Prime Decimals 61.2
by Jane Andrews
Followed by Q&A
Let’s say there’s nobody in the world who looks quite like her. Let’s say Richard recognizes her from the back as she leans over the trays of Harris Teeter sushi at 8:45 the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. His ex-wife Ellie is wearing her vintage black lamb coat with the rounded collar and her hand knit woolen mittens dangling loose from her sleeves by a fine braided rope of yellow, red, and orange ombre yarn. She knitted them herself during their last summer together, sitting on the back deck after dinner until the light failed and Richard had sat in the den with his ice melting in his gin and tonic while he read the latest biography of Harry Truman. Imagine Richard teasing her about making mittens with a string to run through the sleeves of her coat so they wouldn’t get lost. Imagine him asking, What are you, four years old? Mentally impaired, taking the short bus to school? Imagine Ellie remarking that Richard would do well to have such mittens as he was always losing one glove from his topcoat pockets. Usually when he took it off to scrape the ice off the car window. What’s the point of your polar fleece gloves if you only have one? Going to just keep the other hand in your pocket? What’s the sound of one glove clapping?
As Richard stands by the display of out of season cantaloupes bordered by cartoon turkeys with pilgrim hats, he stares at his ex-wife’s back and sees a memory projected on the lamb coat. It’s the one of that night in August when he woke in his chair with a jerk, sloshing gin and lime in his lap and flipping Harry Truman to the floor. The clock on the DVD player showed it was 11:47 and he could feel Ellie’s absence in the house. Richard wandered through the dim kitchen and over to the French doors. Picture him watching Ellie through the glass, the way he would watch a creature from a different world, a stingray in an aquarium or a wide eyed lemur at the zoo. Ellie sat in the suburban dark, not knitting. She had the cordless phone to her ear and a cigarette between two fingers of the other hand. Cigarettes? The words Ellie said into the phone reached Richard muffled by the muggy night and glass door. Her face in profile was partly eclipsed by her hair and the burning point of the cigarette slashed shapes in space as she gestured. Richard was mesmerized by the illusion of a light trail her conversation set in motion. Just like Ellie to talk with her hands to someone who couldn’t see them.
Let’s say Richard blinked and walked through the unlit house never having to put a hand out to find himself or steady his way, everything in their home so familiar, so solid, he did not need the light to locate himself. That August night, in an uneasy season of drought, humidity, and heat lightning that did not bring rain, Ellie eventually found her way to the bedroom. She returned her yarn and mittens to the basket by her side of the bed, the left and gently peeled the single top sheet back. But Richard was still half awake, surprising her by pulling off the tee shirt she wore to bed and saying, Put the mittens on. It had been a while. And Ellie had laughed, her salt and pepper curls shaking. She put the mittens on and soon Richard mounted her and felt her hands like paws slide down his buttocks and pull him deeper. He wound the cord attaching the left and right hands around the posts by the headboard of their bed, then took Ellie from behind like an explorer planting a flag and claiming her for Spain. Finally, Richard pulled the mittens over his own hands—as far as they would go---and caressed his wife with the slightly scratchy, slightly oily wool. Ellie cooed at the unfamiliar not quite rough texture on her bare flesh, but Richard only felt the curves and planes of her architecture, not the slippery, heated skin that he had thought he’d known by heart.
That was the last time Richard and Ellie were together, and now in the prepared foods aisle in November, Richard sees Ellie straighten up with a box of probably California rolls garnished with green plastic grass. The memory of that August which stretched from his life with Ellie to his life without her flickered up, lasted seconds, leaving him raw. He wishes he had never asked about the words he heard her say in the dark with the glass door between them.
Richard takes two steps toward Ellie standing in front of sushi, hummus, and baba gahnnouj and a tall man in a trench coat with a Burberry scarf comes up, places a hand on her shoulder and offers her a pomegranate. Richard hears the man’s voice, but not his words to Ellie. Ellie laughs, her curls shivering over the round collar of her coat. And Richard knows Mr. Burberry is sleeping with Ellie, that the shoulder squeeze is a signal of ownership, of an intimacy not yet routine, but not tentative either. Richard sees the man has close cut reddish brown hair and cheeks that are either chapped or the mark of an alcoholic. Not this guy, he wants to tell Ellie. Maybe not me anymore, but not this guy.
Richard is suddenly aware of his own body, still, in a stream of shoppers, calling attention to itself, embarrassing him. He walks purposefully toward the aisle with the French fried onion rings, canned green beans, and cream of mushroom soup. His empty basket fills with foods whose expiration dates he suspects may exceed his own. Whole families have bonded over green bean casserole, he thinks, hoping Ellie and Mr. Burberry are too sophisticated for such things, being buyers of sushi and pomegranates. Hoping they will buy their smoked salmon spread and crostini two rows away, and he will not have to face his ex-wife and her new boyfriend. Who, let’s imagine, is not so new, but has simply been unseen by Richard until today.
Imagine Richard, as the cashier with the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer pin asks if he found everything he was looking for today, feeling that he found much more than he was looking for---something to bring to Joel and Nancy’s holiday potluck---but at least he, himself had not been found. But in this Richard, who is prone to making assumptions, is wrong. He is popping the frozen windshield wipers from the icy crust that has formed while he was inside, when he gets the sense of being watched. He turns around to see a Volvo shush slowly by behind his car and an arm unfold out the passenger window, a hand waving an orange, red, and yellow mitten, the wrist curling side to side like a queen’s in a parade, and the owner’s face turns away from him toward the unseen driver.
Richard sits in his car with the door open, bare right hand losing feeling, burned by his own cold breath, blinded by the brightness of her goodbye.
Jane Andrews was the Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Second Place Winner. She has published poems, essays, and short stories in Red Clay Review, Main Street Rag, The News & Observer, Glint Literary Journal, among other places. She’s a freelance editor and workshop facilitator, as well as Associate Nonfiction Editor at Main Street Rag.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was surprised at the role the mittens took on and how they created a sort of echo against other images.
by Josh Keeler
ollowed by Q&A
The Zookeeper’s heart was broken like the crushed metal padlocks on the doors of each cage.
He scrambled back and forth through the zoo, peering into empty enclosures. A siren wailed deep in his chest, getting louder and louder until the entire zoo reverberated with the sound.
He fell hard to his knees in the middle of the park, tears pooling in his eyes. He looked down and asked the cracked ground, “Why have they left me?”
He knelt for hours, immobile. The dirt beneath him joined together in rivulets as each teardrop darkened it.
After noon, people filed through the front gate, past the unattended ticket stand, and into the heart of the small zoo grounds where they looked through the Zookeeper and into the cages. Little boys and girls kept asking Mommy where the animals were, if they were hiding in their houses.
