Welcome to Issue No. 7 of Prime Number
A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose
Letter from the Editors (or jump to the Table of Contents)
First, congratulations to our Poetry Editor, Valerie Nieman, on the publication of her first novel, Blood Clay (Press 53). Way to go, Val!
And now: we’re very excited to present Issue No. 7 of Prime Number Magazine. (In case you’re new to the magazine, this is our fourth issue, since we number in primes: 2, 3, 5, 7 . . .) We thought the last issue was packed with great writing—and it was—but this time we’ve got even more. There are eight short stories ranging from Daniel Meltzer’s very funny “Les Is Mor” to Paul Hetzler’s moving story, “The Matador.” You’ll also find new work by Jessica Hollander, Robert Dart, Dan Moreau, Linda Stewart-Oaten, and Juleigh Howard-Hobson, as well as an excerpt from a novel by Robert Boucheron.
On the poetry front, we’ve got a delightful mix: haiku by Bill Wolak (who also interviews Naoshi Koriyama in this issue), senryu by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé, and poems by Naomi Benaron, Ruth E. Foley, Emilie Lindemann, and Victor David Sandiego, as well as several poems by Naoshi Koriyama.
Speaking of interviews, we’ve outdone ourselves. Besides Bill Wolak’s interview with Naoshi Koriyama, we have two firsts for the magazine. Novelist and short story writer Chris Gavaler and his wife, the poet Lesley Wheeler, interview each other while they spend the academic year in New Zealand. Also, we have an audio interview of biographer Charles Shields, conducted by Dean King during the James River Writers’ Conference in October 2010. Charles discusses both his best-selling biography of Harper Lee and also his forthcoming biography of Kurt Vonnegut. Listen to the whole thing—both Dean and Charles have great insights on what it means to be a writer.
But wait! There’s more!
In this issue we have fine essays by Stephen J. West and Eric Day as well as three book reviews. To top it all off, we’ve got a fascinating cover photograph by Stephen Millner.
As we said last quarter, it has become increasingly difficult to turn down the wonderful work we are offered. If we have had to decline your work, please try us again! Now that we have four issues for you to look at, you should be getting a better sense of what we like.
A number of readers have asked how they might comment on the work they read in the magazine. We’ll look into adding that feature in the future. In the meantime if you are moved to comment I would encourage you to send us an email (email@example.com) and we’ll pass your thoughts along to the contributors. Similarly, if you are a publisher and would like to send us ARCs for us to consider for reviews, please contact us at the above email address. We’re especially interested in reviewing new, recent, or overlooked books from small presses.
Finally, we’ve begun reading submissions for Issue 11, scheduled to launch in July. We’d love to include your work, so please submit! We need short stories, flash fiction and non-fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, short drama, and cover art. To learn more, visit our submissions page.
One more thing: Prime Number Magazine is published by Press 53, a terrific small press helping to keep literature alive.
Issue 7, April-June 2011
INTERVIEWS AND REVIEWS
Poetry from Naomi Benaron
followed by Q&A
The night you slip and hum her name
into my ear, I shall become light–
as wave reinventing myself in every warped
windowpane of your room; as particle
I will snarl your hair, tangle your bedclothes,
bind your lover in a knot of shadow and make
her watch me vibrate every atom in your blood,
sing hallelujah in the cavern of your chest.
Planck taught us that the body gives off heat
not as continuum but in discrete
quantum leaps determined by his constant, v.
But love obeys a different law; the heart
belongs to the sea–erasing your footprints as it ebbs
just to kiss them back when it tumbles toward your shore.
Studying for the Massage Licensing Exam
It is 5:00 a.m. and for an hour
I have been trying to draw the body
piece by piece from the page
the medial malleolus is formed
from the distal portion of the tibia.
Outside, cicadas rub transitional light
between their legs the thigh bone
connected to the knee bone
and I wish I could open the window
and cut a square from the dark,
Brachioradialis : origin :
lateral supercondylar ridge
and I wish it would be cool as stellar
ice so I could hold it to my face
base of styloid process of the radius :
action : flexion of the forearm,
but monsoonal summer lingers.
Night clings to the cheek like swamp-heat.
It drips from the skin, holds no lacunal relief in
bones of the wrist : trapezium trapezoid
capitate hamate scaphoid triquetrum
lunate : bone of the moon.
My old dog curls stiffly by my feet,
fur ruffled by the last gasp of the moon.
Nothing I learn prepares me
for this miraculous articulation
of joints deserting the body. Nothing
for the slow descent into disconnection
backbone from hipbone,
hipbone from thighbone
until I have to help him stand.
I will keep to myself the process
of cartilaginous breakdown. His feet
tell me all I need to know.
Eyes closed, muscles in almost autonomic
twitching, he does what he has done
all these years. He and I together: He runs.
And runs. And runs.
Naomi Benaron’s novel Running the Rift won the 2010 Bellwether Prize for a novel of “socially engaged literature” and is due out in 2012. Her short story collection, Love Letters from a Fat Man, won the 2006 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for fiction. Her poetry reviews, fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in journals including New Letters, Poets’ Quarterly, Calyx, The MacGuffin, Spillway, Comstock Review, and Green Mountains Review. Currently, she teaches at a community college in Tucson, AZ, and online to Afghan women writers through the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.
Q: What was the inspiration for these poems?
A: I wrote “Dualities” because I felt guilty making my Composition students write a sonnet when I had never written one. I am a geophysicist by training and have always been fascinated by the pure poetry of physics. “Studying for the Massage Licensing Exam” came from just that. Although I have been a therapist for 13 years, I had to get recertified. I didn’t realize my dog (Scout – a poet in his own right) would be a part of it until I looked down and saw him at my feet. When he creaked into an upright position and waited for his walk, it all came pouring out. We trained for marathons together in both our better years.
Q: What can an old dog teach a poet about seeing the world?
A: EVERYTHING!!! They are so open, honest and holistic in their approach to life. So immediate, and so incredibly focused. Are we going to run now? When will you feed me? Will you pet me? Why are you petting that other dog? Also, Scout and I have been growing old together, so we have been learning about changing limitations and how to fight them as a team. We don’t give up.
Q: What new understanding of the body did you come to as a result of massage training?
A: It was an amazing revelation to learn about muscles and kinesiology. It’s like reading a map with your fingers, and as you feel the muscle, you visualize how it works, both on its own and with its partner muscles. It’s also such a gift to have someone get up off the table and say, “Aaaaaaah! I feel so much better now.”
Q: You’ve made a lovely connection between physics and emotion in “Dualities” – how, then, is time affected by the presence of a former lover?
A: What an interesting question! I suppose time becomes more fluid, the boundaries more blurred. A bit dangerous, too, I suppose. You never know when the past will whelm up into the present.
Poetry from Ruth E. Foley
followed by Q&A
Things She Wouldn’t Tell Me
She wouldn’t talk about the time she stole
a pin I had—some sort of cheap metal
stamped into a woman’s head, hair
flowing behind her, a mermaid swimming
through the breakers.
Or the shirt she wore
until it thinned and softened into
something a fragile thread away
from lint, the reds faded to pink,
the time I found it in her things,
when she said she had forgotten
to bring it back again.
Or the jar of beach glass
my grandmother had collected—mostly
greens, a scattering of white, the rarity
of blue, a single drop of red like
the blood I imagine falling on the floor
beneath her wrists.
The blood or lack
of blood, the pills, the vodka she might
have used to wash it down, or not—I
have to guess, don’t want to guess,
can’t keep from guessing.
I think it must
have been blood, somehow, pooling
underneath her turquoise blouse, rising.
Shallow but deep enough to float away on,
Inevitable and silent, her private tide.
I’ve lost the words for him—
Flood, I say. The thing that drowns
and carries me away, turns me under foreign
gardens. Detritus, I say, lost
and floating with me, equally drowned,
decayed, flecked into pieces too small
to bring language. Then Nothing, I say,
as if he didn’t have a name
to begin with, as if I never savored
its taste in the time before the rains.
Cream, I say. Stone. Eggshell. Sandpaper.
Other things are lost as well—the way
he once held my fingers in his mouth, the names
I answered to, the foot I slid
from its sensible black pump and pressed
against him underneath
the table of the finest restaurant in town
while the waiter took my order, filled
our water glasses. Pomegranate. Palm.
These things never happened. My eyes
never left his half-open mouth for something
better, unfamiliar. He never had
a name. Liar, I say. Salt. Straw.
Single raindrop in the desert.
Love Poem for a Celery Stick
If you provide
less energy than
you use, a girl
can hardly blame
you. It’s just
your nature. What
should I expect?
If I don’t
recognize you by
now, don’t remember
you, cool and
crisp against my
say you’re good
for me. They
say your sinew
should be enough
to fill me.
If I give
us enough time,
I find truth.
They also say
I shouldn’t like
you unless I
learn to fill
your hollow channels.
But I do.
I crave your
bitter bite, crave
your peppered length.
You shouldn’t be
enough tonight. You
are. You are
full of water.
And I thirst.
Ruth Foley lives in Massachusetts, where she teaches English for Wheaton College. Her recent work is appearing or forthcoming in River Styx, Measure, The Ghazal Page, and Umbrella, which just nominated one of her poems for a Pushcart Prize. She also serves as associate poetry editor for Cider Press Review.
Q: What was the inspiration for these poems?
A: “Things She Wouldn’t Tell Me” is the hardest for me to explain of the three, in part because it’s the one I’m closest to. I think it’s common, in the face of a suicide (or near-suicide) to wonder what we could have done to intervene. We beat ourselves up for not knowing things that we really had no way to know. We have many reasons for not talking to each other—sometimes it seems easier to let things go rather than make an issue of them. Sometimes we don’t have the language, or the comfort level with the specific language that a given situation requires. In “Things She Wouldn’t Tell Me,” I wanted that lack of communication to grow to the proportions that were necessary to reach the suicide attempt. The list of things “she” would tell me is long and boring and probably pretty trite, but this other list, while incomplete, almost built itself.
“Anomia” is part of a series of infidelity poems—I write a lot of persona poems, and this one character worked her way into my head and refused to leave. It’s one of the last poems I wrote for her, when everything was over. I quizzed a bunch of writer friends while looking for the vocabulary for that one—I wanted sensual words that weren’t necessarily sexy (although some of them are). I collected hundreds of words and gradually figured out which ones were right.
I have a poet friend who was writing love poems for all sorts of crazy things during a poem-a-day challenge we were doing together. Another friend was working on a poem about the complexities of wanting things (and people) that are simply bad for us. Several of us were exchanging poems, and we would steal each other’s lines, or give them away, or just respond to someone else’s work. “Love Poem for a Celery Stick” came out of my response to that particular juxtaposition of poems and poets. I thought it was kind of funny, the idea of writing to something that’s supposed to be good for you, like celery, as if it were the wrong man.
Q: The role of shared language in ordering our lives is evident in your poems. What might this say to the difficulties of translation?
A: I deal with translation every day in my teaching, both because I am an ESL specialist (working largely with international and/or multilingual students at Wheaton) and because I’m a 41-year-old woman trying to connect with people in their late teens and early 20s. Translation requires flexibility in thinking, the ability to find multiple points of entry in the hopes of encouraging understanding, and the desire to communicate—these are all essential to all poetry, not just in translating poetry. Translation also requires a balance between the wish to communicate and the wish to understand, and I suppose you could say the same for all poetry on that front as well. Really good, powerful poetry in translation is even more difficult to come by than really good, powerful poetry in a native tongue.
That said, commonality of language can cause just as many issues as it solves. Sharing a language does not always mean sharing an understanding. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think the variability of interpretation is what takes the craft of poetry—or any craft, probably—and raises it to art. I have a couple of poems about futility and loneliness that often get interpreted as being about love or sex. That used to bother me, but I’m fine with it now—once it’s on the page, a poem is its own creature. If I’ve done everything I can to present it the way it needs to be presented, I have to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is going to see what I see in it.
I haven’t done a lot of work with translations, perhaps because it comes too close to the work I do on campus. And when I do work on a translation, the resulting poem is usually terrible. The poems I write afterwards, however, are often some of my favorites. I tend to see difficulty as a challenge rather than a deterrent, even when it would be wise for me to do otherwise. These challenges continue to stretch me as a poet, although, like with much stretching, it can sometimes leave me sore for a day or two afterwards.
Q: Tell us about beach glass…
A: Some people call it sea glass, I gather, but my family has always called it beach glass. It’s pieces of glass that have been worn down by the surf and the sand—you can find it pretty much any place there’s ocean and sand, although I don’t have a great eye for it. Much of it is white or green or brown (think beer bottles), but if you’re lucky you can pick some up in red or blue.
My grandmother owned a house on the Rhode Island coast, and I grew up spending one or two weeks every summer there with all of the cousins on my father’s side of the family (and without many of the aunts and uncles, because my grandmother was a mixture of crazy person and saint). My grandmother also largely grew up on the coast, so she had jars and jars of beach glass. When she died, my father brought home a quart mason jar full of the stuff, which I put into a vase on my mantle. There’s a large piece of turquoise beach glass in there, which I love, even though it’s not fully “cooked” yet—it’s still got a little bit of roughness around the edges. The ocean works its way into all sorts of my poems, and beach glass—sharp and possibly dangerous pieces of everyday refuse turned into something beautiful through the combination of erosion and loss and time—is so highly evocative for me that I have trouble keeping it out of my writing.
Q: What poems or poets do you consider formative inspirations?
A: Oh, wow. There are a lot. Thom Gunn, certainly, is a poet who isn’t read nearly as much as he should be. His poems are like magic to me, especially his way of finding the beauty in ugliness, or the ugliness in beauty. His poems in the voice of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer are horrifying and awful and somehow poignant and even lovely at times, against all odds and common sense. Those poems (which are included in his last book, Boss Cupid) also showed me how to put together a series, something that I didn’t really understand, or at least didn’t understand as deeply, before I read his work. Molly Peacock uses forms and formal devices in unexpected ways, and I like that, too—I like formal poems that sneak up on you, and I like free-verse poems where the choices are clearly as deliberate as those made in any well-written form. I like that a lot. Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazals have been a huge influence, in large part because of that blurred line between formality and free-verse, and also because of his own relationship to language. I fell in love with Yeats pretty early, and never quite fell out. “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you / And loved the sorrows of your changing face.” All of that—the rhythm, the word choice, the straightforwardness of it—shows up again and again in Yeats, often even in his more difficult poems, where he’s creating his own complex symbolism. I like Louise Gluck’s use of myth and am drawn to her spare language, although I can’t quite figure out how she does that.
Poetry from Emilie Lindemann
followed by Q&A
We Heart Our Customers
Try circling her total savings in red pen. Or blowing a kiss with her receipt. If this doesn’t work, rub her gray plastic bag between your thumb and index finger until it opens, until she lets you slip right in and you seal the deal with a Family and Friends Coupon. Afterwards, you can give her a genuine smile and use the word Great. She wants to see you again. You can bet your sweet bippy, your half-gone chapstick, even your non-compliant yellow footwear.
In some situations, you may need to take her hand and kiss the cuticles. Do this gently. Sometimes your store may run out of mediums or ivory sweaters. Sometimes the woman will desire you to hold her shopping cart. Look her in the eye and stroke her cash as you count it. One, two, three, four dollars. Try to speak softly when pronouncing totals, except of course, if she is elderly or hard of hearing.
I did not grade your essays
because I ate half of a Twix bar
in the grocery store parking lot
where I saw your thesis statements curl softly
near my tires. And the cart return boy
was using your voice
(I had said the first person was okay.
Or at least equivalent to an organic strawberry.)
My sister, on her days off, makes cookies from pre-made dough.
And one of you wrote an essay about the way
having sisters is scary, like when people type the letters
FML into cyberspace and exhale slowly,
as if coming to a conclusion
that sums up every point of the freshest, mint-sprayed thesis.
And the transitions are grocery store beeps—
it’s one customer to the next.
Your essays stacked neatly
on my industrial bookshelf were delicate buds opening
in my windowless office
all weekend, but especially in that moment
when I heard all of your words (and even the works cited entries)
hollering my name right before the shopping cart
rumbled back into the corral
and my sister, in her apron,
looked at the clock and thought of her daughter
waiting at home.
Emilie Lindemann holds a PhD in English-Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her chapbook, Dear Minimum Wage Employee, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Emilie is an assistant professor at Silver Lake College in her hometown, Manitowoc. When she’s not teaching, she frequents grocery stores; she enjoys the calm of a department store fitting room.
Q: Are shopping centers the spiritual home of the contemporary lyric poem?
A: Maybe. I choose to set my poems in consumer spaces because I want the cashiers and other speakers to reclaim the store or checkout counter as their own space. I want my poems to show that behind aprons, polo shirts, and name tags are real people—people who get hungry, bored, or upset.
Q: Did you have a secret name for yourself as a child? Or perhaps a secret friend?
A: No, I didn’t have a secret name or secret friend. As the oldest of eleven children I had plenty of siblings to play with.
Q: Tell us about winter and summer in Manitowoc County.
A: As a child, I rode the city bus for fun with my mother and siblings in the summertime. We pretended we were tourists on vacation and ate Chinese food for lunch. The seats on the bus were red vinyl—maybe they still are.
Poetry from Victor David Sandiego
followed by Q&A
Looking for Muwadi
The OLD savior is a discarded sock, decrepit holes and stinking deeds;
somewhere, he walks a naked rock.
Daybreak coughs on the red rim of the mountain; ash
is cool in the fire pits.
through the gates, my vision on you (by the Elephant tree)
but my footsteps
are driven underground by a slab of sky;
my shoulder is dark bruise
My skeleton book:
in your fingers, you tear pages from my THROAT, the sound
rips the morning in two.
Pilate washed his hands with your ragged towel of spanks
and your resurrection
is a phantom, a cold candle stub in my hand.
Oh, the simple goat:
dribbles grassy dew from his chin, content.
But my stomach drags a host of slaves; the sun
peels the skin from my allegiance;
my thin creeds
are lashed around my chest.
Like captive birds: they are jumping, colorful, restless, noisy
and they too believe that they are ANXIOUS
to be free.
(brother and brother)
from the same slotted womb, fallen apples into the world
must LEVER the door of the old, old home
splintered back and enter
to SMASH with heavy panting sticks all that remains
but for the lynching meat there.
I never trust a road that encircles a town
a death knot halts the expansion of blood from the ventricles
for the slow resuscitation of madness.
We cannot live together
now that the scales have turned
into broken clocks, and the old, old house is gone
across the threshold. It’s a new era
where words lift their good leg to piss in the street,
and only stumpy guttural sounds
escape from the open vowels of their mouths.
