Welcome to Issue No. 59 of Prime Number:
A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose
Letter from the Editor
It's time for another issue--the first issue of our 5th year! Amazing!
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. Also, we're beginning work on Volume 4, which will be available by the end of the year.
We are currently reading submissions for Issue 59 updates, Issue 61, 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've made 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 (email@example.com) and we’ll pass your thoughts along to the contributors. Similarly, if you are a publisher and would like to send us ARCs for us to consider for reviews, please contact us at the above email address. We’re especially interested in reviewing new, recent, or overlooked books from small presses.
One more thing: Prime Number Magazine is published by Press 53, a terrific small press helping to keep literature alive. Please support independent presses and bookstores.
Issue 59, July-September 2014
Lua by Andrew Harlan
Followed by Q&A
The sirens color my car purple. I only know one cop dumb enough to shoot radar behind Wal-Mart. Yes, there in my rearview is the crew cut with a uniform.
“Where’s the fire?”
Chuck flashes his light in my car and can probably see the handcuffs in the passenger seat. I’ve been drinking and as soon as I respond to his rhetorical observation he’ll be able to smell the Abita Strawberry Beer and cheap Red Wine.
“Hey, Chuck. I’m just, you know, in a rush to get back. It’s my anniversary today.”
“How many years is it now?”
“Sounds like one too many to me.”
I never get tired of this inbred small town wit.
“Wick’s still burning.”
Chuck turns off his flashlight and puts his hands on the roof of my car. He’s getting prints all over it. You know a full service wash at the Quick Lube is 38 bucks now?
“Waiting for me at home.”
Chuck has this forced mid-western affect where he over pronounces each syllable and takes about two breaths before he draws out the next word.
“What’s not adding up to me, Jay, is why you’re out alone on your anniversary. Seems strange to go out for drinks alone.”
“I never said anything about drinks.”
There’s a bang from the back of my car. The beating’s as slow as my pulse. He puts the flashlight back on me.
“So, late at night, on your anniversary with a mouthful of alcohol and bullshit you decide to veer off take the long way home and speed?”
The beating continues. The frame of my Mercedes is so thin the banging starts to sound like a snare drum.
“You want to open the trunk for me or does this have to get complicated?”
I pull the keys out of the ignition leaving my left hand raised and in sight.
Chuck opens my door then guides me over to the trunk.
My hands are shaking. They never shake. I put the key in upside down first. I put the key in sideways and drop them under the car. I can barely turn the damn thing when I do it the right way.
“Jesus fucking Christ Jay. Do you know what would happen if it was any other cop pulling you over right now?”
I think Chuck is going to laugh. Either that or the guy is scarred for life. He keeps his hand over his mouth and the flashlight on my wife. She’s hogtied and gagged in the trunk.
“Listen, I didn’t mean to speed Chuck. I was trying to get back quicker because I was worried she was going to run out of air back there. We were just doing some role-playing. You know, spicing things up.”
“I’ve seen some strange shit around this town you wouldn’t believe but this, this is some nonsense.”
I take the gag off of Jess’s mouth and begin to untie her.
“Hey, Chuck, how are you?”
Jess is this insane compound of sex and adorable that turns men to wax. I’m sure the emerald dress she’s wearing can’t hurt our case either. Her pack a day diet has matured her voice beyond middle age.
“Jess, nice to see you.”
Our discomfort is colored red and blue.
“Listen, guys, what you do in your home is your business but when you take it out to the streets like this…What the hell are you even role playing? Is this supposed to be like some rape thing? I don’t want to know.”
“So you just sit here waiting for an ass hole like my husband to come speeding through.”
I finally undo the last knot and help Jess out of the trunk.
“How the hell did you even tie her up and get in her in the trunk without anyone noticing?”
“We just parked behind the dumpster at Archie’s.”
The dumpster was fuming with rotting bacon wrapped meatloaf and jalapeno nachos. I felt a little bad gagging her before putting her in the trunk. Snorting that decomposing mess was all she could do to live.
Chuck licks his lips like our little trip gave him cottonmouth. He hands me a yellow slip.
“Here’s a speeding ticket and be grateful for it. Jess, how about taking the passenger seat home? Oh and congratulations on 15 years guys.”
“Smooth driving, honey. How fast were you going?”
“Doesn’t matter. The fuck is he doing back here anyways?”
“I think he told you.”
“He told me why he isn’t out on Route 5, never said why the fuck he hangs out behind Wal-Mart.”
“Whatever, let’s just get home.”
“You sure? You still in the mood?”
She got that glacial look in her eyes. The stare already dressed her in sweat pants and tied her hair up in a bun.
“I don’t have to be in any mood to go home. Just drive and drive slow.”
“I mean are you mad? I’m sorry I got pulled over but it’s nothing to ruin our night over”
“Just kind of killed the scene for me.”
“I was sort of hoping we could try something tonight?”
“What’s left to try?”
After nearly two decades I figured an awkward moment was impossible to have with my wife. But here I am pulling hairs from the back of my head trying to figure out the most decent way to ask her a question.
That wasn’t it.
“I was just thinking that…”
“Hey Jason how about we just shut the fuck up for the rest of the ride?”
“You’ll let me throw you in a trunk with a gag but…”
“The. Fuck. Up.”
What I’m thinking is if the anal sucked we might appreciate the Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday night routine a little bit more. What I’m thinking is maybe it would be a pleasure to fuck without having to see the other’s face. I’m thinking the silence is kind of welcome because I have been on a Shins binge and need to hear Phantom Limb right now.
So, when they tap our Monday heads and Zombie walk in our stead. This town seems hardly worth our time.
I get three quarters of the song in my head before Jess has a revelation.
“Shit. We need milk, trash bags and toilet paper.”
“We can talk now?”
“Turn around, I don’t feel like coming back down here tomorrow.”
I love all these goddamn neon Halloween Lights and demented pumpkins. The conscious effort to piss your money away on things some asshole kid is going to vandalize in the first place gives off that aroma of communal desperation. This one house I’m driving by right now has two fucking purple flags with black cats on them. I’m 38 and I’m still tempted to throw eggs at their vanilla siding. Actually that siding looks nice. I need that for my house. I wonder if they left some kind of number or sign for whoever did it.
Jess’s tension shoots into me like Adderall. She pinches my arm and gestures for me to turn the car around. I feel like we’re always going back to Wal-Mart.
If ever a child needs inspiration to go to school, study hard, and suck dick to get a mid-level job all they need to do is come to Wal-Mart past 9 at night. All the white trash serfs of the northeast come out of their condos to bundle up on 15-inch flat screens and pre-paid phones. We’re getting out of the car now and a guy in grey sweatpants, an old New York Mets shirt with what I hope is a mustard stain and shower sandals pushes past us. His cart is filled with hostess cupcakes, PBR, cartoon boxers and razors. This list just came to him tonight. So I guess he’s as crazy as my wife. Maybe his wife’s as crazy as mine.
“Grab a cart.”
Jess makes the demand without looking at me.
“We’re getting 3 things do we really need a cart?”
“Can you just do what I ask you?”
She gets like this sometimes, when she’s not bound and gagged or being fucked on our kitchen counter. I bet it’s the Gin. She drinks Gin and I wake up with scars.
“I should have left the gag on.”
I try to inject my voice with as much cute sarcasm as possible.
“You should have just taken Route 5 home.”
“Where do you even get trash bags?”
“Just follow me.”
She’s pissed and I’m sure I hear a, “fucking asshole”, under her breath. We don’t want to make a scene in front of everyone though; not in front of the Wal-Mart strange.
There’s a chorus of scanners as we enter Wal-Mart through the exit doors; they go off in a beep and double beep, beep and a double beep. An obese woman on a scooter is picking out a flannel shirt for her husband who is holding himself up on the shoe racks. I hope Jess never gets fat. There is an aisle of Legos, then bike racks, next to them are car coolants and funnels, beyond that are Fishing rods and sub woofers. Then we find the trash bags in a section next to paint supplies.
“What size bag do we usually get?”
Jess says this as if it matters what bag holds our yogurt cups and pizza crusts.
“Well I don’t know what normal is.”
“Just grab one, they’re only garbage bags.”
I’m trying to humor her but I’ve become distracted by the tower of tie-dye bouncy balls in the center of the store.
“For 11.99 a box I’m not getting the wrong ones.”
“Fine. It’s the hefty ones with the blue straps that pop out. Every time I take the trash out I sing that commercial jingle in my head. You know the one Hefty, Hefty, Hefty.”
She’s grinding her teeth; I can see the muscles in her jaw sprout and contract. In her head I imagine she sees herself standing on a wooden stool with a rope tied around her neck waiting for someone to kick out a leg. But no one ever comes. Not even in her fantasies. Her Mom told me Jess tried it once back in high school. She swallowed like twenty Advil’s after school one day. Instead of dying she woke up with tube down her throat and a weak stomach.
She grabs two boxes of the Hefty bags and tosses them in the cart without looking.
“I’m gonna grab the milk can you get the toilet paper?”
Jess says this rhetorically but I respond as if I have a choice.
“You know what kind to get?”
Does it matter? Shut up.
“Does it matter?”
My sarcasm has turned to bored frustration. Jess just ignores me and moves on.
“You want 2% or skim?”
“Whatever you want.”
These are the big decisions for the week. What kind of milk, what kind of trash bag, what paper we’re going to use to wipe our ass with and what kind of sex to have.
I find the toilet paper in the aisle with coat hangers, air fresheners and themed towels. The Red Sox one looks kind of nice though. It would look nicer if this miserable looking motherfucker in untied boots and jean shorts wasn’t putting his hands all over them.
I don’t know what toilet paper to get so I’m just going with the one that has that cute teddy bear on the front.
First we get stuck in the express line because no one has any regard for the 10 items or less rule. We’re stuck in line, a tailored suit and its emerald dress. We don’t say a damn word or make eye contact. I stare at the tabloids and Jess studies the Lifesavers.
The car ride home is comprised of the same kind of angst. No song seems to fit the mood; I shuffle through The National, Circa Survive, The Antlers, Bayside and Radiohead before our song comes on. "I’ll Be Seeing You" by Billie Holiday; I know she won’t show it right now but there’s something about Billie’s voice that exhausts her breath and runs her nails down her neck soft enough just to leave dashes on her throat. A headlight illuminates her face and I’m sure there’s a smile under her makeup.
Eventually the decorated houses end and we pass the private school that’s about 3 times the size of SUNY who gives a shit, where I got my degree in Business Administration and Marketing. I work at a tree nursery. I work above no one.
Goodbye neighborhoods and streetlights and sidewalks. We live in the boonies and our house is caged at the bottom of a gravel slope surrounded by woods. Now all I can notice is the chipped paint and my uneven landscaping job. I hate mowing the lawn but it gives me a reason to drink at noon.
“Did you leave the garage door open?”
“No, Jason, you were the last one out. I remember because you forgot the keys.”
I’m her special little guy.
We walk through the front door and everything is exposed brick wall and brown floorboards. Our living room and kitchen look like the blueprints for an espresso café. I do love the wine bottle candles we never light though. Before Jess got a new Job at Triumph Insurance Corp.-I honestly don’t know what the hell she does all day-she used to make all kinds of nonsense like wine bottle candles and Ozark landscapes she’d hang above our bed. She actually put a chalkboard wall in my study. She wrote the lyrics to "Famous Blue Raincoat" on it but I’ve since erased every lyric from the board except one line:
Well I see you there with the Rose in your teeth.
All of my doodles, outlines, web diagrams and insane grid patterns make an effort to avoid that line. I’ve been with Jess for so long I figured I wouldn’t still be able to smell her anymore. I didn’t think after all this time I’d still be able to taste her spit and everything that comes off of her tongue. She never wears perfume but she smells like the waiting room in an optometrist’s office. That kind of clean you can only get from Lysol and rubbing alcohol. Her mouth is always Sweet Tarts; the green that leaves this fresh burning on the roof of your mouth.
I could hear heels clicking in the back of the house before the back door slid open.
“Jason, come outside.”
I followed her voice and slid the door shut behind me. She wasn’t on the porch or in the hot tub. Her emerald dress was sitting in the ashes of our fire pit.
“Come down here.”
I looked over the railing; there she was on the trampoline. Pale, naked and holding herself by the shoulders.
“Leave your clothes on the porch.”
Mid October doesn’t become my naked body. I keep my socks on. They get ripped and covered in dirt as I make my way down to her.
“What are we doing out here babe?”
“What you wanted.”
“What did I want?”
I crawl on the trampoline and put my hands around her neck to kiss her.
“No kissing, Jason.”
She turns over. Jess puts her arm out between her legs and grabs my penis. She inserts me into her ass. It contracts and flexes itself and the pressure is suffocating and tight and new.
“Does that feel okay?”
I’m treating this with the timid ceremony of an after prom post wine cooler hookup.
I go in deeper.
I go in slow.
I move my hips, gently.
I push as far as I can go. Every muscle inside of her contorts and clenches. I’m about to cum blood.
Her arms are shaking. Her breath comes out in fits over a quivering lip.
“You still okay?”
“Don’t stop. Harder.”
I’m deep enough to feel her lungs. My hipbones are stabbing her ass cheeks and our sweat runs down the back of her thighs.
“Do you want me…”
“Just shut up. Fuck.”
I can’t hold it any longer. I stay inside her until I’m completely flaccid. I can see blood spots framing her rim and mixing with our sweat in a pool on the back of her knees.
“Jess, you’re bleeding.”
“It’s normal. It’s just fissures or something. Heals like a scab.”
“How do you know?”
“General anatomical knowledge. Hold me for a while.”
She seems fragile now, vulnerable after the fact. She feels cold in my arms.
“Did you enjoy it?”
“Would you spank me?”
Her voice returns to the girlish pitch of a high school cheerleader.
“But you’re still bleeding. It’s not even dry on me yet.”
“Please spank me.”
I give her tap and I can hear that moan.
I tap her again and the moan goes longer.
I clench my hand into a fist so that each knuckles cracks. I spank her now and it sounds like a strained leather belt connecting on a concrete surface. It stings my hand and leaves a print on her right cheek.
She moans so I can hear it. She moans so Chuck and Wal-Mart can hear her.
Sweat flows off her nose. I don’t know how her body found heat. I can hear the drip on the trampoline but she’s demanding more.
The moan. I can’t take it. The moan. My body forgets I fucked at all tonight. I go in her again harder and thrusting as if there is no blood. She’s pulling her hair as I dig my nails down her spine and across her ribs. I have her rust on me.
I have no cum left and a dry patch of blood frames her ass hole. She holds my hand again and asks if we can sleep on the trampoline. I don’t know how to say no to this woman. I close my eyes, ignore the cold and pretend her neck on my bicep isn’t putting my arm to sleep. The morning will come soon enough.
I wake up alone on the trampoline with my Grandmother’s quilt laid over me. I hold it around myself and walk inside. The kitchen is caramelized with the smell of banana bread and nutmeg. In the corner of the kitchen Jess is cutting strawberries and dropping them in sugar. She is naked. I can see the bruises.
She turns to me with strawberry water staining her abdomen. She smiles with a closed mouth.
“You’re finally up.”
“Do they hurt?”
Jess is disturbed by my question.
I gesture towards the bruises and scars. I take a seat at the counter dropping the quilt to the floor.
“Oh, wow I didn’t even notice them.”
“Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“I thought I’d make you breakfast.”
“It smells great but I don’t consider anything after noon to be breakfast.”
She puts the loaf of banana bread on the cutting board.
“You want a piece smartass?”
I nod. The knife crashes against the glass board. The kitchen doesn’t smell like smoke or burning and I can’t figure out why she would be so forceful with the bread.
Jess drops the slice on a plate and slides it over the counter keeping her back to me.
“Jess, there’s blood on the bread.”
She goes to the sink and runs water on her palms.
“Yea, sorry I must’ve cut myself. I didn’t notice.”
Her hands are shaking. She rubs her palms together in spastic manner.
“You didn’t notice a gash on your hand?”
“You know how quick I slice. I’m going to take a shower.”
She walks out of the kitchen and goes upstairs. I should follow her. I should ask her what the hell has changed in the last ten hours between butt sex, baking, cutting herself and a shower. But I don’t, not yet anyway. I get up, throw out the bloody slice and cut myself a new piece. The first bite is bits of moist banana and chocolate chip. The second bite is void of both.
When I finally make it upstairs into the bathroom everything is covered by steam. Jess is showering with the curtain open. The tiles are flooded. I can already see the hot water scum forming between each marble square.
Her body is facing the showerhead but when the door opens she turns to me. There is something unbecoming about her naked body; the way her tits sag and fall lopsided just before her ribs end and the light brown freckle above her belly button with that pale, porcelain skin. I used to crave every inch of her but this morning Jess appears like spreadsheets and blue curtains. She’s not nude anymore, not with me.
Andrew Thomas Harlan. Bud Young is his spirit animal. He came from a tar pit in Southern Connecticut and lives in deadwood coop in Florida.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: What started as a late night "kill your darlings" moment quickly became a bare knuckle massacre of subplots consisting of decrepit fast food chains, cross dressers and a dead deer on the hood of an olive green Saturn. I knew it was about a relationship in turmoil, what I didn't know was that relationship and the characters were beyond redemption.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Write the first draft feverishly, burn it and then rewrite the miserable bastard from memory. Repeat this process until all the extraneous and otherwise unimportant details have quietly, and with dignity, filtered their way out of the narrative. I followed it once but when you have a memory like mine it's hard to tell if it was lost due to insignificance or bottom shelf whiskey.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: The Devil All The Time by Don Pollock, Crimes Of Southern Indiana by Donnybrook by Frank Bill, Big Machine by Victor Lavalle, Vampires In The Lemon Grove by Karen Russell, The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
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'll write anywhere that's got the scent of mulch, wet cement, lilacs and stain. I have to be alone. I have to have a Paul Thomas Anderson film or a Steve McQueen film playing on mute. I hate habit, but I guess I'm sort of composed of vices.
What Brings You Down by Louise Marburg
Followed by Q&A
Jamison’s mother broke her leg at the movie theater by tripping and falling on a flight of stairs that was illuminated by strips of light so people wouldn’t trip and fall. Jamison’s father wasn’t there. It was Jamison’s aunt who called from the hospital. She was older than Jamison’s mother, but steadier on her feet.
“Have you called Catherine?” he asked her. Catherine was Jamison’s sister.
“No, dear, I thought you would do that.”
So Jamison called his sister. At forty-three, Catherine had just given birth to her fifth child. It took her a while to come to the phone.
“Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later,” she said. “You’ve seen how much she’s aged.”
