Prime Decimals 67.2
by Kelly Miller
It’s a thing stamped and signed at 10:56 on a windy Monday. Two copies. Folded into neatly creased thirds and passed across the counter. Claire’s in the clerk’s left hand. Dean’s in her right. Claire is certain she only imagined the lady saying, Here you go.
Earlier Claire at the computer. No longer hers. Left behind with the house and most of her things. When she stuffed some clothes, a few books and cds, into black Hefty bags and tossed them in the back of her new love’s Toyota truck.
Her sixteen year old son is offering tech support. While her twenty year old daughter pulls up the divorce papers on the internet. No fault. Their dad’s already filled out his part. Claire’s turn. For thirty-five bucks she gets this paper work. Takes it to the courthouse. And for another fistful of green, she’s free.
Sitting in the court room. Waiting to see if the judge has any questions. Not quite shoulder to shoulder with the soon to be ex. Dean takes Claire’s hand. Let’s go. Says, I can’t do this. Leans back and offers his last stick of gum. Claire hesitates. Takes it.
Do you like my boots? Dean asks. Swaying shiny toes.
The new girlfriend bought them for him. The pair he always wanted but never allowed himself. Claire’s always hated cowboy boots. Dean’s favorite cologne. Hair on his face. This new woman loves the scratch of Dean’s beard. His over the counter stink.
Claire trying not to remember the day she dashed away from their twenty-six year marriage. The day Dean chugged a six-pack, smoked a joint, loaded his shotgun and locked himself in the bedroom. The day their nineteen-year-old daughter had to beg Dean to unlock the door. The day their daughter lifted the loaded gun from his hands.
You know I’m better now, Dean says.
Claire swallows the shame and blame. Her unwillingness to stay and tend. Chopping fresh vegetables and sprinkling herbs. Serving up a lukewarm broth. And postponing the inevitable nightmare of people doing what they will.
Claire thinks she might give Dean one last kiss.
He leans her way.
The only thing you can count on is change, Dean says. As if reading the tiny white tab of a fortune cookie.
Kelly Miller: I love telling a story in few words. My work has appeared in Quiddity, The Los Angeles Review, Nano Fiction, and other journals. I work part time with autistic children. And enjoy life in the most eclectic little town in Iowa.
A Boy Named Potus
by Jennifer Fliss
You would think his mother had ideas of grandeur when she named her son Potus. But in truth, she had overheard the name on TV and liked it. It came down to that or Brutus, which she thought sounded too aggressive and she didn’t want to raise a bully. So, she named him Potus. Potus Peter Murphy. And without her even knowing it, her son – acronymically speaking – was already the most powerful man in the country.
So it was not really a surprise when, despite a nervous stutter and some rather un-presidential notions, the unintended prophecy was fulfilled and ginger haired Potus delivered his first State of the Union address. Behind him, a quilt his mother had made. Fifty squares; one for each state. On the back, only those close to Potus knew, was a map of the District of Columbia. At 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, there was a red X. Next to that, carefully hand-stitched, You Are Here.
Upon walking into the Oval Office, Potus had announced that it felt more like a box, and set about changing its shape. When we heard about this, we knew it would be a different administration. During his campaign, Potus had run on a platform of anti-partisanship, stressing cooperation, and championing the arts. His slogan: Four Years For Ideas. With Potus' New England accent, it rhymed: Four Ye-ahs For Ideas. Now he was introducing the first of those ideas.
Three months after Potus' address, we stood in the cherry blossom morning outside the White House, the early spring air chilling the tips of our ears. Frenzied excitement ran up and down the line of thousands like the wave at a football game. We brought our own brushes with the intent of making our stroke unique; for our contribution to stand out, and we clutched them dearly. The official din escalated as the time approached: the thwump-thwump of helicopters overhead, the buzz of reporters, the sotto voce cadences of security officers talking into headphones. The collective buzz was intoxicating. We may not all have voted for him – he was full of kooky ideas, said dissenters – but we were enthused and inspired by this endeavor.
The Committee for the Preservation of the White House wasn't impressed, however, and said as much pontificating where they could.
“Not since Truman –”
“It's sandstone! It simply should not be painted.” But, we the people – we were thrilled. The President invited us, all of us, to take our turn to paint the White House. We laughed. We marveled at the audacity. We thought it a hoax. Then we came. One person. Then another. A whole family. Hundreds, then thousands. In the end, millions. If we didn't have our own paintbrushes, one was provided, and under supervision, with regular visits from Potus himself, we were directed around the edifice. Most of us gave a single ceremonial flourish, some delivered multiple haphazard strokes and still others a precise and artistic application of the thick paint. Less than a year after Potus' declaration, the final swipe of the brush was delivered by the President himself.
We had hoped to have our brushstroke stand out amongst the others. But in the end, you couldn't tell. The sandstone looked like sandstone. The White House remained white. You couldn't tell. But you knew. We all knew. At the next election, we would have voted for him. We would have filled in the circle next to Potus Murphy, checked the box, clicked the button. But we didn't. Potus didn't run for a second term. He said he had run Four Ye-ahs For Ideas. And he did.
Jennifer Fliss is a New York raised, Wisconsin and California schooled, Seattle based writer. She holds a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin and a certificate in Literary Fiction from the University of Washington. Her writing can be found online and in print with publications and websites such as Brain Child, Stratus, Blotterature, Foliate Oak, Praxis, The Belltown Messenger, Daily Mom, Behind the Book, BookerMarks, and The Well Read Fish.
by Cynthia Atkins
Little house on the wall
of hours, with hands knitting minutes
into a one-sleeved sweater
of sorrow. I threaded longing
into a sickly twining, and went flat out
stir-crazy in—Itinerant as the day
was long, crossed into a glossary
of sounds—A stick running the picket
of my ribcage, bees making a racket
behind wood-paneling. I was sure his
eyes hid under the diagonal stairwell,
hid under the bed, like the sleek new bra
lost behind a door. The glitch
to waiting?—Waiting is the wind, the force
that pushed a pin into my skin—
The stuffed toys held dust,
bellowed secrets: luggage departing
on a train. Then the rabid hour took
aim, an arrow, a long shadow drawn
back to his bicycle, a voice lost to the horns
and traffic— his last word a dirge, a drum,
a clapper in my aching heart –
The bird paying rent with song.