Sometime later, the crowd dissipated. One by one the families left, some with furrowed brows, and others with thin lines stitched into their mouths. No one looked at the Zookeeper except for a woman near the back of the crowd.
She stopped just before leaving the center of the zoo where he sat on his feet. She smiled, her eyes creasing above her cheek bones, and walked to him, reaching down for his hands. Their eyes met and she pressed her fingertips into his palms.
“Wasn’t I good?” the Zookeeper pleaded.
“Oh, you poor man,” she said, “You were the best.” She let his hands slip away and turned to leave.
He watched the back of her head as she walked through the gate, her figure a silhouette against the evening sun.
Joshua Keeler hasn’t taken much time to write since graduating college, except for the corporate blog. Josh works as a production artist and marketing writer for a company in St. Petersburg, FL, where his main concern is staying sane in a morally ambiguous position. Josh focuses on writing poetry, but he’s trying to pour in fiction and essay writing as well. He has published work in Eunoia Review, Bitterzoet Magazine, and Half-Baked Lit Journal, and he has a poem (supposedly) forthcoming in University of Pittsburgh’s Collision Magazine. Josh hopes you’re having a good day.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The thing I kept telling myself while I wrote and revised this piece is, “only focus on what’s necessary. If it’s not important, cut it.” It took a lot out of me not to just scrap the entire thing and never show it to anyone. Then, after gaining some feedback, I found that the one thing I thought was necessary wasn’t at all, and removing it helped me appreciate the story much more. It’s interesting what you can do to a story by simply removing a name. I think writers spend a lot of time trying to come up with the perfect name for their character. In a lot of work, this is an important piece to the story. I was surprised by how irrelevant the name of my character was, especially when I’d been focusing on other irrelevancies.
How to Be Happy
by Tara Shea Burke
Eating beets is like giving the earth
mother gracious head. Yes, right there
she says, your tongue purple, tiny
traces of mineral left on the tongue.
These roots must be the divine source,
the earth’s top button, swollen and eternally
ready. Let her juices paint your face. This
is how to be happy. Lie down in summer
on your sweet belly and put your nose
in the grasses, nuzzle the fallen branches.
Her musk and sweat will teach you
to stop covering up. Stop shaving. Just
stop. See what happens as your dense
forest returns. Take meditative walks without
shoes. Feel your sciatic nerve take its journey
from your spine down your leg and into the beet
loving dirt. Look around. Breathe from your gut
and then deeper, from your pelvic floor. Open
wide and swallow a bug or two. The muse is in
you, she is your body and she is also on
the bunny’s bushy tail, in the broken glass
of abandoned brick houses, under the graves
of Civil War soldiers. She’s etched in stained
glass churches you’ll never attend because all true
godly people say not to worship her in rooms
or temples. The temple is the rock you finger
in your pocket as you toe the tracks of old trains,
the muddy rivers, the vultures and the sexing
cicadas, the teensy turtles and the siren in the distance,
the debt you’ll never repay, the tire-squished frog,
the messy hair you’ll comb in the morning, the smell
you smell when you let yourself smell. Sit naked
after a shower just to get comfy in your skin. Look
down and see the way the inevitable fat will roll
around and hide some bones, the way your breasts
point and sag, the way your penis hangs limp.
Touch yourself with meaning and without. Taste
yourself, too. Taste others. Lap it all up like a thirsty
dog and lie down wide, a five-pointed star
and swallow up all the suffering. Laugh
hysterically until it comes back a whisper
from the mountaintops. Sleep without fear
under this eternal, reaching blanket of sky.
Tara Shea Burke is a poet, feminist, activist, editor, and educator. She is poetry editor for The Quotable, teaches writing in Norfolk, VA, and yoga in the Hampton Roads area. Her poems and essays can be found in various publications and her chapbook, Let The Body Beg, was published in 2014 from ELJ Publications. She lives with her girlfriend, their 4 dogs, a cat, and 5 sassy chickens in Chesapeake, VA. Find more at http://tarasheaburke.wordpress.com/
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: This poem began after a ridiculously perfect week in the woods alone, at a writing retreat in Virginia. I was interested in writing a poem that collected as many messy, raw, bodily and earthy images as I could to express a kind of commanding joy, because it’s difficult to do and that week alone without responsibility brought life back to me. It’s probably my only truly joyful poem and I’m compelled to write more, and call others to do so as well. Be naked!
Caribou Postpartum from the Perspective of Grade Ten Biology
Richard Kelly Kemick
ollowed by Q&A
The anthropomorphizing of animals is the lowest form
of science, immediately beneath alchemy and notions of love,
if the two can be considered separate. The only thing “love”
and “evolve” have in common is the lettering.
Before he wrote that, our teacher had told us that when a wolf’s pups
are starving, it’ll take one far from the den, kill it, eat it, come back
and regurgitate it for the litter. A girl I’d spent the past two months
trying to date raised her hand and said that otters tie seaweed
around their pups so they don’t float away. So? he asked.
So not all animals are cruel. He nodded for a moment,
pausing to examine the shape of her argument.
Why do you think the wolf goes away? –– What? ––
Why do you think the wolf hides from the den before devouring the pup?
You see, the anthropomorphizing of animals is the lowest form of science…
After 254 days of gestation,
carrying him in the cocoon
of her body, she only has
an hour of postpartum feeding
before he drains her.
Kicking herself free,
she walks two metres
and for the first time obtains
the distance needed for clarity.
A week before my sister turned twenty-three, her girlfriend's
parents asked her to be a pallbearer for their only daughter.
Thirteen years from now, I’ll be sitting at the kitchen table
across from my own daughter who is colouring yet another bird
on a scrap piece of paper. Like me, she becomes obsessed with things
and can’t let go. What do you want to be when you grow up? –– A parrot.
I tell her of the time I became a caribou and her eyelids open
until I see full rings of white around her sea-green irises.
She believes me to the extent I believe myself. At the kitchen table,
we open ourselves like museum cabinets. At the end of the funeral,
my sister shook her head and said she couldn’t do it,
her hand hovering over the wood and brass handle.
The girl's father rested his arm upon my sister’s shoulder
and touched their foreheads together. He whispers,
We need to be more than what our bodies demand of us.
The calf rises with short-circuit
all knee and hip socket.
The cow bobs her head
along the thread of a vertical plane
until he jostles himself forward,
buckling at her hooves exhausted.
She doesn’t look down, rather turns
and trots four metres farther.
And he began to write what he was saying on the blackboard,
a film of white dusting his fingers. His back turned,
I looked up, past the handful of students copying it down,
to the five-litre jars of pickled animals.
…alchemy and notions of love, if the two can be considered separate...