So tempting to lick our sugared limbs; tempting
to leave the hooks and walls that display the portraits
of Grandfather and Grandmother
who wedded by the neck and gurgled a progeny
of reasons and excuses out into the uteral dirt –
to breed and flap the flames with newborn wings
higher and higher until we
(brother and brother)
from the same miscast fishnet, gasp on the flopping shore
outside the old home,
struggle to breathe outside the old home,
now gone to splinters and chips,
struggle to expand our repertoire of gills
To climb the neck of Muwadi
It is Grandfather’s idea: take the low road along the water
that encircles the mountain. This enrages me and I smash
his mouth with the back of my head. His teeth in his hands,
he sits on the edge of the bed to comfort me but I want
only to recall what happened last night: my mind is a blank
on how I arrived here in the company of sisters and men.
A blanket covers my modest groin but my wild eyes march back
and forth on a chain. I see the pinnacle through the trees
to the south of the cave at the same time my family abandons
me in their headlong push along the rivers.
Go. I must climb his neck. Like a sharp rock, he pierces the corneal sky
and compels it to downpour a tempest of tears.
Rodents burrow under roots, their crumbs and their thimble hearts dry.
When my candle sinks in a molten pool, I too cry for what I have missed:
the touch of a child hand, the death of a wife. But today, I put one foot
above the other on rock, test my weight against a mountain. From the top,
I can see the pointy scalps of the forest and in a misting distance,
the expanse of my birth water that once lapped my feet as I gasped
on the white sea sand. Yes, I may slip and fall. If so, there will be an absolute
free moment of weightlessness when I will count all my blessings, curses,
setbacks and triumphs in the pin-wheeling sky, earth and trees
before my breath is slapped from my lungs by the boulder I greet.
And I believe I will bounce at least once or twice before blue
turns black, and black migrates back up to morning
as an inexpert emerald day in a brand new realm
Victor David Sandiego divides his time between México, Central America, and the Pacific Northwest. He was the winner of the 1st WordStorm Poetry Competition held on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, a winner of the 2008 Jeanne Lohmann Poetry Prize, and the winner of the 2009 Crab Creek Review poetry contest. His work appears in various journals and on public radio. When schedules collide, he plays drums with musical / poetry collaborative group, Band of Poets and Friends of Uranium. More at: www.VictorDavid.com.
Q: What was your inspiration for these poems?
A: Muwadi represents a powerful being who accompanied me through a perilous, nearly fatal labyrinth years ago. After we crossed, he withdrew, but left me with some measure of his courage. For me, the names we assign to guiding forces in our lives are less important than the guiding forces themselves. This name came to me as I wrote a precursor poem to The First Book of Muwadi entitled Sanctuary. When I finished other projects I was working on, I began The First Book of Muwadi not knowing where it would lead me. Actually, the manuscript was originally titled The Book of Muwadi until I reached its present stopping point and realized that there is more I will say about Muwadi later, perhaps after my current project.
Q: Would you like to discuss the role of received wisdom – religious, familial, other – on your poems?
A: I consider myself a conduit and an aggregator of many angles of perception. I simply try to be as receptive as possible and allow the stories to flow through me. This helps me have a clearer understanding of myself, others and our shared relationship to the world.
As I write, I learn. I usually don’t know what’s going to happen but I trust the process. Any wisdom that I might personally receive comes from being open to new ideas, places, persons, attitudes and customs.
Q: Where would we find Muwadi, and what is the climate there?
A: You will likely find Muwadi in the high central desert plateau of México, possibly in or near the city of Guanajuato. The climate there is temperate, a land of cactus, yucca, and mesquite. There are also bones and bodies of many ancestors there. When you put your ear to the ground, you can hear their lives.
Q: Your lines share an apocalyptic vision that calls up William Blake–what poets or writers influence your work?
A: The list is huge. My work is inseparable from my life, which is influenced not only by my love of reading which has taken me to many beautiful authors such as Homer, Dante, Borges, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, José Kozer, José Saramago, David Huerta, and D.H. Lawrence – but also by my personal journeys through México, Central America, the U.S, and Cuba where I meet everyday people and those on society’s fringes who frequently astound and humble me with their immense reservoirs of human spirit.
Poetry from Naoshi Koriyama
An Artist’s Apology to His Daughter
You may feel uncomfortable,
looking at those paintings
of nude women
your father has painted.
He did look at the women
as he could, trying to reproduce
the gentle curves of their rich breasts.
He counted the threads of a model’s hair
hanging on her nape.
He could feel the heartbeat
of the woman in front,
as he moved his brush on the canvas.
Perhaps he loved these women
more strongly than he loved your mother.
Here they are, painted for ages to come,
exposing their naked bodies
to the sun.
From Eternal Grandeur and Other Poems, 1994 *
Under the Evening Sky of Rome
Did I reach out for your hand first?
Or did you slip your hand into mine?
Our hands seemed
to have eagerly longed
to touch each other.
I didn’t want to let your hand go,
so I kept holding it
as we walked along the bumpy sidewalk
of your hand
with all my heart.
And I could feel your hand
to the amorous squeeze
of my hand.
From Eternal Grandeur and Other Poems, 1994 *
A Poem Just for You
I call up every single word
in my vocabulary,
one usable word
in search of the best possible word.
I also examine
every single working rule
of my grammar
to arrange the choicest words
into a poem
in the most powerful way.
Sitting at my typewriter,
setting my body upright
with my feet comfortably apart,
I exert all the force and power
of my fingertips and hands
of the faithful machine . . .
just for you . . .
From Eternal Grandeur and Other Poems, 1994 *
A Morning Song
When I go to bed
I always put a notebook
at my bedside
I may depict
when I see you
in my dream.
Groping in the dark,
word by word
recording my joy
of seeing you.
In the morning
I see strange loops
and crooked lines
like wanton tracks
of creeping earthworms
on the open pages
of the notebook.
As I sit
at my typewriter
deciphering the illegible scrawls
loop by irregular loop
line by crooked line
your smiling face
begins to appear
right in front of my eyes.
From Eternal Grandeur and Other Poems, 1994 *
when my children and i
when my children and i
came down the mountain trail
after rambling in the hot island summer sun
i took them
to the stream
at the foot of the mountain
that flowed cool
under the thick bowers of bamboo trees
yes, i took them
to the mountain stream
to let them drink
the cool, clear water
that our unknown ancestors have drunk
down the countless ages
here on this remote small island
From By the Lakeshore and Other Poems, 1977.*
*reprinted with permission of the author
Naoshi Koriyama is the author of the following books:
Coral Reefs, The Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, 1957.
Plum Tree in Japan and Other Poems, The Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, 1959.
Songs from Sagamihara, The Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, 1967.
By the Lakeshore and Other Poems, The Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, 1977.
Time and Space and Other Poems, The Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, 1985.
Selected Poems 1954–1985, The Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, 1989.
Eternal Grandeur and Other Poems, The Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, 1994.
Collected Poems, The Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, 1996.
Poems about The Iraq War and Other Poems, Eiko-Sha, Tokyo, 2004.
We Wrote These Poems: A Collection of Poems by Mentally Retarded Children, Hokuseido
Press, Tokyo, 1982.
Like Underground Water: The Poetry of Mid-Twentieth Century Japan, cotranslated
with Edward Lueders, Copper Canyon Press, 1995.
Black Flower in the Sky: Poems of a Korean Bridegroom in Hiroshima by Chong Ki-
Sheok, cotranslated with Elizabeth Floyd, Katydid Press, 2000.
Beautiful Amami Island Folk Songs, The Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, 2001.
Another Bridge over the Pacific: A Man from an Island and His American Wife, Vantage
Poetry from Bill Wolak
where your eyebrow
inside the snowman
a scarecrow dreaming
of frozen waterfalls
flesh so pale
on polished marble
the sharpest knife
slices straight to the bottom
of rinse water
every swirling snowflake
a wild gawking eye
four men carrying
a corpse to the river
the mirror’s skirt
lifted by moonlight
body of winks and whispers
twirling and twisting your hair
around a finger
looking down your dress
a jet’s passing
Bill Wolak is a poet who has just published his third book of poetry entitled Archeology of Light. Wolak has been awarded two Fulbright-Hays scholarships to study and travel in India and has traveled throughout Asia including trips to Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan, and China. In 2007, he was selected to participate in a Friendship Delegation to Iran sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the nation’s largest and oldest interfaith peace and justice organization. Recently he has been selected to be a featured reader at the 2011 Kritya International Poetry Festival in Nagpur, India.
Poetry from Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
followed by Q&A
bonism in the finite field of senryu
calcium, flakes of chalk
blanket of snow–droves, sheets
city to city
from ridge to terrain
new fonts pinned to the bridge
its roof red, shellac
where do we go now
from bridge into rain, terrains
as foreign and white
read the lunation
what it says about winter
then perfect the step
as with the clear sky of senryu
there was no window
evening mood as funereal
hasse in the blue room
handel in the drawing room
now coatroom for guests
there was no time for talk–
no coffin or loss
a button under the couch
its hand-carved edge gold-tinted
its light dwindling
as with atomism a pearlescent senryu
what is knowable
in the here and now and world
of visible things?
in the mix, squares suspended
like this doubt, staying
repainted over with red dye
a deep, loveless hue
the monad stilling
like a stray flower landing–
rock garden quiet
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé has a forthcoming chapbook by Firstfruits Publications, the inaugural installment of Nicholas Liu’s Storm Glass Project. Trained in publishing at Stanford, with a theology master’s in world religions from Harvard and fine arts master’s in creative writing from Notre Dame, Desmond has edited more than ten books and co-produced three audio books, several pro bono for non-profit organizations. He is the recipient of the Singapore Internationale Grant and Hiew Siew Nam Academic Award. Desmond also works in clay, his commemorative pieces housed in museums and private collections in India, the Netherlands, the UK and the US.
Q: Every schoolchild is taught to write haiku–can you discuss the place of senryu in Japanese literature, and why perhaps we should be teaching that form?
A: The senryu has essentially the same form as the haiku, with its three lines. And morae, or syllable count. The haiku focuses on nature and the seasons, while the senryu differs in subject matter and tone. The senryu is permitted to adopt a darker demeanor, take on cynicism and black humor, like some koans. I view the senryu as the burlesque of Japanese poetic forms. All this said, within a postmodernist sensibility, all the rules may be jettisoned, with only the spirit of experimentation to re-establish the senryu as its own figural reconstruction, and what it might be attempting to be or achieve in that moment of existing, of being.
In my senryu, for instance, I shamelessly carve in the “kireji,” or cutting word, used quite liberally across lines, across stanzas. Each title tends to be deliberately reflexive, while standing on its own as a monostitch. I’m also pulling both forms–of haiku and senryu–out of their normal climate through the inclusion of isms–to foist, as if to put the screws on–the use of such theoretical abstraction rarely associated with either form.
In the poem, “as with atomism a pearlescent senryu,” I remember reading a chapter of G.L. Hagberg’s Arts as Language: Wittgenstein, Meaning, and Aesthetic Theory, before embarking on its first stanza. Here’s an excerpt from the sub-chapter titled “The Mirroring of Emotion”: “Logical atomism and formalism are not the only influences on [Susanne] Langer’s theory of art…. Virtual form, she claims, is the property that all artworks share; indeed, only through the presence of virtual form are they works of art…. The work is divorced ‘from its usual causal and practical surroundings,’ and it is this divorce which accounts for what Langer calls the ‘unreality’ of art. What is of interest in a work of art is, in the way it was for Kant and Schopenhauer, out of this world: it lies beyond the physical. Thus it is only through this special perceptual channel that the virtual form is visible. The artwork has been defined as a symbol, and ‘a symbol,’ she says, ‘is any device whereby we are enabled to make an abstraction.’”
I liked the idea of turning the naturalistic representation of these Japanese forms on their head, and to allow abstraction an equal stage within the form, as if the abstract could be as concrete a sound, as definite an image as “light snow on pavement / yucca line and a sidewalk / against curve, grass, lawn”. I’ve since surprised myself and gone on to work with the choka and gogyohka, the latter a new form invented by Enta Kusakabe in 1957 as a revisioning of the five-lined tanka.
To answer your question, I agree that both the haiku and senryu would make for fun exercises for children. They involve simple acts of counting, and pay such attention to sound–not rhyme as much as units of sound in phonology. And the larger references to nature or our collective human folly is easy enough for kids to identify and establish in their poems. Compared with the daunting sestina and ghazal, I guess these short forms are easier to get a handle on, more suitable for getting a child interested in poetry, and literature in general. The teacher might throw in this line by Yeats, like an anchor into a boat, to round off the session: “A line will take us hours maybe; Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, our stitching and unstinting has been naught.”
Q: Your line “a button under the couch” made us think of those forgotten or discarded combs in classic Asian poetry … what poets or what traditions do you see as formative in your writing?
A: It’s really interesting how you highlighted that particular line. It’s a very specific image, a moment from my childhood. I penned “as with the clear sky of senryu” after reading about Peter Orlovsky’s passing sometime in mid-2010. I began wondering what it would be like to survive your lover for more than ten years. A poet himself, Orlovsky was Ginsberg’s lifelong partner. Yes, Ginsberg who said that “Poets are Damned… but See with the Eyes of Angels.” The whole idea of death made me reminisce about my grandmother’s death. The image of the button is a fond memory I have of my grandmother. One time, Ah Ma had dropped a button she was trying to sew. It had rolled under the couch, and she asked me to retrieve it because I was the youngest, and had the smallest arms that would fit under the couch. I remember feeling happy and empowered, to be of use, to be able to do something an adult couldn’t.
The forgotten comb in classic Asian poetry! It’s this sort of absence–of lost time, of the unseen object or story–that seems so prevalent in Asian poetry, and indeed, provides even a small poem much intensity and range, despite its seeming simplicity. I’m no authority on classic Asian poetry but let me share something I like from Michele Marra’s Modern Japanese Aesthetics, an excerpt from the chapter “The Space of Poetry: The Kyoto School and Nishitani Keiji”: “According to Nishitani, the space of the concept of emptiness is better located once the character for emptiness (ku) is dissociated from its Buddhist implications and understood in its original etymological sense of ‘the empty space,’ ‘the empty sky’ (koku)…. The infinitude of emptiness is finally caught in an image, the sky, whose finitude allows one to grasp the notion of the unseen. The infinite is brought to a graspable reality by the image of a concrete sky that makes infinity a manifestation of the concrete. ‘Manifestation of the concrete’ is the etymological meaning of the Japanese word for ‘reality, actuality’ (genjitsu). The mediation between the graspability of the mind (the infinite) and the graspability of the eye (the phenomenon) takes place at the level of poetic language through the metaphorical power that language has to say the unsayable. Poetic language gives form to the formlessness of the infinite.”
If I had to pin down some writers who have influenced me, it would be Auden, Kafka, Camus, Beckett, Hopkins, Plath, Eliot, Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara, James Joyce, Aimé Césaire, Robert Duncan, to name a handful from the canon. I know it’s an eclectic selection that traverses a bizarre spectrum of poetic styles. I constantly stumble upon a contemporary work that makes me sit up and take notice. I felt that with Joshua Beckman, Nathaniel Bellows, Cole Swensen, William Fuller, among so many others. So much poetry has been written–and so much groundbreaking work has been coming out in the last fifty years–that to discover a new voice, a new way of seeing the world, is always exciting. And completely refreshing.
One of my all-time favorite books is The Shrubberies by Ronald Johnson, which surprises me given how removed I feel from nature having lived all my life in a thoroughly urban landscape. I love how in Peter O’Leary’s afterword, we find out Johnson returned to Kansas for good in 1995, to live in Topeka with his father, and continued working in turn as a handyman, gardener and cook. O’Leary writes that it was there that The Shrubberies “took form,” that Johnson appeared to have “considered at least two schemes” for the book: “one as a tour through a garden; the other as a record of the changing seasons…. By the last poems, his attention turns from the particularities of the natural world to the cosmos at large.”
Q: Discuss the interplay of your studies in both theology and literature.
A: My scholarship has been complex, with a bit of every peculiar thing thrown in–this was deliberate, as if to feed my own kooky bazaar of interests. I like to think that my studies in comparative religion and contemporary literature has helped in my writing that constantly grapples with ideas of truth, knowledge, beauty, alienation, suffering, violence, love, sexuality, freedom, death, and yes, faith.
I have come to appreciate using the term “spirituality” rather than “religion” or “theology”. That said, theology works perfectly fine as well–after all, theology is the matter of faith seeking understanding, and that definition, in my opinion, is very inclusive and welcoming.
In Stephan van Erp’s book, The Art of Theology: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics and the Foundations of Faith, there are delineated four kinds of contemporary theological aesthetics, with van Erp touching on the sometimes bittersweet history of how theology and the arts have conversed throughout the last two millennia. From Plato to Augustine. From Aristotle to Plotinus to Pseudo-Dionysius. Or Aquinas and Cajetan naming ‘the beautiful’ “as one of the transcendental concepts,” this same notion later rejected by philosopher-theologian Francisco Suarez.
The freedoms necessary in art creation can sometimes seem disquieting and bristly to theology, which can sometimes expect of itself only an unflappable, collected cool. For me, this struggle only aids in surfacing healthy questions that beg new depth and insight, of forgotten or remote things sometimes taken for granted. I think the notions of truth and beauty are inextricably entwined, and continuing the dialogue about the two and their relationship to each other, is a wonderful and much needed thing.
At the beginning, I found myself intrigued by this theoretical threstle and interstice. What is this idea of theological aesthetics? I found in Alejandro García-Rivera’s book, The Community of the Beautiful, an easy understanding: “Asking the question, what moves the human heart?, I believe, brings us closer to the mysterious experience of the truly beautiful, an experience that transcends geological space and prehistoric time, an experience that holds the most persuasive claim to being what has become an aporia in our day, the real universal.”
Beyond the intellectual ruminations, I think it’s just amazing how much beauty there is in the symbols and rituals of the world’s various faith traditions. What one is left with eventually is the object, whether it’s a material artifact or written script. “It is only in the world of objects,” as Eliot astutely observed, “that we have time and space and selves.”
It could be admiring the craftsmanship of the Habdalah wine cup, spice box and braided candle. It could be noting how for the Persians, the rose and other flowers feature so prominently in miniatures of the Timurid and Safavid periods. Or noting how trees feature in biblical texts, like the acacia in Exodus, cinnamon in Kings, myrtle in Isaiah, or sycamore in Luke. Or noting how in the Kalachakra mandala, within the stupa and Mount Meru, are symbolized the five natural elements – of earth, water, fire, air, and ether – and how a ring of fire circles the mandala, the presence of “fire” in turn allegorizing “knowledge” in Tantrism.