“I hadn’t noticed, to tell you the truth.”
“When was the last time you were home?” she said.
“I am home,” Jamison said, looking around his apartment, which was on the top floor of a townhouse in Philadelphia. He had been watching Breaking Bad on Netflix when his aunt called, and almost hadn’t picked up the phone.
“Oh, for God’s sake, Jamie. You know what I mean.”
“Sometime in the recent past. Christmas?”
“That was eight months ago! Well, you better get down there now, or as soon as you can. You know how useless Daddy is.”
“Me? Why not you? I thought daughters were meant to deal with these things.”
“I have a three-week-old infant sucking at my breast,” Catherine said.
Jamison grimaced. “Thank you for that revolting visual.”
“I thought you’d appreciate it. Obviously I can’t go anywhere right now. I wish I were like you, free and easy, able to just turn the key in the door.”
“If that were true, you wouldn’t have birthed that brood of yours.”
“Don’t be mean,” Catherine said. “I was never as smart as you.”
Jamison wasn’t exactly free and easy, but he was a writer and set his own schedule. He was single and childless. Though he’d had several books published and regularly wrote articles for magazines, his parents, in particular his father, refused to put to rest their belief that he was always on the lookout for a job.
He drove down to Virginia instead of flying because he wanted the flexibility having his own car would give him. It took half the day to get there. He went straight to the hospital.
“Oh, my sweet boy is here,” his mother said in her public voice. “Do I look like a fright?”
“Not at all,” Jamison said. Someone had given her lipstick and powder. She looked, he thought, like a corpse who’d been made up to appear alive.
“Where is Daddy?” he said.
“Why, at home! Or, no, I think it’s his golf afternoon.”
“And Aunt Puddy?”
“Oh, she went back to Baltimore. She was only meant to be here for the weekend.”
“She might have stayed.” Jamison sat down.
“She had Uncle How to get back to.”
“And Daddy could have given up his game.”
His mother considered this. “It’s easier, frankly, without him. He kept asking the nurses to make him a cup of tea.” She wrung her hands. They were so spotted they were almost totally brown. “They’re letting me go soon. I was hoping you would take me home.”
A social worker came by before his mother was discharged. She wanted to know about home care. Jamison looked at his mother, hoping she would have already thought of a plan.
“Well, there’s Nella,” she said after a moment, referring to the maid. “And Irene.”
“Who is Irene?” Jamison said.
“Oh, she does all sorts of things for Daddy and me, we just couldn’t live without her.”
“What sort of things?” the social worker asked.
“Let’s see. She planted a beautiful perennial border out front. And she drives me to the store. And she helps me pay the bills. You know how terrible I am with those.”
The social worker and Jamison looked at each other. She handed him a card for a nursing service and said, “I think they can send over someone this evening.”
A black woman named Pauline showed up just as Nella was leaving. Physically helping his mother, even tucking her into bed, made something in Jamison’s gut shrivel; he could not wait to get out of her room.
“Where are you going?’ she said drowsily. She had been given a Valium.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, and went outside for a walk.
It was August and the cicadas were deafening. Within minutes Jamison’s shirt was soaked; sweat dripped from his face to the pavement. How had he withstood this heat growing up? Strangely, he had no memory of it. What he remembered was driving his parents’ car at night, his elbow out the open window, passing the one gay bar he knew of repeatedly, underage and ignorant. He remembered spending hours in the pool at the club, watching the older guys horsing around. He had not been an effeminate boy; he played second base on his high school team. Luckily, he had flown under the radar and was considered a regular kid. But he did not remember a time when he hadn’t known he was gay, and had lived with the knowledge for so long that by the time he came out his parents’ shock actually shocked him.
He dug his cell phone from his pocket and called his sister.
“How is Daddy?” she asked after he told her about their mother.
“The same.” He’d seen his father watching television in the den but what with getting his mother upstairs and briefing the nurse, he hadn’t thought to say hello.
“The same as what?”
“God, it’s hot here. Was it this hot when we were kids?”
“I don’t know how hot it is, Jamie, I’m not there.”
He hung up and went back to the house. He wiped his face and neck with some paper towels and went into the den.
His father looked up from the evening news. “Jamie!” he said with surprise. “Have a seat! Help yourself to a drink. Nuts?” He held up a cut-glass dish of cashews.
“Not as far as I know.” Jamison laughed. His father frowned. “Nuts,” Jamison said. “It’s a joke. Forget it.”
“What brings you down?” his father asked.
Rainy days, Jamison thought, gay bars. “Mother,” he said. “Aunt Puddy called me. About her fall.”
“Have you been swimming?” his father said, looking at Jamison’s soaking shirt.
“The thing is, she’s going to need care until her leg heals. Nurses, probably round-the-clock, at least until we see how she does.”
“Nonsense,” his father said. “Nella and Irene can take care of her.”
“Nella is sixty-four, Daddy. She’s not strong enough to help Mother bathe and go up and down the stairs, and somebody has to make the meals. Who is this Irene character?” Why did he call her a “character,” he wondered. It was the sort of thing his father would say. “What is her job here? How often does she come in?”
“Well, I don’t exactly know,” his father said. He pushed his eyeglasses up his nose and returned his attention to Brian Williams.
Irene showed up the next afternoon, breezing in through the back door wearing a pair of hip-hugging jeans and a tank top that showcased her deep cleavage. An inch of brown roots grew into her long yellow hair.
“I know who you are!” she said. “You’re Jamison, aren’t you. I’ve seen your picture on Violet’s nightstand. Her and Harry talk about you all the time. How’s the job-hunt going? Tough in this economy, I bet. So, what brings you down?”
Possibly you will, Jamison thought. “Mother broke her leg over the weekend. I came to…” What indeed had he come to do? Wandering the house all morning, unable to settle down to his work or concentrate on the book he was reading, he’d had a desultory chat with the nurse who took over from Pauline, then went outside and was driven back in by the heat.
“Violet broke her leg? Oh my God! Why didn’t anyone call me?” She rushed upstairs to his mother’s room, leaving him in the hall. “Violet, sweetie!” he could hear her say. She was a loud talker. He couldn’t hear her mother’s voice. “How did this happen? Are you in pain? Are these your pills? Let me help you into a fresh nightie. Oh, you’ve already done that?” She was talking to the nurse now, Jamison guessed. “How many of these is she supposed to have? Are you here for the whole day? That’s what I thought. Let me get you a nice cold glass of tea,” she said to his mother. “Back in a tick.”
She came galloping down the stairs. “Where is poor Harry, in the den?”
“What exactly do you do for my parents?” he said.
“Everything,” she said as she whizzed past him. “Harry!” he heard her say. “Has anyone made you lunch?”
He called his sister. “Who is this woman Irene? Have you heard of her before?”
“She used to be their gardener,” Catherine said. “Then mother lost her license after that fender bender and Irene started driving her to the store. Now she helps them do whatever they can’t manage. She’s become indispensible.”
“Have you met her?” Jamison said.
“At Easter. She’s something else, isn’t she?”
“Mother says she helps her pay the bills.”
“Really. I didn’t know that.” There was a silence between them. “That could be a problem.”
“Well, I can’t stay here forever,” Jamison said.
“You’ve been there less than twenty-four hours,” Catherine said. “Please just make sure Mother is taken care of, okay? Call the nursing service and set up a firm schedule. I’ll get down there as soon as I can.”
Jamison called the service, packed his bag and kissed his mother goodbye.
“You’re leaving me?” she said.
“Cathy will be down soon.”
It wasn’t until he reached the interstate that he realized he’d forgotten to say goodbye to his father.
Jamison visited some straight friends, a married couple, in Nantucket over Labor Day weekend. Another gay man had been invited as well. The other man’s name was James, but everyone called him Jamie.
“That’s funny,” Jamison said. “Jamie is what my family calls me; it was my name growing up.”
“I didn’t know that,” his hostess said. “Why didn’t you keep it?”
“I wanted to be taken seriously in college. I was a very earnest student. I didn’t think Jamie suited me. No offense,” he said to Jamie.
Jamie laughed. He laughed easily, his teeth white against his summer tan. “None taken. I was an absolute slacker in college. I don’t think I grew up until I was about thirty.”
They all laughed at that because he was only thirty-five, and for all his supposed slacking off, was a thoracic surgeon now. Jamison liked him more than he’d liked anyone in years. They took a walk on the empty beach after dinner, letting the waves wash over their feet. Just as Jamie leaned in to kiss Jamison, his breath still sweet from dessert, Jamison’s cell phone rang.
“Is this Mister Jamison?” a strange voice said. “This is Wendy from Ever Care.”
“Ever Care?” Jamison said. “No thank you, whatever it is.”
“Ever Care Nursing,” Wendy said. “I look after your mother, Miss Violet? I am calling to give you my notice. I know how to do my job, Mister Jamison. I won’t be interfered with.”
“How are you being interfered with?” Jamison asked. Jamie crossed his arms and looked out to sea.
“And another thing is I think she is the one taking your mother’s pills. She is accusing us, but I think it’s her and that boyfriend of hers.”
“Who? Which pills? What boyfriend?”
“Anyway, I’m leaving now. I guess Geraldine will be here in the morning.”
“Now as in this minute?” Jamison said. But Wendy had already hung up.
While Jamie sat on the sand, Jamison found Ever Care’s number and asked for an immediate replacement. Then he called his sister’s cell.
“God it’s gorgeous out here!” she said.
“Where is out there?”
“Colorado!” she said. “The J-Bar Ranch. I told you. We’re here for a week.”
“What about the suckling baby?” he asked.
“He’s portable,” his sister said. “The kids are having a ball.”
“Great,” said Jamison. He told her about Wendy’s call. “I have no idea what she’s talking about.”
“Well, you better get down there,” Catherine said.
“Why not you this time?”
“Are you deaf? I’m in Colorado!”
Jamison left Nantucket in the morning, and was in Virginia by late afternoon.
“What’s going on?” he asked his mother, who was sitting up in a wheelchair. She looked tired, and thinner, and paler than before. She wasn’t wearing make-up. A feather of worry tickled his mind.
“Absolutely nothing,” his mother said. “Occasionally I get a visitor.”
“I got a call from a nurse named Wendy who seemed pretty upset.”
“Oh, Wendy,” his mother scoffed. “She was no good.”
“Well, she just wasn’t. I don’t know. Irene didn’t like her. Thank goodness for Irene. She’s been doing everything.”
“Making sure Nella and the nurses are paid. Going to the bank for Daddy.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“You have a better one?” his mother said.
He talked to the nurse on duty.
“I don’t want any trouble,” the nurse said. “But that Miss Irene, she acts like she’s the Queen of Sheba. Your mother is such a lady. But Miss Irene gets all up in your face. She accused me of taking a sweater. A sweater in this heat? I found it in your mother’s bottom drawer.”
“Please don’t quit,” Jamison said.
“Oh, it takes more than that,” she said.
Irene arrived the next morning in Jamison’s father’s Mercedes. It purred into the driveway. She appeared to be listening to the end of a song on the radio before she got out with a bag of groceries.
“Is that my father’s car?” Jamison said.
“Well, I can’t be expected to use my own car if I’m running all over town.”
“You kept it overnight.”
“Uh huh.” She handed him the groceries.
“Listen, Irene, I got a call from the nurse who quit the other evening.”
Irene sighed. “She isn’t the first one I’ve had to let go.”
“But she quit.”
“Well, that’s her story. You know how they are.”
“The nurses?” Jamison said.
“Blacks,” Irene said, silently mouthing the word.
Jamison didn’t know what to say to that. Nothing seemed like the best idea. “What’s this about pills? Was she talking about Mother’s Valium?”
“I had to refill the bottle twice last week.”
“And you think the nurses are stealing them.”
“They sell them downtown.”
“Really? How do you know that?”
She looked at him as if he were clueless. “Common knowledge, Jamie. That’s what they do.”
Out of the whole conversation, what bothered him most was that she called him Jamie instead of Jamison.
He went to his father.
“Daddy, Mother says Irene goes to the bank for you. Does she have your PIN for the ATM?”
“Of course she does,” his father said. “How else is she going to get the cash?”
“I think you should change your PIN and use the ATM yourself.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because we don’t know Irene all that well, and you’ve given her access to your account. She might take money for herself.”
“She is only allowed two hundred dollars each time,” his father said.
“Well, but…are you there when she takes it out?”
“Now, what would be the point of that? If I were there I could do it myself.”
“That’s my point, Daddy. I think you should do it yourself.”
“Don’t have to,” he said. “I have Irene.”
Later that night, he looked in on his mother. She lay under a light blanket, the bulk of her cast looking like a hidden animal. She seemed to be sleeping deeply, but then she opened her eyes.
“Come and sit next to my bed, darling.”
Jamison sat down. “Listen, Mother, I want to talk to you about Irene.”
I know it,” she said in a matter-of-fact voice, the voice Jamison thought of as really hers. “She is as trashy as she can be. But she’s amusing and she’s willing, and we need someone to help us. Who cares if she pockets a few Valium or takes fifty dollars.”
“I do,” he said. “I don’t like it at all. That kind of dishonesty doesn’t have limits. And she bothers the nurses. She’s bigoted.”
“In a month this cast will come off and I won’t need any nurses. I know Irene, I know what she’s capable of. She’s trash, but she’s not a criminal.”
“I’m surprised you’re letting yourself be taken advantage of, Mother. You’re too smart for that.”
“I’m not being taken advantage of. I know perfectly well what she’s doing.”
When Jamison got back to Philadelphia, he reconnected with Jamie and they started seeing each other regularly. He got another call from a nurse named Helen who threatened to quit but was persuaded to stay on. It was his sister’s turn to go to Virginia.
“I can’t,” she said. “I have mastitis.”
“You’re making that up,” Jamison said. “I have never, ever heard of it.”
“Well, you wouldn’t have,” Catherine said. “It’s an infection of the breast, and it’s very painful. Women get it from nursing.”
“That is really unfair,” Jamison said. “I’m seeing someone now.”
“What is this, Rock, Paper, Scissors? I’ll go down the next time, I swear.”
When Jamison got to Virginia he was surprised to be told that his mother was in the hospital. He drove to the hospital and found her alone in a double room, looking two sizes too small for her bed. Her cast had been removed.
“Grim, aren’t they?” she said. “Hospital rooms.”
“I’ll have some flowers sent over right away,” Jamison said. “Why are you here? Nella didn’t seem to know.”
“The leg is not healing,” she said. “They’re deciding whether to put a pin in the bone, which may or may not be successful, I’m told. I don’t know.” She looked out the window. “This is getting rather tiresome.”
Jamison was at a loss. It was tiresome. He tried to think of something happy to say.
“I think I’m in love.”
His mother turned back to him and smiled. “I’m so glad.”
“Yes, well. With a man.”
“I assumed so. You’re still gay, aren’t you?”
“I thought you were in denial about that.”
“I was, it’s true. For quite a long while I thought you were mistaken. It’s like being told someone you love is leaving you – you hold out hope that they’ll change their mind.”
“Has someone you love ever left you?” Jamison said.
“Oh, yes. When I was twenty-one I was in love with a musician, a jazz pianist. My parents were scandalized. I would have married him. I would have done anything for him.”
“Why did he leave you?”
“He was Jewish. He wanted a Jewish wife.”
“You were heartbroken.”
“I thought I’d die.” Her eyes swam even still at the memory. Jamison pretended to be interested in the ceiling. When he looked at her again, she was composed, her hands clasped in her tiny lap.
“I never knew about that,” he said.
“Well, you don’t tell your children that their father was your second choice.”
“No, I suppose not.” He wanted to ask if she loved his father, but realized that she would say yes regardless of how she felt.
The hospital nurse brought in a tray that had a plate of brown meat under gravy on it and some slimy-looking green beans. He watched his mother eat. Then she laid her head back on the starched white pillow and fell asleep.
When he got back to the house he found a strange man sitting with Irene in the kitchen. He wore plaster-splattered jeans and a sleeveless undershirt that showed off his muscled arms.
“Hello, I’m Jamison,” Jamison said, extending his hand.
“Hey,” the man said, ignoring Jamison’s hand. Not even looking at Jamison, in fact.
Irene smiled brightly and said, “Bobby, this is Violet and Harry’s son! Bobby’s been helping patch those leaks in the roof. You been over to the hospital to see your mom?”
“What leaks in the roof?” Jamison could see his father in the den watching the television news. “Has my father had dinner yet?” he asked.
“We just called out for a pizza,” she said.
“Pizza!” Jamison said.
“Oh yeah, Harry loves pizza,” Bobby said
“I’m no cook,” Irene said apologetically.
Jamison went into the den. “Hi, Daddy.”
His father looked up. “Jamie! My goodness! What brings you down?“
“Daddy, do you like pizza?”
“Never had it,” his father said.
Jamison turned and went back to the kitchen. “Get out,” he said.
Irene looked at him as if he were talking to someone else. “Get what out?”
“Yourself. Get out. You and your boyfriend. I don’t want to see you here again. And leave the keys to the Mercedes here. Take your own fucking car.” He had never spoken to anyone with such force and determination. He realized he was shaking. Bobby looked at him with mild interest. Irene’s face became an angry mask.
“You can’t tell me what to do. You’re not the boss of me. Who’s going to take care of Violet and Harry? Not you.” She sneered. “You don’t give enough of a shit about them to come down here more than once a year.”
“Actually, I do give a shit about them, and I am here now.” He picked up her purse, heavy as a suitcase, and held it out to her. It occurred to him that she probably had something in there that she’d taken from his mother, but whatever it was, she could have it. He would be glad to replace both it and her.
He watched them leave the kitchen, and heard the front door slam. He knew she’d be back tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, but he would be there to send her away; he would be there indefinitely. After a while, he made his father a ham sandwich and brought it to him in the den.
His father sat where he always did, in a reclining chair turned toward the TV. The sofa where Jamison sat sagged sadly under his weight.
“Daddy,” he said. “Mother is unwell. Her leg isn’t healing. I spoke to her doctor. He told her they might be able to put a pin in it, then maybe the bone will fuse. But truthfully the problem is her circulation; her leg is not getting enough blood.”
His father looked hard at him as he spoke. Jamison had trouble controlling his face, keeping his chin from trembling. “What they think is they will have to amputate her leg, Daddy. Mother doesn’t know about it yet. Her doctor will speak to her tomorrow.” He was about to suggest that he and his father should be there when the doctor told his mother. His father cleared his throat.
“I wonder if you could –“
“Anything,” Jamison said.
He held out his glass. “Bourbon on the rocks. A splash of water.”
