Welcome to Issue No. 5 of Prime Number:
A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose
Letter from the Editors
Right on time, here’s Issue No. 5 of Prime Number. We have even more stories, essays, and poems than we did in the first two issues, and we’re excited about that. The quality of submissions we have received has been excellent, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to turn down the wonderful work we are offered. If we have had to decline your work, please try us again! Now that we have three issues for you to look at, you should be getting a better sense of what we like.
In this issue, we have a terrific mix of stories. Be sure to check out the work of Dennis Ginoza, Margaret Pritchard Houston, C. Angelo Caci, John Flynn, Virginia Pye, and Christopher X. Shade. We’ve also got a trio of short essays by Maris Venia and thoughtful reflections by Jim Krosschell and Faye Rapoport DesPres. And we turn something of a spotlight on Curtis Smith: Jessica Handler reviews his latest book, and Rusty Barnes provides an interview.
Then there’s an amazing selection of poetry by Rachel Hadas, James Cihlar, Robert Hill Long, Kim Roberts, Laura Madeline Wiseman, and Theodore Worozbyt.
Our “cover” for this issue is provided by Janice Phelps Williams, a talented book designer and illustrator.
A number of readers have asked how they might comment on the work they read in the magazine. We’ll look into adding that feature in the future. In the meantime if you are moved to comment I would encourage you to send us an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we’ll pass your thoughts along to the contributors.
Finally, we’ve begun reading submissions for Issue 7, scheduled to launch in April. We’d love to include your work, so please submit! To learn more, visit our submissions page.
One more thing: Prime Number Magazine is published by Press 53, a terrific small press helping to keep literature alive.
Table of Contents, Prime Number Magazine
Issue 5, January-March 2011
The Beauty of Change
The Quick and the Dead
Storing the Season
Solve for X
Against the Horizon
What Martians Want
Garum and Lark's Tongues
The Basking Shark
A View of the Mosque
Fit to Survive
Into the Vacuum
White and Black
INTERVIEWS AND REVIEWS
Interview with Curtis Smith, author of Witness and The Species Crown
Jessica Handler Review of Witness, by Curtis Smith
Poetry from Rachel Hadas
followed by Q&A
The Beauty of Change
What was it about this particular September’s
change of light, anxious wings?
The unexpected road unwinds itself in passing
back and away from me.
Children look so pretty in the evening sun.
Now there are only games.
I tried, by thinking, to discover what belonged to me.
I will always proclaim you mine.
You’ll be my magnum opus,
written in a language I don’t yet speak.
All the words that I know rest before me, formless,
stories with no time, no distinct beginning or end.
We gorge ourselves all day on winter light.
No one tells us that we have to watch.
No one tells us what to make of it.
How quickly the memory of wanting recedes.
We were aware of the storm breaking on the horizon:
rain enough to quench a dragon’s thirst.
On most days the garden was an extension of heaven,
two worlds separated by a schism called thought.
The river hasn’t stopped by which you were born,
the river that still reminds us of the beauty of change.
This poem is a cento, assembled by Rachel Hadas from lines from work by her gifted MFA poetry students at Rutgers Newark, Fall 2009: Christopher Caruso, Moriah Cohen, Sara Grossman, Nora Luongo, Paula Neves, Susan Riedel, and Rimas Uzgiris.
The Quick and the Dead
Lean back. Breathe. The air goes in and out.
Soft June grasses heal the recent drought
with a green layer. In. Through fragrant air
the quiet dead accompany the rest-
less living as we do each daily task,
feel sun, sweat, sleep, eat, scurry here and there,
endlessly talk. Out. And we never ask
when we will join our filmy dead, or where.
One segment at a time, a winding path
lures us forward over earth’s broad breast.
Joined, the pieces fit into a maze
coterminous, exactly, with our days.
The house is closed. The family have left.
Maybe they’ll be back for Labor Day.
There’s hardly any wind,
yet the chimes on the porch discreetly tinkle.
Two flags, nearly translucent
as the light pours through them,
quietly strain on their pole. A tiny plane
connects the rising moon and setting sun.
I sit down on a bench next to the flagpole.
As if someone had just now gotten up,
the swing suspended from the one tall pine
on the patch of lawn that slopes down to the brook
ever so slightly sways. There is nobody.
The bench is granite, neither cool nor warm.
Storing the Season
The problem is the prodigality:
blackberries, apples in profusion, each
by its respective nature hard to reach.
Tangle of brambles, berries glossy black:
even to graze them with a fingertip,
you have to stretch.
Then rosy apples clustered on a branch
too high to touch—
the problem is too much.
Go for what you can eat.
Berry a bucketful, cook into jam;
slice apples, boil, and strain into warm sauce.
Inhale the rising steam,
fragrant distillation of this late
summer, which offers other treasures too,
but less digestible. For what to do
with misty mornings burning off to blue?
With spangled webs that delicately lace
two blades of grass? You can’t consume a place.
How to assimilate that lichened rock
on which I like to sit
and dream, and gaze at lines of drying hay
striping the field? Can I take these away,
pack them and then unpack, arrange them, spread
them out like Christmas presents on a bed?
If gifts, for whom? For everyone. And why?
The rending gold of August ending—I
can only fold it into poetry.
Rachel Hadas’s new memoir, Strange Relation, is out in January/February from Paul Dry Books. Her many other books include poetry, essays, and translations. She is Board of Governors Professor of English at the Newark campus of Rutgers University.
Q: Can you discuss the cento form and how you use it in your classes?
A: I have never assigned a cento, but I enjoy reading them. This was the first one I wrote, and I think I will indeed assign them in the future. The form wonderfully emphasizes the valence of the discrete line, and to use the form might encourage students to read more carefully and purposefully. Assigned a cento of student work obviously poses its own challenges!
Q: Landscape is a powerful presence in these poems—if an artist were to paint these places, who would that artist (or artists) be?
A: “Storing the Season” and “Still Life” were both written in (and more or less about) northern Vermont, where I spend summers. (“The Quick and the Dead” is probably set in the “landscape” of a New York City park, so far as I remember.)
Q: What did you collect as a child—rocks, insects, stamps?—and why?
A: I collected stamps, in part because I enjoyed sending and receiving mail—i.e. ordering stamps—even as quite a young child. (My interest in the actual stamps was quite ephemeral.)
Poetry from James Cihlar
followed by Q&A
Her alabaster cheekbones rise out of the shadows
as if out of well water,
Ann Sheridan’s bedroom eyes slipping
off the sides of her head,
her shimmering figure moving through dark liqueur,
pulling us into the inky frame,
making the doctor leave his family
as effortlessly as she makes us love her.
Baked cement towers above the black enamel streets,
the Plymouth’s slide is a constellation of white dots
in concert against a midnight backdrop. The city’s
grind and shriek, roil and glow
surrounds the coolness of clubs, stale hotel rooms,
unlighted hallways and offices,
sparking like a transistor panel. Desperate for weeks.
Be with people. Hear some music.
Open the floral curtains and the dark room dissolves into flames.
His disfigured face breaks into gray diamonds,
refracted like a kaleidoscope, dazzling as a funhouse mirror,
the lover in jail, a monster behind a screen.
How quickly the chocolate syrup
and velvety soft serve
of Dairy Queen’s peanut buster parfait
may turn into molten lava,
fire, and brimstone of the hell mouth,
when in the course of a busy day,
in a break between appointments,
you trip and hit your head.
Red pylons in the parking lot
rise up like Satan’s sentinels
when there is so far to fall.
I also live in the Upper World
and know the traps
that mortal clay can set.
The course of fate may alter
with one rushed step
as the twist cone spirals
into the swirling vortex of death,
pulling you down from on high. Lovely
the view from up there,
horizon encircling sight’s perimeter,
the fair and balanced eye
that sounds the hearts of
villagers, implements, and livestock.
Why did heaven blink?
Rushed by strangers to
the Emergency Room,
you began months of recovery.
So close you came to oblivion,
the lactate buzz of creamery
blurring into white noise,
white light, I almost cannot stop
at the site of your downfall
and order a brownie sundae
or dilly bar. Cursed be the ground
where Vickie fell, may white paper napkins
dance a hangman’s jig across,
may sugary liquid congeal
into consecutive sixes,
may nothing grow there.
The body sometimes fails us
as we motor our zeppelin
through waves of phenomena,
a million synaptic reactions in a step,
with just one malfunction
enough to bring us to a halt.
The body sometimes saves us, too,
with its built-in ejector seat buttons,
the dime-sized impervious zones
that hold off fate. How great
the craftsmanship of our design,
how inscrutable the maker,
terrible in his grace.
Let us tumble to our knees
and bless the day when Vickie fell
and rose again.
James Cihlar is the author of Undoing (Little Pear Press) and Metaphysical Bailout (Pudding House Press), and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Mary, Rhino, Painted Bride Quarterly, Quercus, Bloom, Minnesota Monthly, Northeast, The James White Review, Briar Cliff Review, Verse Daily, and Forklift, Ohio. The recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship for Poetry and a Glenna Luschei Award from Prairie Schooner, Cihlar is a visiting instructor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and Macalester College in St. Paul.
Q: Discuss your process as a poet, what sparks a poem and how you work it through to completion (or abandonment.)
A: I’m inspired by old movies. I have always loved watching Hollywood films from the thirties, forties, and fifties. Film noir, screwball comedies, and melodramas—they were my Mother Goose when I was growing up, my Aesop’s Fables, my Grimms’ Fairy Tales. The stars—Bogart, Bacall, Sheridan, Bankhead—seemed so worldly wise, sophisticated, and mature. To watch them now—wigged, made-up—recognizing the cracks in the facades, and to know the demons and diseases they battled in life, only adds to my appreciation. Ann Sheridan in Nora Prentiss was nearing the end of her run as Warner Bros’ “oomph girl,” and she was showing her age. She rebounded in the sixties with a TV show, only to die in her fifties of cancer. In life she always seemed to be in on the joke—an authoritative dame with the inside track on human weakness. What a contrast to the underage, drug-addicted, paparazzi-beleaguered “stars” of today.
I also like the notion of story—of discrete units of time, middle sandwiched by beginning and end, and I have always loved the format of the ode. “Vickie Falls” is a loving tribute to a dear friend, Vickie Benson, who experienced a fluke accident—tripping over a parking pylon in the lot at Dairy Queen and injuring her head. It could have happened to anyone—I could easily picture it happening to me—but perhaps only Vickie could manage her recovery as well.
Q: What did you collect as a child – rocks, insects, stamps? – and why?
A: I am a born collector, and I first collected coins as a child, but soon branched out to include figurines. My family was Catholic, so that meant statues of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. I loved the coolness of the porcelain, the faintness of the colors, the toothiness of the bisque. Among my many collections as an adult, I have figurines designed by Holly Hobbie, and I’ve published some articles about her work in Antique Trader magazine: http://www.antiquetrader.com/article/popular_holly_hobbie_collectibles_still_available
Q: In honor of “Vickie Falls,” are those jimmies, sprinkles, or ants?
A: My mom used to call me Jimmy Jay, but I’m going with: sprinkles.
Poetry from Robert Hill Long
followed by Q&A
Body vibrating like a tuning fork,
he was what the chainsaw sang: smoke and perfume
of fir chips ricocheted off his jeans, two-stroke
engine gunning him to the foregone resolution—
spine-crack and whump of a massive body
to earth, old as Nimrod, a balsam-fragrant
giant who speared light on a million barbs
of green, and fed vole and raven. How many
useful monsters did he lay low? Never kept count.
Delimbed, chokeset, dozered downhill, trucked
away. Like the years. How many?
He touches the fir post of his rotted fence to say,
I was immortal when I pulled that trigger
and you fell. Believe me, it took forever.
Dry evenings the firepit says, Feed me. He culls
bracken, spruce cones, duff, tops it
with cedar boughs for incense, attentive
as a mother or nurse until the pulse
of flame is so constant his eyes water
ten feet away. Throws on fir that burns
faster than maple or oak, though its altar
requires equal care. It takes off his growing chill,
though fire wants to devour everything at once—
staring at him, it sees fuel, not a father. “Not yet,”
he says. If birds were fire they’d alight
on each tree and torch apocalypse, he thinks.
Ash-wings fly over his house. He’s not so old
he can’t enjoy the indignant hiss of pissed-on coals.
* * * *
How swiftly it burns, fir, red core
crying Let me out now! Next day’s breeze
rouses a familiar pungence from the pit, odor
of coastal nights long since converted to song.
What is the song? How one is reduced: pennant
torn and faded and limp, stature and structure
collapsing like sand cliffs the waves devour
grain by grain. If today warms, he’ll hike the beach
and listen underfoot to sand mouthing Goodbye
to every footprint that contains his name.
He’ll study the tideline like an EKG
that cannot predict where or why
the body will fall, only how hard.
A robin sings in what he once called his back yard.
* * * *
Some nights in the flames a voice makes
herself known. Among the evergreens, a flicker,
permitting him to understand not what she says,
which is fire-murmur, but how she is the tower
and root of the earth, taller than the waste and pall
of smoke. Once he has heard, he hears
the chickadees at his window-feeder echo her,
and the sleety wind off the Pacific, and the fall
of rain and snow on his zinc roof, and he accepts
winter’s angled interiors. In woodstove and oven,
the candle by bath and bed, she whispers precepts
he holds like the pillow between his knees.
When he snuffs the candle, she condenses all at once
on the window—seed pearls, frog eggs, fetal moons.
Robert Hill Long is author of the flash fiction collection The Effigies (Plinth Books) and four books of poems, most recently The Kilim Dreaming (Bear Star Press) and The Wire Garden (Arlo Press). Raised and educated in North Carolina, he was the founding director of North Carolina Writers Network in 1984. He has lived in western Oregon since 1991. His work has appeared in Zyzzyva, Sentence, Poetry, Manoa, Del Sol Review, New England Review, Kenyon Review, The Prose Poem, and Seneca Review. In 2010 he won the Dorothy Brunsman Prize (for a collection by a poet living west of the Rockies).
Q: What was your inspiration for these poems?
A: I’m working on a collection of poems set mostly on the Oregon coast. One section consists of portraits of women; another consists of portraits of men. The women live along the coastline, the men live in the hills—and a number of the aging men I’ve portrayed are loggers and loners who are more comfortable alone in the woods than among other human beings. These two poems are portraits of men with different sorts of regrets about their younger years. Many of their logger-forebears came from the Carolinas to log old growth in the Pacific NW.
Q: Of all the trees you’ve cut and burned, which type was the most rewarding and why?
A: A little half-dead longleaf pine I chopped down for a campfire with friends when I was 12-13, camping out less than a mile from home. (A really little tree.) I do currently have what’s left of a girthy bigleaf maple curing in my woodsheds, but all I did was split the cut-down log cylinders with a hammer and wedge. Satisfying pop and split when you hit it correctly.
Q: What survival skills would you pass along to someone lost in the woods?
A: Being able to read a GPS, plus with a powerful cellphone/radio, a dry map tube full of relevant topo maps, my old compass and my worn copy of “Staying Alive in the Woods.” Seriously, many people in the PNW are getting lost along with their GPS + cellphones, and though most of them manage to reach emergency services, others pay the ultimate price for believing that satellite technology will guarantee safe wandering, though they are not otherwise prepared with warm (dry) gear, water filtration, waterproof fire starters, and a sense of what they can safely eat to keep. I know edible mushrooms and wild greens well enough not to poison myself, so that’s probably the only specific skill I could pass along.
Q: You’ve gone from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast …. What effect has that had on your writing?
A: I still write about people in the South, though only two books (The Effigies and The Wire Garden) are pointedly Southern or set entirely there. Another MSS, The Republic of Robinson, is about a jazz guitarist based on the Carolina coast, though he travels a lot outside NC; some of the work I’ve written since the Iraq war began (about victims, survivors, veterans) portrays people who live in the South. Otherwise the main effect of living in Oregon for 20 years is that it has become home for us and our children (well, including California for our daughter); it’s where I plan to be buried (in a pioneer cemetery two blocks from my house). The rest of my family remains in NC and SC, along with my oldest friends, and I do very happily visit them and love that country and culture. The culture I’m in out here—Cascadia, the university-town and metro-area cultures between Eugene, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver BC—is more socially and politically liberal in its mainstream than in the Carolinas, although we were part of a similar Chapel Hill/Durham culture when we last lived in NC. Still, I prefer Oregon’s politics and policies to North Carolina’s, though I wish they were not 3,000 miles apart.
Poetry from Kim Roberts
followed by Q&A
Sleep is one-sixtieth of death.
I lay down on my back,
clasp my hands to my chest.
Dream is one-sixtieth of prophecy.
I can summon anyone in dreams,
and I can travel on ice,
and jump rivers of fire.
Fire is one-sixtieth of hell.
Even a small taste of grief
is plenty, and will suffice.
Honey is one-sixtieth of manna.
A sip of sweetness
expands upon our tongues,
expands to tempt our days.
Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the World to Come.
On the seventh day, I’ll take my rest.
Come, lie down beside me under lilacs
and palm to palm, let our fingers weave.
I was never good at math
but I understood
the heavy burden
when a number was left over:
you had to carry it,
the weight bending your frame
until your whole body formed
a less-than sign.
Solve for X
Two trains leave Omaha at the same time.
The first train reaches Chicago
following the straight path of desire.
The second train breaks down two hours
outside of Denver, and after an unconscionable delay
in which a subset of passengers, subset C,
curses the breakdown of Amtrak and civilization itself,
they are transferred to a newer train,
and soon the greatest human factor can be found
helping one another with their baggage,
sharing snacks, telling their own variables.
This is the way with any equation: the first train
represents some ideal solution. But the second train—ah—
the second train is the polynomial of the shared world.
Kim Roberts is the author of three books of poems, most recently Animal Magnetism, winner of the Pearl Poetry Prize (Pearl Editions, 2011). In 2000, she founded the online journal Beltway Poetry Quarterly. She edited the anthology Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC (Plan B, 2010), and wrote the nonfiction chapbook Lip Smack: A History of Spoken Word Poetry in DC (Beltway Books, 2010). Roberts is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the DC Commission on the Arts, and the Humanities Council of Washington. She has been awarded writers’ residencies from twelve artist colonies. Her website: http://www.kimroberts.org
Q: Discuss your process as a poet, what sparks a poem and how you work it through to completion (or abandonment.)
A: I tend to be fairly prolific, but most of what I write ends up never becoming a finished poem—so part of my process is throwing things out. Of course, nothing ever gets completely thrown away, and many ideas or images in failed poems come back to work their way into new poems. What usually sparks a new poem for me is reading or looking at art or architecture. I read ravenously and widely—history, art history, novels, poems. And I go to a lot of museums and historic sites.
Q: What did you collect as a child—rocks, insects, stamps? —and why?
A: I collected several things as a child, and continue to collect as an adult. I think anything pleasing is more pleasing in multiples. I also think there’s some weird psychological component to the urge to collect—as if we could better control the uncontrollable world by saving parts and sorting them into categories. I am fascinated with obsessive behavior.
Q: If you were creating a recipe for manna, what ingredients would you use?
A: I’m not sure, but it would have to include artichokes. Other stuff with artichokes.
Poetry from Laura Madeline Wiseman
followed by Q&A
Against the Horizon
The Martians wear spacesuits to the beach,
bubbled helmets, metallic gloves, and tubes
which ring their torso like hardened veins.
The Martians stomp the surf. They wade in
ankle, knee, hip deep as black waves return
broken moonlight and the red eye of Mars.
They beckon me out beyond the breakers
where they tease the undertow, tread water,
and toe the sandbars haunted by stingrays.
I pace the slick shore edged with sea foam,
permit the crash to circle my feet and calves,
but I can’t. My eyes refuse to see their stars.
What Martians Want
We drink tea. The Martians spot a wild turkey on
the neighbor’s roof. The turkey trumpets, walks
down the shingles, crosses the street, and trots
along the walk. The Martians leave
game the door open to tail the red-chinned, black
feathered creature. When the turkey pauses, they
pause and gobble. The next morning
the Martians roast fowl all day.
Before dawn, the Martians commune with
daffodils. In my driveway six Martians kneel
before the yellow throats heavy with dew.
worship As I ride my bike to work, block after block
I see the nodding heads, the green arms, bodies
rooted to the soil below windows,
around mailboxes, by flowerbeds. I glance
at the grey ruffles of sky and worry
of late snow. Their large heads could topple.
