Bloom is not Leopold Bloom. The woman he loves, Starshine, is not Molly. New York is not Dublin. And yet, The Biology of Luck, an intriguing new novel by Jacob Appel, does have parallels with and echoes of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Both novels take place over the course of a single day in June. Both involve quests that take their heroes on journeys around their great cities. In Appel’s version of Homer’s Odyssey, however, the hero, Larry Bloom, is a tour guide whose voyage (on a bus) takes him through iconic New York’s neighborhoods—from Harlem to Morningside Heights to the Lower East Side—as he showcases (and sometimes invents) the city’s history for a group of Dutch visitors, filling the hours before his much-anticipated dinner with the object of his quest, the beautiful Starshine.
Larry Bloom is a self-aware loser. His father chides him for his lack of ambition. In fact, Bloom works as a tour guide because what else can he do? He’s an aspiring novelist, but that’s not very promising either. He longs for Starshine, but he knows she’s out of his league. “I’ll admit that I don’t have much to offer you,” he tells her. “I’m certainly not the best-looking guy in the world or the most successful or even the most charismatic. I’m not going to inherit a beach chair fortune. I’ll never have the courage to overthrow the government. I’m not even very good in bed.” When one of his Dutch tourists falls into the river, Bloom wants to act, to be accorded the honor and respect that his heroic deed would win, but he hesitates a moment too long, ceding the rescue to a passerby. It isn’t clear, in fact, that Bloom would have been able to act, to dive into the churning water to save a life. Later, Bloom does rescue another of his tourists. But there are no honors and no respect, only questions, and Bloom is shunted aside and forgotten.
At the core of the book is Bloom’s longing for Starshine and his plan to meet her for dinner, at which time he will finally make his feelings known. He will reveal to her everything, not only that he loves her but that the novel he has written, called The Biology of Luck, is all about her. As in any good quest narrative, there are obstacles impeding the hero’s progress toward his goal: a critical letter is lost; a corpse is found; his ill-fated tourist group suffers one emergency after another; Bloom must go on a dangerous errand for his boss; Bloom is caught by the siren song of a newspaper reporter. And all the while, he knows there is little chance that Starshine will have him. But just as Bloom hopes that his dream of publishing his novel is about to come true, he holds on to his hope that Starshine will return his love.
This is where Appel’s book gets structurally interesting, because The Biology of Luck is a novel within a novel. (The title refers to a curious notion held by a mysterious Armenian florist who appears in both the inner and outer novels that luck is genetic.) Bloom’s opus, which we read in chapters interspersed with his own adventures, follows Starshine through her day, in much the same way that the outer book follows Bloom. Starshine also voyages through many New York City neighborhoods, facing numerous challenges—sparring over breakfast with her wealthy lover, recovering money at the credit union, her noon-time tryst with another lover, her frustrating visit to her dying aunt—until her path and Bloom’s finally cross at dinner.
What’s fascinating about the book is that the world of the inner, the one Bloom has written, collides with the outer novel’s world, as if both odysseys are occurring simultaneously. Which, of course, is impossible, because Bloom’s novel is complete; Appel’s book begins with Bloom awaiting judgment from literary agents to whom he has sent the manuscript. And yet the corpse Bloom stumbles upon on his tour has implications for Starshine in the inner novel. The amorous couple Bloom hears next door while the newspaper reporter is attempting to seduce him turns out to be, in the novel, Starshine and her lover. The ending of the book, which is the last chapter of the inner novel, effectively brings both novels to a conclusion with another echo of Joyce—but with a delicious, unexpected twist.
While the book’s alternating chapters—first Bloom’s ongoing journey and then Starshine’s as imagined by Bloom—may strike some readers as contrived, the gimmick is mitigated by Appel’s subtle cross-referencing between the two narratives. There is, in the end, only one story—Bloom’s pursuit of Starshine—which we see from his perspective as well as his speculative version of her perspective.