Jamison made the drink and went back to the sofa. His father shook his head at something on the TV. “That Gingrich,” he said. “What a character.”
Later, Jamison sat out on the patio drinking gin and tonic. It was cooler now, summer was ending, though the crickets kept up their clamor. A high breeze rattled the dry poplar leaves, and the air seemed to carry a brewing storm, but as the night wore on it came to nothing, and by two o’clock all was calm. He finished his drink and took a walk down his parents’ road, then turned onto the street where his friend Paul lived when they were twelve and in Little League together. He passed Paul’s house and turned at the next left. He could have walked this route in his sleep.
He pulled out his phone, pressed speed dial for Jamie’s number, and was surprised when Jamie answered.
“The phone is right by my bed,” Jamie said. “I’m on call tonight.”
“You won’t believe where I am standing,” Jamison said. “In front of my old high school.”
“Is it the same as you remember?” Jamie said.
“Yes! Exactly the same.” He looked at the low brick buildings, the portico that ran between them, and could almost hear the bells. He hadn’t been miserable there. “You’d think they would have added another building or something. A different color of paint.”
“How is your mother?” Jamie said.
He didn’t want to talk about his mother, so he said, “My father is losing – no, correction -- has lost his marbles. I don’t know why I didn’t see it before, but he’s always been self-absorbed. I guess I thought he was just getting more so. But no. He is no longer compos mentis. I see that now. Clear as a bell.”
“Are you drunk?” Jamie said. Jamison could hear the smile in his voice.
“Yes. Very. Deservedly so.”
“I’m sorry about your father.”
“I’m not. Not yet. One sorry at a time.”
Jamison’s mother’s doctor was almost as old as she was, but he had a couple of younger doctors with him who appeared to agree with everything he said. Jamison held his mother’s hand while the doctor spoke to her. His mother looked out the window the whole time, until the doctor took the sheet off her leg and pointed his pen at her blackening big toe. Her instep and ankle were a streaky orange-red. Her leg was brown and the flesh scaly to a few inches below her knee; it looked to Jamison like it was made out of wood. The doctor pressed his thumb against her shin to show how the skin didn’t give, and pointed out that the rest of her toes were turning various shades of green.
“Excuse me,” Jamison said. He went to the bathroom and vomited into the toilet as quietly as he could. When he came out of the bathroom, the doctors were gone.
“I don’t blame you,” his mother said. “It’s an awful sight. It deserves to be taken off, I think.”
“No,” Jamison said. “I think they should wait and see.”
“If they wait I might die. I might die anyway. My heart has gotten weak. I knew this was happening. It hasn’t come as a shock. They’re doing it tomorrow.”
“I’ll call Cathy,” he said.
He wept as he told Catherine, and wept after he hung up, the hopeless, helpless tears of a child. He went back to his parents’ house. His father was in the den.
“Jamie!” he said. “Good to see you! What brings you down?”
“Mother’s surgery,” Jamison said, and left the room.
Catherine came that evening with her latest baby.
“Now, he’s the last one, I hope,” their mother said. “Adorable as they all are. Jamie is in love, did you know?”
“No, I didn’t,” Catherine said. She looked at Jamison inquiringly. “He didn’t tell me. How great.”
“It is great,” their mother said with unexpected vehemence. “Everyone should be in love at least once.”
“You were.” Jamison smiled.
“I was indeed.”
Catherine looked from Jamison to their mother. “I am missing something, I can see.”
Jamison had a dream that night that his mother was playing the piano. Then Jamie was his mother’s doctor. Then Catherine appeared with a tiny baby who turned into a baseball glove. The next morning, he got up and went to the hospital before the sun had completely risen.
His mother was awake. “Darling, what are you doing here? They’re not coming for me for hours.”
“Couldn’t sleep, funny dreams.” He sat down next to her bed. “I wanted to see you off.”
Louise Marburg is a graduate of the MFA program in fiction at Columbia University’s school of the arts. She has been published in Redbook, River City, and The Crescent Review, and has been a contributor at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference and a member of the community of writers at Squaw Valley. In her former life she was a graphic designer and magazine art director.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: As a straight woman writing about a gay man, I was surprised by how easily and naturally I inhabited Jamison.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: My graduate school advisor, Helen Schulman, told me once, “You gotta give it up,” when writing fiction, and I’ve been giving it up ever since.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, William Trevor, Antonya Nelson, and Carol Shields are longtime favorites that immediately come to mind, but there are so many more. I am in love with the short story. It was after reading The Moons of Jupiter that I decided to devote myself to writing fiction.
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: Honestly, my computer screen is my writing place. I don’t need anything else and I can write anywhere, but I prefer to write at home. I share a loft in New York City with my husband, who is an artist, and we work within sight of each other.
Special Forces by Kevin Wolfe
Followed by Q&A
This is what happens when you join the Marine Corps: you go to Parris Island and you get sick. Colds, coughs, shit in your throat. You’re living on top of each other in these clammy barracks with spiders as big as birds, sand fleas, fire ants, chiggers, ticks; not sleeping, losing weight you didn’t even knew you had. So you get sick, and you don’t say anything. You don’t say anything because they’ll call you a pussy, but you also don’t say anything because if you really are sick, they send you to the hold platoon under med review until you get better. They’ll wait you out for two years—broken bones, syphilis, whatever—and all the while you’re at Parris Island, this place that exists where humans aren’t supposed to live.
So I got sick, about two weeks in. First a cold, that cough the whole platoon had; then shit in my throat so bad I couldn’t holler when they told me to holler; then fevers and what was probably bronchitis; and finally, at some point along the way, pneumonia. By my fourth week I was wheezing through PT, with fevers so bad I sometimes hallucinated (one night: giant sunflowers that talked, surrounding my rack like mourners), and I wasn’t going to say anything. How could I? Parris Island makes you almost prefer war, and I got to the point where I began to hope that our activities in the Middle East would escalate enough that they’d have to speed up our class, and I’d be able to heal at MOS, or in the desert, where at least I’d be dry.
Eventually, I passed out in the patchy sea grass during PT, and didn’t wake up as the Heavy bent over and frog-talked in my face for ten minutes. So they carried me in for med review.
“I’m fine,” I said, when I woke, hacking up fluid in alarming colors.
“You’re not fine,” the doctors said, a team of humorless, antiseptic career Marines. They worked like mechanics, poking and prodding at my body as if I wasn’t there, and running diagnostic tests whose names, like all things military and medical, were handed out in the efficient language of acronyms: the CT, the SCS, the MPT. They fixed their gray eyes on some monitor and instructed my lungs to blow, or to suck, or to hold the breath as long as they could between violent coughing fits. They showed me x-rays, which looked like those questionable photographs people take of ghosts: white wisps of the damage I’d done floating across the black hunks of my lungs. They were scarred, the lungs, permanently. I was told that my body, which had been operating at the pleasure of the United States Marine Corps, was to be returned to its former owner.
I phoned my fiancée, Bridget, from one of the phone banks they set up for efficient group calling, surrounded by grunts saying things like baby and momma and sugar in those newly acquired, pseudo-southern military accents. Bridget and I were to be married post-Basic, pre-deployment. That was the plan. She said that our marriage was going to be a military cliché: young and quickly done, followed by a period of separation. But it felt less like a cliché to me and more like a role to fill. Something ready-made for us to slip into. We would know its needs and demands. Its dangers and expectations.
On the phone, I played the pneumonia down and the leaving Parris Island up. I made lung-scarring sound like a technical snafu, like misaligned brakes. But she sighed, and said, “You’re kidding.”
“No kidding,” I said. “How do you think I’d be able to call you?”
Bridget thought that once you were in, you were in. She thought that if the Marines had scarred my lungs then they should be unscarring them and that I should soon be out of South Carolina to get shot at overseas and she should soon be out of Syracuse for some on-base townhouse in California, going to outdoor yoga classes with all the other twenty-year old newly minted military wives. She was a very serious person for her age—bird-like in her pragmatism, as determined to not stray from the paths she constructed for herself as one is toward a spiritual or political calling. This is the plan, her life would say to you. Stick to it.
“You signed those papers,” she said, as if she still didn’t believe me. “They bought you, they can’t just return you like that.”
But they could, and they would in about two weeks, and though I thought getting out of that shithole and returning home, to her, and avoiding getting my ass blown off, would be the paper-thin silver lining on all of this mess, Bridget didn’t see it like that. She didn’t say as much, but I could tell by the sound of her voice, which was buckling and rumbling like an engine stuck in low gear, that any attempt she was making to keep that paper-thin optimistic detail in sight was failing.
“So you come home?” she asked, and I could hear her fingers digging away at her temples, gouging shallow dents into her skull. “When? And then what?”
I broke into a coughing fit then, doubling over to my side, spewing little dollops of green phlegm onto the particleboard partition of the phone bank and feeling the air wheeze violently away from what was left of my lungs. One of the red-faced hicks next to me started yelling into his receiver to gain some volume above the racket, screaming to his girl about her thighs and tits and sweet Arkansas ass, and then he started coughing too, as if this were some sort of fucking contest. This went on for a few minutes, the two of us like a chorus of the ill building toward a violent crescendo. I bent over with my one free hand over the receiver, held up in the air like a prize above my bellowing. Below it, the tinny sound of Bridget’s voice fought to regain my ear, yelling, “Ray! Ray! What the hell is going on? When are you coming home? Ray!” Then I passed out.
I stayed in bed for the next week, on a steady regimen of Ultram and various gases breathed deeply through masks, and more tests and scans, and the pathetic looks from officers who passed my bed and silently shook their heads at my body’s utter failure to their God and corps and country. Every afternoon or so some shitbird in a uniform clipped briskly down the laminate floors and said, “Malone?” without looking up, and I’d wheeze out, “Yeah,” and he dropped these small-print IRS-looking forms for me to sign in front of a nurse as my witness. Invariably, this shitbird also dropped pamphlets with titles like Transitioning to Civilian Life and Coping With Chronic Disease; guides to my new life. Every once in a while he’d drop some even more inapplicable ones, like Resume Writing for the New Millennium, and Managing Your Military Finances, and Resources for Military Spouses, as if there were a pile of random publications on the passenger seat of his car and a blind sweep of his hand determined what bit of DoD wisdom I was to receive that day.
I called Bridget only once, to give her the proposed details of my return, which involved a Greyhound bus, my civvies, and a five AM arrival at the terminal in Syracuse. She was short on the phone that day, asked only once about my condition, and sounded as if she was standing at the outer edge of some wild, middle-of-the-day party. She said she was simply on campus, between classes, and that she had a lot on her mind. She would pick me up, with my folks if they were available at such a God-awful hour, and the rest of that conversation was a haze, if there was a rest of that conversation. By that point along my journey that was Coping with Chronic Disease, I had graduated from Ultram and gas-breathing to Demerol and Lortab and absorbing all stimuli on the same warm painless current that keeps the eyes of all-night television watchers glassed over in passive absorbance. If I happened to wince a little more loudly than the previous day, if a coughing fit happened to be caught by the right ears, the nurses took a glance at my chart and came around with those little paper cups, propped my head up with a cold maternal gesture, and dumped the delivery system for the warm painless current down my throat. They must have had a medical bunker beneath the sands and saw palms and sea grass of Parris Island, aisles with barrels of synthetic opiates for waste cases like myself. An armory for making zombies of the recently worthless. For the zonking out of washouts before they’re cast overboard.
I spent my air-conditioned mornings dribbling Jell-O down my chin and entire afternoons reading all ten colorful pages of Resources for Military Spouses. And I dreamt, or hallucinated, staring at the fluorescent fixtures on the ceiling and the procession of well-groomed faces that passed like ghosts at the end of my rack. I dreamt often that I had been killed or wounded overseas, and Bridget would get a phone call in the middle of the night, and knowing that a phone call in the middle of the night was perilous, she would answer it cautiously, and hold her tears back. I dreamt of this, the news about casualty, but I didn’t dream of casualty itself. And it wasn’t bad. There was something so comforting in knowing she would be upset. I don’t say that in a cruel way, but I guess it’s like a reminder that someone cares. A pat on the back.
This hallucination was often followed another one, which felt the same but was made of drastically different images: me coming home to a radiant Bridget in an all white summer dress with nothing underneath but the shadow of her slight girlish curves. The hem of the dress comes down just to the immaculately pale skin that tightens over the muscles of her upper thighs. Her freckles have been reddened by the sun and the auburn in her hair is sun-bleached and the whole thick crop of it pours out from behind her head like a wild animal. I’ve got medals on my barrel chest and a big Marine duffel over my shoulder and it’s so painfully white I can barely make out the edges of the room. It’s like what heaven always looks like in the movies, that overdone antiseptic glow, which makes you think that, despite its brilliance, eternity might be boring. Except we’re in a house, and it’s our house. Bridget is saying, sweetly and happily, Why didn’t you call first, Ray? as if I had been late. And I feel the pride of someone waiting for me, and of a job finished. Then I come to with an erection it takes me ten minutes to realize I have. I’m sweaty, struggling against the blankets, and the nurses roll their eyes and bend towards my bedside with some more of the little paper cups.
On the bus, a trip for which I carried not only my Marine duffel, but an arsenal of Vicodin, I tried to conjure that image of Bridget as we streamed past the rust-colored fields of the Carolinas and the blue foliage of middle Virginia, and those deep woods that look like Indians might walk out of them to reconquer Maryland. I thought, or willed the thought, of the specificity and inevitable presence of her body—that taught, impossible, athletic body—one I had only glimpsed these past two months under drug-induced haze. But the harder I tried to hold that body in my head, the more and more I regretted the inevitability of having to deal with it. Not like seeing her would be the regret, but what would come out of it, the sudden and real possibility of making a life together from the scraps of the one previously set before us—of my failed body in its tragically diminished state—was something I lacked both the physical and mental strength to conceive. I had derailed Bridget’s path, our path, and was beginning to think that it might somehow, under these certain circumstances, exist without me.
But the sight of her, finally, on one of the metal benches at the Syracuse terminal, staring blankly up at the CNN ticker on the television monitor, did not remind me of the tragically diminished state and the grim possibilities associated with it. I stopped, let the green duffel, which I had the strength only to drag, collapse behind me. I wheezed a bit, ate two pills, and dug in my pockets for my ring, the engagement ring she had given me, because, as Bridget insisted, if she was going to wear one, why wouldn’t I? I slipped it on, holding it in place with the surrounding digits on its too-thin finger. No parents there, but maybe that was best. Maybe we needed the moment alone.
She glanced back at me as I approached, smoothed a lock of hair from her forehead into her ponytail, and, not recognizing me, went back to CNN. Then the second glance, this one with some mild panic, and then the getting up, the quick and deliberate poking of those long legs through the mess of sleeping limbs and luggage, the face bunching up like a child’s and going red, the eyes glassing, the tears beginning to roll from her pink cheekbones, the shuddering look of not-quite disappointment, of lesser surprise, slight horror perhaps, at the withered away, gray body before her.
“Oh God,” was all she said, hugging me, holding my face between those immaculate fingers. “Jesus Christ, Ray.”
We didn’t leave. We sat in her aging Jeep, in the parking lot, as a soft purple light rose from the other side of the city and the hustlers and junkies sat staring like cattle under the eaves of the terminal.
She was serious in the car, but covering that seriousness was a kindness that made every gesture she used and every word she said seem like it was work.
She told me that this would be tough, that we were too young for a situation like this, but that we’d work it out fine. “A new plan,” she said, optimistically. “We’ll be okay.”
She could do that. Realign and put her shoulder into it as if that had been the plan all along. Pull up the anchor and ship off like we were never supposed be there in the first place.
She was wearing a scent—cocoa butter, I think, from the moisturizer she used—and the smell of it, trapped in the cockpit of her Jeep, sent me to that image of us in the clean bright house. Of the breeze and the glow and the muscles in her thighs, which were now hidden tightly in a pair of jeans, bouncing nervously on the driver’s seat.
“What does the rest of our life look like to you?” she asked, with a level of sobriety that, even for her, was surprising. I hadn’t the slightest idea. It didn’t look like anything. There was no image to put in that place.
“Do we really need to talk about this right now?” I asked. “Do we need to have this all figured out and on paper like? I’m just getting off the bus.”
She was looking over at me, eyes big as half-dollars, hand to mine, rolling that ring around and around in her fingers.
“Yes,” she said, “we do.”
I felt a faraway but noticeable sickness all of a sudden—that hollow plunk in the gut—and tried to think of the bits of Vicodin being carried off by my bloodstream, molecule by molecule. I waited for the numbing to kick in.
I began to speak, and the coughing came up. She handed me a tissue.
“I don’t know,” I said, with that itch still in my throat. “Right now our life looks like we’re sitting in a Jeep in a parking lot.”
She sighed. She ran her hand over her hair and tightened her hair-tie. She sat up in her seat and checked the mirror like we had been driving this entire time.
“Ray,” she said, pausing to raise her hand in front of her, as if the words could be plucked from the air. “I can take care of you if you need someone to take care of you. We can still get married, and without the rush and the separation afterward. You’re not going to get shot at anymore. That’s some good that’s come out of this.”
In front of the Jeep, a father and his two toddlers were walking past with luggage, all of them eyeing us as if they’d been listening.
“I’m not seeing it that way,” I said, suddenly conscious of my legs going numb. “I’m seeing me, sick, and that’s about it.”
Bridget rose in her seat.
“That’s not about it. You can get better, somewhat better. I’ve been reading about it. You can’t be a track star or anything, but you can function. There’s no reason you can’t function.”
“I think it’s worse than that,” I said, which was a lie, but at the same time not a lie. “I think I’d know, too.”
The snap of a bus’s airbrake went off all of a sudden, like a gunshot, and we both looked toward the terminal, startled.
“You’d think that if I could give it a shot, you could give it a shot,” she said.
I didn’t have an answer for that.
So I proposed holding off the wedding for a while, until all of this could get settled, but what I wanted to get settled was a mystery, and if Bridget knew that, she didn’t let on. She just clammed up and slid her sunglasses on. She started the Jeep, nodding, saying, “Fine, fine. That’s fine. Fine.”
And that is, more or less, how our conversations went that week. At my parents’, at her parents’, on couches and at dinner tables, on front porches and in backyards. I was cloudy from the pills and not wanting to talk, or to do anything at all, trying hard to make that come off as reticence. Bridget was wounded, obviously, walking tip-toed around me as if she might get wounded further. She would devise something to distract us—a movie or a television show—and I would eventually fall asleep and wake, semi-conscious, with my head in her lap, that smell of her moisturizer doing somersaults in my head.