The Martians claim the capitol. Some sit
on the steps and watch the sower’s thrust
into the pink sunset. Some study the falcon’s
nest just below the tip. Every few days, some
government scale the massive shaft of Indiana marble, until a
helicopter orders them down. I ask
a nearby Martian, Is it the shape you admire?
Another Martian wags a finger and laughs.
It’s our symbol, and points to a black tattoo
on the small of a Martian’s green back: ♂.
The Martian tugs at the leash of a wild turkey,
Come on little Phobos. The two disappear
to a thatch of daffodils bouncing in the wind.
home A group of Martians in copper armor begin to
dance. They shake spears at the Nebraska state
building and chant, Mars vigila!
I can’t stop the Martians from their climb onto the dwarf mammoth
—15,000 years old, three feet tall, and Sicilian. The skeletal cast bucks.
One Martian scales the imperial mammoth by knee, thigh, up and up
until the Martian lodges a foot into the hole of the pelvis and scrambles
onto the tail. Another grabs the hard flares of shoulder, clutches a rib,
puts a toe on the sternum, and clambers into the big bone cage. Look!
I’ve been eaten by a mammoth. The Martian on the tail ascends higher
along the back to slide down the skull’s slope to the tusk. Watch this!
The Martian swings back and forth to release into the air in a triple flip.
I squat near the third Martian. Did you ever see a mammoth, for real?
The Martian smirks and pokes me. How old do you think we are?
I shrug, As old as sandhill cranes?(1) The Platte River?(2) The mammoths?(3)
The Martian tickles my side. My skin prickles in the cool museum air.
Older(4), the Martian says, When the cranes sing, we know what they sing of.
(1)The sandhill crane is nine million years old. (Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia)
(2)The Platte River in Nebraska is 310 miles long, but young. It’s only 10 thousand years old. Millions of sandhill cranes stop on the Platte River yearly. (Encyclopedia Britannica; The Echo Maker)
(3)Human cave dwellers depicted mammoths in their cave murals in Europe. In North America, human hunters ate them. (Encyclopedia Britannica)
(4)No one knows how old Martians are.
Laura Madeline Wiseman is a doctoral candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she teaches English. She is the author of three chapbooks, My Imaginary (Dancing Girl Press, 2010), Ghost Girl (Pudding House, 2010), and Branding Girls, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her poetry has appeared in Margie, Permafrost, and The Spoon River Poetry Review, and prose in Blackbird, Arts & Letters, and 13th Moon. She has received an Academy of American Poets Award and five Pushcart Prize nominations.
Q: Discuss your process as a poet, what sparks a poem and how you work it through to completion (or abandonment.)
A: Because I believe writing teachers should write in the classroom, I always write alongside my poetry and creative writing students, both inside and outside the classroom. For example, the poem “Historical Study” was first inspired by a field trip I took my students on. We spent one class at Morrill Hall, a science museum on campus. One room in the museum is dedicated to mammoths. I like to touch things. You generally can’t touch things at museums. The inspiration for the poem was imagining what Martians would do if they were there looking at the mammoth skeletons. In my mind, the Martians wouldn’t only touch the skeletons, they would climb on them. They would know them inside and out.
How I take a poem from inspiration to completion changes. In recent months, my process has been to stay on notebook paper through several drafts. I write and rewrite the poem by hand until I think it’s perfect and then type it up. This process can take several weeks. Once typed, I edit some, hide it in a drawer for months and months, take it out again for edits after said time has elapsed, and then do one of three things: 1) place it in the submit pile; 2) put it back in the drawer for further, future edits; 3) abandon it. The poem “Against the Horizon” was a poem I put into the drawer, took out for edits, and returned to the drawer many times.
Q: What did you collect as a child—rocks, insects, stamps?— and why?
A: I didn’t collect anything.
Q: Who’s your favorite Martian?
A: I love all the Martians, aliens, and extraterrestrials. As a kid, I loved ET and Mork from Ork in Mork & Mindy. As a teen, I loved Sigourney Weaver in the Alien trilogy, Total Recall, and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. This last year, my favorite has been Avatar.
Poetry from Theodore Worozbyt
followed by Q&A
Garum and Lark’s Tongues
Unlike Vallejo, I can’t name pain yellow,
and I imagine the color of garum less
vividly than I see the shallow stone vessel
where it turns ripe and viscous.
Through studies of tabulas and scrolls,
I have ordered a pound of white truffles
overnight by jet to the contiguous states.
In the fourteen stations of the classical kitchen
I shave into a pillow of noodles
scalded to the tooth and creamed. I want
this bed I dream in covered with crisp roses
unhitched from their cut vase, the upholstery
of my crucible garnished with a layer of fungal
tissues fine enough for a brain-scan in the dark.
I want someone fat and pampered to roast
a clay-colored lump of foie gras in a web of caul,
some balsamic reduction sheened with butter
to pattern my plate with a darker splash.
Vintage Mumm’s to rinse my palate
of the spitted lark’s wine-dark breast
is what I want, and to be raised like a glass
myself, filled and bright and cold, to rise
like whites of eggs beaten and folded
and made golden by a flame. A toast!
Some rainy Thursday no one will show up
escaping from Paris with a sack filled with yeast
and a punk opera performed by Ukrainians
that climaxes in a hydrant of murderous passion
splashing beet-red and spraying twenty-three rows
with a juice indelibly flavored by the disgust
of children for blood-colored vegetables.
Butter an icicle radish with salt and cold
water from the hose and I will gnaw it in the sun.
Mash me a jar of fireflies and honey and blurb it
with the phosphored strokes of your fingertips.
Send me a recipe book filled with future errors
and haute glossies of yet another neutral country
where, having discovered nothing original
about love or time or pain; having discovered
only an image of the shape that contains them,
I will not be seen traveling, or dining well.
In the tiny hollow I planted the Peace rose and circled white wire around it to keep the ghosts out. Down the hill led to the creek where naked I threw the muddy water toward the sky and crawdaddys bit my feet. There was a tire swing that went everywhere but away. In its black round I ran barefoot down the roots and stones and leapt and threw myself around. Far up the creek lay the deep place by the trestle, and past that the pillows of granite rushing with clear curly rapids that purled around me as I slipped down arms up tasting the sweet mineral spray. I’d climb the hill back past the tangled windfall where the pine roots were exposed and crusted with red mud. And then the place where no one went was there, halfway up the hill, thick with fallen trunks, the moss on them densely quiet and small.
I was late, the box was early, but the driver
returned and I signed. Inside, another box.
Inside that, a tiny bottle of oil
for making navy bean soup holy. The blender
sends a steam whose coiling saffron fragrance
recalls summer’s links and brassy light,
and whose smoke spreads a sweet film over
my lips. At the bottom, the right-angle army
green flashlight, heavy as a light sidearm
when I heft it in my palm, my thumb pressed
on the steel belt clip, and then toward the switch.
The solid double click of the seed-sized
button sends a beam along the books of my wall,
Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples,
the Modern Library row. I slide the switch back
toward the dark and unscrew the thick, plastic,
wire-eyed base, spilling filters on my bedspread,
jeweled diffuser, white dimmer, the cobalt disc,
the twin reds that look so much like light poured
through the skin of my hand that I shine the thing
straight into my eyes for a couple of seconds,
involuntary, and I seem to hear the crisp
grunt of taut twine popping, the noise
of water at the shore that is the sound
of brown paper tearing, being torn. Here,
from then, rise the scents and images of distance,
a model kit for making the battleship trim
with decals and dangerous glue, the mess kit
of aluminum, the tines and spoon and dulled knife
clipped inside by steel, a vague wartime
of chocolate and stale shredded coconut bars
packed tight as a locker along crinkly sacks
of K and C rations, tins of stiff crackers and jam.
Dawn in the backyard woods with Bobby Ryan:
we eat scrambled eggs I’ve browned over a granite-
circled fire. I suck my burned thumb
and sniff the cold blue light of the dew.
The mess kit’s clank bumps against the brass-eyed
canvas of the tent. The poncho liner spreads
silky camouflage between dirt and my rump.
My Pekin duck quacks at the ribbed edge
of her plastic pool. The dove-tailed, hinged and
painted red boxes of my radium chemistry sets
smell like this morning. The garden department at the old
Sears on West Paces Ferry, with its outside
lit blue from within the walls, polishes the green
air with molecules of lime and peat and pearly
vermiculite as Grandpa unfolds the chunky leather
wallet from his hip and jokes with the girl
as she bags a one-armed oscillating sprinkler for my garden.
He relights the stub of his cigar and the Zippo darkens
the mock shell of his holder. I peel away
sleek layers of husk to let him praise a tiny
ear of corn and he is standing outside
my apartment door with my grandmother’s white gloves,
she is holding a basket of Fireball tomatoes
while I peek through the second story window,
twitching from the night of line after line of pink
coke and Buds, and watch his forehead turning
red in the morning sun, and I know he knows
I’m there but I don’t know how.
I stroke the helmet-
sized shell of the turtle painted poison silver
he found on Victory Drive on the way to the Post,
and the summer light is webbing shadow though
the shifting leaves of maples and ashes as I lie
on top of the shingled doghouse where all the turtles
gave up and I am watching maggots boil
though the tough flesh and the claws glitter like ground
diamonds on leaf mulch and the worn dirt. Ivory
skulls strip clean and to hold them in my hand
feels like skipping washed flat stones across
the creek-pool where I splash and swim and he
takes pictures with the accordion Polaroid Land
of my arms streaming up toward the laurels and the rinsed sky.
I say the closet-smell of turtle shit
is a fierce blessing, white as old candy pried
from the living room where no one’s supposed to sit.
No one overhears, and the secret will be just
between me, boxes named for me, and the slipcovers.
Theodore Worozbyt’s work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Image, Mississippi Review, Ploughshares, Po&sie, Poetry, Poetry Daily, Sentence, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, Verse Daily and The Best American Poetry. His first book, The Dauber Wings (Dream Horse Press, 2006), won the first American Poetry Journal Book Prize, and his second, Letters of Transit, was the winner of the 2007 Juniper Prize and was published in 2008. Scar Letters, a chapbook, is online at Beard of Bees Press.
A: I try to pay attention, and not to abandon anything.
This group of poems spans a decade or more. The prose poem is recent, but not the verse.
Q: What did you collect as a child—rocks, insects, stamps?—and why?
A: I collected rocks and minerals; I still do. Everyone should own a copy of Herbert S. Zim’s Golden Guide to Rocks and Minerals.
Q: Spread for us a repast of your choosing, a meal fit for a poet.
A: I was for many years a professional cook, trained in the French system of apprenticeship, from potwasher to chef de cuisine, and I still love French food. Jacques Pèpin is a hero to me, and I think of him as the greatest living chef, the John Ashbery of gastronomy, a master so complete that any appearance of effort, like flame from brandy deglazing a pan, has disappeared. Mario Batali was asked to describe his ideal meal and he answered, “Anything that someone else cooks for me.” I love that. I remember my great grandmother and my grandmother standing in the kitchen, peeling and slicing the vegetables my grandfather had picked against their palms above the counter into the bowls, never on the cutting boards he had made, unless it was to slice the rectangular loaves of dense, heavy bread into thick slices to be spread with whipped butter instead of olive oil. There is an Italian dish that even Google can’t find, pasta padon, a thin tomato broth with lots of garlic and herbs and red pepper and vinegar, that is a kind of soup or stew of macaroni and potatoes, over which you grate a pile of Romano or Parmesan and devour with a big spoon. In the day it was made with the scraps of dried broken pasta of all kind you could get at the Italian grocer’s. In my past it was made with elbow macaroni. So delicious. So good. A re-past. Yes, I would love that.
The Basking Shark by John Flynn
Followed by Q&A
The three silver dories bobbed in place, each tied to its edge of the net. The men stood elbow to elbow in them, from six to ten in a group. Holding the net with all their might, every swell splashed their faces, shining against yellow oilskin bib overalls. When the Atlantic dipped, so did each dory. As more of the net went under, the men released it, fearing the loss of fingers. The horizon didn’t care. Like everything else, it sizzled white-hot under July sun.
Made of heavy aluminum, pointed at both tips, the dories were longboats born of a tradition started centuries ago. They called them dories rather than longboats because they acted as cubs to their mother vessel, the 72-foot steel hag, Iron Jane. Low in the water and stinking of diesel, Iron Jane cast a shadow large enough to cloak one of her dories in darkness. She lolled and creaked alongside her margin of the square net. Bald tires hung against her glossy green hull like a bracelet of black washers.
Men started to see the catch. Exclamations—”Squid, yeah, mostly squid”—fired off between them. Finally, thought Victor Silva, the effort pays off.
Victor watched seagulls perch in a line on Iron Jane’s rail. Some circled in a noisy growing collective overhead. The net began to curve over the edge of each dory, taking the shape of a bowl. High up the bow of Iron Jane, it gleamed like a spider web catching shifts in the light.
Just a few feet from Victor’s hands, a shapeless cloud of squid and fish fogged thirty square yards of hissing green water. The pinkish cloud expanded with every inch of the net’s ascent. Breaking the water’s surface, it shined with a glassy radiance. A shark fin cleaved through its surface. Victor, and Pat Hennessy next to him, watched it.
Foreman Mitch McSherry stood behind them, scarlet-cheeked, fists on hips, green eyes flinty, as lean as a scar from a honed blade. Hair barbered to a coppery shine, his neck creased and sun-scorched, a scowl of disapproval writ large on his face, Mitch wore jeans and a blue T-shirt so tightly they looked painted to his frame. He was the only one out there not wearing oilskins. He kept a pack of cigarettes rolled into one sleeve. A fillet knife in a sheath fixed to his wide belt. Jeans tucked into high rubber boots. Standard gear, the boots ran up to his knees. All the men wore them.
“Harden 'em up. Let’s go. Harden ‘em up,” cried Mitch. Each shout came barked in a clipped cadence, a harsh local accent that flattened all Rs. “Harden ‘em up. Let’s go.”
Vic sneaked a glance over his shoulder, took a long look at Mitch’s wet face, crimson, shining, ropey veins swelling in his neck. A blue vein gleamed like a lightning strike down the middle of Mitch’s forehead.
“What you gawking it, Silva?” barked Mitch. “Turn around. Don’t lean. Don’t bend over. Bend with your knees and pull with your legs. C’mon, get it in gear.”
Vic turned back toward the net. So much of his job had to do with balance, economy of motion, and putting up with Mitch.
“You peckerheads! Together for Christ’s sake. Harden ‘em up. Let’s go. Making progress. Harden ‘em up. Let’s go….”
As the net emerged black and dripping, so did gleaming fish. Mitch moved to the dory’s tip that sat lowest in the water. He leaned over to study surges, bubbles and swirls of foam on a surface bottle-green one moment, black the next. The sea fizzed like sparkling wine marked by tiny frothing fissures and erratic whirlpools. When it darkened, it looked like a polished onyx.
If the sea meant anything, thought Vic, it meant life was a show of violent change.
“What you getting?” asked Pat Hennessy. “See much?”
Mitch, still scowling, ignored Pat. He waved one arm to get Skipper Sonny Lombardi’s attention.
Sonny Lombardi stood at Iron Jane’s bow, high above his dories and net, overseeing the operation. Bowlegged, gimpy, Napoleonic, the puffy swells under his brown eyes proved he hadn’t been sleeping much. His face a sun-washed map of cuts and boils, his hair a wild tangle of silver shot through with black, his flannel tattered, tails out, roomy enough to sleep in. Did he like what he saw? Never. Not Sonny. The years had made his body lumpish, and he needed Thorazine to withstand a nagging back injury, but he gave off an aura of pained endurance, and a tired solidity of purpose that went unquestioned.
Baggy trousers tucked into black rubber boots, Sonny lurched along Iron Jane’s rail, his gait reluctant, low-slung, as if unpredictable winds pushed him along. A cigarette behind his ear, he stopped a moment and rested elbows on the rail. Grave and skeptical, he surveyed the dories. They formed a wobbling frame upon the water that struck him as absurdly puny.
He scratched and fingered the stubble of a two-day beard, mumbling vague expressions of doubt. As usual, he lacked experienced manpower. Many of his boys were unfamiliar greenhorns hired as day laborers to keep the operation going. Others, more seasoned, hadn’t shown up as promised, forcing him to take what he was given—ex-cons, drifters, dope-smoking diehards with hangovers, and baby-faced boys free for the summer and wet behind the ears. Some wouldn’t come back the following day. Some would get so drunk that night they’d end up in jail.
A few would come back. Very few. The desperate ones.
“What you seeing?” he shouted. “Squid?”
“Up the wazoo,” cried Mitch. “Like I told you. Means you owe me a hundred bucks. We’re gonna have to bail.”
Victor looked at Pat. “How can he tell?”
“Now you want to talk,” said Pat. “When we shouldn’t.”
Victor shrugged. “So?”
“He’s Mitch,” shouted Pat. “He knows everything.”
“Damn right I do,” remarked Mitch. “And don’t you morons forget it.”
Leaning over the dory’s edge, Pat took a closer look at the shark. He flinched as he heard “Shark!” from another dory.
“No kidding,” muttered Victor. He said to Pat, “Big sucker.”
“Great white?” asked Pat.
Mitch cackled. “Forget the shark you guys. We got work to do.”
Pat held on and pulled the net but kept a wary eye on the shark fin. The bundled net at his feet, once a coil, had become a tangled blob. He eyed that, too, making sure his rubber boots stayed on top without any net choking his ankles.
Winches sputtered in each dory, pulling a yellow line attached to the net and making conversation impossible. Within the net, a slow boil began to grow louder. Trapped fish slashed seawater, more and more of them exposed to the air.
The shark moved closer at a steady clip. Like a swollen missile, thought Victor.
“Huge,” Pat exclaimed. “Look at that thing.”
Victor would not show the fear that vaulted in his stomach. He glanced at Pat, who was leaning over the water, trying to grab the fin. He saw Cliff Larch moving from the far end of the dory. Cliff stood close enough to push Pat overboard if he wanted to.
Victor lunged toward Pat. “Hey, don’t lean out like that. You nuts?”
The dory rocked. The shark had nosed under and nudged it, throwing them all off balance. Victor saw Cliff nudge Pat. Perhaps on purpose and perhaps not. Never be able to say. Didn’t have time. He widened his legs and managed to keep his balance.
Pat didn’t. He paddled the air as he fell.
Victor reached and latched on to a suspender strap of Pat’s oilskins. This slowed Pat’s descent. Didn’t stop him. Gasping, flailing his arms, Pat keeled toward water. Victor tried to yank him back, holding on with both hands. Summoning all his strength, he bent his knees, his rear low, weight underneath him. Waves slapped into Victor’s neck, salt stinging his lips as he grunted, clenching his jaw, his elbows burning as he held on, falling with Pat’s dropping weight.
A wave lifted the dory and threw Pat and Victor backward. Vic felt no resistance. He soared upward through the air, and his stomach flip-flopped into his throat. All grew silent for a moment. He felt as if he were soaring in a dream.
The dream ended when Victor gagged, the crotch of his oilskins riding up his scrotum as if someone had kicked him there. He thought he would vomit as the pain in his testicles sent a chill rippling through his stomach. Saltwater continued to burn his eyes.
It was Mitch. He’d grabbed Victor and yanked him along with Pat, timing it with a wave that had twisted the dory away from the shark, saving both of them.
Cliff Larch, tight-lipped, had done nothing to help.
The sea’s splashing, the flatulent sputter of winches and the cawing of gulls returned to Victor’s senses. This was no dream. Pain sharpened and fired another bolt. He felt dizzy. Gagged again and fought off wrenching urges to vomit. This was three stooges, all right—he, Pat and Mitch out of control, soaked, panting and dazed.
Hard laughter swelled around him, pierced by shouts and curses. Mitch, poker-faced, shoved Vic aside and popped to his feet. Slapping wet hands against wet jeans, he leered at those who’d been watching. He spit saltwater off his lips. Then he flipped them his middle finger.
All the men jeered at him and laughed.
“Very funny.” Mitch cursed them, one salty label after another, fueling their laughter, which grew louder when Mitch, after yanking Pat to his feet, cuffed him against the ear. “What I say about leaning over? This ain’t pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey out here.”
The barrage of Mitch’s curses continued as Pat sulked, struggling to regain his breath.
Victor tried to make sense of what had happened. He blurted out to Pat, “You crazy, man? You hurt? What you do that for?”
“That pansy ain’t hurt,” shouted Mitch. He turned to Pat. “Are you?”
Pat looked cowed, moon-eyed, unable to meet Mitch’s glare. His ribcage heaving, he shook his head no.