Cynthia Atkins is the author of two collections, Psyche’s Weathers (CW Books, 2007) and In the Event of Full Disclosure (CW Books, 2014). Poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, BOMB, Caketrain, Cultural Weekly, Del Sol Review, Le Zaporogue, North American Review, Tampa Review, and Verse Daily among others. She is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Western Community College and Associate Poetry Editor of MadHat Lit and lives on the Maury River of Rockbridge County, VA. www.cynthiaatkins.com
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: The archaic word ‘des·ue·tude’ which addresses things that are in a state of disuse--intrigues me lately. I have been thinking about objects that have fallen away from our daily lives, one like a cuckoo clock. So much a part of my childhood memories and psychological connections. It was magical to have that bird sing when an hour struck. In the poem, I associated my first teen-age crush with this clock—first love and all of its joys and aches. des·ue·tude, formal, a state of disuse. "the docks fell into desuetude"
by Candace Butler
Fence my eyes with chicken wire;
call me your foiled bride.
the pale pink darnings of yestercade are nothing more
than a forgotten study on a dusty floor.
the white lace train hocks over
the mountain, hunching its back against the cold.
the woodstove of my childhood will
asphyxiate me yet.
The only color I’ll know now is dried flowers
tied with ribbon in a closet in a shoebox in the snow.
My reed neck in biplicity,
my domed cathedral of a throat
lying dormant like hornets in a nest of spit—
who tells them to hum the score you wrote for me?
Candace Butler is an Appalachian writer, musician, and artist residing in her hometown of Sugar Grove, VA. Her poetry has appeared in several journals and anthologies, including About Place Journal, RiverLit, 3Elements Review, Eclectica Magazine, Clamor, Dirty Chai, Pure Coincidence Magazine, Silver Birch Press, and Kind of a Hurricane Press. Her chapbook “Royal Crown” was recently published by Wild Leek Press. Butler is an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing Program at Antioch University of Los Angeles, where she is the former co-poetry editor of literary magazine Lunch Ticket. Find more on her website www.candacebutler.com
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: This is a love poem—hence the sonnet form—but it’s broken. The form is broken, just as the marriage is broken. Marriage seen here, in this poem, is not a beautiful and loving relationship. Marriage seen here is cold and confining. My inspiration for “White Wire” is taken from my own observations as well as the experiences of generations of women in rural Appalachia.
The Lone Pallbearer
followed by Q&A
The strangest thing so far about my grandfather passing away is that my dog, Gorby, isn’t here with me.
Of course I couldn’t bring him: Boston to Chicago to Cedar Rapids to the farm, and then the same itinerary reversed four days later. Even if I could get permission to take a large White German Shepherd on the plane (at 12, he’s too old to be placed in storage), I’d be exhausted with stress and worry by the time we arrived. But Gorby would be happy to be rolling around in the grass like he always does and happy just to be near me.
Hell, I’d even bring him to the funeral.
Despite having landed in Iowa only a day ago, I’m starting my sentences with “hell.” That, or with a long drawn-out “why” that is followed by a phrase that expresses compliance with the Universe’s ways. “Why, when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go. Why, you just never know when your hour is going to come. Why, God works in mysterious ways, I tell you.” We recite these mantras back and forth to one another, nodding our heads in agreement like they mean something.
The good people of Iowa have a certain way of accepting life’s hard knocks. Or, as my father puts it, we go “belly-up” in the face of God. We don’t complain about, try to control, deny, fight against, or grieve wildly over the inevitable. When your crops (aka livelihood) are at the whim of tornadoes, droughts and floods every year, your outlook shifts.
This is why I’m silently berating myself for lamenting the temporary absence of my dog. It seems ridiculous. But I can’t stop thinking about the way Gorby follows me to the bathroom every time I get up during the night to pee, stiff and limping close behind, or the way he rests his chin on my shoulder when we’re sitting on the stoop together, or how he nudges his wet nose into my hand when he needs attention.
Even worse, since I’ve been here, I can’t help but think about the permanent absence of my dog. I can even see it: me slowly shuffling to the bathroom in an empty apartment, leaving the door cracked out of habit. No one will be waiting for me to finish and come back to bed; no one will be waiting for me to get up and go outside. So why get up? Thinking like this while mourning the loss of a grandfather feels all too masochistic.
Yet, the reason that these thoughts about Gorby are coming up at a time when I’m with my family to remember and honor my grandfather is not just because the thought of death is lingering over everything. It’s also because of the fact that I’m here alone. I am officially the only one.
Here come all my cousins and their families: Jessie and her hog breeder fiancée, Whitney and her pharmacist fiancée, Chelsey and her farm insurance provider fiancée, Todd and his horse-riding girlfriend. Eric, his wife, two kids; Josie, her husband, two kids; Kate, more liberal, her male “partner;” Aaron, more private, his female “friend.”
And these are just my immediate cousins. There are dozens of extended cousins and aunts and uncles and whoever else who all have “settled down.” More importantly, tomorrow at the funeral, I’ll have to face my sister – my only sibling, whom I’ve been on low-level communication with for years – her husband, her in-laws, her two toddlers and her newborn twins who I haven’t met yet.
To cope with all this, I’ve secretly adopted a persona for myself: “The Lone Pallbearer.” My conservative grandfather surprised us all by insisting that his granddaughters also take a place at his coffin, so I’m ready to play the role. I imagine her dressed in all black denim, black cowboy boots and sporting a withdrawn, rugged personality. She doesn’t need a family; she doesn’t need nobody.
Maybe, if Gorby were here, I’d drape him in a black cloak that ties around his thick neck, Zorro-style. We’d strut in together – my partner and I – although this would probably make me look less rugged and more fitting of what people around here think happens when a girl moves to the big city.
