Welcome to Issue No. 53 of Prime Number

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A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose

LETTER FROM THE PUBLISHER

Dear Readers,

As the publisher of Prime Number Magazine, and founder of Press 53, I asked editor Clifford Garstang if I could write the introduction for Issue 53, which is a landmark issue for a couple of reasons. First, and obviously, it is Issue 53, a number that I have considered lucky since childhood and a number that has proven to be lucky into adulthood. When asked, “Why 53?” I tell a very long story, which leaves anyone who asked wishing he or she hadn’t. So I will just say here: “I liked the way it looked and felt. And I figured that the odds of someone also having my lucky number decreased if it were two digits.” (I would like to note that I chose 53 a couple of years before Disney bestowed it on Herbie, that cute little Volkswagen Beetle in Herbie the Love Bug.)

The other reason this is a landmark issue is that it marks the completion of Prime Number Magazine’s fourth year of publication. From the beginning we wanted Prime Number Magazine to be a fun and rewarding experience for readers and writers. We publish the magazine quarterly, and every three or four weeks we publish new prose and poetry as “Prime Decimals,” which is our way of adding new content to the current issue so our readers don’t go into withdrawal between quarterly issues.

What began as an idea that Cliff brought up while we drove between bookstores in North Carolina about four and a half years ago, has now become one of the finest literary magazines published today, featuring works ranging from widely published, award-winning authors and poets to those who are publishing for the first time. 

A prime number is a number that is divisible only by one and itself, so with Prime Number Magazine we strive to publish writing that is unique, individualistic, and exceptional. Cliff and his editors, Valerie Nieman (Poetry), Jon Chopan (Nonfiction), and Brandon D. Shuler (Book Reviews), look for writing that takes them along new paths and brings to them fresh perspectives; writing that engages their senses, emotions, and minds in new ways, which we all hope will deliver the same experience to our readers. And in this issue, our editors have doubled the experience with almost twice the content we normally publish.

I raise my virtual glass of Pinot Noir to Issue 53 of Prime Number Magazine, to Clifford Garstang for his leadership and vision, to Valerie, Jon, and Brandon, for their valuable contributions, to Press 53 Fiction Editor Christine Norris for managing our free, monthly 53-Word Story Contest, to all our writers for trusting us with their words, and to you, our readers, for letting us know that you share our love for distinctive prose and poetry. Cheers!

Kevin Morgan Watson, Publisher

 

Letter from the Editor

Dear Readers,

It's time for another issue! And we think it's a good one. As Publisher Kevin Watson says in his letter above, to celebrate this milestone--Issue 53, the end of our 4th year of publishing Prime Number Magazine--we've given you an enlarged issue--more fiction, more poetry, more essays, more reviews.

To see work from previous issues, check out the Archives, or order Editors' Selections Volumes 1, 2  and 3, shipping now from Press 53. These three volumes are beautiful books and contain some excellent poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Plus, Volume 3 has an interview with Pam Houston that you won't find anywhere else.

We are currently reading submissions for Issue 53 updates, Issue 59, and beyond. Please visit our Submit page and send us your distinctive poetry and prose. We’re looking for flash fiction and nonfiction up to 750 words, stories and essays up to 5,000 words, poems, book reviews, craft essays, short drama, ideas for interviews, and cover art that reflects the number of a particular issue. If we’ve had to decline your submission, please forgive us and try again!

And as we begin our fifth year, we're making a few staff changes. Jon Chopan, who has been Nonfiction Editor for the past year, shifts to take over the duties of Fiction Editor. And we'd like to welcome Amy Monticello, our new Nonfiction Editor. (I'll be remaining with the magazine as Editor in Chief.)

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

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

Clifford Garstang

Editor

Table of Contents, Prime Number Magazine

Issue 53, April-June 2014

FICTION

Stephanie Carpenter

Priming the Crop

 

Stan Lee Werlin

Wreckage

 

Perle Besserman

Waiting

 

Kimmo Rosenthal

Reading Murnane at 4AM (The Consolation of Possibility)

 

C.L. Bledsoe

If Two of Them Are Dead

 

Andrea Lewis

Thinks Like the Color of the Sky

 

J.T. Townley

Workshop

 

Katie Darby Mullins

How to Listen to Otis Redding After Your Husband Leaves

 

POETRY

Mark Jay Brewin

Five Cigarettes

Mix-tape (#3) with the One I've Played Too Much

Agape

 

Kathryn Stripling Byer

Literary Conventions

Forecast

And So On

Winter Kitchen

 

Lauren Camp

Hush-4

My Ever-loving Heart

The Night Clouds Wrestled the Sky

 

Faith Holsaert

Removal

Snow Day

 

Simon Perchik

5 Poems

 

NONFICTION

B.J. Hollars

Blood Feathers

 

Donna Steiner

The Science of Light

 

Katie Ray

A Friendship

 

BOOK REVIEWS

Kim Church

Review of Elaine Neil Orr's A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa (Includes Interview at end)

 

Curtis Smith

Review of Terence Hawkins's  American Neolithic (Includes Interview at end)

 

Catherine Prescott

Review of Catherine Staples's The Rattling Window

 

Prime Number Decimals

Prime Decimals 53.2

Prime Decimals 53.3


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Priming the Cop by Stephanie Carpenter

Followed by Q&A

—Look there.  

So I do. A weather advisory on television. 

—There’s a hard frost coming late tonight.  

Coming from where or how or why I do not know.  

—Will we drink coffee, sit up late, light smudge pots beneath the trees? 

By the look on his face, I know that I am disdained, outsider and optimist, stupid girl. I am tactless or foolish, to be asking such questions, as if having a farm were having a party.

No doubt I should feel ashamed, to be thrilled by this threat, by the romance of burning chimneys arrayed in a dark orchard. The farmer and I, working all night to save his cherry crop—and what if we really were to fail, the new blossoms wilting like crepe paper gone damp? I would trail after him then, his apprentice, having exhausted my book learning, hoping that he might remember a lesson taught to him by another farmer, of some older tragedy, overcome. And if he did, afterward we would run back to his house, the frostbitten blossoms kissing our faces, the orchard reborn, our livelihoods secured—and it might seem as if the farmer were a younger man, mine. All the way down the dirt road home our boots would make the frozen mud crack—a sound more exciting than deadly—and we would trade embraces back and forth, clasp hands, our faces shining and ageless in the fragile light. Only under the yellow bulb in the back hallway would we remember ourselves: me, a college girl, a finagler of off-campus study grants, a supposed lover of the land, struck by the notion to be a fruit farmer; and him, a fruit farmer. Maybe then he would put his hat off and on and I would find a difficult knot in my bootlace, so that we wouldn’t look at each other until the dangerous moments had passed, and he was an old man again, and I, a plump, foolish girl.  

This farm hunkers on a prime plot of land, hundreds of acres near the end of a peninsula; from the rattled windows of the farmer’s tall house we can see two blue bays of Lake Michigan, dark and boatless at this time of day and emanating cold, still, at this time of year. Most nights, after we eat our separate dinners and wash our separate dishes, the farmer telephones his mother, downstate in an assisted living facility, and I sit in a Shaker chair at the old kitchen table and reflect on what I’ve learned that day, typing up whatever fruit facts or pseudo-sociological observations occur to me in these interminable moments. Most of the other orchards have been sold off to real estate developers or plowed under and planted with grapes; most of the other farmers have retired now to Florida, or have turned into vintners, with tasting rooms in the old outbuildings, vats of grapes fermenting where the soaking bins once stood, and wine tourists navigating the peninsula in wobbly caravans. The farmer’s mother is past ninety, but every night, for hours, she lectures him on the proper maintenance of the cherry trees (telling him when to spray, prune, pick, sell), and it is a wonder to me that he can bear to be apart from her, tall broad woman wearing pants even in her wedding photo; indomitable woman whose six children were born in this very house. If I am nothing next to him, I am less than nothing compared to her, and yet the farmer has loaned me her tall old bed, whose creaks console me these nights I can’t sleep—because my thesis is a compilation of anecdote and pressed cherry blossoms, and because my senior spring is unfolding far from campus, where is it likely that no one will visit, and no care packages come. 

On this clear cool night I cannot find harbingers of frost, insensitive as I am to the climate here: to the smells of the northern air, the criss-crossing breezes off the two bays, the phases of the moon, which I notice only when the moonlight grows strong enough to brighten my room, lighting the black trees below, rendering them haiku-like in beauty and defiant of all my attempts to photograph or sketch them. The farmer and I have finished our nightly rituals by the time the frost advisory is announced on the news; I have asked my questions—will there be coffee, wakefulness, smudge pots?—and he has given me a look like a king would a commoner, as if surprised, given the content of what I have uttered, that I am capable of speech at all, a being below him, dumb as a dog but not quite as serviceable or handsome.  

—Yes, he says slowly, and I am pleased that I can at least name the procedures, even if I do not know, not for a single minute, what it is like to make a living at the mercies of weather and agritourism; but though I cannot sympathize with him in these respects, I do know—I think I have always known—what it feels like to be left alone in an emptied house, disregarded, and unsure whether the larger world exists or matters. 

This early in the growing season migrant workers have not yet arrived in Michigan—their cinderblock quarters stand dark and spider-filled behind the pole barn (and it must mean something that I am sleeping in the farmer’s house, rather than in one of these dank cabins)—so it will be up to the two of us, the farmer and me, to fill the smudge pots ranged between the trees, to light those pots, to keep them lit, all night until the sun rises and drives off the killing frost. I need you to work like a man, he says, and coughs, as if embarrassed by this lapse in our etiquette, which so far has consisted of never acknowledging that the other person has a gender, no matter what thoughts we’re thinking instead of writing our thesis; I imagine he coughs also for his mother, who could do the work of both of us, if her heart hadn’t started to give out, if her hands were not gnarled like tree roots, from having begun work in the orchards before she was even old enough for elementary school.  

It is a long, cold night—longer by several factors than the most desperate all-nighter I pulled at college—but the man that the farmer had hoped to find in me does emerge, even if his muscles are hidden by my round body; even if he cries to himself as he works up and down the endless rows of trees, lighting pots with a diesel torch and waiting as the farmer adjusts the roaring flames; and even if he realizes hours before daybreak, half-choked by smoke and staggering into saplings, that he does not have the fortitude to be a farmer. When morning comes at last, when at last the mercury rises, the crop will be safe, the sun will be bright, the farmer will be (at least temporarily) relieved, and—caked in soot, sweat, tears—I will fall fully dressed into the farmer’s mother’s bed, to be awakened at noon by a knock at my door, a cough, and an invitation to share the farmer’s ham and eggs, to take my place opposite him at the scored kitchen table, where, many years ago, like me, he did his school work, plotted his future, and weighed whether or not he could become a farmer.

—You did good last night, he says. You did good, but you ought to get back to school.

Of course I have anticipated this, from the beginning, a quiet moment like this when my internship would come into question, when someone—farmer, parent, friend—would question my right to be here, would cast me back into my other life. But why now? Out the kitchen window, all I see are blurred cherry trees, at the earliest stage of their slow ripening. Each bud saved by us. Maybe it is too much for him, too, this life of constant heroism. Maybe he’d like to leave—like me.

—Will you sell? 

The farmer eyes me, eyes his orchard, and I wonder how many hard harvests he has seen. He has estimated me rightly; I am no substitute for the son he never had, the wife he didn’t seek or never found. But we both smell of burnt oil; we both have our heads full of smudge pots and paper blossoms. And why not?

The farmer shakes his head, looks away. —Too late.

 

 

Stephanie Carpenter’s work has appeared in Big Fiction, Crab Orchard Review, turnrow, Avery, The Saint Ann’s Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Syracuse University and a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri. She lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—where, at press time, it is probably still snowing.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: In graduate school, my workshop instructor asked us to invent writing exercises for ourselves. I decided to use prime numbers as my constraint: each sentence in the story is a successive prime number of words in length, from 2 to 103. The end of the story breaks from this pattern, but the word counts of those sentences are also prime numbers. I didn’t know what the story would be when I began writing, but as the first short lines took shape, this subject suggested itself. I’m from Traverse City, Michigan—the Cherry Capital of the World—so cherries and the complexities of growing them are pretty deeply ingrained in my consciousness.

 

Q: What does your writing space look like?

A: It’s a slope-ceilinged attic with a chimney running up the middle. I don’t like desks, so I tend to work from a chaise lounge, with my laptop in my lap. 

 

Q: What’s your writing process?

A: Turn off the internet for two hours; write. Repeat if things are going well.

 

Q: What living writer do you admire most and why? Is there a particular book you refer to again and again?

A: I love the complexity and intelligence of Claire Messud’s characters. I go back to Rebecca Curtis’s stories for help with plot, characterization through imagery, dialogue…just about everything, really.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve got a couple of short stories underway and a pair of novellas in the planning stages. The novellas are historical in setting, as is my first novel, which is currently on the market.


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Wreckage by Stan Lee Werlin

Followed by Q&A

At 1:31 PM, David Valensky jerks the dusty, bug-spattered rental car into the open left lane for the fifth time and bears down again to pass the vehicle they’ve been tailing since leaving Canyon de Chelly. It has grown from an indistinct gray hump to a maroon SUV bearing Utah plates with the numbers and letters partially obscured by a layer of thick, baked-on mud, and now they’re climbing up its backside. 

He glances over at Svetlana. The rising heat and the endless smooth motion of the car lulled her to sleep thirty minutes earlier. She hasn’t gained much on the horrendous fatigue she accumulated before they started this vacation, and he knows she’ll now sleep for several hours, deeply and without dreams. A thin sheen of perspiration moistens her neckline as the air conditioning strains to keep up with the blazing mid-day sun. The pink tee-shirt she picked up in Moab is already damp and rumpled, a look she hates. 

 

1:32 PM

Staring out over the brown, patchy landscape, he thinks back on the last ten days. The vacation has been a disaster from the get-go. They had bickered fruitlessly on the plane to Salt Lake, arguing about the inconsequential and ridiculous, his failure to pack the prescribed number of briefs, her forgetfulness in leaving behind the hiking boots. Each of them knew these things were their combat camouflage, desert gray ovals fused with irregular sandy white circles, mountain greens interwoven with earthy browns, the uniforms of illusion they wore with each other so they could sidestep the deeper truths. They shielded themselves brilliantly from each other’s armaments, the cache of weapons that, if ever unleashed, would surely strip away the cover-ups, unmasking disappointment and failure.

Failure. Their problems reduced to this piercing singularity. His. Hers. But in his mind, mostly his. He perceives their issues, important or otherwise, as entirely the consequence of his own imperfections. It’s an inaccurate assessment, disproportionate and cruel, but deeply embedded. His psyche is an open wound, twisted and disfigured.

He knows about her affair. He is certain that she does not know that he knows, and he’s right about that. Fourteen years married, he has seen her roving eye in action, watched her at restaurants, at corporate affairs, at hospital fundraisers where she openly admires the handsome waiters, the polished, distinguished senior partners, the carefully manicured hospital executives. She will often lure them into a sassy, provocative conversation with a flirtatious smile or a well-executed turn to the side, her back arched just enough to playfully throw her ample breasts into a delicious profile. Secretly, perversely, it turns him on when he sees it—he loves her, doesn’t he?—and he feels the stirrings and pressure in his groin she has always caused. But it’s not his stirrings and pressure that concern him right now. It’s those of Elliott Cooper, the Medical Director of her surgical group practice, whose manhood he would like to sever carefully with her 

most precious scalpel, the one she uses for the initial incision of her most challenging surgeries. He sees himself washing the blood away and bathing it with formaldehyde or some other fixative in a mason jar, shaking the jar and watching it undulate a moment in the thick, viscous liquid as the chemicals begin to firm the flesh, a grotesque reminder of the gruesome price of her infidelity. 

They each wonder privately why they didn’t cancel the vacation. They know they are coming up to a dark brown place in the marriage, and survival is not assured. But they’ve been to these western parks and national monuments once before, in their happiest times, and secretly they’re each thinking it could be an opportunity for resuscitation. Breathe deeply, my sweet, cleanse your lungs, purify your body. Begin again.

Despite perfect weather—flawless blue skies, dry, bracing mornings that quickly give way to scorching heat and an occasional stray thundercloud—they can’t seem to get untracked. Escalante, Arches National Park, Canyonlands all bore them. At Bryce, with its fairytale limestone castle formations and the easy descent to the canyon floor, they go through the motions: a few photographs, the obligatory rim drive. No hiking, not even the easy trails; they are content in the cool recirculating air of their cramped rental car, a prison cell of their own choosing. It’s almost like solitary confinement. They don’t even stop in Zion. Say something, she thinks. Say anything.

Each morning, David vows to tell her how the day before they left he was unceremoniously fired. But he can’t do it. She knows he was on the verge of the promotion that would ensure his position in the firm, the progression to Managing Director, the money, the prestige, the security. She’ll never understand. He barely does. He shot his mouth off to a know-it-all client—politely, but with that unmistakable air of disdain he can’t mask when he’s on the receiving end of arrogance and belittlement. The client was his boss’s college roommate and best man. Exit David, career in ruins. Go directly to jail, do not pass GO, do not collect $200. 

When David thinks about the affair, the firing, the crumbling marriage, he envisions his life as a series of devastating accidents, the wreckage strewn everywhere. Here, at the site of a murderous plane crash, he sees his wife’s smile reflected fleetingly off the twisted metal of an engine that has rolled across a golden field of wheat and come to rest awkwardly against a barrel-shaped bale. Before he can reach it, the reflection turns from a smile to a torn, bloodied mouth and disappears. There, in one of the charred, ruined first class seats still smoldering at a lethal train derailment, he sees his briefcase crushed, its contents destroyed, the computer containing his entire life’s work flattened like scrap metal on the way to a salvage yard somewhere in northern New Jersey. There are signs of ruination everywhere in the detritus he imagines: body parts, clothing in flames, pieces and parts of their most precious keepsakes scattered across the plowed up, steaming landscape. The hectoring voices of his parents, demanding and intolerant, echo over and

over in his head, knifing home once again the old familiar pressures from high school and college, even from his grad school days.

In Las Vegas, there’s a breakthrough of sorts. 

“Wallensky?” she says. It’s her most affectionate term of endearment for him, a riff on his last name, spoken with a w interchanged for the v, the way she prefers he pronounce Svetlana. Swetlana.

“Dr. Petrova-Wallensky?” he throws back playfully. He smiles at her. “Petrova, what’s on your mind?” They’ve got a suite high up in the Mandalay Bay, two bedrooms, an absurdly spacious living room. There’s a stunning view of the glittering Strip below.

“Do you think we’ll be OK?” Her voice is timid, uncertain. So much is unsaid between them. So much ground to be covered. The promises they’ve made. Their mutual expectations, their individual ambitions. Her rise. His fall. The affair. The wine has fogged his mind, and he knows it’s no time to be serious. She throws her hair back, flowing and luxuriant, that Slavic iridescent black with its bluish hues radiant and almost painfully alluring. The movement invites him to the soft, dark skin of her neck. It is so unexpected that it takes him a moment to react.

“Do you want us to be OK?” he asks, moving to her side, touching his fingers to her closed eyelids, the bridge of her nose, the perfect white teeth her slightly parted lips have exposed. She doesn’t answer. They close the bedroom door softly, open the curtains to the bright lights of the night to charge the moment with an erotic current. When he touches her, he finds that she is already wet with anticipation, a river of fierce, unexpected desire. 

The next day, on the way to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, her cell phone rings. She listens with the phone pressed tightly to her ear as if to contain the sound, suppress the vibrations of whatever is being said. David can hear only the muffled words of a male voice. 

Finally, she speaks. “No, Elliott, that’s just not possible. No, no…I can’t. See if you can get Chandravarti to do the procedure. Truthfully, she’s as good as I am for this.” She listens another moment. “Only in a genuine emergency. Please.” There is no goodbye. She closes the phone and powers it off, her face suddenly closed and brooding as if deep gray storm clouds were scudding toward them, bringing a deluge to ruin the sweeping vista stretching out to the distant horizon.

She turns to David. His eyes glance away from the road to look at her for only a second or two, trying not to show his disgust—no, his contempt—that Elliott, he of the fancifully embalmed genitalia, has actually called her when he knows how overwrought she has 

been for many months now. “It’s a complicated surgery. It was scheduled for the day after we get back, but Elliott thinks we can’t wait that long. You heard what I said. But if he calls back again, God, I don’t want to hear myself say this, I’m sorry, but if he does call again, can we find a way to shorten the rest of the trip?”

Shorten the trip, he thinks. For always and always, until death us do part. He chews on this slowly, digesting the import of what he is about to say. He bites off each word. “Yes, Petrova. We. Can. Shorten. The. Trip.”

 

1:37 PM

David turns into the passing lane once more, pulls even with the maroon SUV. The road looks clear, its gritty, pock-marked surface an endlessly straight pathway to the far off, indistinct horizon. Four miles ahead on the shimmering pavement, barely a speck at that distance, an eighteen-wheeler is heading in their direction. They are hurtling toward each other, but lulled by the heat, his eyes drifting to the desert on his left, David is distracted and pays no attention to the looming whiteness. Has the SUV sped up? Suddenly it seems to be keeping pace with him. He presses the accelerator more firmly, trying to gain speed and front end clearance.

The SUV’s driver side window is opening, scrolling down. The driver’s profile has come into view, a young man in his early or mid-twenties. He’s gesturing to David, pinrolling his left hand as if he wants David to open the passenger window of the rental car. He’s 

holding a cigar, and now he’s thrusting forward with it, pointing toward the open roadway up ahead. There is only the far off semi. What’s he trying to say? Does he think they’ve entered a game of chicken at 85 miles per hour? There is a passenger in the SUV, a male considerably older than the driver. He leans over the steering wheel, grinning at David, then thrusts his right arm into view, clenching his fist. He tightens his bicep, a body-builder’s physique, rippling its blue and red rattlesnake tattoo. David feels a frisson 

of excitement at this, an inexplicable surge of adrenalin. The passenger has a swarthy, unkempt look. He’s unshaven and grizzly, maybe the driver’s father, maybe his pimp. If this man were to open his mouth, David is certain he would see a single shining gold tooth, a tooth that signals criminality, or a gaping space where such a tooth might be. 

David thinks the driver is quite handsome, a James Dean face, square-jawed, entrancing blue eyes. He admires this face, so clean-looking, so young, though not innocent. Definitely no longer innocent and naïve. David’s state of mind is deteriorating quickly now. He finds himself thinking absurd, sick thoughts about the driver’s life as a gigolo, bound in slavery to his passenger who is bringing him to Mexico where he will service the wealthy Latinas, plump and buxom senoras, svelte, anorexic senoritas, and the occasional ricachon.

 

1:38 PM

The driver who is now a gigolo on his way to Mexico points forward with his cigar once again. His mouth curling into a snarl, he throws the cigar onto the hood of David’s rental 

car where it rolls into the shallow gulley below the windshield washers, its phallic swollen mass coming to rest like something obscene and fecal. That’s when David notices that the speck up ahead has turned into something well-defined, the silver vertical exhaust pipes gleaming in the sun on both sides of the square featureless cab. There’s a shape in there that might be the driver’s head or a passenger, perhaps the driver’s son. David’s stomach turns over; his heart is hammering. He does not look at the gigolo as he 

hits the accelerator pedal again. He is no longer racing or passing. The way he likes to think about it, he’s just….shortening the trip.  

 

1:39 PM

With his right arm David reaches over toward the passenger seat to touch his wife. The fingers of his right hand first trace the small bony structures at the top of her shoulder, then move across her neckline, the place he used to love to kiss, the place she used to love him to kiss, and then to the rise of her breast. In his mind he hears Dylan singing the lyrics that have haunted him for so many years. And if my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.    

Now comes the tricky part. He sets his left knee against the steering wheel to keep it steady and turns his head and shoulders toward the passenger seat, reaching for Svetlana with his left hand to shake her awake. He wants to be looking into her eyes when it happens. He glances into the back seat, imagines for just a moment that there is a child there, a phantom daughter, seven or eight years old, the Nadia or Elena for whom they never had time. He sees so much in that one moment. He sees her lying across the back seat, sleeping, and when he awakens her she hears, as he does, the urgent low pitch of the eighteen-wheeler’s horn bellowing at them uselessly. She says to him in her hoarse, carefree voice “Daddy, are you crying? Why are you crying? Daddy?” Through the rear window he sees that the gigolo has desperately braked the maroon SUV, screeching off the roadway. David watches it disappear behind them down a shallow embankment, 

careening onto the hard-packed desert floor. Laughing at their cowardice, he holds Svetlana’s hand very tightly as he pushes the gas pedal to the floor.  

At last, Svetlana startles awake. David slips his knee forward and wedges his thigh, his straining, rigid quadriceps, tightly against the steering column, trying to lock it in place. He looks into Svetlana’s eyes as he digs the fingers of his hands into her soft, trusting flesh. He envisions the wreckage. 

 

 

Stan Lee Werlin’s short stories have previously appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Los Angeles Review, and Sheepshead Review, with another story forthcoming in Glassworks. Since 1987, his humorous children’s poetry has been published in children’s magazines including Cricket, Spider, Highlights for Children, and Odyssey, as well as in several anthologies. He is an avid reader, enjoys competitive tennis and online Scrabble, and is a lifelong fan of the Boston Bruins!

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: Driving to New Hampshire for a family vacation when I was 9 or 10, my father turned the car into the left lane of a two lane road, misjudged the distance of an oncoming car, and wound up driving into the breakdown lane on the far left and then completely off the roadway to avoid a headlong collision. A few years ago, when my wife and I were driving in remote Arizona from Canyon de Chelly to Sedona, I pulled us out into the left lane of a two lane highway to pass the car we were trailing. I daydreamed a moment and came out of it to find an eighteen wheeler heading toward us and the car I was passing still abreast of us on the right. I had about 20 seconds to pass or pull back and it was completely unnerving. The story gradually formed from these two incidents. 

I’ve always been fascinated by the human capacity to reach a flashpoint at which rational behavior—overcome by emotions, anger, stress, loss, humiliation, failure, a chance word, or who knows what other causes—suddenly disappears. And I don’t think IQ has much to do with it. I think—like the character David Valensky in "Wreckage"—we all harbor the capacity for unpredictable, violent, and horrific post-flashpoint behavior. Fortunately, for most people, it is never triggered. 

 

Q: What does your writing space look like?

A: Nothing special. Desk and laptop. 

 

Q: What’s your writing process?

A: I seem to need extreme quiet. Without the muse, there's no point in trying to force the writing. When the muse is present, I can't not write. 

 

Q: What living writer do you admire most and why? Is there a particular book you refer to again and again?

A: James Lee Burke. His insight into the human psyche and his ability to write about his characters in ways that reveal their psyches is breathtaking. To me his police/crime genre novels are literature in its finest sense.  

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Several short stories underway, waiting for the muse.


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Waiting by Perle Besserman

Followed by Q&A

Aryeh had come too early to the airport. His cousin Leo’s fax had informed him that Stella Richter, his girlfriend Harriet’s widowed ex-mother-in-law, would be landing at seven in the evening. It was now only five-thirty. Except for the airline, flight number, and time of arrival, and an oblique reference to Mrs. Richter’s “tragic circumstances,” Leo hadn’t even included a description of the woman Aryeh was supposed to meet. 

Removing the crumpled message from his pocket, Aryeh read it for the twentieth time. A testy maintenance man in a baggy jumpsuit and high rubber boots was trying to mop the floor under his seat. 

“Do you want me to get up, friend?” Aryeh said, annoyed, though his voice was low-pitched and polite. It might be that the maintenance man was a security agent in disguise. Then again, knowing his countrymen as well as he did, it might be just a rude maintenance man at that. 

“Not at all, you needn’t get up on my account,” said the mustached man, resting his chin on his mop handle. 

I’ve been sitting here too long; that’s what it is. I look suspicious, Aryeh thought, getting up and making a conciliatory gesture with his hand. Thank heaven for these security boys. Aryeh elbowed his way through a crowd of Scandinavian tourists to the coffee bar and ordered an espresso. Leaning against the packed counter, he eyed himself in the mirror over the bar. Reflecting back at him was a dour-faced man in protracted mourning wearing a shabby gray jacket and pants, unfashionably pointed wing-tip shoes, and with hair so long that even his son referred to him, in English, as, “My father, the hippie.” What would the American lady think of him? 

Leo didn’t give me enough time to reflect on this, to prepare, or to refuse, he thought, trying at the same time to avoid the frank gaze of the girl in the white cap who was standing in front of him at the counter waiting for him to pay for his coffee. 

“How do I present myself to a stranger, a woman I’ve never met before?” he’d asked his daughter Naomi in Jerusalem on the telephone that morning, immediately after the fax had arrived. 

“Tell her you’re a widower with a wounded son to take care of,” Naomi had advised him. “Tell her you’re still mad with grief over your wife who’s been dead for four years. If she’s rich, let her take you to the Hilton for dinner. Try to be your usual adorable self, Abba. Try not to be distracted; don’t smoke like a chimney if you can help it; and above all, don’t go on about your being a Freemason and a believer in the Brotherhood of Man and all that. Stay out of arguments about the Arabs.” 

Unlike her gentle brother Yosef, Naomi could joke about such things. Her appointment as assistant professor of philosophy at the precocious age of twenty-seven had made her proud and more than a little caustic. Maybe, too, the fact that she had lost her fiancé in a skirmish on the Golan Heights. Now she no longer seemed interested in dating, but devoted every minute of her time to preparing her courses and to some arcane piece of work she was writing that had to do, she’d once let drop, with an eighteenth-century British philosopher whose name he’d forgotten. Now that Naomi lived alone in Jerusalem and hung around with intellectuals, Aryeh could no longer hold a serious conversation with her; all she did was joke. 