There was a cat whose forepaw has pressed itself
against the glass: the fleshy yellow paw pads
and alcohol grey eye were the only colours in the silt.
Outside, the sun floated a higher angle and I watched
the fish-eye reflection of our class grow across the jar’s bend.
The wind ramping off her pelage,
she pivots, grunts from her chest,
and nods again.
With a lifetime of movement,
suicide comes as stillness.
If the calf cannot continue to move,
the mother will once again
push him from her body.
We buried my guinea pig in the back corner of my parents’ yard,
her shoebox coffin laid behind the poplar. I was too old to cry
but did anyway. Now, I’m living alone and one evening
I see a blur scamper along the baseboard. I put traps out
for three weeks but the mouse eats the food right from the trap’s teeth,
leaving half behind as a sort of humility. I resist naming it.
Another week, and the thin metal bites down, gets
its tail. The mouse clatters across the hardwood, writhing,
but when it sees me, turns still as water. I pick up the trap,
its body hanging like a dew drop, take it out onto the street
and have to bring down a scrap of wood twice before it’s dead.
If she migrates south alone,
you’ll almost be able to hear
the weight that rattles loose
behind her, like soup cans
behind a limousine.
It’s the calf’s scent
she is trying to understand,
trying to decipher it
among the calligraphy
...have in common is the lettering. An unexpected silence grew, our desks
creaking beneath our weight. He paced the classroom,
searching our expressions, wanting someone to challenge him,
to point to the selfishness of reproduction, its naive attempt
at immortality, but that we have within us things unseen
of great weight, colour, and expanse, like butterfly wings
cutting through caterpillar skin. The bell rang
and I went to talk to otter girl. He watched everyone leave,
standing in front of the board, forgotten.
She can only acquire his smell
by dislocation, the things
you assumed were a part of you
but only recognize when they're gone.
She needs to ensure
that they will recognize each other
through the soft fog of chaos,
desperation. The calf rises
and their eye-contact
is held thick as leather.
My sister believes in love the way my science teacher believed in loss.
I’m unsure of either but will defer to otters tying their seaweed
and wolves tasting their pups, to parrot feathers and a handful of earth
tossed over polished wood, to animal-shaped clouds of silt,
shoeboxes, tails of field mice, and the floral growth
of butterfly wings. In grade eleven, I would learn that “lanugo”
is the soft, fine hair that covers the body of a fetus.
In the womb’s peach light, we aspire to be animals. And we are.
Unfaltering, the cow
continues to pump
her head, her neck rolling
like deep waves of sound,
refusing to break
the hold of her brown eyes
––like she cares.
Richard Kelly Kemick's debut collection of poetry, Caribou Run, is set for publication in Fall 2016. He has been published in magazines across Canada and the United States.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: There can never be true poetry until Tibet is free.
A Night at Wara Wara
At the jukebox machine, Matt turns around as if he suddenly got struck by a live wire. In the darkened confines of the underground bar Wara Wara, I can see sparks flying out of his eyes—the look he gets when he’s four hours into his binge drinking sessions.
“YOU LOST THE FUCKING WAR,” he shouts.
In perfect Japanese, too (low guttural threatening voice of the old samurai dramas), which wouldn’t mean much to most bar patrons in the rest of the world, but we’re right smack dab in Tokyo, in Yakuza territory too, with their ultra-conservative goons in blackened buses parked somewhere nearby, just a block away.
I sink into my seat covering my face with my hands, hoping that no one heard. It’s a young crowd with mostly university-aged couples and groups. As far as I know, these guys could care less about the war—ancient history to them anyways. There are better things to think about like what hair colour is in this year? Or where to go on holidays during Obon Festival? What good is it to drudge up the stories of grandpa when you are thinking of what the heck you’re going to order next: octopus balls or tofu salad?
It’s all cool; everyone is still drinking their cheap all-you-can-drink sake (that’ll hurt in the morning) and laughing the good life of youth. If they did hear, they’ve got enough sense to ignore the ranting of a Gaijin gone wacko.
A gaijin that got dumped by his Japanese girlfriend. The same story told a million times. Just another day in the Big Sushi. At least this time it’s a little different from the script: Matt’s diatribe against Japanese nationalists.
He would know too because he teaches high school history. He knows the history books are written by the conquerors and yes, he is a descendant of the conquerors so that gives him the moral leverage he needs to harangue the patrons of Wara Wara, or Laugh Laugh in English.
Matt is not smiling let alone laughing and takes a sip from his glass mug glancing over at the flashing neon lights of the jukebox and the spinning vinyl.
Aside from a man who stands up to go to the washroom, the bar and everyone in it seems to be at equilibrium. Ah, the Wa is restored.
But (the hell with the Wa; the Wa is in fact fueling his animosity), Matt continues: “You have no right to treat us like this (I sink further into my seat and wish he wouldn’t use ‘us’; singular first-person would be more than adequate.)
“How many innocent people did you kill?” He pauses for effect.
“How about Nanking?”
Oh shit. He’s got that wild-look in his eyes and gesticulating with his arms, pointing with his extended finger, as if he were in front of a classroom. I notice some young men looking up from their conversation and taking notice of poor Matt, and then they shoot a look at me, like warning shots over a bow of an intruding ship, to shut up my gaijin friend.
I gulp down the rest of my cheap sake (hell, it’s all-you-can-drink and what are painkillers for anyways if not for cheap sake). Luckily no Thompson-ian moment, I don’t see Matt pouring beer over his naked chest, nor do I see bats swooping down from the low ceilings; what I do see though right in front of me is Matt slouching against the jukebox (how did I get here from my seat?).
I put up both my hands in front of me showing that it is I, his friend, his co-worker, his sympathizer, but he looks at me (those damned alcohol-soaked eyes again) as if I were a Japanese soldier surrounding as a POW. He grabs me by my shirt collar bunched up in his fists and slurs something about Hiroshima.
I, too, have an incendiary device of sorts, which I feel I must use in a time like this. Besides, it was Sober Matt who had once advised me that under such circumstances, it was my duty as a friend.
So, I look Matt right in the eyes and tell him about his father, the alcoholic father who almost drank himself to death and who beat his mother and her two sons. The same father that Matt didn’t want to become when he was an adult. But now look at you, I tell him, you are your father’s son.
I expect a bop under the chin, but Matt lets me go and drops his chin to his chest. The whole restaurant seems to heave a sigh of relief or is it just me. No, of course, it was the sound of Wa saturating the very air. The young are still sipping at their Sapporo beers and smoking their Mild Sevens.
Hauquan Chau teaches writing at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Canada. He has been writing creative non-fiction for the last 15 years. His piece entitled “Teaching the F-word” was included in the Best of Creative Nonfiction: Vol. 2. He was recently accepted into the MFA Program in Creative Non-fiction at King’s College in Halifax.