A final note. Readers who are also writers will relate to Bloom’s efforts to publish his novel. Through his mentor—an eccentric novelist—Bloom has made contact with a literary agent. It is the letter from the agent—judgment on his novel and the key to his future—that Bloom clings to during the course of his travels around Manhattan. This unopened letter, which Bloom hopes will bring him closer to Starshine, provides a bit of compelling suspense. What does the letter say? Is it a form rejection? Is it a promise of representation and instant success and the key to Starshine’s admiration? We’re dying for Bloom to open the damn letter and tell us what it says. And so, we read on, sharing with him his anticipation of the life-changing verdict.
Jacob M. Appel's first novel, The Man Who Wouldn't Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Prize (u.K.). He's won the Tobias Wolff Award, the Walker Percy Prize, the Kurt Vonnegut Prize and has published over 200 articles and stories. He is a licensed New York City sightseeing guide and lives in Manhattan.
Clifford Garstang is the Editor of Prime Number Magazine.
Joseph Daniel Haske's North Dixie Highway, reviewed by Daniel M. Mendoza
Joseph Daniel Haske
North Dixie Highway
Huntsville: Texas Review Press, 2013
North Dixie Highway is Haske’s first novel. It follows Buck Metzger from childhood through military campaigns in Bosnia to the months following his arrival back to his hometown, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The narrative centers on Buck’s desires to revenge his grandfather’s death: “The last four years, my whole time in the Army, I’ve been planning and working toward revenge, waiting for the chance to set things right. Once I finish off Lester, I’ll go to college on the G.I. Bill—move on and live a respectable life” (15). Lester is the man suspected of killing Buck’s Grandpa Eddie and this central event sparks a violent family rivalry that culminates near the end of Haske’s novel.
In telling Buck’s story, Haske has managed a debut work full of action and vivid scenes that wallows and thrashes in the filth and grunge of dirty realism. Haske’s grittiness, his willingness to get into Buck’s family’s deepest and most dysfunctional thoughts and actions, is a welcome contrast to the politically correct narrative realisms that one often finds coming from today’s big publishing houses. And when mired the deepest in the most salacious and insanely questionable situations, Haske’s characters are not defined by their mere animalistic desires of revenge, lust, and fear, but illustrated in finer strokes by the mores and the environmental imprints of the U.P.’s sense of place and its effects on the author’s deep-rooted empathy for his characters—his family, his countrymen.
For the most part, authentic senses of place, like those found in Haske’s North Dixie Highway, are lost in larger houses’ catalogs, except for in the rare instances of works like Junot Diaz’s urban landscapes or Haske’s U.P. predecessor’s, Jim Harrison’s, Brown Dog novellas. Haske’s North Dixie Highway exemplifies quality place writing that is often lost at larger houses, as they attempt to appeal to a broader sweep of American readers. Haske’s brand of fiction, its deep affinity and necessitated need for place, defines a true sense of American realism that harkens itself to place-based literatures like Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of Pointed Firs or Hawthorne’s Salem. Haske’s North Dixie Highway acknowledges its geographical and social differences from the rest of the United States, but in its self-identified differences the novel also highlights its commonalities with other regional literatures and the characters built from American literature’s preponderance for frontierism, where the main character must travel through trials, tribulations, and violence to emerge on the other side as something more complete and learned, pure and purged if you will.
Haske’s ear for Michigan’s U.P. dialect allows the reader to form a distinct image of the characters’ interactions with one another. Haske’s use of scenery is unique as well:
"It’s hot inside. Steam rolls out from the kitchen. A table of old men laugh over the clanking pots and pans and the clinks of real glass cups. There’s a yellow wet floor sign just past the door mat and our shoes stick to the stained white tile when we walk up to the hostess. There’s lard and Clorox in the air and I taste the damp of summer heat and wet air from the fan mix together while the brunette in a short black dress walks us to a booth." (24)
The way Haske develops North Dixie Highway’s atmospheres, which contributes to the mood of the characters, is reminiscent of the best in Hawthorne or Kafka. Haske’s work shows an author versed in observation and who paints still life across the U.P.’s sprawling landscapes, but does so by peeling back the layers of paint that present our human facades to reveal the dirtiest and truest weaves of the canvas that make us human. Haske’s first novel, in a sense, catches that which makes us human, whether we want to admit the ugliness of what makes us real is actually the beauty that connects us.