I rented the first floor of a place my uncle had, one of those old Victorians that ran more deep than it did wide, the kind you could picture in Boston, or San Francisco, somewhere bright and stirring, where couples strolled together at night, walking tiny dogs. But this was in Syracuse, where the West End met the Near West Side, and no one strolled together at night. They hung from porches, strutted, ambled drunkenly, ran from thugs, or cops, walked slowly with desperate or determined or dark convictions. The cops were around every night, the helicopter buzzing the house as if we were a forward operating base. I didn’t do anything—read when I could focus, watched television when I couldn’t. If you kept to yourself, if you insulated, no one bothered you.
Bridget would stop by, between or after classes in those first few weeks, and each time seemed to be more difficult. She would bring me groceries and DVDs and CDs she had burned that I never listened to. I had become a zombie then, an approximation of life. The weighty dopiness of my limbs, the breathing like I was forever filling a balloon, the quick stinging in the chest, which swam in my own fluids like pickled eggs. The pain, which might have subsided by then, was being replaced by an itching need to treat it. I was so heavily medicated that further medication was based on an assumption of the previous pain, my body never getting a chance to reveal whether or not it had healed any. In those first three weeks I’d been home, I’d blown through my scripts way ahead of schedule, and just took anything Bridget could get: Percocet, Norco, Tylenol with Codeine, even 800 milligram Motrins, which at that point could only work as long as one inning worth of a Mets game. Three up, three down. Onto the next frame.
I knew no one in the neighborhood, except one person, but that doesn’t really matter when you don’t leave your apartment. The one person I knew was Ramos, and I wasn’t too thrilled about knowing him. We had crossed paths in our childhood, some cloudy memory that escapes me now, and always seemed to stay in touch since, just by chance, like someone you keep passing in the corridors at the mall. He was thick, with a paunch you’d expect from a man twice his age, and one of those afro-ponytails that, if untied and released, would fill up the front seat of a small car. He lived two doors down, in a nice place with his two kids and a woman he doted on. I didn’t like him that much, Ramos being the kind of guy who operated more with voice and gesture than sense and substance. And now he lived a few doors down. He came up to me as I checked the mail one afternoon, and said: “Ray Malone? That you?”
If he had been there when I first walked out, I hadn’t noticed. My mailbox was above the stoop that led to the upstairs apartment, and everything that existed beyond that—the sidewalk and the kids riding by on bicycles, the man, unseen, who was saying, Now ya’ll think I’m stupid, huh? Don’t fuck with me—was reduced to the same unremarkable current. It didn’t really exist, as loud and volatile as it was. Things don’t really exist until you have a reason to care for them.
Ramos opened his arms wide, from the sidewalk below the stoop. “It’s me,” he said, pointing back to his face with his thumbs. “Ramos.”
I hadn’t seen him in months, maybe years. It looked like he had grown in all directions.
“Christ,” I said. “You live around here?”
“Fuck yeah,” he said. And pointed in the direction of his place. “You live around here? I heard you went to the military, went to Iraq or something.”
I told him the story: the spiders, the pneumonia, the general hell that Parris Island was and the purgatory that Syracuse had become. I think it felt good, to stand outside and speak to someone, even if that someone was Ramos.
“Damn,” he said, “you’re in some shape.”
“I heard of dudes comin’ out lookin’ like shit,” he said, “but you look like you been a POW or something.”
I nodded, flapped a handful of junk mail in my hand, and thought of what might be on TV just then.
“Listen,” he said. “If you got extra pills and you’re looking to unload ‘em, I’m in that game, you know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “But no extras. I’m not in that game.”
“Well,” Ramos said quietly, smiling and checking over his shoulder before he continued. “I got an-y-thing you need then. Anything. I’m a fucking pharmacy now.”
“Good for you,” I said, with enough moral superiority for anyone but Ramos to notice.
He handed me a torn slip of legal paper with his number on it. He must have kept a few of those all ready to go, in his pocket, like business cards.
“You call me,” he said, putting a thumb up to his ear and jiggling it. “Whenever.”
When you don’t know what to do, no is the safe bet. “Let’s take a walk,” Bridget would say, trying, “or just sit in the backyard, whatever.” But I declined everything. Even going to see my parents, or hers, or any of the friends who would leave messages saying I heard you were back in town, man. I kept the phone turned off, the blinds drawn, the lights low. Bridget sat on the couch beside me on weeknights, reading her nursing textbooks, and occasionally looking up at me to sigh. Like myself, the presence of her body was becoming furniture. I slept for ten, fourteen hours a day, and between the sleep and the waking that was becoming more and more like sleep, Bridget stopped showing up. We might have had a conversation about it, and if we did, I performed my end semi-conscious from the couch. And I must have said something nasty. Or something with permanence to it. With bite. Or she might have just slowly disappeared, bit by bit, like a target on the horizon receding into nighttime. I was so far gone by then that I could only put together that she had been there at one point and at another she hadn’t, and that it wasn’t my fault. It didn’t feel like my fault. Her absence was—though I didn’t know why, or couldn’t, in that state, even loosely understand—comforting. Like a bed one falls into at the end of a harrowing experience now long put behind you. It felt safe.
A week went by, the days melting in and out of each other while I lay on the couch, the television blue flickering nonstop, the rising and falling of voices on the street taking on a private schedule in my head. She didn’t call. Didn’t stop by. The idea of leaving the apartment, of stepping out from under the warm painless current, was impossible to imagine, as if it defied physics, and in my mind this meant that I couldn’t see Bridget, or anyone else. It was unfeasible.
My parents, with five kids younger than me and full time jobs, and a whole lot more to worry about, didn’t stop by. The immediate neighbors, if they existed at all, must have existed under similar circumstances as I did. The friends who had left messages in those first weeks no longer left messages.
So when the last of the pills Bridget had been getting for me ran out, and I imagined the kinds of pain that would suddenly take over and invade my body, I had to call Ramos. As much as I didn’t want to, I had to call him. I didn’t have any real money, but I needed him there. And he came as if he had been waiting.
He had a backpack with him at the door, and I imagined it filled with pills, multicolored gel tabs and capsules, bags and bags of them.
“The lone Malone,” he said, walking in.
“Whatcha got?” I asked.
I moved some wrappers and dirty clothes, and we sat on the couch. Outside, sirens moved from one part of the city to another, and the daylight slanted through fences and leaves. I asked him how he was doing and he was doing good. He had come armed with Oxycontin, which costs twenty bucks a pill and makes Vicodin seem like children’s Tylenol. He was doing real good.
“Man,” Ramos said, looking around my apartment, which was more or less empty. “You need this shit, huh?”
“I’m in pain,” I said.
“We all are,” he said.
“They got me good down there,” I said, unsure if I believed it myself.
Ramos sat and nodded, obviously unsure of how to respond, occasionally looking at the muted ballgame on the T.V. I felt a tingling up my spine, an urge to shout, that went off like a mortar round inside me. I opened my hands like I was spreading the gospel. “Pills?” I said.
His face bunched up and he cocked his head in a way I’d seen him do before, to dozens of guys he knew were incapable of kicking his ass. “You got it bad, boy, don’t ya?”
“That’s some tragic shit right there,” he said. “Is it pain, or is it the pills? Take these long enough, you might as well be shooting heroin.”
“I thought you were a pharmacy,” I said, “not a doctor. I’m paying for them, right?”
He shook his head and clicked, or clucked, whatever that sound was Ramos made when he disagreed or felt something approximating pity, like a wet snap from his mouth.
“I thought I was your boy,” he said.
I swallowed the shoots of electricity that were beginning to take over my throat, moving up to my face, making the edges of my beard feel like they were being plucked, one by one, by a million tiny fingers. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not jonesin’. I’m just sick. It’s good to see you.”
It was, actually. I hadn’t seen anyone in a few days, and Ramos had a way about him that made you feel like part of a team, however small.
“Ah, it’s all right,” he said. “You should just be happy the Army didn’t send you to Iraq. You got outa that. Get yourself killed out there.”
“Marines,” I said, pointing to my shirt, which I had been wearing for a week. “Marine Corps, and that’s what I signed on to do anyway. I volunteered. I was planning on going.”
“Whatever,” he said. “Army man, Navy man. It’s all the same shit. You go to Iraq, you get your ass blown off. ”
He stood up, smoothed his hair over with both hands and tightened his ponytail. It wasn’t the same shit. It was drastically different shit, and Ramos was beginning to make me regret calling him. He walked around the apartment, which only had that couch really, and a small table in the kitchen. The floorboards creaked underneath his combat boots and he sauntered around as if inspecting the place for evidence of a crime. I stood there in the living room like a jackass.
“Where’s your girl?” he said. “Didn’t you get married?
“Engaged,” I said, and started coughing, which took a considerable effort to stop. “She’s gone.”
“Damn Ray,” Ramos said, turning around, making a face as if something grotesque had happened. “What’d you do? Fuck around on her?”
Children were yelling outside, and somewhere a car was cruising slowly, blasting its bass loud enough that parts of it sounded like they were cracking. I could feel the bass in my stomach, like G-force.
“No,” I said. “Came home sick. That was that.”
“She was smokin’ too, what’s her name?”
“Bridget,” I said.
“Yeah, Bridget,” he said, and then looked off to an empty corner of the room as if trying to conjure an image of her there with her arms folded, shaking her head at our tragedy. “Bridget, Bridget, Bridget.” He started laughing then, flashing his teeth, which were immaculate.
“Like young too, right? Just outa high school?”
“No Rom,” I said, and though I knew he was joking, I very quickly felt like ripping his front teeth out.
“Don’t even joke about it. They taught me how to shoot down there.”
“All right, all right,” he said. “Too soon, too soon.” I began to nod, in place of saying anything else, and Ramos inhaled deeply, let the breath out, and started nodding with me.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s get fucked up.”
He opened his backpack, fished around through CD cases and some clothes, then pulled out a gallon-sized zip-lock bag, half-filled with green tablets. There must have been two-hundred pills, a thousand dollars worth, enough to numb out an elephant. And seeing Ramos holding them between us, like a trophy, like Christmas morning in a bag, packaged and pressed into 80 milligram bits—I almost felt something close to joy, to real joy. If I cried, Ramos never noticed.
“Oxies,” he said, flashing those perfect teeth. “I brought the special forces.”
I don’t know how long we watched television for. First, the bullpen blew a late lead for the Mets, then Jeopardy! was on. I was being eaten by the couch, sliding further and further into the crease between the cushions, and Ramos was on his stomach on my dirty floor, with his chin propped up in his palms, answering the questions from Jeopardy! “What is protein binding?” he was saying. “Who is the Marquis de Sade?”
Or maybe the Mets won, and I was answering the questions, amassing dollars. It doesn’t matter. I had been high, numbed out at least, for a few weeks straight, but none of the Ultrams or Vicodins had come close to the kind of bodylessness that Ramos’ pills accomplished. My head felt like someone had unscrewed a nozzle and let all of the air out. My legs, which had been crossed at the ankle on the coffee table for however long it was, were no longer attached to my central nervous system. They were liable to break off and drift away, like chunks from an iceberg.
With the blinds still open, the daylight had disappeared without us noticing, lost as we were and semi-conscious in the intoxicating light of the television.
At a commercial break, Ramos peeled himself up from the floor, slowly, and asked where the bathroom was. I pointed, without looking, and listened as he moved down the hall, groping in the darkness. Then he stopped.
“Why’d you turn all the lights out?” he asked.
I looked up, but all I saw was an impression of the television imposed on the darkness in front of me, Jeopardy!’s marquis of screens over the doorway to the hall.
“I didn’t,” I said.
“You forget to pay the bill?”
I told him no, and then he told me not to take any more of his pills while he was up. “Shit’s expensive, man,” he said. “I’m feedin’ kids.”
I ignored him, watching as Trebek plugged the next day’s show. A contestant was returning. They were going to do the whole thing over again. Ramos stood in the dark for a second, clicked with his mouth, whatever that is, and then I heard him pissing from down the hall. While he was gone, I popped two more of his pills, which he had left in his backpack, which was open, next to me on the couch, asking, begging me to scavenge from it.
Then I must have slept. I dreamt, briefly, that I had never left Basic and was in the hold platoon, ready to start my twelve weeks over again, except I had lost my legs. Then Ramos shook me.
“Dude,” he said. “Ray. Get the fuck up, man.”
The gulf that normally separated my sleeping and waking lives had steadily diminished in the previous weeks, so that when Ramos woke me that night, it was less like walking out of a dark tunnel and more like fading into a soft and barely perceptible daylight.
“Why’d you wake me?” I asked.
He plunged onto the couch next to me, reached into his bag and took out a Snickers bar.
“Cause I’ve got to chill for a while before I get home,” he said. “And you haven’t paid me.”
“I will,” I said.
The television stayed on. The next show was something new, a hospital drama about a team of surgeons who saved everyone’s lives and then had to deal with various commotions and heartbreaks and joys, which resulted in hard-won, hopeful conclusions. Ramos sat cross-legged, enthralled, chewing his Snickers bar, pulling chunks off with trails of caramel following behind. He was playing along to the show, commentating. “You’re gonna regret that,” he said, to one of the nurses. My body felt gluey, molasses-like.
We heard pounding then, commotion, just beyond the walls. Around the perimeter of the small yard I never went in, there was a six-foot privacy fence, rotted, the color and texture of aged soap. Something was running into it, or attacking it, trying to breach my backyard. “What the fuck is that?” Ramos said, leaning forward, tightening his ponytail.
On the television, a pediatric surgeon was performing a tricky surgery, the nurses wiping his brow as he bent over the operating table. I muted the volume, and could hear, then, the roar and cut of a helicopter, that concussive drone rattling my windows.
“Heavies,” I said. “Shit.”
We dug out of the couch and I turned on the outside light and opened the door in time to see two Syracuse Police officers with flashlights sprinting toward the fence in the back, equipment rattling on their belts, hands tight on their holsters. An aging gold Honda sat in the middle of the street with its headlights on, and behind it were two patrol cars, their doors open, lights flashing.
Ramos freaked for a second, and moved as fast as he could back to the living room, which was still cast in that blue television light. I thought he was going to lose it. “Fuck man,” he said, throwing his hands in the air. “What the fuck, Ray?” He zipped up his backpack and brought it into the kitchen and stashed it in one of the empty cupboards. The cops were scaling the fence now with their flashlights, no doubt getting all splintered up. Another one, a woman cop, came behind them, running with a German shepherd pulling her on a short lead. I watched from the window.
“Okay boy,” she said. In the dark, the shepherd looked like it was one of those all-black ones, the kind that seemed to be bread for callousness, but it gave a little puppy yelp as it jumped over the fence, and you could picture it licking someone’s face just from that sound.
No one noticed us. The woman cop glanced at us, I thought, but it was as if we were another part of the landscape, like the fence itself, or the sneakers that hung from telephone poles in front of the house. I had vaguely felt that way—like furniture, like a part of the background—for hours, weeks, and the cops were there just to confirm it.
The woman cop scaled the fence, and I told Ramos to follow me to the back door, which opened into the yard. My body was still thinking it was on the couch, and considered giving up on all muscular activity. My left leg didn’t work, no feeling from the knee down, so I had to drag it, sliding across the hardwood to the back as if I had a role in a zombie flick. I opened the door in time to get blinded by the helicopter’s spotlight, which couldn’t have been flying any higher than the roof. We were in trouble.
When my sight faded into focus, I saw this: a guy, a kid really, fifteen maybe—shirtless and bone-thin and tattooed, flailing in the gravel as this massive German shepherd tried to take his leg from him. The kid was screaming but I couldn’t hear it over the chopper. Just his grimace and bared teeth in the antiseptic light. The red, horrified eyes.
There were three cops watching, ten feet in front of the kid. Their backs were to the house, where Ramos and I stood in the doorway, stoned. They were two men and the K-9 lady, hands on their holsters, catching their breath. One of them, with a thick mustache, spoke something into the radio, and the helicopter broke its circle and flew off into the city, leaving a silence that was quickly overtaken by the kid’s screaming. But the cops just stood there, catching their breath, shining their flashlights on the kid as he asked, “What the fuck, what the fuck?”
The K-9 lady finally moved up to the kid and leashed the shepherd, who had blood all over his snout. She yanked him back, stroking his fur. He sat, and she gave him a treat from a compartment on her belt. I turned on the floodlight around then, or Ramos did, or it had been on the entire time, but no one noticed. The one cop, who looked younger than the rest of them, was walking through the yard with his flashlight, poking at things on the ground.
“This is awesome,” Ramos said.
The cop with the thick mustache was creeping toward the kid with his baton, yelling, “Face down you fuck, face down!” over and over until the kid, who was covered in dirt and shit and blood, put his face to the gravel. His pants were torn from the dog, ripped up like he had stepped on a landmine. As mustache cop put one cuff on the kid’s wrist, he caught an elbow to the chin which knocked him backwards, like someone taking a shot of tequila, and the kid kicked to get up from the ground, sending dust into the thick air.
“Oh snap,” Ramos said. “Good for him.”
“This kid’s fucked,” I said. “Done.”
We braced for complications.
The shepherd, howling, let go across the yard and latched on to the kid’s ass in mid-air, tearing back and forth even before man and dog landed in the gravel. Everything repeated: the cops watching, out of breath, as the dog mauled away; the helicopter returning; then the K-9 lady taking the dog back, and the mustache cop, with the aid of the younger guy, approaching the kid with batons.
The cops turned him over without a fight, rubbing his face into the gravel. The helicopter hovered above, painting the scene in spotlight. Here, then, in this intense flood of light, brilliant as the nighttime reversed, turned in upon itself, the kid looked at me. One eye closed, his face bloody and covered in the dry gravel, bits of loose rock indented into his forehead like primitive jewelry. He stared at me, at this person I had become and then he opened his other eye. The mustache cop was leaning his head in fiercely, the veins in the back of his neck erect and defined underneath his skin. He bent over close to the kid’s bloody, dirty, bare scalp, speaking, then he looked at me too.
Radios hummed static, the helicopter circled, and I could feel it in my guts, the beating blades churning the air, the gaze of this uniformed man, the pain of this stupid kid, face down and bloody in my backyard.
I’m not really sure what happened then. The cop and the kid both looked at me as if I was supposed to do something. I felt the pebbles in the kid’s face, and the bloody wound on his leg, and the warm breath of the cop just inches away from his neck. The growling of the helicopter, the wet static of the radios, Ramos’s forced voice, and the stream of traffic, blocks away on Geddes street where people were living their lives—all of this swelled up together, like a twister kicking up in the desert when the conditions are just right. Like a sandstorm. All those bits moving as one.