American Falls (#10)
The view is better from the other side, but he refuses to cross over the river border, so great is his hatred for America’s former masters. He’s content to see the falls from this limited view, to watch the horseshoe thunder from a distance. The other set, American Falls, is better seen from the Canadian side; but on the American side, from where John Tyler stands, he can see from where the water falls but not where it lands. It’s a problem of perspective. A problem of vision. A problem of not knowing where the story ends, only how it begins.
The ground is falling away. Horseshoe Falls grinds down the clay of the riverbed by almost four feet each year.
Tyler’s here only because he steps forward when the ground disappears. Harrison dies, and Tyler says: I am President. I am not acting President, or temporary President. I am the President.
And it works. The ground stops vanishing. The Congress does not take control. He is President.
But nature is a force. The erosion starts again. The man called Clay wants control. Tyler won’t fall, won’t turn over, won’t go over the falls in a barrel so the Whigs can run the country. His footing fails, he fumbles. He’s abandoned, a man without a party, adrift. The visit to Niagara is a ritual performed by presidents, an incantation against collapse, against the forces of history, which are the forces of nature. Keep us whole, they say. Keep us together. At the place where America ends, the Chief Executive prays for unity.
Tyler loses the thread. His party leaves him, nominates another man for 1844, although Tyler still runs for the office.
Finally, it crashes, splinters on the rocks below. Tyler retires. Older, he chairs the Virginia Peace Convention in 1861. Without regrets, he votes for secession, to dissolve the union. He had taken the oath of office when Harrison died, had sworn to defend the Constitution of his Union. And yet, and yet. He dies in Richmond two years later, a citizen of a foreign country, buried in a foreign land, far from Horseshoe Falls, far from the vanishing ground, buried, at last, in solid ground.
Colin Rafferty teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Mary Washington and lives in Richmond, Virginia, where he can visit the grave of John Tyler as often as he likes. Other essays on the presidents have recently appeared in Brevity (Grant), Cobalt (Bush Sr), and Parcel (Bush Jr).
I grind my teeth at night. When I say grind, I mean gnash. I gnash hard. Masticate is a better word. When you say it aloud, you almost have to chew it.
Masticate: a word that captures the fricative sounds of the mouth, sharp as incisors; the taste of toothdust on my tongue; a jaw worn with worry.
I know what I am chewing. I am grinding up the night of my rape into something I can swallow. I am softening the edges with my spit. Rolling the clips like a film on my tongue, over and over again, gnashing each frame: the hooded eyes, the grit of a zipper, knuckles stiff as stones, my swollen throat, the bitter gag.
The tile, cold as frozen meat on a fresh contusion.
The grate of grout on my spine.
A pistol kissing my skin, my daughter a room away.
If you scream again, I’ll kill her.
So I didn’t.
Sometimes, now, when I wake, my teeth are a deadbolt lock— my jaw a throbbing muscle letting no one in. I have to bring my fingers to my mouth to remember I can open it, to remember that this mouth is my own.
Sometimes, when I wake, I go to her. My daughter, sleeping. She is grinding—
her jaw afire with crackles and jerks. I can almost see her molars splintering, sawing down, the very teeth that cut through her sturdy gums now becoming nubs.
I am sure one night when I went to tuck her in, I was grinding. Maybe I checked under the bed or glanced over my shoulder or peeked into the closet, under the bed, to make sure we were alone. Maybe I startled at the sound of the air kicking on. Without knowing, I taught my daughter how to chew. And by way of a goodnight kiss, I spit it all into her mouth— my baby bird.
Now she chews and chews. I watch her sleeping, chewing the words that are too big, impossible to pronounce. I watch her gnawing all the hurt I have handed down to her, all of the panic handed down to her, the whole history of violence on our kind sealed behind my daughter’s lips.
Whitney Templeton received her MFA from University of South Florida, where she currently teaches Digital Rhetoric. After earning her degree, she co-organized a writing-centered therapy group in her community for female victims of violence, and she serves on the editing team for Sweet: a Literary Confection. Whitney’s poems have appeared in Barnstorm Journal and Cheat River Review among other journals. This year she was awarded the Fairhope Nonfiction Prize, and her essay, "Body Cavities," was named Runner Up for the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction. In 2015, “Body Cavities” will be published in Bellingham Review.
Prime Decimals 61.3
Vladimir and Estragon
by Grace Curtis
Followed by Q&A
The day is bathed in the uneasy light
of irreverence. It's like this each day—
the day dressing in a form
it's been given; or, rather,
falling into it without thought,
as if it were a calling. I want
to call upon a bird
to fill in the empty spaces.
I want this to be about wingspan
and instinct, about how a bird finds
shelter in the green leaves of a lilac
bush. How it waits. Have you ever noticed
how things wait? How
a cat skulks at the perimeter,
moving nothing. Even when no leaf
lifts, he waits. An experiment,
that began years ago, observes
coal tar pitch fall, one drop
at a time, once every decade.
The cat waits, the day buttons
itself into whatever cloak
it's handed, the bird holds
its breath in the thicket. Coal tar
pitch gathers into a tear, and waits.
Grace Curtis’s book, The Shape of a Box, is available from Dos Madres Press. Her chapbook, The Surly Bonds of Earth, was selected by Stephen Dunn as the 2010 winner of the Lettre Sauvage chapbook contest. Her prose and poetry can be found in such journals as The Chaffin Journal, Sou’wester, Red River Review, The Baltimore Review, Waccamaw Literary Journal, and Scythe. She works for The Antioch Review. Grace blogs about poetry at www.N2Poetry.com. Her website is www.gracecurtispoetry.com.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: I had to cut a lilac bush down, feeling bad about it because I knew small birds sought refuge there from predators. Fortunately, by winter, it had grown back enough to, once again, be a good waiting place.
White Girl, Black Boy
ollowed by Q&A
The human skin is now the only existing surface
That has survived a history of cut and paste manifest destiny
The dermis has become an interlocutor of presenting, as a surface
It both jails, skyrockets the contours of the landscape and flesh
I imagine, imagining my imaginations
What if white is not?
A smudgy pinkish colour?
The black boy thinks: If I was really black, I might not really be seen
Because I could hide things in my own blackness and if she were really white
When she is being white, white as family tree white
She wouldn’t see me, for she would only be the wind
Light stripes of wind, pinned around my corporeal clothes
Like cold tasting light, itself in the mouth of itself
The white girl thinks: It is a black skin muddled, annihilated of its truth
No more his own skin; crythematous-patches, necrotic tissues-indurated
Skin boiling in its blackness
The black thing always, wanting, needling…
Getting in the way,
Like the deadly white of the sky
She inherited the whiteness
The sugar coating whiteness
It is whiteness
She thinks, and you can’t deny her that: This is the fire injected by history into my veins.