But she’s right, Aryeh thought. I do smoke like a chimney. His jacket lapels smelled of stale tobacco. He’d bought a packet of breath mints at a kiosk before entering the airport. Now he unwrapped it and put one into his mouth. Hating the chalky taste, he spat it into his hand then threw it, along with the entire packet, into a nearby trash basket. Mrs. Richter would have to tolerate his tobacco smell. 

In the men’s room, he combed his hair and washed his hands with fragrant green soap. Here, too, he was stalked by the ubiquitous maintenance man. Only three days before an Arab boy of twelve had left a homemade bomb on a toilet seat. Luckily, when it exploded the men’s room had been empty. Aryeh nodded at the maintenance man and walked out of the men’s room. He went back to the kiosk and scanned the newspapers, then thought of buying a paperback to while away the time, but did not, because he was too restless to read. Besides, he didn’t want to waste the money on a book he might end up throwing away. Aryeh did not like to think of himself as stingy, but since his retirement he’d begun to worry about wasting money. Yosef’s army pension had provided additional money toward rent and household expenses, but even that hadn’t kept up with inflation. Everyone in Israel these days was suffering from lack of money—everyone he knew, anyway. Not counting, of course, the diplomats, politicians, businessmen, and espionage agents who traveled around the world at the taxpayer’s expense. Aryeh had once toyed with the idea of becoming a diplomat himself (his English, Russian, and Arabic were almost as fluent as his Hebrew), but Yosef’s condition on returning from the front had put any notion of travel to rest. 

Then there were the wealthy Americans. He’d watched them lolling about on the beaches near the hotels only a few blocks from his flat. They were good for Israel, pumped millions into the economy; but that didn’t keep Aryeh from disliking them. Their bloated bellies and gross conversations appalled him, and he no longer walked in the direction of the hotels when he went to the market in the morning. The last time he’d taken the beach road, he’d been outraged by an American woman he’d seen pointing to a passing military jet overhead. “See that up there?” she’d smirked at her Israeli escort, “that’s my Phantom, paid for with my American dollars.” The handsome young Sabra hadn’t really understood her. Only the word “Phantom” seemed to have registered. He’d thrown back his curly head and, showing his beautiful white teeth, laughed up at the sky. Both the crudeness of the woman and the pitiful laughter of the Sabra had disgusted him. These ignorant, swaggering Americans were always making boastful remarks at his country’s expense unaware (and probably not caring) that the “natives” might understand what they were saying. Aryeh could no longer count how many times he’d had to restrain himself from walking up to these American Jews on the street and telling them to take their money and go to hell. When he complained to Naomi, she brushed him off. 

“Don’t listen to them, Abba,” she said in her joking tone of voice. “Just as long as the money keeps coming, what do you care what they say?” 

Children were like that. They grew up, became preoccupied with their arcane philosophical treatises and their radical politics; radical today, conservative tomorrow. Aryeh knew, he’d been through it all himself. But he was sick and tired of politics, would rather spend his time thinking of Marti. Every so often, in the midst of a crowd, he might catch sight of a woman who reminded him of her. Even a small detail could set his heart to banging between his ribs like a loose hinge on a door, make him short of breath and bring dry sobs to his throat. Only a moment ago he’d been set off by the glimpse of a glossy black chignon. But then, as the woman passed by, awkwardly clomping along on thick platform shoes, he’d noticed that her expression was bland and stupid, her eyes dull. Her face looked nothing at all like Marti’s, which, defined by its high Slavic cheekbones, had been wide and intelligent. The light illuminating his wife’s green eyes had been otherworldly, like no other light he had ever seen. 

Before moving to Israel, Marti had been an artist and a photographer’s model in Paris. A Hungarian beauty with long legs and a ready laugh, she’d been an excellent dancer. They’d met at a nightclub where Aryeh and his friends, a group of idealistic young engineers with big plans for irrigating the desert, had gone dancing. 

Jaffa. A cool night swarming with stars. A club called The Scorpion. The “Pride of Lions,” as he and his friends called themselves, had worn their best clothes. Three beret-clad strolling musicians were playing a balalaika, a clarinet, and a violin. What they lacked in technique, they made up for with flashy bows, out-thrust chins, and sheer loudness. Aryeh and his friends were in a particularly good mood that night, since one of them, Yakov, had lost a distant uncle in Prague who’d left him a small inheritance. The Pride of Lions planned to celebrate Yakov’s newly acquired “wealth” with wine and dancing. 

A tall girl with a pockmarked face and big feet was the first to approach their table. She’d been sitting with two companions a few tables away and had ignored her friends when they tried to stop her. But her friends hadn’t objected strenuously enough, and the big girl had had her way. Soon the two tables were joined and the separate parties converged, making a group of six. Lea, pale and fragile except for her great bulging bosoms, shyly flirted with Uri, a muscular giant with a beard and drooping mustaches, which, Lea said, reminded her of a circus wrestler she’d seen as a child. Uri, who lifted weights, took this as an immediate invitation to regale them all with the story of his life, which, of course, had nothing to do with either circuses or wrestlers. Uri was to marry his shy Lea and become a high school math teacher. Two years later, along with ten of his students, he would die in a bomb attack on his school. 

Yakov, a sputtering Marxist, was immediately chosen by Irina of the big feet. Hardly paying her any mind, he was busily lecturing his friends on the inevitable decay of capitalism and the triumph of the proletariat. But the music was loud, and his friends were too busy flirting to pay any attention to him. It was a perfect evening for the young. Wonderful to be alive with your back pressed against the hard iron coils of a café chair, the circular designs imprinted on the skin under your shirt, boasting, pontificating, shouting platitudes at no one in particular, and feeling totally invulnerable. 

Aryeh sat and stared at Marti as she talked about her life in Paris among the artists. “Don’t be deceived by her refined features,” Yakov had leaned over and whispered in his ear. “This girl is far from being a delicate flower.” 

Marti had challenged him and his friends to dance that night at The Scorpion. “You all talk a good game,” she’d said, placing her hands on the table in front of him. “Now let’s see if even one of you can do something.” 

“Go on, Valentino,” Uri cried, pushing Aryeh up from his chair. “Give her number 35B,” he urged, referring to a classification of techniques the Pride of Lions had developed among themselves for impressing women. 

The frantic musicians had launched into a tango. Mimicking a Parisian apache dancer, Aryeh had gotten up from the table and pulled Marti close to his chest. She’d responded by pressing her cheek against his and vamping them across the crowded dance floor. Then she’d led him out the open door to a small patio on the beach, the musicians and their friends following after them. Though it smelled strongly of fish, the patio provided a perfect Hollywood set, and they were soon joined outside by the other dancers, who began clapping in time to the music. Marti had taken the crowd’s clapping and shouting as a cue to show off her considerable dancing skills. Giving him no warning other than a broad, toothsome smile, and clutching the ends of her wide skirt in her hands, she’d swung herself out of his grasp, jumped up on a table, and graced her audience with a furious flamenco performance. Ending with a loud “Ole!” she’d leapt from the table into his arms. Aryeh had been so caught up in Marti’s performance that, without realizing what he was doing, he had dipped her low to the floor and landed a passionate kiss on her mouth. 

Yakov came up and clapped him hard on the shoulder as they made their way back into the club through the stamping, cheering crowd. “I fear you’re headed for the bourgeois domestic trap, my friend Aryeh. Never before have I seen such an obvious surrender of— ” 

“Enough! No more pontificating tonight, Yakov,” Aryeh scolded after they’d sat down again at their table. Not wanting to spoil the remainder of the evening with an argument, he’d made a big show of ordering a large bottle of cognac; it had been a symbolic gesture, really, a way of announcing to his friends that he’d fallen passionately in love with Marti and wanted them to help him celebrate the occasion. But as it happened so often with him, Aryeh hadn’t been able to come up with the right words. If he’d been an orator, like Yakov, or a boaster, like Uri, he might have climbed on a chair and publicly made his declaration of love. But he was an introvert by nature, and the very best he’d been able to do to celebrate his newfound love was order a bottle of cognac. 

Now, everyone else but Aryeh was drinking and smoking and talking. The musicians had packed up and gone, the dancers had dispersed; only an ancient radio grinding out popular tunes in Arabic was left to provide them with background music. Aryeh leaned back in his chair. Through the open door of the club, he could see the port of Jaffa with its jutting Andromeda’s Rock. He had dreamed great things for that harbor; had entered Palestine that way himself. Many relatives had died, would never see the new homeland. Aryeh considered himself lucky to be sitting in The Scorpion; lucky to be surrounded by friends, dreaming dreams for the future with Marti. 

“The bottle’s almost empty.” Looking like a rabbi speculating on a moral problem Yakov shrugged and creased his forehead. 

“Never mind the cognac. Lea, it’s time for you to hear Aryeh’s story,” said Uri, who could not enjoy an evening out unless it included someone’s life story and, because he’d already told his own, wanted to impress Lea with Aryeh’s. “I was born here, in Palestine, Yakov came as a babe in arms, but what a tale Aryeh has to tell!” Snuggling Lea, Uri rocked back in his chair and almost crashed them both into the tray of a passing waiter. 

“Aren’t you bored with it by now?” Aryeh had intended to reserve the details of his life for Marti when they were alone. The gardenia scent of her perfume was still clinging to his shirt collar, arousing him, and he had no desire to share himself with anyone but her. But Marti would not be put off. Leaning forward on her elbows and giving him an impish grin, she said, “Yes, let’s hear it. Let’s hear this amazing life story of yours.” 

Yakov snorted. “Fled from the only hope we Jews ever had in all our miserable history,” he said. “Mother Russia wasn’t good enough for you after the Revolution, eh? You enjoyed those pogroms, did you?” 

The others booed him. 

“Let the man give us his own story, will you?” Irina kicked Yakov under the table with her outsized shoe, settling him into grudging silence. 

Pleased at seeing his newfound importance reflected in Marti’s eyes, Aryeh had given in. 

“Well, do you want it from the beginning or from the time we had to leave Siberia?” 

“Sketch in the details for us,” said Uri, waving his huge calloused hands at him impatiently. “And don’t forget the Tatars.” 

“Oh,” squealed Lea. “You grew up in Siberia, among the Tatars, how exotic!” 

Nodding, Aryeh poured the last of the cognac into his glass and drank it down in one gulp. 

“I’m from Odessa,” Lea said excitedly. “It’s so coo-ld in Siberia; how could you stand it?” 

“Shush,” intercepted the massive Irina, “let the man tell his story. You can give weather reports later.” 

Loz zein shah!” cried Yakov in Yiddish, banging his fist on the table. “Let there be silence!” 

Feeling the cognac burning a hole in his gut, Aryeh smacked his lips and winced. Then he said, “My father was a rich textile merchant in Irkutsk. We lived in luxury; my mother played the piano, we had a maid and a chauffeur, carpets on every floor and the smoked side of a cow in the cellar, along with sacks full of sunflower seeds, halvah, caviar, pistachios—plenty of good things to eat, always. As for Yakov’s pogroms, we never knew any, where we lived, because it was too cold for the anti-Semites. The community was interdependent; my father had plenty of non-Jewish friends and customers. In fact, according to Jewish custom, we used to invite one Gentile friend to our Passover Seder each year. 

“We might have been wealthy, but we were raised with a strong social consciousness. The poor were always welcome at our table; we kids were often moved out of our beds and sent to sleep on top of the huge stove in the kitchen to accommodate a wandering scholar or a pianist down on his luck. I was ten, my brother Sasha thirteen, and my sister Olga nineteen when the sons of the Glorious Revolution finally made their way to Siberia. My father had always done business without gouging any of his customers. He treated his workers fairly; he was a deeply ethical, deeply religious man and was held in high esteem by everyone in the community. Even the Tatars, known for their shrewd bargaining abilities, trusted him. He was the only merchant in Irkutsk they would trade with. 

“I remember them in their great, shaggy fur coats and soft reindeer skin boots, sitting on pickle barrels spitting sunflower seed shells on the floor as they countered my father’s prices. Sometimes they would sit like that for hours without saying a word, only blurting out a bargain price for a rug, which they must have wanted very badly, because those Tatars never showed their eagerness over anything. They were so placid, with their round golden faces, piercing black eyes, and thick, straight hair hanging past their shoulders to the middle of their backs, or, occasionally, braided into long pigtails.” 

“There’s the old stereotype . . . the inscrutable Oriental,” Yakov interrupted sarcastically. 

“Shut up!” Irina prodded him with her elbow. Giving her a disgusted look, Yakov folded his arms on his chest and pretended to doze. 

“My sister—unknown to the rest of us—”Aryeh resumed, talking only to Marti now, “had joined the Reds and worked her way up the bureaucratic ladder, becoming a minor functionary in the Komsomol group she’d secretly joined. Ironically, that was what saved us all. It turned out that someone had gone to the Communist authorities (my father later found out it was a jealous neighbor, a Jew, by the way) and told them that he was hiding an enormous fortune in his cellar. This wasn’t true, at least not by then, because my father, who was always one step ahead of politics, had sent the bulk of his fortune to his brother in Palestine in the hope of settling here one day.” 

“And the money . . . ” Uri interposed. “Tell them what happened to it.” 

“Later.” Aryeh smiled indulgently. He’d wanted so much to be alone with Marti at that moment, to forget the past—as dangerous, colorful, and exciting as it was—and begin a new life with her. Looking into her eyes had made him want to erase it all, and he’d had to grope for memories that had once come to him so easily. 

Uri, who’d heard the story many times, sensed that Aryeh was growing distracted and prodded him on. Wrinkling his forehead, he said, “Okay, so the sister by this time was a Communist and the neighbor squealed about the money, then what?” 

“Then one fine day a gentleman with a mustache like Stalin’s and a red armband on his coat sleeve knocked at our door. He was soon followed by other gentlemen with red armbands on their coat sleeves who demanded to search the house. 

“‘We hear you have a fortune stashed away in this house,’ said the first gentleman, his eyes traveling over the furniture, the silk shawl on the piano, the shivering maid. ‘For the sake of the Revolution, comrade, surely you won’t mind if we have a look.’ 

“Seeing a bulge under my mother’s apron, the first gentleman asked her, politely, to remove her ‘money belt’—and was clearly disappointed to find that it wasn’t a money belt but the rolling pin my mother, who’d been in the middle of baking, had stuffed under her apron in case she would have to bang heads. Finding nothing of importance, they took the food from our cupboards, confiscated, they said, for the good of Yakov’s ‘glorious revolution,’ and told us we’d better be prepared to move—fast. 

“I’m sure it was only because of my sister’s Komsomol connections that we weren’t all put on ice and left to freeze to death, like our wealthy neighbors. Instead, we were allowed to take some clothes and books—but no money—and were sent to the district commissar who would ensure our safe departure from the Soviet Union. Handing us glasses of tea stuffed with jam, respectfully bowing to my mother, and apologizing profusely for the delay, that gentleman informed us that he could do nothing until he’d heard from Central Headquarters. After four days of my mother’s weeping and my father’s appeal to the commissar as “one human being to another,” we were rudely pushed onto a dock with our few belongings and packed into steerage on a leaky tub headed for Jaffa. Despite our pleas, my sister had chosen to remain behind. 

“‘Never mind,’ my father would comfort us against the stench of humanity in steerage. ‘Olga will join us once we get there, and we’ll all be happy again. Wait and see, the weather will be warm and we will live in a pardes, a garden.’ 

“‘Like Adam and Eve?’ my brother Sasha, a serious Bible scholar, wanted to know. 

“‘Better than Adam and Eve,’ said my father, patting him on the head. ‘We’ll live in an orange grove and you’ll pick juicy oranges from the trees and eat them right there’—” 

Yakov snorted, his eyelids still closed in ostensible sleep, “Some orange groves!” 

“Will you shut up and let the man tell his story,” Uri chided, thrusting his face up close to Yakov’s. 

Marti threw back her shoulders, pushed her chair to one side and crossed her long legs. “I’ll bet you landed and found yourself paupers,” she said. 

“How did you guess?” Aryeh asked, his heart overflowing with tenderness toward her. 

Turning to face him, Marti clasped his hand. “Because it happened that way to ninety nine percent of those who came here with high hopes for the Promised Land. Instead of milk and honey, our parents came here and found sand and rocks.” 

“Lea, your parents were never poor; you always went to French school and took lunches with the children of diplomats, as I recall,” said Irina, having always envied her friend’s good fortune. 

“My father is a doctor. Professional people were desperately needed here. The place was full of malaria then,” said Lea defensively. 

“What do you mean then? What about today, may I ask?” Yakov opened his eyes fully, now abandoning all pretenses at sleep. It was a subject close to him that they were discussing here, none of the old nostalgic driveling over the Tsarist murderers. “I have two cousins right now down with malaria. They’re draining swampland in the North, and a lot anyone cares for them,” he finished testily. 

“I guess no one wants to hear my life story anymore,” said Aryeh. 

“Me, I do.” Marti and he were now holding hands openly. “Why don’t you walk me home and finish it.” 

Given the clue to disband, the Pride of Lions coupled off—Yakov still in a bad temper, with stooped shoulders, his hands in his pockets, scuffing along like a truculent schoolboy, Uri disgruntled at having lost control of the evening’s direction, yet excited at the prospect of pressing his chest against Lea’s enticing breasts in her doorway, and Aryeh wildly, overwhelmingly in love. 

When he and Marti were alone, she turned to him and said, “Did the uncle steal the money?”

Caught off balance, Aryeh asked, “What uncle?” It was a tactic Marti would use throughout their life together, picking up the strand of a long-lapsed conversation and surprising him with a question. 

“The one your father gave all the rubles to in advance.” 

“Oh, my uncle . . .” He guided her down a narrow cobblestone staircase into the town square and led her to a bench in front of the Tower of Abdul Hamid. “No, he didn’t steal the money. He was a poet, a sincere Orthodox Jew; he would never steal it outright. But he did manage to invest it poorly and lose every last ruble.” 

Marti laughed. “Forgive me. I know it must seem like a tragedy to you but I was just picturing the looks on your faces.” 

“It wasn’t very funny to my mother. She was a lady, with fine hands and superior manners.” 

“Did your father punch the uncle in the nose?” 

“Of course not. Where do you get such ideas?” 

“That’s what my father would have done.” Again she laughed, covering her mouth with her hands, her shoulders bobbing. “I’m really sorry. I’m given to laughing fits—sometimes over nothing. When I was little they used to keep me after school for punishment, making me write a thousand times on the blackboard that I would not laugh in class. But that didn’t help, I went right on laughing anyway. My classmates called me ‘the laughing fool.’ I think I inherited the tendency from my mother. She and I would only just have to look at each other in a shop and we’d burst out laughing so hard we’d nearly collapse.” 

“How strange.” 

“Yes, isn’t it?” Marti stopped giggling suddenly and gave him a serious look. “I guess it’s what psychologists would call nerves.” 

“I guess so.” 

“I think you might want to kiss me now.” Closing her eyes, she lifted her face and puckered her lips into a cupid’s bow. 

Aryeh moved toward her, but something about her exaggerated preparation for his kiss tickled him and he guffawed. Marti joined in, and for a full five minutes the two of them had sat in the square rocking the bench with their laughter . . . 

Like a man reaching out for a phantom limb, Aryeh forced his wife back into consciousness, forming and re-forming their life together, as he was now, in his mind, though outwardly preoccupied with scanning the faces of the tourists as they emerged from behind the customs barrier. 

“Excuse me,” someone was interrupting the flow of his thoughts. Aryeh looked in the direction of the voice that had addressed him in English and saw that it belonged to a brisk, sturdy little woman wearing a smart gray suit and matching gray felt hat and carrying an expensive alligator purse. 

“Excuse me,” she said again, “you wouldn’t happen to be Mr. Lieber, would you? Aryeh Lieber?”

 

 

Recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem, Pushcart Prize-nominee Perle Besserman was praised by Isaac Bashevis Singer for the “clarity and feeling for mystic lore” of her writing and by Publisher’s Weekly for its “wisdom [that] points to a universal practice of the heart.” Her autobiographical novel Pilgrimage was published by Houghton Mifflin, and her latest novels, Kabuki Boy, and Widow Zion, and two story collections, Marriage and Other Travesties of Love, and Yeshiva Girl, are available from Aqueous Books, Pinyon Publishing, and Homebound Publishing, respectively. Her short fiction has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, Agni, Transatlantic Review, Nebraska Review, Southerly, North American Review, Bamboo Ridge, and in many other publications, both online and in print. Besserman’s most recent books of creative non-fiction are A New Zen for Women (Palgrave Macmillan) and Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers, coauthored with Manfred Steger (Wisdom Books). Visit Perle on the web at: www.perlebesserman.net.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: Based on the centuries’-old struggle between Jews and Arabs in its current Palestinian/Israeli incarnation, this contemporary story rooted in the ancient biblical tale of exile and return reveals that the so-called “clash of civilizations” actually lies within the Jewish Diaspora itself.

 

Q: What does your writing space look like?

A: Part book-filled office, part Zen retreat space, I write in a sunny, angled room surrounded by photos and mementos and a Japanese futon for reading and resting in the late afternoons.

 

Q: What’s your writing process?

A: No “process”—more like what Yeats describes. I sit quietly in front of my computer and wait until the stage inside my head is occupied by characters, dialogue, and situations that demand to be told, before I start writing. It’s a very visual, and even auditory, experience—a bit like dreaming. After the story appears on the page, I shift into editorial mode, revising, reworking, and “revisioning” the material, in a conscious effort to find “le mot juste”.

 

Q: What living writer do you admire most and why? Is there a particular book you refer to again and again?

A: Too many to name here. But, if I have to pick only one, I’ll say Alice Munro.

The particular book I refer to, though, is Dickens’s Great Expectations.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Two novels (The Kabbalah Master and The Infamous Doctor Dee) and a story collection (Fay’s Men) all very different in character, setting, and tone—yet related by the common theme of spiritual searching, its misadventures and, too often, baleful encounters. “The Beach Incident,” a slightly different version of the first chapter of The Kabbalah Master was recently published in the online literary journal “Imitation Fruit.” And most of the stories in Fay’s Men appeared in a number of literary journals both in the United States and in Australia.


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Reading Murnane at 4AM (The Consolation of Possibility) by Kimmo Rosenthal

Followed by Q&A

“Hardly does one think of oneself, but only how to escape oneself.”  

Marcel Proust

Although young, he has long sensed that we are all in exile, not only from each other, but most pointedly from ourselves, and thus we embark on a journey of self-discovery; for him his search so far has been on the roads found in fiction, which have offered him refuge and illuminating fingerposts, yet he knows there are unexpected corners, detours, and hidden paths kept from view, and his reading provides only temporary solace, for he must reconcile the contrariety of what lies “beyond” this room of books with his solitary reveries. His biggest fear is that he will never make a proper accounting of himself, that he will pass through this place like a revenant, a flitting shadow on the wall, briefly haunting the halls before vanishing without leaving nary a trace, at best destined to be like that phrase he recalled from Nabokov, “an asterisk leading to an undiscoverable footnote,” with no one to rescue his name from oblivion. It is 4 A.M. and he is entombed in the dormitory single they arranged for him after it became clear that roommates were out of the question. The shadows of the room are crowding in on him in the uncertain, dejected light from his nightstand. He imagines he can hear the snow falling in spite of the bursts of drunken laughter in the hall, and he tries to look out the window, but all that is reflected back between the frosted ice flowers is a blurred outline of his face. That is what he is, a blur. 

In philosophy class he had read about Pascal saying that we desire to live an imaginary life and adorn this imaginary existence while neglecting the real. This struck a chord that is still resonating, for he does exist outside of reality, certainly her reality, the one that suddenly, inexplicably, matters to him more than anything. He had heard the whispers growing up, about diagnoses, the attempts to explain some of his strangeness, while sensing his parents’ shame with father a professor, mother a lawyer, the house in Sherwood Estates, the silver-spoon neighbors, the country club. 

Everything has confirmed that he has yet again arrived in uncharted territory, one of a long succession of unknown countries, and he finds himself on a boat cast adrift from its moorings, unable to find a place to cast anchor. He needs his very own coign of vantage to be properly situated in order to view and try to understand this unrelentingly unapproachable world that contains fundamental truths he needs to know, yet continually shuts him out. There was hopeful September (imagining days whose narrative would flow like a gentle river), which rapidly turned into deceitful October (with its tragic disappointments, both real and imagined), and now time seems to stand still, motionless yet somehow advancing forward in the midst of despairing late November with winter having announced its early arrival. This college is his last redoubt and there is no turning back, yet he despairs that there is likely to be a price he may be unable to pay. He only has a few more pages to read to finish A Place Quieter than Clun for class tomorrow. Much like the narrator of Clun taking solace in the poetry of Housmann, he is finding comfort in reading Murnane. He is suddenly able to look at the many selves residing within him dispassionately, as if from a remove, with a better understanding of his feelings, of his despairing sense of this precarious, unstable existence and the suppressed emotions roiling beneath the surface. Like the narrator, he is torn between the comfort of his seclusion and the desires of immersing himself in the carnality outside his door, desires that threaten to overwhelm him, beckoning him to shed the carapace he has built around himself and venture into the uncertainty to experience the thrill and terror of its babel of voices, sinister confusion of faces, and alluring girls. He is continually reminded of one of Kafka’s aphorisms: “How can one be glad about the world except if one takes one’s refuge in it?” He has been reading as much Murnane as he can lay his hands on. He does not know what it means to breathe with ecstasy and is afraid that he never will, which makes him inconsolable. He loves the ideas of the world being an island adrift inside the self and of losing yourself in unknown vistas with eyes fixed on a far-off horizon searching for your own private place.

His professor is the kind of woman he likes to imagine himself with, although she must be twenty years older than the girl. She is beautiful and provocative, able to speak of literature with such erudition and emotion, enrapturing and entrancing him. She had suggested early in the term that he carefully read Combray and he might recognize himself in young Marcel, intelligent, bookish, innocent, and then he might discover later in the term, especially after reading Murnane, that his “own humble existence and the Realms of Truth were not so widely separated.” He senses that she is also melancholy like him, hiding some deep sorrow, for at times she seems far away looking at some secret, inner horizon of her own, reminding him of the word chiaroscuro for she is light and shadow, but he suspects there may be more shadow than light. Closing the book, he turns out the light so he can look at the scarves of snow adorning the deliquescent branches outside his window, and in the nocturnal gloom the thought occurs that his teacher might also be awake at 4 A.M. longing to step outside and breathe with ecstasy in the falling snow. 

He saw her earlier tonight in the library, the girl not the professor, with her blond hair, tight jeans, black nails, her delicate porcelain skin and the lustrous blue eyes that reminded him of the marbles he had played with as a child, all alone already then, socially awkward being the phrase on the report from the school psychologist. That evening the girl finally spoke to him in the library, a moment he had so been waiting for, preparing for, although he would never be prepared, and as he watched her approach he felt an exquisite torment. She asked him about Honors English and what he thought of Under the Volcano and suddenly all the carefully prepared, articulate pronouncements about the connection between the “secret knowledge” discussed at the end of the book and Murnane’s “precious knowledge” became strangled in his throat, dissolving into inchoate, ill-considered phrases, and he could feel his heart pounding and an inner despair inundating him, for he sat there helpless before her, knowing with an aching certainty that she was destined to remain impossibly out of reach. He is not one of the carefree, bold young men who curry her affection, the ones who will succeed not because of their eloquence, but by virtue of something much more elemental, visceral, and venal, something that would never be part of him. He sits here now rooted in sadness and humiliation, knowing too much, and yet never enough about the terrifying ambiguity of dealing with people, the rules, if there are any, too obscure and beyond sober reason. He is afraid he will never possess the knowledge to allow him entry into the never-to-be-explored places he longs for. He is always trying, failing again, not failing better. He is too young to have such a tired soul.

How often has he sat here in this solitary room mapping out her sinuous geography, the choreography of her slow movements, a poetic ballet others could not learn with a lifetime of lessons, imagining the slight upturn of the mouth, the sudden throaty laughter suggesting a complicity that will never be shared. He imagines himself approaching her from behind, seeing the pale freckled nape of her neck, for she is one of Murnane’s “bare-shouldered” women, sitting there patiently waiting for him to come and describe the thoughts that overwhelm and define him, telling her how fiction often is more real to him than the life around him, describing his inner landscape in the hope that beneath the surface of her beautiful appearance this girl has furtively enclosed an inner courtyard of her own that she has kept from the view of others, a courtyard she is unwilling to reveal to the fair-haired blackguards who hover around her in the halls, yet one containing a small interstice on the overlapping boundary with his, which might allow her to come to understand and appreciate his differences, while slowly beginning to erase his blurred edges, allowing his true self to emerge into view. 

And so there remains a glimmer of hope in him, however delusional, for he must maintain hope, however faint, for he must be able to find his way, however labyrinthine the path. He will try to find this path that is not on any map yet known to him, and, if he does, he may then find that the sadness and despair enveloping him like a brumous fog will begin to dissipate. So, for now, he will continue to read and think of the girl, allowing the satiety of his dreaming to achieve a poetic purity that will linger on the countenance of the night, and perhaps one day he will not have to wake up with orisons on his lips for gods he does not know or believe in, for he will have discovered a place meant for him, his very own quieter place, a place with the consolation of possibility. 