I’m all the more grateful for my scholastic training because my own poetry has been so enriched by the knowledge, a knowledge that I keep adding to, and questioning, with no end in sight. I recall reading such interesting academic essays comparing, say, the Bhakti poet-mystics and the Spanish Carmelites. Or Masao Abe and Keith J. Egan sharing their thoughts on Zen and Christian contemplation. Then I would sit with the texts, truly let their importance sound their soft trill and ring, and then begin my own words. In poetry, I find myself at my most free, allowed the open space to explore these different tropes–the imagery, the metaphors, the symbols–and let them interact with each other in new ways. As words jostling on the page to liberate a new oration, a new narrative. “At the entrance, my bare feet on the dirt floor,” as Czeslaw Milosz wrote. “Here, gusts of heat; at my back, white clouds. I stare and stare. It seems I was called for this: To glorify things just because they are.”
By Jessica Hollander
Followed by Q&A
We were open thirty-five minutes before our first customer of the day. Jeans smeared with dried mud, a wrinkled plaid shirt, scraggly hair, a complexion ruddy with sun, dirt, sweat, and who knows what else. The context always threw me, such a man in the pristine white and blue lobby, the neat desk in the center, each bank slip stacked in its own symmetrical cubby.
“Who’s open?” He smiled. Slow summer months in the campus branch seemed like an ideal time for a robbery.
Blake coughed at his computer; Linda, the manager, disappeared into the vault. I waited three seconds and then sighed and called him over.
“You have nice teeth,” I told him, though when he smiled again all I could focus on was a deep black space in the bottom row. Then I knew: man on the median of Old Airport Road. Need Food, Living in Woods.
“My mom drank a gallon a milk a day when she was pregnant.” He threw his wallet on the counter. “License.” He nodded at the cracked black leather, and I picked the gritty thing up gingerly, opened the flaps on my workstation. He had short hair in the picture. Same bright teeth. Durham, North Carolina. Expired expiration date.
On the counter, the man set a check with a bloody thumbprint in the corner.
“You a customer here?” I asked.
“I don’t believe in banks.” He shifted around in a sort of swagger.
Blake turned toward me, his blond hair perfectly parted and flat besides a few strands sticking up in the back.
“You want to have a look at this?” I asked Blake, lifting the check corner opposite the blood stain and trying not to cringe. “You hurt yourself?” I asked the man.
“Some people have a green thumb,” he said. “Mine’s red.”
“His license is expired,” Blake said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Your license is expired.”
The man laughed. “The check’s twenty-four dollars and fifty cents.”
Blake sucked air into the corners of his mouth, studying the check, the sleeve of his white shirt pulled up enough to expose the bottom of his tattoo. A recycle sign. I used to think this was sexy. He used to smell of cigarettes.
Blake frowned at me. He shook his head.
The man reached over the counter and snatched the wallet, the check.
“Sorry!” I yelled as he strode through the lobby. Blake went back to his computer, and I stared at my screen, thinking on my lunch break I’d mix salt into Blake’s coffee beans, and between my palms I’d smash the sandwich he’s got all wrapped up in a plastic bag on the refrigerator shelf.
The hallway smelled of tomato, garlic, onions. Sid’s sneakers, covered in red mud, sat outside his apartment, and I heard his screeching music through the wall. I pounded on the door as loud as I could, and when the music shut off I went inside.
“Playing in the mud again?” I asked, kicking my high-heels into the pile of scuffed, swollen shoes.
“I got a new job,” he called from the kitchen. “Cosmic Gardener!” He wore a t-shirt with a hole in the side and shorts cut off at the thighs. His hair was wet and sticking every which way. He head-banged over the stove to some lingering buzz of music. His apartment, lately, seemed constantly in a state of vibration.
He turned toward me, lifted a noodle above his mouth, and then lowered it, chewed. “Right on time.”
“Is that just for me or are we having company?”
“You got it,” he said.
I went into his bedroom, changed into my shorts and tank-top from the night before, hoping Sid would go for a run with me tonight. I left my skirt, nylons, and dress-shirt in a heap on the floor.
In the living room, Sid’s mom sat at the card-table in front of the television.
“You still here?” Abby said when she saw me. She had about a million beads hanging from her neck, dangling from her earrings, braided into her hair; and when she moved it sounded like someone playing the maracas.
“Sure, Abby. Didn’t Sid tell you I’m moving in?”
She grunted, pulled a joint from her purse. “You and about five other girls.”
“You’re going to see me all the time. You’re going to see me more than you see him.”
Sid came into the room carrying three bowls so one was shoved up near his armpit. “You’re doing that now?” he asked as she lit up.
“I can do two things at once.” She took a bowl from him.
Sid squeezed between us and un-muted the television: a sitcom family was sitting down to dinner. Somebody said something funny. I took a huge, hot bite of spaghetti. Sid and Abby passed the joint between them and talked about some guy, Coochie, his mom was seeing. My eyes glazed, watching the television, and I thought of that afternoon in the vault with Blake, counting for shipment, all those straps on the floor.
Sid’s mom went to the bathroom at the next commercial and Sid muted the sound. The AC purred in the window. “I’ll get her out of here after the show,” he said. “You want to go in the bedroom then?”
I shrugged, considering I’ve got to get my aerobics in either way. “Whatever."
We were so bored at Fidelity Too. A money shipment came in, we counted the bills by hand instead of running them through the machine. We unrolled the coins and verified them in our trays. We listened to the lady in the Muzak recite loan rates, CD rates, money market rates. We thought up alternative names for “FiTo,” the white poodle on the poster We’ve Got FREE Checking! Linda stood outside the door, greeting passersby enthusiastically. Kristin, on the other side of Blake, filed her nails. James, the poly-sci major, researched Republican websites. Blake balanced his checkbook. Blake visited a tattoo website. Blake designed tattoos on receipt tape. Blake asked me politely to find my own ways to keep busy instead of spying on his shit. I went into the break room. Blake was the only one here who liked peanut butter and jelly.
The next few nights I stayed with my mom, who lived in one of the pretty subdivisions of Chapel Hill, surrounded by blocks and blocks of manicured yards and houses, with no sidewalks and no bus stops for miles. She worked late most of the time and had a long commute, so I got to the empty house when the sun was half behind the trees, and I went for a run around the subdivision, accompanied by the patter of sprinklers and the yelping of small dogs. When Mom arrived, I heated gourmet dinners in the microwave, and she told me about her stupid assistant who copied only one side of a packet and then spilled coffee on Mom’s wrist in a meeting.
“You should see this poor girl,” Mom said, wiping her eyes. “She’s skinnier than you, she can barely lift the coffee pot, and then she’s all shaky when she tips it toward the cups. She’s started lifting weights at the gym. So she can handle the coffee.”
The phone rang. We sat in her dining room where she had this mood lighting. She always had the switch way down so it felt like the room was lit by candles.
Mom rolled her eyes. “Of course not. Are you trying to wear me down? Well you’ve worn me down. And still. No.” She hung up the phone.
“You know what your father used to drink?” she asked. “Chicory.”
“Who was that?”
“Stupid Rebecca.” She picked through her chicken rice pilaf. Rebecca was the reason I stopped staying with Dad, even though all my stuff was there, even though he lived about a half mile from the campus branch while Mom’s house was nearly ten miles away. I couldn’t stand the sad looks Rebecca kept giving me.
“Why’s she calling you?”
“To torture me.” Mom looked into my empty Styrofoam bowl and placed hers in mine. “Dishes time,” she said. “Your turn.”
Blake arrived late the next morning when we were in circle for Daily Huddle. He wore a thin black tie, a black blazer, his hair blond and flat and divided. He mumbled an apology and disappeared into the break room. He filled the whole place with the smell of coffee.
Linda mumbled, “He could ask if anyone else wants some.” She had on clumpy mascara that made her look like some sad old woman. Her eyes kept sticking together.
“He’s a selfish, selfish zebra,” I said, and everyone looked at me funny.
When Blake came out of the break room fifteen minutes after we opened, I said, “You missed one hell of a morning. Guess how many sales I made during Speed Calls.” Blake ruled supreme on the sales board in the break room. He was an ace selling Student Credit Cards to students.
“Make your sales when we’re open if you don’t want to come in early.” He drank from a thermos as big as his forearm
“You’re supposed to come in early anyway.”
“I don’t hear anyone complaining.” He smiled, his teeth straight, though they were yellow. He told me once his recycle sign tattoo was so they knew what to do with his body when he died.
I scribbled him a note and slipped it into his station. You are a zebra.
He wrote something underneath and passed it back. You are a whore.
I smiled at him and threw the note in the Secure Trash. I would rather be a whore than a zebra. When I took my morning bathroom break I pounded his sandwich against the counter until it was as thin as a pancake and peanut butter and jelly oozed out the top of the bag.
Around 11:00, Sid strolled into the lobby, and I almost didn’t recognize him. He wore his Cosmic Gardener polo, streaked with grime, a baseball hat over his tangled, curly hair, and blue-jean cutoffs. His tan legs with all that black hair seemed obscene: they were probably sweaty, they’d probably leave sweat marks on the lobby’s white-cushioned chairs that would never come off. My co-workers stared at their screens. They’d not yet had the pleasure of meeting my boyfriend.
He walked to my window and tossed his sunglasses on the counter. “Where’ve you been?”
Blake shifted in his chair; someone lowered the Muzak. The bank had never been so quiet.
“I thought you were moving in,” he said, and I sat a moment paralyzed, wondering what he’d do if I pretended I didn’t know him. If someone would call the police if he got out of hand.
I leaned forward and whispered, “Come back in half an hour. You can take me to lunch.”
“Chinese?” he asked, grinning his fantastically crooked smile, and when I said that’s fine, he said, “You got it!” and left the lobby so quick it was almost like he was never there.
Blake grinned at me. I scribbled a note. My face felt like a giant red balloon. I’m sleeping with the guy who lives in the woods. I tossed it onto his keyboard.
Blake snorted with laughter.
“What’s so funny?” Linda asked, walking down the line.
“Nothing,” Blake said.
“Did you know that guy?” Linda asked me.
“Sort of,” I told her.
She stared at the door a few seconds.
“He’s my gardener,” I said. “At my mother’s house. He gardens there.”
When she finally left, Blake scribbled something down, threw it over his shoulder so it landed on the floor near the trash. I got up to read it. It said: Can I watch?
“I had to cut down a rose bush today.” Sid sat across from me in the orange plastic booth, a bowl of crispies between us. “The lady’s kid stuck his finger on it.”
“You mean it stuck the kid’s finger.”
“Right. Like this.” He reached for my hand and clomped down on it. My leg shook beneath the table. The waitress came over and I ordered sweet and sour noodles.
“I’m thinking Kung Pao Chicken,” Sid said, studying the menu. “Kung Pao Chicken? Yeah, Kung Pao Chicken. I’ll have the Beef and Broccoli.”
I gave him a look once the waitress left, and he said, “I’m sorry I have an appreciation for words.” He shook his head and gazed sadly out the window. “And no tolerance for spice.”
He set his baseball cap on the table. “The apartment’s awfully lonely lately.”
“Think about it, Sid,” I said, voraciously crunching crispy after crispy. “You lose track of time. I come home from work. You have that trashy Claudia naked on the couch.”
Eventually we ran out of crispies. The waitress brought our food.
“In an ideal situation,” he said through a mouthful of broccoli. “What would you like?”
I cleared my throat. “For starters I’d like no more mother. For finishers I’d like no more girls. How does that sound?”
He grinned. “Pretty boring. It sounds good but it’d get boring.”
“Fine,” I said, stabbing my noodles. “You know what I’d like? I’d like you to drive out to Old Airport and give the woodsman in the median twenty four dollars and fifty cents.”
Sid nodded. “It’s on my way back.”
“Good,” I said.
“Good.” he said. “We have a deal?”
“Yeah. And no more girls.”
We were so bored at the bank. We continued coming in early because we “couldn’t make calls during business hours,” but we weren’t making any sales during business hours either. Linda begged passersby to open accounts. James and Kristin had a game of War going with three decks of cards shuffled together. Blake disappeared for twenty minutes at a time and came back with red eyes and a pink splotch on his forehead. He said he kept passing out in the break room. He said, “I now believe it’s possible to die of boredom.” I played a million games of solitaire and won less than half. Blake sighed irritably every few seconds. Blake took off his tie and waited for Linda to come in and say something. Linda came in and said, “Put your damn tie back on.” Blake went into the bathroom and came back with his tie on and thick black eyeliner around his eyes. “Don’t discriminate,” he said. Linda told him to go home. He raked his hands through his hair, got it to stick up awkwardly, half-way. Fine blond strands fell from his fists. Linda said, “This is your last warning.”
I met Sid’s mother in the stairwell, moving slow up to Sid’s floor. She wore this long flowery skirt she held bunched in her hands as she shuffled along.
“You again?” she asked. I tried to get around her, but the stairwell was too small and she took up too much of it. “I miss Claudia,” she said. “She had such a shapely body, didn’t she? Girls are too skinny these days.”
“I know. I don’t know why anyone would want to be healthy.”
“Claudia cooked when she visited. Do you cook, Raimy?”
I felt fidgety in my clothes: my skirt too tight, my shirt digging into my armpits. “Did you drink milk when you were pregnant with Sid?” I asked her.
She gave me a look of extreme offense.
“You didn’t! I know you didn’t!” I pushed past her so she stumbled. I rushed down the hall to Sid’s place and pounded on the door until the music stopped. “No more mother!” I yelled. “No more mother!” I took the fire exit.
When I got to Mom’s place there were two cars in the driveway: one hers, one Dad’s. I went into the house and sat in the dark living room. Finally my mom came down in her robe and turned on the light.
“I heard the door.” She sat next to me on the couch. “Raimy, I need to tell you something.” Upstairs, the shower turned on. “I’m an adulterer. I’m adulting with your father.”
I slipped off my heels, pulled my feet under me. “Are you getting back together?”
“No way. God, no. I clean the whole place the moment he leaves.” She adjusted the bottom of her robe. “I don’t know how I did it. I don’t know how anyone could live with anyone. Except you, darling. You’re perfect.”
The house phone rang and Mom shook her head. “Goddamn Rebecca.” She burst out laughing. Then covered her mouth like she could stuff it back in. I got up and answered the phone.
“Raimy.” It was Sid. There was just his breathing for a long time. “Mom’s leaving. Coochie got a job in Charlotte and asked Mom to move with him.”
My mom rolled her eyes. She motioned me to hang up the phone. She giggled and hid behind her hand.
“Has she left yet?” I asked. “I mean, did she go tonight?”
“Next week,” he said, and he started sobbing.
“Call me then, all right? It’s going to be OK.”
I locked myself in the Blue Guest Room. “Raimy’s Room,” Mom called it. I listened to my parents’ low voices, their laughter. There was no traffic outside to drown anything out. Only the soft yelp of dogs, the patter of sprinklers.
The next day, Blake called me into the break room. The veins in his neck protruded slightly. His black tie was askew. A few more hairs than usual bobbed away from his middle-part, like springs.
He held up his sandwich, smashed inside its baggie, peanut butter and jelly oozing from the sides of the bread. “Will you please stop smashing my goddamn sandwich?”
I grabbed the bag out of his hand and pinched the center of the sandwich with my thumbs and forefingers until the bread broke apart and there was a hole in the middle. “But it feels so good,” I told him. “It doesn’t really hurt anyone, right?”
He smiled evenly, loosened his tie. He strolled to the refrigerator and held up my red delicious apple. I’d spent three solid minutes searching the grocery bin for a particularly smooth one.
He threw the apple to the ground and the side split. He stared at it like he was surprised it didn’t bounce back. He picked it up and something like apple sauce oozed out, and then he threw it again. That’s when I turned around and went back to the teller line: where there were no customers, where there was nothing to do.
We pulled out old textbooks we didn’t have time to read in school. We taped together mutilated money, checked all our bills with fraudulence pens. We searched the internet for other jobs. We searched for other schools, other haircuts, other dentists. Other weather, other cities, other countries. We searched for other options, other stories. We listened to the Muzak lady. She was on a mission to save us money on our home equity lines.
Jessica Hollander received her MFA from the University of Alabama. Her recent and forthcoming publications include The Cincinnati Review, Dark Sky, > kill author, PANK, Quarterly West, Web Conjunctions, and wigleaF, among others. You can visit her at jessicahollanderwriter.com.
Q: Is there something you' like readers to know about this story?
A: “Slow Summer” was the first story I wrote about the character Raimy, and I proceeded to write several more. You can find more Raimy stories in Dark Sky Magazine, Quarterly West, and Sou’wester.
Q: What's your second favorite place on Earth, and why?
A: I think the kitchen. Not cooking—I’m incapable of it—but watching cooking happen. Sitting on a bar stool, and food is prepared in front of me, and the smells are great, and the conversation is great, and the anticipation is great. I guess it’s clear where my first favorite place on Earth would be. But eating is so much better when I’ve been in the kitchen beforehand witnessing the process: the pouring, the chopping, the heating mess of it.
Q: PC, or Mac?
Q: What's your process when writing a short story?
A: My thirteen-month-old son can’t stack blocks yet. He picks them up, bangs them together, throws them on the floor. And they’re beautiful blocks, bright collisions of red and yellow and blue. But every time he brings the blocks to me, I put one on top of the other. I say, “Stack. Stack.” And he knocks them down, and I put one on top of the other. “Stack.” I show him. “Stack.” Build it up, knock it down, build it up, knock it down, bang things together, then stack it all up again.
Q: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
A: This is a very relevant question. For four years before going back to school, I worked as a part-time bank teller at two different campus branches, and we always had a lot of down time. Sometimes I read two novels a week, I studied vocab for the GREs, flipping through hundreds of flashcards a day, and I got to know my coworkers in a very particular way that probably few in their personal lives knew them. Bored people agitate quickly. When you’re bored at home, you leave, you walk around the block. When you’re bored at work, you fidget, you agitate, you sound crazy. And then customers come in and you have to smile, you have to say their names three times: “Hi Mr. Kiley How are you Mr. Kiley Thank you Mr. Kiley Have a great day!” So if I weren’t a writer, I would probably be a fidgeter, an agitator. I would sound crazy.
By Robert Dart
Followed by Q&A
A fellow, Jack, lived in a spacious apartment on the West Side of Chicago. It was a fashionable loft, with clothes strewn about, and a good chair in front of the computer screen where he sat many evenings. Jack worked in a large structure in the South Loop. And there he sat, behind a closed door, and stared at a computer screen for most of the day, and looked out the window.
He read a lot of interesting things. Such as, an e-mail from an associate of his, decrying the sandwich the associate had eaten at lunch. The sandwich had been soggy and incomplete, an utter failure. Oh what a sandwich! Oh what an associate that associate was! Oh jolly!