A white horned hunger to live, as long as bacteria
In this whiteness
Whiteness as white-coloured white?
The two, the white girl and the black boy, are talking of the cloudy of ice-cold that is always hovering on either side of this harness, the weave is the skin, which attempts to harness a centrality of spirit, and the rituals each of the two enacts to cipher it out in their relationship.
But, I will do an Alice walker here
And I imagine, with Walker, the psychic liberation of black if it understands
Black is not really black
I imagine, still with Walker, the exhilarating feeling of white if it could walk (doing a Walker with me) away from the caged feeling
Of its body, in its own skins
Tendai R. Mwanaka is a multidisciplinary artist from Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe. His work touches on literary discplines (non-fictions, poetry, plays, fictions), music and sound art, visual art (photography, drawings, paintings, video), mixed genres and mixed discplines etc... Keys in the River, a novel, came out from Savant Books, 2012; Zimbabwe: The Blame Game, a book of creative non-fictions, came out from Langaa RPCIG, 2013. Forthcoming books; Zimbabwe: The Urgency of Now (creative non-fictions) from Langaa RPCIG, A Dark Energy (full-length novel) from Aignos Publishing. Work has been published in over 300 journals, anthologies and magazines in over 27 countries.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: This is an experimental poem that mixes genres like prose (essay and a bit fiction), and poetry, and it is written from the different viewpoints of at least three people. Exploring how skin-deep is our perception of our differences (White, Black, Colored, Asian etc.) and how we have used these colors to create barriers between ourselves. It is inspired by these few words by Alice Walker, “Imagine the psychic liberation of white people if they understood that probably no one on the planet is genetically ‘white.’”
Followed by Q&A
Before I leave the house in the mornings my mother taps the antique barometer with her nicotine-stained index finger. The needle wavers and then settles halfway between “Change” and “Fair.” I dip my fingers in the wooden Holy Water font and make the sign of the cross. She kisses me on the forehead with her bristly lips and I stride down the path towards the still-wreathed in mist Dublin Mountains. I am nine and the walk to school is fifteen minutes door-to-door. The remnants of a hedgehog sit next to the storm drain by the telephone pole.
Stray cats, whose chorus makes enough of a racket to raise the dead, populate the lanes behind our house. In the darkness I can see their silhouettes on the back wall, sultry creatures steeped in witchcraft and bad luck. The neighbor across the road throws stones at the cats, all the while puffing on his cigarette. Every so often he scores a hit and cries out, “Chalk one up for the good guys!”
Nightly, my mother puts three drops in each eye to keep the dryness at bay. Her kitchen cupboard houses eight kinds of medication, instructions printed in small type on the narrow white labels. I’m not sure how she keeps all of the doses and times straight, but when I ask her if she’s making sure to take her pills, she says, “Of course, do you think I’m daft?”
On the phone the other day, she asked me five times whether I was happy to be back teaching in the classroom. I hadn’t the heart to tell her it had been almost a year since I returned to the high school. “Your brother is leaving for America tomorrow,” she told me five times, also.
When my father was sick, she took charge of making sure he took his medication and when the hospital said they’d have a nurse stop in to change the bandages on his leg, she told them not to bother, that she’d take care of him just fine. He’s been dead fourteen years now and the shoe is on the other foot; only he’s not there to tie the laces.
When I visit her over spring break, I check her bathroom to make sure she’s using the shower. Daddy Long-Legs webs are the prominent feature in the shower stall, the walls and floor dry as the Californian landscape I’ve recently escaped. Indignant when challenged, she says, “I take a bath a few days a week.” Who am I to argue? Instead, I mosey into her bathroom when she falls asleep in front of the television set. The face cloth is damp and the towels dry. Best I can figure is she’s dabbing herself with the cloth and leaving it at that.
At night I lay sleepless, jetlagged, listening to the sounds of the house. Outside, nightjars sing and flit from branch-to-branch of the bare trees. Worry is my name, the second son of the woman asleep on the other side of the landing; her snoring, a symphony. I hum to its tune until I fall asleep sometime before dawn.
The bulb-holder is brass and not securely attached to the lamp. If you time it just wrong you can feel the hum of electricity running down to the wall socket. When I was a small boy I placed a wet hand on a light switch and was thrown across the room. I cried and blamed my brother for hitting me, but my mother said he’d been nowhere near me.
Potatoes & Chicken
The spuds in her downstairs bathroom have sprouted limbs. Lumpy potato monsters crawl across the tiled floor, blind and lost. On top of the gas furnace next to the fridge, a Tupperware of raw chicken sits like one of my students’ unfortunate science experiments. The stench is mighty, and Jesus knows when the breasts were set out to thaw.
I sing the song as I walk down to the shops to buy the newspaper. “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl…” If you see a singleton magpie it’s best to spit on the ground so you’re not dogged by bad luck. The magpies are sheened birds with glinting eyes. Their industry is remarkable and I spend a long time outside the newsagent’s shop watching them go about their business. “Dirty creatures,” my mother calls them. They remind me of undertakers, with their black & white plumage and officious way of bustling about.
The Liffey rushes through the town and beneath the narrow bridge, the water slate-gray and foamy. A heron wades deliberately in the narrows, its slender legs more suited to a child’s construction set than their actual purpose. Out the window of a pub I watch the bird stalk some small creature for its prey. Time does the same thing to my mother; the patient waiting, the unrushed watching as she slowly forgets to take care of herself. Eventually, the heron pierces a mouse with its long, slender beak, the chase over. It feasts. So, too, my mother will succumb when in a moment of stumbling forgetfulness she might miss a step at the top of the stairs, or take too many pills, too many times. Watchful, I am unable to rescue the mouse from the final strike, and unless something is done soon, I’ll be unable to warn my own mother of the waiting predator.
In plastic bags of indeterminate vintage are snapshot envelopes containing thousands of photos going back to the early days of the last century. Dead relatives stare defiant into the lens of an old Kodak Brownie; like the one my mother used use when we were kids. Housed in a brown leather case, the lens extended on a black accordion-style contraption and she would say, “Watch the Birdie!” Some years back I wrote her and asked if she’d catalog the photos as best she could, but the task must have seemed overwhelming and on my last visit the negatives and snapshots were untouched.