“Just shocked,” said Mitch. “Christ, Hennessy, get with the program. You owe Silva here a cold one for saving your ass. And Silva you owe me one for saving yours. Back to work now, both of you. You’re making me out like a clown.”
Skipper Sonny Lombardi shouted from the rail of Iron Jane, “Hey Mitch, tell them boys they want a shark, the nearest aquarium’s in Mystic.”
Crewmen erupted with laughter. Big Gunther, foreman in another dory, used both hands to slap his massive stomach, a deep-from-the-gut bellowing that Victor hated at that moment, hating them all for their laughter, but he had to admit he’d have acted the same way if not involved. They were bastards, wouldn’t cut him any slack for trying to save Pat. Then again, Mitch had saved him, and Mitch was royalty and they were laughing at him, too.
Nobody got kid-glove treatment. Nobody cared how loudly you could curse.
Vic decided not to wallow in self-pity, or to think whether Cliff Larch had nudged Pat. He felt sorry for Pat, but sorrier for Mitch, all the egg covering his face since he was Sonny’s top foreman and owned shares in the company.
Clenching his teeth, Vic squinted and fought off the heated pulsing in his groin. He wished he could unwind a moment with a cigarette, let the pulsing subside. He returned to his standing position, hands in the net. Vomiting would feel good, rid him of nausea, but there was no way he’d humiliate himself further. The main thing was to get his wind back.
He should pay attention to someone else, so Vic sneaked a glance at Pat and managed the suggestion of a rueful grin.
Pat didn’t even look back at him.
“You good?” Vic mumbled. “You gonna make it?”
Lips pouting, his face shiny with sweat and seawater, Pat began to speak. He stopped. He stared at Vic as if begging an answer to this misery. The dory rocked back and forth. Vic didn’t have Pat’s answer. The kid had no idea Cliff might have bumped him on purpose.
The shark fin cleaved and skittered. Trapped fish continued to splash. Overhead, a handful of gulls flapped their wings in a flurry of commotion. One dropped a turd that greased Victor’s shoulder.
Insult to injury, Vic thought. He wiped it off.
Mitch, standing at the winch, had seen it happen. Stone-faced, he shook his head in disgust but spoke not a word.
Pat muttered, “That’s good luck.”
Pleased his friend had summoned the will to speak, Vic replied, “Yeah, but it’s for both of us, not just me, so no more shark surfing.”
Pat didn’t reply. He looked to where the fin followed the edge of Iron Jane’s shadow.
Vic had neither time nor energy for all the darkness clouding his head. Was he a failure? They all were. The sea assured them of it. With a shrug in Pat’s direction, feeling disappointed with himself, he kept both hands on the net and continued to pull. He felt momentum at last, helped by the labor of each winch.
As the dory tilted, the yellow winch line grazing his back, Victor felt uncomfortable with the net at his feet. All part of a dangerous job, he thought, but he wouldn’t be doing it for long. With experience and Pee Wee Coyle as a connection, he’d land his first trip any day now. He’d crew on a commercial lobster boat, work at sea six days a week, so far out he’d never see land. With one day off, he’d have no time to spend the $1,000 a week he’d earn as a greenhorn. In the winter, he’d boogie to Florida with Pee Wee, buckets of cash behind him in a Newport bank.
Nice dream, but he shouldn’t forget able-bodied hands outnumbered commercial boats lobstering out of Newport by at least ten to one. Maybe he’d crew on a swordfish boat or a scalloper. The odds were tough, even for hands with experience.
Vic paused a moment, overcome by a fugue of despair. So many diehards with experience wanted trips: sons, cousins, nephews of skippers. Still, he couldn’t let that stop him and he shouldn’t look down on Pat for being so eager and naive. In many ways, Pat was like him, only greener. Had to be patient and keep working. Stick to their dreams. Will them to happen.
Vic thought about Loren. He was doing this for her. Smart, sexy, with a good job, and her family had some money. They’d been supportive, even though they knew Loren could do better. He needed to give Loren every reason to believe he was Mister Right, especially if she was pregnant. Having a kid would only mean pulling harder, getting these damn fish into port, money into his pockets.
The net cut deeper into his hands. The Atlantic rose like a tilting glass table, and the net rose with it. Puking it up, thought Vic. As his dory rose, he felt a moment of weightlessness and he hurried to get ahead, to keep more of the net out of water and into the bundle of slack in a long wet coil under his boots. There was no time to hesitate. He stomped on that coil, smoothing it down, determined to hold it there. Finally getting ahead, he thought. I’m no punk and nobody calls me Vic without my permission.
He looked up. The shark fin had disappeared within Iron Jane’s shadow. Colors had begun to emerge pink, orange, silver, gold, chrome yellow, scarlet, emerald, and the spangled scales of fish that swarmed as they battled. A rainbow of blades of all sizes gone berserk upon touching the air, fish flung their bodies, squiggling and lancing, some of them glittering as they snapped and spanked the water, zigzagging in deranged surges.
The bailer appeared. Like a giant butterfly net, it hung from its stays over Iron Jane’s side. Glenn Lesley and Shrimpy Keefe manned the bailer’s long boom from Iron Jane’s deck. They dipped its net in a scooping motion through fish. Shrimpy Keefe controlled a sliding mechanism on the handle that opened and closed the net. Glenn made sure the boom hung high enough so the net would pass unobstructed over the deck.
The bailer’s rising net released a gleaming excess of water that sounded like glass nails showering back into the sea. A few lucky fish fell away, curling and twisting as they smacked against waves. All eyes watched as the bailer soared through the air above Iron Jane, bulging with fish that shined as they flapped and spit.
Swoosh. It opened. Fish spilled from its bottom, flesh spanking flesh, some bouncing with a thud against the deck.
“Harden ‘em up.” Mitch sounded fatigued but persistent. He didn’t look at his crewmen. An inward cast reddened the granite in his face. “Let’s go. Harden ‘em up.”
Vic sneaked a glance at Cliff, who remained stoic, out of the picture, calling no attention to himself. Not my problem but that bastard’s guilty, thought Vic.
Pat made noises like a wounded animal, mumbling under his breath, snorting through his nose. Vic glanced at him. Mitch had been right. Pat owed him, but now wasn’t the time.
With each dip of the bailer, the net felt lighter and rose with less effort. Each foreman managed his winch, making sure the yellow line fed evenly as it wrapped around its spool.
A cry went up. “There goes the shark.”
Vic stopped pulling and watched it soar. Sign of humiliation, danger, a prehistoric predator, thought Vic. Got to respect it. Yet out of the water it looked small, its hide the color of wet clay, its white underside pearly inside the bailer net. Small or not, it was still the largest he’d ever seen up-close.
“I was right.” Mitch spat. “Basking shark, I think. Harmless.”
The bailer lifted the shark over the deck, but this time Glenn didn’t release it. Instead, he and Shrimpy swung the net to the far side of Iron Jane, where they opened it and dropped the shark out of sight.
All heard its splash.
“So much for Jaws,” crowed Big Gunther, arousing a chuckle from a few men.
Mitch snickered as he studied Pat. “Nothing to it. Now keep focused. You too, Silva.”
Pat in silence stared straight ahead and kept pulling. Vic did the same.
Mitch turned to Cliff. “You with us here?”
Cliff, icy and stiff, nodded twice.
“Better be,” clipped Mitch.
Vic felt less queasy, needed to stretch fingers and work out cramps. The pulling had slowed and would soon cease. As Mitch predicted, the net was loaded with squid. Iron Jane’s deck held a mountain of fish, and she creaked overburdened, deep in the water. Maybe half of the net was empty. The other half would need to wait until tomorrow.
A new slice in Vic’s palm began to sting. He flicked his hand back and forth. A small wound was the worst kind. It would annoy him for at least a week. He thought of the sorting to come, every fish culled and boxed on ice. For that work, each man could wear gloves but would still need mobility in both hands. The cut would sting full of sweat and fish blood. If not careful, he’d get iodine poisoning.
How did the others do it? They didn’t dwell on the pain; they ignored it and it went away. Victor knew he could do this. He’d put this wound out of mind until another took its place. Sure, his body ached, but he couldn’t complain. They were all hurting. The hurt in Pat had to be monstrous, because it was dingy with shame.
Yet he’d saved Pat. Mitch had saved him. That meant they worked as a team. Had to count for something in Sonny’s eyes. From another point of view, they’d provided comic relief. Yeah, eventually, had to count for something.
Vic said, “Hey Pat, so what if they laughed. Screw ‘em.”
Vic waited Pat’s reply. Nothing came. Pat didn’t even look at him.
A clot of resentment burned in Vic’s throat. He glanced at Cliff and thought: I’m on to you. In the future, if possible, he’d avoid working with him in the same dory.
For all his aches, Vic saw he was in good shape, more upright than many others. The greenhorns who had acted so tough on the wharf before work had begun, stood bent over in foreman Big Gunther’s dory, breathing hard, their arms dangling.
Hardly any of them were talking, and it was late now, almost seven a.m.
John Flynn’s stories have appeared recently in Paterson Review, The MacGuffin, Green Hills Literary Lantern, and Istanbul Literary Review, among others. He’s earned one Pushcart Prize nomination, and writing awards from the Peace Corps and New England Poetry Club. He’s published four poetry chapbooks, a collection, Moments Between Cities, a book of short stories, Something Grand, and a book of poems translated from the Romanian of Nicolae Dabija, Blackbird Once Wild Now Tame. His novel, Heaven Is A City Where Your Language Isn’t Spoken will be published in 2011 by Cervena Barva Press, www.cervenabarvapress.com. His website is www.basilrosa.com.
Q:What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: In this era of green concerns, I wanted to write about man versus environment and one of the ways we get our food. Trap fishing, which is still practiced, is one of the oldest most basic forms of commercial fishing in the world.
Q: Why are you a writer?
A: My first pull toward the arts was as an actor, achieving some success in my early teens in semi-professional children’s theatre. My grandparents were vaudevillians who worked with George M. Cohan and Ray Bolger. My father was a disc jockey. My brother and sister are both trained musicians. My mother, who’s self-educated, loves to read. I had music around me all the time growing up, but I’m from a big family, the oldest of six. In need of a private space, of sorts, I started at age eleven to keep a secret journal where I wrote poems. I haven’t stopped. I studied theatre in college, quit, knocked around, got into trouble, never really made it as an actor, so I went back to school, earned a scholarship through the graces of George Garrett, and turned to working as a journalist, and an ESL instructor, and all the while kept writing poems and stories. From 2000-2005, I blended my theatre background with writing and earned a living with an indie movie outfit in Manhattan. We made some nice movies, I think. Only time will tell. The why of it all remains a mystery. Perhaps I simply crave attention.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: Piano. I’ve been told I have a good ear. I played piano as a kid and quit when puberty sent me off the deep end. When I hear the instrument played by Glenn Gould, for example, I think that’s my soul on better days. Melancholy, spritely, uncertain of its next trickle.
Q: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
A: Writing, for me, is mostly torture, an obsession. Not therapy. I never write as therapy. Or do I? It’s often more the problem than the cure. Sometimes, during revisions, a turn of phrase or a modifier discovers me, and I hear the language, and view the scene and characters in a different way. This opens and changes and delights me. I also enjoy being opened by the work of other writers. I’ve been reading A.J. Liebling and Sean O’Faolain, of late, and it’s their precision, descriptive powers, as well as their buoyant pacing, among other things, that blows me away.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: This year I have been very productive regarding the completion of works that have been for a long time in process. This is because for the first time in my life I do not punch a clock full-time, and I’ve lived at the same address for more than two years in a row, which has allowed me to gather all manuscripts and material and to start revising them. I’ve cartons of work to get to. I owe all my productivity to my wife, who is the breadwinner and leaves me alone to pace and brood. She is very supportive. I do not exaggerate when I say this year I published my first novel, and finished two more novels, a short story collection, and two poetry collections. The key word is finished. They were all started many years and afflictions ago. I’m in the throes of completing another novel that I started over two decades ago. I’ve loads of work in the hopper that I look forward to refining, or else burning.
Easter Morning by Virginia Pye
Followed by Q&A
We came carrying platters of foods to suit the season: asparagus, frittata, homemade bread, and for dessert, carrot cake cupcakes with frosting carrots and green stems. For the children, we had stayed up past midnight filling gaudy plastic eggs with treasure: shiny silver bells, pieces of colored glass, whistles and shells. Now they hunted through the ivy and up the garden paths as we parents watched with pride, knowing that nothing was lost on us, for we could see the children and the hidden eggs and the narrowing distance between them.
We had set out tables under the longed-for April sun. We counted our blessings this Easter morning not in prayer, but with each bite taken and story told. The men talked about nothing really—vacations and the cutting of shrubs with electric tools, telling jokes on themselves as both hero and side kick. They laughed in pale sunlight while the women huddled around the tables, arranging dishes they had brought. They whispered about a car accident that had almost taken one of these families earlier that winter.
The car had spun out of control on black ice in another state. It flipped and landed somehow beneath a highway bridge. The husband had a broken collarbone and several broken ribs, the toddler a broken arm, the mother a punctured lung. Pinned to the ceiling, she silently begged each passing car to notice them below. Long, dangerous minutes passed as they waited in the upside down car in the freezing rain for someone to come. Then the child noticed the missing dog and let out a shrill cry the mother had never heard before.
The dog had jumped out on impact and run away. No sign of it until several days before Easter when a phone call came from a couple back in the other state. This family, our friends, drove all that way to retrieve the pet that now stood beside the mother, its tail wagging at the smells of food, waiting for fallen scraps.
“He lived an altogether different life,” the mother said, looking down on the jovial creature at her side. “Can you imagine? The children think it’s normal to disappear like that and come back from the dead, but what are the chances?”
She did not wipe the tears stalled at the edges of her eyes. We stood listening, reached for her elbow, handed her a paper cup of punch. Each of us wondered if the rumors about her husband wanting to leave could be true. Perhaps the whole family would up and move and start a new life. It was hard to guess and impossible to ask, but we knew that the tears weren’t only for the returned dog.
Then the children came running, Easter baskets banging against their knees. We filled their plates with food, secure in our knowledge of their likes and dislikes. They cracked open the plastic eggs and spilled colorful treasure onto the grass, small miracles released from sweaty hands. Soon these trinkets would wind up lost in plastic toy buckets, hidden in the bottom of drawers, or sit unclaimed atop clothes dryers, all having lost their shine. But for now, there was nothing more cherished than a small whelk, pink at the fluted mouth, or a shard of blue glass, or a small silver bell.
Distracted by this plenty, no one looked up when the young man arrived. The hostess was the first to welcome him. She had known he might come. We others paid no attention to the man with the ponytail and uncared-for goatee whose pale skin shone through the fine weave of his white shirt. Someone said he was a Ukrainian graduate student. No one quite caught what he was doing here. We handed him an empty plate and pointed him towards the buffet. Soon he filled his plate and took up a seat on the patio beside the potted palm.
As the hostess set down food before her son at the children’s table, she heard the first mention of the bird. One of the older boys said, “Come on, you didn’t really save it, did you?” The mother turned away, then thought better and went back to ask.
Quickly the men became involved. The boy’s father stood before his son and said, “You’d better show me.” So the seven-year-old left his half finished plate on the table and tromped upstairs to his room, followed by his father and two other men. The mother called across the patio to the Ukrainian student, stumbling publicly over his name, and asked if he might help. He nodded politely, set down his food and made his way through the kitchen and up to the boy’s bedroom.
The boy stood blocking his bedside table. “It’s OK, Dad. Really, it is.”
The father knelt. “Darling, when something dies, it’s dead.”
The other men looked around the room. They had come to see the bird.
“Excuse,” the student asked when he appeared at the door, “what is problem?”
One of the men said not to worry, just a typical boyhood thing. A grackle, the father explained, had crashed into the kitchen window and died. He and his son had buried it in the backyard, but apparently the boy, being curious, or sympathetic, had dug it up. No big deal, the men nodded.
“Where is bird now?” the student asked.
The boy stepped aside and pointed to the bottom drawer.
“Jesus,” the father said, “it’s in there with your toys and things?”
“I’ve been taking good care of it.”
“How many days?” one of the men asked.
“Please don’t take it away.”
“Perhaps,” the Ukrainian student suggested, “we move small furniture outside?”
The other dads lunged at the little table in their eagerness to help and carried it down the stairs.
“I don’t know what to say, son,” the father took the boy’s hand and followed the men out. “When something dies its soul goes up to heaven, but its body stays here and falls apart. It’s not something you really want to see.”
The student returned to his plate of food, while the men stood around the bedside table on the driveway, one of them picking at a Superman sticker on top. They waited for the father to finish with his son. The boy had wedged himself between two trash cans and was crying.
“I was taking care of it,” he repeated.
The men wanted to open the drawer to see inside, but they deferred to the father. Would he make the boy look with him? Their fathers would have. That’s when the smell of the bird hit and they called for the father to hurry. He squeezed his son’s shoulder and the boy ran off.
It was the father who opened the drawer first and saw the slick black bird lying on its side, neck flung back as if in song, its body writhing with maggots. The three men bent over the carcass and studied the swarming white movement. Some of the worms moved in and out around the open eye that faced them. Others crawled through the mouth and around the yellowish beak. The hot sun, they noticed, made the worms writhe more actively. They curled around the plastic action figures and marbles left in the corners of the drawer. The men said nothing. Then, when they had satisfied their curiosity, they stood and surveyed the back yard, as if they were members of a mountain expedition arrived at the summit.
Seeing such somber faces, the hostess rushed over. She tried not to gag when she looked down. “Oh, Christ,” she said and reached for her husband’s arm. Then she looked back to the patio where we seemed to be having such a good time. For a moment, the distance from the dead bird to the party was hard to fathom. She called out to the Ukrainian student for the second time that day. He set down his plate again and walked carefully around the children who were sprawled on the patio eating chocolate eggs.
The young man glanced without expression at the bird. “Yes, madam?” he asked.
“You’re one of the University Fellows, aren’t you? But what precisely is it that you study?”
“Your husband’s firm is kind enough to support me. I am divinity student.”
The husband nodded. “Yes, of course, that’s the connection.”
“Perfect,” the wife said, the champagne punch kicking in. “And what divinity is it you divine?”
“The Orthodox Church, madam.”
“Fine, fine, then you won’t mind helping at this difficult time.” She patted his bony arm and looked at the bird.
When the proper moment came, the children gathered around the young man whose white shirt was now soiled from digging in the garden. He raised his hand over the grave by the back fence and made the sign of the cross. He spoke in an ancient language none of them knew. It made the younger children snicker and the older ones squeeze up their faces as if they might understand. Several parents watched from the lawn, suddenly somber, Bloody Marys stalled at their lips.
Then the little girls began to cry and even wail about the departed creature. The boys pelted them with tin foil from their chocolate eggs and chased them back onto the patio and around the garden, leaving the student alone beside the grave. He tamped it down with his shoe and carried the trowel to the tool shed.
Bleary now and worn, the hostess leaned against the porch banister. She watched as the young man slipped into the darkened shed. He stumbled back startled when he noticed the boy inside. Deep in shadow, the child sat in a red wheelbarrow, his head bowed. At least that’s what the mother thought she spotted from the distance. Then the red of the wheelbarrow became a flash of bright wings. The mother couldn’t be sure, but she thought she saw a cardinal, both common and surprising, fly out of the shed where her son had sat. It rose up and over the student’s head. She followed it with her eyes, amazed.
The mother stumbled down the steps and over the lawn, elated at the sight. It seemed entirely possible that her son had become a bird. Not a likely occurrence, she knew, but somehow believable on this of all days. She panted, the bright sunlight and champagne punch making her dizzy. When she reached the shed door, she shut her eyes and prepared herself for the miracle.
Then she opened them and let out a disappointed sigh. Standing before her was her son. He took the shovel from the student and placed it where his father had taught him it belonged. He was a good boy, a sweet boy, his eyes not yet dry. Too much excitement for one day, the father would say later and tuck him in early.
“Honey,” the mother asked, “did you see the bird?”
The boy frowned at his sneakers, his face unspeakably sad. The student nodded as if he understood both the mother and the son, but who could say what he knew, this stranger from another land. The mother turned back to us, her friends on the patio, and pleaded softly, “Did anyone see?”
Virginia Pye has published short stories in literary magazines, including The North American Review, The Baltimore Review, The Potomac Review and failbetter.com. She holds an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence and has taught writing at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania. In Richmond, Virginia, she’s chair of James River Writers and is at work on a new novel.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: At a young age, my son found a dead bird and hid it so we wouldn’t bury it. Over the years, we’ve hosted brunches in our backyard and, once, a foreign student came. Cardinals dart around us all the time. How and why these facts fall together to become fiction is anyone’s guess. I write to see such things happen.