Everyone experiences loss differently. Although the funeral is being held tomorrow, I have attended enough funerals in Iowa to know what the mood will be like. Tears will be dabbed away with tissues, hymns will be sung, a wise pastor with a sense of humor will tell stories of my grandfather’s life that touch on his personality traits: stubborn, straight-laced, tough, hardworking, but boy, was he not an extremely giving man who was proud of his family and his country.
And he was.
The grief that we all feel about his death is real, and I miss him already. It’s difficult to be in the spaces that a person once inhabited, and to view the objects that make up a person’s life. The mini replicas of John Deere model tractors on the desk, the WWII medals hanging on the wall, even the tube of denture glue in the bathroom. All of these things take on a different meaning now, something sadder and more precious.
But we all smile, and hug, and pat each other’s backs, and say that we are fine because we are, I think. Treat others as if they are fine because you are fine too: this is the Midwestern Golden Rule.
Earlier, I recalled something Carolyn See wrote about being a writer that went something like this: if you don’t feel like a writer, then just pretend you’re a writer. Pretty soon, the lines between pretending and being become blurred, and eventually you realize that you actually are what you thought you were not. And in that sense, I guess, I’m fine.
I’ve asked my mother to recollect for me the final moments before my grandfather’s death three times now – once on the phone two days ago and twice since I’ve been in Iowa – which means I’ve probably reached my maximum capacity for asking. The story she tells me is beautiful though, and it gives me strength that maybe losing someone very close to you is not as desperately sad as I envision.
In the clean and bright hospice room, my mother, aunts and grandmother all circled around his bed, listening to his labored breathing, knowing that he couldn’t possibly hang on much longer. He tried to open his eyes, but they kept rolling back in his head, and he seemed to be struggling to say something. Finally, at the last moment, his face expressed a sense of clarity, and he looked directly at my grandmother who was sitting by his side. My mother said that it was the most elated expression he’d ever had. She said it was a thousand mile stare. And then he took his last breath.
By the third time she tells me this story, she gets through it without her throat tightening, she’s even smiling, and she puffs herself up and then releases a sigh when she’s done. In half a minute, she’s up off the couch, boiling water for tea, finding a place on the rug to do her “yoga stretches,” and chatting excitedly about a weeklong tour that she’s taking of London in a few weeks that she’s been planning for five years. I admire her tenacity, her decision to be fine. And I know if I bring up my grandfather’s actual death again, instead of his focusing on his life, it will make me appear silly and dramatic. It’s best to move on.
Losing a dog is hard, but boy could things be harder. I know that, but it still terrifies me. Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m lacking the typical Midwestern fortitude, although I put a lot of work into hiding it. Perhaps, if I had stayed here, I wouldn’t feel so flimsy. Everyone else has put their roots down in Midwestern soil and I can’t help but wonder if this is part of the reason that I sense much more weakness in myself than anyone else around me. Maybe this is why I need Gorby so badly.
In the small, shaky plane that I took from Chicago to Cedar Rapids, I stared down at the farmland that is so reminiscent of patchwork. Perfect squares and rectangles of land outlined by fences, cut through with thousands of parallel lines of tilled earth and planted crops. What I like to look for are the stands of tall trees that circle nearly every farmhouse. They protect the house and barns from strong winds that rip across the flat land. I think of them as a family: formidable, secure.
I remember my grandfather and father planting baby trees around the farmhouse, lining the pines up perfectly and making sure they dug the holes far away enough from each other so they wouldn’t crowd. When they were just babies – no more than four feet tall – the space between each tree seemed absurdly wide. I ran intervals from tree to tree, back and forth, wearing myself out after a few turns. Now, standing far taller than the roof of the house, the dark pines have thick intermingling branches that you have to spread apart with your arms in order to pass through. They cast huge shadows in a place where large shadows are mostly man-made: silos, barns, and houses. The rest of the land is open and vulnerable.
As I collected the things to take to the apartment of my friend who agreed to watch Gorby while I’m away, I nearly started to cry. I couldn’t believe it, but then again I’d never had to take stock of all of his things before. I kneeled down to hug him, run my fingers through his fur and kiss his bony head. Gorby, as usual, kissed me back. Then he flattened his ears against his head, his mouth chattering a little now; he’s nervous because I’m nervous, and he follows me around the apartment, whining. In the three years since I adopted him, I’ve only spent two nights away from him, and not once has he had to go stay with someone else. Not once have I had to go through his doggy belongings in order to pack up an overnight bag.
I couldn’t believe all the objects that make up his life. There’s the dog bed in my room (the one he sleeps in at night), and the dog bed in the living room (the one he sleeps in during the day). There’s the box in the hall closet that’s filled with his fur brush, his toothbrush, his doggy toothpaste that’s flavored like peanut butter, his cans of wet food. Then there’s the other box with the spare leash, the plastic fur remover roller and the replacement roll next to it, the car interior fur remover glove, the old tags from years past that I’d saved for some reason next to his old spare collar. The blue handkerchief, the red handkerchief, the tea tree oil I use for his dry skin, the itch reliever cream, the first aid ointment, the nail clippers, the bottles of glucosamine tablets for arthritis, the bag of dental sticks, another of rawhide rolls and still another of bacon-flavored treats. In the kitchen: the bag of dry food leaning against the kitchen pantry, the yellow ceramic food bowl, the aluminum water bowl, the doggy placemat with a paw print pattern.
And there’s more.
Under the bathroom sink: the bottles of doggy shampoo, the undercoat brush, the flea comb, the big plastic cup with the picture of the giraffe on it that I use to dump water on him to wash the shampoo off. To the wooden crate in my bedroom: the ragged tennis balls, the tennis ball thrower, the pink rubber squeaky ball, the stuffed red bird toy, the stuffed black bear toy, the stuffed orange fox toy, the scarf with the lilac flower pattern I tie around his neck, the big blue towel I use to dry him off. In the bottom drawer of my desk: the adoption records, the medical records, the vaccination records, the state registration records; the award from the dog show I took him to at a rescue center once that says, in gold lettering: “Best Smile.”