Jack’s screen summoned forth a billion little pages, each one leading to others, where anonymous persons made witty observations about what the baby did, or how their coffee tasted today, or why torture is bad. One could leave brief remarks in response to the brief observations. In like fashion, many people gathered to be witty together.
Jack had a girlfriend, and friends he had made during his schooling. His girlfriend he saw most nights, and his friends he saw almost never. Even those who still lived in Chicago were presently growing tiresome in comparison to the internet people.
Jack’s girlfriend, Suzanne, was soft and pink, with a round soft belly and a full pleasant face. She smiled very warmly at Jack as she watched him get out of the cab. Jack was tall, thin, and very pale. Still, he was handsome and wore fashionable spectacles. Steam came out of the door with Jack and the vapor continued to rise up off him as he stamped through the snow.
Getting out of the cab, the cold air hitting him, Jack had a significant moment. There’s no saying why. But the moment lingered and, by lingering, signaled to Jack that, yes, it was significant.
The moment occurred when Jack thought to brush a bit of Suzanne’s hair from her face. She had big piling blond hair, and it had come out from under her hat, and he had reached out to brush it, planning to kiss her. But his gloved hand was clumsy. The gesture was awful. It was as though he were pawing her face. In fact, yes, he had just pawed her face. Jack saw, from the very beginning, how inelegant this act was, but he could not stop himself from doing it. The moment would not end.
It was disgraceful. Yet Suzanne just looked up and smiled while Jack continued to be disgraced. He stepped back into the snow, stumbled, and had to regain his balance.
He thought: She doesn’t even know what a terrible, awkward thing I’ve done. She doesn’t even know, and will never know. There she stood, as though he hadn’t just come out of a cab and pawed her face with a gloved hand.
She doesn’t even know, thought Jack. The right woman would not abide moronic pawing of her face. She’d find it contemptible, and him contemptible. Then he’d do something impossibly charming to win her back. Suzanne could not inspire him to be impossibly charming because she did not hold his gesture in contempt. She was wrong
It was something Jack had been considering. There were things Jack could share with the people on the blog that could be shared with no one else. For instance, the people on the blog were all interested in politics. There were many important issues, such as torturing and voting machines and whose fault was the earthquake. Just reading about these things, and thinking about them, made Jack upset. Sometimes he would look out of the window in his square office at all the tall buildings and watch the white smoke piping from the rooftop generators in the cold. The tall metal casings stood out in all directions, and beyond them, packed city blocks, and Jack wondered, what is all this, what is all this I live in?
Suzanne did not demonstrate strong feelings about politics. Somehow the conversation always got back to people they knew. Or she would just shrug as though to admit there were things she could not know for certain. This was maddening.
The people on the blog were not maddening. Specifically, there existed a persona named Calliope Short-pants, a delightful, intriguing persona, who Jack believed to be female. Calliope Short-pants was surprising. Each thing she wrote was amusing. If she had nothing amusing to write, why, she did not write anything. She left no clue as to who she might be. All of this contributed to give her writings an air of attractive mystery. Even passing a child in shorts or viewing the word “calliope” in any sort of print (though rare) reminded Jack of this beloved persona and left him wondering: who is this Calliope Short-pants?
Why, just that afternoon Jack had enjoyed an especially entertaining round of banter with this Calliope involving illuminated manuscripts. Calliope explained that she was always finding illuminated manuscripts in her undergarments, an obvious fabrication. Jack responded, “One ought to tell these manuscripts to stop rifling through one’s delicates.”
To which Calliope responded, “Rifled delicates are considerably more accurate than un-.”
It was clever! Oh very clever!
But that moment had passed. In the present moment, nobody said anything clever. Suzanne just said, “hello.” She was warm and they could go inside and feed their bodies, go home and lay their bodies next to one another.
But it was all wrong. He thought to brush her face again, this time with the edge of his hand, gently. But Jack could not so much as lift his arm. He was frozen to the sidewalk in this wrong moment. Then he saw, by the formation of the tiny creases between her eyebrows, that Suzanne had sensed the wrongness herself. Finally she’d sensed it, but it was too late for Jack to do anything about it. Certainly, he could not explain it! So he started forward, and then stumbled back again to the curb. His coat was open and the wind was getting through to his core. He turned, not yet regaining balance, and stumbled a few steps away from her. Then he ran. It felt very natural to him, once turned away from her, to pick up one knee and then the other, to get up on his toes and feel his hamstrings getting into it, and he looked over his shoulder only once after he had started. His feet slapped on the pavement as he ran, slipping just a little. Then he turned the corner. Then he was gone. He didn’t ever want to see that restaurant again.
Jack was able to make it all the way to the elevated train station, outside of which a man was sleeping, without slowing down. Jack hurdled over the man, got out his city pass for the turnstile and, hearing a train approach below, bounded down the escalator.
* * *
He had to turn the phone off because he knew she would be calling. The computer was booting up. He put the phone away in a drawer to keep from thinking about it. He leaned back in the chair in front of the large flat screen. It was almost finished.
The thing to do was to have a glass of wine. Jack generally kept a bottle of some kind of red. He poured a glass. He felt very free and open, and he was very eager to see what was being said on the blog.
There were rows of text, large text and small text. On the right were recent subject headings. On the left was a list of recent commenters. And among them, having made several recent comments, the delightful Calliope Short-pants!
Jack had neglected to turn any lights on, save for a small desk lamp. His face was washed in the bluish glow of the high resolution screen. He typed and giggled. He took a sip of wine. And then he typed some more, and giggled some more.
What naughty thing has Jack been up to, to be so frolicsome tonight?
I ran away from a dinner date. All the way down the snowy street I ran.
Did it chase you?
And Jack wrote:
It did not give chase.
And Calliope wrote:
Your date was too stingy. I would give you chase.
And Jack wrote, quickly:
If you gave me chase, I would accept it.
Accept, and not return it? Not for store credit?
For cash but not for store credit.
Then Jack paused and took a sip of wine. He wrote again:
If I knew where to go, I’d return the chase before it was given.
E-mail me, Jack.
Oh how those fourteen figures danced on the screen! He glanced away and looked back again for the joy of rediscovering them. He fumbled with the bottle of wine. He thought to wait a bit, but then decided the confident thing would be to just e-mail right away. So he sat for a time with the e-mail page opened. And after a long three minutes of looking at the e-mail page, he composed an e-mail without any words in the body of the message, and the subject heading: “as you wish”.
Another came back. It read: “I am a giant spider.”
Jack did not believe in jokes going over his head and so he decided this one must be very funny. “I am a medium-sized caterpillar,” he wrote in response.
“I am a giant spider,” was the return. “I weigh four-hundred and forty pounds. I have long, scarlet, poisonous fangs, and prickly black hairs all over my body. I type with my two hindmost legs. I eat people.”
What a fascinating person! Extraordinary! He had a bit more wine.
“Do you live in special housing?” wrote Jack. “Or perhaps with family?”
“I was born far from here, in a large pit of eggs, with six-hundred siblings. I have never met my parents. I ate four-hundred of my siblings before they hatched, to sustain myself in infancy. In my youth I traveled. Now I live in Chicago, under the elevated train platform at Milwaukee and Damen. I seldom venture from my nest.”
“I love you,” wrote Jack.
“I am incapable of love,” wrote Calliope. “I know only hunger and lust. I will allow you to copulate inside of me, but then I will eat you.”
Jack wrote that he lived near that stop and would pay a visit. What a wonderful conceit! He wondered if she’d show. If not, she was welcome to her fun. It wasn’t very far.
“If I see you, I will eat you,” Calliope responded.
Jack got up and hopped about the apartment. He rinsed his face in cold water and spent five minutes mussing his hair and then putting it back in place with his fingers.
What would she look like, he wondered, walking with his hands tucked into his long overcoat. She might be very attractive. But then, she might not. It didn’t matter. She was the most interesting thing in the universe.
He waited outside the station. It needed a new coat of paint. He decided, at first, not to go directly underneath the station platform, as she had suggested. He didn’t think she’d really want to meet him under there: it was dark, and there were probably needles, or who knows what.
He stood there for a while. Nobody loitered near him. Large groups came and went. It was cold. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and determined to walk underneath the platform. The smell, as he turned to duck under the beams, was awful.
Not long afterwards, a train came to a screeching halt at the elevated platform, and a crowd got out, huffing in the cold. Suzanne was among them, holding her hat, determined to find Jack. She was worried about him. Just as the train left the platform, above the transportation noises, Suzanne heard something down below: a male voice, moaning or crying. But what the cries indicated, pain, ecstasy or terror, she could not say.
Robert Dart is a writer and attorney in Los Angeles. His clients have included large corporations and convicted felons, and he enjoys running, watching movies, and collecting cheap sunglasses. Mr. Dart currently lives with his wife of three years and their weimaraner-boxer mix, David Hasselhoff. Prior publications include Euphony, Whim Quarterly, and Danse Macabre.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: “Something Life-Affirming” was not born of personal experience. But I did once live near the Milwaukee-Damen train station, and I do read blogs.
Q: What's your second favorite place on Earth, and why?
A: Silverlake Coffee, a coffee shop in my neighborhood in Los Angeles. I like to loaf around in coffee shops, and Silverlake Coffee is my second favorite place to do so.
Q: PC, or Mac?
A: I'm a PC. I'm not very hip, and Justin Long is always making me look foolish.
Q: What's your process when writing a short story?
A: I start with an idea, often not knowing exactly how I'll get from A to B. I write it out, trying not to edit too much as I go. Then I cut a bunch of stuff. I strike out lots of sentences and phrases, and try to tighten things as best I can. I've heard that other people are more considered, but I like to surprise myself. Whatever your approach, the main thing is just sitting down and writing.
Q: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
A: A wreck of a man. Sometimes I think I'd like to be a forest ranger, but I lack the resume for that. I'd also like to be a professional skier one day. Technically, I guess I'd be a lawyer, but I'd probably burn out.
By Paul Hetzler
Followed by Q&A
It was the final resting place of a Matador, a clunky overweight sedan that American Motors Corporation produced during the 1970s, a car that tended to have a shorter lifespan than some fighting bulls, and which had certainly not outlived any actual bullfighter. Nestled into the fencerow and surrounded by a clump of staghorn sumac, the maroon four-door had been a fixture on the farm as long as Rob could remember. The glass was all intact, surprisingly, but whether it was the posted signs or the distance from the road that had saved it from the depredations of hunters, he couldn’t say. He noted the patina of grime on the side windows, windows that reflected his upper body and the top of Henry’s head.
“Uh, uh!” Henry said, and tugged his father’s hand toward the derelict car.
The boy’s hand was limp and moist in his own, and Rob was afraid to let it go, the kid was so fast, he’d find trouble before the man could blink. Shading his eyes with his free hand, he once more looked to the sky. The thunderhead was growing fast. He wiped sweat from his brow with his forearm and returned his gaze to the boy.
“No, Henry, it’s all dirty. Your mom won’t be happy if I bring you back covered in filth.” The boy started to make his shrill cry and his father gritted his teeth. “God damn it,” he said softly, and allowed the boy to lead him to the car. He let go of the boy’s hand but kept very close to the small body.
“Uh, uh!” said the boy, and slapped his hands repeatedly against the driver’s window for several long minutes. Next he flattened his lips against the glass, then licked the window up as high as he could reach, a snail-trail of clean on the glass.
Rob covered his eyes with a hand and shook his head. “God, Henry, d’you have to do that?” But it was a rhetorical question. Henry only made the ‘uh, uh’ noise or, when vexed, a strident wail. Rob received no answer, expected none; he merely followed the silent boy around to the front of the car.
Henry wouldn’t or couldn’t even make eye contact, except with animals, which was why if the weather was decent Rob brought him on alternate weekends, his time with the boy, to his neighbor’s dairy. Today Henry had gazed into the calves’ eyes for ages, until he wet himself in fact, and the calves stared back with their big doe-eyes and long bovine lashes, whether sharing mute secrets or just passing the time, Rob had no idea. Even the schizoid Border collie grew tame around the boy, and kissed his face with its long foxy muzzle and let him bury his hands in tangled fur. But they had finished visiting the animals, and were walking crosslots through the hayfields back to Rob’s place when the Matador sidetracked them.
“Uh, uh!” Henry tried to use the bumper as a step to get on the hood, but his foot slipped on the rounded chrome. “Uh!” he said, and repeated the process again, step, slip, grunt, and again and again with dogged determination.
Rob thought, like that damn turtle Julie got him once, always trying to crawl out of its terrarium. “How long you gonna keep that up, kid?” There probably was an answer to that question, and to others like it, but the man had never waited long enough to find out. He knew the boy might continue beyond exhaustion, even beyond injury. Finally Rob grasped him firmly but gently under the armpits. In the brief moment his father held him, the boy shrieked and squirmed as if the cracked and scarred hands were white hot. He placed the boy on the hood.
When he set Henry down, the boy instantly fell silent and scrambled, turtle-like, on all fours to the juncture of windshield and hood where years worth of composted leaves had accumulated. Rob watched him unearth the windshield wipers, then glanced at the sky and frowned. When he looked back down Henry was arranging round, pea-sized seeds along the wipers, which served as a miniature pair of shelves. After a few minutes the pattern seemed obvious: two seeds with holes, holes made by some insect that ate the insides out, followed by one intact seed. There was always a pattern to his fascinations, though some took a long time to identify.
“Those are basswood seeds, Henry,” the man said. “Grow up to be big like these.” He gestured to trees in the fencerow. Henry didn’t seem to hear his father, and certainly didn’t look where the man was pointing. “Basswood’s good for carving. Wood’s soft, and it doesn’t check.” The man did some carving, and he imagined just then sitting next to his boy on the back deck. You hold the knife like this, Henry, that’s it. Hey that came out nice, Bud, you’re getting to be a real pro. Thanks, Dad.
He came back from his daydream and looked at his son’s besmirched face, nothing that couldn’t be cleaned up, he thought, and then considered the expression. Intent. Henry would stay there sorting until he ran out of seeds, which, given their abundance, Rob reckoned would take about three days. The face was intent, yet at the same time somehow vacant. It was the eyes, the proverbial thousand-yard stare, fixed on Planet Henry, where no one else could go. Rob wished he could be sure, just once, that the boy saw him.
Thunder boomed, and the man’s heart pounded. Things were getting dark fast. Since childhood he’d been afraid of thunder and lightning, deathly afraid, and he found it ironic that his son, who startled at the click of a light switch, was paradoxically oblivious to thunder. And hence was unafraid.
Somehow the thought of feeling the scalp-prickle of rising hairs, knowing a lightning strike was an instant away and unavoidable, filled him with a terror like no other. When he and Julie were together she’d tease him, big lug like you scared of lightning, c’mon. But it was good-natured back then, before Henry, before everything turned.
For Henry, even a small transition seemed a turbulent rearrangement of the known universe, and Rob braced himself for the flailing and shrill scream as he reached for the boy—they had to really hustle for the last half-mile back to the trailer to beat the storm. But before he made contact with his son, there were sounds of protest.
“Uh, uh! Uh, uh!”
Rob cocked his head and looked at his son. There were still plenty of basswood seeds within reach, so what was wrong? Then he noticed the strain on the boy’s face and smelled what was happening. He slipped off the backpack and unzipped it.
“Jesus,” he said. “God damn bad timing.” He smoothed out a bed in the alfalfa, made sure there was no stubble to poke the boy, and spread out the thin blanket. When Henry was a baby Rob didn’t mind this but now that he was five it was different. The boy was silent and stiff on the hood of the car, and Rob scooped him up and laid him on the ground. More thunder, and Rob fumbled with shoes and pants. It was a mess, and required most of the wipes. He shot a look upward, then fumbled with a clean pull-up, then pants and shoes. A smattering of raindrops fell amongst the hay, it was a soft sound, not at all a dangerous one, but the man knew the storm was upon them. He set his boy on his feet.
“Uh, uh!” Henry pointed to the car.
“Sorry, Henry, we have to hurry. We’ll play with the car next time. Maybe.” Rob donned the pack and picked up Henry, looking down the hill toward his trailer. He still ran twice a week, he could make it carrying the boy. The screaming hurt his ears, and the boy thrashed. “Hang on, Henry.”
Then it hit. A flash of blue and a popping like the breaking of an incandescent bulb, followed immediately by thunder that shook Rob’s flesh. He landed hard on his back, heard something inside the pack break, or maybe, he thought, it was his back. He felt a weight and warmth on his chest, realized it was Henry and stared in amazement. The first time they’d ever touched without a struggle. His heart lurched. Shit, something must be wrong.
“Henry? You OK?” he asked, and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. Henry screamed and recoiled. “Take it that’s a yes,” The man murmured. He sighed, scrambled to his feet, then grimaced. His right ankle, he realized, was not going to let him run anytime soon. Must have twisted it somehow, didn’t even remember. Not broken, he was pretty sure, but maybe a sprain. No running, and shit, maybe no walking either.
But there had been no hair standing up, no direct hit to them or even right near them. Still, it couldn’t have hit far off. Down the fencerow Rob spotted the trunk of a black locust, its lemon-lime-colored wood splintered and exposed. If dynamite had gone off inside it, it couldn’t have done worse. Strewn all into the mown hay, chunks of wood shone bright and fresh even in the storm-gloom. Rob shivered.
“Uh, uh!” Henry pointed toward the car. Thunder sounded, the soft pattering turned to heavy cold rain.
Rob thought—open fields between them and home, bad idea in a T-storm to begin with, plus he might have to crawl. The car was dry, and while there were no tires to insulate against a lightning strike, the upholstered seats would provide some protection.
“Yeah, good idea, Henry,” Rob said, and took the boy’s hand. “Just till it blows over.”
The door opened hard and then the smell of mold and mouse urine poured out. Henry began to retch, but his father pushed him onto the bench seat, slid in next to him and slammed the door. Henry stopped gagging after a moment.
“Sorry guy, I know it smells bad. Here, look at this.” He pointed to the basswood seeds arranged on the wiper blades. Thick overhead foliage, dirty windows and a dark sky made it hard to see, but Henry squinted, and began to touch the windshield behind each seed, poke, poke, poke, moving right to left. Rob smiled. “Good thing we’re both easily amused, Bud.” He sat back and listened to the rain, smelled the fungus and ammonia funk and watched his son.
After the ultrasound revealed to the excited parents it was a boy, he’d gone out, bought a little baseball glove and a foam football, barely resisted purchasing a minibike. While the boy was still in his bassinette he imagined his son hanging around at the shop with him, see kid, when the tranny fluid’s brown like this it’s a bad sign, going fishing with his son, that’s a bullhead, you have to grab him behind the pectoral fins like this or he’ll stick you, driving the back roads with his son on his lap steering, you’re drifting left, Henry, now correct nice and easy, that’s it.