The cops peeled out, and the helicopter disappeared into the shadow of this city, and Ramos and I watched, wordless, as the blue and red lights rolled silently down the block. Then he said, “That was some shit,” and shook my hand, and slapped me on the shoulder with a surprising amount of intimacy. I thought of his bag in my cupboard, and I thought, briefly, of the places I could hole up and finish off what was in it before he could find me. Before anyone could find me. But I said, “Wait, Ramos,” with a voice I wasn’t sure was mine, issued from a body that until then had seemed like someone else’s. “Wait here just a second,” I said.
A thought flashed, telling me to reverse what I was doing, to walk backwards onto the sidewalk and tell Ramos never mind, you better get going, you better get out of here in case they come back. But I didn’t. I walked to the kitchen, bent down and opened the cupboard, and stared for three long seconds at the half-closed freezer bag and the bits of anesthesia it contained. Then I walked his backpack through the house like I was escorting it out of a fancy restaurant it didn’t belong in.
“Oh, fuck,” Ramos said, when I threw it to him. “You’re a good man, Ray, you keep it real.”
And he was right; it felt real. The kind of realness that makes what came before it an extended hallucination. A mirage.
I walked back into the empty apartment, turned off the television that flickered blue in the darkness, and picked up the phone. I dialed. And as it rang and rang in the middle of the night at a dark house in the near distance, I saw before me the image of the auburn-haired woman who was going to pick it up, and I heard the sleep she would clear from her voice, and the sigh of hopeful resignation, and the simple, serious, cautious way she would say, Hello Ray. Hello.
Kevin Wolfe is a founding editor at Sweet, and a nonfiction editor at Sweet Publications. He has worked as a freelancer, as nonfiction editor at The Journal, and in corporate publishing. His essays and short stories have been published in Redivider, Under the Sun, Gulf Coast, Swink, Joyland, and other publications.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: It’s length. I usually end up trimming considerably, which I did with this story, but it found a way to still be on the long side.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I’m fond of developing good habits of production and composition, treating it as one does athletics.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Too many. I’m reading of late a lot of Colum McCann’s work, but consistently inspired by Nabokov, Denis Johnson, Alice Munro, McCarthy, and Joan Didion.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I work well in hotel rooms and in my home office. The benefits for each being uninterrupted time, and room enough to pace.
3 Poems by Heather Bartlett
Followed by Q&A
You’ll find her
in the hollow space
between the bed and wall.
Take this –
her voice is low
a child learning how
to pick her cries,
a mother holding back
from giving birth, a woman
weighted under another.
Hold her face
close to yours, breathe
soap & skin. Close
your eyes, move them
side to side against
the lids. Take it
pulsing in your mouth
like when you first tasted
a man. Is it enough
to be ready? Take
her hands, rub
yourself into them,
let the sensation run over
her fingers & down her arms.
She Tries to Teach Me the Principle of Non-Attachment
Like lighting a match, she says eyes half closed, and studying it.
We’re standing socked feet on the vinyl floor – cheek to cheek and
leaning against each other. We play a game: Tell me
I say and she pulls in, whispers – tonight
it’s her turn – the trick is to witness them all.
The picture frames are small, square and empty, on the short shelf
facing one another. We light candles in front of each, watch
them change the room color – orange and dark.
Tell me I say and she pulls us onto the blanket on the floor.
The moment before lighting the match. We’re eye to eye now
trying not to blink and we’re both that sepia hue
spilling down into the soft fabric. The small stone Buddha
watches us, knees bent, arm draped
over leg, wrist on knee, palm down, showing
his toothless smile and laughing eyes. We turn away
from him, legs wrapped together. Tell me
and the light flickers, moving shadows on the ceiling.
We don’t see them. We don’t smell the floating smoke.
We don’t see our eyes opening and closing
trying to adjust.
We are typing
& not talking
& waiting –
The first night we laid
on our sides
facing one another but not
looking, just close enough
for her breath to interrupt
It has been twelve days
since we parked
under the large elm tree
not saying a word. Seven pages
since I gave her a poem
about her hands. Two minutes
since her last message.
I am waiting for her
to ask why?
On the fifth night she kissed me.
She is writing now
protecting herself. Last week
we traced chalk outlines
in the street – yellow
silhouettes filled with shadow.
Yesterday we sat on the kitchen floor
between the windows
listening to the sounds
of crunching gravel
& car engines. She writes
that she is leaving – when
was it that we started missing
the walls more
than the hours –
no I write wait. I type it,
over and over again.
Heather Bartlett received her MFA in poetry from Hunter College. Her work has appeared recently in Barrow Street, Connotation Press, The Nervous Breakdown, Phoebe, Evening Street Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbook, Bleeding Yellow Light (Split Oak Press 2014), and teaches writing at Ithaca College and SUNY Cortland in Upstate New York.
Q: What is your approach to getting “unstuck” on a poem?
A: Sometimes it’s a matter of getting physically unstuck. I start by changing my space. I get up and walk away from the page, open and close windows, rearrange furniture, clean the undersides of vases. Sometimes I have to leave my house and walk or drive around town to shake things loose.
Sometimes I just have to wait (and wait, and wait).
When I do return to the poem, I repeat this process of change – rearranging words, lines, stanzas. If I’m lucky, the real poem inside will break loose and reveal itself.
Q: If you were to choose a movie director to create your scenes on film, who would that be, and why?
A: One of my favorite exercises is to approach a poem as if it’s a film. This can also be a good way to get “unstuck.” What kind of poemfilm is this? Where is the camera? What happens when you change genres or directors? So, while I would probably choose someone like Jane Campion or Sofia Coppola, I’m also tempted to find out what would happen if, say, Wes Anderson got a hold of a poem.
Q: Who or what are you reading now? Is it a source for, or a response to, your own work?
A: The current reading stack next to the bed includes Lorrie Moore’s story collection, Bark, Jan Heller Levi’s poetry collection, Orphan, Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, and The Complete Sherlock Holmes. This either makes complete sense or none at all.
Q. Your poems are intensely close-focused; we are inches away, a breath. I am reminded of Rumi’s line, “And in the room of lovers I can see with closed eyes the beauty that dances.” Talk with us about writing love poems in the 21rst century.
A: Writing love poems is asking for trouble, isn’t it. Especially today. The challenge is in making something sincere without being overly sentimental, without being sappy. So in that way, in order to be genuine, a love poem needs to be a not love poem. It needs to get close enough to expose something authentic, something intimate, but that something isn’t going to be a perfect moment. What if we write the imperfect moments, the wrenching moments, the uncertain moments, the moments of giving in, of giving up? What if we get as close as a breath? The next line of Rumi’s poem is, “Behind the veils intoxicated with love I too dance the rhythm of this moving world.” Love isn’t just beauty. It’s also pain and ache and recognition and loss. It’s a moving world.
3 Poems by Andrea Jurjević
Followed by Q&A
Gifts for the Past
Because you want to draw a portrait of me
wearing the two-pointed coned island hat,
and you breathe, Pose for me, my bare-shouldered
Croat, I say, yes, I’ll ask my people by the sea
to dig up the old seamstresses from the ground,
that because you want to render the Liburnian
in me, they’ll have to make one last hat that peaks
like the sea brakes. It may take a while, though—
the old girls are asleep, breathless and bare-boned.
Let’s not rush them, no one wants to see them mad,
I say. But I don’t tell you that I ask for another hat,
or that I like dead women to wake up slowly,
to take their time rubbing their long fingers with sap,
and I don’t tell you that I want a portrait together—
black moon draped down your face, split cliff above mine—
because in the old portraits you had shown me,
your past bare-shouldered beauties stayed posing alone.
While Looking at a Photograph You Send from Afar, Winds of the Pacific Mold the Monterey Cypress
If each small moment contains everything,
a universe and an eternity, contains both the wren
and the beat of a wild swan’s wings,
if it holds the feral scent of yesterday (and it does),
then the 8,000 miles between this foggy shore
and the Persian Gulf, and these eleven ubiquitous hours
of time difference, are just one blink. And so, in your photo
the twitching Arabian skyline is simply skin static,
your late father’s guayabera you wear is the damp
breath of forever, the shisha you hold is my wrist,
that tea on the copper tray is for us, and the black tattoo
inked down your chest has always been ropes of my hair
that I wish you’d touch as you write, We’re in the world of things,
Little Lupine Lover, the world of coming and going.
I Close My Hand – Stars Fall Through My Fingers
When sleep starts to fade out of your bodies,
and then you tire them again, no one knows
what happens next: desire insists, love doesn’t.
And when you hear your lover’s knuckles
tap gypsy beats on your kitchen table,
when you notice that forgotten daylight
breaking inside your hollow chest, it’s time
to turn away—drive into the known night,
away from the sounds that loosen your sinews,
leave your car at the edge of the damp woods,
and like a grown woman under the bare sky,
palm your own clenched fist, cling to your shins,
but escape the urge to make your needy
hand grab the one that makes music for you.
Andrea Jurjević’s poems have recently appeared in Harpur Palate, The Journal, Raleigh Review, Midwest Quarterly, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. She is the 2013 Robinson Jeffers Tor Prize Winner. A native of Croatia, she lives in Atlanta, where she translates, paints and teaches writing.
Q: What is your approach to getting “unstuck” on a poem?
A: I distance myself from it. Often I’ll leave it alone for a few months. Writing poetry, for me, can be like burning through a relationship. I need some space and time before the desire for writing comes back and I plunge again into that kind of intensity.
Q: If you were to choose a painter or filmmaker to bring your poems to a visual life, who would that be, and why?
A: Jean Genet, because of his Un Chant d’Amour, his unflinching portrayal of the complexity of human emotion, the simultaneous intensity and worthlessness of desire, for his hardboiled symbolism and hauntingly beautiful cinematography.
Q: Who or what are you reading now? Is it a source for, or a response to, your own work?
A: Right now on my nightstand are Lidia Yuknavitch, Will Christopher Baer, Diane Seuss, Viktor Pelevin and Naguib Mahfouz. Occasionally something I read—a passage or a perfect line—will slay me. Perhaps send me writing. But it’s not that I seek new books just to forage them for ideas or inspiration. It is more likely that I read because I need to escape my own writing mindset and my own tricks.
Q: What a lovely moment: “desire insists, love doesn’t.” Talk with us about writing love poetry in the 21st century.
A: The line you mentioned is from a poem that’s part of a series about these lovers whose bond is primarily sex. The intimacy they share is urgent and beautiful but also emotionally precarious. Love hasn’t aged much through time but the way we use language and express ourselves has. We are more open and comfortable with our sexual expression. We’ve expanded the notions of love. However, emotionally we are still an awkward mess about it. So, lovers in these poems stay swaddled in their separate emotional solitudes and continue loving the sex.
3 Poems by Kevin Rippin
Followed by Q&A
Driving Through a Blizzard
The mind says: This is a metaphor for your life.
The body says: This is your life—keep driving.
The moon says: I can’t see you through the white
with my one gray cataracted pupil;
you, my friend, do not exist.
The snow bank says: Come into me. I love you.
The cliff’s edge says: Don’t listen to the snow bank;
steer over. I’ll show you a really good time.
The road says: I’ve disappeared; you’re flying through a cloud.
The mind says: Shut up.
The body says: Shut up and keep driving.
Don’t listen to the mind; he makes things up;
he’ll only get you in deeper trouble.
The car says: I’m sliding.
The eye says: Tree dead ahead.
The mind says: Brake, gently, gently.
The foot says: OK
The mind & body crawl into the same bed and say: Slow motion
The mind says: We’ve missed the tree.
& the body lets out a sigh.
The wind chimes in & says: I’m done fucking around;
watch me blow this snow into a whirlpool.
The mind says: Isn’t it wonderful how it all connects,
how all these voices arrive at their proper moments?
The mind says: We’ll never get out of this alive.
The mind says: You’re right.
The body agrees and closes its eyes.
The mind sees through the lids.
The mind says: I’m making this up; there’s no blizzard.
The body says: You should sit where I’m sitting.
The mind says: I’m making you up; I’m making it all up;
I’m making myself up.
The mind turns the car into a couch.
The body turns into the couch, begins to drift.
In a world where black is white, white is black,
the couch drives itself into the pitch,
the body asleep at the pillow, out of motion.
The mind thinks to itself: Well, what next?
A woman appears in the passenger seat,
her own mind and body talking, her arms holding a baby.
And everything becomes infinitely more complex.
Then he thought he would fly
off the garage roof like Superman.
He pushed out from the edge.
The wind swept beneath him,
suspended him a blink, then let him
He heard his red blanket cape
flap once before he hit, heard
his right leg snap in two. One cheek
pressed against the ground, he saw
houses burning green with kryptonite,
bushes and trees laced with kryptonite,
kryptonite coating everything,
cleverly hidden by the enemy
until the instant he’d lifted off.
He felt his lungs draw kryptonite
particles in and out, his body
anchored to the Earth by kryptonite,
rendered weak and human, just like
Re-emerge is redundant.
When the body reappears, it has emerged.
Reappear sometimes may be appropriate,
such as when a body is present, disappears,
then becomes visible. For example,
the miners descend at dawn, reappear at dusk.
Like vampires, they emerge from the hole at sunset.
This is not an entirely accurate, either.
Vampires sleep through the day, work nightshift
while miners work through the day, sleep at night.
Vampires drain while miners are drained.
Vampires live forever while miners die young
from emphysema and cancer and black lung.
Black lung is fairly accurate since the tissue
literally turns black from inhaling coal dust,
comparable to the lungs of a cigarette smoker
who smokes three or four packs a day.
I smoke around a pack a day and I suspect
I have gray lung fading to black. I am here
on the back porch smoking and thinking
about miners who disappear and emerge,
reappear at dusk, like vampires. I believe
miners are the dentists of the earth. Of course
real dentists work outside picking their way to a root
while miners work inside picking their way to a vein.
Miners work so their sons can become dentists.
Dentists work so their sons don’t become miners.
I am the great grandson of a miner who died
before I was born. Nobody I know is a miner now.
I am friends with many dentists and vampires
who wouldn’t know a miner if he hacked in their faces.
The dentist is a vampire who works his pick and shovel
until he drains every last dime out of a tooth. Mostly,
everybody is pretty much the same as everybody else.
I am smoking cigarettes on the back porch,
probing the air with my pen, working the dark,
working the vein, working the root, tapping the blood.
Everybody is going into the hole. The only difference is
the costume the body wears as it makes its descent.
Everybody disappears. Nobody emerges or reappears.
It’s all semantics. You wake up, you go down.
If you’re lucky, you make it to the end of another day.
You breathe in, you breathe out. Then you don’t.
Kevin Rippin earned an M.A. in Writing from the University of Pittsburgh composition and creative writing programs, and he has worked as an editor, writer and teacher for the past 20 years, including the last six at NC A&T University, where he teaches writing. Rippin has published articles, reviews and poetry in magazines, newspapers and journals across the country, including Kansas Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, Poetry East and Pittsburgh Quarterly. His chapbook, One Shuddering Tremolo, was published by Arbuckle Press.
Q: What is your approach to getting “unstuck” on a poem?
A: Write anything else.
Q: If you were to choose a movie director to create your scenes on film, who would that be, and why?
A: F. Ford Coppola. Don’t know why.
Q: Who or what are you reading now? Is it a source for, or a response to, your own work?
A: Chad Rohrbacher/Karma Backlash. It is not a response to my work.
Q: Paul Klee said that “A line is a dot that went for a walk.” Talk with us about how this analogy holds – or doesn’t - in “Semantics.”
A: Lines are all rhythm-based. The rhythm kicks in about 12 lines down, but the preface to that rhythm is important. One isn’t supposed to warm up? I often write my way into a poem and then cut. Here, the material seemed essential.
2 Poems by J.R. Toriseva
Followed by Q&A
My hands stained by bloodroots deep in April. The red
coat moss calling to the lungs of the downed maple. Asking
the question starting with what I hope to be a controlled
burn, risking only the smallest answer in the mystery
of bronze, in the bitter taste of copper. Somewhere deep
down here rest bones; before the glaciers were the dinosaurs,
before them the single-celled organisms that began the long march
of replication. This is time called back. Site white out.
This is the place where months ago I saw the slimed eggs of frogs,
but now winter has rewritten everything deep white. Roots are
inaccessible, trapped in frozen earth. I barter with ice. Spring
is accessible only by memory, and so often I forget the bite
of green. The midmorning thaw, the coming of the blackbirds,
the weight of the bobolink’s claws clenched on the sideways rope
of the long grass. The wind waiting on the tongue: a crimp, a murmur, a ruse.
This yellow-rumped warbler, she speaks swan.
These are the only visitors. The ones who come
after the trumpets. The ones who say they can teach
swans the wing flap, the air, the migration route
lost for some reason to deep memory, or perhaps they
are just too curious about clouds to follow
the deep migration routes. Perhaps they hear
the whispers of some other sort of routing,
one that spells doom and the end of their line.
But, nonetheless, loud and insistent.
Nonetheless, calls to them. Who else would follow
the airplane dressed as Mother Trumpeter? Who else
would mistake feathers for silicon and steel? Who else would
read the hieroglyphs of migration as stagnant? There is
not much company here; only the cows with their wooden
shoes. Only me, with my fixed labors. Me, with my deviled heart.
J.R. Toriseva’s “Dandelion Rites” was chosen for the anthology Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sound, published by City Lights. Her work has also appeared in or is forthcoming from The Cincinnati Review, Descant, Fulcrum, 14 Hills, Nimrod, The Adirondack Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Soundings East, Radar Poetry, JACKET, and others. She has been awarded a waiter scholarship to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Mary Merritt Henry Prize in Poetry. Currently in the English department at SUNY-GCC, she has also taught for California Poets in the Schools, San Francisco WritersCorps, and Literary Arts of Portland, OR, and Mills College.
Q: What is your approach to getting “unstuck” on a poem.
A: When writing the lines to talk to me and talk with each other. When like calls to like the poem shows its form. This may take an hour, or this may take a year. Waiting is an important part of writing for me, as is listening. If the poem is one I’ve developing from a thought, rather than something I’m hearing, I’ll approach it through further exploration. Sometimes I’ll write more, just to see what happens; other times I’ll draw. Sketching out a poem allows me to see the lines interacting visually with each other.
Q: If you were to choose an artist–from any period–to paint your landscapes, who would that be, and why?
A: Remedios Varo’s sublime mix of detail and myth intrigues me. Her ability to capture an inner terrain and concretely impose that on the outer landscape is apt magic.
Q: Who or what are you reading now?