All of these things constitute the possessions I keep for my dog.
How the hell am I going to throw these things away?
After the funeral tomorrow, we will all return to the farmhouse not just to visit and eat and share memories of my grandfather, but also, as my grandmother has requested, to “clean house.” My initial reaction was that this seemed quite sudden, but as we are all doing fine, I suppose it’s the natural next step to take. She has already brought out the boxes that were in storage in the garage. We will all go through each room of the house, filling boxes with things that we’d like to take back to our homes, to have for our families, to keep as a memento of my grandfather. As each room holds things that all together make up ninety-one years of life, the task will be enormous. Yet, I sense that it will also be cathartic. We’ve already begun laughing about who will take the kitschy porcelain pig statues, or who will have the Republican National Convention signs from the 1970s to the 1990s hanging on their wall.
And for me, who arrived in Iowa with only an overstuffed carry-on backpack, and who has no established home or family to take things back to in Boston…what will I take?
“The Lone Pallbearer” would take nothing, of course, but my mother insists that I should pick out bowls, plates, silverware that my grandmother no longer needs that she can ship to me later, “once I have a family of my own and will need them.” My father already gave me something to take back that I gratefully accepted: a handful of acorns that he’s been collecting for me on his walks. And the thing that I’ve already secretly taken: an unopened bag of beef jerky from the cupboard, smoked with no spices, the way my grandfather liked it, which I will feed to Gorby with pleasure once I return.
Hell, I can already see him there by the door, waiting for me, happy, smiling.
Paige Towers earned her B.A. from the University of Iowa and her MFA from Emerson College, where she also taught Creative Writing and Composition. She currently lives in New York City, teaches writing at Monroe College in the Bronx, and is at work on a memoir about ASMR. Her work has appeared in The Baltimore Review, McSweeney's, Catch & Release: the online literary journal of Columbia University, So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art, BioStories Magazine, Our Iowa Magazine, Honesty for Breakfast and Spry Literary Magazine.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was surprised at how easy it was to write this piece until I began to (manically) list all of Gorby’s doggie belongings. I couldn’t even see the screen by the end because my eyes and nose were running so hard. I was, as they say, a “hot mess.” Now that Gorby is gone – he passed away a little over a year ago – I can tell you what happened: I eventually threw most everything away. I had to. The only thing I kept in memory of him is the stuffed red bird. It sits by my sunniest window. I can’t tell if it looks happy or sad.
Prime Decimals 67.3
What I Know About You, What You Know About Me
by Martha Clarkson
Benny and I work the customer service counter at Sears and Benny’s saving me; keeps me from my attraction to the bottle. Because of Benny, the thousands my parents invested for my stay at Hilltop House are safe so far.
He’s worked here for six months and me just a month. It’s not an easy job behind that catch-all counter – layaways, taking in broken chainsaws, finding parts for dryers, sorting out revolving charge card bills, wrapping gifts where we have to make our own bows. Returns are a big deal – we get all the ones without receipts, which are mostly people with stuff that’s either used or from Target.
The customers love Benny because he tells jokes. “Two hats are on a hat rack,” he tells Tony, the old man with dyed red hair who tried to return a ten-year-old pan and now just comes back to shoot the breeze with Benny.
“Keep it clean, Benster,” Gloria says as she passes behind him. She’s our gum-chewing supervisor. He always does but she always says it.
“Hat #1 says to Hat #2, ‘you stay here, I’ll go on a head.’” Tony’s got a great cackle you can hear all the way down in sporting goods.
His other fan is Sylvia, who also has dyed red hair and is old. She comes down to return things even with the receipt, but I think it’s just because of Benny. She lost a son in Vietnam and Benny would be about his age. Once he told her the joke about the football coach kicking the broken vending machine and shouting “I want my quarter back!” and she laughed until she cried, but later we found out her kid was a football star too.
Benny and I work the same shift and he drives me home every night. I don’t have my license back yet. We eat dinner in my tiny apartment, because he’s afraid I’ll go to the store for beer or worse. When I’m alone, there’s nothing like the draw of the 7-11 on the corner. We’ve had sex a few times, but it’s not like we’re a couple. “A coupla whats?” would be Benny’s answer to that. I figure the sex is just something I need to give him for all he’s doing for me. I really don’t think about a drop of liquor when he’s around. The other day he brought me a new blender (though it didn’t have a box) because he’s got me addicted to smoothies. I really do love him.
Benny’s trying to get transferred to jewelry. “Don’t worry, I’ll still be here in the store,” he tells me. “I need something different. I want to sell something.” The transfer is taking longer than he wants and Gloria refuses to update him.
Monday morning we had a young woman with cat-eye glasses return a man’s fancy shirt, we took in two broken chainsaws, and a non-whacking weed-whacker, ordered a new pump for a washer, and wrapped a baseball bat that took forever to get looking decent.
Benny was off in the afternoon because he had to go to the dentist and take his mom to the oncologist, but Tuesday he’s back. He’s wearing a new shirt that looks awfully similar to the one Cat-Eyes returned. Gloria admires the shirt but doesn’t make the connection, thankfully, because I can’t stand it if Benny gets fired. There are temptations upstairs in jewelry and at the corner store.
Martha Clarkson manages corporate workplace design in Seattle. Her poetry, photography, and fiction can be found in monkeybicycle, Clackamas Literary Review, Seattle Review, Alimentum, elimae. She is a recipient of a Washington State Poets William Stafford prize 2005, a Pushcart Nomination, and is listed under “Notable Stories,” Best American Non-Required Reading for 2007 and 2009. She is recipient of best short story, 2012, Anderbo/Open City prize, for “Her Voices, Her Room.”