Q: Why are you a writer?
A: I’ve loved writing since I was ten years old. I wrote a poem comparing a snow flake melting on my wrist to a match burning down, and then both of those sad occurrences to a life ending. Clearly, I was excited about the possibility of metaphor to capture something significant which I didn’t have another way to express.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: I am a flute, though I’ve never thought about it before, but perhaps that’s true of all flutes: we just dart around, making light music and waiting for the hard-working piano or bass to clue us in to what’s really going on.
Q: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
A: I love being in the midst of a story where I have some sense of what I’m doing. The very beginning of a new piece is hardest, partly because I know I’m going to chuck those first pages once I reach the true beginning. Best of all, though, is being at the pulsing heart of invention: I’m still that girl thrilled with my observations about the snow flake on my cuff, eager to jot it all down.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on short stories and a new novel set in contemporary Richmond, Virginia. “We All Fall Down” is about two women who don’t know each other, but whose seemingly-perfect marriages implode from betrayal. They eventually find one another in friendship and, after all sorts of trials, invent new, more real lives, one with her husband, one without. How they do this is the question.
Euler's Identity by Dennis Ginoza
Followed by Q&A
She licks her finger and smears figures onto the windshield. e, she says, the base of the natural logarithm raised to the power of i, the imaginary unit, and pi. Her voice is husky, roughened by cigarettes, her words lightly accented with her native French. Two transcendental numbers, three simple arithmetics, five constants, one equation.
The car is parked at the edge of an overlook notched into the sea cliffs that gird Makapu’u Beach. It’s November, the last month of hurricane season, and the surf is unusually rough, the approaching swells roiled and choppy, the breakers avalanching in great heaves of foam. A few bodysurfers wade in the shore-break, but the beach is almost deserted—a red pennant staked high on the berm warns of sucking riptides.
It welds geometry to algebra. It is self-evident, complete, profoundly elegant. The woman is forty-three though she looks much younger—her hair is coppery and long and thickly curled, her skin is pale and spangled with freckles.
This equation was true before it was ever imagined. It will still be true when the sun is a heap of cinders. The woman traces the outline of the smudges. Her nails are long and tapered, their tips burnished to a frosty white. Nothing else so endures because nothing else is as true. You see?
The boy in the passenger seat nods. He is fifteen and like so many Hawaiian boys he’s big for his age, his features an amalgam of the Polynesian, the Asian, the European. He wears the crisp uniform of a private school—shorts and shirt and tie—and a backpack heavy with textbooks is perched on his lap. He and the woman are eating ice cream from plastic cups—strawberry for her, chocolate fudge for him. The car’s air conditioning is running at full and the boy, whose name is Kaleo, marvels at this icy wash of air over his skin, marvels that, for the first time in his life, he is shivering.
The woman takes a cigarette from her purse and lights it, her cheeks hollowing as the tobacco ignites. She exhales slowly, letting the smoke wreathe her face, and inclines her head towards the boy, as if sharing a secret with him.
The other children, they cannot see the beauty of this equation—its precision, its austerity. But you, vous avez le talent. You grasp it, intuitively. That is a rare thing. A treasure. You understand?
It’s been two weeks since the boy left Waimanalo Public to start at The Ko’olau Academy, the days unspooling in a slow blur of starched shirts and long bus rides and strangers who do not know his name—days sluggish and stifling, days of immanence, days of waiting. It is only now as he looks into the face of this woman, this haole woman with eyes like wet celadon, this teacher of mathematics that he knows only as Mrs. Braithwaite, that the boy finally feels himself at the edge of some new thing, some province whose expanse he can sense but not yet fully discern.
A sudden commotion on Makapu’u Beach—people are shouting and flapping their towels—and the boy peers through the passenger window. A moment later the woman leans in beside him, her breath misting the tinted glass, her hair soft against his shoulder.
What is it? she says.
On the beach below, bodysurfers are scurrying out of the surf, their limbs thrashing against the receding wash. Behind them, just past the breakers, a hulking wave is surging towards the shore. This wave has crossed deep waters for days, a massy ridge rippling over the ocean surface, its proportions moderated by the depths beneath it. Now, as it enters the sloping shallows of Makapu’u, the wave slows and steepens, its bulk rearing up into a precipice, its crest the pivot on which velocity and amplitude and gravity conjoin, each matching the other so that, for an instant, time seems to stutter and jam, sprocketed into a static gap where the wave hangs suspended, its form straining towards its own collapse.
Years later, the adult Kaleo will remember this moment as a kind of tableau, a scene viewed at a distance yet one that he also inhabits. Though a physicist and a rationalist, he will imagine that this perspective, this assay of memory, is how God might view the world and mankind—backwards from some infinite temporal distance, the arrow of time exhausted of all velocity, His omniscience not supernatural but simply a remembrance of what had already occurred.
In his memory, Kaleo will see the wave locked at its apex and he will see himself—a public housing boy, a scholarship boy, a brown boy in Hawaii—and he will see the woman (her most of all) and from this remove Kaleo will remember how the woman will lay her hand across the boy’s knee, her fingers icy and splayed, her pinky slipping under the end of his shorts to caress the heavy thigh muscle beneath, and he will remember that when she leans in to kiss him he will flinch away at first before slowly relaxing into the pressure of her mouth, that both will keep their eyes open as they kiss and that the boy, still shivering, will be shocked by the taste of the woman—ashes and salt and strawberry ice cream—as her tongue traces the smooth bones of his teeth.
The woman will drive the boy back to the apartment she shares with her husband, away now on business in Oregon. She will take him to her bedroom and undress him and then have him undress her, the boy’s hands trembling as he unbuttons her blouse, as he gropes at the fastening of her bra, as he lifts away her skirt, as he peels the stockings from her legs. The woman’s skin will smell faintly of lavender perfume, an old-fashioned scent the boy associates with plump aunties but which on her he finds shocking, almost profane.
Those first moments with the woman will be a series of sharp revelations for the boy—her small breasts, nipples like pale gumdrops. The thick tendons of her thighs. The curve of her buttocks. The ridgeline of her spine. The folds of her labia, the hard nub of her clitoris. Her anus, puckered like a kiss.
They will fuck through all the long hours of the afternoon, the woman reveling in the boy’s youth, in his eagerness, in the desire which narrows his eyes as her fingernails dig furrows into his back, his chest. Afterwards, they will wash each other, lathering away the sweat and semen and blood with Ivory soap, the water from the showerhead tepid, cooling. After they have rinsed the soap from their bodies the woman will kneel in the tub with her back to the boy and he will rub shampoo into her hair as she sings softly, her eyes closed,
J’ai trouvé l’eau si belle,
Que je m’y suis baigné.
The next day he will tell his parents that he is studying math with Mrs. Braithwaite after school and this will not be a lie for in the moments when they lie sated and apart, the woman will ply him with questions of geometry and algebra, rewarding him with favors for correct answers and withholding them when he answers wrongly. This game will linger in the boy’s mind so strongly that, years later, he will remember the contours of the woman’s body not in adolescent clichés but in abstruse mathematical terms, as if she were both an assemblage and a whole, a topography mapped in the tessellation of her eyebrows, the arc length of her lips, the convex jut of her hipbones.
For three weeks the boy and the woman will be lovers. In class she will ignore him, favoring the other students with her attention, calling on the boy only when he makes mistakes and mocking his efforts aloud. She will do this not out of any desire to obscure their relationship but as a kind of game whose import only she and the boy understand.
There will be other games. During their second week together the woman will show the boy how to braid her hair, how to coil the soft plait around her throat while she masturbates, how to choke her when she comes until her body goes limp beneath him. They will play this game so often that the woman will take to wearing a scarf of yellow silk to cover the bruises on her neck. One afternoon, Kaleo will discover this scarf in a wastebasket, discarded by the woman after it has frayed. The fabric will be slippery and cool against his skin, a weightless froth like moth wings brushing his cheek. Kaleo will slip this scarf into his backpack, the only thing of hers that he will keep from those three weeks. Years later, he will find that the scarf still smells of the woman’s lavender perfume.
In the week before Thanksgiving, a tropical depression that has been churning in the doldrums near the equator will abruptly escalate and begin to spin. Hurricane Iwa will lurch east across the Pacific for six days before finally sweeping over the Hawaiian island chain. Kaleo will be at home when the eye of the hurricane passes over his house and in that sudden stillness thousands of exhausted seabirds will come to land, terns and petrels and shearwaters that have been trapped at sea by the hurricane’s spiraling walls, a listless and bedraggled flock indifferent to anything but the ground beneath them.
Kaleo will return to school a week later where he will find a substitute teacher in Mrs. Braithwaite’s class. The substitute, a balding red-faced man, will only shrug when Kaleo asks where Mrs. Braithwaite is. During recess, Kaleo will leave the campus and catch a bus to the woman’s apartment. The door will be propped open, the furniture covered with drapes. An old Filipino woman vacuuming the floor will tell the boy that the tenants have vacated the premises, that a new couple will be moving in the next day. When he asks about a forwarding address, the old woman will wave him away and turn back to her cleaning.
Over the next few weeks, Kaleo will learn that there have been rumors at school, that people have seen things. He will find himself avoided by students and faculty alike, politely but pointedly ignored. At the end of the year, his scholarship will not be renewed.
It will be five years before Kaleo hears from the woman again. He will be eighteen and in his first year at college when the postcard arrives, an expensive glossy depicting the Paris skyline. On the reverse.
Kaleo will recognize the tilted handwriting immediately. Below the equation will be an address in New York City. The postcard will be signed,
Tu es dans toutes mes pensées,
More postcards will follow, eventually giving way to long letters in which the woman details the minutiae of her life, the gossip of the circles she inhabits, the small pleasures she encounters during her day. At first Kaleo will respond with letters of his own, but he will quickly realize that she has little interest in the episodes of his life, that the track of their correspondence necessarily centers on the woman and the things of her life. He will accept these conditional exchanges just as he had accepted the pedagogic nature of their fucking, a passive surrender in which he yields his own agency to the greater desires of the woman, a kind of consumption that Kaleo will still find darkly arousing.
In his third year at college, Kaleo will write the woman that he is switching his studies from mathematics to physics. He will describe this change as a logical progression from the abstract to the concrete, from the Form to the Iteration. Her reply, scrawled in pencil on a cheap postcard, will be immediate—You stupid, stupid child. What a disappointment you are. Several weeks will pass before she writes again, resuming her correspondence as if his newly chosen field had never been mentioned.
The woman will not mention marital troubles in any of her letters to Kaleo and so it will come as a surprise when she writes of her divorce. James is devastated. I hope in time he will come to see how necessary it was. On pardonne tant que l’on aime.
Kaleo will be twenty-five when he gets this letter. He will be working on his doctoral thesis—an examination of wave function collapse as an epiphenomenon of quantum decoherence—when his girlfriend brings him the envelope and lays it on his desk. His girlfriend will have grown accustomed to these twice weekly letters with their feminine handwriting and were she to ask Kaleo about them he would tell her about the woman and their affair but she will not ask and so he will offer no explanation. It is this reserve, a reticence almost, that will endear this girl to Kaleo and, in all the years of their marriage, this comfortable distance between them will remain intact, a constant upon which both will come to rely.
At forty, Kaleo will be a tenured professor of Physics, his days meticulously scheduled, his hours strictly accounted for. This rigidity of routine will not be a burden for him, rather he will find a sense of liberation within the confines he has imposed upon himself, a freeing up from the mundane burdens of choice that might otherwise distract him from his research. In all other matters he defers to his wife who will prove to be as efficient as she is placid. And while Kaleo sometimes senses a small sadness in her, their inability to have children will not lessen the affection between them, their marriage a whole unto itself, each sufficient to the other.
The letters will have continued to arrive over these last fifteen years, the woman writing of her re-marriage to a man “in the publishing industry,” of their travels to Europe and Asia, of her life in Manhattan and the eccentric people she meets. Fifteen years of monologue, each letter signed,
Tu es dans toutes mes pensées,
Her last letter to Kaleo will arrive on a Tuesday morning. He will slip this letter into his satchel, intending to read it after his morning lecture. He will not learn that the woman has died until a week later when he receives an email from the hospice in which she had been staying.
In those months after her death, Kaleo will find that his memories of the woman do not fade as he had expected them to but rather grow sharper, more distilled, more insistent. At oblique moments during his day (walking across the Commons, erasing equations from his whiteboard, making tea in the Faculty Lounge) Kaleo will find himself abruptly bemused, lost in a kind of fugue as florets of memory blossom in his mind, a sudden and smothering profusion inflorescent like yarrow buds, sliver upon sliver layering the aggregate—
Her sunhat tangled in the thorns of a bougainvillea.
The slow chop of the ceiling fan in her bedroom.
The bone-handled paring knife, the chipped saucer, the sliced lemons she put in her gin.
The sharp smell of the Gauloises she had smoked in bed, a seashell on her belly for an ashtray.
The scarf of yellow silk, still redolent with her perfume.
The soft weight of her hair in his fist.
All of his attempts to master this onset, to order them as neatly as he orders equations of force and mass and momentum, will fail, the memories hardening into a kind of shrapnel, each splinter bright and entirely uncalcified, without context or order yet each so distinct, so utterly palpable, that while these memories grip him he often cannot distinguish the immediate from the recalled.
In this fog of memory, only the woman as she was will be visible, the fictions of her letters, the details he learned after her death—her abandonment by her husband for a younger woman, her remarriage to a book dealer she met in a cafe, the drab basement studio she lived in after this second husband left her, the headaches that were not migraines, the charity hospice she died in—all of this will be obscured, veiled by his memories of the three weeks when they had been lovers and, especially, of the moment before it began, when the woman and the shivering boy had peered down on to Makapu’u Beach, their breaths held as they watched the wave suspended at its apex, its collapse just a moment away.
Dennis Y. Ginoza is an MFA student at Pacific University. He lives on the Kitsap Peninsula and blogs at www.dennisyginoza.com
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: One of my seventh grade teachers was gorgeous, a former beauty queen and model. She didn’t teach math, but if she had, I’d probably still have flunked.
Q: Why are you a writer?
A: David Long contends that “a writer is a reader moved to emulation.” I agree.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: I’d like to think I’m a shakuhachi but am probably more of a recorder: “Merrily We Roll Along.” B, A, G, A, breathe. B, B, B, breathe. A, A, A, breathe. B, B, B, breathe. B, A, G, A, breathe. B, B, B, breathe. A, A, B, A, breathe. G-G-G-G. Hold the last G for a count of four.”
Q: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
A: I love editing and rewriting. First drafts kill me.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Short stories and my MFA thesis.
Imaginary Men by Margaret Pritchard Houston
Followed by Q&A
“Have you ever seen a landscape destroyed by greed?” Daniel asks. “It’s the ugliest of all sins. Wasted fields, tufts of grass among a sea of mud, insects crawling everywhere.” He is looking through a book of Earth from the Air, and is stuck on the page of Brazilian rainforest-turned-wasteland.
“I’ve asked you not to smoke in front of the baby.”
“Pride is much prettier. Taj Mahal, that’s pride.” He draws in another deep breath and lazily swirls it around in his mouth. “This flat here—pride and envy. Keepin’ up with the Joneses.”
“Thank you.” He said it was pretty.
Mornings with Daniel are always like this; I hold the baby on my lap and he goes off on something, which he usually ends up blaming “people like” me for. He leaves when the baby starts crying.
“Fill a place with lust, though, and it’s actually filled with something. It’s a decadence; even pride and envy can go minimalist if needed. Lust soaks you.”
I hadn’t wanted the baby. There’s a certain grudging affection for the thing now; he’s pretty, and fun to play with, and I love going shopping for him, but he still irritates me, and I absolutely hate how he never ever ever leaves me alone. Min and I take him out to the park and watch the boys. Min usually goes home with someone. I go back and wait for Peter, float aimlessly in my stockings and miniskirt through our unbearably fashionable flat, listening to the baby fuss in his crib, thinking that I have too much room and time to myself. I hate the soft little bulge in my stomach, the teething rings and sterilized pacifiers in my purse where condoms and cigarettes used to be. I’ve gone to bed with Peter only twice since we’ve been married, and both times have been boring and fussy. I want Daniel to come over and then I resent him when he does.
Daniel always seems a bit more alive. I adored that once, fed off of it, tried to suck that kind of living from his body and hope it would shoot through my veins and become part of mine. Now I hate it; it seems like a different life, only around to remind me of what I don’t have, what I’ll never have, the tantalizing possibilities that were always so vague as to be unpursuable and which had never come to fruition.
We have the days to ourselves; there’s another world that comes out when everyone has gone to work. It’s an odd collection: the unemployed, the night workers, the nannies, the stay-home mums, the pensioners. As though we’re all playing hooky, we sneak through the parks or stare out the windows watching the hours.
“I’ve got a job,” Daniel says, glancing at his watch as Min and I follow two steps behind him through the park. I because the baby slows me down, Min because she likes me more than Daniel. Her hair’s in pigtails and we’re both in short dresses. The minute I discovered I was pregnant I ran out and bought piles of mini-skirts and low-cut tops and shoes with long spiky heels, and then came home and threw them all in my closet with the tags still on.
“I’ll go with you,” I say.
He shrugs and takes me to a run-down set of rowhouses somewhere in a little forgotten set of streets, and knocks on the door. It’s so old he has to duck to get through the doorway, and the hall smells of damp. A wrinkled woman in a long dress sits in a chair just inside the door; she looks sad. She doesn’t say anything. Daniel greets her and the thought of his sleeping with her makes my skin crawl. I want to grab her and shake her and beg her to leave her dress on, not to expose the body that looks like it’s been dragged unwillingly through too many years. A small bit of me wants to tear my own clothes off, to say my flesh is not like that, look at how the skin is smooth and the breasts still heavy and ripe with milk for my baby, look at how my hair is not brittle and how I still bleed each month; only things that are alive can bleed.
But I don’t; I stay quietly in Daniel’s wake, and the woman still says nothing as a door at the other end of the hall opens, and an old man wanders in. He is walking, so he is not dead. A wave of panic hits me because that’s the only way I know he’s alive. Because I looked at him and figured it out. Daniel strolls up to him, and I understand, and the thought of being left here in this place with that desiccated old woman who’s watching Daniel, who’s paying Daniel, terrifies me. There is a back door; it leads to a small public square; I reach them just as it closes, and I say, “let me come too.”
They are both silent, and I follow them out to the square; Daniel gestures to a bench near a crumbling dried-up fountain and I sit down with the baby on my lap, and Daniel follows the old man to another bench inside a grove, inside a weeping willow that is sick, and the old man sits down with his back to all of us, to the night-bus drivers and the toothless old women and the frustrated young men waiting for their dole checks and me in my schoolgirl dress with my overflowing breasts, and he wraps his coat around Daniel kneeling in the dirt in front of him, and I’m across the square and nobody else notices, but I almost imagine I can hear the scraping sound of his zipper and the small wet sounds of Daniel’s mouth.
And then it is as though I am wrapped in darkness until we are on the train home, on rails elevated above the dingy streets, so that we pass by the upper-story windows of decrepit buildings filled with unwashed dishes and charity-shop clothing, and I am watching my own reflection in the window as Daniel talks.
“All this judgment—this middle-class judgment.”
I haven’t said a word.
He keeps talking, and I let his anger wash over me, let myself sink and arc into the flow of his words without hearing what he’s saying. I watch my reflection and it smiles a little.
Next time, it’s a businessman on his lunch break, and I sit in the hall outside the hotel room, singing idly to the baby as I listen to the rhythmic squeak of the bed and the low, monotonous moaning.
Daniel says nothing as he comes out, shoving his wallet into his jeans and pushing his hair back, but he gestures with his head for me to follow, and he strokes the baby’s cheek and kisses the top of its head in the lift.
The next day, it’s another hotel, hidden in the twisting streets of the oldest part of the city, all uneven brick and hand-hewn wood, and they’re not in the bed but up against the door. I reach out my foot and feel the door moving in its frame. Peter doesn’t exist. This noontime world is empty and anarchic and full of winding corridors where no one can see you. I slide one hand gently between my thighs, and squeeze them together, then lie next to my baby as he sleeps, as he fits perfectly between my chin and my hunched-up legs.
“Let’s go,” Daniel says, lighting a cigarette as we walk down the hall and through a boarded-up Chinese food shop to a back door that lets us outside.