“Uh!” said Rob. Henry was moving left, touching the windshield behind each seed and, not seeming to notice his father, had stepped on the man’s lap. “Jeez, that hurts, kid.” He watched the boy finish and then start over, moving left to right this time. Water sheeted down the windows, twilight was turning to midnight, punctuated by lightning. Whenever a flash illuminated the car, the man tensed for the thunder.
While Henry poked at the glass, Rob’s mind wandered. He thought about his motorcycle. Would Henry be able to ride safely? He couldn’t lean with the bike, but he was small for his age, Rob could handle the dead weight. But no, the helmet would drive him nuts, he refused even to wear a toque in the winter. And Julie, she’d never allow it anyway. He sighed. Then looked toward Henry. Lightning flashed.
“No! Henry, no, don’t touch!” Rob had seen Henry with a yellow jacket on his finger, holding it up to his eye. “No!” He reached over to where he thought the hand would be and swatted through the darkness. Henry wailed like a siren, and Rob grabbed him and flipped him over the backrest into the back seat. “Sorry, Bud.”
Rob could hear buzzing now, and he knew there was a nest. Up and to his right—the sun visor, of course! He pulled it down, heard the paper nest tear and began to mash it, feeling the slime of pupae and smeared wasps. As the stings moved up his arms to his neck and face he swatted, frantic. Minutes passed, he wasn’t sure if five or fifteen, and the stinging was over. The buzzing stopped.
Henry had also stopped. The back seat was silent.
“You OK, little guy?”
“Uh,” said Henry.
“Guess you are. Here.” Feeling inside the pack, the man dug out the juice box that hadn’t burst when he fell and held it out. “Take it, Henry, go on.” Distant lightning struck and Rob could see his boy’s right index finger was swollen. So he had been stung, dang. “Poor guy. Just one, right? Here, let Daddy look.” He reached for the hand but the boy drew it away and shrieked. “OK, OK, you win. Here.” The man touched the box to Henry’s left hand and he took it. “Go on, Henry, it’s your favorite, drink up.” The boy lifted the straw to his mouth listlessly. “Good man. Guess we’ll have to tell Mom about our little incident.” He took the blanket from the pack, covered Henry’s lap and legs and turned forward again.
Rob, grateful Henry was resting peacefully, felt his ankle. It was only a little tender, and not as swollen as he expected. The strike had freaked him, he’d overreacted. The stings were another matter; they sent shock waves through his body like electrical charges. He could feel the swelling in his arms and shoulders, and especially his face, but he’d been stung up plenty of times. Julie was the one who went into anaphylactic shock from a sting and had to carry an epi-pen. It was going to be all right. The worst of the storm had gone by. Lightning and thunder were becoming less frequent and less intense, rain drummed soft but constant.
He wondered, how long would he have to change diapers? Would Henry always need this level of care? Julie and her new man took care of him now, but could Henry move into some kind of group home when he grew up? And, as Rob was already thirty-three, would he ever get a chance to have another family? Was it too much to ask to have a kid who hugged his dad? Who even looked at his dad? He closed his eyes as they began to tear up. A better father wouldn’t have thoughts like that.
When Rob awakened, the sun was breaking through. Glancing at the small figure lying on the back seat, he pushed open his door gently as he could, stepped out and pulled the backpack after him, leaving the door open. He yawned, stretched, breathed in the damp, refreshed, ozonated, hay-scented after-storm air and went to the back door. Looking through the filthy window at his son, he smiled.
Little rascal. Never napped a day in his life when he was a baby. Whoever said ‘sleeping like a baby’ never saw one like this, Julie and Rob had both said that when Henry was an infant. Must be all the fresh air got to him, romping through the fields. And the cow shit. He started to pull the handle, and waited.
He startles so bad, the kid’s going to scream bloody murder when I wake him. Maybe rap on the window. No, that’s too harsh a noise, he’ll startle. He pulled slowly. The door groaned, stiff on rusted hinges. Rob, amazed the boy hadn’t woken, could see the juice box had bled out a dark stain on the floor where it had fallen. The boy had bunched up the blanket by his neck, obscuring his face. His left arm looked swollen, and Rob blinked, hesitated. Damn. It’s just the arm, just the arm. I’ll put ice on it back at the trailer.
“Henry?” the man said. “Little man?” His voice cracked. “Henry?” He swallowed, reached for the blanket and stopped. Poor kid, must be really wiped out. “Hey. Time to go, mister.” Just let the kid rest, Rob told himself. Needs more rest. But already his scalp was prickling; he knew that when he moved the blanket, Henry’s face would be swollen and blue, knew that he could now look directly into those brown eyes if he dared, knew that lightning was about to strike him and that there was nothing he could do to stop it.
Paul Hetzler is an arborist, farmer/ homesteader and father of two adolescents. He lives off-grid in northern NY State and shares his farm with aforementioned children and sundry other types of wildlife. His stories have appeared in Highlights for Children, Northern Woodlands Magazine as well as in the medical journal The Lancet (2007 end-of-year special issue).
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: Dispassionate and random as lightning, tragedy doesn’t exempt children; as a father, just imagining such loss wracks my solar plexus. And while even the most loving parent has pangs of ambivalence, of resentment, regret for such thoughts must compound the aftermath of a situation like this.
Q: What's your second favorite place on Earth, and why?
A: Probably right here where I live—woods, waterfalls, cliffs, ponds, fields...it's the kind of place people go to on vacation; I'm ridiculously blessed. There are more breathtaking places, for sure. But hey, second place ain't bad.
Q: PC, or Mac?
A: My computers have all been hand-me-downs. Right now I have a PC notebook that I have to tip upside down and rap on the desk to start. It works and I love it.
Q: What's your process when writing a short story?
A: Inspiration, followed by a hurried first draft which I immediately submit all over. After the rejections I shelve it for a long time, eventually revising it like I should have in the first place.
Q: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
A: Funny, I don't think of myself as a writer. Come to think of it I don't really identify with any label, with the possible exception of "dad."
A Father's Mask
By Dan Moreau
Followed by Q&A
You are riding in a busload of people from Harare to the provinces. Your armpits are coated with sweat and red dust. You are sitting right above the wheel well so your knees are up around your shoulders. You push up on the windowsill as hard as you can, but to no avail.
The woman next to you sees you struggling with the window. She taps the glass a couple of times with her fist, then pulls it open with ease.
“Thanks,” you say.
She smiles triumphantly and sits back down. Her skin has the dull hue of burnished brass. She is wearing a green and yellow polka-dot wrap. Her cheekbones are high and prominent so that her face forms a triangle. Your mother always told you to beware of women with high cheekbones.
As the bus pulls away from the depot, away from the porters, the beggars and the hawkers, away from the shouting and the confusion, you try to settle in and relax. You haven’t slept since Dakar where you changed planes. Your flight was delayed because the pilot was late. You sat for hours on the blistering runway, cracks in the tarmac where weeds grew. When the pilot finally did show, he looked like he had just emerged from a three-day drunk. His eyes, yellow and bloodshot; his tie loose around his neck; his cap cocked at an angle on his head. You gazed around the cabin in the hopes of seeing your worry and concern reflected in the faces of your fellow passengers. But no one betrayed the slightest inkling of consternation. For this was Africa, every journey a small miracle.
The bus climbs onto the main highway out of the capitol, trailing a huge cloud of orange dust. The wheels rumble beneath your seat. It feels like you are sitting on top of a jackhammer. Now you know why the ticket vendor smiled so broadly when he took your money. Next time, on the return trip, you will ask for a seat near the front. Slowly, you are learning.
Before you left your mother gave you a shoebox of old letters and faded Polaroids. This is your inheritance. Paper, pictures and ink.
“Is that your father?” the woman says.
You nod. You are holding one of the Polaroids in your lap, studying your father’s face like a map for clues.
“He’s very handsome.”
In it, he is twenty-four or twenty-five, not much older than you are now. He is crouching on the ground, as if this was the only position that would fit his six-foot-four frame inside the four borders of the picture. His mouth is frozen into a half grin, the antecedent to a smile not seen to its conclusion.
Your seatmate shuffles through the other pictures. She smiles. “Is this you?”
You squint at the picture she’s holding up at you. It is the only picture of you and your father together, taken during one of his rare visits. You are dressed up as He-Man for Halloween, muscles painted onto your skinny arms. Your father is standing beside you, his hand on top of your head, which barely reaches his waist.
“You were a very cute boy,” she says.
Were. Past tense. Not cute anymore.
“Where is your mother?”
“My mother? She lives in San Diego.”
“No. I mean, where are the pictures of your mother?”
This has never occurred to you before, that of all the pictures you carry around, none are of your mother. You put the pictures back in their box, which you stow securely in your backpack at your feet.
You remember that when you were five your father took you to see 101 Dalmatians. It was your mother’s idea, so the two of you, virtual strangers, could get to know each other better. After your father bought the tickets, you asked him for popcorn. You never forgot his response, which haunts you to this day. Don’t be greedy, he said. Now, whenever you pile your plate with too much food, whenever you take another bite of food even though you’re not hungry, you hear your father’s disapproving voice. Don’t be greedy.
“Your father sounds like my father. He sounds like an African,” the woman says with a laugh.
The African savannah, the Africa of a picture book, a palette of green, gold and cerulean, flits by your window. You take a picture first of the landscape, then by holding your outstretched arm outside the window, of the side of the bus.
Remy, the woman beside you, (that’s her name, Remy) offers to take your picture. “Smile!” she says.
Cute, you think. But not cute anymore.
The bus is leaving. Remy waves at you from the window. On the bus, you promised to write each other, but as soon as you exchanged addresses it felt false. You know you will never write, nor will she. Still, you appreciate the gesture.
You shoulder your backpack and turn away from the main road toward the village. The first thing you see is a café. Not really a café—though you call it one in your head—it would be more aptly described as a shack with a tin corrugated roof, a few plastic chairs and some oilcloth covered tables. A crate of empty Coca-Cola bottles sits in the corner. Attempts to spruce up the place—a calendar of kittens on the wall, a broken clock and a vase of plastic flowers—only lend it a more depressing and defeated air.
You sit at one of the tables and swat flies off the oilcloth. You order a Coke. It comes in a bottle with a bent straw. It’s warm and flat. Flipping through the pages of your notebook, you ask the waiter, an expressionless man in a long-tailed shirt who moves about with a sloth-like torpor, if he knows Kitu. He nods. He will take you to where Kitu lives.
Kitu lives in a straw-thatched hut on the edge of the village. The packed dirt by the hut’s entrance has been recently swept. The waiter tells you to stay here while he goes inside. You stand in the fading sunlight, counting the number of surrounding dwellings. Numbers give you comfort, impose some order on the place. You count fifteen huts. Then you hear voices, a shuffling of feet.
A man of indeterminate age comes out. He could be forty or seventy, depending on the kind of life he has led. His teeth are small and yellow. His kinky salt and pepper hair is cropped close to his scalp. He smiles.
Inside, there are a table and two chairs. Also, a stuffed pallet for sleeping, a stove and a few scattered books. The waiter leaves, but not before you drop a few shillings into his open palm. He thanks you. Kitu fills two shot glasses with clear liquid from an unlabelled bottle. You try not to gag as the moonshine scalds your throat and stomach. It tastes like Drano. Seeing your reaction, Kitu grins.
You put the shoebox on the table and take out the pictures. Kitu looks through them, placing each one at the back of the stack. He says:
“I received your letter. I didn’t think you’d come, but I’m glad you did. It would’ve made your father proud. Your mother”—he shakes his head—“she never liked it here.
“When she was pregnant with you,” he continues, “your father wanted you to be born here, at the local hospital. If it was good enough for the Africans, then it was good enough for his wife and unborn son. Your father was always saying things like that, making sweeping statements. Your mother didn’t see it that way. Africa scared her. She was afraid of dying in the hospital, of losing you during childbirth. She went back to America with you in her belly. Your father stayed.”
Kitu pauses. In spite of your protests, he pours you and himself another shot. You don’t think your constitution will withstand another one. When Kitu realizes you won’t touch the stuff, he downs his and your shot both. His eyes begin to glaze over and his lips to flub together. His speech becomes slurred.
“We didn’t think your father would stay long after that, with a wife and son in the U.S. But he did. The only times he ever left were to visit you, but he always came back. He always kept his promise to the village. In that sense, he was a man of his word. He did a lot of good things for the village. Started a day school and an irrigation project so we could compete with the Dutch. Some people thought he was a troublemaker, thought he was secretly in cahoots with Dutch farmers.
“After him, the Peace Corps sent others, but none of them ever measured up to your father. Some of your father’s successors were quite comical, in fact. One man never left his hut, for fear of contracting malaria. Another tried to introduce a sport among our youth that involved flinging a ball into a goal from a pouch attached at the end of a wooden stick. He spent months in his hut carving these sticks and fashioning rawhide pouches that would cradle the ball. He even made a ball out of a cow’s gall bladder. But the sport never caught on. He tried instructing the youth in the fundamentals of the game, but after a few minutes they would lose interest and start kicking around the gall bladder ball. We still have the strange sticks. Some people use them to scatter bird nests out of their huts, others to pick fruit off trees. So they are not completely useless.”
Kitu notices the disinterest in your eyes. “Well, it is getting late. We should go.” He stands up and you follow him out of the hut.
* * *
The sun is dipping below the horizon. Along it, pockets of warm air are vacillating, shimmering like fish scales. Wisps of smoke are pluming up from the tops of huts. Children are playing soccer in their bare feet with a ball worn down to its stitching. Dust rises up from the field, the goal posts marked by a pair of flip-flops. You try to picture them playing lacrosse, chasing after each other with wooden sticks. But something about that picture is wrong, flawed like the dimensions of a child’s drawing: people as tall as houses, long straight lines of green grass, a yellow sun, serrated at the edges. Kitu walks ahead of you, his head up, shoulders straight back.
The grave, at the edge of the village, is marked by a rectangle of bricks and a pair of whittled branches tied together to form a cross. There is no gravestone, name or dates. Kitu stands flanked at your side.
“Your father loved you more than anything. That’s all he would talk about. When he died, it was a sad day for all of us. Everyone in the village attended his funeral, even those who didn’t like him. It was especially sad for me. We were like brothers. Whenever I was in his hut, if he noticed me staring at something, a book, a pen or a shirt of his, he’d say, ‘Go ahead. Take it. I don’t need it anymore.’ I knew he was lying about his not needing it anymore. The thing was usually brand new. But he wouldn’t let me leave unless I took the bloody thing. That was your father. Take your time. I will see you back at the hut.”
Alone at your father’s grave, you have a thousand questions but no easy answers. Despite the letters and the pictures, the man is unknowable. Even from talking to your mother you get no clear sense of him. A month after he died, a package arrived for you in the mail. Inside it, carefully wrapped in bundles of newspaper, was a mask carved out of aged dark wood. And this note written across a single line:
DEAR SON, THINKING OF YOU. DAD
You ran your fingers along the contours of the mask. The lips were bulbous, cartoonish almost, the face narrow and elongated, the mouth shaped into a gaping O. The postmark was more than a month old. When you brought the mask up to your face, you could smell the deep ripe pungent earth of Africa. You could see your father’s village. You could see him being dragged from his hut in the middle of the night. You could see the flashes of gunfire in the distance. You could hear the deafening silence that ensued as the murderers rode off on their motor scooters in the dark. Then your mother came home, saw you with the mask on and said, Ben, take that awful thing off your face!
The earth has swallowed up the sun whole now. You pick your way back to the village under a blanket of darkness riveted with stars. The night is complete and utter. It is the African night you have read about in stories, a night in which men morph into animals and commit savage acts, a night in which the shaman dances around the camp fire, flames licking at his heels. Inside his hut, Kitu is nodding off at the table by the flickering light of a kerosene lamp. His shadow jumps on the wall behind him. His eyelids are twittering, revealing the yellow whiteness of his orbs. He is dreaming. The bottle of moonshine on the table is uncapped. You reach for the lid and screw it back on. You drape a blanket over Kitu’s hunched shoulders and step outside. You are already thinking about tomorrow. You will rise with the sun. You will give what little money you have to Kitu. You will ride in the bus back to the capital. You will call your mother from the hotel and you will say, Mom, I’m coming home.
Dan Moreau's fiction appears in New Ohio Review, Redivider, Descant, The Lifted Brow, and Slice Magazine. He has been a finalist for the Micro Award, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and received a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. He lives and teaches in Chicago.
Q: What was your inspiration for this story?
A: I wrote this story three years ago when I was going through a second person kick. Lorrie Moore gets blamed for a lot of the second person stories that turn up in workshop, but I think it can be extremely liberating to use it every once in a while.
Q: What's your second favorite place on Earth, and why?
A: Lake Tahoe, a close second to Big Sur. Why? Because I still haven't
found a way to describe how blue the water is.
Q: PC, or Mac?
A: Mac all the way.
Q: What's your process when writing a short story?
A: I bang my head against the wall until the neighbors start complaining.
Q: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
A: To this day, I don't feel comfortable with the label "writer." It's
always sounded a tad pretentious to me. Whether you're a writer or
not, you still have to earn a living. I make mine very poorly by
Les is Mor
By Daniel Meltzer
Followed by Q&A
Lester I. Mor, the enigmatic, reclusive minimalist author, died yesterday in his sleep at his Manhattan home, apparently of natural causes. Mor, a literary star and critics’ and academics’ darling from his first published work, Les Is Mor, was 59 years old.
Mor was known as “The Minimalist’s Minimalist.” Les Is Mor is not just the title of his first best seller. It’s the entire text as well.
Published when Mor was a sophomore majoring in quantum mechanics at MIT in 1969, the compact, single-page volume was initially given short shrift by the few critics who took the trouble to consider it. Most if not all reviewers who bothered to take note of it at all relegated it, as a footnote item, to the clusters of cash register books at the chain stores, alongside those blank notebooks with plush covers, the latest bathroom humor collections, and cats-with-captions gift items and the like. However, following casual mention by beat poet Allen Ginsberg on the Tonight Show two years later (“Les is Mor says it all,” declared Ginsburg without elaboration) and after having gathered its share of dust on a table at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Book Store in San Francisco, sales at the register began to register. Re-orders from City Lights to Mor’s dormant and nearly bankrupt publisher, The Ex Press, revived the company, and spurred other booksellers to take note. Before you could say “less is more,” the slim volume was climbing all the major bestseller lists. It quickly became a favorite of commuters and college freshmen.