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: How much it was about someone I knew and how much it wasn’t.
by Daniel Hudon
Two trains cross in the middle of the night; one is going nowhere and the other is heading in the opposite direction. Inside the cars, the passengers doze with dreams about being on the wrong train or missing the station. Those who are awake, and there are many of them, try to read, stare straight ahead or watch the lights flash by out the window. In the sudden streak of sound, they wonder who is traveling with such urgency.
Among them, the living mingle with the dead for they each have forgotten when they boarded, where they are going, how long they have been on the train. When asked, the conductor always says the same thing: We’ll be arriving on schedule. Some have been traveling for ages, through as many countries as states of mind, and no longer care. They lean forward to get a better look at the train passing outside the window – it’s been so long since they’ve seen one. Near the back of one of the cars, an old pale-faced man with hunched shoulders refuses to look, sure that the other train is full of doppelgangers.
Above, bright enough to obliterate the stars, the moon shines down on the snow-covered ground, casting a silver light that few passengers notice. In the meadows, in the forests, nothing is seen to move, and one could think that time had frozen if not for the other train eclipsing the view.
Momentarily jostled from their reveries by the commotion at the window, many passengers return to the hope, however slight, that if they ever arrive, someone will be waiting at the station.
Daniel Hudon, originally from Canada, is an adjunct lecturer in astronomy, math, physics and writing in Boston, MA. He has recent work appearing in Atlas and Alice, l’Allure des Mots, Feathertale, the Little Patuxent Review, Clarion and Riprap. He is working on a book of stories about recently extinct species. He lives in Boston, MA.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: In trains, one often doesn’t feel the motion, so it’s usually a great surprise to me when another train passes in the window. I guess the surprise to me was that I could write a whole piece around this “sudden streak of sound”.
To the Teeth
by Brittney Scott
I was born, a brontosaurus sister,
with no incisors. They never formed in utero,
a defect, crooked
smile left of the nose, my turtle chin sucking
overbite back into the throat.
It could be I was forgotten,
displaced, in those crucial weeks,
for my already born brother
perfect and insane.
Stored in a wooden box
my rotten ectopic teeth
filled a painful silver,
smelled like a hollow cave. A constant
rattle to childhood memory,
She’d be so lovely if she fixed her teeth.
At month’s end there was no money for the soft spoken
and I have the furthest thing from fangs.
In reoccurring dreams, my palm is a bowl of teeth,
mouth without means to receive
some important message.
A robed African woman
climbs the hill to my door,
two men at each elbow,
it is snowing silently all around them.
This has no footprints,
only homecoming and departure.
Mouth also means entry,
a doorway to a long velvet hall.
Tusks are elongated incisors,
so necessary for social exchange,
tools for digging if nothing else.
I am a sonata played underwater,
the notes float to the surface,
muted and dissonant.
On a lover’s neck, my bite marks form
an imperfect ring, a gate that lets
the dog out, rabbit in to eat
everything delicious in the garden
so there’s nothing left for dinner.
Chinese folk lore warns of teeth
falling out in dreams,
a foreshadowing of death. That,
or your jaw-deep wisdom
teeth are missing. Mine came in,
room or not, like old plateaus,
and the wind keeps coming, the sun
sets over the colored dust, the sun sets
but nothing's forgotten.
Kentucky fields pushed their history skyward,
arrowheads breaking the surface.
My brother and I parted the bluegrass
for gnawed stone, judo and bodkin points
sticking up through the fleshy soil.
Dust coated the open nerve
where my front teeth were knocked,
hit in the mouth by a chain
my brother swirled around him
like something coming into fruition.
I gummed a spoon of mud. Blood
a collection of circles in the dry dirt,
cells multiplying in the fever,
my teeth nowhere.
Brittney Scott received her MFA from Hollins University. She is a recipient of the Joy Harjo Prize for Poetry as well as the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best New Poets 2014, Prairie Schooner, The New Republic, Narrative Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. Her fiction has appeared in Quarter After Eight. She teaches creative writing at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: “To the Teeth” was written out of obsession, insecurity, and pride. The teeth, and all their manifestations in this poem, are mine. I have bad teeth. I own them.
by Don Raymond
There is another world, not far
from this one, where some four-odd
centuries ago he sat, watching apples fall,
and wrote that all things moved
by love's inverse square,
desire multiplied by will (as well as a constant)
and once acted upon, may act upon another,
through vector fields of contagion -
what is touched remains touched,
a piece of the thing is the thing itself:
the First Law of the Principia Thaumaturgica.
Some of this is known, even in our world.
Quantum echoes of all the myriad ways,
vestigial memories in Victorian folios full
of water horses and boilerplate rhinos;
misunderstood monstrosities, it was said, still lurked
in the hidden corners of the globe,
where the sun never set, water flowed uphill,
and women gave birth to lizards, whose basilisk glares
filled gardens with frozen astonishment and bliss.
But Darwin, bound by gravity,
knew effects must follow causes
fortunately for us. Seeking some primal germ,
boarded the Beagle with his nets, bottles
obsessive interest in earthworms and barnacles:
workaday miracles more subtle than the ones she loved -
Permutation's angel, on Plymouth's shore
swam ahead, warning the sea monsters
to dive deep, seek the silver line
where this world blurred into that one.
Where no one thought twice about patchwork monsters
or how they came to be: half lion,
part horse, a piece of something else.
It was obvious, the mathematics simple
beaks breaking through cardioid shells of stone,
hatching in moonlight; no need of a mammal's inner ocean.
The legendariums emptied
with every island he touched, the blank spaces filled.
As the kobolds crept deeper
into mountains made mythical, a home
where the catoblepas could finally
raise its head without fear.
Darwin, it is said, dreamed of her
and smiled, as if he knew
and agreed to set aside a place,
a home for unicorns and sirens, where mandrake fields
dreamed beneath a goblin moon.
But not this world.
Whose wounds wept for penicillin,
where the plague that plagued the rat, too small to see,
rewrote the map.
There was room, between a scribbled note about earthworms
and this drawing of a finch's beak, for mystery.