North Dixie Highway’s delivery is quite admirable, too. Perhaps the most obvious thing to note of Haske’s novel is that it relies on three major shifts in time to deliver the Metzger family’s story and its effects on Buck. Haske’s handling of this kind of shifting temporal structure is unique for contemporary realism because, though the reader is aware of this narrative delivery, it does not hinder one’s following of the novel’s major events. Haske’s purpose for utilizing this narrative technique emphasizes the psychological development of North Dixie Highway’s characters’ attitudes toward their own experiences. The shifting temporal settings allow the reader to tap into the complexities of Buck’s thoughts regarding avenging his grandfather and his family’s rivalry with Lester Cronin’s kin. Haske’s use of tense shifts is masterful and, where these shifts can feel contrived in lesser writers’ works and displace the reader, for Haske’s North Dixie Highway, the shifts simply invest the reader deeper into Buck’s development as a person and aids the narrative’s pace.
Haske’s brand of dirty realism defines the American realism that aspires to find and codify what it is to be American and define those senses of place that make us what we are, a vast diaspora of experience and need. North Dixie Highway ranks as a great first novel. With this novel, Haske has managed to create a page-turner with the complexities of a postmodern novel, but one with the empathy and the reach of Realism. Haske is a writer to watch.
Joseph D. Haske is a writer, critic and scholar who teaches literature, creative writing and other courses at South Texas College in McAllen, Texas. 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.
Daniel M. Mendoza lives in South Texas. His other work has appeared in Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing and Colorado Review.
Interview with Joseph Daniel Haske by Daniel Mendoza
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.
Daniel M. Mendoza: From reading your bio note many of your readers may know a little bit about your background and how it relates to the geographical areas of North Dixie Highway. But, beyond that, why take the happenings of these characters and settings as your subject matter?
Joseph Daniel Haske: As a younger writer, I’d always hear the same bit of advice from more experienced authors: that old cliché, “Write what you know.” I was stubborn for a while, and would go out of my way to avoid writing about where I grew up, just to spite people, I suppose, or because I didn’t recognize the full potential of the U.P. as literary subject matter. I thought that other places made for better fiction, all those other exotic or cosmopolitan places that other authors wrote about—anywhere but home. Over time, I realized that most of those great authors I’d read and respected set their respective works in their own stomping grounds, whether it was Faulkner’s Mississippi, Twain’s Missouri, or Dickens’ London. I began to appreciate the many benefits of writing about the places and people I knew well, especially after spending some time away from home. Rural Michigan truly is a place worthy of fictionalization and distinct from just about any other location I’ve been. Hemingway even wrote about it, after all, which inspired me and sort of pissed me off at the same time, because he didn’t get it quite right. I wanted to write about it from an insider’s perspective and represent the area in a more idiosyncratic way, delving beyond the natural beauty of the place, which is only part of what the area has to offer from a literary standpoint. Beyond the seemingly tranquil landscape, there are countless themes worthy of literary treatment, including the economic disadvantages and geographical isolation of the place. And, you might have noticed that none of the various places that Buck travels to would be considered cosmopolitan; even the secondary settings are typically geographically disadvantaged regions. Having lived away from the region for some time now, I can see the ripe literary potential of the eastern U.P., and few authors have written about northern Michigan this way, exposing the darker sides of this beautiful and seemingly benevolent landscape, and focusing almost exclusively on the working class and poor in a way that isn’t condescending or too didactic.
DM: What other contemporary writers or publishing houses are putting out similar work. And, do you think they are doing a good job of making fiction out of this particular subject matter?