I don’t ask him anything. I don’t want to know what he thinks. We walk hand in hand through the wooden stalls of the farmers’ market, and I stroke the smooth peaches and dig my fingers into the moist cheeses, and we talk about school and the baby is asleep in his carrier strapped to my chest.
We laugh at things that don’t really seem funny, because it’s such a relief to laugh, to have a secret again between us, a world that is ours that is in plain sight and yet perfectly hidden. I imagine him drawing me onto the bed with him and his men, or sliding his hand under my shirt in the lift. If he nipped at my breast, he’d get milk.
He calls me the next day, because he’s had a last-minute appointment made, and he wants me to come along. I am summoned and I go, tense to the breaking point because the baby has screamed all morning and he won’t stop, won’t let me have this thing I need, this venture into Daniel’s secret, this tumble through the looking glass.
This time it is someone’s home, and I sit in the kitchen with the baby’s mouth hungrily sucking at my sore nipple, and I listen to the shattering sounds of men in bed with each other, the reality obscured by my distance from it, half-fantasy half-commerce, and the relentless aching moans that move like a sigh over my skin—something in me breaks, shatters, tears into a million pieces like shards of glass in my body, and I am crying and racked with wanting, with wanting something I don’t understand, something I can’t have, something I can’t name.
I pull at the hem of my skirt—I want a man to do that—and hold the baby so close I’m half-afraid I’ll suffocate him. I claw half-heartedly at my own flesh, at the smooth curves and the dark places, and when Daniel comes strolling lazily out of the bedroom with his dampened chest only half-covered by a white linen shirt, I am disheveled and runny-nosed and the baby is asleep with his mouth open around my nipple but not sucking.
This is not my life. This is all a mistake.
“Let’s go,” he says.
And I still say nothing.
Margaret Pritchard Houston is an American expat living in London. Her play, “Alexander,” received critical acclaim at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, despite the flooding of the theatre, an actor getting mugged on opening night, and the cast twice locking themselves out of the rehearsal venue. She is active on the London performance poetry scene and has previously been published in The Brains Trust and Clean Sheets. Her work will also appear in upcoming editions of The Floorboard Review and Interrobang.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: This story developed out of a dream I had about six years ago. The characters, setting, and emotions sprang fully formed into my subconscious and hung around until I developed them into a usable form. I did have to cut the bit about the city-wide cable car system wired off of fire escapes, though—that was just weird.
Q: Why are you a writer?
A: For the money. And the wild parties.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: I couldn’t come up with an answer for this, so I asked my mother. Here’s her reply: “You’re not an instrument—you’re a voice. Nobody plays you. You sing your own tune.” Since I always agree with everything my mother says, I’ll go with that.
Q: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
A: The beginning—when you have the exciting new idea, or the passion that makes you want to find out more and write about it—or the end, when the story or poem is finished and you’re satisfied with what you’ve done. It’s the middle that causes all the problems.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m nearly finished with a novel set in 19th-century France—it’s called “A Merry Requiem,” full of sex, laudanum, and revolutionary politics. And I’m about to start another novel—this one will be set during the Holocaust. My grandmother was living in Holland at that time and became involved in the underground movement rescuing Jews, so I’ve been hearing stories of that time period since I was very young.
A View of the Mosque by Christopher X. Shade
Followed by Q&A
Al-Azhar park, a bucolic landscape of lawns and lanes, of fountains and trees, of families together on blankets on the grass, seemed to Nick wholly incongruous with the dusty povertous Cairo he’d come to know in the past few days. This green patch seemed someone else’s, of a more civilized country, even like, he remembered, the little park with natural springs back in Jacksonville, Alabama, a park that was at some point between his mother’s house and his grandmother’s house, at least as he remembered it—yes, this seemed like the grass there where he and his brother and his sisters and his mother and grandmother would picnic. Where his mother had said, “Sit next to your grandmother, Nick,” and he’d scooted across the blanket and leaned against his grandmother and, after a while, pretended to be asleep. And then his grandmother had said, “Look at how he looks like his grandfather,” and she was crying when she’d said that.
He strolled with Rasha through this park, overlooking Islamic Cairo, toward the restaurant on the hill, and there they took a terrace table with a hazy distant view of the Citadel and the domes and minarets of its Mohammed Ali mosque.
“I’ll have some shai,” Rasha said.
This Arabic word for tea, shai, was one of the few words he’d ever bothered to learn from her in their three years together. He asked her, “Wouldn’t you rather have tea after lunch? It’s what they do here, it seems, all these Egyptians, having tea in glass teacups after the meal.”
“It’s cold here,” she said, wrapping her scarf tighter and tugging her sweater’s sleeves over her hands. It was windy, especially at this table on the edge of the terrace, and the sky was overcast but bright. She was squinting behind her sunglasses, and locks of black hair were tossing in front of her face.
“The view is really something,” Nick said. “Did they have to put us at such a big table? There are only tables for whole families here.” He waved one of the uniformed servers over and asked him to remove the four extra place settings. “Look at that table over there,” Nick said, looking back over his shoulder. “There must be ten children. Maybe an even dozen. I wonder if it’s some sort of school field trip.”
“It’s very cold here,” Rasha said, her arms crossed.
“Warm enough, though, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Rasha said. She pulled out a second scarf, one they’d picked up at the Khan el-Khalili market, and she wrapped it around her shoulders. While wrapping the scarf, she passed the gauzy fabric again and again in front of her eyes, while looking at him, and she said, “Aren’t you going to tell me about it?”
Nick said, “Just look at those domes of the Mohammed Ali. And those spires. It seems so far away now. Isn’t it. Far away.” He thought if he didn’t talk about what had happened at the mosque, it might be forgotten. What he’d done. What he’d shouted at those Japanese tourists. He said, “The guide told me those Arabic letters high up on the wall were a sentence, the first pillar of Islam.”
“In all that confusion, did you remember to give him baksheesh?”
Nick looked down at his hands. “Yes, somehow, in all the confusion, I remembered to put two coins in his hand. After he pulled me away.”
“In all the confusion,” she repeated. “I was so surprised. I couldn’t make out what was happening.”
Nick said, “The first pillar, he’d told us.”
“And what is the first pillar?”
The guide had told him that, too, but Nick couldn’t remember. “Those domes,” he said, gazing at the mosque on the skyline. “I’ve never seen anything quite like them.”
She took his hand on the table and then said, “Your hands are freezing.” She pulled the second scarf from around her shoulders and put it over his head. “Wrap that around you,” she said, and he did.
She said, “Darling.”
“You’re not talking about it, and didn’t we agree to put everything out on the table?”
“Yes, you’re right. Well, it’s overwhelming, isn’t it. The whole thing. What do you see when you look up there?”
“Up into those domes.”
She said, “Let’s talk about the Japanese tourists.”
“Yes, the Japanese. They weren’t wearing headscarves. They don’t understand. They’re too foreign.”
“Of course. They don’t speak English.”
“How are you any less foreign than they are?”
“I’m very foreign.”
“Yes, you can’t speak a word of Arabic.”
“I say thank you in Arabic very well—shokran,” he said. “And I can order tea.”
She said something in Arabic, without looking at him.
After a moment, he asked, “What was that all about?”
She said, “You know very well what I said.”
“I haven’t a clue.”
“When are you going to tell me about it?”
“You’re right, of course,” Nick said as the waiter brought hot tea for Rasha with mint sprigs and slender sugar packets. “I’m completely out of my element. Let’s go more often to Provence where I can read some of the street signs, ask how much a thing costs, and attempt to chat with the natives.”
“I suppose you should’ve married some French woman, some Marie Claire.”
“I wouldn’t trade for anything,” he said, and squeezed her arm. It tipped her cup and splashed a little bit of tea over the edge.
She smiled at him and said, “Wouldn’t you like some tea before we order?”
No, he said, and they ordered fattoush, hommos, and baba ghannoug. The server brought a basket of baladi, hot puffed balls of bread.
Nick sat back in his chair, hands behind his head and his elbows stuck out in the air.
She said, “Are you feeling better?”
“I’ll be okay. You’d never guess, from the view here, all that’s under those domes.”
“No, not the tourists.”
“The Japanese tourists,” she said.
“Do you think people here in your country ever get sick of them?”
“It’s not my country.”
“You’re Egyptian,” he said. “No doubt about it.”
“My grandmother is Egyptian and I was born in South Carolina.”
“What’s the bother of denying it? You speak Arabic.”
“You know very well that I hardly speak passable Arabic. I have an American passport and that’s enough, so stop calling it my country here, my people, my Arabic, my mosques.”
He sighed: “Ah, the mosques.”
“Do you want to be Muslim?”
“Not so interested.”
“All right,” she said, setting down her tea, “if I have to be the one to talk about it, let me recount the day’s events.”
“I was getting to it.”
She clasped her hands on the table. “We arrived at the Citadel and you said you’d like to see the Mohammed Ali mosque.”
“Yes,” he said, “why not start at the beginning.”
“You said it was the crown jewel of the Citadel. You closed the guidebook. The mosque was the only thing worth seeing, you said. It was the only thing you wanted to see. You’re the one carrying the guidebook. I have no idea what else is at the Citadel, though it seemed to me there were lots of signs for tourists pointing to other sights there. I noticed there was a military museum.”
He unrolled his napkin and placed the fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right. He knew she was going to go right at it.
“When we climbed those stone stairs up from the street to the mosque, I was covering my head and there was the old man catcalling me from above us. Did he bother you?”
“Not so much.” Nick remembered the black man’s wizened face peering down at them.
Rasha said, “I was talking to him in Arabic, and told him we were Egyptians but born in America. I thought he would leave us alone then. I thought he would go after other tourists, but we were the only ones coming up the stairs. When we got to the top, he was trying to get you to buy a book of postcards, and you said shokran to him several times, waving him away. And then he left us alone.”
Nick remembered the man’s thin arms, and long slender fingers coming around the edge of the postcard book. Nick said, “The poor old bastard. He’s just trying to feed family. Wife, kids, grand-kids. What’s a goddamn Egyptian pound to me. Nothing. It’s nothing. I should’ve given him one. I could’ve given him everything.”
“And then you said you wanted pictures of me in a headscarf in front of the mosque.”
“Have you noticed that every woman in this park is wearing a headscarf?”
“Yes, I noticed that. I don’t know why. It must be a conservative area.”
“Would you feel more comfortable here wearing a headscarf?”
“So then we went into the courtyard of the mosque. You took more pictures of me.”
“And the clock. I took pictures of the clock. The clock from the French that doesn’t work. It’s awful irony.”
The waiter brought their mezze. Nick tore the baladi bread and smeared it into hommos. He said, “You don’t have to go through the details.”
“And then we went inside,” she said.
“You don’t have to go through it.”
“And you began to raise your voice.”
“Yes,” he said, “at the Japanese tourists.”
“You shouted at them.”
Rasha, with her arms crossed, was staring at him. He tore another piece of bread and smeared it in the baba ghannoug. She said, “I had no idea you were becoming emotional. You hide it very well. You always have.”
“Yes,” she said.
“My grandfather was like that.”
“That’s what I understand. I was young when he died, as you know. He died in Vietnam. His plane was shot down.”
“Yes, I know these things.”
Nick took another piece of baladi, chewed, and swallowed while she watched him. He said, “They weren’t wearing headscarves. Yes, I’m very foreign, but what I mean when I say that they’re more foreign is that they don’t seem capable of distinguishing local customs. Some of the signs, after all, are in English. Nothing’s written in Japanese here. It’s all Arabic and if your people are considerate enough to put something in tourist lingo, they put it up in English. The word toilet, for example.”
“French, sometimes,” she said.
“So the Japanese tourists are more foreign here. They can’t read the signs about what’s respectful to wear in the mosque. But that’s no excuse. They have guidebooks. I saw a guidebook in their hands, with all those wonderful swooshing Japanese letters scrawled across the cover with a shot of the Giza pyramids.” He lifted his glass of water and set it back down. “They failed,” he said. “They failed to read up on local customs. They failed to be informed, and that’s why I raised my voice.” He tore another piece of baladi and smeared it in hommos, but then set it down and said, “I refuse to eat another bite until you dig in.”
“Oh, I’m digging in,” she said.
She carefully spooned some fattoush on a wedge of baladi, and a dollop of hommos. He waited until she popped it into her mouth before he smeared his next piece again in the hommos.
“Your grandfather,” she said, chewing, and then he knew she was going to go right at it. He sat back, chewing, too, and he suggested that they order more hommos because he was hungry enough to eat a barrel of hommos. He said this but he wasn’t hungry in the least. There was a nauseous ache in his gut, and he was forcing himself to chew, to swallow, to tear off another wedge of baladi. She didn’t agree to order more. She didn’t seem to have heard him.
He tore another, a smaller, piece of baladi and felt her watching him. He coughed while chewing, and covered his mouth with his hand for a moment. And then he took the piece and smeared it in the baba ghannoug.
Rasha said, “You mentioned your grandfather in there.”
“Yes,” he said. “I was thinking about him, when I was looking up into those great domes. Those lines hung with glass bowl lamps, and those monstrous chandeliers. And all the colored glass with the light pouring through.” He coughed again at the rising in his throat, and wiped his mouth roughly with the cloth napkin. “He had a bug, you know, for travel, and I have that bug, too. He was restless. Liked to be on the move. It’s why he signed up for Vietnam. He didn’t have to. They weren’t asking him to fly again. He’d served in two wars already. But he chose to go.”
“And he didn’t make it back.”
There was baladi in his hands. “No, he didn’t make it back.”
“What were you shouting at them? The Japanese tourists.”
“It was about the headscarves.”
“No, it was something else. He should be here instead, you said. He should be here. Meaning the Japanese tourists shouldn’t. Are you under the impression that the Japanese shot down your grandfather?”
He frowned. “What are you talking about. No, not at all. That wouldn’t make any sense, would it.” He smeared into hommos and stared at the bowl for a long moment.
“Asians, you said. You shouted. And there were more words.”
“You don’t have to go through it.”
“Do you understand what happened? I’d like you to tell me about it.”
“I have been telling you about it. Ever since we sat down. Here with the view of it, the mosque, those great domes, right in front of us. I’m sorry that I made you uncomfortable.” And he thought that would be the end of it.
Rasha touched her teacup—it must’ve cooled now, in this wind. This wind that whipped her hair and the fringes of her scarf, and blew at his own scarf so an edge of it was knocking against his jaw. But she didn’t lift the teacup. Instead she withdrew into herself, crossing her arms, her gaze falling, and light falling out of her face as her eyes moved into the shadow of her brow. She said something quietly but he couldn’t make it out, and maybe it had been Arabic. She lifted her head then and looked away—looking at the mosque again, he thought—and then she stood up, pushing back her chair.
She walked to the edge of the terrace. The family, the children, behind them, were boisterous, erupting in laughter, and two men nearby were talking in Arabic that seemed to Nick to be very deep in the throat. Nick got to his feet. “Rasha,” he said, but she didn’t turn to him. He went to her side and she shrugged off his hand on her shoulder.
“You have a streak in you,” she said, “of something awful. And I’ve never seen it so clearly.”
He returned to his chair. He waved a server over and ordered two shai and said, “Shokran. Shokran.” He sat with his head low and he pinched his nose between his eyes—it was all he could do—he dared not touch his eyes or they would brim over. And when he looked up she was still there, remarkably, despite all of it.
Christopher X. Shade's stories have appeared in a number of online and print magazines. He was raised in the South and now lives in New York City's East Village with his wife, and is a graduate of The New School University's Bachelor of Arts Creative Writing Program. He is Executive Producer for Sports Illustrated Golf Group, and a regular contributor to Golf.com. He plans to complete a novel in early 2011.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: After visiting Egypt in 2009, I became interested in themes of the American tourist responding to a foreign country’s dominant culture, and all that comes with crossing borders. These cultural intersections are ripe with interesting story possibilities, and one is racism. For this story, I was interested in writing about a man who aspires to be full of love, but has experienced a kind of terrible fit, a fit that manifested itself mysteriously out of loss, out of never having come to terms with the loss of his grandfather.
Q: Why are you a writer?
A: Recently my mother gave me something I wrote, when I was a child, a poem in which the sky is newspaper. I don't remember writing it. I guess I was very young, and we were living in Jacksonville, Alabama. We had an electric typewriter in the house. I remember that my sister Mary spent play time on the electric sewing machine, cutting and sewing little fabric pieces, in oranges, olive greens, coconut browns, and in stripes, plaids, and dizzying geometrics. I was fascinated with the concept of a sewing pattern, and all those steps to create something, though I didn't spend time on the sewing machine. That machine belonged to my two sisters. Instead, I spent a great deal of play time on the typewriter, in the same room where my sisters were pinning patterns onto fabric. There was a big window over the front yard, and out there my older brother Mark was working, raking leaves, washing the station wagon, or he was not working: he was out there learning things, growing up much faster than the rest of us.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: An upright piano. In a family's home. A piano that's in the room but doesn't overwhelm the room. It has, perhaps, been misplaced against an exterior wall and so it is very often falling out of tune. Though it doesn't languish in the corner, with photos standing across the top of it. Instead there's an open score: Czerny, The School of Velocity, Op. 299.
Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?
A: The discovery part. On a winter's night, discovering that a simple recipe makes a delicious, nourishing meal.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm always writing new stories, and helping friends write their own stories as I can. These days I'm writing a novel concerned with a man coming to terms with the loss of a friend.
Fit to Survive by C. Angelo Caci
Followed by Q&A
Organisms face a constant struggle to survive and reproduce. As perceived by Charles Darwin, an organism’s environment determines what pressures Natural Selection will exert on that organism. To wit: Human survival within a society could very well be perceived as our inherent ability as a species to adapt to whatever intolerable stench of circumstance we’ve decided to impose upon ourselves as a species, and to then come out smelling like the proverbial rose.
…music on the radio’s interrupted, as it goes. A commercial, followed by the archetypal D.J. rambling on, as it goes…in further still.
“They just don’t know when to shut the fuck up, when enough is enough!” protests Harry. And Harry, he’s had quite enough. [Crescendo] “ENOUGH STOP Damn it!” while jabbing the red protuberance conspicuously sticking out of the faceplate of his almost new SUV, effectively cutting off said D.J., as well as half the protuberance and well before the penetration should chafe the raw-nerve palate, following:
“…and it’s another beautiful day in the Southland…” That’s as far as he, said D.J., got.…
“Yeah sure, that’s all I fucking see is fog, asshole!” Harry counters, “I don’t know what city you’re in, but…”
a most holy silence befalls the moment, enshrouding his raw nerve animosities with a prophylactic-like insulate of serene (?) insolence…However, holy silences, being what they are, last shorter than the effect of a forty-five minute massage during a one-hour lunch break for an upper- management executive struggling to hold on to a job he/she despises from the covetings of his/her consortium as he/she rushes back to the office struggling against every possible adversity Murphy’s Law could conjure up at the spur of the moment. To wit: As a matter of course, holy or otherwise, silences are just not quite what they’re hyped up to be, this one soon implodes as Harry, simultaneously struggling to parallel park his oversized vehicle—already with dent in the back fender and a broken lens, one that he had just finished duck-taping this very morning…”I’ve only had this thing for a week, one fucking week!” Harry hisses, his forked tongue searching, fangs readied, then screams, [Molto crescendo] “You damned son of a mini-skirted bitch!” in response to someone else parking their tiny little vehicle—and right in close, mind you—behind him.
The aforementioned driver, completely unaware, of course, of any perceived transgression on his part was merely engaged in juggling his car forward and reverse, back and forth, forward again and not unlike a mutt compulsively meandering about in circles in search of that one sacred spot to deposit its ritualistic morning defecation and all the while the mutt can’t make up its mind the body’s not paying the mind any mind and the result is quite embarrassing to both mammals on either end of the leash.
“That’s right,” Harry moans, “you asshole! With all the room around you, you still got to pull right up on my ass blocking me in….A fucking eco-car, no less…figures. A prissy, little green….you inconsiderate, hybrid bastard!” Luckily Harry’s windows are rolled up. It isn’t really the man in the hybrid car, nor the car itself that boils Harry’s juices—no, not at all.
All Harry can really think about, outside of the present circumstance of course, is the girl…the one who dented his car two days ago…here, in fact, and in this very same location where he was to meet her today. ‘I’m so sorry…,’ she had said, ‘ya da ya da ya da,’ dropping the ‘so’ so low it hit the bulls-eye right below the belt. “God what a sexy voice…” he thought then, and said now. ‘Tell you what, I’ll meet ya here tomorrow, we can have lunch, and I’ll try to make it up to ya…kay?’ The …kay was the KY that greased him up good. She then promptly sashayed away, even though Harry’s mouth was too stopped up full of furry feary dust to bleep any answer; simply put, Harry is now left to stew in the marinade of his own toxic misgivings, and to top it off, he’d let her go, let her go, simply because, ‘God she looked hot…’ that short mini and fuck-me heels and all… ‘and maybe I, we…’ he thought then...