 

 

Kimmo Rosenthal has been teaching mathematics at Union College for over three decades. During that time he served as Dean of Studies for nearly a decade, which included overseeing the First-Year Seminar and Writing Across the Curriculum. Since returning to the faculty he has turned his attention from mathematical research to writing fiction.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: I love the work of Gerald Murnane. It is philosophical, focusing on the inner life of the narrators who are journeying towards an inner, but distant, personal plain where they hope to discover themselves. In addition to seeing some of myself in these narrators, I recognized many students I have interacted with over the years. It made sense to put the writings of Murnane together with such a student.

 

Q: What does your writing space look like?

A: I have commandeered the dining table in our dining room, which is now stacked with books, notes and manuscripts.

 

Q: What’s your writing process?

A: Because I am still teaching it is more haphazard than I would like. I am a voracious reader and I study style and structure in the books, being less attuned to narrative. I take copious notes as I read, writing down thoughts that occur to me, and then I am ready when an idea hits me. Once I start on a story it usually goes quickly, except for the countless revisions later.

 

Q: What living writer do you admire most and why? Is there a particular book you refer to again and again?

A: At the moment it is Laszlo Kraznahorkai. He has developed a style I admire very much, with labyrinthine, exquisite sentences that may go on for more than a page. His work is deep, challenging and rewarding. I plan on rereading Seiobo There Below. I receive recurring inspiration from looking at Murnane’s The Plains.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I recently finished A Campus Tour with Kafka, which looks at college life using some of Kafka’s aphorisms. I have been working on a novella about the mathematician Georg Cantor and his study of infinity for several years.


C.L. Bledsoe.jpg

If Two of Them Are Dead by C.L. Bledsoe

Followed by Q&A

Sue Ellen enjoyed the drive from Cincinnati to White Burley more than she was willing to admit. The trees and fields looked clean and fresh. She was a city girl, and all the seemingly untamed land seemed like some kind of frontier to her. She felt like she imagined the colonists must’ve felt entering the “virgin” woods. Except, of course, for the fact that it wasn’t at all “virgin.” 

“So you’re saying southern Ohio is a whore?” Joan said when Sue Ellen told her. This was during the first time Sue Ellen made the drive, to check out the town neither of them had even heard of before Sue Ellen got the internship.  

The town was essentially a cluster of businesses along one main road, none of them chains, with a few houses radiating out from it. It was difficult to tell if all of the businesses were even open; one that claimed to be an auto parts store appeared closed, for example, until the women watched a man exit. There were a handful of people walking along the street or between buildings.  

“What are there, four hundred people in this hamlet?” Joan said. 

“Four thousand,” Sue Ellen said. She took Joan’s hand, but Joan jerked it away. 

“You want to get us lynched?” Joan said. “Two black girls holding hands out here? You might as well paint a target on us.” 

“Come on,” Sue Ellen said.  

“My momma didn’t raise no fool,” Joan said. “Until we get back to civilization, we are two straight girls. And I’m Puerto Rican.” 

Sue Ellen laughed, in spite of herself.  

“This is a really good opportunity,” she said. “Do you realize how lucky I am? I had had no internship. I was the only one in my class before—” 

“Because you put it off till the last minute so this was all you could get.” 

“Yeah, well. Call me lucky.” 

“You’ll think lucky when Cletus and Jethro get a hold of you.” 

Joan wouldn’t look her in the eye. “Honey,” Sue Ellen said. 

Joan waved her away. “I get it,” she said.  

“This is huge. It could be the biggest anthropological discovery in southern Ohio.” 

Joan laughed, but at least she finally made eye contact. Sue Ellen laughed, too. 

“Thank God for Wal-Mart,” Joan said. “So if it’s such a big deal, why are there only a couple people working it?” 

“Money,” Sue Ellen said. “We’re going to be like the advance scouts, laying the groundwork and securing the site.” 

They passed the town and went out to the site where Sue Ellen hoped to be spending most of her time.  

“Nice place to settle down, raise some kids,” she said. 

Joan mimicked shooting herself in the head.  

Sue Ellen pulled over. There was a field beside them, roped off with wooden pegs and twine. A little ways away, a bulldozer sat, impassive. Near it, they could just make out plastic sheeting on the ground.  

“This is it?” Joan said.  

“According to the GPS.” 

“The greatest anthropological discovery in southern Ohio, huh? This is going to propel you to fame and fortune?” 

“Dr. Yeager says I’ll probably be able to publish,” Sue Ellen said. It sounded lame in her ears. Joan wouldn’t look at her again. “I’ll be home every weekend,” Sue Ellen said. “Maybe you can come stay with me a few times. Might be nice to get out of the city.” 

“Not a chance.” Joan turned from the window. “I like the city. But if you want to stay out here, you go right ahead.” 

It was a grudging acceptance, but Sue Ellen took it. She turned the car around and headed back for Cincinnati. After they passed the town, Joan let her hold her hand again.

***

Two weeks later, Sue Ellen pulled off onto the road that led to the dig site and slammed on her brakes inches from the lines of pickup trucks blocking the dirt drive. There were a half-dozen of them and several smaller, junky, American-made cars as well, all bearing American flags and bumper stickers Sue Ellen knew better than to read. A group of locals—had to be—were gathered near them, most of them sitting in tattered nylon and aluminum lawn chairs, or the cheaper plastic ones. They held signs that said things like “Wal Mart is good for White Burley!” or “Let the past stay Buried!” There were big, bearded men, and angry women with children running around. She texted Joan quickly, OMG There are protestors! 

Joan texted back, Are their signs misspelled? 

Sue Ellen laughed. They’re scary, she texted back. 

Fuck ‘em

Easy for you to say, she thought. She set the phone in the passenger seat and breathed deep. The protestors stared at her with malevolent eyes—well, a couple of them did. Most of them just looked bored, actually, and several of them weren’t even paying any attention to her. She edged around them and eased past, followed by boos. She flinched and sped up when she heard the impacts as they threw empty cans and bottles at her. She heard Joan’s voice in her head yelling, “Those are recyclable, assholes!” It gave her strength. 

There were a couple sheds probably from Lowes containing the generators and all the equipment they had, which, Sue Ellen had been shocked to discover, was far inferior to what she regularly used in lab classes back at the University of Cincinnati. Only a few of the bodies had actually been removed; most had simply been exposed and were covered with plastic tarp to protect them from the elements. The ones that had been unearthed were stacked inside the sheds, along the walls. None of the bodies had been removed from the scene for two reasons: one, because at first Milo, the coroner Sue Ellen was actually working for, was afraid they might be American Indian remains and would have to be reburied anyway; and two, there was nowhere else to put them.  

Before she got out, Sue Ellen twisted all the way around in her seat to make sure none of the protestors had followed her, but they were all still back in their seats by the road. Thank God for diabetes, she mouthed. Milo was inside the first building, bent over a body. 

“What’s with the protestors, Milo?” she asked. 

Without looking up from the body he was examining, he spoke, “They’re afraid we’ll take away their Super Wal-Mart.” 

She stared at him. He pointed to his desk. There was a copy of the Brown County Citizen with a story on the front page about the dig.  

“Hey, we’re famous,” she said. 

“Keep reading.” 

The gist of the article seemed to be that because of the bad press, the locals were afraid Wal-Mart might pull out and go to a different county, which they thought would be devastating to the local economy. 

“Don’t they know Wal-Mart is bad for small towns?” Sue Ellen said. 

“Folks get tired of driving forty-five minutes for groceries.” 

“Even if it means every other business in town dies?” 

He shrugged. “Take a look at this.” He stepped back so she could get close to the body and then swiveled a light over. “You’re the student, here; what do you see?” 

She leaned in close. There was nothing left of the body but bones, which Milo had laid out on the table. They were in bad shape. Most of the ribs were broken. The pelvis was shattered. It was hard to tell if it had even been male or female. 

“He didn’t die well,” Sue Ellen said. She flinched a little when she said it. The first skull she’d examined had been the first one unearthed. It had strange markings on it, and Sue Ellen had declared that they resembled knife marks, even butchery marks. Milo had led her out to the bulldozer still parked outside and showed her that the marks matched one of the treads. The skull had been damaged when it was unearthed. Sue Ellen felt like an idiot. 

This time, though, Milo nodded. “How do you know it’s a he?” 

Sue Ellen shrugged. “Seems to be pretty big, probably male.”  

“My guess as well.” Milo’s eyes twinkled a little. “So what does this tell us?” 

She thought about it. “They’ve all been like this, victims of severe trauma.” It was true. Many of the skulls were practically shattered. Most had broken bones. “There’s no evidence of healing, so they were probably beaten to death or…” She searched for an alternative. “Died in some kind of disaster.”  

He smiled. “Exactly.” 

She examined the skull, which was in good shape. “Seems to be African American. The lower vertebrae are fused, so this was an older black male with arthritis.” 

“Seems likely.” 

“Well, that works with our pauper grave theory.” Milo’s theory was that the cemetery was a pauper cemetery, which would explain why it lacked grave stones. “I mean, life would be hard for poor people, especially during the Depression.” 

“Sure.” 

“And the fact that they’re all black…well, black people were traditionally poor. But the violence is odd.” 

“We got the dates back,” Milo said. He found a folder on his desk and showed her. The bones had been dated to about ninety years ago. 

“So some time in the ´30s, a couple hundred blacks, mostly men, were either in some kind of…” She tried to think of possibilities. “Train crash? Or…what?” 

He shrugged. “Who knows?” 

“How long have you lived here, Milo?” 

“How old do you think I am?”  

“No, I mean, did your parents or grandparents ever talk about anything like this?” 

He shook his head. “I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Sue Ellen. I transferred to Brown County because it seemed like an easy gig. So in the twenty-three years I’ve been here, no, I’ve never heard of anything like this.” 

“Weird,” she said. “I followed up on the pauper cemetery theory.” She dug out her own folder and gave it to Milo. “The old hospital you mentioned that used to be here? I found one that was actually several miles away. And the nearest prison is a hundred miles away, and their cemetery is pretty well documented. There are records for two other old pauper cemeteries in the area, as well as several other cemeteries. So why is this one undocumented?” 

“Good question,” Milo said. He turned back to the bones. “Let’s see if we can find anything else.”

***

That evening, Sue Ellen picked up some fast food and went back to her hotel room to Skype with Joan. 

“What are you eating?” Joan asked, immediately. “Is that fast food again?” 

“I don’t have time for anything else,” Sue Ellen said in between mouthfuls. 

“It’s a bag of grease,” Joan said. “No wonder you’re so tired all the time.” 

“I’m tired because I don’t have time to sleep. And there’s nowhere else to go, really, for food around here.” 

“Do they have a store? You could get a can of soup or something. But make sure it’s low sodium.”

Sue Ellen grunted. 

“At least get some fruit to eat.” 

Sue Ellen held up a French fry slathered in ketchup. “Ketchup’s a fruit according to the government.” 

“I’m serious,” Joan said. “I’m not there to take care of you, so you have to take care of yourself.” 

“Yes, mother,” Sue Ellen pouted. 

“So what earth-shattering discovery did you make today?” 

Sue Ellen told her about the evidence of violence on the bodies. “Milo thinks there are at least a couple hundred bodies, just about all buried without caskets. Every time we dig, we find one. Mostly men, but we’ve found some women and children as well.” 

“So what is it, some sort of massacre?” Joan was distracted but at least trying to look interested, which Sue Ellen appreciated. 

“Probably a pauper cemetery,” she said. “Poor people live violent lives.” Sue Ellen finished her food and tossed it in the trash. She made a mental note to take the trash out to the lobby so it wouldn’t make her room stink like grease. 

“Huh,” Joan said. “Listen, I can’t do this weekend. Something came up with my mom. I have to go see her.” 

“Is everything okay?” Sue Ellen asked. “Is she off her meds?” 

Joan shrugged, noncommittal. Joan’s mother was bipolar and recently born again, which she was using as an excuse not to take her meds.  

“Listen, honey, you can talk to me.” Sue Ellen sat up on the bed.  

“You’re not even here,” Joan said.  

“I can be. I can be there in a couple hours.”  

Joan shrugged. Sue Ellen was already mentally packing—the fact that Joan even mentioned Sue Ellen not being there for her was tantamount to another person breaking down and pouring out their life’s story. “You’re busy,” Joan said. “And tired. You’ve got to get back to looking at dead bodies first thing.” 

“I’m on my way. I’ll text you when I’m in the car,” Sue Ellen said. She slammed the computer closed, ran to the bathroom and did her best to freshen up, and grabbed her keys. She was out the door and to her car in less than five minutes.

***

Friday evening, Sue Ellen drove back to U. of Cincinnati a little early to meet with her advisor, Professor Yeager, who was actually the dean of the history department, a relationship from before Sue Ellen switched from majoring in history to anthropology. She’d made the appointment once she learned Joan wouldn’t be around that weekend. 

They met in a dive bar near campus called Flanigan’s where all the students and professors hung out.  

“How’s White Town treating you?” Professor Yeager said with a smirk. He was a middle-aged white male who, Sue Ellen believed, would’ve done just about anything not to be. 

“White Burley.” 

He laughed and took a drink. “And the difference is?” 

“Actually…” she told him about their findings. “It’s weird that we can’t find any records. There are at least two hundred bodies, maybe more.” 

He was swaying a little in his seat, but she was nervous about asking him anything too personal. “From the 30s, you said? And they mostly met violent ends?” 

She nodded.  

Yeager considered this. “Do you know where the name White Burley came from?” She shook her head. “Tobacco,” he said. “It’s a strain of tobacco that became enormously popular. It was created near where the town now stands. After the Civil War and up through the early part of the 20th Century, Brown County was primarily an agricultural area. It still is very agricultural, but back then the main crop was tobacco.”  

“You think they were tobacco farmers?” 

He shrugged. “The interesting thing is—what’s the racial breakdown of White Burley nowadays, do you think? 95% white?” 

“I’d say 99 at least.” 

“Traditionally, who tended to do the actual labor of farming tobacco, do you think?” 

“Blacks,” she said.  

“Nowadays, you go there, and it’s 99% white, but it wasn’t always.” He checked his watch. “I’ve got to run.” 

“Wait,” Sue Ellen said. “What are you saying?” 

“I don’t know,” Professor Yeager said. “But you want to be careful you don’t uncover any hornets’ nests.” He drained his drink and swayed on his feet. “Call me next week and let me know how it’s going.”

***

The next morning, she hit the University library to search the archives but didn’t have a lot of luck. On a hunch, she drove to Columbus to hit the city library. She spent the day searching the newspaper archives and called Milo after they kicked her out for the night. 

“Sorry, I know it’s your day off,” she said. “But I’m working something out.” 

“Tell me what you have,” he said. That was something she loved about Milo—he never acted annoyed or put out; he was always supportive.  

 “I still haven’t found any records of the cemetery,” she said. “But I started thinking that was kind of evidence by itself. So I searched the archives for the Brown County Citizen and all the papers I could find in the state from the 30s, and from March through June, 1932, there are no archives. For any of the papers.” 

She made herself pause to hear his reaction. He hardly had one. “Was there some kind of fire in the library, maybe?” 

“I checked two libraries,” she said. “The university one and the one in Columbus. And I called two other ones. None of them have newspapers for that four month period.” 

“That is strange,” Milo finally said.  

“I’ve got an appointment in Wheeling, West Virginia tomorrow,” she said. “At the Jesuit college, there.” 

There was a long pause before Milo responded. “Remember the bulldozer. Don’t get too worked up when you might well find out there’s a simple explanation for this. Probably is.” 

“I know,” she said. “But I want to know what it is.” 

After she hung up, she texted Joan. Joan’s mother lived in Columbus. Joan agreed to sneak out for coffee. When she got to the coffee shop, Sue Ellen could see Joan had been crying.  

“She called me a whore of Babylon,” Joan said. She laughed, but not with her eyes. 

“That’s absurd,” Sue Ellen said. “You’ve never even been to Babylon.” 

Joan didn’t acknowledge the joke. “John Von Impe, this televangelist she watches all the time, said homosexuality is a sin, so now I’m the whore of Babylon because I went to the prom with my girlfriend. She’s been calling me. I didn’t tell you about it because you’re busy and everything. But she’s been calling me and proselytizing and everything.” 

Sue Ellen took Joan’s hand. “She’s sick. You know this.” 

“I know,” Joan said. 

“You can’t let her get to you.” 

Joan nodded.  

“What can I do?” Sue Ellen said. 

Joan turned bloodshot eyes to Sue Ellen. “Come home.” 

Sue Ellen stared at her and didn’t answer.

***

The next morning, she left the hotel room she and Joan had rented and hit the library as soon as it was open. She made a note to keep her phone on in case Joan called, but she got so involved in the research, she forgot about it.  

She called Milo late that afternoon, but he didn’t answer. “I’ve found it,” she said to his voice mail. “Get this: The Wheeling Gazette has a series of stories referencing a riot in Brown County, Ohio. They blame it on an unnamed man, an African American, a sharecropper, who supposedly attacked and killed the owner of the tobacco farm he worked for. You have to read between the lines, but the black guy was shot, along with his family, who were hiding him, and then some kind of riot broke out, apparently. The rioters were tried and a bunch of them executed. That’s who we’ve found, Milo! The rioters, but it’s way more than the newspapers reported.”  

She’d had to turn her phone back on to call Milo, and after she left the message, a voice mail came through from Joan. Her voice was frantic. Sue Ellen could hear tears, which scared her more than anything Joan could say. Joan’s mother was definitely off her meds. She’d disappeared and left a note threatening violence against several people, apparently. Sue Ellen called Joan, but she didn’t answer. She drove over to Joan’s mother’s house, but no one answered the door. She drove back to the hotel and waited. 

Sue Ellen decided she should watch the news in case there was a story about Joan’s mom. She waited through the opening story about politics, the sports, and weather, until the newscaster got to the local news.  

There was a story about a dog that stayed with its mate for sixteen hours after the mate died, which was sad and kind of beautiful, but not what Sue Ellen was looking for. They went to commercial, and she tried calling Joan again. She didn’t answer, and the news came back on. All that was left was the last couple minutes before primetime started. They usually put quirky, little stories there.  

“Construction workers at the site of a new Wal-Mart Supercenter in White Burling made an unusual discovery recently, when they found the remains of a pauper cemetery from the Great Depression. But the discovery has stirred controversy in this idyllic town.” 

There was footage of the site and an interview with a protestor. Sue Ellen felt her jaw literally drop, and her phone rang. It was Joan. She answered, and Joan wasn’t crying or injured-sounding. Sue Ellen thanked whatever deity might be listening.  

“Hey, sorry,” Joan said. “I’ve been trying to find mom. She ran off.” 

On TV, Milo was being interviewed about his theory that the grave site was a pauper cemetery. “Because of the poor record keeping,” he said. “It would be nearly impossible to find the families of the deceased.” 

“Hello?” Joan said. 

“Hey…” Sue Ellen forced herself to focus on Joan. “Are you okay? Is your mom okay?” 

Joan laughed. “Yeah, I’m just tired.” She continued, but Sue Ellen was only half listening. The news report went back to the anchorwoman who said something about Wal-Mart agreeing to pay to relocate the remains to the site of another pauper cemetery.  

“They’re nice folks at Wal-Mart,” she said. 

Sue Ellen was stunned but she also remembered that Joan was telling the story of her day. Her mother, apparently, had attempted to attack the manager of a bookstore that sold adult magazines. 

“They were going to let her out tomorrow morning on bail.” 

“She’s in jail?” Sue Ellen said. 

“She stabbed the guy with a chopstick!” Joan said. “So I had to get the lawyer to convince them she needed psychiatric observation, which really shouldn’t have been that hard. Money, you know?” 

“Yeah,” Sue Ellen said, her mind still racing from the news report. “So is he okay?” 

“Yeah. He was already released from the hospital. He even said he didn’t want to press charges, when he found out her condition. But that would’ve meant they let her out even sooner.”   

“Listen, where are you?” Sue Ellen asked. 

“I’m at the courthouse.” Joan laughed. It was close to becoming something more. 

“I’ll come get you. You’ll stay with me tonight.” 

Joan didn’t argue. “We can eat fastfood if you want.” 

“Are you kidding?” Sue Ellen said. “That stuff tastes like crap.” 

Joan laughed.

As soon as she hung up with Joan, Sue Ellen called Milo. He answered as she got out to her car.  

“I saw the news,” was all she could think to say.  

“They say the camera adds forty pounds.” Milo chuckled. 

“Did you get my message? I don’t think it’s a pauper cemetery, Milo.” 

He sighed. “I know.” 

She waited for him to elaborate while she typed the courthouse address into her GPS. 

“I know you have a theory,” Milo continued, picking his words carefully. “And it’s a very attractive theory. But we don’t have any evidence, do we?” 

“What do you mean?” Sue Ellen slammed on the brakes to keep from running a red light and cursed. “I’ve got newspaper reports from six different papers saying there was a race riot.” 

“Okay,” Milo said. “Do any of them mention where the bodies were buried? Do they even give the number of victims?” 

“They’re all whitewashed; you have to read between the lines. There was a riot.” 

“How many victims do they mention?” 

“It doesn’t matter!” She screamed. 

“And do they give the location of a cemetery? Do they even say there was a cemetery?” Milo continued, ignoring her outburst.  

She turned into the parking lot behind the courthouse. “I don’t get it,” she said. “You know—you have to know there’s something going on here. This is bigger than a pauper cemetery.” 

“It’s over,” he said.  

Joan waved and moved toward the car. Sue Ellen hung up and put her head to the wheel. 

***

It was a few days before Sue Ellen could bring herself to return to White Burley. Joan came along for moral support and managed not to complain the whole way, though Sue Ellen hardly noticed. When they got to the site, the portable buildings were gone. There were crews of men with backhoes dumping dirt and bones into trucks. Sue Ellen felt Joan’s hand on hers and realized she was crying.

Milo answered his phone on the first ring. 

“Where are you?” Sue Ellen asked. “Have you seen what they’re doing?” 

Milo paused before answering. “You should go home. You did a great job, but it’s over.” He sounded tired, defeated, even. It made Sue Ellen soften her tone. 

“It’s not over,” she said.  

“I’ve already written you a recommendation and sent it to your department head and advisor.” 

Sue Ellen didn’t know what to say to that, but she wasn’t about to say thank you. 

“I’m going to talk to the media,” Sue Ellen said. “And to the mayor and to anyone I can.” 

Milo sighed. “Do what you have to do, but don’t ruin your career over this before it’s even started. This isn’t a fight we can win, Sue Ellen.” 

It struck her that he’d said “we.”  

“You’re not even trying,” she said. “What, did Wal-Mart pay you off?” She felt like an idiot for saying it, but it was out there.  

“Who do you think paid for the equipment we used, for the research we did? Wal-Mart. Now they’re paying to move the bodies.” 

“But they can’t move them! We have to study them! We have to find out the truth!” 

Milo sighed again. “I’m sorry this happened,” he said. “The truth is, we don’t have enough evidence to go any further with this.” 

When she got off the phone, she called the mayor’s office to make an appointment, then she called the Brown County Citizen. 

***

Sue Ellen met with her advisor a few days later, this time in his office, at her insistence. She felt older, haggard. None of the newspapers she’d contacted would run the story. The mayor had agreed to meet with her but cancelled at the last minute. She’d contacted Wal-Mart several times and gotten nowhere. 

Dr. Yeager was on the phone when she knocked. He waved her in, and she sat down. A moment later, he hung up the phone. “Buddy of mine is looking for a couple interns for the summer to work on a dig with him. He was really excited by the rec. I forwarded from that White Burley thing. How do you feel about Peru?” 

He grinned, and Sue Ellen couldn’t even answer. Afterwards, back in her car, she started to text Joan but ended up throwing her phone into the passenger seat. She wanted to punch the steering wheel or maybe drive the car into the building. She’d written several letters to the editors of newspapers all over the country, and now she was thinking of writing her theory up and maybe trying to get it published somewhere, anywhere, really. Maybe even just put it on a blog or something. Then people would think she was a kook. The phone rang. It was Joan. 

“How’d it go?” Joan asked. 

Sue Ellen started crying. She hated it, she hated herself for it, but she couldn’t stop. “I’m going to Peru,” she managed.  

“Honey,” Joan said. “Come home.” 

 

 

C.L. Bledsoe’s most recent book is Riceland, a poetry collection. He currently lives in Maryland with his wife, the poet Jillian Meyer, and their daughter. 

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: I’ve been reading a lot about racial violence, which led me to write this story. There’s a prevailing attitude that race riots either have been exaggerated or didn’t happen, or that they happened so long ago they don’t matter. I wanted to address the idea that these things happened and are still relevant. 

 

Q: What does your writing space look like?

A: I write wherever and whenever I can: at work during lunch breaks, in the evenings at home, or wherever I happen to be. My writing space is essentially my laptop and wherever I can plug it in.

 

Q: What’s your writing process?

A: It differs from piece to piece. I’ve sat on stories for years trying to get them right. Others, I’ve typed out in one sitting. I think you have to be flexible. If you can only write under optimal circumstances, you aren’t going to get much done. One thing I do that’s different from some other writers is I edit as I write, even if that means going back and reworking a significant portion of a piece before moving forward. I’ve found this to be more time effective. 

 

Q: What living writer do you admire most and why? Is there a particular book you refer to again and again?

A: I really enjoy Terry Pratchett. He writes fantasy parodies. He’s incredibly talented and funny. That’s who I read for fun. I’m currently reading Etgar Keret, who is a somewhat Kafka-esque flash-fiction writer. Most of my favorite writers are dead. Donald Harington. Italo Calvino. Laurence Sterne. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: This story is part of a series of stories about racial violence, something like a left-leaning Turner Diaries. I’m working on the last story in the series, along with a novel about a private boarding school.


Andrea Lewis.JPG

Things Like the Color of the Sky by Andrea Lewis

Followed by Q&A

Maureen

I was Owen McAllister’s secretary, not his wife. The fact that I loved him didn’t change that. The fact that he already had a wife—an inappropriate, stupid wife, but still a legal spouse––made it even worse. But one morning in October 1950 I walked into Owen’s office and found him alone and weeping at his desk. That didn’t change anything either, but it was a start. 

I went in and locked the door. He glanced at me as I came around his desk to stand beside him. Owen was the chairman of the Department of Geology, Fremont College, Xenia, Ohio. Apart from a handshake on the day he interviewed me fourteen months ago, I had never touched him. Now, with a sheaf of correspondence clutched in one hand, I rested my other hand on his shoulder. “Owen?” 

He had asked me months before to call him by his Christian name––an endearing request––and even then I was falling in love with him. Falling in love with his brilliant mind and his pure white hair and his thick shoulders under his Harris tweed jackets and his courtly way of speaking to me. Maureen, would this be a good time to take a letter? Maureen, could I trouble you to take my hat to the cleaners? I had never had such a considerate boss. 

“Owen, what is it?” I studied his white collar where it pressed into the pink flesh of his neck. That Owen was a man of strong emotions, I had no doubt. But the energy that emanated from his six-foot frame was typically channeled into his workload: the textbook he was writing––Geology for Engineers––with its bold-ink and nearly illegible pages transcribed by me on a new Underwood typewriter; the talks he gave, in his beautiful baritone, at seminars and conferences; the students and scientists he trained. I supposed some of that energy was also channeled toward his shallow wife, Jeanette, but she never seemed to notice. 

“Forgive me.” He took a white handkerchief from his jacket pocket. “I’m an old fool.” Owen often called himself “old,” laughing ruefully when he said it, but he was only fifty. I was thirty-five. I wasn’t certain of his wife Jeanette’s age. She was always cleverly made up and costumed and coifed in order to look practically twenty or twenty-one, but I imagined she was close to thirty. 

“Owen, how can I help you?” I took dictation at 130 words per minute, typed at 100, maintained a Variadex file system in perfect order, kept his calendar, answered his telephone, and arranged his travel. But I was prepared to go well beyond the boundaries of my job to help Owen. 

“It’s Jeanette,” he said, wiping his eyes. 

“Is she ill?” I knew she wasn’t. I had seen her the day before when she breezed past my desk in a brown velvet hat with a veil, deigning to say Hello, Maureen, trailing Tabu and condescension as she pushed into Owen’s office. They had been married for three years. I imagined the marriage had allowed Jeanette to hurdle several social strata in one leap––away from the shop-girl, Midnight-In-Paris, cut-on-the-bias existence she seemed to spring from and into the faculty-tea, DeSoto-and-fur-coat life she currently enjoyed. I saw her as a fake, a rhinestone ring in a Tiffany box.  

“No, not ill.” Owen straightened his back, tucked the handkerchief away and reached for the stack of correspondence, which I had placed on his desk. He seemed prepared to continue with the morning’s tasks, but, just as suddenly, a fresh wave of sobs overcame him. I was still standing next to his chair, and he clasped me about the waist and pressed his face into the placket of my freshly ironed pin-tucked blouse. I had dreamt of his embrace, but never in circumstances such as these. “She’s…Jeanette’s… different,” he said, and I felt his moist breath where it penetrated the pin-tucks and warmed my skin. “I fear I may be losing her.” 

These words produced a storm in my heart and an image in my mind of walking with Owen under the cliffs at Scourie in Scotland where he had done so much research. How many times had I typed the details of the famous rock formations along that coast? Like a schoolgirl, I had often imagined myself there with him.  

“Please let me help you.” I put my hands on his beautiful white hair and cradled his head beneath my breasts. 

The doorknob rattled. Then a sharp knock. I had forgotten the door was locked, but thank God it was. We drew apart, startled and staring at one another. Again, Owen pulled out the handkerchief and wiped his eyes. He smiled weakly and motioned for me to open the door. 