JH: I’m aware of other kindred spirits among contemporary writers like Chris Offutt, Daniel Woodrell, Paul Ruffin, Patrick Michael Finn, Ron Cooper, Steve Davenport, Marc Watkins, Donald Ray Pollock, writers who focus on similar themes and characters from their respective regions, and their settings are typically rural. I want to read more from writers like Bobbie Ann Mason, Rusty Barnes, Buffy Hastings, and Bonnie Jo Campbell, writers who I’ve been told share similar interests. Writers like Larry Fondation and Eric Miles Williamson, are similar in spirit and theme, even though they focus on their respective urban areas in California, L.A., and Oakland. Richard Burgin focuses on the interaction between the upper class and the underclass in society, often creating a type of literary noir that’s similar to the rest of these authors. Also, I was recently introduced to the fiction of Chilean author, Gonzalo Baeza, who tackles rural America and the working class through the perspective of the immigrant. These writers are scattered around the country and publish with various presses, from large New York houses to university and indie presses. My colleagues, Juan Ochoa and Brian Carr sometimes deal with related issues in their books. It would be great to see the work of all of these authors get more recognition on national and international levels.
DM: What have been the most important books for you?
JH: I’ve read hundreds of books that have been useful to me in one way or another, books that, beyond entertainment value and their philosophical depth, have taught me to be a better writer. There are so many influences that I couldn’t possibly list them all, and I have a hard time naming some as more important than others. But off the top of my head, I think of the complete works of storytellers like Flannery O’Connor and Anton Chekov. I think of Shakespeare’s best plays, and great texts like Don Quixote, Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, Ulysess, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and so many more great established works, where a writer learns about structure, plot, nuance, pacing, and so on. There are countless more contemporary books that have influenced me in various ways, including, style and dialogue. Many of these contemporary works are well-known, others still forging their reputations: McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, Robinson’s Gilead, Williamson’s Two-Up, all come to mind as examples, along with scores of other great contemporary books and authors.
DM: What about other artistic experiences?
JH: I tried painting for a while but I’m a total hack. I’ve experimented with and have been inspired by all sorts of art, though. Where the visual arts and painting are concerned, I’m a big fan of everything from dark romantic painters like Caspar Von Friedrich to more abstract painters like Helen Frankenthaler. My taste for art is broad, eclectic really. I like all sorts of music too and spent some time writing songs and lyrics when I was younger. I used to sing and mess around with stringed instruments, and still do when I get the chance. I don’t know if it’s coincidental, but the majority of writers I know personally seem to share this sort of interest in music, whether they were formally trained, or learned informally, the way I did.
DM: Literary fiction is not the most glamorous high art form out there today. So what worth is there in writing in this type of form?
JH: There’s seldom financial reward in aspiring to high art, as you imply, and it’s difficult to receive any sort of recognition in one’s own lifetime for aspiring to artistic work as opposed to popular genres. It’s really frustrating when critics and other writers, those who are supposed to get it, don’t. There’s no logical reason to submit oneself to such torture. Even those fortunate enough to get some recognition are subjected to more criticism and the envy of peers, so it doesn’t make sense, does it? That’s why I think anyone who partakes in this game of literary fiction is a bit crazy. I suppose that there’s a sort of hubris involved in these acts of indulgence when we dare to dance with the immortals and compete for a place of subjective greatness. Maybe we hope that in some distant future, people will look back and recognize our genius. At least that’s the consensus from talking to other writers about why we even bother. Some manage to garner popular appeal and still find a place in the “canon,” like Twain and Garcia Marquez, but most literary greats are tormented souls, wondering why their merit isn’t rewarded in some form or another.
DM: Why should readers read more literary fiction?
JH: In contemporary society, the capacity for abstract thinking is declining at an alarming rate. An antidote for that problem is and always has been an engagement with art, and the more exposure to great art, the better. Reading literary fiction expands the mind, which is reason enough for people to do it, but I wonder how effective that argument is these days.
DM: There are a great amount of small presses out there who are publishing strong writers. But how does one go about finding these new writers? How have you come across contemporary writers you enjoy reading?