She’s smoked for over seventy years, religiously, a devout follower of nicotine. Her fingers are stained the yellowish-ochre color of the most committed disciple. Our house growing up stank of cigarette smoke, our clothes, too, and the car. Ashtrays dotted the landscape of our house, small graveyards of butts, a peculiarly dissonant form of potpourri. Somehow, she doesn’t smoke in bed. Small mercies. Burn the house down. We worry, nonetheless. Her chair, a broken-down armchair that’s been in the sitting room for twenty or more years, is spotted, like a leopard’s hide, with the burns of dropped cigarettes from when she’s nodded off in front of the television. The same chair is in the corner of her room in the nursing home. Has to go outside to smoke there, down two floors and out into the cold. At least she’s exercising.
A box of love letters and cards sent from old girlfriends, a small, silver Celtic knot ring, business cards, and journals. I left these things behind when I abandoned Ireland for the west coast of the United States. I thought I asked my youngest brother to mind them for me, but someplace between flight and his moving house, the box disappeared. My mother is like that box of belongings; her memories and verbal tics soon to fade from memory as the outer shells of her stacked-doll self fall away and reveal a lonely emptiness at the core. Sometimes, I wonder if a stranger in a dump stumbled across all those letters sent to me by now middle-aged women? I don’t know who my mother is any more, her withdrawal shattering my certainty, my self-knowledge of who I am and from whence I came.
The great horned owls came back just the other night. Missing for months, these light-boned creatures flew into the thick branches of the MacArthur avocado trees and reignited their cross-orchard conversations. In the light of the super moon I saw one’s shadow cross the meshed window, a soul in movement, perhaps a message from another place. Late, the hooting quieted, there’s a sudden energy and a frantic thrashing in the dead leaves beneath the tree. Half awake, my fast-beating chest stills only when the talons pierce my skin.
Writer James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. He is fiction editor at Literary Orphans, and the author of the short fiction collection, Blood a Cold Blue. His work is forthcoming in the W.W. Norton Anthology, Flash Fiction International.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: Discovered the final paragraph I had originally included made no sense at all to the overall flow of the piece. I was disappointed, since I thought it was great when I wrote it! On revision, it clearly didn’t
Two Short Essays
Followed by Q&A
Why are we drawn to heights, so eager to look down the tunnel of a heady spin? As kids we opened the attic windows, tied string to our toys and hurled them at the driveway, or else bombed the car with wet cotton balls. Just like that seventh grade boy who dropped my sister’s baby doll from the upper deck onto the gym floor, its soft tumbling limbs and yarn hair disrupting a scrum of basketball players who squinted up at us, baffled.
I say this because today in the stairwell, I can’t help myself. I stop at the fourth floor, lean over the carved bannister and spit. It’s something about the ornate curl of hard marble, the winding up, the vertical layers of spoke and step, the inevitable mirage of movement—I must make myself clear. I’m having none of it.
Because at the clinic, when the doctor lays out our odds, I am the cartoon character hanging in midair before he falls. Why should I have stood there while that boy dangled a doll by her foot, hoping he would let it happen?
Gravity is a force best tested. We must remind ourselves again and again. The safety that keeps us pinned will bring us down.
Outside the Wythe Hotel
Three things happened that night. I got exuberantly drunk at a rooftop bar. Mistaking us for interlopers, a girl shouted at us on the street. L. called to say she was dying.
The chronology is fuzzy, as you’d expect. I can see across the intersection, one of a crew of slumping hipsters, a white girl with dreadlocks, screaming. I can see my own feet in the watery glow from shop windows, the burn of neon. I can see the rustic chic of the wood-walled elevator, the clean bends and squares of sofa and table, how all of it pales against the glittering skyline.
It is mere coincidence in the truest sense, the coinciding of these events, as meaningful as three pennies drawn from a purse. I will confuse correlation with causation, claim I drank because I’d found out, but let’s be fair. I would have anyway.
We laughed at the girl howling, “Get out of my neighborhood!” We laughed because she was so young and didn’t she know through how many hands that neighborhood had already passed? We laughed because she mistook us for someone else. We didn’t live in Williamsburg. We were just looking for a drink.
I walked with the phone pressed to my ear, the footfalls of my dress shoes crisp on the cement. L. told me the scan showed spots on her brain, a side effect of the chemo to treat her other cancer, something she must have known was possible. But when your choices are cancer or cancer.
A bar on a rooftop seems a foolish idea, too easy to lose your senses, the whorl of light and music, the precarious pinpoint. I held my breath, my drink tighter, the wall when I looked down, the drop always enough to terrify me. Too easy.
I can’t remember what L. said anymore. If it had been me, I would have said, this isn’t my life.
When I laughed because the girl was drunk, because there was no crime, it was foolish, a bar on a steeple. Somehow neighborhoods are stolen, yet we don't own a place, our senses, even our lives.
Maureen Traverse earned an MFA from Ohio State University. Her flash fiction has appeared online in elimae and Staccato Fiction, and in the print anthology Flash 101: Surviving the Fiction Apocalypse. She is currently at work on a novel.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: I had the privilege of studying with Erin McGraw, whose work is a stunning model for how to write characters who are as endearing as they are frustrating. Her dialogue is also dazzling. Pretty much every time I sit down to write, I’m longing to do what Alice Munro does with time and perception. I was twenty-two when I read Nell Freudenberger’s first book, Lucky Girls, and I remember feeling convinced I’d figured out how I wanted to write—with delicate grace on the complicated emotional lives of people who, for one reason or another, find themselves outsiders.
Followed by Q&A
Kenny Rasnick, owner of Piney Ridge Video Emporium, is a pudgy little fellow, orange-haired and milk-skinned, not the most agile creature on God’s green earth, but he has managed, with some effort, to flop one leg over the handrail of Dog Leg Bridge. A hundred and twenty feet below Dog Leg Bridge runs the white-capped, rock-infested water of the Big Piney River. Kenny, with one leg over the railing and the other leg kind of hopping, or jouncing, in order to maintain his balance, doesn’t want to look down, so he looks up instead, at the blue sky and the combed-wool clouds, and he thinks about a documentary he watched a few years back, a film about people jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. He thinks about how beautiful it was, the bridge and San Francisco, with the gray fog and the gray water and sometimes the blue sky and the blue water, and always the stillness of it, filmed from a great distance, and those tiny little black dots or specks—bodies—falling occasionally from the bridge, falling, drifting, to the water below. But what he remembers most about the documentary is the fact that the people who survived the jump, the people who were interviewed after they were pulled from the water, almost every one of them, to a person, said that they had changed their mind on the way down, and that the insurmountable problems which had driven them to perform such a desperate act really didn’t—they had concluded during freefall—really didn’t amount to a hill of beans. Which is all well and good, thinks Kenny, jouncing on the bridge with his one available leg, but I’m definitely not like that. I will not change my mind, even on the way down. My mind is well and good made up. I am a determined being performing a necessary act.