A: “The Gorgeous Nothings” reveals envelopes that Emily Dickinson wrote poems on. They have made me more sensitive to what it actually is that we write on. So, surfaces intrigue me, as well as locations of writing. As a child, I mostly wrote in a shallow lip of the woods, sitting on the mossy surface of a fallen oak, surrounded by Norway pines, hidden by maples because writing was not a sanctioned activity for the household. Now, I don’t have to escape to the protection of the forest, so I mostly write sitting inside. The question of where people write and what they write on is one I’ll be exploring.
Q: Some might say that the time of nature poetry had ended–your poems celebrate the natural world, but there is steel in their endings. How does this contemporary poetry with the “deviled heart” find new inspiration in the natural world?
A: Sometimes we write out our outer landscapes, sometimes our inner ones, when all the while our world is perhaps writing on us. We all are surfaces. Nature poetry has not ended because the human race has not ended. Despite past transgressions, nature is still hosting us, as a species. Connecting to the natural world is paramount for us as artists, as survivors, as humans. Like all relationships, our relationship with nature evolves, continually transforming itself (and ourselves). Whether ignored or explored, we are a part of nature; it is a relationship we ignore at our own peril.
How to Explode by Suzanne Richardson
Followed by Q&A
We’re drunk and the philosopher writes a word across my palms: WORTHY. I write one back: BOUND. He has a girlfriend. I know that in some way even writing on his hand is a violation, a crossing of a boundary that shouldn’t be crossed, but I can’t help it. I like him so much. I want him. In the cab home I lean my head on his shoulder, and he’s stone—he won’t lean towards me, but won’t shove me off. There’s no question in the cab about where I’m going—wherever he’s going. At his house we fumble to the couch, and then the bed, and he grabs my legs under the sheets. These are amazing he says, and I feel myself already cutting in half, ripping down the middle because everything is already perverted, already twisted. It’s not right. I want him to see the moon in me. I want him to want the ham of me. I want him to thread through me. I want his tongue to split so he can lick me twice. I want him to fasten me to his body. I am terrified. I want to drown.
I’m an emergency hire. I’m here teaching English. I’m trying to write a memoir about being with a heroin addict. Every day I walk into my office and sit in an office chair that was once occupied by a woman who’s made her name off an addiction memoir, heroin specifically. She has left me a few clues about her life here: a list of administrators and what they handle, a poster for an event she put on, her old teaching schedule, a well-worn Webster’s II, a chain that held a hanging plant, a student made poster on Muslim poetry and a pamphlet on what to do in case of an emergency. The first time I walked into my office it was August and I felt very small, very unsure of the task I was undertaking. My eyes were drawn to the bright colors of the emergency pamphlet, the yellows, oranges, and pinks. There was an emergency, and then there was me, in that order. I think about substitutions. If I cross my eyes we could look similar from a distance she and I, but we are not interchangeable. My students like to remind me of this, she was my favorite teacher. They search my face for a crack or twitch. Some indication that I know I’ve not yet won them over. I cannot replace. I can only do what I do.
I noticed the philosopher’s hands first. Sitting in orientation in a cramped room in August I noticed the way they were light and dark at the same time, patches of skin that were brown that faded into whiteness; the black hair on his arms and knuckles swirling into non-patterns. All the darkness like some weird embarrassing truth about him, like something private was out on the table; something intimate revealed. I should stay away from him. But I could tell he was looking at me too. Some inevitable interaction took place—he started it. On his porch over beers he’ll tell me has that disease where his skin is light and dark at the same time. I can tell it’s something that bothers him, but I find it wildly attractive, so literary, so special, how he occupies both spaces in different places on his body. Months after we stop speaking I’ll get a school publication that has a photo of us in it, it’s a crowd shot at a hockey game, it’s just the back of our heads, but it’s us. I’ll put it in the trash. The guy who sat next to us at the hockey games always confused me with the philosopher’s girlfriend. The first time I met the philosopher’s girlfriend I drank her under the table and beat her at darts. Her timidity curled into anger. Later the philosopher recounted her fire, She felt like she just couldn’t win. Because I’m a bad person, I smiled.
Fall semester the philosopher is always driving me around late at night, driving me out to the middle of nowhere and sometimes he’s going too fast and it feels right. Once he drives me far away from the town we live in, keeps climbing these winding hills, and crossing bridges he goes faster and faster until we reach a fork, then pulls over, gets out and pees. I can see the wheat bending around his body in the dark. His legs splayed wide, his back to me. I press my forehead against the car window and wince. I shift my thighs against one another his car seat. This is erotic. Some dark weird game and I like playing it. But we only ever end up where we started, back in this cow town; disconnected.
Something isn’t adding up. In January I wake up everyday and think, he should have loved me by now. Here I am, and I still have to walk and talk and move and breathe and pay rent without love. One night we go to the bar down the street and he picks a fight with a guy who tries to hit on me. The guy handed me a fire cracker and asked how I was doing and then it was over—The whole thing took about forty-five minutes for the philosopher to tell this guy he didn’t even know what an argument was, much less an idea. The guy is a shrugging, friendly, babbling, bear and I don’t know how I feel about the evisceration. Maybe the philosopher is cruel in a new way after this moment. Like on New Years Eve right after the ball dropped and he told me to “Shut the fuck up,” in front of a bunch of colleagues and I think I died for a moment, like went into a bright light, shook someone’s golden hand, which unfortunately dropped me back into that moment where I still had to deal with it. I wanna set this off. I whine to him rubbing the firecracker on his chest. He zips his coat and we blow out. There’s a bottle of beer in my purse left over from god knows what—so we drive to my house and he tells me to walk us to a place we can fire it. I drink the beer as we walk to an open field of snow a few blocks away. Our feet crunch through it and I’m so excited I’m full of energy and I’m jumping a little bit like a hopeful baby frog, clumsily rising to the occasion. I tell him he has to light it, because I’m too scared and he instructs me to walk a distance to be safe. He’s bent over lighting the cracker and then as soon as the light changes he’s running towards me through the dark. In that moment time is slowing down and I for a minute I think he’s my father, my mother, my brother, I think he’s become some kind of blood kin and we’re bound in some way and I want him to smash into me, push me over, crack my head on the ice, make my nose bleed, exert some kind of pressure on me that will last. I want proof that we touched. The firecracker fizzles and barely does anything. There is no finale. I remind myself he was running away from something, not running towards me. As we walk back we talk about the best thing the babbling bear at the bar said: This is the city of repressed joy. I smile, but inside I feel a slick black tar gliding sideways over every organ starting with my heart.
Evolution of Heat
I’m wailing like an ambulance into a hotel towel in the bathroom. My eyes are bloodshot from drinking on the casino floor, and I’ve just won $400 dollars at a slot machine. I haven’t cried like this in a long time. A kind of guttural insane howl and I can’t stop it. The towel muffles my sound, save for my gasping. My best friend and his boyfriend are asleep in the room and I’m trying not to wake them. Earlier he encouraged me to hit on a guy at the bar, and when I walked up to him, he must have seen that every part of me was shut down. I seem to cry hardest over things that were never mine because I’m a spoiled brat like that. With the philosopher I can’t seem to stop. I feel so fucking sad, like rivers and piles of bones at the bottom of every sea—fucking sad. I’ve sobbed in three different hotel bathrooms about him in the past three months jamming towels in my mouth to muffle the sound because by the third time I couldn’t bare to hear the noise I was making over him.
I walk around my neighborhood late at night looking for signs that I’m doing something right, but I just smell all the families around me, their lavender laundry, the shampoo steam from a shower, the garbage in the drive, gasoline, oil, dead mice on the lawn. I find objects they don’t want at the curb: a keyboard, a Halloween mask, a couch, a bald baby doll with a painted diaper and dark sharpie induced markings on her back. I pick her up, carry her a block, and then I too decide she’s worthless—And God damn it—I have a disease where I want everything to have some kind of meaning—I need it too, otherwise I don’t see the point. So it’s me and this baby doll and we’re both on the curb and nobody wants us. I go to the middle school down the block and crawl through the fencing and lie on the steps looking at the moon. I watch a man in the distance pull up and put a broken lawn mower in his truck and drive away. He must fix things. I think to myself, and then I wish he would put me in his truck, but then I hear the voice of my best friend, you can’t expect someone to fix you. That isn’t really what I want. I want someone to take me as broken as I am and still find a place for me in their garage, but that’s unrealistic too and I know it.
I message a friend: I’m having trouble believing life has any meaning.
His response: It may not, but you can’t give up. The world needs you.
I’m in such a Godless place in my life in a town whose history is so bloody and mafia tainted that there’s a monument for an “incorruptible citizen” in the graveyard by my house. I write down the dedication: Thomas Redfield Proctor: an incorruptible citizen and a pure patriot. When asked what he wanted in return for his services to the city he said, “I want nothing.” Dharma is such a bitch though. I keep telling my mom on the phone, in relationships, I don’t know how much to give and I don’t know how much to take and I keep getting the measurements wrong. She tells me this takes a lifetime to figure out. A poet smiles at me across a lunch table and says, if you give too much, that’s also egotism, and you’ll be punished. My skull starts splitting open while I sip my iced tea and I realize I should have been taking too much all along and how stupid am I to give more when the punishment is the same? I’ve tried so hard to be good in my life, do the right thing. The philosopher said this once in the middle of a fight. I was lying in his bed and he said, You’re good, you’re just too good, and I never thought this would be a bad thing, but it’s me and fucking Thomas Redfield Proctor we’re incorruptible and we’re in graveyard on a Saturday afternoon and he’s the best company I’ve had in weeks. He’s not asking for a thing. We should have been holding up stagecoaches with knives Proctor and I. We should have stolen milk off every stoop and then spat on all the cats. We should have lived in deep shadowed alleys taking and taking until our cheeks were packed solid with other peoples’ precious objects. Walking away from the monument a slobbery goblin of a pug is running towards me with all its might and I feel joy for a moment.
Initiation of Reaction
I wind up in luxury hotel in Boston on the edge of the bed in a negligee while a man from my past sits across from me and grabs my hand. This jolt of being touched is something I can’t process.
Since the philosopher told me I couldn’t sleep in his bed I’ve been sleeping with my hands between my legs. I’ll wake up and realize I’m touching myself. Like the image of the serpent that eats his own tail, this is a kind of lonely infinity that isn’t comforting. On the edge of the bed I tell the man from my past that I can’t love him, I’m incapable. He strokes my palm. I think I’m in love with someone else, someone who doesn’t love me back and maybe that’s not love but that’s the only thing I’ve ever known—wanting and I know it’s not the same as loving but it feels so close. This is how I wake up—the man with the true face is buckling his belt and shuffling out the door. Nothing happened. I shower and drink five glasses of tomato juice by myself in the hotel restaurant with my sunglasses on. When the waiter brings me toast I only eat the crust. I open a book and try to read the words on the page, but feel so trapped in this cycle of wanting what doesn’t want me and vice versa that the words don’t make sense. I’m supposed to be at a writer’s conference but I feel like a hack, like a talentless loveless hack. Less. Less. Less. This is how the thoughts snowball. This is how they pick up speed. There’s a rash of young girls this year with milky faces who are sitting in nooks scribbling in their notebooks and they make me nervous. My old professor didn’t show up to my reading last night and basically pretended not to know me at the hotel bar so I float down to Lord & Taylor and take a snakeskin skirt off a rack and check my phone. The philosopher has emailed that his hot older student is emailing him late at night after glasses of wine, what does this mean? he asks. I scroll through the correspondence. He’s cut out some of his replies to her. He’s clearly interested and he’s pretending he isn’t. I go temporarily blind at the French Connection rack. I hear other customers supporting one another’s choices:
-Oh I’d LOVE to see you in that.
-Don’t you LOVE this?
That word is so fucking degraded. One should never use this word, especially regarding objects. The philosopher writes me emails with the subject line “love, love, love” and inside is a link to a pair of shoes. Everyone is disappointing; so I casually look for poison among the bottles of perfume running my hands over the diamond, square, and oval cut-glass. He once told me an ex of his wore J’adore. I pick it up. It smells nothing like me. Nothing I would ever wear. Some honeydew melon of a girl without a care in the world wears that bullshit. If I drink this perfume that stinks like virgin would it kill me or just cause a weird scene? I’m imagining a headline in a Boston Newspaper: Loveless “Writer” Drinks Sweet Perfume, Vomits, Cries, Dies Clutching Michael Korrs Snakeskin Skirt. I imagine the philosopher hearing about it on the radio and shrugging as he cuts hospital corners in his sheets like the neat nick asshole I know him to be.
A shoe salesman appears when I pick up a spike heel and dig it into my palm. Do you need help? I put the heel down and smile.
If this is some kind of test, I can’t tell if I’m passing or not.
Back in Upstate New York I see a woman on the full moon. I’m in a gas station and she runs in like a goddamn wounded hyena screaming, WHERE ARE All THE MEN? And she keeps circling the sweaty pizza tank like a shark, her head bobbing like a t-rex asking for day-old bread and men. She’s obviously zooming on something but then she says, when she walks, she can always see another shadow, a man’s shadow covering her own—and that’s when I shrink back against the chip bags cause she’s starting to make sense. Like how I think I’m just doing my own good thing and then a man shows up and he’s bigger than everything, bigger than me, my life, my goals, and suddenly I’m a squashed bug and I can’t remember who I am, like a bomb victim tick-tick-boom! and the last image I recall is a man’s face before everything explodes. There was this man—I recount in my diary, in therapy, on the phone to my mom—everything fades to black.
But this wounded woman, she does something else, she keeps calling another woman in the gas station who has short hair a man. She keeps saying, “you know, you know, ’cause you’re a man,” and she is kind of pecking around the woman with short hair. The woman with short hair loses it and is finally like, “I AM NOT A MAN,” and then the wounded animal cackles this long weird upper induced woody-woodpecker cackle and road runners out the door like a psycho. The woman with the short hair though, she is also looking for a man. When her back was turned the man she was with had ducked out the front door and she didn’t see it. She is knocking on the bathroom door looking for him. When I get to my car she is a block behind him, screaming after him, JUST HOLD UP AND WAIT GODDAMNNIT, but he isn’t slowing down. Men. tick-tick-boom!
The philosopher laments to me that he wishes his hot student had waited until the semester was over to hit on him, because maybe it’s awkward now. I’m in his car and I keep looking at the door handle. If I pull the handle I can just jump out and save myself, save myself from having to comfort him about this. I put on my sunglasses and lean away from him. Right, too bad, I say flatly. Four months before he whines to me about this, he tells me in bed he wants to taste me. He wants to fuck me. This was after we spent dinner striking matches trying to see who could withstand the flame burning down to our fingers the longest. It turns out he’s better at getting burned. Piles of crooked coal-colored matchsticks later, I tell him, I taste like every other woman, and no other woman. We decide to wait. This is where it all gets muddy, because some how I’m in his bed every night for months and nothing happens. The few times I reach over to kiss him, he tells me to stop, he can’t, he just can’t. He pushed me further and further away and I spilled wine on his carpet and I shower every other day, not every day and I know he hated all of that—and now I’m comforting him because there’s another cunt to taste, and he never even tried mine, and I want to run us off the road and scream at him that I taste like black dirt, and lemongrass, and river stones, and sunlight, and bleach, and melted snow, and powdered sugar, and dynamite, and goddamn donuts, but I just sit there. We drive by the tire shop and the gas station and the brownstones and around the circle in the center of town and down past all the banks and I feel reduced. I’m the prime number of myself sitting in his car. I am naked, I have nothing left to offer. I am only a two and I suppose she is at least a seven or maybe even an eight-hundred and twenty-nine.
I’m trying to take stock of all these moments like when a nuclear bomb hits and your life becomes layered and stratified and expands before each explosion cuts through every layer of matter, every decision that’s added up to now. Like the time he texted me he “valued” me and I nearly lost my mind with how unfeeling and stupid that made me feel.
The people downstairs make good healthful foods like chicken, and potatoes, and stewed carrots, and they have good healthful sex where they look at each other, and their running shoes are lined up next to one another at the door. They live good complete lives. They really have made a meal out of life. They are not hungry. I fall asleep with all the lights on sometimes and eat just walnuts for days. I am so hungry I could eat everything; light bulbs, tuna cans, tea cups, arms, legs, house plants. People fear the dead, but it’s the living that will eat you, want you, expect you to do something. God the living are hungry and they want what you have. I tell the philosopher this over and over, I will devour you. Maybe this is why it never works. No one wants to be consumed.
Why do we confuse possession with love? When really it’s a trap we set for ourselves. Every man I’ve ever loved, ever fucked, has confused, conflated these terms. I say I want to fuck, and they hear I want to love. I say I want love, and they offer sex. Like a funhouse mirror I am fat, I am thin, I am ugly, I am pretty, I am sex, I am love, and yet, I’m still me, still alone, still something that is all these things that lets them live inside me.
In the lean, long, afternoon days in early spring, when the sun gets stretchy, bouncy, and caramel colored, when I’m not speaking to the philosopher very much I walk by his office and find his hot student in the chair I used to occupy. She’s always emphatically leaning towards him, gesticulating, trembling and fumbling like a pansy blossom that shakes in hard, cold, spring rain. I suck my teeth, and try to imagine that she’s right for him, that they make sense, that there’s some inevitable, magnetic force that draws them together and that I’m in the wrong. I practice Buddhist mantras of detachment in my head to the click of my own step walking away. I am not attached to him. I do not need him. I am an observer on this earth. Let him go. But everything is burning, it feels like everything is on fire, or under water, or trapped in ice, or something has caved in, or exploded, or that something whole is now shattered so expertly its power is now decentralized, permanently altered. If I let myself feel this much I will eventually learn something. I want to feel like she will make him happy. But when I imagine it, I want to dig a hole and lie down in it. I want to get in my car and drive away and never come back. Lately it seems all my stories end this way, there’s another woman who has something I don’t and I fold at the competition. I keep thinking someone will see my essence when I take myself out of the fight, but I end up staring into pools of water; my sink, a river, a puddle looking into the rings of water wondering if anyone sees me at all because my reflection is very muted, muddy.
The philosopher asks me out for a beer and I go because I keep thinking I’ll get to some understanding some higher plane of existence if I continue to try to give him what he wants. Almost immediately I start to panic. He is trying to reminisce about setting off that firework from months ago now and I feel infected, the more he talks, some slow fever has blackened and thickened my blood and is moving around my body. I want to grab his neat shirt collar and bite through both his lips to make him stop, make him stop talking about things that mean so much to me, stop understanding me without really understanding me, stop cherishing, cherishing things that happened—past tense, because the present is unimaginably complicated and fraught.