JH: The deck is stacked against literary writers trying to find their way in a corporate-minded culture that tends to undervalue art and sophistication, and many such writers have found opportunities on small university and indie presses, as you say. I’ve come into contact with some excellent like-minded authors almost accidentally at times. Other times, I’m introduced through friends and other writers I respect.
DM: Were there any parts of NDH that didn't make it into the published draft for some reason or another and you wish they had?
JH: Not really. I’m mostly satisfied with the final product and the final cuts and revisions. There is more to Buck’s story, but everything I left out was intentional. I hope that a significant part of NDH is that which is not told, so in that sense, there are no regrets really. The beauty of working with a smaller press such as the Texas Review Press, is that the folks there respect the artist’s vision and don’t interfere with it. At least that was my experience.
DM: The delivery of NDH is a unique one for realism—the narration moves in and out of the present. What motivated you to choose this kind of narration?
JH: Well, I’d say that NDH is written in a form that imitates realism while conveying an awareness of realism. I used this structure for several reasons, but most importantly, I wanted to connect several significant, formative experiences of the narrator that spanned a significant period of time, without losing pace. The structure also reflects the narrator’s thought process, his sort of schizophrenic state, or at least the anxiety of someone suffering through countless traumatic experiences.
DM: Do you have a writing schedule?
JH: Writing, for me, isn’t much different than alcoholism or some other type of addiction. Maybe that’s why so many writers drink or succumb to other vices. When I’m at my best, I’m sort of a binge writer, losing track of time and ignoring the world around me, but that’s not practical, teaching full-time, supporting a family, so I try to keep a regular schedule, typically with little success.
DM: Do you work from outlines, notes, or just dive full into chapters and drafts?
JH: I’m more productive when I work from notes, unless I’m on a sort of roll, then it doesn’t really matter. If I had unlimited time to just dive in every day, I’d probably work that way. I’ve found that keeping notes and outlines, regardless of how unorganized they might be, makes life as a writer easier for me and it prevents me from backtracking so much or from forgetting things, especially when putting together longer works. I try to achieve a certain idiosyncrasy with my work and jotting things down helps me keep track of as many details as possible.
DM: How much are you thinking about your readers when you are working on a piece of fiction?
JH: When I’m writing, not at all. But that doesn’t mean that my work is solipsistic or that I don’t care about audience, because I ultimately do. It’s just that such things don’t really concern me until I’m in the process of revision. That’s the point when I decide what should be released into the public. Of course, this involves some speculation because nobody can ever truly know what people will respond to or not, but we use our best judgment and go from there. No single writer or work will ever satisfy every reader, but I’ve always admired writers who are able to achieve great literary art while still appealing to the masses on some level.
DM: What are your writing plans for the future?
JH: I’m hoping 2014 will be the year I finally settle into a regular writing schedule. I’m working on two different novels now, one set mostly in south Texas and Mexico, using a minor character from NDH as the protagonist, and the other is a continuation of the Buck story. I’ve also got a poetry manuscript that’s been sitting around for a few years. Most of the work actually predates the novel. I’m also looking forward to translating Gonzalo Baeza’s La ciudad de los hotels vacios. If all else fails, I’ll binge my way through it all.
DM: Do you think it’s important for aspiring literary writers to study literature either in or out of the university?
JH: To create the type of literature that aspires to greatness, one must understand the history and spectrum of great literature—it’s as simple as that. There is subjectivity in how “greatness” is defined, of course, but if people actually read what are traditionally considered great books, first hand, it’s sometimes less subjective than many contemporary scholars would have us believe.
DM: Do you see yourself in a particular literary tradition?
JH: I think it was Melville who said, “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” I make a conscious effort to deliver my fiction in a unique way and provide a distinct narrative voice. Even if one’s writing is unique, though, there is no escaping one’s origins and influences as the echoes of our literary forbearers always manage to come through. I’ll let critics decide where I fall: it’s an exercise in futility for me to place myself within any tradition other than the very broad tradition of literature itself.