Critics had second and third looks, and academics soon began assigning it to their contemporary literature seminars and writing workshops. At least twenty-six Ph.D. dissertations are known to have been completed on Mor’s works to date.
Lester Isadore Mor was born in East Flatbush in Brooklyn, New York. He was the only child of Jacob and Sarah Mordecai, immigrants from Vilnius (also Vilna), in Lithuania. Lester’s father, Jacob Mordecai, was a fruit peddler who sold only Macintosh apples from a horse-drawn cart that he drove around their own and adjoining working-class neighborhoods. His mother, Sarah, was a housewife who also played the piccolo and taught ballroom dancing.
Something of an athlete in his youth, Lester Isadore Mor played first base for his high school baseball team and held the record for the least hits ever (zero) in a season, on a team that lost every game it played. He pitched one inning in relief for the team and gave up the losing run in the final inning of its frustrating season closer during his senior year for a 1-0 loss.
After Ginsburg’s comment and upon the astonishing critical and commercial success of Les is Mor, the new literary star dropped out of MIT and moved to the Lower East Side, never receiving his bachelor’s degree. He devoted the rest of his life to writing. Despite his windfall from book sales and film options, he lived a simple life in a sparely furnished one-room, sixth-floor walk-up apartment on East First Street, declining all requests for interviews and refusing to be photographed.
Two years after publication of Les is Mor, Mor again stunned the literary world with his next book, Enough Said, its entire text again echoing its title. The critic for the New York Times called Enough Said “the essence of in-your face literary moxie.” Le Monde tipped its beret to Mor, an author who, it declared, “clearly respects the reader’s imagination and refuses to pander, as do so many American writers, to the middling mindlessness assumed to be in demand by the masses.”
The Guardian of London lauded Enough Said for its “vast, virtually limitless subtext,” and declared it “nothing short of visionary, a monumental moment” in western culture. Thomas Pynchon wrote, in an essay emailed from an unknown location to the New York Review of Books, that Enough Said “expands the vast universe of imagination already illuminated for us by Mor’s singular masterpiece, Les is Mor.”
One Wonders, the title and text of Mor’s third book, evoked even higher praise. “He sees what the rest of us do not see, and he tantalizingly provokes us, and compels us to confront all of our preconceptions about literature, love, cosmological conundrums, our own darkest thoughts, even our assumptions regarding the natural sciences and world history,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times Book Review. “We are alone and utterly exposed before one of Mor’s masterworks of micro-narrative as never before, naked beneath the cosmos, and it is a terrifying and exhilarating experience. Savor each word. They are few, but like the powerful and even tinier atom whose study he abandoned for the sake of art, they pack a power punch. Mor’s oeuvre is to be reread again and again. Each time it is new. A revelation and an astonishing achievement.”
Mor’s final opus, Ibid (title and full text), inspired the prolific maximalist Joyce Carol Oates to posit, in an essay in Harper’s, that “Mor unquestionably is our greatest and canniest writer. We are all humbled by his accomplishment. Beckett and Pinter pre-date him, perhaps inspired him, and must now be consigned to reside in his shadow, as they cannot approach Mor’s daring nor his mastery of the mysteries of language and thought. Even Joyce must now be reconsidered, along with Faulkner and Milton. None of us truly understood the power of inference before Les Is Mor came along. Nor can we anticipate how literature, indeed all art forms, will surely change from now on in his wake.”
Minimalist painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly told Artforum magazine last year that he felt compelled to take two years off from his own work after discovering Les is Mor seven years ago, to reexamine his own methods, stating; “Mor is the man, no doubt about it. Who the hell did we think we were before he came along? He’s got it. Just think of all the ink and paint that’s been poured over the years without anyone getting it right the way Les Mor has. I love him.”
After a reading of Enough Said at the Union Square Barnes & Noble bookstore in Manhattan, during which Mor merely recited the title and text and then stood mute for 22 minutes, composer John Cage attempted to sue him for plagiarism. A State Supreme Court judge threw the case out, however, declaring that silence could not be copyrighted.
Although he lived there for more than 40 years, few of Mor’s neighbors could state for certain, when asked, if they had ever actually seen him. None could describe him to a reporter who attempted to fashion a profile of Mor two years ago. His landlord said his rent checks arrived on time on the first of every month without fail. So far as is known, he never married. His only survivor would appear to be e.e., his tuxedo cat, whose name was etched onto the side of his feeding bowl, and whose cries alerted neighbors to Mor’s passing after the author had been dead for approximately 48 hours, according to the city’s Medical Examiner.
Mor’s agent, Sally Burkheiser, of Burkheiser and Burkheiser, LLP, said she herself had never met him personally, and that she believed Mor, a painstaking taskmaster, was hard at work on another book, title unknown, and was expected to deliver a completed manuscript later this year.
Critics and scholars have disagreed for years over what to call Mor’s writing. Some said it was poetry, others fiction. Many became convinced that Mor had invented a new kind of novel, although some continue to argue that his books ought more properly be shelved with the memoirs. Norman Mailer seemed to have hit the nail on the head when he wrote in Vanity Fair in 2004: “They are what they are. You will get from them what you bring to them. Read, enjoy, put it down, take a walk, then pick it up again and re-read. I never go anywhere without at least one Mor in my satchel.”
A handwritten will found in a bureau drawer reportedly called for his assets— minimal furnishings and clothing and an unknown amount of savings—to be distributed among as many sidewalk fruit peddlers in New York City as can be found, with an annuity set aside for housing, care, and feeding of his feline friend e.e. Funeral and memorial services are yet to be announced.
Daniel B. Meltzer is an O. Henry and Pushcart Prize winning author of many stories, memoirs, essays, poems, and plays. His essays have been syndicated in newspapers and magazines here and abroad. His plays are performed regularly across the US, also in Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Scripts are available from Samuel French, Inc. He has taught at NYU and Penn State Universities. Last year, his play A Cable from Gibraltar had its New York Premiere and The Square Root of Love had its European premiere in Barcelona. Daniel lives in New York City. More at danmeltzer.com
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I have read many obituaries, even written a number in my days as a journalist. I have read many, many book reviews, and I have been an academic. I have, in addition, known a number of experimental artists and writers. The lines intersected and Les Is Mor is the result.
Q: What's your second favorite place on Earth, and why?
A: Eastern Long Island. The air, the light, the beaches, the sea.
Q: PC, or Mac?
Q: What's your process when writing a short story?
A: I can hear the narrator’s voice, grammar, feel his or her state of mind and role in the story. I have to have the first line, then the first paragraph, and then the next, and so on. I sense the arc of the story, which comes into sharper and sharper focus as I go on, until I see an ending up ahead and I write it. I then re-write, re-write and re-write until I am satisfied it is complete.
Q: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
Agrippina, from Diary of Nero
By Robert Boucheron
Followed by Q&A
November 7, 57 AD
Mother has published a memoir. The singular form is apt, since the book is short, one volume. As a token of her esteem, she sent me a copy. It has her characteristic voice, proud and commanding, with touches of female grace. She must have dictated it to her secretary. I read it through in one sitting, then had a servant read selected passages aloud at dinner. My guests agreed: “It is Agrippina to the life.”
She goes on at length about her father, the great Germanicus, and about her last husband, the late Claudius—the marvelous chance that brought them together, the important work she did for him, and the tragedy of his passing. Who would know from reading her book that she hastened that tragedy? Britannicus likewise comes in for praise and regret, as though she cherished her late stepson. As for me, I figure less than might be expected. In this account, my coming to the throne is almost an accident.
The question is: why write the book? Is Mother planning a comeback? Does she miss the power and the glory? My friends say that she is past her prime, that no respectable Roman will marry her, and that her memoir is a “pathetic diatribe.” I wish I could believe that.
January 1, 58 AD
I took office as consul for the third time today. It is our highest office and a great honor. At this stage, it is also necessary for the government to function smoothly, says Seneca. We need firm control at the top, and that is what I provide.
News from Armenia—general Corbulo reorganized the army, based in Syria, for a major campaign in the mountains. He discharged soldiers who were too old or unfit for service, men whose entire career was passed in cities, and who could barely handle a weapon. He recruited soldiers from Galatia and Cappadocia, and brought in a legion from Germany. Winter conditions are harsh, and there are reports of frostbite. Corbulo intends to toughen his troops and move against Tiridates in the spring.
February 1, 58 AD
Otho has mentioned his wife Poppaea several times. She is gracious, charming, and a beauty. Her mother was the most beautiful woman of her day, and the daughter is upholding the tradition, which comes with a large fortune. Previously married and the mother of a son, she was seduced by Otho, so he claims, then persuaded to marry him. She rarely goes out, so I have to take his word for it. When leaving my dinner parties Otho says:
“I go now to my wife, who brings what all men want and a lucky few enjoy.”
Otho is short, bald, knock-kneed, and flat-footed, but vain enough to pluck his body hair like a homosexual. Still, his wealth is attractive, and he has a certain charm. Is he crowing over his wife? Is he teasing me? My curiosity aroused, I asked him to bring Poppaea to dinner.
February 8, 58 AD
Poppaea is all that Otho promised, and more. Her manner is impeccable, both aristocratic and charming, and her beauty cannot be exaggerated. She has a habit of half-veiling her face, which makes her more intriguing. At dinner tonight, she was agreeable and flirtatious. She said she had heard so much about me, was eager to meet me, and was immediately won over by me. Otho said very little, and smiled ruefully from his couch beyond. The other guests did likewise. Poppaea was the center of attention, and she knew it. Six years older than I, she did not ignore the difference in age, as most people do in deference to my rank, but playfully said she could teach me a thing or two. Something about her struck a chord, and now I realize what it is—she resembles Mother.
February 22, 58 AD
At my request, Otho brought Poppaea to dinner again. He left early, pleading a morning appointment. She lingered, one thing led to another, and she ended up staying the night. Her comment about teaching me a thing or two was not an idle boast. I invited her to return, as this course of study will require extensive tutoring. Am I falling in love?
March 5, 58 AD
Construction was slowed by winter, but now that spring is at hand the pace is picking up. My new amphitheater is rising in the Campus Martius, my addition to the palace is getting out of the ground, and the Macellum is up to the second story. I want to stage a show this year in the amphitheater, so I ordered more workers to the site, even if they must be taken from other projects. It is fascinating to see the wood members fitted together—posts, braces and beams—and how the angles at which they are cut result in the curve of the whole. The engineers explain how the wood frame works in three dimensions, how it transfers weight to the ground, and how it moves. They say that all things expand with heat and contract with cold, though you cannot see it, and wood bends like a bow. Wind exerts force, too, like the current in a river. They must design for all these forces, plus the weight of a crowd of people. I praised their work, and urged them on.
June 10, 58 AD
Three days of spectacle just concluded in my new amphitheater. It still lacks some finishing touches, like a canvas awning to keep off the summer sun, but I wanted to show it to the people. They are as pleased as I am, and they packed the risers to see wild beasts, dancing, gladiator shows, and a drama written for the occasion.
Octavia accompanied me as empress, but we barely spoke. She knows about Acte and makes no reproach. The girl’s low origin poses no threat, and she may be glad of the sexual diversion. Poppaea is a different matter. She is noble, rich, and ambitious, as I now realize. Octavia must know about our affair and resent it, but she would suffer torture before saying anything. Instead, she maintains a frozen silence, betrayed by her flashing brown eyes.
Poppaea is the opposite in every way—blonde, uninhibited, and highly vocal. Once you get past the coy first meeting, you are never in the slightest doubt as to what she wants and what she thinks. For three months she has been coming to the palace. We are lovers—passionate, frequent, and loud. Yet, when I beg her to stay more than two nights, she refuses:
“I am a married woman, and I am devoted to my husband. His character and style of life are excellent. Now there is a man who knows quality, while you, Nero, are dragged down by the company you keep, a servant girl. What a sordid, dreary life you lead!”
June 12, 58 AD
My darling Acte understands. It is over three years since we met, and she is as sweet, lovely, cheerful, patient, and obliging as ever. I promise that we will see each other in the years to come, and that I will continue to provide for her. In addition to the villas I gave her at Puteoli and Velitrae, I am giving her a pottery works on Sardinia for income, and an allowance for her household, which at last count numbered six. She murmurs her thanks and weeps a little. Of all the people that surround me, she is the only one who makes no demand.
June 20, 58 AD
Otho stopped coming to my receptions and dinners. As the affair with Poppaea developed, he adopted a hangdog look, and I alternately shunned him or made sharp remarks. The others caught on, and he became a general butt of jokes, mainly to do with loose wives and impotent husbands. Still, he persisted, perhaps afraid that his absence would be seen in a worse light. Finally, I sent word that he was no longer welcome. The messenger reported back to me that the poor man’s face fell, and he turned away in shame. My friends say that it is unwise to make an enemy of Otho, given his wealth and position. So I will make amends by appointing him governor of Lusitania. That will get him far away from Rome, where he cannot make trouble.
June 28, 58 AD
The Milvian Bridge is a popular spot for nighttime revelers, which is to say whores, pimps, pretty boys, tarts, and anyone else you can imagine. Senecio and our gang visited the place, and I could not resist going back the other night. On our way back on the Via Flaminia, there was a scuffle with some other street crawlers. One of my crew, a freedman named Graptus, recognized them as attendants of Cornelius Faustus Sulla Felix. He made us detour to the Gardens of Sallust for safety.
I already distrusted this Faustus, so I ordered an inquiry. The evidence for an assassination plot was slight, but I decided not to take chances. He was found guilty and exiled to Massilia. I will drop my nightly excursions for a while. In any case, we leave Rome soon for the summer.
October 5, 58 AD
Corbulo achieved great things in Armenia this summer. The news took months to reach Rome, and when it did, caused a sensation. After some skirmishes in the spring, in which Roman troops were beaten, Corbulo moved his army into the field against the Parthians. Tiridates and his brother ravaged the country, but would not meet us in battle, so Corbulo changed tactics, and launched several small attacks with his allies. He pressed hard enough that Tiridates asked for a meeting, then flinched, seeing the size of the Roman army. Corbulo wanted to avoid drawing out the campaign, so he attacked Armenian forts, and took three in one day. This made the other forts surrender. Encouraged, Corbulo moved against the capital Artaxata.
Tiridates was torn between defending a siege and maintaining mobility. He lured the Romans into an ambush, but our discipline paid off, and the army kept close ranks. After a day of feints and harassment, he withdrew secretly during the night. Corbulo began to move into siege position, but when daylight revealed the true situation, the inhabitants surrendered, saving their lives. Artaxata was too large to garrison and too important to leave intact. As a fierce storm gathered overhead, Corbulo burnt it to the ground.
For this victory, I was hailed. The senate voted thanksgiving, as well as statues, a triumphal arch, and honors. They were getting so carried away that a senator named Longinus observed: “The year does not contain enough days for the festivals you propose.”
December 15, 58 AD
Today I am twenty-one years old. As I did last year, I delayed any celebration to Saturnalia. I entertain at the palace most nights anyway. Seneca and the top advisors sent their congratulations, and various citizens did likewise. I see no reason to doubt their sincerity, since I provide the peace under which we all thrive.
Acte gracefully retired from view, Octavia maintains a dignified silence, and my beautiful Poppaea rules, at least in the bedroom. I love her madly. If she is more mature, she is certainly energetic when it comes to sex. I wonder if I will always be able to satisfy her.
Even Mother is quiet, after the publication of her memoir a year ago. Burrus keeps a watchful eye on her movements, and he says there is nothing to report. So perhaps her lust for power is fading. When she announces a visit to her villas at Tusculum or Antium, I praise the idea and urge her to take more vacations.
February 1, 59 AD
Seneca made a comment about Mother recently, something to the effect that as long as she lives she will remain a threat. I shrugged it off. Now I hear reports that she praises Octavia, who will soon be nineteen, as:
“A woman in the prime of life who is a wife in name only. Worse, she must endure an adulterous interloper.”
While she has no control of anyone but her own dependents, Mother is skilled at manipulation, Seneca says. He is afraid that her latest tactic is to stir public opinion against me. To the extent that she succeeds, she also undermines the government, and a coup would be disaster for Seneca and the rest of the council.
Poppaea meanwhile complains of Mother for an entirely different reason. Divorced from Otho in all but name, she says that her position is ambiguous and that the remedy is to marry me. Since I am already married, that is only possible if I divorce Octavia. And that would add fuel to Mother’s fiery propaganda. Poppaea says nothing about Octavia, who is dispensable in her view. All her energy is directed against Mother.
February 15, 59 AD
Mother’s detractors continue their campaign. Seneca and Burrus note her past conduct and her present talk, while Poppaea uses womanly wiles and dramatic scenes. Here is a sample:
“What kind of emperor are you? You are master of neither the empire nor of yourself. Otherwise, why do you put off marrying me? I suppose my looks and my ancestry are not enough for you. Do you think I am unable to bear children? Do you doubt my love?”
In a similar vein: “You are afraid of her! Your mother is arrogant and greedy! If she can only tolerate a daughter-in-law who hates you, then don’t marry me. Let me go back to Otho. I love you too much to watch her humiliate you and put you in mortal danger.”
This goes on night after night, at full volume. I try to reassure her, get worked up, and fling retorts back at her. To prove the depth of her love, Poppaea then abandons herself to furious sex. Exhausted, we collapse in bed and sleep like healthy children.
February 22, 59 AD
Acte appeared unexpectedly today, sent by Seneca. She adds another voice to the chorus against Mother. In her account, Mother is now boasting of sexual intimacy with me, and getting attention. Conservative army officers are muttering about “sacrilege,” which they cannot support in an emperor. Burrus will not confirm or deny this, which only makes it more worrisome. Though innocent, Acte would suffer with the rest of my inner circle if things went wrong, so she has a personal stake in my welfare. I was touched by her tears.
On reflection, I am more touched by her message. The threat is real, and something must be done. With my scenes with Poppaea now common knowledge in the palace, various persons have made suggestions. Exile or house arrest will not solve the problem. Mother is capable of striking from a distance and through solid walls. Violence is unthinkable—I shudder at the idea of stabbing her with a dagger, even if an assassin could be found. Poison is impractical, as she is so careful and her servants are incorruptible. If she died after dinner here, suspicion would fall on me. Besides, she knows all about poison and has antidotes.
February 27, 59 AD
Anicetus, the commander of the fleet at Misenum, has the answer. In earlier years, he worked on stage effects and scenery. He says that a ship can be rigged with a section that will give way, causing it to sink and throw Mother into the sea without warning. Nothing is so unpredictable as the sea. If a shipwreck does away with her, who can blame wind and waves? After she dies, I can erect a temple in her memory and show filial grief, and no one will be the wiser.