I am freaking out in my body, in my head, and every gentle sentence he utters I’m snapping at. I’m an angry turtle defending its nest of soggy eggs. It’s because I feel like I’m his piggy bank he drops a penny in every day and hopes one day to smash me open and be rich in me. It’s because I have been a wishing well all my life a place where dreams go underwater to be kept safe. I am keeping so many dreams, old ones, ones that people walked away from and I’m heavy. He is trying to plant a dream in me and I do not think I can hold its weight. I think his dream will crush me, this dream of being nothing to one another, being cordial. He once told me his father always crossed to the American side of the border before he got into fistfights, didn’t want to sully his own soil with his sleeping monster. The way the Canadian border split his father Jekyll and Hyde. The way the philosopher has split himself into touchable and untouchable. The way he tells me not to break the silence of his body even though he’s penetrating me in every other way. I think he has this kind of potential, this kind of deep spleen with the world that surrounds him. I know that his anger is congealed sadness. I know that his generosity is another form of control. I know that he only surrounds himself with the finest of things so he must on some level see me as worthy. Sometimes I wish he would just rage at me, let me have the full spectrum of him like one big kaleidoscopic wound. But instead he stays unmoved by everything I’ve said or done, completely flat. I think he sees this flatness, this static, this radio silence as a gift.
I don’t exactly know how this story ends yet, because it keeps going. The semester ends and I sit on the philosopher’s porch as he complains about the hot student being too much of a child, maybe not mature enough. I sip a beer and feel numb. I have learned to retreat into the most dark tunnel of myself whenever I am around him now.
Before an explosion there is particulate matter that collects and rolls itself into a combustion. Varying degrees of reasons, of elements that make these moments, explosions, occur. All factors could have added up into something else, one shift and nothing happens, one shift and everything explodes, I explode.
I am being crushed under the weight of everything that’s already occurred. The ways in which things all seem to spiral into one another, down and onto one another, collecting dust and silt and rain.
In spring, I take long walks in the graveyard near my house and I see the snow melting into long streams of grey water, the way it rushes over the small shoots of green grass both drowning and feeding it, the noise of it filling the air like glass cracking. Despite all the confusion, while I wasn’t looking things changed, something new is happening, and I must wait to see what it is. Down lurking beneath the surface that is melting there are shifts in temperature, shifts and striations in the dirt, shifts and flows in the silt and slime. The way that everything is now moving, now in motion when before it was so still and part of me misses the suspension of the ice the suspense of when it will break, dissolve. I am dissolving. The nothing that happened between me and him has been consumed by more elements, ones in motion, ones that are memorable, more memorable than the frozen private moments that stiffly sat between us. The core is always hot, the surface is always cold. I must accept our non-relationship as surface. I am cold. She is hot. She is core. I am crust. As I’m walking through the very first grey light motion of spring I see a few flakes of snow coming down. There is duality. There is coexistence of spring and winter. The core cannot be without a surface, hot cannot live without cold, frozen can’t be without the possibility of melt, I am certain there is no meaning in life and I am happy. I am certain there is no meaning in life and I am sad. I try to grasp the snow as it falls on my head, I try to grasp the thaw and it flows by me. I might be the only thing alive in this graveyard. As lonely and as unloved as I feel now, I know this kind of loneliness is still a privilege it’s still something, it’s not nothing. So I let it curl up and take roost inside of me as I turn around and change directions, walking back towards the living.
Suzanne Richardson was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. She lives in Utica, New York where she is an Assistant Professor of English teaching English and creative writing at Utica College. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in journals such as The New Ohio Review, The Journal, Prick of The Spindle, Sundog Lit, and others. More of her work can be found at: http://www-suzannerichardsonwrites.tumblr.com
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: One thing I can say surprised me is that even after writing this piece I remain confused more than ever about what actually happened between myself and the philosopher. The events are true, and I stacked them up, and ordered them, and tried to make sense of them, and they still don’t make sense to me. I still don’t understand why what happened, happened and why things turned out the way they did. I usually, through the process of writing come closer to something, but in this piece the process of writing served as a way to distance myself from the events; everything was very raw, and writing it allowed me to put these ideas and events somewhere they couldn’t hurt me anymore. I once had a teacher in high school tell me to write down things that upset me so I could stop letting them live inside me. I don’t write for that reason anymore, but this essay was a return to that way of writing I think—get it out so it will stop hurting. I think the confusion comes through in this essay in a way that works aesthetically. Normally, I wouldn’t allow myself to see a piece like this as “finished.” I think its sloppiness works with the organizing principle.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: During my MFA program my fiction professor Dan Mueller told me: “Write as much as you can and train yourself to write anywhere at any time.” I still follow this advice as best I can and it’s never failed me. I am able to write almost anywhere and get into my focus to produce something in as little as 15- 20 minutes.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: I’m pretty obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe. I read his entire works at 19 and it changed my relationship to literature. Every time I read him I find something new to ponder. In each stage of my life I’ve clung to different pieces of his. I’ve also read everything by southern author Ellen Gilchrist. I am in love with her first short story collection “In The Land of Dreamy Dreams,” it’s one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read, the characters are complex and the imagery is unique and the voice is very dark. It’s modern southern gothic to a T. “The Kiss” by Kathryn Harrisson is my favorite memoir. It is so beautiful and unfair and upsetting—every time I read this book it makes me want to write.
A: Before I took Dan Mueller’s advice I had a lot of hocus pocus about when and where/how to write. I can honestly say I’ve taken all those rituals away from myself. I’ve gotten to the point where I struggle if I don’t have my headphones—but that’s the only luxury I afford myself. I’ll often listen to one song over and over again while writing. The song I listened to while writing this piece was Sea Wolf’s “Whirlpool.” I wrote this piece mostly at night, at my dinning room table, after taking long walks in my neighborhood.
The Light Inside by Matthew Batt
Followed by Q&A
We got on a plane in the United States where vending machines offered iPods; toilets automatically self-evacuated after you did; well-dressed, officious-looking policemen with ample but not menacing firepower kept the peace; even the worst food was docile enough to only give you a little gas. When we boarded the plane, if felt as rote an endeavor as slipping through the door to a grocery store. We disembarked in Belize City on a buckled cement airstrip where there was a glorified machine shed for a terminal, and dogs and chickens ran around everywhere—inside, that is—and boy-cops loitered in soiled leisure clothing with semi-automatic rifles slung over their shoulders like baseball bats.
Then we got on a second plane—a five-seater, one-propeller job—that was to take us down country to the coast. The pilot was young enough to be my son, even though I was barely thirty. There was another family who was trying to get on our plane, but Jenae and I were already seated, our luggage tucked in the little alcove behind us. The pilot was not satisfied with the distribution of weight and so he only let the woman come on board with us. The man just shrugged, but when the door closed behind the woman it felt to me like the moment you cut away from in the montage leading up to her disappearance followed by the arrival of a team of blue-windbreakered investigators from the FBI. No matter how civilized the brochure says, I’m pretty sure it’s poor form to willingly separate from your spouse whilst in Central America. Any America, really, but this one especially.
The plane bounced through the air like a gyroscope with wings, pitching and yawing such that it seemed as though the horizon was really just a baton a child was waving at us from a great distance. I tried to calm myself by staring at the dashboard where a red LED timer counted our flight time to touchdown, hopefully, rather than impact. And then, without any song or dance about seatbacks, tray tables, and original upright positions we were plummeting toward a badly maintained soccer field on spit of land between a lagoon and the sea. We hit the ground hard—the kind of landing my friend Bruce chalks up to Navy pilots used to moving, floating runways—and then—another first for me—the pilot slammed on the brakes and we actually skidded to a stop, close enough to the ocean that the plane looked like a pony who had just skidded up to a watering hole.
A small, wily guy in a Hooters tanktop with a smile slightly wider than his face took us to the resort. His name was Basilio and he talked the entire time despite the fact that the windows were down and the old Mitsubishi van was so loud we couldn’t hear anything he was saying but we knew he was exuberant about it.
The resort was a modest assortment of native looking huts with thatched roofs and palm tree-covered walkways between them like tunnels, but today apparently the sand fleas were bad and so they lit fires in trash cans and heavy smoke hung thick throughout the camp. I wondered if Kurtz was snacking on a human heart somewhere nearby.
The next morning, the Australian steward of the resort came by to see how we were doing. “Enjoying the Mosquito Coast then?” His name was Rob and he wore a red calico bandana around his neck.
“As in the Harrison Ford movie?” I asked.
“As in the Paul Theroux book,” he said. “The one were everybody goes nuts.”
“Oh, Wolfie,” I said. We were sitting on the beach in Adirondack chairs, looking as tropical as only a couple of German and Irish tourists can. We may as well have been wearing grey socks and sandals.
“We’re much farther north than that,” Wolf said. “That was in Honduras. That’s a whole country away.”
There were hibiscus and hummingbirds everywhere, and in the skies above pelicans and seagulls wheeled around the sun until one would spot a fish and then hurtle itself into the sea like a missile. On a much smaller scale but with a similar ferocity, biting flies and fleas buggered the pasty flesh of our legs and arms.
“Do you guys want to really do something wild?” Rob said. I didn’t know much Australian, but I was already beginning to wonder how much I was losing in translation. “Most people,” Rob said, “they go snorkeling and turtle watching and shopping and such and that’s just fine. They can buy their chubber kids some stupid T-shirts and go on with their lives. But if I were you, there’s just one trip I wouldn’t miss while I was here.” Rob leaned in, conspiratorially like a ham. “I wouldn’t mention this to just anyone, mates. But you guys look like you’re up to the challenge. In shape, aren’t you?”
I looked at Wolf and Wolf looked at me.
“Do tell,” Wolf said in his best Hedy Lamarr.
A breeze picked up and the sand fleas were temporarily in the wind. The sand itself, however, blew up with the gusts and my mouth and eyes were gritty. I never did care for the beach (gets in my socks).
“Ever hear of the ATM cave?” Rob said. The night before, over several Beliken, the best Belizean excuse for beer, he told us all about his globe trotting, his exotic guitar inspired by Yngwie Malmsteen, his fiancée and the rings they had just picked out (replicas from The Hobbit).
“ATM cave,” Wolf said. “No.” Wolfgang spent a year studying abroad in Perth and I think there’s something too Sydney about Rob for him.
“ATM,” Rob said again, as though the letters were Cyrillic or Greek (or Hobbit) and have some special significance outside their colloquial meaning for personal banking convenience. “Actun Tunichil Muknal,” he said, casting a spell. “If you’re not up on your Mayan, that means Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher. Of course, you might not want an adventure.”
The ATM cave was, apparently, one of a kind. It had only recently been explored by archeologists and, because Belize was trying to pump up its economy with tourism rather than science, the government allowed a couple of guide companies to bring tours into the cave. Rob told us that the cave was totally unmodified. No guardrails. No paths. No lights. In addition to the cathedral-like cave, the under-water entrance you have to swim through, the total lack of infrastructure and all the ancient pottery, there were fourteen human remain sites inside.
We must have looked concerned.
“Sure,” said Rob, “it’s a little dangerous. But you’re Americans. If you guys died in there, it’d take weeks, maybe months until they could bring another group in. That’s a lot of lost revenue, mates.”
We said he’d given us a lot to think about, and we went immediately to the bar.
The next thing we knew, just one before Wolf’s wedding, we were being driven by Zefarino, Basilio’s brother, down the Hummingbird Highway. He was less garrulous than Basilio but also a little older and, we hoped, a better driver. His family apparently made their entire living by ferrying around American tourists in their fleet of mid-eighties Mitsubishis—one of which, we would learn later, he had rolled just the night before after a Belikan bender at another resort. If he was any the worse for wear, he wasn’t interested in showing it.
In these vans, there was no air conditioning, no seatbelts, and no shock absorbers—all of which was a likely product of the terrible roads, which they all drove over as quickly as possible so as to theoretically surf on the top of the washboards, potholes, and unsuspecting children. The Hummingbird Highway, the country’s main artery, was basically a shoulder-less winding road shared by pedestrians, the military, poultry, and livestock. Most of the road wound through hilly rain forest, but then suddenly we’d be in the middle of a village with goats and naked eight-year olds everywhere. It made me feel an odd surge of missionary-zeal, like I had to somehow do something. At the very least, get them some Underroos.
Without warning, Zefarino pulled over to the side of the road and shut off the van. “We wait for guide,” Zef said. He slumped down in his seat and went almost immediately to sleep.
We all felt a little panicked. We liked Zef. We felt like we knew Zef’s brother. We had even met their father. None of them had killed us yet. It all felt very secure and trustworthy until we were some unknown distance in the interior of the country, waiting on the side of the road for lord knew what.
We sat and adjusted our sandals for a half an hour and tried to huddle ourselves into feeling better. Zef and Rob would never have sold us into slavery, we said. We didn’t have anything to fear. Never mind the fact that we didn’t know where we were or, for sure, which country we were in. We’ll just let men we’ve never met lead us and our womenfolk into a remote jungle cave so we can check out some early human sacrifice action. I felt like such a hypocrite for having judged the husband who had let his wife get on the plane without him. Sure, Jenae and I were together, but that felt like little compensation at this point.
“Do you know what meat this is?” Jenae asked. We had gotten moist, literally home-made, tamale-looking things at the gas station on the way. “I can’t even tell if it’s been cooked. Do they not have salmonella here?”
Wolf felt, I know, somewhat responsible for us as both the host and groom as well as a travel writer. “Just don’t,” he said about the tamale. “Mine had a knuckle in it.”
A pair of black SUVs pulled up behind and in front of our Mitsubishi. Zef snored on. A tinted window rolled down to reveal what may as well have been another of Zef’s brothers and a vaguely terrified white guy next to him. The driver looked calm and competent and not in the least bit cannibalistic. The passenger looked like he was contemplating where and when he’d vomit next, having already exhausted his best options.
“Hey you guys,” our presumptive guide said, “you come be mine now.”
We drove through fields of burnt sugar cane and partially harvested bananas for what seemed like hours, until we arrived at a clearing near a hundred foot mahogany tree where other SUVs and vans were parked. We all piled out, armed only with complicated digital cameras and similarly confusing technical clothing from REI.
We headed into the forest and almost immediately our guide told us to freeze.
“Stay back! This is very danger,” he said grimly. A few feet in front of him was a pencil-thin snake, no longer than his forearm, and it lazed about on the trail in front of him like a legless, and very skinny cocker spaniel.
Before any of us could get a better look, he took a machete and hacked at the ground around the snake like a Benihana chef. You didn’t have to be a fellow tour guide to know that he was hamming it up. My grandmother had killed snakes more decisively than that with a potting trowel.
“Most dangerous snake of all Belize,” he said. I didn’t know why he felt the need to be such a schmuck, especially when there were bound to be plenty of real threats that would suffice. “Do not get close,” he said, and again hacked at the ground until there was nothing left of the little lime green snake. “Much poison. Much, much evil.”
The guide flipped the julienned snake bits into the forest with the tip of his machete. “You are people of great fortune,” he said. It felt true; it felt false.
After about forty-five minutes of marching, wherein he had harvested a chunk of a termite’s nest for us to snack on and showed us a plant called “Pissa Bed,” which, he said, was a great cure for scabies, we finally came to a clearing beneath a canopy of tall trees, with rough timber shelters and primitive picnic tables. The detritus of other travelers was strewn about, and everywhere—everywhere—there were ants, large and small.
“If you need go bathroom,” our guide said, standing dramatically before us as we munched on bananas and greasy ham sandwiches, “take machete with you.” Much as I hated snakes, I relished the thought of trying to go to the bathroom while handling (another) small sword even less.
After we ate, and successfully dodged the viper pit that supposedly surrounded the latrines, our guide handed around a box of Ziploc bags.
“For your values,” he said.
I thought he was again playing us the same way he did with the snakes, but I decided I didn’t have much to lose by putting my wallet and camera in a plastic bag.
“And no shoe. No sandal,” he said. “No footprint in cave. If we leave mark, we lose cave. Sock only.”
He had outfitted us with helmets with headlamps and told us now was the time we would want to use both. “Hard to find light when dark,” he said. He was beginning to take on a sort of hybrid personality somewhere between David Carradine from Kung Fu and Duane Sueme, a guy I used to work with at a bike store who would get confused by his own pants.
Our guide walked down the muddy riverbank and into the water. We waded in after him, just as a group of tourists came sloshing downstream. They were soaking wet and looked like outsized newborns, their eyes and mouths open wide.
“Unbelieve,” one of them said, not even able to finish her word. She held a Ziploc bag with a silver camera inside it as though it were a relic. A strand of wet red hair looked like a slash across her forehead. “Belize,” she said. “Belize . . . Belize.”
It sounded again like an expression of astonishment, and also a little bit like James Brown begging please, please, please.
The group disappeared downriver and we were alone again in the jungle stream. We waded upstream just a few yards when a huge hole yawned open in the mountain. I know it couldn’t have possibly moved, but where before there had been only jungle upon jungle, green upon green, suddenly there was a hangar-sized black hole. The jungle gave way to a small mountain and the mountain itself gave way to a river and the river itself gave way to a cave and we were going in it.
The problem with the cave, however, was that it was only twenty or thirty feet deep. Its back wall was dark but clearly visible as its limit. It was like the Holland Tunnel, but filled with water. We were supposed to go under that?
“No way,” somebody said. It may have been my wife. I couldn’t say. I was petrified.
“Swimming is for you,” the guide said. He smiled broadly and generously. Where before he seemed like he was half actor, half indentured servant, now he seemed all guide—our jungle Virgil, ready to take us up a river and inside a mountain.
I was trying to think of that line from Dante, but all I kept coming up with was the Woody Allen version of Emily Dickinson. She said that hope was the thing with feathers. Dante said something about abandoning hope, and Woody was decidedly without feathers. I didn’t know what good feathers would have done me right now, but I sure wanted something other than a Ziploc bag, wet socks, and a loaner helmet.
The water got deeper and deeper until we had to hold our chins up to breathe. Our guide stopped for a moment, making sure we were all still standing or floating to his satisfaction.
“Now,” he said meaningfully. “Only hard part. Water a little high because of much rain. Sometimes you can swim in and take air if you need. But other guides say no air today. Okey-dokey?”
We all paddled frantic looks at each other.
“You just go whoop down water and then whoop pop up in cave,” he said. He was smiling but he wasn’t laughing. I wondered if we could help him find a better way to describe the process for future groups—presuming we wouldn’t be the last. “Everybody lights on?” he said. “Hold each other and keep wall on left. Everything be all right. Ready go.”
And because we didn’t know what else to do we all took a breath and simultaneously disappeared.