He took his time when he opened his eyes
lest some camelopard be late in fleeing.
The dragons, stubborn, shed their wings
and swam like hell for Komodo,
while in Australia, the platypus
still worried its poison thumb.
Don Raymond lives in the tiny hamlet of Alturas, CA, where he works as an accountant at the local casino, which is not a career path his counselors had ever mentioned to him. He spends his free time mediating the Machiavellian feline politics of his household. You can read more of his work at The Saturday Evening Post, Bourbon Penn, and Architrave Press. He also once didn’t make a left turn at Albuquerque.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: Like many great works of literature, this piece began with a challenge to use the word “catoblepas” in a poem. I took a great deal of inspiration from Sarah Lindsay’s “Elegy for the Quagga” in Twigs & Knucklebones, as well as David Quammen’s The Boilerplate Rhino.
Before and After
followed by Q&A
I was able to give my seven year-old son a new hand today. A prosthesis fashioned in the basement of an orthopedic appliance clinic, a place that smelled harsh like cleaning solutions that can strip a table. The prosthesis is made from the same materials they use to build spaceships at NASA, the prosthetist told us, winking at my son. My son just shrugged the shoulder he was born with and the harness automatically closed his new hard, plastic fingers.
Tonight, after he went to bed—the hand hanging on a hook near his pillow—I sat with a bottle of wine. It had been a hard workweek and now it was Friday and everything would be okay. The weekend revives us, we tell ourselves. All it takes is two days.
I started thinking about the hundreds of soldiers in the Iraq War who returned home without pieces of their bodies. Arms, legs, fingers, feet. In the absence of these: strange angles. Stitches like railroads. And other anomalies...the stuff you can't see, the stuff that happens inside a person. Their sacrifices directly created this push for research, money, and focus so that by the time my son was born he could access his own opportunity to feel like a whole person. I felt damn lucky and grateful to be on this journey with him, and at the same time I couldn't help but acknowledge all that loss that came before us, the unbearable pain experienced by other men and women, just so that my son could one day tie his shoes on his own, or feel the exhilaration of racing downhill on a bicycle. Maybe the space shuttle program would be funded once again and he could be an astronaut.
After a forest is wiped out by fire, the little epilobium angustifolium—waiting underground for years—will shoot up and bloom. Purple and red flowers. It is a sight to behold, they say. It spreads across the singed earth, locking roots and binding the soil. It revives the idea of the living. Although it cannot replicate exactly what we held, it is a beauty and a hope we need; we watch as it spreads uncontrollably.
Catherine Campbell's work appears in Atticus Review, Arcadia, Ploughshares online, Drunken Boat, Pank, Fwriction Review and elsewhere. She is a Masters Review finalist and Pushcart nominee. www.catherinejcampbell.com
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I had no idea where I was going with this. All my little essays begin as wanderings and streams of consciousness. Then I came across this article on forest regrowth and regeneration, which tied my entire piece together without even trying to. A new layer of comprehension was suddenly there. By looking outward we often find the answers inside of us.
followed by Q&A
The question seems silly, obvious even. As if there needs to be a reason, something beyond the picture-postcard beauty of it all--the white stone buildings, the river, the flying buttresses. So maybe that's not the question at all. Maybe the question is how and how in the world? The truth is, it might not have been Paris, but that's where I went. And I had to go somewhere. This was a truth I knew instinctively from the time I was small. Going was what I did--what I learned to do well--a legacy I inherited.
On warm spring nights when I was nine, my grandfather sat in a round, wicker chair on our screened-in porch or piazza as he called it and quizzed me on state capitals. The air hummed and smelled of sweet cut grass and lilacs, perfumed and damp. My grandfather lit his pipe. "Rhode Island?" he asked. My mother's father, he must have been in his seventies then, a sturdy man with thin white hair worn well off his forehead.
"Providence," I said. That was too easy, a warm-up question. Rhode Island's domed capitol building hovered right outside the car window on Route 95 when we drove through Providence to my cousins' house in East Greenwich.
My grandfather tapped one of his sturdy brown shoes in an uneven rhythm, puffed to keep his pipe lit, hummed a few bars of one of his songs. In my grandfather's songs, someone was always "on the spree." I never understood the rest of the words. The songs sounded the same to me, quips and whispers, little pieces of music, a foreign language. Each song, no matter how it began, ended with the drawn out words "And now he's on the spree," a finality in my grandfather's high-pitched wavering voice. I assumed the songs, like my grandfather, were Irish. He puffed on his pipe, threads of white hair soft across the top of the mottled skin of his head. "North Carolina?" he asked. Pipe smoke spiraled upward, lingered in the air above us, thin stretched-out clouds, the porch with an atmosphere all its own.
"Raleigh!" I said, triumphant. For social studies, I needed to memorize all the state capitals. I was good at New England, pretty good at the South. I got mixed up with those states in the middle and the ones out West, the places I couldn't yet picture. In fourth grade, we also learned about the Westward Movement, and my view of any state beyond the Mississippi included covered wagons, cowboys and Indians, log cabins and saloons, images reinforced by episodes of Gunsmoke and The Big Valley.
My grandfather's sucking sounds mixed with the crickets outside and the crack of aluminum bats and baseballs from the fields up the way. He kept one hand planted on the knee of his workman's blue chinos, and with the other, he held his pipe. Curled in a matching wicker chair, I wanted to ask him about his songs, but I never did. They sounded like laments, as if going on the spree was a terrible sadness or burden. I knew only about shopping sprees, which I associated with wild abandon. Every Christmas season, the Sears Wish Book arrived, and I lost myself in its glossy pages, circling everything that caught my fancy in spite of my mother's warning that money was tight and not to expect much. The Wish Book allowed me to dream of all the possibilities, all the girls I might become. There were kits: Make-Your-Own-Camera. Candles. Weather stations. And the dolls—the ballerina who danced when you pushed a button in her crown; the life-like babies; all the Barbies and their accessories. If I could actually go on a shopping spree and buy it all, I didn't see how that could be bad. But the way my grandfather sang his songs, being on the spree was a curse, like the Wandering Jew, condemned to walk the earth for all eternity.