It was Philip Carstetter, the new professor in Chemical Engineering who was contributing some material to Owen’s book. He did not have an appointment, but then he never did. He clumped in with his cane. “Locked doors?” he said, laughing. “What’s going on?” He held a cloth-bound book in one hand and steadied all his weight against his stick with the other.  

He was ten years younger than Owen, but he had smashed up his leg in the war. He was a bombardier and his plane crash-landed on a mission over North Africa. I felt he quite overplayed the part of the world-weary hero, with his unruly black Irish hair always pushed to one side of his forehead and his tie askew and his suits rumpled. 

“What have you got for me?” Owen said. After sobbing into my midsection moments earlier, he managed to revert rather admirably to his grand-professor voice.  

Philip Carstetter held the book aloft, a preacher waving a Bible. “Calcination!” he called out. “Cement! Limestone!”  

“Excellent.” Owen rubbed his hands together and reached for the book. “You are a life-saver, Carstetter.” 

I left them and returned to my desk and the afternoon’s tasks. 

 

2. Philip Carstetter

Maybe I thrive on anger, maybe that’s it. All I know is when a woman makes me mad I tend to fall in love with her. And Jeanette McAllister made me furious. I met her last summer when I first got to this jerkwater campus. Owen hosted an endless, bottomless, worthless weekend forum for a geologist visiting from Germany. A real blowhard. I didn’t hesitate to tell him I knew his people well: they shot my ship out from under me seven years ago, and I’d like to thank Rommel and his pals personally for this. I stabbed my cane in his direction. That meant I didn’t have to speak with the German geologist for the next two days. 

But Jeanette. Jeanette was a different story. She sashayed up to me at the drinks party and stuck her hand out and said, “Hi, I’m Jeanette, the tramp who landed Owen McAllister. Who the hell are you?” 

She always looked soft. She always wore fur and cashmere and pale wool, and underneath, silk and satin––yes, I finally did get underneath all the layers––but Jeanette was really tempered steel. She knew what she wanted and she went out and got it. That made me furious, which, as I said, made me love her. It was either love or something more violent. Can love be violent? Maybe the war screwed me up. What the hell, I liked pretending the world owed me something because my leg was shattered and I spent twelve days in a tent in Tripoli where they were short on morphine and long on flies. But I came through it; I even stopped minding the cane when I saw how women were drawn to it.  

Not that things clicked right away with Jeanette. She always said: “I’m a gold digger, Phil, but I’m a faithful gold digger.” She didn’t really want to fool around or get involved or leave Owen. She said, “You know what you need? You need a girl.” She offered to find me one.  

The quacks at the VA told me to practice walking without the cane. I didn’t want to practice anything. I didn’t want to teach my damn classes with all those entitled pretty boys sitting there twiddling their thumbs. I didn’t want to find a nice girl and settle down. I wanted to grab Jeanette and run off somewhere and do loving, violent things to her and to hell with everybody else. 

 

3. Maureen

I needed my job not only for myself. My mother lived with me and depended upon me utterly. That evening, the evening after Owen embraced me and wept, I watched Mother pick the pearl onions one by one out of her creamed peas with the concentration of a jeweler sorting gems. Her iron-gray hair was set in curlers so tightly rolled that a ridge of skin puckered whitely across the top of her forehead. Her patience seemed as stretched as her scalp. She looked up from the peas and demanded, “What exactly is it you want, Maureen?” 

I assumed this was a continuation of the only conversation we ever really had. She did not care what I wanted. Her real questions were: What will happen to me? And Why don’t we have more? More money, more furniture, more appliances, more security for her old age.  

She had been as thrilled as I when I accepted the job with Owen. My previous job had been in a steno pool where I was surrounded by girls who made fun of me behind my back but were friendly enough when they needed me––Maureen, could you change this typewriter ribbon? Maureen, could you decipher my shorthand? Maureen, could you spell Philadelphia? Their letters were misfiled, their tab keys were jammed, and their erasures left holes. One Friday, without notice, I quit. My only satisfaction was the panic and chaos I imagined in the wake of my departure. Mother did not partake of my triumph. “What if we starve?” she had asked. 

Father left when I was twelve. I grew up with Mother telling me I was plain, I was pathetic, I was not marriage material and I should have something to fall back on. So I completed a two-year course at Hartley School for the Secretary and worked my way with no help from anyone through file clerk and steno pool jobs to the position of Personal Secretary to Professor and Departmental Chairman Owen McAllister. Still, Mother wanted more.  

Now, after years of not-marriage-material talk, she had begun to imply I should be landing a husband. She had even hinted that I should try to get Owen away from Jeanette. It troubled me that her venal wishes should somehow coincide with the secret dreams I had about Owen––dreams I had no intention of acting upon until that day, when his tearful confessions made me think there was a chance. Was Jeanette having an affair? Could I prove it to Owen? End his agony, after which he would turn to me? Owen would be traveling to Chicago that weekend. Perhaps I could visit Jeanette and learn something further.

 

4. Jeanette McAllister

Philip was with me that evening, the evening Maureen showed up pretending to be “on her way to a dinner engagement.” She looked pathetic. A melted green Hubbard squash of a hat and a silly cloth coat the color of spoiled chocolate pudding. She announced quite loudly that she had promised Owen she would “drop off some pages.” That meant typed pages for his book––the endless, unreadable book he worked on––and it was true, she had brought typed drafts to our home before. Now she brandished a brown envelope as if it contained vital wartime secrets. “I told him I would bring this by,” she chirped.  

I felt certain she had some ulterior motive––bringing pages on a Saturday evening?––and I was intrigued. Was she spying on me? I decided to give her an eyeful and invited her in. 

“You know Philip, of course,” I said.  

When Maureen discovered Philip Carstetter standing by our fireplace with a scotch and soda in his hand, she turned as gray as her ugly pocketbook. I pressed her to stay for a drink. “Owen is in Chicago,” I said. “But then you knew that.” 

“Yes.” Maureen tried to sit down, remove her coat, remove her gloves, and hold onto her envelope and pocketbook all at the same time. “But,” she added, “you know how Owen is about his pages.” 

“No,” I said. “How is Owen about his pages?” I put a scotch and water in front of her on the coffee table. 

“I thought he might want this for Sunday night.” Maureen held the envelope in her lap. “When he returns.” She had just gotten everything settled and taken a sip of her drink when she looked at her watch and said, “I’m almost late for my dinner engagement.” 

I lit a cigarette. “Who is your dinner date?” I asked, all curiosity. 

“Just a friend.” The scotch was making her neck flush. 

I leaned in. “A new beau?” 

Maureen put her glass down. She began to reverse the process, gathering up her gloves and pocketbook. “I’m a trifle old for a new beau, don’t you think?”  

“One is never too old to fall in love,” I said. “Don’t you agree, Philip?” 

Phillip looked annoyed. When Maureen had rung the doorbell, Philip had been about to kiss me. We had kissed perhaps three times before that night––furtive kisses in a hallway or a taxicab––but Philip managed more passion in one kiss than poor Owen had mustered in three years. Philip drained his glass. “That is true,” he said, warming to my game. “Love can strike at any age. But Maureen is perhaps more dedicated to her work.”  

“Oh, Maureen’s a professional little gatekeeper all right,” I said. “Sometimes I can’t see Owen myself unless I have the proper hall pass.” 

Philip leaned on his cane with one hand and poured fresh scotch with the other. “Owen and Maureen had their heads together behind locked doors the other day,” he added. 

Locked doors? I hadn’t heard about that one, but it was useful information. “That’s because Maureen loves my husband,” I said. 

Philip pretended to ponder the idea. “No, Jeanette, I believe Maureen loves her Underwood typewriter. I’ve watched her hands on the keys and it’s true love.”  

Maureen stood up. “I’ll be late if I don’t leave now.” Her lips were so white that I knew we had gone too far but I couldn’t resist one last question. “So which is it, Maureen? Owen or the Underwood?” 

“I’m sorry I interrupted your evening.” She picked up her coat and the envelope and started for the door. 

“Aren’t you going to leave that?” I pointed at the envelope. 

She thrust it toward me and I took it. 

When she left, Philip let his cane clatter to the parquet floor and grabbed me by both arms. I looked into his eyes and tried to understand what I saw there, in that mix of fury and love. I tried to understand why women fall for a man with a limp. Is it the feeling that a flaw makes a man more a woman’s equal? 

 

Philip and I were already equal. Our backgrounds were the same. No money, hopeless parents, trash jobs. But Philip had gotten scholarships and an education. He joined up right after Pearl Harbor even though he was almost too old and was in graduate school, doing vital work. When he came back from North Africa, he wrote some doozy of a dissertation on the Hydraulicity of Limestone and got himself a professorship. All this, while I was sewing my own black cocktail dresses at the YWCA, buying fake pearls, and crashing parties where I could meet well-heeled men. Men like Owen McAllister. And I had gotten what I wanted. A husband who had money, a career, a pension, and no wandering eye. Then Philip showed up.

 

5. Maureen

Monday morning as I took the cover off the Underwood, my stomach still roiled over Jeanette and Philip and the events of Saturday night. Everything about me––my livelihood, my professionalism, my respect for Owen––was hilarious to them. 

I rolled in a piece of stationery and began typing Owen’s agenda for the day. But the ribbon was worn, so I took a fresh one from my bottom desk drawer and bent over the gleaming, black Underwood thinking it was true, I loved it, how solid it felt. I wheeled the old ribbon to one side and took the spools off.  

Maybe they would stop laughing when I told Owen that his fears were well grounded and the interloper was his trusted colleague Philip Carstetter. Maybe that would silence them. I loosened the ribbon-leader from the new spool. 

At that moment Owen arrived, still in his hat and coat. He was carrying the envelope, which I recognized at once.  

“Very kind of you,” he said, holding it up. “Not necessary, but thank you.” 

“I thought you might like to see it.” I could feel my face grow hot. 

He took off his hat and hooked it on the coat tree. “Jeanette tells me you have a new beau.” 

I was confused. Then I remembered Jeanette’s insistence that I had some sort of romantic date, even though I had denied it clearly enough. 

“Philip Carstetter was there,” I blurted. “With Jeanette.” 

Owen unbuttoned his coat. “She mentioned it.” He pressed his lips together as if to keep from saying more. 

Of course Jeanette would mention it. She wouldn’t wait for me to tell him. What a fool I was. I had no proof of anything. I tried to hook the end of the new ribbon into the slot on the empty spool, a task I had performed a hundred times, but my hands were shaking and I could not do it. 

Owen watched me. “Maureen, are you all right?” 

I was smearing my hands with ribbon ink, something I usually managed to avoid. Then the new, full spool slipped from my fingers, dropped to my desk, rolled off and across the pine floor, unraveling yards of thin black ribbon as it went. I fell to my knees to gather it. Owen knelt across from me, trying to help.  

“No, I can do it.” My voice came out in a furious cry, shocking me. I scooped ribbon with both hands, blackening them. “I can do it,” I said again. I was weeping, but dared not put my soiled hands to my face. I must have looked an utter fright, kneeling there with my face wet and my hands black, trying to control my twisting mouth.  

“Maureen.” Owen put his hands on my shoulders. The beautiful weight of his warm hands. “What is it?” 

“Don’t you understand?” I said. “Philip was there. You were right. You were right about Jeanette.” 

He let go. For a wild moment I wanted to grab his hands and put them back on my shoulders. But my hands were full of typewriter ribbon and grimy with ink. Owen stood up. 

“Let us not speak of Philip Carstetter,” he said. “All right?” He took his coat off and went to the coat tree and hung it up. He walked into his office and closed the door. I found the empty spool and began slowly winding the ribbon back on. It twisted about hopelessly. I would have to throw away a perfectly good, unused ribbon.

 

6. Owen McAllister

Work on the book has been slow going. The publisher sends letters quizzing me as if I were a grad student begging for thesis approval. Why isn’t there more on the magnesium and titanium compounds in clay? Aren’t most industries changing their requirements for siliceous materials in fireclay? What is the future of lime concrete?  

I’m not in the business of predicting the future. If that makes me a throwback, then so be it. My doddering-codger status is already well known. Indeed, it provoked tittering behind my back when I married Jeanette three years ago. People find it amusing enough when a life-long bachelor decides to marry––as if he won’t be capable of making coffee for two or will blanch at the sight of ladies’ panties on the bathroom doorknob or, worse, won’t know that they are ladies’ panties––but they find it even more amusing when his bride is as young and vibrant as Jeanette.  

People don’t understand that a man falls in love with what he does not possess. Jeanette is bold. Impetuous. That is why I love her. Why would I want someone as reticent and plodding as I? I have feared losing her from the day we married, and perhaps now it is coming to pass. 

Philip Carstetter. I liked the man straight off, and he has been a godsend on the book. Extensive fieldwork with limestone. Much more practical experience with engineering applications, including the nitpicky siliceous materials the publisher natters on about. And Philip offered up his research and papers and books and experience to me, claiming he wanted only simple attribution. Now I must ask myself: was this because of Jeanette? Jeanette says no. Jeanette claims she is helping Philip “find a wife.” Now this––Maureen almost hysterical. Jeanette says Maureen is in love with me, but that is preposterous.

 

7. Philip Carstetter

That day we met––at the forum for the blowhard German––Jeanette stared at my cane, pointed, and said, “What happened to you?” I gave her the bullshit story about crash landing, but later, the first time she came up to my place, I told her the truth. I had never confessed it to anyone.  

She didn’t care that my apartment was at the end of a bus line where all the drunks got off and wove their way down the sidewalk, asking for nickels and trailing their shoelaces. She did say, “Phil, on your salary? You don’t have to live here. Why do you?”  

“I like the neighbors,” I said. She laughed. She laughed a lot, but she still wouldn’t sleep with me, at least not that night. Not for months. 

But that night I told her. Yes, I was in North Africa and yes, I was a bombardier on B-25s, but no, I did not receive my wound in a “crash landing.” I would have if I hadn’t been the only coward to bail out of a plane that did crash land. Everybody survived, thanks to the show-off, Princeton-grad of a pilot, who took the ship down in the desert without any landing gear. My chute opened fine, but I came in crooked and lay cringing like the coward I was for 36 hours in the dirt with a shattered leg before the search party found me. 

Jeanette had a drink in her hand and her bare feet on my footstool and she put her head back and laughed that sexy laugh again and said, “Hell, I would’ve been right behind you.” She didn’t care what anybody thought. She said, “As long as we’re confessing secrets…” and lit a cigarette. 

She told me she had, more than once, done it for money. “That’s how desperate I was,” she said, and in two seconds she went from laughing to crying. “My mother and dad had kicked me out,” she said. “What was I going to do? I was seventeen. I was nothing. I never told Owen.” 

So––Jeanette and I––we knew all about each other.  

 

8. Owen McAllister

Maureen fought and won all the battles with the publisher. She pushed everything through. She edited manuscripts until two a.m. sometimes. She arranged the contracts. She arranged the speaking engagements. She protected me from petty details. She saved the book and I suppose she saved me. Swooping in when Jeanette left, making me eat the vile soup her mother had made, fluffing my pillows (I was ill for a while), washing my underwear and cutting my hair. Certainly Jeanette never would have done what Maureen did.  

We are on the SS America bound for Scourie on our honeymoon. Maureen claimed she wanted to see it ever since she read my description of the famous gneiss outcroppings on the Scottish coast. I can’t imagine Jeanette ever being interested in Precambrian rocks, or any rocks. She used to joke that diamonds were the rocks she liked. I suppose it is a good thing for a man’s wife to take an interest in his work.   

Maureen’s mother will live with us. I feared she would want to come to Scotland too, but no. She was overjoyed to stay in my house and boss the maid about. Jeanette and Carstetter are in that ridiculous apartment of his. And he left the university. Maybe they are happy.

 

9. Maureen McAllister

The sky here is pearl-gray-blue and close, misted with sea spray and the warm damp of the Gulf Stream. When you love someone, you notice things like the color of the sky. You notice every sea-softened, egg-sized rock on the beach and every slate-roofed cottage with its black-framed windows. You even do foolish things like go in the Scourie village kirk and say a prayer of thanks.  

Pebbled pathways have taken us up and down this part of the coast. From the higher vantage points we view all the little sea lochs, ringed with islands that look like sleeping beasts in the low-lying water. The islands and headlands are gray rock––this is the famous gneiss––that looks ancient and gnarled and pockmarked wherever green moss or black lichen does not fur the surface. At dusk, sky and rock merge into a single shade of cinder gray; hardness and softness becoming one ghost-like disappearance, something humans are not meant to decipher.  

The gneiss in many places, as Owen is quick to point out, is thrust through with igneous rock in vertical pinkish slabs. Owen enjoys going on about the quartz-dolerite extruding itself into the much-harder Lewisian gneiss, but I prefer simply contemplating the vastness of time. Some of the outcroppings here match up with formations in Canada, showing that the two coastlines were once joined. To think that now the Atlantic Ocean stretches in all its restiveness north and west from here to North America in one blue-gray unbroken expanse. 

Today we are walking a path that takes us close to the beach and the lapping water. Owen strides ahead of me, carrying a furled umbrella and a waterproof notebook. He keeps his head down and his shoulders hunched against the damp. I must remind him constantly to unhunch his shoulders. I carry my guidebook, noting plants and outcroppings as we go. The headland in front of us is Craig a’Mhail. Near my feet, slippery shore rock is wrapped in bladder wrack. I feel wrapped myself, enclosed in this landscape that seems at once welcoming and primeval, familiar and forbidding. A place where the very earth is breathing deeply, keeping its counsel, and speaking to me of endurance.

 

 

Andrea Lewis writes short stories and essays from her home on Vashon Island, Washington. Her work has appeared in Cutthroat, Catamaran Literary Reader, The MacGuffin, and many others. Two of her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. More of her work is available at www.andrealewis.org

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: I love typewriters, so that was a start. Then I saw a dedication in an old textbook where the author thanked his secretary for all the typescript pages and I wondered who she was.

 

Q: What does your writing space look like?

A: I sort of sit in a room-size circle of books and every once in while make a little clear space to put down a spiral notebook and write.

 

Q: What’s your writing process?

A: A lot of timed writing with a group, then coming home and saying “What does this mean?”

 

Q: What living writer do you admire most and why? Is there a particular book you refer to again and again?

A: One book I often pick up when stuck is Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. Fabulous sentences.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A story set in 1933 in Pie Town, New Mexico.


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Workshop by J.T. Townley

Followed by Q&A

for S.B.

We spent the entire second day listening to him say nothing. Almost nothing. He was already in the corner by the far window, smoking, when we came in. He exhaled a blue cloud and said, Lasciate ogni speranza, o voi ch’entrate! That was it for three hours. It didn’t sound like French, which some of us spoke. Only later did we learn what it meant. 

We were here for Writers-in-Paris, a program for up-and-coming undergrads sponsored by our English department. We were all creative writing majors. Ten days of workshops with a renowned expatriate writer, or so explained the catalogue. Workshop in the mornings, city excursions in the afternoons. We thought, Hemingway, Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald. We thought, Arc de Triomphe and La Tour Eiffel. 

We were mostly wrong. 

The renowned writer was supposed to be Jon Burger, a prize-winning novelist we’d heard of but never read. All of us had sent him a short story or novel chapter in advance. We were supposed to critique each other’s work, too, though none of us had started. It didn’t matter; workshop wouldn’t officially begin until the second day; we’d get to it after the bars closed. Today was supposed to be a meet-and-greet. When we finally found the place (those buildings all looked the same!), Prof. Townsend, our teacher from the university, was there, though he wasn’t supposed to be. 

Mr. Burger has had to cancel, he said. 

But he can’t, we said. We already paid for this, or our parents did. 

Mr. Burger has suffered a stroke. 

Too bad, we said, but what about our stories? What about ten days of workshop with a renowned expatriate writer? 

Don’t worry, said Prof. Townsend. We’ll find a replacement. Workshop will begin tomorrow morning at nine o’clock sharp. Don’t be late. 

We were on time the second day, though workshop did not actually begin. The man we assumed was Jon Burger’s replacement chain-smoked Gauloises and ignored us. He was a specter, tall, gangly, his face rutted and pale. A head full of spiky, silver hair. He huddled against a chill none of us felt (it was July; there was no air conditioning), wrapped in a full-length raincoat so worn it might have come from a thrift shop. His umbrella leaned against the wall. We sat in anxious silence, trying to ignore the room’s musty odor. 

At the three hour mark, the man walked out. 

Some of us cursed him. 

Most, but not all, of us returned the following morning. The man we’d soon learn to call Mr. B. already sat in the corner, smoking and gazing out at the Seine. He said nothing; neither did we. Half an hour of disappointed silence passed. It wasn’t what we’d expected when we’d read the catalogue. Then one of us asked: 

Sir? Are you our teacher? 

Mr. B. gazed over at us as if he hadn’t realized we were there. The Gauloise he pinched between finger and thumb was more ash than cigarette. 

Les élèves sont comme les parents: ce n’est pas à nous de choisir. 

This time we knew it was French. 

It wasn’t the response any of us hoped for (we had no idea what it meant), but at least it broke the ice. Our curiosity was piqued. 

Are you French or American? we asked. 

Do you write short stories or novels? we asked. 

Do you write tragedy or comedy? we asked. 

He shook his head and stared at the cracked floor tiles. Then he grinned up at us, his teeth tobacco-stained or missing. It might have been a sneer. It was his only response. 

We watched him light a new Gauloise with the burning ember of the one he’d just smoked. Some of us hacked more loudly than was necessary, though Mr. B. paid no attention. The room already smelled bad enough without all those carcinogenic fumes in the air. Indignation swelled like a balloon in our chests. Then, angrily, one of us said:  

Why did you even take this job? 

A reasonable question, at last. 

You’re Scottish?  

You know a Scotsman by his kilt, an Irishman by his lilt. 

Don’t you like teaching? we said. We’re the cream. We rise to the top. 

Mr. B. staggered to his feet, gathered his umbrella, and tottered to the door. On the threshold, he turned and said: That’s because you’re rich and thick. Then he was gone. 

More of us cursed him. 

And we called Prof. Townsend. We wanted to tell him about the silence and cigarettes and insults. We wanted to explain that he’d made a terrible mistake. We wanted to insist he immediately find another writer to lead our workshop. This is not what we, or our parents, paid for! But no matter how many times we dialed his hotel number—if this wasn’t an emergency, what was?—no one ever picked up. Prof. Townsend had a reputation for drinking wine and chasing women. He called it research. 

That afternoon, returning from an excursion to the Eiffel Tower, one of us spotted him. We pointed. Mr. B. rode a bicycle up Boulevard Garibaldi through heavy traffic; he was coming our direction. The bike was pre-War by the looks of it, solid steel with coaster breaks, every piece of it painted flat, charcoal gray. Mr. B. wasn’t having an easy time navigating between city buses, Audi sports cars, and delivery vans. As he approached, several of us waved; it’s the cloth from which we’re cut. How many other people do we know in Paris? 

While he didn’t seem to notice us, it’s possible we distracted him. A split second was all it would have taken. As he heaved that heavy bicycle through the intersection at Rue Lecourbe, a taxi made a hard right in front of him. Mr. B. catapulted over the hood, then landed on the asphalt with a dull thud. It only took a second. We were already sprinting toward him. 

By the time we reached him, he’d dragged himself and his bicycle to the curb. Although he wasn’t obviously wounded (no blood, no fractures), Mr. B didn’t look so good. He was paler than usual, for one thing, which we didn’t think possible, since the only color his skin had was gray. And he seemed discombobulated. The taxi driver harangued him in a dialect none of us had ever heard. Then someone said, Foutez-lui la paix! We were pretty sure it meant, Get the hell out of here! or Leave him the fuck alone! Something like that. The driver made a hand-gesture none of us understood, then climbed into his car and drove away. 

We hauled Mr. B. into the nearest café. (The waiter made us leave his bicycle outside.) We sat him down and ordered him and us a Coke, then huddled around him, awaiting his thanks. He still seemed dazed; he lit a Gauloise and said nothing. When the waiter returned with the Cokes, Mr. B. sent his back for an espresso, which he doctored with three sugar cubes. He slurped it down in one go, then said, Mais ça fait du bien. We nodded and smiled, though he didn’t look any better. Thanks, Yanks, he said, grinning. In this light, his teeth looked even worse. Maintenant, he said, foutez-moi la paix.  

It didn’t seem right to leave him, but that was clearly what he wanted. We fumbled with our euros, wishing they were francs. The waiter grew impatient. On our way out, we checked to see that Mr. B.’s bicycle was where we’d left it. It wasn’t, but what could we do? Then we walked back to the Résidence Étudiante.

The next morning, only a few of us went to workshop. Some simply didn’t see the point: We didn’t come to Paris to be insulted by a ghoul. It made sense. All the same, a handful of us, five or seven, showed up at nine o’clock sharp. We were driven by guilt (our parents paid for this) and grades (this would affect our GPAs). Also, no small dose of morbid curiosity. 

Mr. B. stood, somewhat shakily, at a lectern at the front of the room. He wore the same dingy, tattered suit, this time without the raincoat, which was draped over a chair. His umbrella was nowhere to be found. There may have been a glimmer in his eye. We took our seats in silence; we had no idea what to expect. 

To be an artist, he began, is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion. 

We raised our hands and said, We don’t understand. 

And it was true: we didn’t. 

Mr. B. said, You understand even less than you know. 

We still didn’t understand. 

He teetered for a moment (too much Irish in his coffee?), then lost his balance and lurched toward the wall. To keep himself upright, he grasped at the podium. Then his left hand came off. There was no ripping or tearing; in fact, we almost didn’t notice. If Mr. B. hadn’t gone more pallid than usual, then raised his wrist-stump for investigation, likely none of us would have been the wiser. His genuine shock lasted only an instant, before a black grin swept across his face. His left hand still gripped the side of the lectern. Mr. B. pried it off and stuck it in his coat pocket. 

We wanted to ask if he was okay. Do you need help? we wanted to say. But we knew it would serve no purpose. Nothing positive could come of it, since Mr. B. would lacerate us with polyglot profanity, then walk out. So, instead, we asked: 

Will you answer our questions now?  

He made a show of lighting a cigarette, which couldn’t have been easy with one hand, then said: Fire when ready.

Are you an artist? 

At one time. I might have been. 

What did you write? 

Words, words, words. 

A few of us thought that was funny. We knew the right questions to ask. 

Do you write in the morning or at night?  

Is there a difference? 

Do you write longhand or type?  

Both. Neither. Could it possibly matter? 

Would you elaborate on your writing process?  

Mr. B. wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then took a long drag on his Gauloise. 

Not to want to say, he said, exhaling, not to know what you want to say, not to be able to say what you think you want to say, and never to stop saying, or hardly ever, that is the thing to keep in mind, even in the heat of composition. 

It was cryptic, to be sure. Some of us may have even muttered as much under our breaths. But we knew we needed to be patient. It would all be clear, in time.  

We were sure of it.

Sometime in the evening, we made contact with Prof. Townsend. We called and called until the hotel reception finally connected us. The most disgruntled among us insisted on it. 

Where have you been? we asked. We’ve been calling you for days. 

Busy, he said. Prof. Townsend already sounded drunk. With my, you know, research. 

We knew. 

So how’s workshop going? he asked.  

Terrible, we said. 

Pointless, we said. 

Interesting, we said.  

What do you mean, interesting? he asked.  

Where did you dig this writer up? 

Prof. Townsend laughed his drunken laugh. We knew he was rosy-cheeked and fearless. La Cimetière du Montparnasse, he said. It was a friend’s idea. Not too shabby for last minute, eh? 

Yes, shabby, we said. That’s the mot juste. 

What do you mean? he asked. 

The workshop is a shambles, we said. 

That can’t be, said Prof. Townsend. 

The man is falling apart. 

He’s old. What do you expect?  

But he’s falling to pieces. 

Well, at his age. 

Which is what? Two hundred? 

Gimme a minute here. Bottles and glasses clinking down the line. A woman laughing. Papers rustling; a pencil scratching. A hundred and nine, said Prof. Townsend. Or maybe ten? What month is this? Let’s call it one-ten. 

Our interrogatives were full of expletives.  

The man is brilliant, said Prof Townsend. He won the Nobel in ’69. Give him a break, okay? And try to learn something.

We spent the night in the library. All of us. We needed to find out who our workshop teacher actually was, though we never asked ourselves why. We mainly searched online since the stacks were all in French.  

Unwashed, hungry, we made it to workshop on time, maybe even a little early. The room hadn’t been this crowded since the first morning of sneering and chain-smoking and silence. Only a couple of us still refused to come: He stinks and he’s an asshole. 

It was true. It wasn’t the room. Mr. B. smelled worse every day.  

This morning was no different. As we filed in, he stood at the podium, grinning and smoking. Behind that warm, earthy odor was a sharp stench, like a festering wound. We tried not to pay any attention, but the room was rank with it. Maybe that’s why Mr. B. chain-smoked Gauloises.

Que ça pue l’artifice, he said. 

Although we didn’t quite understand, we thought we heard the word stink. We wondered if he could read our minds. 

Then he began: 

The only thing most writers disturb is a certain order on the plane of the feasible. What other plane can there be for the maker? Logically none. Yet I speak of an art turning from it in disgust, weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road. 

We didn’t understand. We weren’t yet MFA students; we were still learning the fundamentals. And as Prof. Townsend always told us, Learn the rules before you try to break them.  

What about all the literary conventions? we asked. 