It’s 10 o’clock in the morning, and Gloria Perlmutter, youngest daughter of Ed and Phyllis Perlmutter, walks along the eastern bank of the Big Piney River. She intends to make it to the high bluffs, the ones near Dog Leg Bridge, by noon. Noon would be a good time to do it, Gloria thinks. Sundown would be better, but that would mean she’d be stuck out there in the middle of nowhere just as it was getting dark. And sunrise would be good too, but the same problem with the dark, but in the morning. So noon it is. In her pocket is a letter from a boy she dated in high school, a boy named Stuart, but whom everyone called “Bertie,” who went off to college last year. The letter is not the recent letter in which Bertie wrote to Gloria to tell her he was maybe possibly interested in seeing other girls (meaning, of course, that he had already been fucking some bimbo from his English Lit class at State), but instead in her pocket was the letter Bertie had written when he was still just a boy, four years ago, a letter declaring his eternal love for Gloria, in which he used phrases like “soulmate” and “star-crossed,” the sorts of phrases she now finds to be silly, of course, but which still hold for her the piquancy—yes, piquancy—of young and true and very first love. If and when she reaches the high bluffs, she intends to tear the letter into tiny pieces and scatter it to the wind, which will enable her at last, at long last, to forget the awful boy forever so that she can become the emotionally mature and independent human being she wishes to become, and to forget the piquancy—no, the naïveté—of young love.
Pastor Daniels has prayed on this for a good long time now, and has come to the conclusion that he, himself, is, in fact, a good person.
Marietta Miller, of 253 E. Elm Street (the house with the picket fence) washes the breakfast dishes while looking out the window at the cocker spaniel tied up in the backyard. A smarter person than Marietta might make a metaphorical connection between herself and the dog, who, for the first month after arriving at the Miller household had strained incessantly against the chain which held her, but who now, a year and a half later, has given up the struggle entirely. Marietta has been rinsing the same ceramic mug (“World’s #1 Wife/Happy Anniversary Darling”) for three and a half minutes, not thinking about the dog but thinking instead about what she found in the garage in the box marked “Spare Engine Parts” which was buried in a corner under three old tires her husband had removed from the Pontiac at least two years ago. In the box were not Spare Engine Parts but pornographic magazines, twenty-four of them, which did not really surprise Marietta much at first—men were like that, after all—but on closer inspection did in fact surprise her when the magazines turned out to be more disturbing than she had first imagined. Each photograph in the magazines depicted one woman and two men, in varying states of undress. In each photo the woman and one of the men wore wedding rings, while the extra man did not. Her brief investigation of the magazines included reading selected stories that accompanied the photographs. From the photos and the stories, she learned all she needed to know. Her discovery had taken place only two days earlier, and now Marietta stares out the window at the cocker spaniel, her shock and grief and disgust having abated for just a moment, and she allows herself to thumb through an invisible list of men she knows, men not her husband, wondering who among them might be a potential extra man, and she thinks of Kenny Rasnick, the nice man who owns the video store, and she thinks about the moment they shared only last week, when she had visited the store, and Kenny, reaching past her to pluck a video box from a shelf, had accidentally (was it accidental?) brushed his milky white, orange-haired forearm against her breast. Marietta allows herself to follow this thought, thinking about Kenny, about how Kenny might look, about how Kenny might move, smile, be, in her bedroom, peeling himself out of his blue jeans and nice white dress shirt, looking up at her, moving toward her, how tender he would be, how gentle, what a peace-filled man he was, so kind, so generous, how Kenny would touch her cheek and her neck and—Marietta has another thought, a quick thought, a horrible thought, about her husband, and the bluffs of Big Piney, where she and he sometimes go on picnics, and how high the bluffs are, and how long the fall would be, but of course, she thinks, I could never do such a thing.
Frank Dunn, 27, has his feet up on the desk, elbows on the arms of the office chair, fingers laced over his paisley necktie. The small insurance office at the corner of Jefferson and Pine is quiet, as it often is. The windows are open. A breeze blows through. Frank Dunn is alone in the office, as he often is. His eyes are closed. He is deep within his own imagination. He’s imagining what it might have been like, how his life might otherwise have gone, if he hadn’t listened to his parents, back when he’d gone off to college. He’s thinking how it might have been if, instead of getting a degree in Business Management as they’d insisted he do, he had instead gotten a degree in Film Studies; how it might have been if he hadn’t come back to Piney Ridge to take care of his aging mother. In the back of his mind is a rhythm, the rhythm of the words of a poem he once read. He can’t recall them, the words, but his back-mind remembers something about a statue, and the soft, declarative nature of the phrasing. He’d be in L.A. right now, most likely, is what his front-mind is thinking, selling one of the screenplays that right this very moment sit in the bottom drawer of this very desk. The quiet insistence of the rhythm. The statue. He could still do it, of course. Move to L.A. Of course. It’s never too late.
Jerry Falsmith, second string lineman on the Piney Ridge High School football team, walks along Jefferson Avenue. He would be kicking stones as he went, if he thought nobody would see him. That’s what he wants to do, run crazily, arms akimbo, whooping, kicking stones. Jerry Falsmith is happy to be alive today because of what happened last night at Kim Neefeld’s party. Last night, Bill Haney, first string lineman on the Piney Ridge High School football team, beat the shit out of Jerry. Which is reason enough for Jerry to be happy—simply being alive today, after the thorough trouncing he took—but more importantly than that, what makes Jerry not only want to run crazily, but also makes him want to whoop, is what happened after Bill Haney beat the shit out of him. After Bill Haney had gotten done, after he’d beaten Jerry into a bloody pulp, Bill Haney had started crying. They were alone in the alley behind Kim Neefeld’s house, and Bill was straddling Jerry. Jerry was flat on his back and Bill was sitting on his chest. What happened then was strange. Bill Haney had started crying, and bent his head down next to Jerry’s head and said something about love and something about regret, and then he turned and kissed Jerry on the mouth, which surprised the hell out of Jerry, and probably surprised the hell out of Bill Haney too. Jerry wanted at first to scream from the pain of the pressure on his busted lip, but mostly what he wanted was for the kiss to keep going. Which it had done, for a good long time. Bill left the party soon thereafter, and Jerry left too, alone. Jerry walked the streets all night, and watched the sun come up, and now, maybe 10 o’clock in the morning, he is overcome with something, something without words, probably, and wants to run crazily, wants to fling his arms akimbo, wants to whoop. He laughs to himself, thinking what it might be like, him and Bill running off somewhere, living a whole life together, and then he thinks another thought, something along the lines of, well, what if word got out, what if word about last night got out, and what if he, Jerry, spun it in a certain way, left out the part about kissing Bill back. Oh how the other kids would ridicule Bill Haney, what beasts they would be, what revenge that would be for all the times Bill Haney had threatened Jerry and hurt and bullied him, even though Jerry had always tried his very best to avoid Bill altogether, tried not to steal glances at him in the locker room, tried like hell not to brush against him in doorways. Jerry, now, walking steadily down the sidewalk, weighs the values of both love and revenge, knows that love is the more important, is all-important, and he decides once and for all that, even if he and Bill don’t end up together, he’ll never, ever betray Bill’s confidence, that shared moment, that gift.