At nine, I would have been all for both seeing the world and living forever. I would have settled for visiting state capitals, cities with exotic names like Baton Rouge or Pierre. Was it during that time of warm spring nights and baseball games that I started to imagine French-speaking places? Did Paris begin to form itself then, puzzle piece by puzzle piece, as I watched my grandfather smoke his pipe and I gave him capital after capital, the French ones like crème-filled bon bons melting on my tongue? Or was Paris always there, the idea of it floating in my blood, ancestral DNA shared through the generations? My father's maternal grandmother had a French-sounding last name—Ronayne. From County Cork, Ireland, she might have shared roots with Celts in Brittany, might have emigrated from the coast of France to the coast of Ireland. It was an idea my Irish-American self wanted to believe, a story that I told myself in order to justify the idea of going, the need to get myself, first, at least, to France.
And so, two years later, when we sixth graders were introduced to French, I took to it like a natural, soaking up vocabulary, conjugating verbs. I was hungry for more, writing stories in French, substituting English words for the ones I didn't yet know, desperate for the attention of Mademoiselle who sauntered into our classroom with an air of elegance, her black cape swirling, an emphatic statement: I am not from here.
Not far from the Palais Royal, off the Rue Richelieu, a tiny bar called La Champmeslé sits tucked in the 2nd arrondisement of Paris. From the street, you entered the front room of the Champmeslé, windowed and dimly lit. You passed the bar on the right side and one row of square tables along the opposite wall. In the back room, longer tables and banquettes lined the perimeter, paisley Indian fabric covering the cushions and pillows tossed at uneven intervals. Thick white candles burned at each table, dribbling wax onto fat stone candleholders. No men were allowed in the back room, and tourists—older married couples –sometimes wandered into the Champmeslé thinking they had discovered a quiet neighborhood bistro.
But the Champmeslé was a lesbian hangout.
From behind the bar, Josy reigned as owner and den mother, bartender and boss. Emmanuelle and Sylvie waited tables. For me, fresh out of college in my early twenties, they were the main attraction. I had a crush on Sylvie and I'm pretty sure she knew it. Emmanuelle did. She always whispered to me about Sylvie, about how I should call her, about how cute Sylvie thought I was—schoolgirl stuff, which I loved. Both Emmanuelle and Sylvie were big flirts, especially Emmanuelle with her wide brown eyes and dark, elfin hair. She bounced from table to table, sometimes sitting next to the customers, elegant French women who didn't look like any American lesbians I knew.
Truthfully, I didn't know many lesbians yet, American or otherwise. I had my idea of what they looked like based on the ones I did know and my one college experience at a gay bar in Hartford, Connecticut. I didn't know yet if I was a lesbian or not, though I was aware of my crushes on other girls and had felt both an excitement and a sense of belonging in that bar in Hartford. I liked the idea of being gay, liked the idea of being "woman-identified," a "woman-loving woman." On the campus of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, I had learned about feminism and the cult of domesticity. Liberation theology. Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. I liked the idea of sharing my life with a woman and not with a man, but about my own sexual identity, I remained woefully unaware.
My few sexual experiences up until then had been of the fling variety, all with men. I couldn't figure out whether men were actually interested in me or in having sex with me or in having sex period. I couldn't separate those things. Did men want to sleep with me because they thought they could, or did they really want to have sex with me? I thought men couldn't possibly be interested in me; as far as I could tell, men were only interested if you were attractive in that French woman sort of way. My end of things didn't concern me much, whether or not I wanted to sleep with them. Throughout my four years of college, I could not figure how intimate relationships seemed to work.
Though I spent an average of two nights a week at the Champmeslé during the two post-college years I lived in Paris, and though I developed a camaraderie, even a sort of friendship with both Emmanuelle and Sylvie, I was never entirely comfortable at the Champmeslé. I remained an outsider, a fact made clear by the few conversations I ever had with any of the French customers. I was clearly American. You can spot an American a mile away in Paris, a fact I was always trying to deny by wearing scarves or sweaters the way French women did, tossed casually across their backs or looped around their necks. My attempts looked ridiculous and I had to settle for my own non-sense of fashion, my own clunky self, too big to be graceful in tight Parisian spaces, in cafés or on the métro or at small round tables in the back room of the Champmeslé.
One night a tall, sleek French woman leaned over from the next table, her red lipsticked mouth a sneer: "You prefer French women, then, c'est ça?" she said, her voice a tease, a dare. I had no answer, just blushed and drank my beer.
The women in the Champmeslé scared and fascinated me with their short skirts and high heels, their long hair and leather pants, lipstick stuck to the filters of their Gitaines and Gauloises. They seemed confident, all of them, certain of their place in that bar, in the world. I had first frequented the Champmeslé with my American friends Eileen and Stephanie, but even after I'd become a regular, someone Emmanuelle and Sylvie greeted by name, I still had to count to ten before I could bring myself to walk through the door alone.
I'm not sure what compelled me to bring my mother to the Champmeslé. I'd been living in Paris for about a year and my mother flew over to visit me.
It's a woman's bar, I told her.
"Oh what a nice idea—a bar for only women," my mother had said.
"Well, except these women will be in couples. They might be kissing," I said. (It would be years before I could say the word gay in front of my mother).
"Can I wear dark glasses, then?" she said. "So I can stare?"
I was excited to have my mother visit me in Paris. She had never been to Europe before, and I was eager to take her all around, show her my favorite cafés and the bridges and buildings I loved the most. I wanted to take her to Giverny, to Monet's house, to Versailles, everywhere. I wanted my mother to love France as much as I did, to see what compelled me to come live in Paris after finishing college.
I was living in Paris partly because I didn't know what else to do with my life. I wanted to be a writer. I had a romantic notion of living the expatriate life of writers in the twenties—Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein—and writing The Great American Novel. In Paris, I felt at home in the world for the first time ever.