Un peu conventionnel, n’est-ce pas? 

That, we understood. It wasn’t amusing. 

What about plot? we asked.  

What about character? we asked.  

Creating character is what literary writers do, we explained. 

Not everyone, he said. Not always. 

Our faces were question marks. We held our pens over our notebooks, expectant. 

Unwrite plot, he said. Unmake character.  

Before we could finish scribbling our notes, his right arm fell off. We weren’t shocked. All we could think was: From now on, we’ll have to light his cigarettes for him. We lit one for him. 

Did you really win the Nobel Prize? we asked. 

Damned to fame, he said.  

What’s your best book? 

Watt

Your best book? we asked. 

Mr. B. snickered. No sooner has the ink dried than it revolts me. 

It wasn’t exactly comforting, but we appreciated his honesty. Also, it was nice to know we weren’t alone. 

But seriously, we said, which of your books would you recommend? 

The Unnameable

We wondered if being so difficult came naturally to him. 

A dry thump interrupted our next question. Mr. B.’s right leg came off and dropped to the floor. He tried to squat and stretch for it, but he almost lost his balance and gave up. It didn’t matter. A hand might fit into a pocket, but not a leg. 

By now nothing surprised us. We forged ahead. 

Besides, obviously, you, who should we be reading? 

Proust, Joyce. Dante’s Inferno, if nothing else. 

They were writers we’d heard of but never read. We should read more, we told ourselves. We made a note of it.  

Some of us were still puzzling over Mr. B.’s earlier comments. If not plot and character, we asked, what is literature about? 

He didn’t hesitate: The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express. 

Then his left leg fell off, and he toppled to the floor. 

I don’t have a leg left to stand on, he said. Oddly, he sounded jubilant.  

We scurried to the front of the room and gathered his wayward appendages. We propped him up in a chair and wrapped his pieces in his raincoat. We lit a Gauloise for him.   

If you were us, we asked, what would you be writing? 

My epitaph. 

That’s pretty morbid. 

Macabre. 

That’s a good word! 

Lugubrious. 

Another! 

What do you expect? he said. I’m a plumber. 

Then his head came off. It hit the floor and rolled into the corner. We scurried over. Mr. B.’s face was covered with dust and fuzz and cobwebs. He was still smoking.  

We pushed the chair out of the way and set his head upright in the center of the table. We didn’t know what else to do.  

For a long time, we sat in silence, listening to him smoke. But we sensed our time with Mr. B. was running short, so we asked:  

Is there anything else we should know?  

I can’t go on in any case, he said. But I must go on. So I’ll go on. 

We waited. He cleared his throat. He said nothing. 

Would he go on? we began to wonder. Should we encourage him to? 

We waited. He smoked. Then he said: 

Ubi nihil vales ibi nihil velis. 

None of us spoke Latin. We don’t speak Latin, we said.  

Ça m’étonne, he said. Then he translated: Where you are worth nothing, may you also wish for nothing.  

We were sure it was important. We still didn’t understand.  

Do you have any last words of advice? 

Mr. B. puffed intently on his cigarette. When there was nothing left but ash, he said: Try again. Fail again. Fail better. 

It wasn’t what we expected, and we weren’t sure what to do with it. Yet as we filed out of workshop for the last time, many of us told ourselves we were willing to give it a try. Still, we knew we’d have to speak with Prof. Townsend about our grades.  

And a possible refund.

 

Portions of Mr. B's dialogue adapted from Samuel Beckett: The Grove Centenary Edition (New York: Grove Press, 2006) and Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson (New York: Grove Press, 2004).

 

 

J. T. Townley has published in The After Coetzee Project, Collier’s, Experienced: Rock Music Tales of Fact & Fiction, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Istanbul Review, Metamorphoses, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other places. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia. 

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: This story emerged from discussions with students, flyers for international writers’ conferences, and The Letters of Samuel Beckett.

 

Q: What does your writing space look like?

A: Desk, chair, lamp, computer.

 

Q: What’s your writing process?

A: “If you write a story today, and you get up tomorrow and start another story, all the expertise that you put into the first story doesn’t transfer over automatically to the second story. You’re always starting at the bottom of the mountain. So you’re always becoming a writer. You’re never really arriving.” Edward P. Jones

 

Q: What living writer do you admire most and why? Is there a particular book you refer to again and again?

A: I admire the work of Paul Auster, J. M. Coetzee, Robert Coover, Gabriel García Márquez, Thomas Pynchon, and George Saunders. To my mind, Donald Barthelme, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, and Julio Cortázar are all still alive and well.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing stories for a collection of short fiction, A Love Supreme, and translating Québécois short stories from French for an anthology I’m editing, Northern Lights: Short Fiction from Québec.


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How to Listen to Otis Redding After Your Husband Leaves by Katie Darby Mullins

Followed by Q&A

First, you’ll have to clean the dust off the needle. Do you remember how to do that? Gabe used to do it, but you haven’t listened to records in a long time. You think about grabbing a dust cloth, but instead, you sit your third glass of wine on the console, grip the arm of the record player, and squeeze the needle between your middle and forefinger. Fuzz comes off and you figure it’s good to go now.

You want to hear that one song. You know the one. But when you pull out Otis Blue, you can’t remember the name of it. All you can think about is the day Gabe came home from the record store with the beat up vinyl, babbling excitedly about what a great record it was, what a steal. You rolled your eyes, but it didn’t take you long to be completely arrested with Otis’s voice. Gabe was right. He was always right. 

“The blond on the cover—she looks dead,” you said the first time you saw it.

“Nah, baby, she’s just zoned. She’s listening. That’s what that looks like, by the way,” he teased.

Gabe was handsome. That was one of the first things you saw back at that Catholic high school when you met. Of course, at sixteen, handsome seems like a really big deal, very important. You hadn’t seen enough of the world to know there is handsome everywhere. He was also older, but then, wasn’t every man? You were very young. 

You slide the cool, black record out of its sleeve, eyeing the small grooves in the surface. It looks like the middle section of a tree, as if you know its age by counting. You put Side A on the record player and move the arm over, lowering the needle as carefully as you can. The static pops before the music starts are almost sacred, the sound of a congregation falling silent at the sight of a messiah. Then, “Old Man Trouble.”

The horns send you back to a smoky bar you snuck into when you went to visit Gabe during your senior year, after he’d left for college. Picture it again: it makes the music even more poignant. This isn’t the song you need, but you still know when Otis moans, “Stay away” that he’s really warning a much younger you. Gabe is in his Michigan State sweatshirt and there’s a football game on—OSU and Michigan, a big one. He’s cursing and his friends keep buying you beer, even though you don’t drink it yet. One keeps winking at you, not quite leering, but seems to be making it known that if you don’t want to go home with Gabe, you don’t have to. You swallow a bitter sip of beer and smile at him, just to be polite. You feel so powerful, like some kind of Indian goddess, meant to create and destroy. You could have anything you want, and you want Gabe, no matter what.

You are no goddess, and you know it. You are forty—look at yourself. Walk to the mirror. You are forty. Your lipstick has worn off your lips, leaving an abrasive brown outline that almost looks like a cartoon or a clown. Your eye makeup is smeared, your bottle blond hair is falling out of its ponytail. Your wine glass is drained again. The worst part is, you know Gabe would have told you he thought you were beautiful, and he would have meant it. You bare your teeth at the mirror in a growl: they are stained red with wine. Of course they are. You pour another glass. Nothing to lose now.

The next song is “Respect,” and like everything else in the house, it makes you think of Gabe again. When you’ve been married nineteen years, you can’t escape the ghost of your partner. You can almost see your first apartment, sparse and furnished only with frat house rejects. Gabe reaches his arm out to you and motions to you, and you’re back in the memory again. He spins you wildly, both of you laughing, until you fall down. He keeps laughing, but you stop. You stare at him blankly in the memory, and even now. You dust yourself off and say, “I like Aretha Franklin’s better.”

“They’re like different songs,” he says. “I like Aretha’s better and I like his better. They’re just so different. I mean, the lyrics are even different—‘I’m about to give you all of my money’ instead of ‘You know what? So is my money.’”

“You can only have one favorite,” you say to him. You probably roll your eyes, too. Be honest with yourself. You have nothing to lose anymore.

“You’re my favorite,” he says, pulling you close and dipping you. Is this romance? Is this what you wanted?

Remembering is harder than you thought it would be. When he walked out a few weeks ago, you weren’t sorry to see him go. It was hard to tell your parents and friends, sure, but once they got over the shock, you thought it would be fine. After all, it’s not like you hadn’t tried to make things work. You’d gone to counseling, you’d tried being more compassionate. You’d tried greeting him at the door with a kiss and dinner in the oven. You’d read all of the magazines and tried all of their examples, but sometimes, you’d told yourself, goddammit, things just don’t work. 

Now—force yourself to remember telling that to some strange man at a bar in downtown Lansing one night. You had gone out with girlfriends, but they’d gone home long ago— their husbands calling and texting and needing help with the children. Remember his name: was it Jason? You are sure he was the first, whether he was Jason or Dave. Those exact same words came out of your mouth then: “Sometimes, goddammit, things just don’t work.”

He reached over and brushed your curly hair out of your face—it was curly and brown then—and he said, “He’s missing out.”

Jason didn’t make much sense, but hell, he was there. Gabe was gone on some business trip to the west coast, some banker’s convention, something you would have loved to have done—if you had finished college. Of course, Gabe proposed at the end of his senior year, the end of your junior year. You’re still a few credits shy. “You don’t have to work,” he told you one morning on his way out the door. You’d made him eggs or something, some kind of warm breakfast. You had a day of cleaning and TV to look forward to. You had said you wanted to go back to school. “I want to take care of you,” he said. “I love you.”

You are still a few credits shy, but now you have red wine stains on your teeth at four ‘o clock in the afternoon. This is not what you thought would happen to your life. You are not being a productive citizen. 

You missed “A Change is Gonna Come” and “Down in the Valley,” but if they had been the song you needed, it would have jolted you out of your reverie. You are sure of it. You let the record roll to the next song, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” It starts with Otis’s naked voice against the heavy air in your living room and builds to a sweet, soulful full-band sound. There’s a piano part underneath his smoky voice, and of course, like all of the best soul music, there are brass flourishes. Gabe told you who the backing band was—was it Earth, Wind, and Fire? That seems so unlikely. 

You close your eyes and think of the last time you felt like you loved anything. You are drawing a blank. You look in the mirror again. Nope. Nothing.

I’ve been loving you so long, please don’t make me stop now... Otis wails, please, please, and you have to get up and turn it off, even though there are only a few seconds left. Everyone has a breaking point. 

You wince a little bit. You didn’t mean to remember Jason. It is hard to be angry when you can still remember the way his rough hands felt on you, such a strong contrast to your husband’s soft, gentle ones. You loved the urgency. That makes you wince harder. It’s harder to feel righteous about Gabe’s failures now that he’s gone.

Now you need to flip the record. You pick it up awkwardly by the edge, and the thing just won’t come off the player. You jerk, a little harder this time, and it wobbles out of your hand, falling on the floor. You are shocked that it hasn’t broken. You decide to celebrate. More wine.

You skip “Shake.” You never liked “Shake.” It was one of Gabe’s favorites. “Muddy Waters wrote it,” he told you. No, wait. Was it Sam Cooke? You should look that up. You’ll be shocked and sad when you realize that you didn’t remember Gabe’s words correctly, that it was Sam Cooke, that the only part of him that is still with you is fading and morphing even now. You may be angry for a minute and pretend that Sam Cooke and Muddy Waters are interchangeable, but you know they aren’t. Fuck it. Skip that song. Move on to the next one.

“My Girl.” You should skip that one, too. You won’t—you’ll try to remember your dad singing it to you while he tucked you in at night, but you will still see Gabe, singing into a hairbrush in the bathroom while you do your hair for some big night out.

“Gabe, shut up,” you say. “You’re being silly.”

“Don’t tell me to shut up,” he says, and falls into one of those moods. He’s pouting. You can’t even make an observation. He’s so sensitive. 

“I’m sorry,” you say, and you cross the room to him. “Please help me zip up my dress?”

He will. He loves to feel needed, and you know it. You feel the cold metal of the zipper kiss your back as it glides up, slowly, and you know he’s staring at your spine, that sweet dip between shoulder blades, your ass. You feel almost as good as you do when someone else looks at you. Just for a minute.

“I guess you say, what can make me feel this way—” he sings, poorly. Gabe is a horrible singer. You laugh.

“I love you,” you say. And you mean it. You really, really mean it.

You will skip the end of “My Girl.” You should, at least. If you’re really smart, you’ll skip his funky version of “Wonderful World,” too. Of course, if you were smart, you wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t have left your email open on the home computer. Gabe would have never found out about Tom at the office. (You remember Tom’s name. You already knew him. Plus, you always remember the one who changes your life.)

You listened to “Wonderful World” at your wedding—but not this version. That doesn’t help. Did you have doubts even then? Not more than a normal person, you tell yourself.

Many years in the future, you imagine, you’ll get married again. Maybe. But you’ll have a very small courthouse wedding. You’ll never do what you did the first time, big church wedding, lots of family and music, so much food. You’ll never share your first dance in the lobby of the Holiday Inn Express again. Hell, you’ll never have a first dance again. A first anything. You’ve done this all before. 

A quick thing: you remember Gabe yelling at you a few months ago, right after he found out. “How could you do this to me,” of course, that’s what everyone says, but maybe more poignantly, “This hurts so bad.” Over and over, he said, “This hurts so bad, this hurts so bad.” You try to tell him that’s how you felt—that’s how you felt back in the beginning of your marriage when he came home from a business conference (east coast that time?) and said, never, baby, it’ll never happen again, I’m so sorry. 

If you had thought it would matter, maybe you would have been honest: that something died inside you that night, that you were never able to resuscitate it. That when Gabe would hold you close after that, it was like there was a slender ghost between you. That when he said, “I wish I could protect you,” or “I love you so much,” no matter what the context was, you’d think, “Great job, asshole,” and wonder how he could fool himself into believing those things. Of course, being with Tom seemed like an easy way to say those things—Gabe was just too stupid to understand. 

The record is almost over and you haven’t heard the song. Maybe it’s not on this record. You know you can’t get through another: you are on your last glass of wine. This was hard enough. “Rock Me Baby” slinks out of the stereo, electric and wild. Otis sings, “You can rock me baby, you can rock me all night long,” and without wanting to be, you are turned on. You want to be a woman again. That was the whole problem, wasn’t it? You wanted to be that baby, you wanted to rock someone. You wanted to be the tornado, the horrible beauty, the thing worth killing for. Well, look at you now. Wine in a paper cup because Gabe took the china. Drunk in the afternoon. You are a joke, wine-teeth.

Now a familiar guitar intro, punctuated by unfamiliar brass. You love Otis’s version of “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” You have since you first heard it. You watched Gabe dance in that stiff way he did, bobbing his neck forwards and backwards like a chicken. He only mouths the words, though. He isn’t confident enough to sing along with Otis on this one. One night, you guys got drunk at some wedding—not too drunk, but enough—and when you got home, he put the record on and you both danced around awkwardly, not together, but at the same time in the same place. Your feet landed on top of each other several times, and finally, you took your shirt off, trying to be playful, trying to seductive. Gabe shook his head, laughed, asked when you got that bra. You had your eyes closed, you were dancing.

“When did you get that bra, Matilda?” he asked again.

“I don’t know,” you said. “I’ve had it a while.”

You remember that conversation very well not because of what was said, but because of what was not said. You know he was asking if someone else had seen the bra first, and of course, Jason had. He’d bought it for you. Jason, or Tom—someone had. It wasn’t Gabe, is the point, and you know it. But you keep swaying and laughing, dancing to the music. Gabe shakes his head, almost like a cat rejecting rain, and then goes back to dancing, envelops you in his arms. You might allow yourself to linger in this memory for a moment, but not for long.

Stop: why do you think Gabe left this record here? What was the point of that? Didn’t he want it? Of course, there are other things: why did he leave just one white sock hanging from a drawer he took everything else out of? Why did he leave your wedding pictures? Why did he leave the quilt his mother made for your wedding? But of all those things, the most surprising is the record collection. By leaving it, it was like he never left at all. The records were what made the place a home to him. 

If you thought a little harder, you’d know why he left the things he left, down to the sock (that was probably his, but you couldn’t be sure, not really). There are just some things that are too hard to face, for both of you. (It has to be this hard for him, too. It has to.)

You keep trying to ignore one memory, but it finally takes you over: Gabe explaining the affair. You don’t remember exactly what he said, but at one point, he grabbed your wrists and said, “Goddammit, you still aren’t listening.” You said something about him being melodramatic and how even when he’s the bad guy, he finds a way to be the victim. Were you crying? Of course. Of course you were.

The last song on the record. This has to be the one. “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” This has to be it. Now, you need to close your eyes. Put yourself in Otis’s hands.

 

“Now that you’ve left me, oh, how I’ve cried

You don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry.”

 

This was the one. You haven’t allowed yourself to cry, not for a moment, not even right after he left. Now you need to cry. You can blame the wine later. One of the last things he said to you was, “Why are you crying? You never loved me.” He said it while he was packing his suitcase, the one you’d gotten him for an early anniversary, on your shared bed. 

The record will begin to skip: “I need, I need, I need,” Otis will stutter, over and over again. You can’t finish the song because the record is old and busted. You have a different version of the song somewhere—Gram Parsons singing it with the Byrds on Sweetheart of the Rodeo—but it seems like an awful lot of work right now to find it. Especially since you know it’s different. This is the version Gabe loved, and since he left, his favorites are your favorites, even though you used to love country and he always loved soul. 

Alone, now, you should sing, “I love my water and I want my water,” over and over, just like Otis did. You have to finish the song, even though you know how it’s going to end: with heartbreak, longing, and regret.  

 

 

Katie Darby Mullins is currently finishing her MFA at Spalding University and teaching at the University of Evansville. In addition to being nominated for a Pushcart Prize and editing a rock 'n roll crossover edition of the metrical poetry journal Measure, she's been published or has work forthcoming in journals like Hawaii Pacific Review, Harpur Palate, Broad River Review, Big Lucks, The Evansville Review, and she was recently a semifinalist in the Ropewalk Press Fiction Chapbook competition and in the Casey Shay Press poetry chapbook competition. She’s also the writer and founder of the music blog Katie Darby Recommends.

 

Q&A

Q: What was the inspiration for this story?

A: Honestly, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Otis Blue and wondering how much different it would sound to me if I was heartbroken. I think heartbreak changes everything in your life, including the way you listen to the songs you’ve always known—there’s magic to hearing something for the first time, but tragedy allows familiar material to feel new again.

 

Q: What does your writing space look like?

A: Wherever I feel like I can focus best, which is usually on my bed. 

 

Q: What’s your writing process?

A: I’m not sure I have one specific process, but a few things tend to happen every time: I always get through as much of a first draft as I can in one sitting, often “finishing” a short story in one go; I edit meticulously for weeks before I feel comfortable thinking about it as one of “my” stories; and I often listen to music from the era or time I’m writing about. I’m currently working on a piece that is mired in grunge music, so I’ve been listening to a lot of Pearl Jam, Mother Love Bone, and Alice in Chains. For this story, I guess obviously, I listened to Otis Blue

 

Q: What living writer do you admire most and why? Is there a particular book you refer to again and again?

A: I love Lorrie Moore because the ordinary is always extraordinary in her hands. I admire Dave Eggers because he uses his writing to create real, tangible, good change in the world, which is remarkable. And the book I go back to most often is Ben Greenman’s Please Step Back, not because it’s my favorite book of all time (though it’s close! Currently my favorite is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods) but because it was the first book that made me realize I really could write whatever I wanted to, create whatever space I wanted to, and immerse myself in telling stories with music, which has always been a part of my language with anyone I’m close to. 

 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a larger project based in the grunge era. I’ve been thinking a lot about identity, how much of our own identity we gain from our parents (whether they’re present or not), and, at the same time, how hair metal was the perfect lead-in to grunge music in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I guess I’m exploring those connections right now. (I’ve been inspired, mostly, by documentaries for this: Cameron Crowe’s brilliant Pearl Jam Twenty and a documentary about punk rock fathers called The Other “F” Word.)


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3 Poems by Mark Jay Brewin

Followed by Q&A

Five Cigarettes

for Rick Sousa

I don’t know how well you or I would do out here

with all the goddamned spiders and moths at night.

Can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a web hair.

How its ghosting on skin always keeps you scratching

and then you’re plugged in for hours catching every

little phantom itch. So when I sit out here, it’s on

the picnic tabletop, citronellas tonguing in their tins

on the porch rails. I kill the time with cigarettes

while I pet this half-gone tabby mouser that had six

months to live over a year back. “Lucky shit,” you’d

think, maybe, but from this stroke she had, she walks

on the whole of her back legs, not the paws, so now

the fur’s worn off and her flesh all blood and puss

when she crosses the cement driveway. I’m here

house-sitting because someone wanted me to give

her a proper burial if it came to it, but in the interim

a little love and care before the end. Soft, canned food.

Really, she’s sweet and I like how she swats at ants

or lightning bugs or the cockroaches that belly up 

between the deck treads to sample her wet meal 

on its paper plate. When I first came down here, 

first night, after a thunder patch had passed by, a moth 

came at me and I elbowed my beer from its perch, 

watched it tumble and nearly roll off into the lawn. 

I imagined you, careful, with a cigarette on your lip,

or my father, with plumb and line leveling this mess. 

One closed eye. Splinter in the left thumb. It’d be 

“dead balls” in no time. That’s what you’d call it,

right? “Kitty-corner,” not “caddy-corner” as my father

would say. Lessons I am better with than the chisel’s

answer to a pine board, the pipe-threader, forklift

or fuse box. Give me a simple, repeatable task. Anything

I can do with my bare hands. That’s why I loved, 

so much, working the parking lot while you swung

bunks of lumber from one cantilever to another, 

the brainless laboring of cement sacks into a trunk

or landscape timbers into some contractor’s truck bed.

Were you on shift when that gruff, furry guy came in

with his battered van, white paint over the back windows?

He balanced his lit cigar on the wiper blade, spat,

and ducked into the hardware department for what I

would later see was a cats paw and a pack of blades.

When he opened the back doors to toss them in,

I glimpsed a polished, copper steeple on its side

taking up the whole space. License plate, West Virginia.

Wild and Wonderful. I can almost imagine that thing

glowing even in the pitch black, the copper lit up

like a goddamned fire, reflecting the couple of floodlights

bolted above a church parking lot. Maybe peepers

chirruping like here. Sometimes I mistake a passing train

for thunder, the lightning bugs off in the darkness

for someone taking a drag from a cigarette, that the cat

is mewing to whoever’s out there, saying “Now. Now.”

 

 

Mix-tape (#3) With the One I’ve Played Too Much

 

St. Simon’s Island, GA: 

I was always good at reading you

stories from my notebooks

 

where I’d given you and me 

and everyone we knew a different

 

history and name. I made you

the Patron Saint of Cabinetmakers

 

because of the one night I broke 

into houses along a lakeside

 

development with the girl I dated

before there was ever an “us,” 

 

how we found piles of lentils 

and rice and fennel in drawers,

 

little silver statues of Hindu gods,

and knew it was only a matter 

 

of time until I’d be doing this 

with someone else. I prayed

 

to your holy namesake each night 

when we didn’t dare fall asleep, 

 

but instead played those songs over 

and again, that I might better handle

 

the learning curves of your hips,

or—if lucky—spend an evening 

 

beside a body of water, beneath 

a crowded vista that would leave me 

 

helpless. I almost believed in

my own creation that spring break:

 

hint of dew-covered magnolia

blossoms or salt, a murmur

 

of trawlers on the ocean dark

and a quiet flock of seabirds

 

nesting in the dune grass we snuck

passed, slipped through a gap

 

in a work site’s chain gate.

You were a little drunk, red-cheeked, 

 

something so beautiful under 

streetlight, as we recklessly scaled 

 

scaffolding, ladder rungs, rail-

less stairs. When we reached the top

 

floor of the unfinished hotel, I 

wanted to tell you we were as good

 

at lacing our fingers together

as a fisherman with knots, to ask you 

 

which one of us was first to climb

up here, who followed who, but

 

on second thought just stood there 

buzzed and humming your tune.

 

~

 

 

Glencoe Mill, NC:

And if it wasn’t pillow marks on our cheeks

as that mix-tape and one song—our song, 

 

always going—looped all night long, then

it was us on opposite sides of a bedroom, you

 

tirelessly, endlessly trying to explain to me that

your love was an out-turned pocket and I

 

needed to do the same instead of collecting

everything I came across, bottling apologies,

 

I promise’s or Just tell me’s like letters tossed

oceanside, and if it wasn’t then, then we were 

 

broken up or back together again, and again

driving NC-62 N or parked by my favorite

 

abandoned millhouse in the woods in complete

silence, helpless to whatever it was between us.

 

We knew we would end long before we had 

the words to pen it, and I probably could have 

 

told you (not that I would have admitted it,

or wanted to) but there were a handful signs

 

I ignored, back on the island—how the only

book I packed for that vacation was A Good

 

Man is Hard to Find, or that the near-fresh slab 

of sidewalk outside of that unfinished hotel 

 

(who knows if they ever buttoned that place up)

was too set, too far gone for us to scratch 

 

our names in it, together, or that whenever I

skipped to that one track it was because

 

it hurt and I didn’t want to feel whole. Fact: 

a wave doesn’t exist without a crash and ebb.

 

Fact: I was the first one to say “I love you,”

the one who rushed up the scaffolds without

 

looking back to check for you and I should have,

should have shored each of your steps, one 

 

by one. Before I moved out, away, across town,

we got out of the car one last time and sat

 

by the mill dam, beside the big cog stone,

wearing flip-flops in the middle of winter. You

 

draped your legs over the water-logged tree-trunk

ridden falls, and I couldn’t, too afraid of a breeze

 

nudging me just enough to topple over and in,

so I stood behind you, ready to pull you back.

 

The left one fell in not long after I decided I never

would have been quick enough to rescue you

 

if anything happened. My courtly act for the night,

giving you my own sandals so we could head home.

 

I never told you, but for weeks, and long after 

there was an “us,” I went back and parked 

 

and played that song from the opened windows 

of my hatchback, searched by flashlight for your 

 

shoe’s missing mate, strangely dreaming for this odd

miracle, but it was like our love, like postcards

 

I wrote to the Patron Saint of Cabinetmakers,

our song, all of it under starlight, already out to sea.

 

 

Agape

–from the Classical Greek, ἀγάπη

 

It was something like love. Christ, I wanted her so damn bad

when we left the parish grotto, past the migrant pickers

 

stripping basil from their beds, to a rotting clapboard house

somehow still exalted, tall in its spidery shambles. 

 

It was something. Like love, Christ, I wanted You so damn bad—

or should I say Your water-stained, sepia print above

 

the brass bed frame in a backroom. We stared until fire ants

welled up from their deep nests and covered her feet in red welts.

 

Someone tore to hell the whole goddamn thing this summer past.

It was something. Like love. Christ, I wanted her so damn bad.

 

 

Mark Jay Brewin Jr. is a graduate of the MFA program of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in numerous journals including Beloit Poetry Journal, Copper Nickel, Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere. He has won the Yellowwood Poetry Contest at the Yalobusha Review and been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. His first book, Scrap Iron, won the 2012 Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry at the University of Utah Press and was a finalist for the 2013 Julie Suk Award at Jacar Press.

 

Q&A

Q: If you could create a soundtrack for your poem(s), what would it be?

A: Hot dog! I’ve got this one down! So, there is this project I’ve been working on, a series of 

poems about the mix-tapes and cds made and exchanged during all of the dating relationships I had while in college (as you can see from “Mix-tape #3…”), and so I’ve actually put together a soundtrack for my poems. I don’t want to give away my official line-up because it is too dear to me, but I will say there is a lot of Chris Thile/Punch Brothers, Dashboard Confessional, Sufjan Stevens, and plenty of other heartbreaking stuff. But for the rest of my poems, I suppose the soundtrack would feature a lot of ambient noise from my neighborhood (kids playing in the streets, cars passing by, songbirds in the magnolia), a bunch of Bluegrass ballads, maybe a little Patsy Cline every now and again. I would want it to really be something, a soundtrack that isn’t simply music, but a sound story to help ferry along the details.

 

Q: Many love songs include the sea, the beach, an island – not so many abandoned mills. Tell us more about Glencoe Mill.

A: Glencoe Mill. Gosh, I love that place. Alright, so, I went to Elon University for undergrad and spent most of my time (when I was outside of the classroom) just driving the back, farm roads. Day or night. Just exploring. Burning gas, spending money I didn’t have on Circus Peanuts and energy drinks. The old textile mill at Glencoe is back in the woods just off the Haw River (I think that’s the river) and all along the main street are these old mill houses that people have revamped over the years—classic gaslit lamps along the road, each house painted some bright color, blue, green, red—and all of it leads to this dirt path that cuts back in the woods, along the water. There’s this dam, and above it, a perfect patch of sky. During the day, spring and summer, wildflowers grow along the banks. Hell, even all the beer bottles and trash caught up along the water's edge have this colorful, romantic look. Something about the old-timey Americana, the nostalgia, and when you mix that with the river’s flow, maybe a shooting star or two… I’m falling in love all over again just thinking about it. We need more defunct textile mills and factories and power plants in love songs. I’m starting the movement. Who’s with me?

 

Q: What did you collect as a child—rocks, insects, stamps?—and why?