This plan strikes me as ingenious. Also, the timing is right. The Minerva festival is next month, when Mother will be at Baiae. I will visit the temple of Minerva, stay at Puteoli, and invite her on a cruise.
March 20, 59 AD
For days, I went around saying things like “You have to put up with mothers, because you only get one” and “Mothers have feelings, too.” I knew that they would be relayed to Mother and put her in a better frame of mind. I invited her to dinner.
As she arrived by boat from Antium, I met her on the shore with arms outstretched. We embraced, and I personally conducted her to the villa. As we walked, a sumptuously appointed ship appeared offshore, much like the warships she used to travel in. I said it was at her disposal. At dinner, I gave her the place of honor next to me and showered her with attention. I was serious and silly by turns, and we talked confidentially. It was like the old days. I put her at ease by saying that I am older and able to appreciate her now. The party went on for a long time.
When she left, I again walked her to the shore. I gazed into her eyes and clung to her. I was genuinely sad to see her go. Her ship lay at anchor. The night was starlit, and the sea was calm. She went aboard with two friends, and the ship glided away. I waved from shore until they were impossible to see, a black speck in the night.
I retired to my room and wrote this. If all goes well, I will at last be rid of her.
March 21, 59 AD
Things did not go according to plan. At a signal, lead weights dropped, collapsing the cabin. One of Mother’s friends was crushed and killed. Mother and her other friend, Acerronia, were saved by the raised sides of their couch. The ship’s hull did not cave in, so sailors who were in on the plot threw their weight on one side to capsize the ship. This took time, and the women got in the water safely. Realizing that it was no accident, Acerronia shouted:
“Help, help! I am Agrippina! Save the emperor’s mother!”
The sailors struck her with poles and oars and killed her. Meanwhile, Mother stayed quiet and escaped. She was struck in the shoulder, but she swam to some sailing boats. They took her to shore, and she walked to her own villa. There, she assessed the situation. She decided that the only way to deal with it was to pretend ignorance. Meanwhile, word came to me of the fiasco, and I panicked.
Anicetus was with me. I called for Burrus and Seneca, who had to be wakened. When they came in, I said:
“She may arrive at any moment! She may arm her slaves! She may whip up the army or gain access to the senate. She will incriminate me for the shipwreck, for wounding her and killing her friends. What can I do? You must save me!”
Neither man spoke for a moment. Finally, Seneca turned to Burrus:
“Should troops be ordered to kill her?”
“The guard is devoted to the whole imperial family,” Burrus said. “They will commit no violence against the daughter of Germanicus. Anicetus must make good on his promise.”
“And so I will!” exclaimed Anicetus. I was overjoyed:
“Go quickly! And take men who obey orders without question. If you succeed, this is the first day of my reign.”
A messenger arrived from Mother, her freedman Agerinus. When my servant told me, I grabbed a sword, held it behind me, then admitted him.
“By divine mercy, your mother survived a serious accident. While you will no doubt be anxious, please do not trouble to visit her tonight. She is tending a slight wound, and wants to rest.”
Pretending to be startled, I lunged toward Agerinus and dropped the sword at his feet.
“Murder!” I shouted, pointing at the floor. “Mother sent this man to kill me. Arrest him!”
Agerinus was immediately seized and bound. I ordered him to be locked up but left unharmed until events played out.
By this time, people in the area heard about the shipwreck and converged on Mother’s villa. They ran to the beach, climbed on the embankment, waded in the water, and got in fishing boats. They waved torches and shouted questions, clamoring for news. When word got out that she was safe, the wails of distress changed to shouts of rejoicing. Then as Anicetus approached at the head of an armed column, the crowd dispersed.
Soldiers surrounded the house and broke in. Anicetus arrested every servant in his path. When he came to Mother’s bedroom, he found her with a single maid, who vanished. He had two men with him, a naval captain and a lieutenant. From her bed, Mother said:
“If you have come to visit me, you can report that I am better. But if you are assassins, I know that Nero is not responsible. My son would not order his mother’s death.”
The captain hit her on the head with a truncheon. As the lieutenant drew his sword, she pointed to her abdomen and cried out:
They stabbed her until she died.
That is the account Anicetus gave me just now. I ordered him to return and cremate Mother’s body at once. If there is no wood handy, burn the furniture. I also ordered the execution of Agerinus, for attempted murder of myself. The stars are fading, and it will soon be dawn.
March 22, 59 AD
I did not sleep at all last night. I tried to lie down, but terror would seize me, and I would leap to my feet. Only as daylight returned was I able to calm down. Burrus sent some guard officers to congratulate me on escaping from Mother’s evil scheming. We exchanged the army handclasp.
As the sun rose higher, and I looked out to sea and the curving shoreline, I wondered if the dreadful night was a dream. Was it all a mistake? Did I commit a horrible crime? Whatever she may have done to provoke it, Mother is dead. I can hardly write the words. The woman who gave birth to me and launched my career is gone forever. She loved me in her own way. She was forty-three years old and as beautiful as ever.
I ordered the servants to go into mourning. I ordered Burrus to suppress any celebration in the guard. And I ordered Seneca to compose a letter to the senate describing the events and justifying our action. Despite my lack of sleep I was nervous and restless all day. Toward evening, I decided that I cannot stay here. Not knowing how the people will react, I do not want to return to Rome. Naples is nearby. That city and its people have always liked me. I gave orders for a ship to take me there tomorrow.
April 1, 59 AD
A few days at the villa of a friend in Naples have done wonders for me. I feel rested and rejuvenated. There is plenty of news. Seneca’s letter to the senate described the unfortunate shipwreck, the plot against my life, and the arrest and execution of Agerinus. He enumerated Mother’s scandals and crimes, her attempt to rule the empire, her assassination of leading citizens, and her contempt for the senate. Her death, he said, was a national blessing.
Senators competed with expressions of thanksgiving and proposals for new religious festivals. They voted games to commemorate my deliverance, a gold statue of Minerva, and inclusion of Mother’s birthday in the list of ill-omened dates. Paetus, who has held aloof from action in my favor, walked out of the senate house in disgust.
The people here cheer me and hold nothing against me. My friends say that the Romans will welcome me home in the same spirit. I sent Burrus to prepare the way, and others volunteered to do likewise. As spring graces the countryside, it will make for a glorious procession north through Campania.
In reward for outstanding service, exceptional conduct, and bravery in the line of duty, I promoted Anicetus and the two naval officers. They will stay with the fleet at Misenum until further orders.
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, VA, and member AIA. He writes articles on architecture, history, city planning, and construction, as well as literary fiction.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: “Agrippina” is from a novel based closely on the life of the Roman emperor Nero (37-68 AD).
Q: What is your second favorite place on earth?
A: My second favorite place on earth is Paris.
Q: Mac, or PC?
A: PC—recently bought a new laptop for email and writing, but must keep my old "tower" for drafting with AutoCAD.
Q: What’s your process for writing stories?
A: Short stories start in a hazy, daydream way, as a scene that is imaginary or from life. I make notes on plot and dialogue, and ask questions about motivation, time frame, etc. The notes often get thrown away, rewritten, forgotten. Eventually, I write an outline of one or more pages. I then expand the outline, revising as needed, to produce a first draft.
Q: What would you be if you weren’t a writer?
A: If I were not a writer, I would be a nightclub singer.
By Linda Stewart-Oaten
Followed by Q&A
That beat up Chevy stepside wasn’t no classic. Wasn’t no babe magnet, neither, but it’d tell people he was Hank the Handyman. Somebody reliable, who’d show up on time and get ’er done. (Not like the old days). And, damn, if that towbar didn’t say, “Dude? You ever gonna buy that bass boat?” Besides, the repo guy gave him a helluva deal.
His old man always drove Chevys, so Hank knew those engines like they were his own brothers. New set of plugs and she was ready to roll. Or would’ve been, if he hadn’t poked at some flakey paint, exposing rust. Why, in the name of God, couldn’t people spend the money and take the time to use a good quality wax?
After he pounded, scraped and Bondo’d the shit outta some righteous dings, he applied two coats of primer, buffing between each one. Then he gave her three coats of high-gloss white. Man, was there ever anything so beautiful? A clean canvas, pristine as High Sierra snow.
Next, he began the lettering on the doors, surprised by the recovered steadiness in his hands. Maybe he’d paint flames on the front fenders. Nothing too wild. Even as a little kid, he could draw pretty much anything, just like his mom. Flames, the way he’d do ‘em? Hell yeah. But they’d have to wait. It felt almost holy having something to look forward to again.
Miranda didn’t care if her faculty colleagues found her inflexible and humorless. They, who tithed ten percent of their post-modern, deconstructed souls and fell to their knees in frenzied rapture before those upstart pre-fab temples of experimental fiction. She’d wait until the ragtag parade of passing literary fancy marched up the road and over the goddamn cliff. And when those golden calves were revealed to be cast from pot metal, she'd be there, steadfast Keeper of Standards, ready to lead them out of the miasma. Back to structure and clarity. To Iambic pentameter, sonnets, sestinas, villanelles. To stories with beginnings, middles, and, yes, even ends. She’d save them, like it or not.
Couldn’t say she lacked rigor. Could say she was bitchy. (Who wouldn’t be, given recent events?) Could say she was a cliché. Ouch!
She’d met her husband in grad school. He, an assistant professor, slow-waltzing along the slippery bottom of the tenure track. She, plain, serious, never-been-anything’d Miranda, mistook for brilliance the sad Slavic tilt of his eyes. An error compounded by interpreting his hangovers as Byronesque mood swings. Post wedding, she began editing his papers, contributing large, uncredited portions from her own research, slowing her academic progress, but dramatically accelerating his.
Now, what chafes most is "On Vision and Transcendence," her thesis, which he’d wheedled her into letting him publish as his own. This eloquent, revelatory tome won him tenure and cemented his international reputation as the Go-To Guy on the angsty marginalia of transcendentalist poetry.
Post divorce, Miranda moved to a lesser institution, to teach (and await word of his downfall). She daydreamed of the moment when a revered silverback academic would ask the career-killing question, the one which would instantly render Faithless Ex naked, bloody, and quite unable to bullshit his way out. She’d take as proof of Divine Providence should this occur during his guest lecture at Harvard or Oxbridge.
Hank and Miranda
Miranda's cottage was quaint, meaning old and cramped, with geriatric appliances, windows that wouldn’t open and cupboards that wouldn’t close.
One afternoon, while she was grading especially abysmal term papers, the dishwasher gave a metallic cough and began to regurgitate murky water onto the floor. Hitting the off button didn’t staunch the flow. Luckily, Miranda remembered the Budweiser fridge magnet (left by the realtor). Something she’d meant to toss, but hadn’t because it anchored a handyman’s business card.
Twenty minutes later, Hank splashed across her kitchen.
"This," he said, "is why you never want to run your dishwasher when you're not home.”
"I was home,” Miranda said.
Hank crouched to fiddle under the sink until the water stopped. "This here’s your shut off valve. Next time—”
"'Next time?'" Miranda frowned. “Can’t you fix it?” Why, she wondered, were there dachshunds painted on the toes of his boots?
Hank stood and stepped back, staring at the dishwasher, as if he had x-ray vision. "Guess you know she's an old lady?”
“Knew she was old,” Miranda said. “Didn’t know she was a lady.”
Hank laughed. “I’d love to have a whack at ‘er. Say fifty bucks if I can get ‘er done? Zippity doo dah if I can’t.”
An hour later, Hank tucked a check into his wallet and Miranda asked if he knew anything about ceiling fans.
“Show me what you got.”
"I don’t have . . . anything. Yet,” she said. “But I wondered where—”
"Start with Home Depot. Wanna quick look, I’m headed there now. Bring you back, after.”
Miranda, rarely given to spontaneous impulses, surprised herself by following Hank out to his truck. When she saw flames faintly outlined on the fenders, she choked back a laugh and muttered “Retro.”
"She’ll be beautiful, when I’m done,” Hank said. “You’ll see.”
“Can’t wait!” she said, mocking him, and simultaneously hating herself for doing it.
Over the next eight months, he installed ceiling fans and laid new flooring in the kitchen. He replaced a water heater, toilet and bathtub, built bookshelves, grouted countertops, and carpeted her bedroom, living room and hall. He replaced windows, cupboards, closet doors, helped her choose colors, and painted every room.
She wondered if Hank ever worked for anyone else, since he was almost always available whenever she called. Sometimes she wondered if it would be inappropriate to give him a key to her cottage, so he could let himself in to work on projects even if she weren't home. That way, he'd probably finish things twice as fast. A thought not altogether pleasing. What was the rush? She had to admit, she enjoyed having him around. Hank brought a fresh perspective to things. True, he was under-educated. His grammar was atrocious, but he wasn’t stupid. Another plus was that since she'd become so involved with home improvements, she'd given little thought to Faithless Ex. Miranda began to dread the day there’d be nothing more for Hank to fix.
Miranda. Jesus, he loved her name. She was his best customer. He had to make himself turn his phone off during AA meetings, but sometimes when she called, he'd be in the middle of some big job—hot mopping a roof, say—and he'd just stop whatever he was doing and go straight to her place. Then he'd try his damnedest to finish the other job later. Bad for business, pissing people off like that but . . . There was no "but". He liked her and he was sure gonna miss her when the work ran out.
Hank needed to keep busy, so if he had time to kill, he worked on painting his truck. He was using dozens of colors and that fire looked real enough to burn down a house. Might’ve been something in the paint fumes or solvents, but sometimes when he was doing close airbrush work, he got into a hypnotic trance or something, and if he started thinking about her, he'd swear he could actually hear her squeaky little laugh or he'd see details of her face, like that freckle by her bottom lip, or the way her hair curled around her ears or the funny little crease that formed between her eyebrows when he explained how electricity worked. She wasn't exactly pretty. Probably nobody would ever say that. Nobody except him.
He wasn't sure how it happened or when, but he was stricken when he saw the flames reached a lot farther than he'd planned. They stretched past the fenders and spilled onto the doors, where the glowing tips licked through his phone number and the letters that spelled out "Hank the Handyman, Prompt! Safe! Reliable!” He could still read it but he knew what it was supposed to say. What about somebody whipping past on the freeway? What would be the point if they couldn't read it? Out of nowhere—even though he’d been dead for years—came his old man’s wheezy whisper. “What’s the point, Hank? Didn’t plan ahead? Right? Never listen to me, right? Just like your mother.” Hank pulled off his tee-shirt, and blotted his face with it. For the first time in over a year, he thought about going for a drink. “A drink? Can't you ever do anything right?”
His cell phone rang.
At last. Faithless Ex had met his comeuppance. Miranda had expected to be overjoyed, but it was so much worse than she'd dared hope. Poor weak bastard had done a Virginia Woolf in the Thames. (She’d have given extra credit if it’d been the River Ouse).
The funeral would be Saturday. His body was already on a plane, somewhere over the Atlantic. Would she attend the funeral? Definitely. Would she say a few words? No. She'd given him far too many of her words already. She would go to put her anger to rest. Miranda reached for the phone and hit speed dial.
"Hank? Are you busy Saturday afternoon?"
Hank and Miranda
Overcast. Perfect. Miranda opened the door but didn’t recognize him at first.
"Hank?" she said. "You’re wearing a suit. . .”
"Got it for my mom. Her funeral, I mean." He felt a jab of anxiety. Maybe he should’ve brought her some flowers? No! This wasn't like a date. “You look nice, Miranda,” he said.
“You mind driving?” she asked.
“Me? Truck’s a mess. Stuff all over the cab,” he said, ashamed to have her see the botched paint job.
“I don’t care. I’ll pay for gas.”
“Buy my own gas,” he mumbled and walked ahead of her to the truck, yanked open the passenger door and looked away. Miranda pushed the door closed and gaped at the flames.
"How on earth—”
He couldn’t look at her. “Didn’t come out like—”
“Stunning,” Miranda said. He turned and watched her touch part of the flame that ran into his name. "Spectacular.”
"You . . . like it?"
“No. I love it! You’re an artist, Hank.”
By the time they entered the church, a ruddy-faced man was already delivering the eulogy in a lugubrious baritone. The eulogy, devoid of anything personal, was larded with literary quotes about untimely death. Excellent choice, Miranda thought, given the circumstances.
She leaned toward Hank and whispered, "Chair of the English Department. Real asshole. Same spiel he gave at the head janitor's funeral two years ago."
"Expensive casket," Hank said. "Imperial Bronze. Twelve grand, minimum.”
The woman in front of them swiveled around to glare.
Miranda studied the backs of the other mourners' heads. Not a full house. A preponderance of females including, no doubt, at least a token representative (or two) from the legion of seduced and abandoned undergraduates.
Someone sang, and it was over. Everyone stood while the casket was wheeled toward the door. As people filed out, she saw her ex-mother-in-law in a wheelchair, pushed by an usher. As they neared, Miranda stepped into the aisle.
"Hello, Edith," she said, but the old woman gave no sign of recognition. "Remember me?” Nothing. Miranda gave her a peck on the cheek. "Sorry for your loss," she said and stepped aside, surprised by a rush of unexpected tears.
Hank put his arm around her and they waited in the pew until the church was nearly empty before going out to the truck.
“Cemetery?" he asked.
"No. I’d like a drink.”
"Miranda? I’m . . . in recovery, but—”
He nodded and started the engine.
"I'm thinking about knocking out some walls, Hank. Putting in French doors. Maybe a patio?”
"Right. Probably take years."
They waited for a break in the funeral cortege and as the sun broke through the clouds, Hank edged the fiery truck onto the road, and headed in the opposite direction.
Linda Stewart-Oaten is a member of the Wiyot Tribe, Table Bluff Reservation in Northern California. Her short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Kalliope, Eureka Literary Magazine, Barbaric Yawp, The Sun, The Chattahoochee Review, CollectedStories.com, the Santa Barbara Independent and elsewhere. Two of her short plays have been produced in Santa Barbara, where she lives. She’s currently at work on a sprawling novel.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: Once or twice a year, I go to a tiny coastal town in central California, for a weeklong writers’ retreat with a group of friends. A couple of years back, I forgot to pack the flash drive containing the project I was working on. In desperation, I took a walk, hoping to think of something—anything!—to write about. And there, parked in front of the Avila Beach deli, was a pick-up truck with astonishing flames painted on the fenders.
Q: What's your second favorite place on Earth, and why? That would be Wilson's Promontory, a World Heritage site, south of Melbourne, on the southernmost tip of mainland Australia. I first went to The Prom with my Aussie husband, many years ago. In summer, you can surf in the ocean, or hike through a mysterious and spooky banksia forest to a mangrove flat to watch black swans floating in the bay, like giant rubber duckies. If you trek through LillyPilly Gully, you might be lucky enough to spot a koala, high up in a gumtree. (Which makes it almost worth having to pluck leeches from your ankles afterwards). Early in the morning or at dusk you'll hear the raucous call of the kookaburras along the Tidal River. One of my favorite things is to sit on the deck of the rental cabin and wait for the parade of kangaroos, wombats and emus. There's no other place on earth like the Prom.