Now (?) “Bitch!” he rants, “I should have fucking damn well known better.” She, with a name that resembles a tiny red fruit with a stone-like pit embedded in its center. A pit so hard that caused Harry quite some years ago to break his front tooth on. What was her name, he’s wondering, Berry? Naw, berries don’t have pits…Doesn’t matter, she ain’t gonna show. “Man! Was I the fool to think she would…”
Getting back to things at hand, as they say, Stewart, his name, of course, unbeknownst to Harry…The unfortunate one who thought to park his said prissy green Priux of a car behind Harry’s, now proceeds to excavate himself, all three hundred and twenty-eight pounds—without socks or underwear—from his too-low to the ground vehicle…First one leg, then with a mighty harrumph, the other. This, followed by a burst of energy that could have exhumed the dead or launched a Triton, yet, could only succeed in his having risen an impotent three and a half inches or so from his launch pad. Although, this valiant effort proves quite unsuccessful, leaving him clawing at the air around him as if it had the consistency of dough…And that, needless to say, quite doesn’t.
His second attempt, though, is far more victorious, augmented in part by an audible grunt while simultaneously décor’d by an audible fart. He does, however, manage a successful lift-off and the big man proceeds across the park, all three hundred and twenty-eight pounds of flesh-joggling glory, toting a gallon of bottled water in one hand—swinging like Poe’s pendulum—and a…
Look’t that fat thing! Disgust oozes from Harry like a ripened sebaceous cyst. Continuing on in the same slippery silence, he’s probably on his way to some drone-type, desk job, where he’ll guzzle from his one-gallon, baby bottle and munch potato chips while he anxiously awaits freedom’s ring-tone on his watch, set for lunch of course… “Hey, Larry, Larry quite contrary, I wonder, wonder just what you carry in that duffle fucking bag.” I wonder if his name is Larry. Probably has his lunch in that bag, it’s for sure he’s not off to the gym; hell, just getting his fat ass outta that sissy prissy Priux is workout enough for him! I can see it all now, a diet lunch no doubt, a dozen deviled eggs, head of lettuce, and no less, I’m sure, than four—no, make that five—goddamned cans of tuna. There’s probably a whole loaf of Bimbo in there and a half gallon of 2% milk—2%, yeah, a loaf a bread and a half gallon a 2%...I’m on a diet! Stupid fat fuck!
“Moooo!” Harry taunts, this time without sparing the decibels. Having broadcast this, in utter vehemence, the far corners of Harry’s mouth begin to turn slightly upward. He watches, with growing satisfaction, the big man as he waddles through the park. Destination (?) wherever: luggage in hand he sways back and forth, back and forth again, looking something like some Spanish Galleon topping a wave. Harry turns his attention away and upwards: up toward the heavens. Not too far away in the distance, a section of luminous blue has begun to burn its way through what was previously obscured by a heavily-ladened sky: chalk-gray clouds with dense fog. It would now soon become another beautiful day indeed in the Southland for Harry. He pokes at what is left of the broken protuberance on the dash, then, with the radio back on, turns up the volume, closes his eyes, and settles back reservedly into his seat as if he’d just exhaled the finest cigar Havana has to offer.
Stewart tramps through the door from the street into the outer office dressed in his usual attire which consists of a pair of nondescript gray sweat pants provocatively (?) stained down the crotch, showing overt signs of continued usage, what with all the worn sags and all, especially those bulging out several inches below his knees. This, augmented by a faded blue sweatshirt adorned with more than just a few old stains, quite suggestive of marinara to be sure. The overall appearance, or persona, is one of pick on me! Understand, Stewart doesn’t much care for Laundromats, as the little children there tend to stare wide-eyed in awe, followed in course by muffled laughter at the overt size of his underwear whenever he’d retrieve them from the drier. He continues on swabbing his enormous bulk, somewhat absent mindedly, right by Cherry, the receptionist, who sends him her token,
“Oh, Mr. Harrison, the Doctor’s expecting you. Just go right in.”
Stewart sets down, as usual, his gallon water-bottle and duffle bag right next to Cherry’s desk.
For safekeeping? Cherry thinks; again, as always, each Tuesday at 3:30 PM. Stewart ambles in, sets his baggage down—same place, right by her desk—as if it were her job to safeguard it. The fat pig! What’s he think, I’m some kind of security guard for his…whatever it is the jerk’s lugging around with him? I’ll bet that cow’s got his lunch in there. He probably has a hoagie in there big enough to feed a family of four.
“Don’t worry…” in a sing-song manner, sounds Cherry. The tonality she uses sounds much like that of a social worker turning down some indigent in need of food stamps. “Mr. Harrison, I’ll keep an eye out for your [pause] stuff,” then to herself, as if anyone, any one, would even consider rummaging around in that sweat sponge’s bags…Oh, gross be the thought!
Stewart, who for reasons you can well imagine, is usually quite in-tuned, but yet, will not ever become truly acclimated to, of course, such subtleties of tone as was the decorum of Cherry’s chidings. He’d had quite enough already, from that man parked in front of him at the curb, so hers slides off him like melted butter. The last unprovoked straw was just laid upon him, ‘Moooo,’ and clings to him still, like bacon grease.
Stewart pushes open the unlatched door, sits down carefully, instead of his usual plop down, looks around, desperately and unconvincingly feigns an aura of nonchalance, one he’d acquired instantaneously while crossing the threshold into the Doctor’s inner-office for the first time two years ago.
“How are you, Stewart?”
“What does that mean exactly?”
“I don’t know…It means fine, what else would it mean? Fine, I’m, I’m fine, fine, fine, that’s all, fine.”
Pause (the drip, drip, drip).
Doctor Krause folds her hands upon her lap, as she usually does, to signify that she intends to wait even longer for elaboration. And, the dutiful patient squirms dutifully. This of course preempts the next response from Dr. Krause,
“I’m glad to hear it. Sooo, I take it that you haven’t had any suicidal thoughts lately?”
“Uh, well…” Stewart was obviously unprepared for this and waddles through an ad hoc response.
“…thoughts maybe, but nothing…uh, nothing to be concerned with, Doctor.”
“Suicidal thoughts are nothing to be concerned with?”
“Well, you know…I mean…nothing that I would really act upon. Just maybe…I don’t know, like maybe wishing I didn’t wake up in the morning…or something.”
Pause (pregnant pauses are much too posh for Stewart, not withstanding ‘pregnant pause’ is no longer, it became a still born years ago lying forgotten on a shelf in the romance section.)
Stewart squirms more, until the Doctor finally breaks the pause with,
“Do you have a plan?”
“A what? Oh, a plan. Uh…nooo, no plan...It’s just, you know, a wish…hope.”
“I seeee. And what about anger?”
Pause (like foreplay)
Stewart, trying heroically not to squirm, answers,
“Well…yeah, I suppose…well, yeah, I’ve lots of anger, I mean, look at what I’ve had to put up with all my life...” No more squirming for Stewart now…“How the fuck could I not feel angry? How could you even suspect that I not feel anger? I mean…Mooo! That’s what some asshole said to me out there. Oh, not directly to me, to my face, mind you, but I heard it. Oh, did I hear it!”
“Well, Stewart, you’re not exactly giving yourself credit are you? Didn’t you tell me, just last week, that you’d lost a few pounds?”
The Doctor begins rummaging through her notes. “Yes, you said you’d lost six pounds, remember? Do you remember telling me this? And, I might add, you’re no longer carrying around that duffle bag. So, you are making progress, aren’t you?”
Stewart cringes. If he’d a tail it surely would have left a trail in the dust of that lie. You could say that the pause that followed Dr. Krause’s affirmation settled over Stewart like a fat ass over a bicycle seat.
After which, Dr. Krause informs Stewart that time’s up. Stewart’s rather bulbous and sweaty body sucks loose—audibly— from the overstuffed leather chair…slowly, as if he, through some Zen sort of thing, has become one with his padded upholstered universe, yet an all too sticky universe.
So, Stewart lumbers on out into the reception area, head hung low as if on auto-pilot, walks right past a bemused Cherry, and right on past his duffle bag without even so much as a word of goodbye to Cherry (or the duffle bag), or of paying anything in the way of acknowledgement at all of her (not the bag), which doesn’t really suit Cherry at all (or the bag), as she rather enjoys that look of wishful desire even from those she considers repulsive. It’s a sort of Cherry thing. Stewart just ambles on by and out into the foyer in front of the elevator, punching the down button, and resolves to wait, standing like a child who’s told by the teacher to go stand in the corner. If it isn’t for the rather emergent and otherwise insistent hunger, he’d never have remembered to go back into the reception area, to pass in front of his Nemeses, on a mission to retrieve his duffle bag. That, and his jug.
“Forget something?” A melodic riff from a sassy soprano sax, albeit disguised in the sweetest and cheeriest of modalities.
Instantaneously desensitized, yet careful not to show it, he blubbers, “Harrumph,” which responsively triggers the kind of laugh that just can’t be suppressed. It seems to find its way back and up and out through the sinuses to surreptitiously escape through the nose in one short snort sort of burst, much like that of a firecracker—a cherry bomb to be precise—placed in a toilet—a real silent, but unmistakably deadly, as they say, and no one, her or him was saying anything. Luckily, for him, and like a bowling ball pitched down the lane, Stewart blasts through the remaining two pins of a set of double-hung doors leading to reception and out of reach of Cherry’s nasalized critique. Good thing, as he was already feeling self-conscious enough. However, stage left enters the Doctor; upon hearing Cherry’s bomb, she subsequently proceeds to reprimand her for it.
“Stewart has enough problems with self respect, Cherry,”—a soft, yet effective reprimand, sounding off like a muffled Miles Davis horn. She announces, “He sure does not need you to rub any alcohol into the open wound of his injured ego.”
“Oh, sorry Doctor, I really didn’t mean anything by it.” Cherry’s simultaneously thinking, well why doesn’t the fat fuck lose some weight then?
Doctor Krause turns to go back to her office, stops abruptly, turns to inquire, of Cherry, as to whether Stewart was carrying a duffle bag with him. Cherry beams, and fires away...
“He was, yes…” and continues to inform the Doctor how he always leaves it by her desk whenever he comes in.
“Oh.” The Doctor, suppressing a smile, performs a perfect pirouette on her stiletto heels and bops off, heels in driving syncopation upon the hardwood floor, right on back into her office. Cherry continues smiling; it’s the smile of the triumphant, growing ever wide as she witnesses the pronounced bounce in the Doctor’s retreat back to her office. She, Cherry, then sashays over to the picture window that looks down upon the street below, upon noticing that the familiar SUV—because of the dented rear fender—has retreated, sizzles like a cymbal, her glossed lips a light-emitting diode, spins around, a prima ballerina in heels pumping the tout de resistance upon the self same hardwood flooring as she glides back to her desk.
“Fool!” she proclaims.
Meanwhile, Stewart, alone in the elevator, reaches into his duffle bag, tears open a Ma Kettles bag…thoughtfully, with an ever so delicate deliberateness of manner, he extracts just one thin unmolested potato chip, places it into his mouth, with the reverence of receiving the body and blood of some obscure savior, relaxes, then settles back into the privacy of the elevator compartment. And, without chewing, he lets Ma Kettle’s finest, stuck to the roof of his mouth, slowly dissolve, like some Holy Communion wafer. He closes his eyes, and allows himself to become enrapt in the savory ambiance of the commingling juices of one fried potato wafer, provocatively curved to the shape of the roof of his mouth and tongue, while a cornucopia of herbs, real and imagined, marinate between pursed lips…
In such moments it is entirely plausible that one might arrive at, fall upon, or give in to, the discovery, or catharsis, subtle as may be, that perhaps one may just have power enough, just so, to change his world, yet be entirely content not to do so. Enlightenment is usually a spontaneous, transient thing—much like that of water flowing downriver, never to repeat itself again—yet the illusion of the finger of permanence does tickle the psychic clitoris of reason, leaving one right back where the foreplay began. It happens. And, since just which one of the countless tributaries of moments (to get back to the stream) that carry the roving waters of truth/deception upon the tips of those tantalizing fingers of inspiration that inherently must remain anonymous, the duplication of any such experience is therefore impossible, perhaps justly so, as it is certainly debatable as to whether or not there is any absolute or permanent value in anything we call truth. It would perhaps suffice to say that such an experience…its value, may indeed be absolute…lies only for that given moment, like a flash of sunshine reflected off transient beads of water, those emeralds of perspiration trickling down the abdomen…or, for Stewart, the time it takes for that sole potato chip to dissolve.
C. Angelo Caci: There was a threshold crossed. I became aware that I’d entered into a space where writing became an act of desperation. I found myself writing as if something inside depended on it. It did. Something most familiar, like that something inside an alcoholic that only drink can quench. Earning a living became secondary, as did everything and everyone else. The story is predatory; it must be, or it’s impotent. I wake up, coffee and a cigarette, and I write.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: "Fit to Survive" is a short work of fiction caricaturing our toxic reactions to the daily stresses imposed upon us by each other within a society we ourselves continually create. Sarcasm and humor are the tools used to render this concept.
Q: Why are you a writer?
A: Why? I was tempted to say why not (?), as if I had to be on the defensive. My first choice was to be an investment banker (no caps), however I fail miserably in math. Used cars became an option—selling them, I mean—you know, I'd get to wear a madras sport coat and romance previously discarded resentments. Then it occurred to me that I could do this writing fiction and, screw the ball rolling, that put the cherry bomb in the toilet bowl. It was off/on. Seriously though—in case you think I'm not being serious—one morning: cup of coffee, cigarette, lap-top (not the girl), my spine turned to jelly (cherry, perhaps) as I contemplated the mortality of my lap-top. Since then, I make damn sure that I take my blood pressure med before turning it on each morning.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: I'm a set of Ludwigs (drums) and a Zildian sizzler (cymbal) playing jazz in a smoke filled bar, accompanied by the tinkle of ice in a well drink stained with ruby red slipper lip gloss, oh yeah!
Q: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
A: It's a tossup between the beginning—as it's like single-handing a sailboat, cruising into some obscure anchorage in a foreign country. A place you've never been before and your only familiarity is some insipid dot on a chart—and the three quarter mark, when I'm finally rest-assured that I haven't been urinating against the wind.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: 4. I'm currently avoiding rewritng my third novel by compiling another collection of short stories, as well as exploring the how to help in the marketing (I do so much hate the implications of this word) my new release, "To the Victor Lies..." on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Into the Vacuum by Faye Rapoport DesPres
Followed by Q&A
The only place to sit in my mother-in-law’s room at Park Avenue Rehabilitation and Nursing Facility is on a wheelchair that belongs to her. I feel uncomfortable in her chair, so I perch on the edge of the cushioned black seat. My neck and shoulders ache with the kind of tension that pulls me forward into a slump. I am not happy to be here, but neither is Judith.
She lies in her propped-up hospital bed, her right arm moving slowly. She leans forward, reaches with her hand and lifts a piece of pecan pastry off of a roll-up table next to the bed. Slowly, she brings the sticky sweet to her mouth. Judith has made little eye contact since my husband, Jean-Paul, and I entered the room. We think the brain tumor has progressed. This sudden state of emotional absence, though hard to bear, is strangely better than the way things have been. At least Judith is not ignoring us out of anger and blame.
She was crazed just four days ago in a meeting with Park Avenue staff. She has been here since suffering a bad fall in her home several weeks ago; they won’t release her until conditions at the house are safe. “Traitor!” she yelled at Jean-Paul during the meeting. She was enraged at his admission that she could afford the home care required for her release. Medicare covers health-related necessities but not custodial care. Judith had claimed to be destitute, an outright lie, because she was determined not to pay for any services. “I worked all my life!” she screamed, referring to the thirty years she taught art in a public school near Boston. “Someone else should pay for all this!” She stared into space, swaying back and forth in her wheelchair, her eyes round and vacant. “You’re no longer my son,” she finally said. “You’re on your own, on your own.”
Sitting here now, I feel alone, too. I struggle with emotions that are jumbled in my head: compassion, despair, my own anger. This woman, who is both physically and mentally ill, has held us captive to her fate and her pain for a year and a half. She has called at all hours, made crazy demands, shrieked when things didn’t go her way. After weathering unreasonable rants for so long, I am suspicious at their absence from this room. Like a traumatized child, I wait for the storm.
Judith seems so calm and cooperative now. She lies in that bed, staring wide-eyed at a flat-screen TV that sits on a chest of drawers near the wall. Jean-Paul brought the TV from her house and set it up for her here in the room. Images flicker on it twenty-four hours a day.
Every Sunday for the past year, Judith has wanted pecan rolls from her favorite bakery. If we arrived at her house without the rolls, she turned her back on us and said, “I guess a pecan roll was too much to ask.” Now she is eating the roll we brought, slowly moving her arm up and down. She tells her son, in a slightly slurred voice, that it tastes “really good.” I glance at Jean-Paul and my throat tightens when I see the look on his face. My husband, forty-five, is smiling so broadly that deep wrinkles have formed near his mouth and his eyes. He glows with pleasure at his mother’s approval. For so long, nothing he has done has earned a whisper of thanks.
The tumor that paralyzed Judith at age sixty-eight will almost certainly soon take her life. I am surprised that the thought crosses my mind so objectively. When the tumor bled and caused swelling in the brain after the biopsy, it took away everything Judith loved about her life. She woke up to the worst possible news. The tumor was malignant, the surgeon could not remove it, and whatever time she had left would be spent badly disabled.
“To think,” she said later, still in shock from the news, “that I will never walk into the supermarket again, never reach down and feel the fresh apples.” Her right hand made a circular gesture and her fingers curled into arcs, as if she could still feel the apples’ smooth skin. Tears slid down her face.
Thoughts of apples and supermarkets are now long gone. I wonder if Judith even knows what she is watching on TV. Usually she tunes into the latest case on Court TV or endless reruns of Law and Order. Now she is staring, wide-eyed, at an infomercial about a vacuum cleaner. She seems to hang on every word.
I turn toward the screen and watch for a while. A gray-haired man in a business suit touts the benefits of the Shark Cordless VX3. A pretty woman with shoulder-length hair listens, smiling. The machine is lightweight. It has swivel steering and a cordless, “go-anywhere” design, the man says. “Notice how the folding ‘Backsaver’ handle makes it easy to clean under a table, or even under the bed! You could finally be free of those annoying power cords!”
I have noticed something about myself as I sit in this room, which smells strongly of urine and ammonia. I rarely look at Judith. I stare at the floor, at the chest of drawers or the sink, at the hand sanitizer and paper towel dispensers hanging on the wall. I do everything I can to avoid being present with what is happening here. Knowing this makes me feel guilty, but I sense that I am protecting myself. I don’t know how to handle the debilitated state of this once vibrant woman. I am afraid if I look at her and she looks back at me, she will see the fear of death in my eyes.
Judith has accused us of thinking her hideous, but it is she who thinks this is true. A slim, uncommon beauty all of her life, she hasn’t coped well with the changes in her body and face. Her left leg and arm lie motionless on the bed, and her right arm has lost muscle tone. Her abdomen swells oddly, and translucent skin hangs from her bones. Her sister once told me that when Judith was young, she refused to go to school if her hair wasn’t perfect. Now that same hair is oily and matted because the aides don’t wash it often enough. Dark roots show through blond hair dye that Judith applied for a while at home. Her cheeks are round like small melons, swollen from steroids. Without the bright-colored lipstick she wore everyday, her lips are pale and dry. Her brown eyes are wide open; they stare a little wildly.
Despite all this, Jean-Paul has never thought of his mother as hideous. She has never been anything to him but his mom. Even before she was ill she was difficult – kind but self-centered, intelligent but condescending, unusually creative but subtly controlling. Jean-Paul loved her through that, and he loves her through this. He didn’t comment when her hair fell out, or when it grew back in odd patches after chemotherapy and radiation. He didn’t care how she looked when her five-foot, nine-inch frame dropped to one-hundred-and-ten pounds. His only fear was that these were signs he was losing her, signs that the drugs weren’t working.
“So the pastry is good, Mom?” Jean-Paul asks again now, casting around for something to say, some way to continue connecting with her. Despite how painful every day has been since the diagnosis, he does not want to lose his mother. She continues to stare at the TV but nods, and I see satisfaction again on his face. He has pulled his chair closer, right next to her bed, and he leans in to wipe stray crumbs from her shirt.