A: Actually, as a kid, I didn’t collect much. I was really into Legos, washed my hands a lot, and listened to more country music than I needed. Since then though, I think I’ve grown up quite a bit personality and hobby-wise, and I do my real collecting now. My grandparents moved into an addition my parents built on their house, and while we were packing up their stuff and moving them in, I found a few old Skippy Peanut Butter jars filled with vintage cake toppers, plastic holly berries and leaves, etc, that my grandmother had collected over the years. She passed away two Augusts later and the jars came to me, as well as a box of empty Ball and Kerr masons that were hers, too. Since then, I’ve had a near obsession with collecting other old jars and filling them with various, random items. I have a whole wall of jars filled with things like a broken car windshield, sea glass, ugly pennies, golf balls, found eyeglasses, rusty nails I dug up from a garden patch, even a small fleck of glass I had removed from my eyelid (an injury from a car accident ten years ago). I keep amassing old jars, filling them with whatever I’ve got on hand. The jars serve as little time capsules I suppose. Moments in time. Cities around the world. It’s my own, weird scientific-type of cataloguing. A way for me to take this world, break it down, study it and understand the larger picture. I can’t stop. More jars. More of the everyday, of the random, to fill them.

 

Q: Discuss your process as a poet, what sparks a poem and how you work it through to 

completion (or abandonment.)

A: In short: sound sparks a poem. Words. Music. My mentor from my undergraduate studies, the talented poet Kevin Boyle, always spoke about the “aural pleasure” of poetry. I fell hard. So now, when I compose a poem, I start with a bank of words I simply love the sound, color and feel of, and create smaller units (phrases, images, parts of the larger narrative) that I eventually work them around the poem’s core. I have no talent for musical instruments, can fake my way through a ukulele, but poetry is the only artistic device I can use to create a “song.” After I get the poem going, it’s a trapeze act to the finish line. A good poem (as my grad-school thesis director, Judy Jordan, hammered into me) must balance imagination, sound, narrative and form. It’s so much fun! And it’s completely draining. I try not to let any poem simply fall to the wayside, but it happens. Either way, it must always begin and end with music. It has to have heart. I probably push my poems to be a bit more nostalgic than they should be, but I guess I am just a teddy bear.


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4 Poems by Kathryn Stripling Byer

Followed by Q&A

Literary Conventions

He stood in the door of the hotel room,

Atlanta, post-civil rights seventies,

where an assortment of editors

and wannabe Jim Dickeys

schmoozed amidst cigarette smoke

on the 25th floor, I the lone female

stashed in a corner,

my plastic cup half-full of bourbon,

my cigarette burning its way down to filter.

 

He jabbed his silver-tipped cane

toward the window where lights swarmed.

I'm ready, he challenged the sidewalks

and alleys beneath him. Unbuttoned

his waistcoat to show us the gun nestled under

his armpit. His flask gleamed as he raised

it. One slug. Another. He lifted the cane

to my face, stroked its gritty edge

over my cheek. Grinned. Doffed

 

his cowboy hat, ground his boots

into carpet as if he were pawing

the sod before charging, 

bent down to flick one speck

of ash from his tooled leather

boot tip, before drawling, east Texas 

train-rumbling down the dead

rails of deep Southern night

falling, Lock and load, losers.

 

 

Forecast

Branches sag under their load of snow

while my husband talks with his father

in Florida where frost threatens

orange groves. Here, snow threatens

 

power lines. I can hear snow plows

beneath us. Tonight we’ll have black ice.

Just walking a few feet to pick up

the mail scares my father-in-law.

 

Three times he’s fallen this past month.

No black ice in Florida.

Only gray pavement. No broken bones

yet, he says. I hear the drone

 

of the weather man pointing to radar

that shows more snow approaching.  

Tonight we should stay home,

bring our animals inside, keep warm.

 

“Please be careful,” my husband 

repeats to his father who turns ninety-five

soon, yet won’t wear his hearing aid. 

“Don’t go outside by yourself,” he pleads 

 

into five hundred miles of cold air.

I hear limbs crack and watch from

 my window as, if in slow motion,

the white pine lets go of its low branches,

 

missing our car by no more than a foot.

Before dark falls, I know we’ll hear power lines

snap, no more weatherman’s warning, no more

tired furnace laboring. Brought down together,

 

the branches the snow felled

lie shuddering. My husband has hung up

the phone, shouting “What happened?"

“Already six inches,” I answer. “Still falling.”

 

 

And so on

The men stood around saying nothing.

The women talked for hours and hours.

The men lobbed their spit at the dry sand.

They squatted beside trucks,

sucking grass stalks.

The women kept talking about talk

they’d heard on the party lines,

hands over mouthpieces, hair pulled

 away from their ears, all the better to hear

 what the neighbors were saying.  

The men belched or mumbled in tongues

only they could decipher. Their dogs

whined. The doves mourned

in the fields. Underneath everything

worms excreted earth into more

earth. The moles burrowed.

Crop dusters skimmed over fields

like aluminum dragonflies.  

Poison dust settled in furrows,

in back yards, on front porches.

The men stood up, rubbing their thighs,

hitching their britches. The women

stopped talking and opened their larders.

Dredged flour into chicken legs.

Pounded the beefsteak. Poured lard

into cornmeal and buttermilk.

Opened the oven doors.

Clouds tumbled over the edge

of the world. The sun melted into it.

Bats fled the attics in swarms,

flying blind as they ever were.  

 

 

 Winter Kitchen

Downwind the hawk plummets

outside my window.

Which prey? Which small prey

of ombre wings fluttering

its spray of doomed feathers?

 

The sky stays my fear

with its scabbard of branches.

The bush into which the hawk

disappeared still quivers. 

 

I stay my hand on the knife

 under which I have severed

the gizzard, the liver,the tiny heart’s

locket of muscle.Poor mourning

dove. Eyelids of blue silk. 

 

 

Kathryn Stripling Byer has published six collections, five with LSU Press and the reprint of her first book, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, with Press 53. She served for five years as North Carolina’s first woman Poet Laureate and has received honors for her work from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, the Academy of American Poets (Laughlin Award), and the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. She lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband and three dogs. 

 

Q&A

Q: If you could create a soundtrack for your poems, what would it be?  

A: A blend of mountain ballads and operatic arias would be a fascinating soundtrack. I'm working right now on a sequence of mountain women's voices, set during the Civil War, with what approaches recitative at times and aria at other times. And of course the influence of mountain ballads is everywhere in it, too. I hope to put together a sequence of poems in the voice of ballad-women—Pretty Polly, Silver Dagger, Demon Lover. If I could have been a singer, I'm sure I'd have been torn between ballad and opera. Though I also love blues, so maybe I could work in some Otis Redding, BB King and Nina Simone, who was and still is one of my best-loved singers. Along with Netrebko, and several other amazing opera singers.  

 

Q: You have a guerrilla poet’s gift for letting us focus on the surface before the blade comes slicing through: “The tiny heart’s locket of muscle.” I think of Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts… any thoughts on your technique, or inspiration? 

A: Auden's Musee has been one of my poems of instruction, so to speak. I want the undercurrent to be always sounding somehow or other, that blade waiting, but I want the surface to be an invitation, weaving its spell of believability, the dark chords kept in check till it’s time for them to sound.  

 

Q: What did you collect as a child—rocks, insects, stamps?—and why?

A: I collected paper dolls for whom I created dresses and stories. I guess I'd say the narrative impulse was already there. And the love of design and color. I was tempted early on to be a visual artist or a dress designer. I never collected stamps. I collected day dreams and images of trees as they rose out of the morning fog. I collected favorite fields to hold in my mind. I did this, I'm sure, because place was even then terribly important to me. That's where my identity lay. I can't imagine what would have become of me if I'd been forced to leave those places I loved at a young age. I come back to them often in my imagination. 

 

Q: “Literary Conventions” arrests a moment – might you offer more?  

A: This was an incident, a real one with a bit of fictionalizing, that scares me even now. The gunslinger was a famous Southern critic and professor from Texas, right-wing, stringently anti-civil rights, and, it was rumored, gay. The cane image comes from another incident in which an elderly white man, of the plantation owner type, caressed the cheek of a college friend of mine with the tip of his cane. I was, shall we say, a bit repulsed by that. This was the ‘60s in the deep South. And in the ‘70s things had changed a bit, but not by much. Being a woman in such a deeply male-oriented literary tradition was fraught with various indignities, though in their defense, I will say that those men in the room were often generous friends to me, and they gave me a strong sense of how literary tradition, no matter its origin, can be a source of ongoing strength and regeneration as one moves through one's life.


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3 Poems by Lauren Camp

Followed by Q&A

Hush – 4

Every Wednesday 

he is mourner and bitter

 

in time beneath pardon.

Long glasses fill 

 

to the neck where they began

until the table is liquid.

 

She is less a bullet

than the trigger dispersed.

 

His voice is a hand

cupping the ocean he holds in his

hand. He bends into margin

 

for a minute and says

love to a wife but it isn’t 

 

love that has fallen into the glass. 

Just a mouth wearing a fiction.

 

He sighs and says

he’ll be home on his white legs

 

but lands instead 

where he’s willing to feather 

and wing each passage

 

and swallow each way of pretending.

 

 

My Ever-Loving Heart 

From so far away, I hear 

the slight flap of his laugh. 

It is as if I’ve peeled open.

Each of my nights his language unpacks 

in my head, becomes ocean

or measure, something on loan. 

I take the clock and the book, respond 

to the yawn and scorn of conscience. 

Everything anyone writes 

at strange hours could change a life. I know this. 

But I’ve picked his name, clicked it again 

before the mute night. 

In the lantern of 4,500 miles, all his children 

sleep beneath castle walls, 

remain under blankets under the din 

of the damn constellations. 

The sky leans on the cracked 

stone of his home, then exits from view. 

He types from a liminal side of our marble sky, 

always using white space and extra honey 

at the end. Each afternoon, I walk through 

two back doors to answer what’s left — 

if I’m lucky, the X at the bottom. Nothing 

to hold to but prepositions (if, but, so)

half-opened glyphs without subject or humor. 

I keep re-reading replies in the paradox 

of setback. What I want is not only

but extra. The rest of my day 

is sentence-stroke spent in transition. 

I shake words from my palm. The hand writes 

particulars then shifts to be left alone. 

 

 

The Night Clouds Wrestled the Sky

At that moment, I was blind to the sorrow 

and stop that was coming.

For that gentle hour, I settled 

into the only split in the road 

 

where I still saw the purple reflection of day 

slipping from cedar and aspen. 

Air temperature as skin would shift 

to bare and brisk. But in the sky, unguarded 

 

orange shadows advanced, and clouds extended 

to unkempt corners, the desert’s chambers of gray. 

Trees unfurled their fluted, five-petaled, 

veined fingers. Precision worth noting. 

 

What else should we look at but fugitive color, 

the shape that’s not empty? 

So little of what happens belongs to us,

only the frequent sense of being encircled.

 

After light was stripped from the scarlet wall, 

a string of birds armed long branches, 

rhapsodizing. I had entered the chatter-

curved worship of their bursting, the song grafted 

 

to the moon’s musky discipline. 

Once their noise was placed, it remained 

in my mind — for years. Not a coincidence 

that I heard and saw a final stray sweep of sun 

 

as pigment and chord, and would summon it again 

next time I was swallowed, beat down. 

That night the sky came up to my lips. 

It tasted of wind, and gave me something to miss. 

 

 

Lauren Camp is the author of two books of poems, The Dailiness (Edwin E. Smith, 2013) and This Business of Wisdom (West End Press, 2010). She was a juror for the 2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and guest editor for special sections in World Literature Today (on international jazz poetry) and Malpaís Review (on the poetry of Iraq). Her poems have been published in Brilliant Corners, Beloit Poetry Journal, Linebreak, The Quotable and other journals. Lauren is a producer and host on Santa Fe Public Radio, and also an acclaimed visual artist. www.laurencamp.com

 

Q&A

Q: If you could create a soundtrack for your poem(s), what would it be?

A: Some combination of Thelonious Monk and other rhythmic, even contrapuntal, melodies. But my soundtrack would also need to include some Middle Eastern music. Not the droning sounds, and no vocals, but the unusual time signatures. I might also need some good hand percussion and bass clarinet. Whatever the music, there would need to be improvisation, some turns and slumps — not an even 4/4 constant rhythm. My poems don’t match that rhythm. 

 

Q: As a visual artist, tell us more about fugitive colors – and how they connect with your poetry.

A: Fugitive colors, or non-permanent pigments, evaporate or disappear over time. Though I hope my poems won’t do this, I believe the direction and meaning of my poems shift with repeated readings, or over the course of the poem. My poems, too, can be volatile, running toward or away from the very thing I might be considering in the work. 

 

Q: What did you collect as a child—rocks, insects, stamps?—and why?

A: I collected stamps for a little while. I’m not sure how or why I started. My father donated some from the Middle East. Those were especially wonderful. I kept the collection in an old Snoopy lunchbox; it was like a secret treasure — all that miniature splendor, combining words and colors. Thinking about it now, I realize these stamps were my first art collection. 

 

Q: Discuss your process as a poet, what sparks a poem and how you work it through to completion (or abandonment.)

A: Anything can spark a poem, even though finishing can seem nearly implausible at the start. Thoroughly impatient as I can be, I’m also an avid reviser. I believe in waiting, letting the work lie fallow… not abandoning it, but offering it (and me) space to evolve before I come back and consider it again.


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2 Poems by Faith Holsaert

Followed by Q&A

Removal

I.

She, the mountain.

She, the woman. Both.

Outside enters each.

 

Jenny Linds pool hallsfeist dogs

the holler  

 

draglinemainlined 

rears twenty-two storeys

shovels the over burden

pops the mountain top  

 

draglinebreaksobliterates 

 the holler

 

II.

She, the mountain

 

her skin peeled back

red 

chalky 

ebony  

dead

center

within green mountain thighs

razored paisleys

incised high walls in heart meat

pendant above Marsh Fork Elementary

 

III.

She, the woman

mucosal burn

 

s. aureus invades her  

Beaudelaire’s fleurs du mal

  cadmium 

 alizarin 

mahogany

lacquered topography

intimate IED desquamation

 

IV.

spines of Spruce Valley and Pigeon Roost

her green furred backbones

plateau of peroxided scab 

has scabbed and been picked and scabbed

hardwoods gone

topsoil gone 

from holler to holler  

the miscolored creek

meanders

and persists

 

She, the mountain

 

V. 

She the woman

her skin shines

heaves into dimpled necrosis

 

the meat below

rots away

organs fail

 

VI.

After ravishment the first trees glisten chartreuse. 

The redbud opens from maroon casings. 

Unearthly purple shivers over

entire hillsides. Flowers 

blast the blue red tocsin.

They bloom at the head of the holler 

spill from its mouth.

Within the week blossoms

pale and drop, but will never not return

 

VII.

Like that, she is gone.

 

 

[Jenny Linds are a kind of house found in rural West Virginia. They are named for the Swedish Nightingale. A dragline is an excavator used in strip-mining “operations.” It is so large it must be built on site and is wired directly into the national electrical grid. Staphylococcus Aureus is a bacteria colloquially known as toxic shock. An IED is an improvised explosive device used in warfare. Redbuds are among the first trees to return after an area has been deforested.]

 

 

Snow Day

inside drifts you go back to sleep

your children murmur on 

beyond the wall

lying in bed you picture

the waterfall road a sheer drop of white

not even a track of your lover

not even a trace of your neighbor

 

you  your son your daughter

rise 

 and eat

while the heater turns off and starts up again

you

sift and mix and knead

the dough blisters and is set to swell on the table

 

you your sonyour daughter

shut the front door

descend the snow-webbed steps

turn up the old logging road

 

where water has broken through

green moss gleams against white

green pine boughs fan and are quieted

 

a sudden daytime owl flies away

snow turned to path-wide wings 

snow sound sifting 

white into your mouth

 

at night

after the bread 

under the quilts

 

snow dazzle burns negative

 upon

 your sleeping eye

 

your snow owl ascendscarbon herald

 

melodious black 

 

 

Faith S. Holsaert has published fiction in journals since the 1980s and has begun to also publish poetry. She co-edited Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (University of Illinois). She received her MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. After many years in West Virginia, she lives in Durham, NC, with her partner Vicki Smith, with whom she shares seven grandchildren.

 

Q&A

Q: If you could create a soundtrack for your poem(s), what would it be? 

A: Lizz Wright and the West Virginia hammered dulcimers of Trapezoid (a group no longer in existence).

 

Q: You mention the redbud in your poem – also called the Judas tree. Tell us more about the spring flowers that bloom in those West Virginia hills. 

A: I had never seen redbuds until my first spring in MacDowell County (“the nation’s coal bin” once). I was mesmerized by them. They are the first trees to come back after clear cutting. I also love the forsythia and apple trees which bloom on the abandoned homesteads long after the families have been forced to move away and the houses have collapsed.

 

Q: What did you collect as a child—rocks, insects, stamps?—and why? 

A: Books about horses and horse statues.

 

Q: Discuss your process as a poet, what sparks a poem and how you work it through to completion (or abandonment.)

A: I am a recent poet, have only worked in poetry for about five years. I began in Durham with Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ workshops through Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind. My first poems, and many later ones, were “after” poems by Lucille Clifton. Often I follow another poet through her language or structure. I worked on a book-length project Firebird, which grew out of my experience of mothering. “Snow Day” was one of those poems. Once I got started, I was driven for about a year and just flew into them. The second year, I worked with a mentor, Diane Gilliam (author of Kettle Bottom), and learned many things I didn’t know about imagery and the construction of poems.


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5 Poems by Simon Perchik

Followed by Q&A

*

With each handful you dead

breathe in, nourished by dirt

by these leaves half stone

 

half come to a stop –without a breeze

your mouth smells from some quarry

that has no past –you are fed

 

among flowers and slowly behind

go on eating, adored, immense

seething with mountains

 

no longer outside, creaking

or far away another bedside

fragrant with lips and whispers.

 

 

*

It’s this thin envelope, empty, closed

gasping for air though your knuckles

are still flickering –what you hold

 

was never mailed, lets you rest

read the address over and over

just to move it further off

 

away from this boiling mountainside

ripping apart, flowing down your arm

with nothing left and cools –these days

 

you don’t lick the glue –in all directions

your mouth is her name, alone

coming back as ashes and snow.

 

 

*

You count with your throat

drink from waiting lists

as if these stones are nourished

 

end over end –test their glow

for hidden sores and darkness

that want to circle back

 

touch you on the neck

the way shores pass each other

cleared for water and closer

 

poured slow –keep score

let you seal their thirst

filled with dirt and the need

 

to sip –you carry a small spoon

just to stir and step by step

pointing out ribbons, braids.

 

 

*

There is skin even the sky

seeps through –both arms

weighted down though you

 

are flying through dirt

and under this faucet

hear it clouding over

 

already hillside and grass 

–you listen for water

broken apart by the handfuls

 

making room, falling behind

in streams not yet the gravel

covering your forehead

 

as if this water itself

was still in pain, chased

and the soap too heavy.

 

 

*

Except for the new suit

the boy in the photograph

is starting to wave again

 

though you dust its frame

half sweetened wood, half

no longer exhausted

 

drawing sap and the rag damp

from brooding –you spray

then wipe, ready this wall

 

the way each small stone

is rinsed side to side as the river

that carries off one shore

 

the other each year heavier

holding you from behind

screeching across, wet with saliva

 

with nothing in writing

or a button you can open

for its scent and mist.

 

 

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, 

The Nation, Poetry, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Almost Rain, published by River Otter Press (2013). For more information, including free e-books, and his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com

 

Q&A

Q: If you could create a soundtrack for your poem(s), what would it be? 

A: Something from Mahler’s songs.

 

Q: You have written, “As an attorney I was trained to reconcile disparate views, to do exactly what a metaphor does for a living.” Are we in danger of losing the appreciation for metaphor in a society racing toward the visual image over the word? 

A: I doubt it. Unexpected connections are needed and provided in literature. It’s always been that way.

 

Q: What did you collect as a child—rocks, insects, stamps?—and why? 

A: Stamps. Not sure why.

 

Q: Discuss your process as a poet, what sparks a poem and how you work it through to completion (or abandonment.) 

A: Never abandonment. What sparks a poem is when if confront a photograph, describe its images and ideas page after page. Then I read something on myth or science and when I come across something exciting (like a child born by two mothers, or speed of light slowing down) I then ask myself what has the photo to do with the myth or science. It’s a brutal way to work but I stay with it, sometimes 50, 80 pages of drafts, until the two have everything in the world to do with each other. Incidentally, I gave an interview for the local TV station that’s now on Youtube. (The lighting was off, I’m not that bald and wrinkles)


B.J. Hollars.jpg

Blood Feathers by B.J. Hollars

Followed by Q&A

Our bird wanted to die, but we didn’t let him. Not on Christmas Eve. Maybe if it was some lesser holiday (St. Patrick’s Day or Flag Day), but the Christmas spirit had already taken hold of us with its chatter of peace on earth and goodwill toward men, both virtues my family believed surely extended to birds. 

The bird in question—a one-year-old African-Grey parrot named Harley—didn’t belong to me, but to my father, a thwarted motorcycle enthusiast who, in place of actually owning a Harley, had taken to naming all things after one, instead. Years prior, my mother had assured him that if he bought anything with two-wheels he would not be long for this world. But that Christmas it was not his life, but his bird’s, that hung in the balance.

Seeming to understand his role as a runner-up to a real motorcycle, upon his entrance into our home, Harley took it upon himself to annoy my mother as much as any bike ever could. No, our auto insurance rates didn’t increase, but what we saved there we invested in trying to keep that bird happy. Mirrors, millet, medical bills—whatever he required. When I first met him I’d dubbed him the “overpriced, neurotic chicken,” a description less comedic than accurate. Still, my father—in complete control of his faculties—willingly forked over a thousand dollars for that bird; a beaked terror with only the slightest genetic variation from the clucking broods he’d raised on his farm as a child. 

My mother, brother, and I failed to understand my father’s motives. Was this a mid-life crisis? Would he next buy a capuchin monkey and name it Red Corvette?

Away at college for most of this, I returned that first Christmas to find no monkeys, just that bird trapped in depression’s icy embrace. I, a mere undergraduate with no formal training as a vet or a therapist, failed to note the warning signs. Weight loss, withdrawal, and irritability all just seemed like character traits for Harley.

I’d often heard rumor of the increase in suicides over the holidays, though I was surprised to find that our parrot, too, seemed to have some innate knowledge of the added sadness newly thrust upon his feathered frame. Perhaps he’d seen a statistic while perched in front of the television, his head cocked curiously at the news anchor, momentarily halting his screeching to take in the sobering fact.

While the rest of the family spiraled lights around the Christmas tree, that bird of ours peered out at us, devising his terrible plan. 

***

This was hardly my first experience dealing with dead or dying birds. 

Once I employed kitchen tongs to recover the body of a robin caught in the grill of my car. 

(Its head fell off.) 

Years prior, my baby brother took his first steps and crushed the family parakeet.

(Its everything fell off.)

However, both of these traumas paled in comparison to my stint as a pet store employee. For reasons beyond my understanding, the newly minted manager made her first ill-advised decision of many when she placed me—then a 16-year-old with no animal experience—in charge of the care and well being of every flippered, furried, and feathered beast in the store. 

Of all the animals entrusted to me, I felt most like a fraud when dealing with the menagerie of exotic birds—most of them babies—and all of them commanding price tags far higher than Harley. Nowhere on my application had it asked if I felt comfortable managing a menagerie of exotic birds. 

(I didn’t.)

Instead, the manager had simply asked if I could stack 20-pound bags of dog food for eight hours straight.

(I could.)

My manager—a bespectacled woman in her mid-forties—seemed far more comfortable bestowing me with the task than I did executing it. She was new to the business, and as I soon discovered, shared many of Harley’s neuroses. I could only reason that her blind faith in my abilities was due to a lack of options. I passed the drug test, I showed up on time, and if I kept at it, she informed me, I’d be a contender for employee of the month. But I didn’t want the honor; all I wanted was to keep from accidently killing those birds. 

“Now, when it comes to babies,” the manager said, reading from a manual “the trick is to feed them food warmed somewhere between 98-100 degrees Fahrenheit.” 

She handed me a syringe and a batch of bird mash and told me to have at it. 

“Not a lot of room for error,” I said, noting the thermometer’s 99 degree reading. “What happens if I slip outside the range?”

“Well let’s see,” she said, scanning the page until she found her answer. “Oh, it says right here they die.”

What it actually said was that if I left the range I’d risk burning holes in the baby birds’ throats, thereby killing them. It seemed a lot of responsibility for minimum wage.

“But hey, you’re a smart kid,” she said. “And you can read a thermometer, right?” 

Before I could answer, the manager left me in that aviary, surrounded by half a dozen baby birds that prayed the answer was yes. 

***

There are only so many ways an African-Grey parrot can end its life. It cannot, for instance, jump from a high rise and expect to plummet to the pavement. Nor can it drown itself in its water dish. To end its life properly, the suicidal parrot is restricted to two options: offer itself to a predator or self-mutilate.

Harley had attempted the first option the previous spring. After an afternoon spent bobbing along a branch in a backyard tree, our bird was targeted and dive-bombed by a predatory hawk. Despite the brief struggle that ensued, the hawk’s talons missed their mark, and Harley—having witnessed his life flash before his beady little eyes—hobbled his way shamefully back to the house. 

He’d selected Christmas Eve to attempt the second option, and this time, his trouble appeared to be paying off. Sometime before carving the Christmas ham my mother walked into the living room to find Harley burbling blood from his wings, the molt of his plume drifting like snow dust against the backdrop of glowing bulbs. 

My dad was nowhere to be found (last minute shopping, perhaps, or entranced in a motorcycle showroom), and so it fell upon me to accompany my mother and Harley to the emergency animal hospital. I sat in the backseat with my hand pressed to the top of the cardboard box, listening to Harley’s claws scratch from within. A peek inside revealed a parrot drunk on blood loss, bobbing his head and pecking at his chest. Every time the car turned, his body skittered across the bottom of the box with the grace of an air hockey puck. His brain may have been the size of a walnut, but he was smart enough not to fight inertia.

Through the square of light at the top of the box, I glanced down at that pitiful creature trapped in his blood-soaked prison.

You did this to yourself, I thought.

But as we pulled into the gray-slushed parking lot of the animal hospital, I realized he’d done it to us as well.  

Harley brought no tidings of good cheer, but another message:

Merry Christmas, assholes. 

***

At the end of each shift—once the store doors closed and I’d concluded the nasty business of scooping a few hundred floaters from the rows of glowing tanks—I bypassed the hamsters, gerbils, and guinea pigs, and entered the aviary. Sometimes my fellow employees stopped their restocking to watch me work my magic with the birds, which in truth, was not magic, but an adrenaline-fueled mind game in which I prayed to the God of Birds that tonight would not be the night I massacred them all.

Somehow—perhaps with the God of Birds’ blessing—we always survived the ordeal. Me perched on my stool surrounded by bedding and millet and molt. I’d reach first for the always-agreeable blue and yellow macaw, then the military macaw, until eventually—after buoying myself with a false sense of confidence—I’d make my way to my feathered nemesis, the indignant cockatoo.

One after another I’d stick the syringe down their gullets, pressing the mix into their stomachs as their bodies inflated, their bulging eyes fixed skeptically on my own. Each night they reassessed whether I was the bringer of nourishment or the angel of death, and their verdicts varied with their moods. Only the blue and yellow macaw trusted me fully, squawking merrily before granting me access to her throat. Most of the others dismissed me with a cool coyness, locking their beaks and refusing the key to their survival.

“You need this,” I reasoned with the cockatoo, trying to pry her beak wide with the syringe. “Come on, girl, don’t you want to live?”

This seemed far too existential a question for the indignant cockatoo, whose apparent disinterest in living rivaled Harley’s own less-than-zest for life. Instead, that cockatoo raised her crest into the air like some direct descendent from the God of Birds, chose starvation over any further dealings with me.

***

The emergency animal hospital was a solemn place that Christmas Eve. After half an hour my mother and I were joined by a few hand-wringing cat owners so lost in their own drama they could hardly pay attention to ours. We didn’t mind the anonymity, though their refusal even to meet our eyes seemed to reinforce what I already knew: that even in the midst of yuletide cheer we are all alone together. 

“Haven’t spent Christmas in the animal E.R. for awhile now,” I joked to my mother, which in truth wasn’t a joke at all. A decade prior Santa had seen fit to place a box turtle beneath the tree, though he’d failed to test its temperament prior to doing so. If he had, perhaps he’d have learned that our box turtle fancied himself a snapping turtle and aimed to prove it; mainly by attaching himself to my mother’s finger for most of the morning. That day, my mother celebrated the birth of Jesus by calling out to him (“Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!”) and when that didn’t work, appealed to God directly: Please Lord, rid this plague from our household.

As my mother and I slouched in the E.R. chairs, I had my own sins to answer for. Perhaps my affectionate “overpriced, neurotic chicken” remarks hadn’t been as affectionate as I’d thought. 

And there had been other trespasses. 

Such as my brother and I distancing ourselves from that bird the moment we learned there was a chance he could live upwards of 70 years or more. Suddenly, we wanted nothing to do with that everlasting creature, didn’t want to give our parents any excuse to bequeath him to either of us. 

I’ll take the china, you take the bird—this became a slogan shared between siblings.