It wasn't that I felt exactly wrong at home, either. Not exactly.
Back in the suburbs, in my grandfather's house-with-a-piazza, we lived on a dead-end street with an unpronounceable Irish name. We were taught to say "Marr." People wanted to call it "Meager." Later, when I visited Ireland, I asked a shopkeeper how he would pronounce M-E-A-G-H-E-R. "Ma-hair," he said.
The street was quiet. Most of our neighbors were older, retired people. Most of them didn't like it much when we played kickball after supper. For a while, Peggy lived next-door, until she moved when I was eleven. Then a young couple with small children moved in, and another family with two small boys bought a house across the street.
I craved action. I wanted something, anything that would take me out of my ordinary life. I read books. I read mysteries and then all the books in the young adult section of the public library. I had to beg the librarian for an adult card before I was technically old enough to apply for one on my own. In school, I was good at book reports. I made them into plays, recruited classmates to rehearse during recess. Late at night, my mother typed carbon scripts onto onion-skin paper, the typewriter heavy on the edge of the dining room table, lace cloth folded over in half. I always took the leading role, the main character, or protagonist, a word I had to explain to each narrator of my plays. She's the one it's about, I would say, the whole reason the book was written in the first place. I must have imagined these protagonists as real girls who had real lives far more interesting than my own, who solved mysteries in rambling houses perched on cliffs, lived on islands, made friends with boys. They rowed boats or bicycled for miles. They traveled. They were the girls I longed to be, adventurous and daring.
Instead, I was chubby and awkward. I caused fights. My brother, eighteen months older, organized kickball games in the street after supper on spring nights, but he never wanted me to play.
"You always ruin it," he would tell me, and he was right. Each time, I got Peggy to play in the games with me, I would end up in a huff, upset over some unfairness only I could see. Even Peggy wouldn't side with me. I would cause a scene that would bring our mother outside to end the game, and each time, I would promise not to fight again, not to start a scene, but it was as if some hidden force inside took over. I always ended up storming into the house, upset and alone.
In my mind, I was such a good girl, obedient even. In reality, I was difficult, argumentative, stubborn. I fought with my brother and sister, who teased me about my weight. I bit my nails, a habit my grandfather insisted would keep any nice man from ever marrying me. I had a lot of questions -- about being Catholic and about God, questions that didn't seem to have any answers. What I was good at was school. I was good at using language, writing stories. I was good at reading. And even in those early years, I was good at French.
My mother wanted to know why I went to the Champmeslé. I think I said, "Because I like it." I still hadn't yet had any relationships with women, though I was more and more certain that I wanted to. I didn't have the courage to see if what Emmanuelle said about Sylvie was true, equally scared to discover what would happen if Sylvie didn't think I was cute or what would happen if she did. If I asked Sylvie out, would I be a lesbian once and for all? Would Sylvie discover that in "real life" I was nothing like the woman she saw in the bar, that I was, in fact, a more boring version of me?
In the most romantic city in the world, I lived alone. I had a few good friends and enjoyed my time with them, but I did the bulk of my living alone. I went to movies and museums by myself. Read books, took long walks, sipped coffee in cafés. On days when the rain puttered rhythmically against the tall casement window of my seventh-floor chambre de bonne, and the normally gray Paris sky seemed hopelessly dark, I did want someone to be with. I wondered what it would feel like to be in a relationship. But most of the time, I was content. I loved my Parisian life.
And yet, while I might have given any number of reasons if asked why I loved this city so much—most of them focused on the architecture, the history, the feel of the city—there were other reasons. Somewhere at the cellular level, I knew this. Didn't I have those long-ago porch sessions with my grandfather, like a tattoo imprinted in my memory? And didn't I also have the echoes of my grandfather's voice reminding me about the spree, infusing my life away from home with a melancholy tinge?
In her memoir French Lessons, Alice Kaplan describes her experiences at a Swiss boarding school and her joy of learning a second language. French, she said, allowed her to become a wholly different person than the one her family knew back in New Jersey. Kaplan says that people "adopt another culture because there's something in their own they don't like, that doesn't name them." By learning French, I could begin to reinvent myself, much the way, years later, my French students could by re-naming themselves Marie or Suzette or Jean-Paul. In French, I could make myself into somebody interesting and smart. I could be attractive, an intellectual, a less boring version of me. I could be a woman who loved other women.
It took communicating in a language that wasn't mine to discover my voice and trying on an identity in a foreign land in order to find my home in the world. These are the truths that all these years later I can acknowledge when someone asks me, "Why Paris?"
Patty Smith has been teaching American Literature and Creative Writing at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School since 2006. Her nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies One Teacher in Ten: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories (Alyson Publications, 1994); Tied in Knots: Funny Stories from the Wedding Day (Seal Press, 2006); Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing, (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009); and the 20th anniversary of One Teacher In Ten (Beacon Press, fall, 2015) and most recently in Broad Street: A New Magazine of True Stories.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I have been working on some version of this essay for a while, putting it away and coming back to it over a period of time. I don't think I connected the idea of living in Paris with my sexual orientation/identity until this most recent revision.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: When I graduated from college, I asked my thesis advisor—I wrote short stories for my undergraduate thesis—Franklin D. Reeve, whether or not I should apply to MFA programs right away. His answer: go live in the world. If you can find you can live without your writing, so can the rest of us. I followed his advice. I didn't get my MFA until I was almost 40.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Tough question; there are so many! For nonfiction specifically: Patricia Hampl—her memoirs Virgin Time and Romantic Education along with her book about writing nonfiction I Could Tell You Stories; Mark Doty and Heaven's Coast; Marita Golden and her book Migrations of the Heart; and Richard McCann, one of my earliest writing teachers, and his book Mother of Sorrows.
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 write in a room in my house, a study where the morning and early afternoon light shines in through the venetian blinds. I write at an antique desk—a secretary—that used to be my mother's and my grandmother's before that, with the two cats sleeping nearby.