Sitting safely apart in a corner of the room, I feel ashamed of my inability to participate. I am the woman who rescues stray cats, clears snow off the car in my elderly neighbors’ driveway. Why am I staying away now, doing nothing?
“Do you believe in an afterlife?” Judith once asked me before she got sick. “I don’t,” she said. “I think after this, we’re just nothing.”
I do believe in some form of God. Or maybe I just have hope. I wonder about the difference. Lately at night, when I wake up from bad dreams, I sit straight up and feel blind. I can’t see anything in the darkness around me and my heart beats fast with the fear of death. I gulp for air, but can’t seem to draw anything into my lungs. I try to calm down; I tell myself death is beyond my control. I can’t change it and can’t understand it. Fear rushes around my body like wind, and I do what I can to push through it. Sometimes I think about something very silly. What will happen on the soap opera I don’t admit to anyone that I still watch? If I could write the next scene, what would the main characters say? I lie back down, rest my head on the pillow, and close my eyes. I picture the actors speaking words I would put in their mouths. The handsome young man with the ragged brown hair tells the sweet young woman with blue eyes that he loves her. She smiles as tears roll down her cheeks. I comfort myself by directing the scene; I make it turn out any way I desire. I control everything on the stage of my mind, write endings I want, but never get.
Judith controls virtually nothing now. The last thing she held onto was the power to decide how her money was spent. Now, in her eyes, they have taken that, too.
I think I know the day it all changed, the day something inside me broke, or just froze. Judith was living at home in a wheelchair; her health had been stable for a time. The chemotherapy had been effective for a number of months and the tumor was not yet progressing. Jean-Paul and I were handling most of her needs—her shopping, her cleaning, her doctors’ appointments.
Judith called Jean-Paul in the middle of a workday and asked him to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy. She needed to take the medication at eight o’clock the next morning. Jean-Paul’s workplace is an hour from her house. He couldn’t leave work or get to the house that evening, but he promised to have the pills delivered by the pharmacy early the next day.
Judith slammed the phone down. She was furious that her son hadn’t come when she called. She wanted that medication, and she wanted it now. She picked up the phone again, and this time dialed me. I was working in my office at home. Sobbing into the receiver, Judith told me she was out of her medication and Jean-Paul wouldn’t help her. She didn’t mention that he had arranged for the pharmacy to deliver the pills.
Rain was pounding at the yard and the street outside my house. Judith’s Cambridge home was a half-hour drive away. It was nearing five o’clock, rush hour. Heavy traffic would be clogging the streets around Boston. I had a terrible headache; in fact, I’d had a headache twenty-four hours a day for six months. But I heard the panic and fear in Judith’s voice and I thought she was desperate. I couldn’t risk her missing important medication; I didn’t want to be responsible for endangering her health. I told her I’d come. She sobbed into the phone with relief, and told me, through tears, that she loved me.
I grabbed my raincoat and ran out to my car. I drove to her pharmacy through the heavy rain. Traffic was fierce; the trip took twice as long as it should have. I hit every red light between my house and Cambridge. The prescription was waiting when I got to the pharmacy; I paid for it and continued on to Judith’s house. When I pulled into the driveway the rain running down my windshield looked like the underside of a waterfall. I pushed open the car door and dashed to the front of the house, fumbled to open the lock with my spare key in the downpour. I almost fell through the doorway to get out of the rain.
I expected to find Judith desperate and tearful, thankful for the delivery of her life-saving meds. Instead, she was a few feet away from the front door, rolling her wheelchair calmly toward the kitchen. Her hair had been styled and blow-dried; her face was made up with fire-engine-red lipstick and heavy eye shadow. There was no evidence of tears, just a look of satisfaction that her wishes had been fulfilled. She barely glanced at the bag in my hand.
“So what do you think of this election?” she asked, referring to the presidential race between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. I stood inside in her doorway, my head aching, rain dripping off my coat and forming small pools on the floor. Maybe I should have understood that all she needed was a sense of control. Maybe I should have considered the possibility that she was lonely and just wanted company. After all, this woman had been told she was dying. But for the first time since Judith was diagnosed with brain cancer, I felt completely enraged.
The dramatic change in Judith’s condition started just a couple of days ago. Last-ditch chemotherapy is making no difference; she is clearly getting worse. She can no longer get in and out of bed or maneuver her wheelchair at all. A half-sister, Joanne, has offered to come from Missouri to live in the house and help care for her.
Looking at Judith now, so placid, it is hard to believe she is the woman who has been ranting for the past eighteen months. It is even harder to remember the attractive, quirky woman she was before the brain tumor. I recall just a little from the short time I knew her and from what others have told me she was like. On holidays she cooked huge meals—turkey with stuffing, green bean casseroles from an old Campbell’s soup recipe, warm fresh bread and blueberry pie. She made her own jewelry—thick silver rings with precious stones glued in. She wore Ray Ban sunglasses and tight leather pants and loved shirts decorated with animal prints. Her paintings were abstract and colorful. Many of the paintings featured faces. Sometimes the faces stared out of a foreboding, dark gloom.
The infomercial is still on TV. “Look at that!” the woman exclaims as the Shark Cordless VX3 sucks dirt from a cream-white carpet. “It picks up dirt, and it even picks up glass!” The Shark rolls over a neat row of broken glass. When it pulls back, the glass is gone.
Jean-Paul pulls his chair closer to his mother’s bed. He leans over to retrieve more crumbs from Judith’s shirt. She does not appear to notice. He pats her arm tenderly, asks a third time if she liked the pecan roll. His face glows again when she nods slightly and says, “It tasted great.”
It occurs to me that for the past eighteen months all three of us have been afraid. Two of us have been angry. But only one of us has had the courage to hold on to love, no matter how much it hurts at the end.
Faye Rapoport DesPres holds an M.F.A. from Pine Manor College's Solstice Creative Writing Program. Her personal essays have appeared, or are upcoming, in Ascent, damselfly press, Eleven Eleven, the Hamilton Stone Review, International Gymnast Magazine, and Writer Advice. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Intermountain Jewish News, Trail and Timberline, and other publications. Faye lives in the Boston area with her husband, Jean-Paul DesPres, and their four cats.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: I wrote this essay during my mother-in-law’s fierce, 22- month battle with brain cancer, a battle she lost in December, 2008. During that painful period in our lives, I grappled not only with conflicting feelings about her and myself, but with how to express what was happening to all of us.
Q: Why are you a writer?
A: To pay the bills, I have worked in public and media relations for environmental organizations, done copywriting, managed a music business, assisted the CEO of an Internet startup, and worked as a newspaper reporter. A few years ago, I told a friend of mine that I was working with a career counselor to figure out my next steps. This was my oldest friend, someone I’ve known since I was seven. She said, “That’s funny, because I can’t imagine you ever being anything but a writer.” After I hung up the phone, I realized she was right. Whether it pays the bills or not, a writer is what I am, and it’s what I’ve always been.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: The flute.
Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?
A: The writing process is hard for me; it takes a lot out of me. But every now and then there is a moment when I catch my breath, when a certain shiver literally runs down my spine. Sometimes it happens when a sentence comes out JUST RIGHT. Sometimes the ending of a piece finally becomes clear to me, and everything suddenly makes sense. Or sometimes, after revising a draft repeatedly, the moment finally arrives when I feel that there is nothing left to change. I know it’s finally right. Those moments, when they come, are worth it all.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on a collection of personal essays.
White and Black by Jim Krosschell
Followed by Q&A
The primary colors of the woods in mid-winter are white and black, the one all colors and the other no color. It’s very cold today and everything is clear and sharp: thick snow on the ground; branches and stumps; oak trunks and scrub twigs dark and rough; blotched and piebald birch bark. Species and emotions are starkly delineated. Other colors are secondary, the scattered evergreens, and the blue sky if I look up, and the image of red and orange winterberries if I look back into November. I hurry my walk today, un-poetical, closed to nuance, anxious, my goal the travesty at the corner of Ash Point Drive and Crockett’s Beach Road.
My wife told me what she saw there yesterday, Inauguration Day, the day a black man took the Presidential oath of office, and I won’t believe it until I see it myself, and maybe not even then. We had such hope at the DNC in Denver, such anxiety during the campaign, and such joy in November. Everything was going to flower on January 20. It did. We sat entranced for hours by the TV, watching history being made. Barack Obama is our President, no matter that he’s half-white, Michelle Obama is our First Lady–these are clear, sharp facts. It has made the harsh winter of storms and recession tolerable. We believe history has changed courses and colors.
Yet for all this hope, most Americans’ experience of race is slight, held at a distance, like mine. I am a white man, educated, middle-class, traveled, tolerant. When I was a kid, I lived in the suburbs of Grand Rapids, Michigan; there was a “ghetto” downtown that we never saw. My family had a summer cabin in Baldwin, Michigan, just a couple of miles from the famous black resort Idlewild. Not once in seven years did we even drive through. In Baldwin, in my teen-aged summers, I did work closely with a black man in a grocery store where he managed the produce and I helped. He didn’t tell, I didn’t ask. During college I worked in a hospital, washing windows with black men, taking care of black patients in the E.R., living in apartments in the ghetto. Nothing stuck. The industry I’ve worked in, publishing, is lily-white. My town has a small section traditionally black but is divided more by wealth than by race. I know hardly any African-Americans personally.
Now I spend half my time in Maine, the whitest of places. I walk in the woods and contemplate the ocean and write essays and read Maine authors: I’m an apostle for the state. But my walk today is different. I’ve got the dog, yes, taking her to Crockett’s Beach for a romp and clam-hole digs on the low-tide sand; I’m in the place I love; the air is sea-fresh; spirits should be sky-high. But there it is. On an electrical switching box at the corner of Ash Point and Crockett’s Beach, large letters have been painted, in black on white, “KKK.”
Hate too is clear and sharp, arising from our deepest fears and bursting into flower. We think it breeds only in masses, in excesses of poverty and shame, in jackboots and desert robes, in churches and mosques, in the bowels of group mania, but it breeds also in isolation, even in a place of such beauty. The ocean, clean and powerful, should wash it out; the woods should purify it, or at the very least, make it irrelevant. Yet there it is, in plain sight, unashamed.
Coming back, I meet our neighbor and ask, shakily, almost incoherent, if she had seen the letters. She had. There’s another sign painted “KKK” just down the road, she adds, and a store in some benighted town in central Maine is holding a lottery for the day on which Obama will be assassinated. “Are you shocked?” she asks.
“Yes, I guess I am,” I answer but think at the same time I shouldn’t be, a Boomer like me shouldn’t shock easily, not after tornado alerts in the Midwest, H-bomb drills in school, the 60s, Selma and Birmingham, the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars, economic melt-downs, unconscionable poverty around the globe, the constant barrage of news on radio, TV, newspaper, Internet, phone, all of it bad. And then again I am shocked–I refuse to believe that the place I love could also harbor the KKK.
The slightest bit of research tells me I’m wrong. Maine was infamous in the early part of the 20th century for its bigotry. For one thing, the Klan had some 20,000 members here by the 1920s, more than most Southern states, and had the distinction of holding the Klan’s first daytime march anywhere. They didn’t persecute the blacks (there weren’t enough here to bother with) but fed on hate of French Canadian Catholics, who had emigrated in large numbers from Quebec, stealing jobs from white Protestant males.
Then there was the shameful case of Malaga Island, formerly known as Negro Island. (As many as nine islands off the Maine coast have been named Negro, most now whitewashed to Anglo-Saxon names like Curtis, just off tourist-conscious Camden.) Blacks had lived in the Casco Bay area for most of the 19th century, and one of their “settlements” in the mid-part of the century was a tiny island just a hundred yards off the Phippsburg peninsula. Soon enough, in the view of the whites, Malaga became “degenerate” and an eyesore (what with colorful mixed marriages, disregard of churches and schools, and the flagrant use of alcohol and tea, never mind that except for race, it resembled any number of poor white fishing communities) and not suitable for tourism, which by the turn of the century was in full pursuit of rich New Yorkers and Bostonians. The hubbub grew. Neither nearest town, Phippsburg to the east nor Harpswell to the west, wanted to take responsibility, so the Malaga-ites became wards of the state in 1905. Some white do-gooders started a school. Yet, in 1911, Governor Frederick Plaisted (a Democrat!) visited and took public offense (or was he up for re-election?); by 1912 all buildings were razed, the bodies in the cemetery (and a few living people as well) transported to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded, and the island deserted and desolate. It still is, for it is owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, with a Cabot and a Rockefeller on its Board, to “preserve its unique history.”
So the Gilded Age came shamefully apart in Maine. All that citified money had floated just out of reach of most Mainers, and then the Frenchies and the Negroes wanted to take jobs and lobsters as well?
Is this the motivation for hatred a hundred years later? The divisions between rich and poor are just as great, if not greater. The job losses are severe. The robber barons have merely changed industries.
But for most of the 19th century Maine could be proud of its accomplishments on race. John Brown Russwurm, the founder in 1827 of the country’s first black newspaper, New York’s Freedom Journal, was a Bowdoin College graduate (and the third black college graduate in the country). Bates College was founded in 1855 by abolitionists. There were some 70 stations on the Underground Railway in the state. A co-founder of Howard University was Oliver Otis Howard, Bowdoin Class of 1850. People say that the Civil War actually started in Brunswick, for Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote most of Uncle Tom’s Cabin there. And in the War itself, Maine sent more men to fight (as a percentage of population) than any other state but Massachusetts.
I’m not proud now. It appears that our strangulated white Anglo-Saxon suspicion has always been there. The public KKK quickly died out in the 1920s, but its private avatars fester, emerging in times of stress. We get even fiercer about retreating from the world and protecting our turf. We still fight the old revolution: Church and State shall not interfere in the business of our own acreage. The right to possess land is Biblical, and genetic.
No wonder division into simple black and white has such appeal. We can hate at a distance; we can believe that a black President will solve all of our problems. But the space between all colors and no color is where we live. Is hate a natural condition? Is hope? Is the 21st century any less contradictory than the 19th? Do I love Maine because of its beauty, or the need for reclusive peace, or plain escape from the troubles everywhere else? Yes, to all of the above, and more: I love the natural world’s color, so brilliantly on display in the skies and trees and flowers and waters, so simple in appearance, so complex in structure and interrelated, and so precious, and the warm and colorful humanity of the people who live in it and love it too, and I must find a way to confront, if not forgive, the black-and-white failings of those humans, which is mostly ignorance, I believe, not hate.
There’s a long way to go before this winter is over. Frozen white snow suffocates and oppresses. January offers no sign of spring save the piercing blues and reds and yellows that clothe Michelle Obama and her children. And that is enough, for now, to keep me looking up.
Jim Krosschell worked in science publishing for 30 years, starting as a 29-year-old production assistant, avoiding the real world until then by grad school, Peace Corps, travel and TESOL teaching. He has mostly retired now, writing essays and a blog http://onesmansmaine.blogspot.com, and dividing his time between Newton, MA and Owls Head, ME. His essays have been published, or are forthcoming, in Saranac Review, Louisville Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Southeast Review, Contrary, Hobble Creek Review, and others.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: Maine always inspires me, even on a cold, white/black day of winter woods, even in the cold, white/black ignorance of racism. Put that together with the thrilling walk of Michelle and Barack Obama down Pennsylvania Avenue on January 20, 2009 and I’ve got joy enough to last the bad times.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: Piano, definitely, and not only because I play. It's pretty much the only instrument that can produce plots and subplots. Feeling and hearing those connections is like the best moments of writing.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on a book about Maine, a social geography for tourists-in-residence (like me) who don't get to spend full-time in heaven.
Reconnaissance by Maris Venia
Followed by Q&A
At One Time
When I visit my parents in southeast Michigan, where I grew up, I take Monroe Street from their home into town. I drive past homes and past businesses and over the river. Now I know that at some point during this drive I’m traveling over a small cemetery almost 200 years old. I try to imagine how many times I’ve taken this route, something impossible to calculate, and I’m amazed I didn’t know what was beneath the surface until now. The markers that once told the stories of those who were buried there deteriorated and as the settlement continued to grow the cemetery was forgotten. Only much later, years and years after a town was established and the road was made, did an historian realize what was underground.
I think of these layers, and I wonder how many layers and how many bodies are below the asphalt and soil; I wonder if they feel the vibrations of cars driving above them. I wonder if they are, in fact, still living things in some sense, still as much a part of our town as they were when they walked its streets.
Michigan is a state in two parts: the Upper Peninsula—the U.P.—and the Lower Peninsula, the one shaped like a mitten, the one that Michiganders refer to by holding up their right hand and pointing to areas on their palms, indicating their hometown, college town, or other landmarks. We carry this map with us; it is a part of us, a constant reminder of where we’re from. We point to particular lines, freckles or discolorations that happen to coincide with the locations of important places on actual maps. Hold out your right hand, palm facing you: my hometown is under the thumb, it’s the rounded bone that juts out just above the creases of the wrist. Touch it, and in some sense you know something of me.
The Lower Peninsula and the U.P. are connected by the Mackinac Bridge. Last summer I crossed it. Miles of bridge, miles of water, and the threat of winds so strong that small cars are wary and brave; they know others have been carried over the rails and into the lake below. I had been there before, as a child, but I didn’t remember the trip outside my parents’ stories, so in some ways I was seeing this land for the first time.
This land is a part of Michigan that is sometimes forgotten. A part of our history we’d sometimes like to forget. A land stripped of its resources, mined for its timber and minerals underground. It isn’t what once was, but still it survives and heals.
Large sky. Blue. Two layers of a few thick, white clouds: one high, the other so low I could see the curve leading to the top. So low I felt that if I could have jumped high enough, I could have reached it.
Tall grass and Queen Anne’s lace, golden rod, clusters of purple flowers in stalks, yellow dots, clover. So many evergreens and birch; rows of silver maples whispered something soft, something lush: I listened.
Barns were in the distance. Fields harvested, rows of hay wrapped into smooth cylindrical bales spotting the landscape: beached whales, tan on the green expanse. Sun and the curve of the road.
Before me, dark shimmers across the pavement evaporated and reappeared.
In the winter, on the northern shores of the U.P., Lake Superior is a vast frozen stretch with heavy fault lines splitting it like a puzzle. The earth is cold and still, but the lake is alive: giant blocks of ice float on the dark waters and shift with the currents underneath.
Off the coast of the Lower Peninsula, in the Grand Traverse Bay, is the site of something like a Stonehenge. An arrangement of rocks found with sonar equipment far beneath the surface of the water. The rocks look purposefully positioned and a section of ridges on one rock looks like the carving of an animal.
The story is that perhaps a people settled here after the ice age, after the glaciers did their slow work, scraping down from the Artic, through Canada, through Michigan and beyond, creating deep gouges in the earth’s surface, taking and depositing soil and debris and rocks along its path, destroying and creating everything. Over time, water filled these gouges, these meandering lines, these craters, and they became rivers, lakes. Much later, the five largest were named the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. But maybe, before the water, there were people first. Like those who are beneath the earth in my hometown, I wonder about these people. I wonder who they were, where they came from, how long they lived in that space. Where did they go next? I try to imagine them, a blurry image, and I feel some connection, though it’s faint at first. I have been in that bay, stood on its shores, perhaps even where their feet once stood, leaving impressions in the sand. Their lives have left a marker, physical proof that they existed, and because of this, they still exist, their mysteries radiating below the skin of the water. Genetics fade, but they are my ancestors, my neighbors separated by centuries.
A few months ago I drove north through the middle of Michigan, through the middle of the “mitten,” to stay with my boyfriend while he worked at a conference for his job. Earlier that day the sky had been clear and bright, the sun had been out, reflecting off the snow—blinding—but by late afternoon the world was gray and white and the road was stretched before me.
Further north, where the sky is wider, where the freeway ends. To where it feels—really feels—like Michigan: the snow is more and colder, the trees are taller, the life more rural and the lakes more prominent. The landscape is fluid and hilly.
Up there—Up North, we say—are forests and Indian reservations and land between towns. There is a college and a casino. Snow mobiling in the winter, golf in the summer, hunting in the fall amidst more leaves and more colors than it seems possible: a shock of reds and yellows, something soft, almost pink, bright orange, dark purple, and dots of green and brown. I try to imagine how the land looked before—way before—when it was completely untouched and the country was young or not at all. All I can see are trees.