This is not to say Harley hadn’t earned the abuse. At his best, he was innocuous, though far more often he was just plain bad. He became a constant, fluttering threat around the household, a blitzkrieg of feathers who shat mercilessly throughout the living room before crashing beak first into the curtains or getting tangled in the blinds. He was bad at being a bird—bad at being our bird—though my father tried to empathize with his plight, excusing Harley’s poor behavior as a result of his abandonment by previous owners.

“You’re with us now,” Dad assured him. “This will work out for you.”

For months Dad tried to make good on his promise, giving that winged nightmare all the love he could. He was no stranger to mental illness himself, and most everything Harley was feeling he figured he had felt too. 

But when I returned home at the end of my freshman year, Dad’s empathy seemed to have reached its limits. Several nights that summer I woke to Dad cursing his bird (“Goddamn it, Harley!”), followed by, “Laurie, where’d you put the Bactine?”

In Harley’s defense, despite being a member of the most communicative animal species on the planet, he’d never once told us his love would come easily or cheap. Rather, he’d kept mostly mum on the matter, at least until he opened his beak to bite.

There was a time in which we hated him as vigorously as he hated us, but in our household, hate always lingered just half a step away from love. 

And as my mother and I held vigil for him that Christmas Eve, we failed to keep our feet firmly planted. 

***

In my four-month stint at the pet store, I all but drowned from the blood on my hands. Still, most of my victims were fish (“small inventory”), and likely, they died mostly of natural causes. I always gave those fish a good faith effort, and at the end of the night, when I disposed of their scaled bodies in a mass burial, nobody ever blamed me. There was no farewell—just me and a bag of rainbow-colored bodies plopped to the bottom of the trash.

Far more vigorous were the small-caged critters, all of which refused to die despite my hopes and prayers. They’d earned my spurn. After all, I’d often dedicated full afternoons to capturing one sharp-toothed dwarf hamster after another, shoving their plump, feisty bodies into folded cardboard boxes that resembled Chinese takeout. For hours, parades of little girls and their fathers would stand on the opposite side of the glass, directing me toward one hamster after another. 

“No, no, not that one,” the girls would cry. “I want the one that bit you.”

“They both bit me,” I’d smile maniacally, my fingers dripping blood.

“No, stupid! The one that bit you first.”

As it turned out, I actually fared best with the menagerie, and though I only ever sold one parrot—the military macaw—when I reached to retrieve him for his buyer, I did so without incident. His brief skittering back and forth along his pole eventually ended with his tentative leap to my arm. 

I’d never sold a bird that large before, and uncertain of protocol, I handed the buyer the price tag (1700.00) and told him to take it to the register while I figured out what to do with his parrot.

The buyer complied, handing over his plastic and dropping more on that bird than I’d earned in the past four months. 

I took a moment to say goodbye to my mostly agreeable macaw, stroking his feathers while his neck twisted halfway around to stare at me—the closest thing he had to a mother.

He released a squawk, which I roughly translated as: Thanks for not burning a hole in my throat.

You’re welcome, I thought. Thank you for noticing. 

***

The vet assured us Harley would be fine.

“Maybe not fine,” the vet rephrased, ushering us into the metallic room to be reunited with our bird. “What I mean is, he’s not going to die tonight.”

The vet told us things we mostly already knew—how easy it was for African Greys to become depressed, how we should do all we could to make him feel at home. 

But it’s not his home, I thought, staring out at our snow-capped car in the lot. This isn’t even his continent.

As if Harley’s failed suicide attempt wasn’t humiliating enough, the vet fit him with a plastic cone around his neck—a straightjacket for birds—to ensure that he could no longer reach his blood feathers with his beak and inflict further damage.

“Blood fathers?” I asked.

“Feathers connected to the blood stream,” the vet explained. “This bird of yours, he knew what he was doing.” 

***

Stepping into the manager’s dimly lit office, I informed her I was leaving.

“Leaving what?” she asked, clicking inventory into her computer.

“This job.” 

She peered at me over the tops of her glasses, cocking her head like a finch.

This job? You mean your job?”

I’d never quit anything before, and I wasn’t very good at it. 

“I got a new job,” I explained. “At a bookstore. I really love books.”

“You really love birds,” she corrected. “And the birds love you.”

I doubted it.

“I mean, this job has been good,” I blathered. “Really good. Good enough. But I just think the bookstore might be better. For me, I mean.”

“How could a bookstore be better than this?” she asked, spreading her arms wide like two stubby wings, slamming her fingers into the filing cabinets on either side.

I refrained from telling her the truth; how the bookstore ensured I wouldn’t come home with pockets filled with parrot shit. And how in a bookstore, I wouldn’t lose any fingers to a dwarf hamster with a taste for flesh. 

The manager didn’t need to hear any of this. I had been her faithful sidekick from the start, unloading a few tons of dog food off a semi truck with a smile on my face. I had opened the store with her, had literally built those shelves and stocked them, and most importantly, had seen to it that no animal died unnecessarily.

Sensing my mind was made up, she removed her glasses and began rubbing her eyes.

“Mind if I give you a bit of advice?”

I didn’t.

“When you get a bit older,” she said. “You’re going to realize that good enough is good enough. Nothing in this life is ever going to be perfect.”

I started to reply, but she silenced me.

“Now, you may think it might be better elsewhere—greener pastures and what have you—but sticking it out with something ‘good enough’ isn’t the worst way to live. Trust me on this one.”

I didn’t argue but I didn’t trust her either; I just thanked her for giving me my first job. 

For two weeks more, I fed those birds faithfully, and then one cold October night, I locked the aviary behind me. 

***

Years later, I tried bestowing this “good enough” advice to Harley, though he didn’t take it. He still hated us far too much. Probably all he wanted for Christmas that year was for a giant hawk to claw out our eyes. Or his. 

We tried taking the vet’s advice of including Harley in all family activities, though he wasn’t much for puzzles or gingerbread houses. His favorite pastime continued to be screeching and shitting and tangling himself in the blinds. For a little variety, sometimes he strutted around the house like an angry dinosaur on the verge of extinction, his cone affecting his depth perception so greatly that he was often heard squawking at the stubborn piano bench that refused to move out of his way. 

What he learned to love most in the world was the mirror behind the kitchen table. He’d often brave the entire expanse of the living room—past the perils of dogs and cats—for a chance to say hello to his new best friend. They had so much in common after all (even a cone!), but the cruelness of our trick seemed acceptable if it might momentarily ease his pain. We listened as he trilled haunting songs to himself for hours, pressing his beak as close to the glass as his cone allowed. He’d intersperse a few clucks between his warbles, as if sending out an ancient S.O.S. to the God of Birds who’d stopped listening. My family and I never stopped listening, but we never answered, either.

For a while, I thought Harley might just make it in our household, but he didn’t. Our love for one another knew bounds. Eventually, my father persuaded my mother to allow him a real motorcycle, and Dad’s temporary fill-in was handed off to a woman who owned several exotic birds.

Harley scratched fiercely from inside his box as we handed him over to her. 

It’s okay, boy, Dad assured him. This will work out for you

But even Harley knew better than to swallow the lie my father tried to feed him. 

 

 

B.J. Hollars is the author of two books of nonfiction--Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa—as well as a collection of stories, Sightings. His hybrid text, Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction will be published in the fall of 2014. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

 

Q&A

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

A: The story of Harley defied a simple retelling. It wasn’t until I hit upon my own experiences with exotic birds at the pet store that I began to get a better sense of that bird’s perspective, as well as my father’s loyalties to his bird.

 

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

A: Everything Michael Martone ever said. And yes, always. Because it was true.

 

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

A: Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine

Eula Biss’s Time and Distance Overcome

E.B. White’s Essays of E.B. White

 

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

A: I recently acquired a new space, which is a cement-floored basement dungeon complete with a workbench, which I’ve converted into a “workspace.” On it sits a typewriter, a record player, a stack of postcards, and when I’m writing, my laptop. It’s not a place you’d want to spend a lot of time, so when you’re down there, you’re down there to write.


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The Science of Light by Donna Steiner

Followed by Q&A

Stars wobble. Scientists believe that observable wobbling of a star suggests the existence of a nearby planet; the wobble is a result of the orbiting planet’s gravitational tug. Even though the planet is invisible, it’s there—the wobble is evidence of the existence of a body. 

Outside, an ant navigates its way across the globe of a peony. The flowers—fat pink orbs—grow at an angle. They seek out the sun’s rays, which are obscured by a mature maple tree. The peony appears to be stretching, reaching for light. The gesture suggests elements of strain and urgency, similar to that of a horse extending its neck while running. 

A flower is not a globe, a flower is not human. A flower is not even a horse. We name things to isolate them. 

Although heliotropium is a particular genus of plants, over time, heliotrope has come to mean any plant that grows towards the light. Names, it seems, can stretch.

A common typo: plant and planet, one substituted for the other.

***

lighght

That word, above—a corruption, alteration, disruption, enhancement, rupture, call it what you like, of the word light—is a poem, reproduced in its entirety. It was written by Aram Saroyan and published in a Random House collection, creatively titled Aram Saroyan, in 1968. According to the author, the book, comprised of short poems, could be read in one or two minutes. Edwin Newman, in fact, read it on the NBC evening news. That was not why the poem and its author became celebrated, however. After the poem appeared in The Chicago Review, Saroyan received a National Endowment for the Arts poetry award in the amount of $750. Not a lot of money, but that’s $750 per word or about $107 per letter, so not too shabby.

Ian Daly, writing for the Poetry Foundation, said, “The poem doesn’t describe luminosity—the poem is luminosity.”

Jesse Helm, (helm, from the Old English meaning to guide or control), among others – notably William Scherle, a Republican Congressman from Iowa – saw red over the NEA’s award, and his outrage played a large part in making Saroyan’s poem one of the most famous of the last fifty years. (Ask fifty people if they’ve ever heard of it, and you’ll likely get 49 negative responses. Even so: famous.) 

Although it was ridiculed by others—Helm and Scherle being simply the most public and, one might argue, the most publicly ignorant—I’ve been haunted by that poem for decades. Is that what luminosity is—to haunt? 

If you look at the sun and then close your eyes, an afterimage appears, a continuation of the light, as though the inside of your eyelids is a movie screen. 

If you blink your eyes, you miss something.

Luminosity is the study of ghosts. What is left when the material body is gone? Some say light. Some say not.

***

Hummingbirds shine. Light bounces off air pockets in their feathers at different angles, and the clear bubbles of air act as prisms, making the feathers irridescent. Hummers have the largest hearts, proportionally, of any animal; a hummingbird heart beats between 500 and 1200 times per minute. (That upper register calculates to 20 times per second.) Meanwhile, their wings beat 25 to 75 times per second. They’re tiny, they’re beautiful, and they require lots of fuel. The Portugese call them “flower kissers” because much of that fuel comes from flowers. Procurement of nourishment – they eat while hovering – demands a long tongue and great stores of energy. Round and round they go, flying, feeding, courting, feeding, fighting, feeding. At night they become torpid, and some die in their sleep, exhausted, unable to restart their hearts. 

I have a hummingbird feeder outside my study window. Many times an hour a hummer will arrive, hover, its wings whirring, take a few seconds to sip the sugar water, and then zip away. Sometimes two are in contention for rights to the feeder and there will be confrontations so fast that I can’t tell what’s happening. I’ll see two dark specks in a whirlwind and hear the whizz of their wings, there’s some quick vocalization, and then one speeds away and the other returns to the feeder. I’m not sure if they’re battling for turf, just saying hello, or participating in a mating ritual. But the noise is perpetually at my shoulder; I am always either anticipating the arrival of a bird or noticing it buzz away. The wing-sound becomes almost hallucinatory, incantatory, avian background music. 

Hummingbirds shine, and they swoop, and for just a few months of every year they are coveted visitors. They seem as fleeting as meteors, or the brief visitations of ants when the peonies are on the verge of bloom. 

Visitation is, perhaps, the most bittersweet version of relationship. A visit, after all, is temporary. A meteor, one might say, visits for a split second – we spot it, but if we blink, it’s gone. The ants visit the peony garden for a few days. The hummingbirds visit for a few months. Friends visit, family visits. 

With a visit, there is always a leave-taking. Visits don’t last… ever. 

To live requires a tolerance for the temporal. Visiting is a synecdoche for life. Or, to be blunt about it: we die.

How old are the stars? Between one and ten billion years. How long would it take to reach them? More than a thousand of our lifetimes.

I collect stones and bones. I collect them because they are beautiful. They are artifacts, and remind me of visits. I have looked inside the eye sockets of the skulls of foxes, deer, birds. I have peered inside a turtle egg. I have broken open wasps’ nests, bee hives. Nothing shines inside these things, although there is light.

A cavity within a bone is called a labyrinth. Inside some bones you can see what looks like a honeycomb. A true labyrinth (as opposed to a maze) is not designed to confuse. There is a single path in and, therefore, out. In hiking, this would be called an out-and-back. Some labyrinths look like fingerprints. Others look like the folds of a brain.

My friend is recuperating from a brain aneurysm. He was sitting at his desk. He was fine. He saw a band of light, and then the light fizzled. It was like when a t.v. screen blows out – the light shriveled to a thin, staticky line, and then it was black. When I visited him in the hospital, our hands kept touching. We don’t hold hands in real life. But a body near a body, sometimes, is like a planet near a star. We wobble in our orbits. We lean towards. Sometimes, in my own lonely trajectory, I have a song in my head. Sometimes the song goes like this: el aye gee aitch gee aitch tee.

 

 

Donna Steiner’s writing has been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, The Bellingham Review, The Sun, and Stone Canoe. She teaches at the State University of New York in Oswego and is a contributing writer for Hippocampus Magazine. She recently completed a manuscript of linked, place-based essays and is working on a collection of poems. 

 

Q&A

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

A: At least two things surprised me. First, some of the facts, which surprised me in terms of delight. That stars wobble, for instance, is just fantastic. And the history of the Saroyan poem, as well as its dazzling itselfness, continues to surprise/delight me. In terms of composition, this essay didn’t come together for a very long time – perhaps a number of years. It wasn’t until the events mentioned in the final paragraph that I felt I could really finish it. 

 

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

A: The only writing advice I ever took to heart was the first advice received, and it’s become a cliché: show rather than tell. I follow it, often to a fault. (Roethke said it better when he asked and answered his own question: “When is description mere?” Answer: “Never.”)

 

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

A: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for its imagery, insight, and thrilling language.

Anne Carson, for her phrasing and approach to narrative and structure.

And I might not have become a writer if I hadn’t read Harriet the Spy as a kid.

 

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

A: I have a study at home with two desks. One is for my writing and one is for my “art,” which is so primitive as to deserve considerably more emphasis than air quotes. I have a Mac computer and one of those abnormally small Mac keyboards, and keep reference books in easy reach. Perhaps more importantly, I have binoculars nearby and there’s a window that allows for great bird watching, along with a hummingbird feeder (which played a role in the essay). In summer the hummingbirds are so ubiquitous that I hear them buzzing always – and there must be some effect on my writing as I anticipate their ongoing arrivals and departures.


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A Friendship by Katie Ray

Followed by Q&A

I didn’t sleep well my first night in the mental crisis center. I had been brought in around midnight in a police car, so I didn’t meet any other patients that first night. The crisis center was called Green Oaks, and it was in Dallas, TX. It was only about fifteen minutes away from my house. I felt like I was in another world.

It was my second time there, and the first time I had been there for less than twenty-four hours. The other patients had all freaked me out. There had been a girl that told me she was going to cut me. Another girl had complained her mom didn’t love her, so that was why she had hit her mom’s car with a baseball bat. I was scared to be stuck with these people again. 

When we got up for breakfast the next morning, I was really nervous. I was worried about all these people around me. There were about ten other teenagers, all of us between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. The first girl I met didn’t help my idea that everyone at mental hospitals was weird. 

She had short black hair, and was about five and a half feet tall. She was talking to her roommate. 

“I’m so upset I’m here. I should be with my husband right now. I hate my parents for taking me away from him and sending me here.” 

“You have a husband?” I couldn’t help but ask her in a raised voice. She nodded her head. 

“Yeah, he’s great.” 

The girl ended up leaving that day, and I never learned her name. I just call her married girl. Her roommate, though, was named Jessica. We became best friends. Well, the best kind of friends you can have in a mental crises center.

***

Jessica was at the mental crises center for the second time in two weeks, so she was able to make me feel welcomed. She wasn’t intimidating at all. She was about my height, five feet and two inches, and had brown, curly hair. Her face was covered in freckles and she had a giant smile. It was weird how much we probably smiled in the mental hospital; it was more than any of us had smiled in a long time. Jessica was very athletic, and loved whenever we went outside, which was only once a day. We would play volleyball without a net, or some other terrible game, but she always made it fun by making it competitive in a stupid way. 

Being in the mental hospital with Jessica had kind of been fun. It feels weird to say that, but it’s true. We relaxed, did puzzles, and watched the show Intervention (a few kids were on drugs). They let us hang out and talk when we had free time. I loved it. I had been so depressed and anxious before I came, that I had been suicidal. I don’t remember laughing for months before being there, but I remember laughing constantly with Jessica. I don’t even remember why, sometimes there wasn’t even a reason. 

I remember being practically doubled over in pain from the laughter. Jessica had said something stupid, a joke of some kind, that wouldn’t have even made me blink in the outside world. But now, I found it hilarious. 

“Katie, why are you laughing?” she asked me. She was beginning to giggle herself. “My joke sucked.” 

I barely managed to gasp out “I don’t know.” Tears streamed from my eyes and my face was turning red. It was like once I started laughing, I couldn’t stop. I had forgotten what it was like to laugh. I’ll always remember how great it felt, but for some reason I don’t remember the joke. I think I was just happy. The people around me understood me. We knew how each other felt.

Everyone around me started to laugh. None of us knew why. 

***

Group therapy was very personal at Green Oaks. We had to explain why we were there. The full story in perfect detail. It was hard to do, especially because I had always tried to hide my problems from people. I had been the perfect student with the best grades at my school. I had never shown any sign of behavioral problems. All my problems happened at home, so it was easy to hide it from the outside world. Jessica was so honest, though, so it made it easier for me. 

“Jessica, will you explain why you’re here to the group,” the doctor running group therapy asked. We sat in a small room. The white walls were bare, and with five kids each sitting in a different kind of chair. 

Jessica nodded. She looked up, as if she was looking everyone in the eye at once, as she said, “I tried to commit suicide again. I was here a week ago, for the same thing, and after that I went to my friend’s house. I had a fight with my friend and I tried to swallow a bunch of pills. She found me before I could, and I was sent here. I’m just sick of all of this. I just hate life.” 

“Why do you hate life?” The doctor asked. She was looking at Jessica in a truly caring way. I could tell she actually cared about us. 

“It’s because of my stepfather. He…he does things to me. My mom doesn’t believe me.” Everyone’s eyes popped open. Jessica was looking at the ground now. Her hands turned into fists as she started to wipe away her tears. 

The doctor looked alarmed, but then she calmly said, “Jessica, I’m going to need to talk to you after group.” She paused for a second to let her eyes roam over the room. “So, Katie,” she turned to face me. Her eyes now focused on my scared face. “Why are you here?” 

I thought of how brave Jessica had just been. For the first time, I knew I could tell the doctor and the other kids why I was there. I was embarrassed to tell them, because I think it might be the most stupid fight I have ever had. “I was going to dinner with my family: my mom, dad, and middle sister. The youngest one was at a friend’s house. As we started to walk to the restaurant, my mom started to bother me because my bra strap is showing. I hate when she does that. It was like something snapped. I started yelling and screaming, and we all had to drive home without dinner. I never calmed down. I screamed how I hated my family. My sister was so scared of me. I screamed that I wanted to kill myself, and I grabbed a large knife from the kitchen. My dad wrestled it from me as my mom called 911. Suddenly, I calmed down. I didn’t want to be taken here by the police, but they took me here even though I was calm. I don’t know what came over me.”

I had felt like I couldn’t control the anger inside of me. I didn’t know where the anger came from. My parents were great. I realized that my problems were nothing compared to the kids around me. After group, Jessica had to talk to a doctor and explain her home situation. It was decided she was going to move to Michigan to be with her grandparents, because her dad was somewhere in Canada and she had not talked to him in over two years. My family, though, was great. They were all there for me, but for some reason I treated them terribly.

***

The doctors at Green Oaks decided that Jessica and I both needed more treatment. We were both moved to a residential treatment center so we could have longtime care. We were so excited when we found out that we would be going to the same place. The treatment center was called Meridell and was just outside Austin. I would be about three hours away from my family. We wouldn’t be alone. We would have someone that understood us, and could help us in our treatment. Jessica and I were both very depressed, but I always felt better when I talked to her. She could make me laugh at almost anything.

We were disappointed to find out that we would be put in separate parts of the residential treatment center. We were separated because we had different initial problems. I was put in Jewels, an area full of people with chemical problems in their brain. My depression and anxiety could not be explained by my circumstances. I had an amazing family that loved me, and I knew it. Sometimes, though, I would just explode with anger, or my stress would make me freeze in place. The patients that surrounded me couldn’t control how they acted. I soon realized, though, I had much more control than these girls did. People were acting out every five minutes. One minute everyone would be quiet, the next some girl was screaming at another and no one knew why. I actually became one of the prize patients by just being quiet and sitting there. 

Jessica was placed in Bunkhouse, where people had behavioral problems that were not explained by a chemical imbalance in the brain, so people didn’t fight as often or as randomly. The place was quieter and calmer most of the time. People had more control, but every once in a while these girls would act out too. It usually just showed up in a different way, and was often a much bigger deal. It included purposely lying to get away with things and talking badly about others. The nurses took it more seriously because the girls here had planned it all out. It wasn’t by accident, like at my previous area. Jessica was here, like many others, because her troubles came from a bad home. 

***

After I was at Jewels for a few days, the treatment center decided to do an activity with both the girls from Bunkhouse and Jewels. The first time was when our two areas met up to do line dancing. (I now have a permanent hatred for line dancing, though I already thought it was stupid before.) Our area came over to Bunkhouse, and I remember running in looking for Jessica. It was only our second day, but I missed her. I saw her sitting in a chair, so I went to sit next to her. 

I started talking to her. It felt great. I hated my area. She explained hers wasn’t so bad. As we were talking, and not joining in the dancing, a nurse noticed us. She came over to us. 

“What do you two think y’all are doing? You aren’t allowed to talk to each other; you’re from different areas. That’s the rules. You should know that.” 

Actually, neither of us did know that. We explained that to the nurse. She angrily shook her head and made us go to separate sides of the room. I had thought I would at least get to see Jessica when our areas met up. I could, but we weren’t even allowed to talk. 

***

The residential facility wanted me to have more of a challenge, because they believed that would be the only way I would improve. They thought I would do better at a place where people didn’t fight over everything, like the hour long fight over who stole whose crochet hook.  

A staff member helped me carry my things to the Bunkhouse cabin. I think the cabin was supposed to make the place look like camp, but it really just felt odd and out of place. It was a log cabin, but the rest of mental treatment center was regular buildings made of brick and concrete. As I walked to the front door, I saw Jessica through the window. She was doing some worksheets at a table. I waved frantically at her. She smiled and waved back. 

As soon as I got into Bunkhouse, I started to talk to Jessica. “Hey, how are you?” 

“Don’t talk to her,” one of the nurses said. “She’s on level one. She can’t talk right now. Sam will show you around.” 

They introduced me to a girl of average height with short, blonde hair. She held herself up with pride, which was odd for a place like this. Everyone was always so depressed, it was weird to see someone in control of themselves. As soon as Sam started showing me around, I asked her what level one was. 

“It’s a punishment. Everyone starts on level two, and if you get in trouble you are put on level one. You are not allowed to talk to others and you have to sit around doing worksheets.” 

“What did Jessica do?” 

Sam looked at me, puzzled that I knew the girls name. “How do you know her?” 

“We were at the same mental hospital.” 

“Oh,” she said. “To be honest, I don’t know what she did this time. Sorry.” 

All I did was nod. Jessica was doing a lot worse than I was. 

***

My first night at Bunkhouse, Jessica’s scream echoed throughout the building. It startled me and Sam, who was introducing me to everyone in Bunkhouse. All the girls had been getting ready for bed, but they all stopped what they were doing. I froze in my chair, but Sam quickly took charge and rushed all of the girls into a side room. I followed. This was a weird way to start my first night in a different part of the residential treatment center. Of course, I wondered if this was normal. 

We crowded into the side room. Everyone was squished together. It was just us patients, a group of teenage girls, no nurses or caretakers. It felt strange. We were always being watched. The only time we had to ourselves was when we went to the restroom. The girls with eating disorders didn’t even have that, because they had to sing the alphabet so the nurses knew they weren’t barfing. We weren’t even allowed to touch one another. This squeezing of our bodies was the only human contact I had had in days. 

A green couch was against the wall opposite the door. Three girls had sat there as soon as they entered. A fourth girl tried to also sit down, but she decided against it when the tall girl covered with tattoos glared at her. A short, wide table was in the middle of the room, taking up most of the standing space. In the corner was a fish tank, with one beta fish. Just like us, it was alone. 

Outside of the room, Jessica kept screaming. Inside, Sam tried to calm the girls who had gone off the deep end. She had been at Bunkhouse the longest, for over four months. She was a Level 4, which meant she had a lot of privileges and the staff looked at her as one of the leaders of Bunkhouse. I couldn’t believe how in control Sam was, and I wondered why she was still even at Bunkhouse. I never learned much about Sam. She was only there for another two weeks, and she always seemed more comparable to a staff member. It was the way she helped everyone, including me when I was new. She would ask how people were doing, but was never one to really say how her own day was going. 

“It’s just Jessica,” Sam said as she calmed down another girl who was crying. She sighed with frustration, as if she was a mom annoyed with her daughter for acting out again. 

I stood against a wall, shivering. The girls seemed to be upset about being stuck in here, but I didn’t care about that. I was just wondering what was going on with Jessica. I needed to get out of there. 

The three girls on the couch were very calm. The tall one with tattoos talked to a chubby girl that had just one tattoo on her arm. I took a peek at the chubby girl’s arm, and was surprised at what the tattoo was. It was the girl’s face with a knife struck through the top, and blood was gushing everywhere. I inched back to the wall. 

I felt as if I was in that room forever, but it was probably just fifteen minutes. A room of crying and screaming girls, and the only calm girls were the ones that had gruesome tattoos. Then, suddenly, a nurse opened the door. Light burst into the room, which I just noticed had been very dark the whole time. We all went out at a crawling pace, looking both ways before we exited, as if something was about to jump us. 

The first thing I noticed was that Jessica was screaming at another nurse in the solitary room. “It’s all your fault,” she screeched at the top of her lungs. “Why couldn’t you just leave me alone?” 

This person screaming was not the Jessica I knew. The one that always had a smile on her freckly face. The only person who had been able to make me laugh so truly, so purely in years. I wanted to help her, but we were told to ignore the screaming and to get ready for bed. I don’t even think it’s possible to ignore screaming.

I stood in the common room, which was in the middle of the building. The girls started brushing their teeth in the bathroom, right next to the solitary room. I couldn’t get ready. I was barely able to move myself to a chair to sit down. 

As the girls got ready, I found out what happened to Jessica. When the nurse had gone to check on her during her shower time, she had found Jessica trying to hang herself by her belt. The nurses were now yelling at her, saying that she was doing it all to get attention. Jessica screamed back at them, and I could sometimes hear loud thumps, which were her hitting the mattress. I stayed in the chair, in total shock. 

Looking out from the solitary room, a nurse finally noticed me when I couldn’t hold in my tears anymore. I started to cry in bursting sobs, wet tears streaming down my face, snot pouring out my nose. The nurse came over and said, “It’s okay, dear. She’ll be fine. You’ll be fine. I know it is your first day here, but don’t worry, this doesn’t usually happen. Just get ready for bed. Go brush your teeth.” 

The nurse, though, didn’t know that I knew Jessica, and that I cared about her well-being. I explained, through my snot and tears, my connection to her, and this made the nurse nervous, as she seemed to realize that this wasn’t just a random girl to me. She thought I had been scared because the girl had scared me, but now she saw that we had a history. I stayed in the chair, as I couldn’t get myself up to go brush my teeth at the moment. The nurse walked over to the solitary room, and motioned to one of the caretakers. A caretaker came out, and the nurse pointed at me and seemed to be explaining the situation to her. 

Jessica then came out of the solitary room. I hadn’t even realized she had stopped screaming a few minutes before. Her face was bright red, and her fury was obvious. She went into her room, which she shared with three other girls, and grabbed her mattress off her bed. She dragged it into the common room, until she was a few feet in front of me. She would be sleeping here for a few nights, because she now had to be constantly watched by the staff. 

A nurse called Jessica aside, and through their staring I could tell they were talking about me. Jessica came over and sat in the chair beside me. She looked at me and said, “I’m sorry if I scared you. I’m okay. Please promise me not to worry. It’s going to be okay.” 

I could only nod my head. I wanted to tell her we could talk about anything she wanted. I wanted to tell her not to kill herself, to tell her she had so much to live for, that she was an amazing person and people cared about her. I cared about her, and I had only spent a week with her. I couldn’t though, because the words caught in my throat. I would have hugged her, but I knew I wasn’t allowed. All I could do was nod my head and wipe the snot onto the sleeve of my t-shirt, as I watched my friend walk away. 

Jessica went to lie down on her mattress. She was in a lot of trouble. I saw how much pain she was in, and I hated that I couldn’t talk to her.  