Toby Ainsworth, 7 years old, lies face-down on his bed, wiping his tears against the clean white sheets. Toby cannot go outside today because he has been relegated by his parents to remain indoors, grounded for trying to light the tail of the Miller’s cocker spaniel on fire. In an emotional turnabout unusual for a boy of his age, Toby is contrite about the attempted act, and vows that he will never again harm a living creature.
The streets of Piney Ridge are mostly empty, except around Chub’s Diner, where the men gather on Saturday mornings to eat fried eggs and icing-drizzled doughnuts, and to talk about farm equipment and the upcoming mayor’s race and whether or not the current war in the Middle East is a good thing or a bad thing. Homeless Henrietta, age and origin unknown, sits on the sidewalk just outside the diner, right by the door. She’s been sitting there every day for about three months. No one has had the heart to tell her to leave. She’s not really hurting anyone and besides, she is Piney Ridge’s only homeless person, the only homeless person they’ve ever had, and there’s something about having a homeless person that validates them as being a real city, something about it that makes them citizens of the world. Homeless Henrietta doesn’t speak besides to say “Thank You,” but she would in fact sing all day, every day, if she didn’t think people would think she was crazy. It’s okay, she knows, to be homeless, but it’s not okay to be crazy. The song she would sing is the song that’s been stuck in her head for the past few years, ever since that thing happened. After that thing happened, the song showed up and hasn’t gone away since. The song is a simple one, one that everybody knows, “Row, row, row your boat,” and maybe that’s what she’s been trying to do ever since that thing happened, she’s been trying to row her boat as gently as she possibly can. As Ed Perlmutter walks past her into the diner on that Saturday morning, he drops a quarter in the old hat she keeps there, a big wide-brimmed straw hat she found in a garbage can in Akron several months ago. When she hears the little thump of the quarter hitting the hat, Henrietta feels a little better, thinks she might just make something of her life after all, thinks that the song might be leaving, abating, quieting, that she’s most definitely on the road to recovering what little dignity she might have left.
Bill Haney awakens in the alleyway behind Chub’s Diner just as the sun begins to rise. He makes his way up the old logging road by 9 a.m. The logging road follows the river, rises to the bluffs, falls again on the other side to hug the river more closely again. But Bill stays at the top, on the bluffs, sitting on the stone ledge, with the water flowing fast, a hundred and twenty feet below. His feet dangle off the side. He swings them a little, out and back, and sits there and thinks about the time he felt up Gloria Perlmutter in the toolshed behind her house. He thinks about the time Pastor Daniels sat too close to him at Bible Camp a few years ago. He thinks, of course, about last night, and the fight and the kiss and just generally he thinks about Jerry Falsmith. It’s all good, Bill thinks. Everything is good. He looks over to Dog Leg Bridge, just a little way downriver, and he sees some guy, looks like that guy from the video store, standing on the bridge. Or, not standing, but sort of balancing, with one leg thrown over the railing. It’s obvious what the guy’s doing, and it’s a shame the guy had to pick today of all days. It might look weird, finding them both down there at the same time.
It’s nearly 10:15 a.m, and Gloria Perlmutter, love letter in hand, reaches the crest of the old logging road that runs beside the river. This is it. This is the top. And over there, at the bluff’s edge, where she had intended to tear Bertie’s lover letter to shreds, is Bill Haney, standing alone, looking toward the bridge. Despite, or perhaps because of, her penchant for anything romantic, Gloria reaches the correct conclusion about Bill, sees what he’s intending to do, though the reasons are unclear. Reasons are silly things, anyway. Everybody’s got them. She stuffs the letter into the pocket of her sweater, approaches Bill from the side so that she doesn’t frighten him.
“Hey, Bill,” she says.
Bill turns, sees her. He seems a little dazed, a little distant, blue eyes milky, face pink. He says, “Hey.”
“Kind of a nice day,” Gloria says.
“Sure,” Bill says.
Bill looks at the bridge again. Gloria turns her gaze back to the road, where she sees something, someone, a lone head appearing over the crest of the logging road. Isn’t that Marietta Miller, in a flowery summer dress? Gloria waves to her. Mrs. Miller doesn’t wave back. She keeps walking toward them.
And behind Mrs. Miller is that boy, little Toby Ainsworth, walking in that way he has, swinging his shoulders, determinedly. A dozen yards behind Toby is Frank Dunn, the insurance guy, and behind Frank is Pastor Daniels. And that homeless woman who sits outside the diner every day. She’s wearing her straw hat, looking ridiculous and beautiful. And lastly, Jerry Falsmith, his face bruised, streaked with dried blood, but walking steadily.
All of them, one by one, rising from the depths of the town, making their way slowly to the bluffs.
Jason Shults's work has appeared or is upcoming in The Carolina Quarterly, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Cutthroat, decomP, and SmokeLong Quarterly. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. More of his work can be seen at jasonshults.com.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: What surprised me most, I think, is that the story quickly became an exercise in discretion. Since the story is about the lies we tell ourselves, I wanted to try to implement this idea somehow in the style. What could be left to the reader’s imagination? What ideas would be more powerful and resonant if they weren't made explicit? I'm still not sure about any of this, but writing this story certainly made me think about "negative space" in narrative more than I have before.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best piece of advice I got: "Work hard. The business of writing takes work." I got that piece of advice from a dozen different teachers over a dozen years, and never listened to any of them. A couple of years ago, I did actually start trying: writing, revising, submitting. A lot. Turns out, those teachers were all correct. Writing, and the business of writing, takes more work and persistence than my younger self thought possible.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Some random picks, in order of the age I read them (child, teen, adult):
Watership Down, for what Richard Adams does with words, the play of language, and the idea that entire worlds, wars, histories, might be taking place ... right, you know ... over there, if we could just see them. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, mostly for the jouncing of that damned tree limb; the ambiguity of it; the struggle to understand one's own motivations. The Bell, by Iris Murdoch, for everything about it. Pure genius.
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 enjoy the café and the cave both. The café is fine for initial ideas, sketches, stealing character traits from random passersby, staring out the window, thinking about your own past and wondering where it all went wrong. But once the piece is ready to be drafted, I shuffle off to the cave, which is really just my bedroom. There's a heavy old walnut desk in there that provides solidity beneath my hands when I'm doing the heavy construction.