Further west from where I was, the land is patterned with rows and rows of vines and leaves, and dark, dark grapes, curving toward the horizon, the roots sunk deep into the earth, down through its layers. Beyond the vineyards is one of the lighthouses that dot the shores of Michigan. I was there recently: I parked under the cool of tall trees and walked through the sand to the lighthouse where I climbed the steep stairs to the top. The tide was low. Inside the look-out tower, I stood where so many lighthouse keepers have stood. I could see what they saw: sand and then a stretch of damp sand and soil spotted with smooth rocks and grasses, and then the water, blue and lapping until it met the sky. I wondered at the silence that must have inhabited many of the nights they stood watch. There is little else for miles around and would have been less at the time when the lighthouse was functioning. I scanned the water for ships that were not there, that I knew were not there, but that used to be; I could see outlines in the distance. I imagined the darkness of this place at night, a lantern in hand; thought of the lighthouse keepers climbing those stairs to signal to ships that rocks, that shallow waters were nearby.
Within the list of men who kept this lighthouse, there is one woman. Originally from Massachusetts, she moved to the Detroit area, then to this lighthouse, and then, after she retired, to my hometown, where she lived and was buried. In the photo of her displayed at the lighthouse, I noticed her long ruffled dress and imagined her climbing those stairs with all those layers at her feet. I wondered where she’s buried back home and if I’ve walked past her before. I wished I could have talked to her: someone bold and ahead of her time; I wished I could have known her. But I realized that maybe I do: she’s been there all along.
On my drive back to my parents’ house, across the state, I passed exits and directions I used to take. Exits along the expressway leading to old haunts, old selves. The ghosts of who I was last year, two years, ten years ago still roam those streets, still move in those bars where the same music plays, the same fashions dominate. Somewhere I’m taking my first trip to Lake Michigan, with friends, and I’m pale as always and the wind is cooler than we’d like, but it’s the beach and the sand between our toes and warm enough for now. There are others: distinctions in the landscape that resonate for me, reminders of pain or joy, areas that feel palpable, though there’s no way to hold them, no way to capture them in any way anymore. They drift invisibly across this land, and what’s left is me, in this car, scanning the horizon, searching for histories.
In a town in the upper portion of the “thumb” of the state, are drawings done by early Native Americans. Carved in sandstone, graffiti marking an earlier time. I want to run my hand across the rough surface and feel the distance between the lines, between the lines and me. I haven’t been there yet, but I imagine the texture under my fingertips and think of the mystery of what’s beneath them.
Near the mouth of a river that flows through west Michigan, there’s a town underneath the sand. A lumbering town that prospered until the trees ran out and the mills closed and the people moved and the winds continued to blow in from Lake Michigan until the sands covered what was left: three mills, two hotels, several homes and general stores. Though once a busy place, a home for many, it’s possible to walk that shoreline today unaware of what’s below the surface, unaware of what existed.
I think of a photo: it’s of me and my grandfather, and he’s sitting on the edge of the sandbox in our backyard while I hold a bucket in front of me, my one and a half year old body settled into the sand. The 2x8s that make up the sandbox look new: the edges still level and the seams where the boards meet still tight—devoid of the weathering that will come with rain and Michigan winters and general use—and so I assume this is my first time in the box that he had built for me.
But the box rotted and was dismantled years ago, and several families have occupied that house since we lived there. I can still feel the sand, though, always cool to the touch—a result of the box being built under the maple in the back, those seed pod airplanes twirling past us as my sister and I played under it as kids, the light filtering through the leaves and branches above, casting soft highlights on our skin, on the sand. The particular smell of my grandfather, sweet and comforting, and the scratch of his stubble against my cheek. This is gone, too, but remains in some way, housed somewhere within me, a part of what makes me. Though there is no way to hold it and, aside from the photo, no way to prove it, this is what I have.
Today is the first day of spring—brisk but sunny and almost clear. Along the highway are farms and fields with yellowed stalks from last year’s harvest, but beneath is dirt darkened to a rich brown from the recent melting of snow and yesterday’s rainfall. The salt and sand have washed off the pavement, off the barns, and off the cars around me. There is sun and there is earth and there is me.
How We Got Here
It’s early and cold outside. I can feel my breath against my skin and the steam from my coffee is thick. I bring the mug to my lips and watch as a few college students walk past my apartment building. I’m sitting on the top step, far enough out of view that they don’t notice me as they look ahead with sleepy eyes, the shock of an early September chill against the heat that was August rendering them mute.
He was here recently. It was a seven-hour drive for him—two coffees, three phone calls and one tollbooth from Michigan to Iowa—and then it was four days of him here after a month apart when I moved away.
In high school we knew each other but not well. We had classes together but I don’t remember which ones. Old photos are evidence that we were involved in some of the same activities and I try to recall our conversations or moments we shared, but my memory has become selective and I rely on fragments and images instead: the outline of his undershirts beneath the thin material of his button-ups—the thick ridge of the hem and the smaller ridges across the back—walking behind him in the halls and wanting to run my hand across his shoulders, feeling that texture under my fingertips. The sound of his voice, deep, and the sound of his music: the rhythm of drum beats from the stage across the gymnasium. Some sort of energy between us. When he picked me up in his dad’s Mustang for prom: the tremble of his hands and the heat that exuded from the lapels of his jacket as we stood near each other at the front door of my parents’ house.
The cement of the step I’m sitting on isn’t warming underneath me and my coffee is cooling too quickly, so I reenter my building, the smell of the hallway hitting me as I walk in. The smell is that of a nursing home and it comes from the first floor apartment of my 101-year-old landlady, who has lived here her entire adult life. She and her husband raised their family in this building and one of their children raised his family in it too. Tenants have moved in and out and on, her children and grandchildren have grown, her husband passed away some years ago, and now her great grandchildren visit, the cadence of their chatter filling Sunday afternoons.
As I make my way to the stairs, I glance at her door and the blue label on it which says “& Neita C.,” her husband’s name removed after his death. I hear the volume of her TV emanate through her door and out into the entry. She watches television—or listens to it—from early in the morning through the evening as her hearing, her sight, and her mobility are all severely limited. I wonder what she thinks of. And with each day so similar to the next, I wonder what she waits for and if she’s lonely.
In my apartment I reheat my coffee and read while I wait for my phone to ring. During the years after high school, he and I communicated briefly, exchanging a few e-mails and attempting to meet up for drinks. It wasn’t until later, after college, both of us settled into jobs away from the town we grew up in and living an hour apart from each other, that we finally did. There was the anticipation of his visit as he made his way to my city, and then his arrival: standing in my doorway, radiating the same kind of heat, the same kind of nerves as years before, but as we stood facing each other, there was some shift in atoms, some shift in space, something altered and unseen.
Now that I’m here—two states away—distance is measured differently: by the span of sheets or by the land between us—miles of highway and pavement, the wide sky and the expanse of fields and farms undulating on either side of the expressway.
When he was here last, my image of him now: his shirt moving and pulling as he scrubbed and rinsed and reached for another plate to wash. I watched the movement of fabric across his upper arms, shoulders, and back as I dried. I touched my hand to his side and he moved so I could get into a drawer; I stepped back so he could reach more dishes to wash. There was music from my stereo behind us but we were silent, and I wasn’t searching for something to say, I wasn’t waiting for anything this time.
And after dinner, after dishes, after the evening hours slipped away, he sleeps on his stomach, and I on my side, though we’re entangled during portions of the night—his arm around me or mine around him or us face to face.
It begins with cicadas; in my mind, it all begins with cicadas. In my backyard, they are buzzing right now; I can hear them. These insects are rarely seen, but their sound is loud and constant, shrill and familiar, their notes an electric chant. When you sit outside in the late summer, in the early fall, you can hear them, a sound both calming and unsettling. Today I sit on my back deck and watch sunlight and shadows create patterns on the weathered wood. It is late August and an early fall is setting in. They are humming. It begins this way: these insects, this sound.
As a child, during the summer, my parents, sister, and I watched reruns from the ‘50s and ‘60s on evening TV. The backdoor in the family room was propped open, windows too, and the exhaust fan at the other end of the house was whirring, drawing humid air up and out of the house through the stifling attic as cooler night air trailed in from the screens. Outside, the rush and zoom of cars from our busy street, occasionally a siren, and crickets crickets crickets from our backyard. The drone of the fan, laughter from the black and white shows flashing on the screen, lightning bugs and Mom filing her nails.
During the day, the feel of bare feet on pavement heated by the sun. That shiver. The smell of air and sun and leaves. Plumes of dust brought up by semis barreling down our potholed two-lane road, stirring up the dirt and gravel along its sides. The solid feel of my camera as I take photos of sunsets in pinks and purples and orange, thick black lines of telephone wires crisscrossing the foregrounds. In the distance, the tall smoke stacks of the energy plant, and beyond them, the massive potbelly stove stacks of the nuclear plant. Searching for the big dipper at night; summer: every day like this.
At night I lay in bed in my darkened room, car lights illuminating the space at first fast and then slow as the headlights lengthened across the walls or jumped up and down as cars made their way over the railroad tracks a few houses down. At ten o’clock every night, the distant and then loud chug of train gears and the shrill and hollow whistle: long, short, short, long—long, short, short, long…
Days and weeks went on like this until sometime in August or September when the cicadas emerged. I never knew where they came from—I still don’t—but I understood that when they could be heard, something new would soon follow: a new year in school with harder equations and longer lists of vocab, a new fall and winter with weather brought in from the Great Lakes; there would be new shoes, a new haircut and new teachers. But there was something else there, too: a longing, a calling—I couldn’t quite put a finger on it—there was a stir within me when I heard them, a desire for something more. I heard them every August of my youth, I heard them when I was eighteen—just before I moved away to school—and when I was out of college, living at home for a few months; I heard them before I moved out of state, and the weekend I knew I was falling in love, and every August since. I hear them now and try hard to decode what they say, but it’s impossible to know any specifics, their language rhythmic nonsense. Instead I wait and try to prepare myself. On the deck, the cicadas buzz and hum around me.
Maris Venia is a graduate of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa where she earned an MFA. She lives, writes, and teaches in Michigan.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: “Reconnaissance” is an essay collection in progress that explores the small town in Michigan where I grew up, the history of the town, and my relationship with it. Time, layers, distance, place, and memory are important factors in the essays.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: Drums, maybe...or a violin.
Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?
A: I enjoy editing. I like the destructive first part, when I'm cutting paragraphs, moving paragraphs, and adding new ones. And then the tedious second part: sentences, words, commas. The process of reading, re-reading, and reading again. I find it really satisfying to take a mess and make it something smooth and cohesive.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on Reconnaissance, a collection of essays mostly about my hometown of Monroe, Michigan.
Rusty Barnes Interviews Curtis Smith
Curtis Smith's stories and essays have appeared in over fifty literary journals including American Literary Review, Mid-American Review, Cut Bank, Night Train, Mississippi Review, Lake Effect, Greensboro Review, The Humanist, Passages North, South Dakota Review, Hobart, West Branch, William and Mary Review and many others. His work has been included in a number of anthologies and nominated for a half-dozen Pushcarts. His work has been named to the Best American Short Stories Distinguished Stories List, The Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Stories List, and the Notable Writing list of The Best American Spiritual Writing.
His first novel, An Unadorned Life, was released two years ago. March Street Press has released two collections of his short-short stories, Placing Ourselves Among the Living and In the Jukebox Light. The Species Crown, a collection of stories and a novella, was released by Press 53 in 2007, followed by Bad Monkey in 2009. Sound and Noise, his second novel, was put out by Casperian Books in 2008. His newest book is Witness from Sunnyoutside Press.
Rusty Barnes: In a way, Witness is a roundabout yet complex answer to the first question I thought of: how does fatherhood inform the rest of your life and your writing?
Curtis Smith: Fatherhood has given me a new set of eyes through which to consider my world. What more could a person, especially one who writes, ask for? It’s a real perspective shift—suddenly, every major decision is filtered first and foremost through what impact it will have upon my child. In terms of my writing, I feel much more privy to the emotions of my characters who are parents. It’s not a seismic shift, but in those terms, my work rings a bit more true—at least to me.
RB: Being a father certainly doesn't seem to affect your productivity. How do you manage to get that essential time for yourself?
CS: I think it comes down to how one views it. To me, writing is like exercise; it’s something you have to set time aside to do. That said, I write less than I used to—mainly because I’ve become comfortable with my process and I’m a bit more focused. What took me two hours ten years ago now takes me one—at least on a good day.
RB: Other than fatherhood, a focus of the book is to some extent your musing about agnosticism. The book was once titled “An Agnostic's Prayer.” Why the change?
CS: Titles are hard for me. For a while, I was going with “Agnostic’s Prayer” because it was not only one of the essays’ titles, but it also seemed to fit where a number of the pieces were coming from. Then I wrote “Witness,” and as both a title and as a shaping construct, it seemed more appropriate.
And yes, the subject of agnosticism often creeps into my work. I guess it’s something I’m still working out in my own head, so it’s inevitable that it will spill over into my work.
RB: You teach to make a living. Do your students make their way into your fiction at all?
CS: Parts of them—but never a complete whole. Essays are a different matter, but even there, I’ve tried to lend them a bit of a disguise.
RB: Do you think anything in your life is up for grabs as a writer, or are there subjects you don't or won't touch?
CS: There are a number of things I won’t write about. I may write essays, but in real life, I’m a pretty private person. And I think it’s important for me to respect the privacy of others, so I’m always careful about drawing others into my work.
RB: How does non-fiction fit into your normal writing life? Do you write it as the moment demands, or on assignment?
CS: I try to keep a couple projects going at the same time. This allows me to pull out the one that’s speaking to me at the moment. I’m usually juggling a cycle of stories and a novel. Sometimes essays come into the mix. It’s cool because when I do return to a project, I come back with a bit of perspective.
RB: Consistency of tone is one of the hallmarks of this great book. Under what conditions were these written, and over what period of time?
CS: The eighteen essays in Witness were written in about a six-year span—with most of them being written in a two-year time frame. I’d never written an essay before I saw a call for a special issue of The Mississippi Review about the war. I’d always enjoyed MR, so I gave it a try. Getting the piece accepted gave me a push and I started exploring the genre a little more. One piece led to another, and suddenly, I found myself considering the world around me through an essayist’s eyes rather than a fiction writer’s. It was an interesting experience.
RB: In my favorite essay from the book, “The Borders of Diane Arbus,” you write not only about Arbus, but about the social misfits and mentally challenged people who always seem to find you, "read[ing] something on my face that I have yet to understand." Have you any idea yet what that thing is that they see in you?
CS: I’m not sure. I’ve been working with people with disabilities for over thirty years. My guess is that I don’t look away, and I must offer a smile. Perhaps for someone who’s considering their surroundings with a bit of confusion, that’s enough of an invitation.
RB: I'm curious. What does your father think of your writing?
CS: I think he was proud. But we didn’t talk much about it. My mom is more of a reader than my father was.
RB: My mother is the one I agonize most about when my work heads toward home in any way. It's just an odd feeling I have when I know she's read or about to read something. Let's call it. . . discomfort. Is there something else working (beside the cliché mother-son/father-daughter issues) in parent-writer relationships? I feel as if I shouldn't reveal too much.
CS: I’m OK with my mom reading my work, and to her credit, she’s never questioned the boundaries of where my fiction meets real life. Now if I wrote an essay divulging something I myself was uncomfortable with, perhaps it would be a different story.
RB: Is the non-fiction easier or harder for you? I notice in your fiction a complete confidence in your skills, whereas the non-fiction feels no less crafted, but somehow more tentative, more searching. What do you think?
CS: I think the tone in Witness is more tentative because it is about searching and how one looks for answers in the muddle of our day-to-day lives. In fiction, I’d better have some sort of answer or grand design—many of my essays are about the search for that sense of structure and connection.
Writing non-fiction is harder for me than fiction. It’s almost a reverse process. I can impose form upon a story or novel. With nonfiction, I have to look around and try to find form within the elements of my life. For me, that’s much more difficult—but when it comes together, an essay has a much more satisfying feel.
RB: The Jessica Lynch/Lynndie England essay really intrigues me, especially as we uncover more and more (I'm thinking of the recent Wikileaks documents scandal) about the wars we're fighting. Do you praise or condemn Wikileaks, and why?
CS: I think that any information about the doings of our government or military that doesn’t imperil lives or jeopardize any current operations should be accessible to those living in a democracy. Neither individuals nor societies should fear their pasts.
That said, the whole Wikileaks thing seems to lack focus. I don’t think releasing a flood of information really qualifies as news or reporting. In that sense, it seems kind of sophomoric—making noise just for the sake of making noise.
RB: So is it safe to say we might see another collection of essays sometime down the road?
CS: I hope so. I’d love to put together another collection a few years down the line and work with David McNamara and Sunnyoutside Press again.
RB: What's next on your writing path?
CS: I have a new novel that’s out being read. I’m about halfway through placing stories from a new collection. And after a long hiatus, I’ve been returning to essays. I’m busy, but only in the best of ways.
Rusty Barnes is the editor of Night Train and proprietor of Fried Chicken and Coffee, a blogazine of rural and Appalachian concerns. His work has appeared in nearly two hundred journals, newspapers and anthologies. Sunnyoutside Press published his flash collection Breaking it Down (2007) and his collection of traditional stories, Mostly Redneck (2011). His comprehensive interview of DeWitt Henry, author of The Marriage of Anna Mae Potts, Safe Suicides, and Sweet Dreams: A Family History will appear in Night Train's next issue.
Witness by Curtis Smith
(Sunnyoutside Press, Buffalo, NY, 2010)
Reviewed by Jessica Handler
An essay collection that opens with the phrase, “there’s a spot on your child’s heart,” tells us immediately where it’s headed: parenthood, worry, and, we hope, a positive outcome to a danger-ridden start. Curtis Smith’s Witness accomplishes this and much more.
In “Vision,” the first of eighteen connected essays, Smith diverts us instantly from that opening line delivered by his wife’s physician reading her ultrasound, back to his own childhood faith in the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, and astronauts among the Aztecs. How could this lost belief in chance fail to intercede in rescuing his unborn son’s health?
With focus on the personal and the larger world, “Witness” observes that son’s early childhood and its effects on his meditative father. As witness, Smith observes his child’s life and the world they both inhabit.
Quotidian concerns loom large for a dad and his boy. In “Giraffe,” two toys are his child’s confidantes and talismans, while in “Ink,” Smith at first resists the hipster’s urge to get a tattoo, finally succumbing and having his son’s birth date inscribed on his shoulder. It’s in “The Prettiest Lie,” though, where the inner and outer life of a father beautifully collide, as Smith convinces himself, as the Beltway snipers crowd the news, that “everything’s going to be okay.”
The strongest forays into that territory of father, son, and bearing witness to the untrustworthy world are in the essays “On a Free Press,” in which Smith recalls his mother excising photos of “see through blouses or pot smoking hippies or mass graves” from the family’s Life magazines during the Vietnam War, and “Two Women,” in which the photographs of Jessica Lynch’s rescue, and Lynndie England’s snapshots of the torture perpetrated at Abu Ghraib, “lend the illusion of neutrality.” In each, Smith puts forward images of insidious danger that surround the most regular of lives lived in wartime, as the Life magazines in his childhood home “nestled beneath the candy dish and a vase of plastic daisies.”
The eponymous essay, “Witness,” bookends the collection. Smith breaks form here, with paragraphs short and insistent as heartbeats—a kind of ultrasound in their own way—as his father fades and dies of a stroke. Fathers have fathers, he shows us, and “there is nothing I can do but be a witness to the inevitable. Please, let me do that well.”
Smith does this well indeed, as witness, writer, and father. The end page of the collection is a joyous nod to his son and the circle that generations make. Here, his toddler son’s lumpen, earnest scribble of a man’s form, merely a loop with limbs, promises a future. Of his son’s “first man,” Smith asks, “Is it you? Is it me?”
Curtis Smith’s readers, as well as his son, are in the very best of hands.
Jessica Handler’s first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009) is one of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Eight Great Southern Books in 2009” and Atlanta Magazine’s “Best Memoir of 2009.” Her nonfiction has appeared in Tin House, Defunct.com, r-kv-ry.com, More Magazine, Ars Medica, and The Chattahoochee Review, and is forthcoming in New South. She received the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and a special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. Handler teaches creative writing in Atlanta.
Janice Phelps Williams is a book designer and illustrator living in Athens, Ohio. She has produced more than 250 books and is also the founder of Lucky Press, LLC, a publisher with 30 titles. Janice is currently working on illustrations for a second children’s book. See more illustrations similar to the cover at www.gallery.janicephelps.com.