I sat there until I was told to get ready for bed. I finally brushed my teeth, and went to my room, but I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop reliving the horrible night. It also didn’t help that the nurses did a fifteen minute check, where they would shine a flashlight in our faces to see if we were asleep. They would look at me as if I was the most annoying thing whenever my eyes would pop open, when the bright light shined into them. They would ask why I wasn’t asleep yet. I wanted to scream at them it was because they were shining a fucking flashlight in my eye at one in the morning. Instead, I just closed my eyes again and tried in vain to fall asleep. Knowing that in fifteen minutes a bright light would be shined into my eyes once more, to separate me from my thoughts of Jessica’s attempted suicide for only a moment. 

***

I wasn’t allowed to talk to Jessica for over two weeks. She stayed on Level 1. She was made to sit at a table near the front of the cabin. She repeatedly did these worksheets about mental health that were supposed to help her. After a week, she had done all of them. 

“I’ve done this one before,” she said to the nurse on duty. 

I was sitting on the couch about ten feet away. We were having our mandatory quiet time after school. We were supposed to be writing in our journals about our feelings. I didn’t feel like writing, so I doodled. I drew pictures of hourglasses, the sand falling slowly. Jessica’s voice caught my attention, and I tried to listen without being noticed. 

“Well, if you would start acting better, you wouldn’t have to do any more worksheets,” the nurse said. “We’ve run out. Just do it again.” 

Jessica sighed and went back to her table. I continued to draw hourglasses until group therapy started. 

Dr. Amy came in about five minutes later. She made all of us sit in a circle. Except for Jessica. Jessica was supposed to stay at her table. I didn’t know how she was going to get better if one of her punishments was not being allowed to participate in group therapy. We were supposed to tell our problems to the group and ask for help. The other troubled teens would then give you advice. These people were not the kind of people you would ask for advice. 

Sam always volunteered to tell a problem. It made her look good in front of the doctor, just like giving her advice would make the other patients looked good. Meridell loved participation. 

Sam told the group, “I’m worried about leaving here next week. I don’t know what I’m going to say to my friends.” 

The girls just sat. Then someone raised their hand, and Dr. Amy called on them. “Sam, just tell them the truth.” 

Someone else offered up that Sam could lie. Others said she could downplay it. I don’t think these mixed signals helped Sam. 

“Thank you. This has helped so much.” Sam said. 

I heard a snicker. I looked over at Jessica, she was giggling at Sam’s response. I smiled in Jessica’s direction, but she didn’t notice. 

The nurse on duty suddenly said, “Katie, are you talking to Jessica.” 

“What, no…” 

“Well she is laughing at something,” the nurse said. I guess she didn’t see how Sam should not have found any of that helpful. 

“I just looked at her for a moment. I promise.” 

Jessica chimed in, “I didn’t even know she looked at me, really.” 

“Jessica, you are not allowed to talk. Katie, you are not supposed to look at people on Level 1, you know that,” the nurse said. I actually did not know that. I knew I couldn’t talk to Jessica, but I wasn’t allowed to look at her. Was I supposed to think she was not there? “You’re on Level 1.” 

“What, no, please.” 

Dr. Amy was silent. I started to cry. I grabbed a worksheet from the nurses’ desk and sat at one of the tables near the front of the cabin. 

My parents came two hours later. They had come all the way from Dallas to visit me in Austin. They came every week. My parents visited more than anyone else, even the girl whose parents only lived fifteen minutes away. One girl had been here three months, and she had only seen her dad once. I knew I was lucky. The nurse let me go visit with them in the cafeteria for a few hours, but said I would be on Level 1 when I got back. 

The main nurse, though, was back when I returned. He found out why I was in trouble, and took me off Level 1. He said I should have been warned. I never got in trouble again at Bunkhouse. I bet I am one of the few kids to come out of that place with only two hours on Level 1. 

***

I don’t remember it being awkward when Jessica got off Level 1. We were suddenly friends again, as if nothing had happened. We never discussed her trying to commit suicide, though it was often on my mind. I wanted to ask her why, and I wanted to tell her it would be okay, but I was never able to. We mostly just joked around and talked about random subjects like Guitar Hero and our favorite movies. It was what we needed at the time. We didn’t need to be reminded of why we were there; we were both each other’s way of not thinking about the present. 

Jessica always had a way of making me laugh, even though it wasn’t always on purpose. The first time I got to have an overnight away from Meridell was with my dad. I was telling Jessica why we had chosen that specific night. 

“It’s Rosh Hashanah,” I told her. “It’s the Jewish new year. So I’ll be going to temple, but I’ll also get to spend time with my dad. My mom and sisters can’t make it, but they will be going to temple back in Dallas.” 

“You have your own New Year,” Jessica asked. 

“Yeah, we’re on a different calendar. It’s a lunar cycle.” 

“That’s cool,” she said. “Like how our regular new year is on the Fourth of July.” 

I looked at her. She had to be kidding, but she didn’t seem to be. Suddenly, I burst out laughing and I couldn’t stop. I was barely able to say, “Fourth of July is Independence Day, the New Year is on January 1st.” 

She hit her hand against her head, “Oh, yeah, it is. I must have gotten confused.” 

I fell on the floor, still laughing uncontrollably. 

***

I left really quickly compared to most kids. I only stayed at Meridell for two months. It felt like a long time, but people were really impressed with how well I improved so rapidly. They said I was better with people. I was on new meds, which were helping a lot. I got out right before my birthday, and I was really happy about it. I was sad to be leaving Jessica though. 

Bunkhouse had this ritual when a person left. They went around to all the other patients and gave each one a handshake while they said goodbye. It was the only time you ever touched anyone, as touching others was not allowed. 

I saved Jessica for last. I was leaving at lunchtime, so I went around the cafeteria saying goodbye to everyone. When I got to Jessica, I started to tear up. 

“I’m going to miss you,” I told her. 

“Me too.” 

I looked at the nurses, they weren’t paying attention. 

“Can I give you a hug,” I asked. 

She nodded. 

I grabbed her in my arms, the girl that had helped me get through the hardest time in my life. I didn’t know what else to say, but I think breaking the rules said a lot. 

As I let go, she said, “Do you promise to write?” 

“Yeah, of course.” 

“Bye, Katie.” 

“Bye, Jessica. I’ll miss you.” 

I walked away. I was going home with my whole family that had come to pick me up. I didn’t know if I would ever see Jessica again. 

I never did write her. I feel terrible about it, but I didn’t know what to say. I friended her on Facebook. When she got out, a month later, we chatted once for about five minutes, but we didn’t have much to say to each other. I asked her how Michigan was, and she said her grandparents were really nice. I sometimes see her status updates. She’s one of those people that loves to tell the world everything. She says when she is having a great day, but she also writes when she is depressed. Whenever she writes she is depressed, I want to message her. I want to make sure she is okay, but I don’t. I don’t know what to say. It’s been over four years, and I wonder if she ever remembers our friendship like I do. I wonder if she thinks I betrayed her. I’m even more scared to think that maybe I didn’t mean anything to her at all. 

 

 

Katie Ray is a junior at Eckerd College. She is majoring in creative writing and minoring in literature. Katie is on the editorial board of the Eckerd Review, Eckerd’s literary magazine. Katie has studied under Elie Wiesel. She is an avid scuba diver, and through Eckerd spent time at the Bimini Sharklab, where she swam with sharks. When not at Eckerd, Katie lives in Dallas, TX with her parents and two sisters. 

 

Q&A

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

A: I originally wrote this piece to help myself when I couldn’t stop thinking back at my time in the mental treatment center. I found that as I was working on this piece, it was very therapeutic to go back over that time. 

 

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

A: The best writing advice I received was from Elie Wiesel who told me to keep writing. I did follow that advice, because I am still writing. 

 

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

A: 1) J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, by making a young, dyslexic child love reading 

2) Elie Wiesel’s Night, which taught me the power of nonfiction 

3)Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, for showing me I was not the only one that saw humor at a stay in the mental hospital

 

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

A: I like to work in my room by myself. I need it to be very quiet. I work at my desk, which I’ll admit is quite messy.


Elaine Neil Orr's A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa, a review and conversation with Kim Church

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Elaine Neil Orr

A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa

New York: Berkley, 2013 

400 pages

Paperback: $16.00

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send? And who will go for us? And I said, Here am I. Send me. –Isaiah 6:8

What is the nature and source of faith? Can faith be taught and learned? What does faith demand of the faithful? These questions lie at the heart of Elaine Orr’s debut novel, A Different Sun, a vividly imagined account of one of the earliest Southern Baptist missions to West Africa. With this book, Orr joins such writers as Marilynne Robinson (Gilead) and Elizabeth Strout (Abide With Me) in crafting fully realized fiction that reflects on the vicissitudes and wonders and complexities of a life devoted to ministry.

I confess that I came to Orr’s book with a limited understanding of missionary life. As a child, I sometimes accompanied my Southern Baptist grandmother on mission trips—not to foreign lands but in our town. My grandmother carried out her work on foot, traipsing up and down the oak-lined streets of her little mill village to collect and distribute sacks of food and clothes for the needy. Most neighbors invited her into their homes and listened politely while she testified. Others—the poorest, it seemed—wanted none of her charity and had no time for her testimony. She was never embarrassed. I, on the other hand, was squeamish. As much as I admired my grandmother’s commitment to helping others—like her, I wanted a life of service and even briefly entertained her notion that I should become a foreign missionary—I had trouble with the idea of exporting religious faith. 

Emma Davis Bowman, the protagonist of A Different Sun, longs for such an opportunity. The daughter of a wealthy Georgia planter, she grows up rooted in Christianity. From an early age, Emma takes her faith seriously and understands its implications for her home and community. She agonizes over the condition of slaves on her father’s plantation. In one brief, affecting scene, she watches her father send nine-year-old Hannah, a girl her own age, into the field to work:

“Go on,” her father said, and Hannah turned, her dress slipping down one shoulder. Something fell away. Emma wanted to cry, not weep, but cry, like the Bible says: someone crying in the wilderness. 

Later she attends a revival where she responds to the smooth-voiced minister’s call “to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior” by dashing to the altar, nearly stumbling in her hurry.

Though her family discourages her, Emma insists on attending college, where she decides to become a teacher—a decision she experiences as a religious calling. “As far back as I can remember,” she writes in her journal, “I have felt something amiss, whether in myself or in the world. I am no more perfect today than I was yesterday. But as God calls, I follow.” 

She approaches the local minister for permission to start a Sunday school for slave children and defends herself to her disapproving father: “Our slaves might at least look forward to heaven if we instructed them in scripture.” She announces her ambition to be a missionary, arguing that she can “at least teach children to read and write.” She has a particular interest in Africa, where the old slave she knows as Uncle Eli was captured in his youth. But in 1853, foreign mission work is not available to her as a single woman. 

She meets Henry Bowman, a former Texas Cavalryman-turned-missionary, when he visits her church. Henry is about to embark on his second African mission and needs a wife—a practical helpmate, someone to nurse him through recurrent bouts of illness, to help him resist his lust for African women. Henry is twenty years older than Emma, lean, dark-haired, and fiercely handsome—“prettier” than most of the women he has known. Emma is big-featured and plain. She is a sexual innocent; Henry has a scandalous history. “I was a wicked young man on the Texas prairie,” he confesses to Emma. “Do you understand what I mean?”

She took this to mean more than killing Mexicans. … Being courted by such a man put Emma in a new relation to herself. She was now attractive. And wasn’t the man before her like the apostle Paul, a wicked man who had seen the light?

Having renounced God as a young man witnessing the untimely death of his mother, Henry is now making up for lost time. His religious calling has about it a sick feverishness; he is less focused on serving others than on atoning for his corrupt past. But for all their differences, Henry and Emma need one another. They marry and depart the slaveholding South to carry the gospel to West Africa—an irony not lost on Emma.

Africa tests them individually and as a couple. Emma comes of age in a vast, searing landscape where she is isolated by language, culture, religion, and even by her marriage, which is as strange to her as Africa. Henry is often away; not content to build a single church but determined to expand the mission northward, he regularly sets out on scouting expeditions, leaving Emma behind. When he is home, he struggles with poor health and frightful bouts of madness. Emma eventually turns for comfort to his African assistant, Jacob, who is everything Henry is not: young, vital, self-possessed, and present. Over time, Emma’s longing for Jacob intensifies into possessiveness, a feeling that shames her much as she is shamed by her family history of owning slaves. 

In her isolation, Emma instinctively reaches for God. Her prayers are passionate and purely felt. In these sacramental moments, she is subtly transformed. She learns humility.

Henry’s faith, by contrast, is rigid and desperate. He is hell-bent on converting others—specifically, Muslims in the North—as a way of redeeming himself. He is also frustrated that Emma does not understand “the imperative posed by the Mohamedans. He was pressed by time. So much of his life behind him. The Kingdom of God yet to be won.” His relentless ambition nearly destroys him.

But in Orr’s fictional world, redemption is an ever-glimmering possibility. And for these characters, one way to redemption is through language. Henry and Emma share a deep reverence for the power and sanctity of the written word. For all his overzealousness, Henry has a genuine interest in the language and culture of Africa. He compiles a Yoruba dictionary. His careful collection and translation of African words has a holiness about it that is absent from his preaching. The work also sets him on a brotherly footing with his assistant, Jacob, a former slave. 

Emma, too, finds grace in language. She keeps a journal throughout the novel, distilling her faith into words. Forgive my papa. Forgive me. Watch out for Uncle Eli. Henry’s wedding gift to her is an elegant wooden writing box that holds her diary. The writing box accompanies her throughout her travels, a touchstone in her brightest and darkest moments.

The author took her inspiration for the novel from the actual diary of Lurana Davis Bowen, the first female Southern Baptist missionary to Africa. “In this young woman’s diary I found sentences so compressed they seemed nearly to explode,” Orr writes. This tension fuels A Different Sun, which is a nuanced, compelling elaboration on Lurana Bowen’s terse document. The novel owes its authenticity not only to Orr’s meticulous research but also to her own African upbringing as the child of medical missionaries in Nigeria, a country she still considers her spiritual home.  

 

In a recent email conversation, I asked if she had ever considered returning to Africa as a missionary. 

 

ENO: Early in my marriage, when my husband and I were trying to decide what to do with our lives, a friend suggested we go to Africa as missionaries. My husband said, no way. He was right, of course. I didn’t want to be a missionary. I wanted to go home to Nigeria. And perhaps I wanted a missionary life, but only the parts after work, such as playing tennis in the afternoon, going to swim in a beautiful river, going to the night market, wearing light cotton dresses all the time. And the drives through the country. And living in an African culture: hearing the music, seeing the cloth, the women’s beautiful hair; talking with Nigerians. The trees, the smells. All of it. I never really wanted to be a missionary.

 

KC: How did your parents’ missionary work shape your own faith and work? 

ENO: The most significant messages my parents gave to me, and that their lives showed me, were: (1) you are talented; you can do anything, and (2) make the world better. This message took me some time to figure out since my talents and my desire tended toward the artistic and, I thought, not the useful. My mother was a nurse, a teacher. My father was a businessman and administrator. They were clearly helping people by being medical missionaries. I compromised by following the path of a Ph.D. and university teaching rather than an MFA and poetry (which is where I started in creative writing). After publishing two scholarly books and getting promoted to full professor, I could return to “poetry”: the literary arts, in memoir and fiction. I love teaching and I love writing. It wasn’t a bad compromise.

My parents’ lives and work caused me to see faith as action. They were not very evangelical. Instead, they rather humbly went about training Nigerians to run their own hospitals. There is no doubt that Jesus is at the center of my religious sensibility and that I see him in the same light: as a helper, healer, teacher, and (thank goodness) story-teller, and thus, in a sense, an artist. The parables are the remnant I seek to live by, my moral compass. But Nigeria also deeply influenced my spiritual experience. I feel the presence of divinity in trees, hills, rivers, crossroads. When I visit Nigeria now, I feel God more intensely than anywhere else. So it’s not just any tree that houses God. It’s the frangipani, the palm, the baobab.

 

KC: You’ve said you wrote this book on “bonus time.” Tell me more about that and how you think it affected your writing process.

ENO: In 2000, I received two organ transplants: a pancreas and a kidney. They came from an eighteen-year-old donor who had died. Two and a half years earlier, I had been diagnosed with end-stage renal disease and I had been on dialysis all that time. With these two new organs, I no longer suffered either disease. The window opened. I had a new life. It was then that I returned to creative writing. The first thing I wanted to do was write the story of my African life, which I did. [Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life, University of Virginia Press, 2003]. And what I learned was that writing could be a magic carpet, carrying me back home.

About the time I started writing A Different Sun, I told my doctor I was afraid “the window might start closing.” I meant that my organs might fail. He said, “Quite the opposite. You’ve gotten this far. The window is just going to keep opening.” That gave me the confidence to take my time with the novel. The transplants and my new health renewed my faith in life. I didn’t worry that I had never written a sentence of fiction. Miracles seemed to be quite possible now. In fact, I began to imagine that as long as I was writing, I couldn’t die. Of course I knew better. But I thought: I won’t really care. The thing is to keep writing. It’s what I was made for. So I revised and revised and revised again. I wanted the novel to be the best I could make it: my second letter to the world, after my memoir.

 

KC: To me, this book reads as if divinely inspired, as if it were the book you were meant to write. Did it feel that way?

ENO: I think A Different Sun is a novel few other people could have written. My life began at the crossroads of Yoruba culture (in southwestern Nigeria, where my characters travel) and missionary life. My “head” (the Yoruba equivalent of “soul”) is shaped by my life in that country. I guess I had a mission, though not quite like my parents’, and that was to show the light in Africa, and to show it through a particular ethnic group, and, if not to redeem the image of missionaries in fiction, at least to give them their due. What that required was simply to treat them as human beings rather than stereotypes. In a sense I am inspired to show my world just as Lee Smith is inspired to show Appalachia or Chinua Achebe is inspired to show Igboland—not to make all the characters good and the women beautiful, but to offer that world in all its dimensions. There were moments when the work felt divinely inspired—for example, when I would create an object in the novel, such as the writing box where Emma keeps her diary, and then in my research the item would show up. It was as if I had dreamed a world into being. And it became the most real world I could imagine.

 

 

Elaine Neil Orr was born in Nigeria. Her Yoruba name, Bamidele, means "follow me home" and most of her fiction and memoir takes readers to West Africa. She also writes about her second home, the American South. In memoir and fiction, she writes richly about the natural world, complex human relationships, and spiritual longing.

 

Kim Church's her first novel, Byrd, was released by Dzanc Books in March 2014. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she has received grants from the North Carolina Arts Council and fellowships at Millay Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Vermont Studio Center. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she divides her time between writing and law. Visit her online at www.kimchurch.com.


Terence Hawkin's American Neolithic, reviewed by Curtis Smith

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Terence Hawkins

American Neolithic

Chattanooga: C&R Press, 2014

200 pages

Hardcover: $24.00

What does it mean to be human? Surely there are genetic standards, the communal yet individually unique history of our DNA. There is culture, the institutions we’ve established and shaped, the monuments we’ve erected, testaments to our heroes and accomplishments. We have conquered the world and placed our species atop the evolutionary chain. Yet when one discusses the nature of being human, the conversation often veers to our more tender qualities—our capacity for empathy, the kindnesses we share with our loved ones, the charity we extend to those in need. In his dark and entertaining new novel American Neolithic, Terence Hawkins explores the nature of humanness and its sadly subservient role to our fears and paranoia. 

Much of the story is set in New York City in the not so distant future. Hawkins doesn’t offer us a dystopia, but rather a stepping stone to one, a future subtly more disturbing because we have experienced its early rumblings in our own time. Much of Hawkins’ America remains as it is today—there is alcohol and television and Starbucks—but disturbing changes have altered society and government. The fear of terrorism and the rise of Christian fundamentalism have joined forces, leaving Hawkins’ characters in “a police state-lite.” Protest is no longer protected by the Constitution, and the press has been reduced to a Fox-News chorus. Dissidents disappear, and if one wishes to survive, they learn not to ask too many questions. 

So American Neolithic is another dystopian (or nearly dystopian) novel, right? Well, not really, because part of the book’s allure comes from its blending of genres. There are elements of courtroom drama complete with a voice straight out of a hardboiled detective novel. This half of the narrative belongs to Raleigh, a New York lawyer who, in time, overcomes his vanity and self-importance to help a client in need. There’s love—well, sex—and a healthy dose of social commentary. Yet the vein that touches the deepest is distinctly literary. This half of the book brims with pathos and wry observations, and, perhaps given the backdrop of a righteously paranoid United States, it’s not so ironic that this voice comes from the novel’s other main character, Blingbling, a Neanderthal thrust into the national limelight. 

Yes, a Neanderthal, one of our closer cousins, a species thought to have reached its dead end on evolution’s many-branched highway long ago. It’s poor Bling, hunted and persecuted for carrying the DNA that makes him anathema to the US’s new theocracy, who provides the novel its kindhearted and cerebral undercurrent. Love, selflessness, sacrifice, appreciation for the arts—all of these are found not in man’s world but in Bling’s. His voice, while garbled in real-world exchanges, rings with emotion and clarity on the written page. Consider this passage Bling writes from a cell hidden deep within the US’s penal underground:

“Learning was my downfall.

And it appears, that of my people. I had hoped to be the Neanderthal Prometheus. Instead, I am Ahab, dead already, my extended arm pointing the way forward to extinction as I precede my fellows into the depths.”

In Bing’s observations, we find the intelligence and compassion so lacking in the rest of the human world, a sad irony that is not lost on Raleigh, for it’s through his interactions with Bling that he achieves the realization of his own humanity. It’s a gift that carries a terrible price, yet it’s a sacrifice that speaks to best within us. 

 

Interview with Terrence Hawkins by Curtis Smith 

Curtis Smith: One of the most interesting things about American Neolithic is its blending of genres. Did this just happen as you discovered the story or was it a conscious decision from the start?

Terence Hawkins: Very much the former. It started out as an account of the Neanderthals' history in America, narrated exclusively by Blingbling--pure speculative fiction. But that seemed a little slow, so I needed to get him into trouble, and being a lawyer I decided it had to be legal trouble. And since it was legal trouble I needed another narrator, who of course would have to be his lawyer, hence the courtroom thriller aspect. And since I spend part of every day in an apoplectic rage as the Republic spirals around history's drain--but see below. 

 

CS: Politics plays a major role in the narrative. Do you really see our country edging toward a theocracy-right wing state?

TH: "Edging towards"? We're three-quarters of the way there. We are unquestionably among the most socially retrograde of the industrial democracies and the only one in which political leaders actually have to talk about their private religious beliefs. While I do think that the increasing acceptance of blue-state values--an African American president, same sex marriage, legal weed--is heartening, I'm also acutely aware that about half the country is permanently red. For that reason a hiccup in voter turnout in the midterms can return control of the Senate to a party that contains a significant minority that denies not only climate change but evolution. Worse, recent Supreme Court decisions have encouraged monied interests to dump their cash into the campaigns of wingnuts who equate environmental regulation with the Crucifixion. But worst, our deterioration into a National Security State, which began after World War II, accelerated meteorically after 9/11, after which our panicked legislators--including my own Blue State Senators--enacted away a lot of our civil liberties with the Patriot Act. And of course our Democratic President is just fine with untrammelled phone surveillance and the extrajudicial execution of US citizens overseas by drone.  

I tremble for our country when I consider what we'll willingly surrender the next time we're attacked. 

 

CS: I loved Bling’s voice—it’s full of wonder and wisdom and compassion. How did your understanding of him evolve through the novel’s drafts?

TH: I'm still not sure I understand him. His voice didn't change draft to draft; what did change was its prominence. He was initially the sole narrator, but the density and intensity of his diction led me to think that it would exhaust the reader by page thirty. And to be candid, he was hard to write. That's why I added the second narrator early on.  

That said, I wonder where he came from myself. The best answer I've been able to come up with is that I was channeling my late dog Bismarck. If Biz had an IQ of 140 and the power of speech, that's what he'd sound like--tenderhearted, observant, and deeply perplexed by our myriad cruelties. 

 

CS: Once I finish a novel, I always enjoying hearing about its origins. Can you share how this story first appeared to you?

TH: I can tell you with some precision. In July 2000 my wife and I were in Boston, which was getting ready to host the Democratic Presidential Convention. Why we were talking about Neanderthals I don't know--this was before the old GEICO ad, even--but she asked what I thought they'd be doing if they'd survived to the present day. "Not sure," I said, "but I bet it'd have something to do with rap."

A few months later I was on a train from New York to Pittsburgh en route to visit my parents. In a lucid half-sleep I had the image of herds of landwhales--what whales would have been had they not returned to the sea after their brief tenure on land millions of years ago--lumbering across the great plains in an alternate evolution. When my head snapped up from my chest that's when I knew the book had to be written. 

 

CS: What’s next on the writing front?

TH: I'm hoping to put together a collection of short stories in the next year. Beyond that I've been working on a novel comprising the interlocking narratives of my grandfather, who served in the Navy at the end of World War I and during our virtual occupation of China in the 1920's, and the Princess of Thurn und Taxis, a woman from my home town who married an Austro-Hungarian Prince right after World War I and returned after his death just before the Crash. Seriously--it really happened. (The House of Thurn und Taxis features prominently in The Crying of Lot 49, by the way.)

 

 

Terence Hawkins was born in Uniontown, PA. His grandfathers and several uncles were coal miners. He graduated from Yale in 1978 and the University of Wisconsin School of Law in 1982. He returned to New Haven to practice in 1985. His first novel, The Rage of Achilles, was published in 2009. He is also the author of many short stories, essays, and editorials. Hawkins is founding Director of the Yale Writers Conference.

 

Curtis Smith is the author of the novels An Unadorned LifeSound and Noise, and Truth or Something Like It. 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.


Catherine Staples's The Rattling Window, reviewed by Catherine Prescott

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Catherine Staples

The Rattling Window

Ashland: Ashland Poetry Press, 2013

78 pages

Paperback: $15.95

Lush and lyrical, anchored and soaring, Catherine Staples’s debut poetry collection, The Rattling Window, which won Ashland Poetry Press’s Robert McGovern Publication Prize, moves readers deftly between worlds: the living and the dead, earthly life and the afterlife, dreams and wakefulness, the past and present, internal and external, as well as the more terrestrial geographies of ocean and field.  

As the title portends, rattled windows (by wind, time, rain and snow) feature prominently in the collection as do gates and doors. The collection is a threshold itself by which readers pass through the many lives it encounters.  

In the collection’s first poem, “Fear of Heights,” Staples carries readers through the places she intends to explore. It spins between past and present like a weathervane: 

 

A widows walk will go to your head - like the sight of a former

boyfriend pulling up in a two-toned Alfa...

 

Then continues to invoke the elements:

 

wind from the sea makes you lightheaded,

inclined to break like a floe far to the north,

present self sheared loose from your youth.

 

And further:

 

How easily sheets fly off the wicker - chairs,

tables, dining set, a summer writing desk.

Like the arrival of guests from all doors at once,

the empty room is busy again breathing in the sea.

 

Staples’s “guests” are the catalog of her dead which includes old boyfriends, grandparents, a postman, neighbors, childhoods, and horses. The celebrated painter, NC Wyeth, and his grandson, Newell, who were killed in a tragic accident close to home, are eulogized in a four part poem.

Staples is at once enamored with the world’s beauty as she is aware of its ephemeralness. Her lines fill with gratitude for the given world and a meditative curiosity about the unknown worlds hidden in dreamscapes and the afterlife. They are tethers that pull readers between grief, gratitude, and wonder.  

Staples approaches her work with a cautious awareness in her role as a Persephone of sorts in the poem “My Neighbors’ Pools.” But first, I must say something about the poet’s opulent, painterly and almost sinfully symphonic verse. This poem begins:

 

The way seals ride an incline and sweep

like light down scoured tanks,

you know they’re dreaming the sea.

 

Subtle alliteration in every line is sonorous and sweet; the comparison of seals swimming with the movement of light is deft; and the logical leap to “dreaming the sea” is stunning. The collection is ripe with such exuberant language. Also, take this: “He slides out his chair with a violin’s scraping” and this: “grass thin hit of light.”

Staples makes a habit of trespassing and swimming in the neighbors’ pools not in the expected months of spring or summer, but in autumn--a season associated with death. The poem ends:

 

...I plummet and rise

through the underside of autumn, scarlet bleed

of maple on oak, the skin-taut border of water and air

christened in cold and shining with dark leaves.

 

Staples is “christened” and reborn in this season of “dark leaves” and growing darkness. As a herald from the underworld--or the worlds beyond this one--she takes readers by the hand, by the rein, and gives us a language--which is the ultimate window --through which we experience life. And this is to say nothing of the metaphor of writing as trespass (entering forbidden and private arenas) and of writing as compulsion (the act that causes one to unlock gates and loosen knots in the secret hours of night).  

The painter Andrew Wyeth, trained by his father N.C. Wyeth, was known to walk through private homes settling on small domestic moments for inspiration. What Wyeth did with his brush Staples has done with her pen. And as Andrew Wyeth was said to infuse the landscape of his paintings with the spirits of the dead, so does Catherine Staples in this dazzling, dizzying, rich and deeply satisfying collection.

 

 

Catherine Staples grew up in Dover Massachusetts and still spends part of each summer on Cape Cod. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Blackbird, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, Commonweal, Third Coast, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Southern Poetry Review, Rattle, Prime Number, and Quarterly West among other journals. Honors include the University of Pennsylvania's William Carlos Williams Award, the New England Poetry Club's Boyle/Farber Award, and the Southern Poetry Review's Guy Owen Prize. She teaches in the Honors program at Villanova University and lives with her family in Devon, Pennsylvania.