I opened my eyes underwater, despite the fact that I had heard that there were all manner of aquatic jungle bugs that could enter your body through the eyes, but I saw nothing except the murky criss-crossing of the beams from our headlamps. I could feel rock to my left but nothing anywhere else above or below me. Then Jenae’s socked foot kicked me in the face and let me know at least which way forward was. Because the water was cold and we had been hot, it felt thick to me, gelatinous, and I was afraid it was going to set and embalm us in it forever.
When I surfaced on the other side, it was pitch black except for the weak beams of our headlamps. We were still deep in water, and my socked feet slid around on rounded rocks, trying to stay as firmly footed as possible. The water moved from upstream and slid around our bodies like an animal passing close by. We made our way around a rock wall that bulged out and without even realizing it we ended up on solid ground. It was still pitch dark—I just couldn’t get over it—there wasn’t any light coming from anywhere except our headlamps. It smelled like our basement after a heavy rain, but earthy and fecund, not musty. Everywhere, water dripping.
We spread out a little on what felt like the back of a large turtle, and, instead of creating more light as a group, we instantly all fell into our own isolated pools of night.
“Like your swim?” our guide said. He was feeling cheeky now. He didn’t have to pretend to kill any pseudo-venomous snakes in here. He knew that we had to trust him biblically or we were screwed.
We walked in silence, slightly uphill, crossing back and forth through the water as we went. Our wet socks and soaked clothes make squishy sucking sounds that kept us tense. When you turned your head left or right—or up or down—there was no telling what you were going to see: a wall right in front of your face or the light from your lamp receding twenty or thirty feet until the darkness prevails. The speed of light was one thing, conceptually, but in this cave, its power was quite another.
The first set of ruins we came upon was a pot without a bottom. It was made of clay, undecorated, lying on its side and big enough around to stick your head in if you wanted. And then I noticed it was everywhere, as though this place were the Crate and Barrel of its day. Broken pieces of pottery lay all about and I couldn’t believe that there weren’t any cordons to keep us away from the artifacts.
“This is really legal for us to be here?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I wanted the answer now or after we got back to the hotel, given the delicacy of our situation. In a vaguely mob-owned restaurant I once worked in, I asked my manager, Johnny Volpe, how, with all the water seeping constantly into the dry storage area, they managed to pass the health inspection. When he explained that “you don’t ask those kinds of questions,” I feared for my kneecaps then the same way I now feared for my entire skeleton.
“Yes,” our guide said, his face swimming out of darkness and into the light from my lamp. “Much luck we have, no?”
We continued to make our way uphill until the sound of the river grew faint and then nonexistent and at last he had us all pause.
“All together,” he said, “put headlights here and look.” He pointed to his left and we all followed his hand and suddenly there was a wall of blue and white crystal-coated stalactites and stalagmites. It felt like we were inside a huge, unbroken geode. The ceiling must have been thirty feet high, but broad and deep as the dome over a football stadium, and everywhere—on the floor, the wall, the ceiling—milky white, bright calcified crystal, glittering darkly, like a secret barely kept.
I knew as I have known few things in my life: I had never been here before.
“Not much time,” our guide said, “but there one more thing to see.”
I wondered what he was so worried about the time for—it’s not like it was going to get any darker in here—when I realized that we still had a forty-five minute hike through the jungle to get back to the truck. That would be bad in the dark.
When we reached what appeared to be the end of the cave there was, of all things, a red aluminum ladder lashed to the rocks with cheap yellow rope. It seemed like cheating until I remembered the facts of our surroundings: there was no light except what you wore on your helmet, you were soaking wet in a sixty-degree cave, you were being led by an uncredentialed guide who had you down to your wet tube socks a couple thousand feet into the middle of the earth. If anything went wrong, it was difficult to imagine how the US consulate would ever find out. We would become the new remains. Before long, same as the old remains.
I don’t know when the last time you climbed a wet ladder in your wet socks was, but it had been quite some time for me. It’s like trying to walk across ice in roller skates or high heels. I was the last one up. The light from the others’ head lamps was just a few meters away, coming from something like an alcove or chamber. They were all huddled around something on the ground and their lamps made it shimmy in the dark. Circled around as they were, intensely focused, shoulder to shoulder, they appeared to be on the verge of performing some kind of ritual funerary rite. Then I saw it. The body.
Artifacts I was expecting, maybe even some bones or a random jaw here or there. But an almost entirely intact corpse, not so much.
She was, we were told, once a young Mayan girl, preserved in an inch of calcified crystal that looked like sparkly flesh. What I took to be the fullness of her form was really just new rock, growing, glowing out from her own bones. She lay on her back, somehow relaxed, and her head appeared to have been propped gently on a rock. Her arms were slightly askew, with one pulled up by the elbow and one of her legs was bent at the knee as though she might have had a rough night’s sleep. She did not appear to have suffered, nor did she appear to have been unwilling. Her skull was intact and her teeth were filed flat in the Mayan tradition. Every bone was accounted for as though this had only happened moments ago, and I suppose it could have except for the hundreds of years it would have taken for the crystalline shell that had grown from her bones. I’m sure she was a pretty girl, but she was a beautiful skeleton, turning as she was from flesh and bone to crystal.
The rest of the trip was an unspooling of that timeless moment. We made it down the ladder, out of the cave, out of the jungle. There were tarantulas, more sand fleas, a purported jaguar, a scorpion in the groom’s mother’s cabin, and, of course, our friends’ wedding that involved the last-minute bribing of an official, some high-speed driving on the part of Basilio to get the right paperwork in time and, finally a barefoot, beachside ceremony, but our trip really began and ended in that cave, at the stony, last bedside of that millennia-old virgin. As Wolf and Courtney took their vows, while my wife and I held hands and looked on, I wondered if there wasn’t a moment where, perhaps, like our about-to-be married friends, that Mayan girl too was asked a very serious, life-altering question before a group of her dearest friends, family, and clergy—a question to which she merely replied, “I do,” or, “Please,” I’m afraid, “Don’t.”
Matthew Batt is the author of Sugarhouse, and the recipient of grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and the McKnight Foundation. He teaches writing at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He’s at work on a novel called A Zodiac for the Lonely.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was surprised how difficult it was to write a travel essay that wasn’t only a retelling of an experience, but an experience in itself.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: To stop writing in the middle of a sentence—I think it’s one of those old Hemingway saws—so that you know where to begin the next time you pick back up. Even though it feels a little gimmicky, I follow it religiously and tremble when I don’t.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Andre Dubus’ short stories still leave me like I’ve been hit with a two by four. Especially “A Father’s Story.” Oddly, on the other end of the spectrum, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential made me realize you could sound like whoever you actually are in your writing and not worry about sounding like a watered down Henry James or something. And Dave Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius just totally unlocked something in my own work. I think I needed to know that some kid from a lousy suburb could write acrobatically just because he wanted to. And the other Dave—David Foster Wallace—not so much his fiction, but his essays. They just totally reinvigorated for me what was possible in the space of an essay.
A: I’m not fussy. I like chairs and desks. Tables will do. I’ve got a bunch of goofy talismans that I’ve accumulated over the years—a stone from the Ganges—a gilded aspen leaf—a coaster I cut out of a piece of slate—but I’ve made sure that I can take or leave them. I think it’s far more important to keep yourself nimble with respect to where you write—and what you do while you write—or else if you lose one of them or get evicted or have to quit smoking, there too go the words.
Juan Ochoa's Mariguano, reviewed by Liana Vrajitoru
Huntsville: Texas Review Press, 2014
Is it possible that a revolution has started? One way to look at it is to share in the enthusiasm of Juan Ochoa, author of Mariguano, through which he believes that he is helping take a major step in the right direction: Ending the war on drugs. If we look at it from this perspective, then, maybe yes, one way to end the war on drugs, or rather, one way to decrease the current violence is to have an honest look at the pre-cartel era and see what exactly led to the proliferation of the drugs-and-violence world that we see surrounding the border today, mostly on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, or the Rio Bravo when looking north.
Mariguano is a family novel and a bildungsroman, inspired in part by the reality in which Juan Ochoa grew up. It is a harsh world he portrays, where the larger-than-life, looming presence of the narrator’s father dominates the story and sometimes terrifies and appalls, sometimes imparts wisdom, sometimes even evokes some long lost values of family loyalty, and most of the time sheds light on the intricate workings of the drug trade and its ability to infiltrate and corrupt.
Being the son of the feared Julio Cortina—the one who was this close to buying the Mexican President before being betrayed by his most trusted man—makes for an interesting childhood and adolescence for Johnny, the narrator. It is great to have a lot of cash on hand, a gorgeous girlfriend, and several cars to impress one’s classmates, but it all comes at a price. Johnny is constantly awaiting his father’s orders, sometimes trapped for days in hotel rooms, and he also has to watch his back more often than not. Strange cars following him, he can’t really trust anyone, and sometimes he is the only cool head around when others are succumbing to cocaine binges.
It is no wonder, then, that the book is fast-paced and dominated by dread, yet not lacking a sense of humor and even a sense of nostalgia. There are pistoleros, prostitutes, sheep and lions; there is loyalty, there is corruption, and there is betrayal. Initially, the witness to the madness is a child, forced to grow up fast as he himself becomes part of the engine to the world of drugs, because there is no other reality for him as a teen and as he enters his twenties.
Events that are more and more dramatic lead to his departure from the world where he grew up, even as he is able to achieve some distance from this world. The shadow of the father’s memory clearly haunts the older Johnny. Even as an adult narrating about his past, he alone knows—and this is the biggest lesson he imparts in this book—that the big picture, the one we read about in newspapers or watch on TV, is always incomplete and such attempts to stop the drug violence tend to fail. The key is in the details: only understanding the day-to-day struggles of those who, like Johnny, knew nothing else for a long time other than their “family business” can one begin to think of how change can happen and where it could begin.
Juan Ochoa is licensed to practice law in his beloved Mexico. Ochoa has been everything from pistolero to professor and is currently teaching English at South Texas College. He lives happily with his wife and daughter in Mission, Texas, on Inspiration Road. Ochoa is an avid boxing fan. His work has been published in Boulevard; New Border: An Anthology; and Texas Review. Mariguano is Ochoa’s first novel.
Liana Vrajitoru holds an MA from Salisbury University and a PhD from Binghamton University. She has published academic work in Alecart, Texas Review, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Southwestern American Literature, The CEA Critic. She has published stories in Fiction International, The Raven Chronicles, The Horror Zine, The Willow Review, Mobius, a Journal of Social Change, Interstice, The Cloud Anthology, and upcoming in Scintilla, Weave Magazine, and Calliope. She received two Pushcart nominations (for fiction and for translation work).
Sergio Troncoso's The Nature of Truth, reviewed by Brandon D. Shuler
The Nature of Truth
Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2014
Sergio Troncoso’s first novel—recently revised, expanded, and rereleased by Arte Publico Press—is a daring departure from the personal essays Troncoso is famed for. Rigoberto Gonzalez stated “The Nature of Truth single-handedly redefines the Chicano novel and the literary thriller.” But The Nature of Truth is not a thriller in the sense of pulp fiction; no, Troncoso’s The Nature of Truth is a thriller in the way Richard Wright’s Native Son is a thriller. And it’s an erudite reader’s novel in the way of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is.Troncoso’s work places the reader on a knife’s edge of suspense, while challenging the reader to examine and question The [very] Nature of Truth, whether that truth be racially defined, intellectually constructed, or a scepter rising from ancient ideals of right and wrong.
Owing a huge debt to Nietzsche’s ideals of “On Truth and Lies in the Extra-Moral Sense” and his longer work The Birth of Tragedy, Troncoso’s The Nature of Truth’s protagonist Helmut Sanchez and the novel’s lesser characters Ariane Sassolini and Sarah Goodman believe they know the Truth of their Yale-protected worlds. But, through a series of fortunate, and some not-so-fortunate, encounters they soon find that nationalistic beliefs, those society promotes to hero status, and their own personal moral codes are merely constructed entities that can be eradicated and reconstructed according to an ever-evolving moral code that makes the nature of truth something that is as ephemeral as life itself.
The Nature of Truth’s underlying question and Troncoso’s definition of truth addresses the post-structuralist ideals of self-abstraction and the devolution of family, and in the greater sense community. Truth, as Troncoso’s and his characters find, would have been like trying to explain why you were truly in love with a particular person and how you knew what real love was. The experience of universal love linked you to every human being who had ever been in love. But it also particularized this love, with your own feelings and circumstances and capacities, so that no one else would know it as you did. (111)
Troncoso places the nature of truth into the realm of the totally subjective and eradicates the ideals of any remaining vestiges of a Kantian universal Truth. Troncoso blames this on the “expanding of the village” and the proliferation of various religious, political, and racial “bowls” that create “truth [as] primarily something understood, rather than something codified into law. Without the empathy for the other members of your community, the law became something to manipulate for your selfish benefit” (251).
Troncoso’s The Nature of Truth informs his mature works—From this Wicked Patch of Dust and Crossing Borders: Personal Essays—as they examine the ideas of borders, their permeability, and their dualistic nature of the real and the imagined. Without the intellectual questioning of truth in The Nature of Truth, his mature works, I believe, would not have been possible. Troncoso, primarily known for his US-Mexican Border works, is, as The Nature of Truth suggests, the brightest and most able of the modern Border writers and thinkers. And somewhere in Troncoso’s raising within the Border’s transnational diaspora, he found that the nature of truth can only be located in the confines of the self, the family, the community, and our own definition of the truth.
Sergio Troncoso is the author of five books:. Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence, winner of the Southwest Book Award and the International Latino Book Award; From this Wicked Patch of Dust; Crossing Borders: Personal Essays, winner of the Bronze Award for Essays from ForeWord Reviews; The Nature of Truth; and The Last Tortilla and Other Stories, winner of the Premio Aztlan Literary Prize and the Southwest Book Award. Troncoso was born and grew up in El Paso, Texas, the son of Mexican immigrants. He graduated from Harvard College and studied international relations and philosophy at Yale University. Troncoso was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund's Alumni Hall of Fame.
Brandon D. Shuler is Prime Number Magazine’s books review editor.
Interview with Barbara J. Taylor by Curtis Smith
Barbara J. Taylor
Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night
Brooklyn: Kaylie Jones Books, 2014
Barbara J. Taylor was born and raised in Scranton, PA, and teaches English in the Pocono Mountain School District. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from Wilkes University, and English and education degrees from the University of Scranton. She still resides in “The Electric City,” two blocks away from where she grew up. Her novel—Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night—was recently named a “Best Book of Summer” by Publishers Weekly magazine.
Curtis Smith: First novel. Congratulations. How does it feel?
Barb Taylor: Amazing. There are a lot of wonderful writers out there who may never have this opportunity, so I’m grateful and humbled.
CS: This novel must have involved a good deal of research. Can you take us down that road? There can be a dilemma for fiction writers working on a period piece—the struggle to make the story fluid and real without bogging down into a history lesson.
BT: It’s interesting. I didn’t start out to write historical fiction. When it was time to begin my novel as a student in the Wilkes Creative Writing Program, I simply followed my heart. I grew up hearing a story about my great-aunt who died tragically in the early 1900s, and I knew I wanted to incorporate that event into a novel. The story dictated the time period, so I found myself doing research the whole time I was writing. I spent hours at the Lackawanna Historical Society, the public library, and the Anthracite Museum to name a few places. It’s tricky when you’re writing a period piece. You’re always going to bring a modern sensibility to the work. It’s just a matter of balancing that with the language, imagery and syntax of the time.
CS: You mentioned that a very important part of this story has a place in the real-life history of your family. Can you tell us about that? Did this bring with it any added sense of urgency or responsibility?
BT: Let me start with the story. When she was almost eight years old, my grandmother’s sister, Pearl, was baptized. It was the Fourth of July, 1918. That night, she and her friends were playing with sparklers, and Pearl’s dress went up in flames. She survived for three days, and according to the story, sang hymns. When she died, everyone in town came to view the body of the little girl who sang hymns. Growing up, I heard this story over and over and knew I wanted to use it to inspire my fiction. When I started the novel, my grandmother’s sister, Louise, was the only sibling still alive. I went to see her and explained what I wanted to do. Technically, I didn’t need permission to use Pearl’s story, but I knew I couldn’t move forward without her blessing, which she generously gave.
CS: The book takes place in pre-WWI Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s a time when the city was extremely prosperous, yet beneath that wealth waited not just the divisions of race and gender and class common to that time, but also the darker side of industry, especially the anthracite coal industry—the unsafe working conditions, the child laborers. It’s such a rich background.
BT: So much was happening in Scranton at the turn of the century—coal mining, Vaudeville, electric streetcars. It was a time of great wealth for some, and extreme poverty for others. If you worked in the mines, you worked twelve hours a day, six days a week. For the most part, owners were not concerned with safe labor practices. And if a father died in the mines, his oldest son was expected to take his place in order for the family to keep the company home. Times were hard. Those people, to me as a writer, were resilient and fascinating.
CS: The Billy Sunday Snowstorm is such a great angle. For those unfamiliar with it, can you shed some light? Was it always in the back of your mind to use it in the novel? What special elements does it bring to the book?
BT: Growing up, my grandmother used to tell me that she was born during the “Billy Sunday Snowstorm.” On March 1, 1914, evangelist Billy Sunday preached three sermons in a wooden tabernacle built for his arrival. It started snowing that afternoon, and by the end of Sunday’s third sermon, some of the snowdrifts were ten feet high. Over 2,400 people got snowed in with the very charismatic evangelist, and as the story goes, they were all saved by morning. When I started writing Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night, I had two very loose ideas in my head. I wanted to start with a story similar to my great-aunt’s accident and end somewhere around the Billy Sunday Snowstorm.
CS: Your novel deals with grief and healing and faith. What draws you to these tides?
BT: For me, grief, healing and faith are all part of the human experience. While the novel certainly contains tragic elements and hardships, for me, it was always a story of hope.
CS: I’m always interested in the work habits of other writers. Can you tell us about your approach?
BT: I’m a high school English teacher by day, so my approach was simply to make time to write after lesson planning, grading papers and such. I wrote this novel mostly at night and on weekends because that’s when I could find pockets of time. I’m definitely someone who responds well to deadlines, so the Wilkes Creative Writing Program provided me with structure. I couldn’t wait for inspiration. I just had to write everyday in order to get my pages in by the due dates.
CS: What’s next for Barb Taylor?
BT: Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night is the first book in a trilogy. I have the first draft of the second book completed, so it’s time to start revising—again.
Curtis Smith is the author of the novels An Unadorned Life; Sound 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.
King's Highway 59 © Gord Harrison