Q: PC, or Mac?
A: I've never used anything but a PC. (Strong conviction, weakly held.)
Q: What's your process when writing a short story?
A: The seed of my stories is usually an image of a character at an emotional crossroad. Some are inspired by people I've noticed in real life; say, a teary drunk in the 9AM checkout line at the grocery store. Others--an old lady, skinny dipping in a muddy pond at midnight, or a shoe salesman who looks like Santa Claus--just seem to materialize out of the ether. I never know at the outset where a story will go or how it will end but if I entice the characters to stay awhile and give them room to breathe, they'll answer my questions and tell me their secrets. Discovering those secrets is what I love best about writing.
By Juleigh Howard-Hobson
Followed by Q&A
There is a white hole in the wall, a mirror. It is a trap. I know I am going
to let myself be caught in it...
It is soft, what I see in the white hole. Soft and slightly dim. Like going home. Like going under. Like going in. I know it will yield to me when I go in, when I let myself be caught in it. Will it stay soft, I wonder? Or will it crystallize with my entrance? Will my presence shatter it at once or will I slowly harden it? Shall I encrust with it or will I be expelled from my soft hole, my mirror, my trap?
Here, I put my hand to it. Hard and cold at first, then warming, melting—I push and my hand is both in and out. I am in and out. Trapped and not trapped. Safe and not safe. Which one is me? Which hand is mine?
I withdraw and it withdraws from me.
Not completely. Never completely. Who can return from such a trap? To see if you can, you are trapped again. Or always was. Only those who have never felt the tug tug tug pull of the mirror are not trapped by what was once reflected.
Reflected! Who has not seen, close or far, by accident or on purpose, their unwanted reflection, held captive by a mirror they do not own? Who does the reflection belong to, then? Who is the owner, who is the owned?
Silent, it is, the hole in the wall. And serene. Even when reflecting chaos. It floats, untouched. Yet it touches. And how deeply it touches. Every nuance, every shadow—there! There! There! They all are repositioned and reproduced within the white serenity of trap that is the mirror. How can it capture me thus? How does it pull the picture that is my face from my face.
Or is it my face at all? Perhaps not. Perhaps it is another face altogether. His hair just so. His cheeks just so. That shirt exactly the same shade and cut as mine. Mirrored but not duplicated, not reflected.
His hand brushes his lips. His eyes watch his fingers—so like my own—curl, flex, reach. They touch but not each other, they touch the trap. Press press press—only cold smoothness. A hand here and a hand there. At the same time. But they cannot be the same hand.
Here I remove it. It moves in the mirror. Back and forth it goes. Touch and retreat.
Do I call the moves or do I follow? Is it him reaching—his fingers, so like mine, splayed up toward the mirror glass—or is it me?
Me. I think. I decide. I push my hand. Tug my hair. Wipe my face with my fist. Because I decide to.
Or do we decide together? He and I. Doppelganger. Spook. Guardian. Double. Fylgia. Reflection. Me. Not me. Him. Not him. Us.
Is the mirror the third? Holy triskele. Trinity. Three become one. One in three. Him, me, it. Us. Us. Always us. The me that is him and the it that comes between. Dividing thinker from thought, doer from deed, dreamer from dream, flesh from reflection. The trap that makes up our eternal audience, our target, our base. He and I accord for that and that alone, that one reason. It must have us so. Trapped. Forever. A dance of three. Triplicity. Yes, it is the third. Always.
Always there with its dim soft triplicity. Made to look like duplicity. Just there and here. In and out. No more, no less. Come and look. Come and see. No one heeds the trap, the hole, the way it holds everything apart and together.
The mirror—is that the trap or is the trap further in? Beyond the mirror, within the mirror. Deep inside. It has such depths. Such secrets held—secrets that go past what I can see. I see merely what I may see. What I see that is here for me to see. A wall. A picture. A mantle. A man. A door. Same same same, all the same.
What is beyond the door that looks so much like the door—my door—it mirrors? It cannot be my kitchen. My kitchen does not exist in the deep reaches of the mirror, yet the door remains. What does the door lead to, in there? Who has knowledge of what lurks beyond that door? Not this mirror, surely, it has never been in the kitchen. Never hung there, never brought in there, never known the stove or the table or the pantry shelves that exist in there. What the mirror cannot know it cannot contain!
The door is there. I can see it. I can put my hand to it, the mirror door—almost almost almost touch it—but the glass, the soft dim glass of that which is the third portion of all of this—stays my grasp. I see but cannot touch it.
I can touch my door.
He touches his in the trapped reflection that I see. Does he know that I do not know what is beyond his door? Does he assume that I am the same as he? Door equals door, man equals man, here equals there. Yes, yes, no.
Here is not there. The here that is there is there here, not here here.
Am I reflected there?
Does the mirror there within the trap reflect an image of me? To him? Who else? Who else would see me? Would see this room?
Am I his trap? Does he feel the urge, the pull, to reach and touch past the smooth glass that keeps up apart? Is his desire his or is it mine, reflected back? It cannot be mine, I am not there. His desire can only be the desire of the man there, not the desire of the man here. I am here. He is there. The divide lies between us.
Palpable. Real. Ever present.
The trap makes a desire that cannot be culminated by possession—there is nothing to possess. Image. Color. Reflection. Shattered, it is gone. Smashed, it goes. Nothing there at all.
Memory of what was there. Reflected there. Two men, two mantles, two hands reaching—each extended from an arm toward each other—stopped by the trap. By the hole that wants to pretend it is not a whole. Yet all the while it contains a whole.
Now contains a whole. A now that exists here and there. Then and now. There now and here now. A double now. Equivalent. Parallel. A worm hole. A white whole. Ever so thin, ever so fragile. I can break it if I wish. But it cannot be erased. The thin fragments can crack apart and grow microscopic but can not not exist. That which was held by them was held. There is no unexistance.
Can he break his mirror? When reflected fists smash, is it my flesh breaking the trap glass or his? Whose hand punches through? Will we touch, even for a moment, as the cracks bloom and widen under our fists? Will we know if we do? If we don't? When do we stop being we?
Does a 'we' exist if we can not exist without the trap, the mirror. Will there always be us? He and I.
Does the mirror hold us only here or does it hold us everywhere? Is the mirror one mirror or many? E pluribus Unum. On and on and on. A house of mirrors endlessly reflecting, retracting, expanding, distorting, contracting, making of us what it will. What it can.
Can it make us want it wants? Does it make him more like me when it distorts or is it that I suddenly am like him? The true me? The true him? Must one of us endlessly change to suit the image of the other? Who? Which is the other? Him or me? Who changes the most?
It does not matter, we change or we do not change. We revolve and we reflect. The mirror's reflected door holds secrets he knows and I shall never know. He cannot open my door. We part. We leave. We rejoin. We reflect.
Trapped in the soft dim depths we co exist. Him I it. Here there everywhere. One two three. Front middle back. Reflections reflecting but not looking. No Janus but a caterpillar, believing it always was and will continue as it is.
I shut the light off and we all go away.
Juleigh Howard-Hobson is a widely published essayist, short story writer and formalist poet. Named a Million Writers Award "Notable Story" writer, she has been nominated for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net. Her fiction has appeared in The First Line, Danse Macabre, Sein und Werden, Key Hole Magazine, Aesthetica, The Loch Raven Review, Going Down Swinging, The Liar's League, Whistling Shade, Broken City and many other places -- both in print and in cyberprint.
Q: What was your inspiration for this story?
A: When I was 16, studying for the Higher School Certificate in Australia, we were set some European poems to translate. One pair of words struck me: “deep mirrors”...I don’t recall the poet, or even if my translation was correct or not (a real possibility)...but the image buried itself in my chest. This piece was pulled out of there.
Q: What's your second favorite place on Earth, and why?
A: Grave 121, Kensal Green Cemetery, Harrow Road, London W10. Leigh
Hunt—poet, essayist, the most pleasant of writers—is buried there;
visiting his grave is one of my fond memories—revisiting is one of my
Q: PC, or Mac?
A: I'm writing this on a PC. So PC it is.
Q: What's your process when writing a short story?
A: I kick an idea around for about two minutes, then dive right in. The plot
figures itself out (which is to say, my subconscious manages to get there
before I do) as it goes along. I have disciplined myself to be able to
completely disregard the inner editor while I'm writing. After the first
draft is done, I'll let my critical inner voice have sway, but it is
banished from the initial act of creation. Very liberating.
Q: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
A: Those who can't: teach. I expect I would end up as an English teacher...or
worse, a professor... Perhaps, though, I would show some real spirit and
do something utterly fascinating and terribly, but strangely,
interesting—embalming comes to mind. As does cryptozoology.
Sister, Sister, Full of Light
By Eric Day
Followed by Q&A
No one knows why she’s gotten fat. No one’s even asked. She goes to work keeping books at our family music store wearing the same dress, day after day, a pink cotton affair with white lapels and matching heels. She always eats—her Beetle’s filled with the wrappers of every chain. She tells me, on nights other than Friday, which is our Dallas night, that on the way home to her apartment she makes multiple drive-thru appearances. I glance in the back and see everyone is duly represented—boxes, sacks, and straws. It smells rich, the tang of catsup, the sweet of deep fry. I laugh, then she laughs. I stop, then she stops. I say burgers, and she turns right in.
In the shade of bamboo beside the bank of ivy, my sister is in ankle-deep inlet water. She’s lean and tall, wearing a yellow two-piece, talking with our dad, a man with a steak and beer gut, an 80’s mustache gone awry, and a pair of too-small Hawaiian trunks. A towel is flung over his shoulder. The other side of the river is the public side, and this side, our side, is private. We can dress any way we want, and it shows. I’m far out in the shallow sandy pool where the carp come at night to blink in the moonlight. I am hiding. I am always hiding.
Volume carries over water, my sister’s arms crossed over her top, a hand leaving on a regular basis to wipe away a face that doesn’t want sympathy, only a steadfast appeal to reason. From where I’m at, her face can’t stand still.
Our dad’s words are hard, my sister’s quavering. She’s graduating with a 4-point GPA and he has chosen this moment at the base of the steep steps that wend up the high ivy bank to the concrete patio above (where I imagine our mom mixing lemonade) that she is going nowhere. The store is what she needs. It is, after all, a family business, he says, like she doesn’t know.
Her hair is wet, combed back like Bo Derek’s, her haunches sandy from tanning. She’s been trying to look beautiful. Wind rustles the bamboo leaves and our dad’s towel slips off his shoulder which he catches in a deft movement, like it never happened. His glasses have gone dark, lending him an even greater air of authority. Suddenly, my sister seems naked. It is summer; she isn’t going back to school.
She blurts, “But…” and bites her lip.
“What?” is the immediate challenge. In the water, a crawdad begins pinching my knee. I am still.
My sister looks away. My sister looks at me, an inch out of water, a soldier on reconnaissance. I could wave my arms and our dad wouldn’t notice, but she always sees me. With my forefinger I poke at the crawdad and he vanishes into the stirring clay. She looks square at him with streaming tears. He says she does not own a hair on her body and that she will work at the store no matter what. She scurries up the wending path. Father looks right past me, over me, to the roiling rapids beyond, maybe at the public side to see if any of the partiers in cut-offs have heard his loud decree. He goes down shore, towel draped still. He skirts the hanging branches, and out onto the white sands: he’s right, he’s on top, he’s heard. He tries not to look like a kid as adults always do when they tread the soft sands, and he succeeds.
Fridays my sister leaves work early and comes over after balancing the deposit and dropping it off at the bank. With the money she pinches she takes my brother and me anywhere we want. He’s seventeen, I’m fifteen. We get off the bus and she’s there, rain or shine and engine running, her smiling and waving behind the Beetle’s smallish windshield. We rip around the rural neighborhood in her yellow Volkswagen. Either my brother or myself man her boom box. The same tape is always inside. Huey Lewis and the News. We convince her to let us crank it, and soon she’s peeling out on shoulders, running stop signs, splashing through puddles, blasting “The Heart of Rock N’ Roll is Still Beating,” which we hate anywhere but here. My brother and I bob and bounce in the black vinyl seats, half mocking, half joy. We don’t even know. My sister flies through the streets, honking at pedestrians and people raking their yards, passing on the right, screeching and cawing out the window. Her voice wears to gravel.
We end up at a café. We always end up at a café, sucking on waters. The floors are wood and so are the tables and chairs. Red and white tablecloths. It’s Red’s Café and it looks like a saloon out of a western movie on the outside—sitting by itself with the roof slanting low toward the parking lot, its eaves covering a porch of planks, a rail running down like you’d hitch a horse to. There’s no one in the café but us and this guy, this skinny guy who takes our order and goes back to the kitchen to cook it. The guy is sad. The guy is Red. We giggle at the fact he cooks our orders. I pour packs of sugar in my water. My brother yawns loud like it’s taking a long time. He chucks an ice cube against the wall, and it lands in a tray of spoons. We try not to laugh as our food comes.
The place is done up like a western—ropes and spurs on the wall—but this guy, this waiter, this Red, wears penny loafers with jeans. He goes back to the kitchen. We’re not really hungry but we eat anyway. The fries are unpeeled, long and greasy, and he’s given us a heap so we’ll remember and come back. We throw a few against the wall and watch them slide down. My sister is in stitches, which is where my brother and I had wanted to get her, food and catsup in her smile. My brother tips back in his chair, says “whoops!” and falls to the floor. I lift my plate and squeeze the catsup on the table until it’s almost empty. My sister can’t breathe. She is choking. The guy comes out to fill our waters and I cover the catsup with my plate, my smile with fries, oozing out the sides. My sister works on her mouthful of food, and begs to be let alone by waving us back. The guy, this waiter, he’s tickled. We have made her laugh. People are having a good old time in his place. Filling our waters, he laughs, too, until his laugh gives over to a terrible coughing fit. He hasn’t even seen the French fries plastered on his wall yet.
As we get into the car and peel away, I try not to imagine the look on his face when he lifts my plate and it kind of sticks there and he sees the pool of catsup I have left. Realizing he’d been taken as a fool. I think of him coughing before, and being alone with all the food prepped and ready, and it makes me want to cry. My brother, who I know is feeling the same, turns the tape over to “I Wanna New Drug,” and I begin to laugh instead, laugh so hard I do cry. Laugh so hard the windshield is nothing but blurry rural scenery. Beside me my sister laughs, the car spinning in the shoulders and flying through intersections as though no one’s behind the wheel at all.
We have to get back from carousing at about 6:00 to make a show of being home for our dad when he will arrive at 6:30. As a family, we eat steak and talk of our days until eight. The three of us tear out of there in the dark to the 7-11 for snacks to eat while we watch Dallas at nine.
My sister snags a six-pack of regular Pepsi. Even though my parents want her to buy the diet kind. But it’s Friday night—she doesn’t care what they think. I grab a Sara Lee cheesecake and Mark two-fists the Hostess rack while holding a carton of chocolate milk under his chin. Our sister buys the stuff and we play Ms. Pac Man until the big hand is ten minutes before nine. We arrive as the guy says, “Last week, on Dallas.” Our mom has made sure.
Our dad, eating his crackers, laughs at us, and it pleases my sister—you can actually see it in her face—that she has made him laugh. He laughs at J.R. once, which makes us revel in the show even more, and then falls asleep in his chair with his mouth open. It occurs to me, as I consider the number of Saltine crumbs he’s left on his very own chest, that he is my sister’s boss, has always been my sister’s boss. She has three Pepsis before the first commercials.
She hangs around after Dallas is over and we have fought about what next week’s show might be like. Mark calls his girlfriend, who he will talk to until Friday Night Videos comes on at 1:00. I play my Tudor electric football game that always makes my sister laugh because once during a power outage I tapped on the tin board with my nails to make the little plastic men move. My enthusiasm for the game outlasts her amusement, and she submits to Falcon Crest. Later, when I get up to go to the bathroom and stretch my legs, I see the glow of her taillights flood in through the beaded glass.
The flowers come just after the “Bon Voyage” cake is cut. My sister’s replaced her party hat with the gray stocking cap she’d finished knitting the night before from the last spool of wool that my grandmother had left behind and had spun herself from her ancestor’s Danish herds. Every time she’s near me I smell sheep. That, with her tattered pink cotton dress, results in physical manifestations of repulsion—strange screwed up looks as she passes from everyone.
We are at the music store, employees and family standing around a card table with the cake on it and among all the high-ticket grand pianos of the main showroom. I am out of high school and working under our father in sales. Mark’s here; he delivers pizzas now. The days of Dallas and our neighborhood tears have come to an end. She’s become a nuisance in our quests for money and sex. Her ship leaves in a matter of hours. No one knows about the ship. She’s testy about it. There is no stated destination. Only our mom knows the particulars and she doesn’t want to set her off, to “rock the boat,” in our dad’s words. She wishes the mystery to remain large; I know this because sometimes mystery is the only card we hold.
The cake’s been cut, causing damage to its frosted hull. We hold paper plates with napkins underneath. No one, not even the non-family members, have asked her why she’s leaving to be a volunteer on a medical ship. She knows nothing of medicine or the sea. I feel this question mounting as though someone’s about to ask it, someone not familiar with explosives. Then the front bell breaks the silence and heads turn toward the welcome distraction.
“Flowers for…?” the guy falters as he rechecks the card.
Everyone turns away as my sister steps forward maybe a beat too fast to accept the flowers. A stampede of sheep gallops after her. She takes them to the front counter where an empty vase with water is already waiting. No one’s watching, except me, and only secretly. How could she be so dumb, I wonder, to have the vase waiting there? Plus to all but accept the flowers before the recipient’s been announced? But then it hits me. She’s not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. She’s trying to rip it away. She’s trying to show us what she’s sunk to, here in this place.
It’s gotten extremely quiet. Light chewing and plastic forks on hard paper. By now her heels have worn to nothing, the armpits of her pink dress torn. Most days she wears the required cardigan, but not so today. She makes a show, up at the front counter, of reading the card, registering the name and her face lighting up. It’s like she’s giving a demonstration on bad acting. She pops her eyes over at us by the cake, and in that brief glimpse I know without a doubt she’s sent the flowers to herself. She is checking to see the effect of it, the same look she gave me as I eavesdropped in the river—shame with a dash of camaraderie, as though to say, “Yes, we know the depths we sink to.”
The aged bookkeeper with yellow hair becomes aflutter. Perhaps she knows, perhaps not. Maybe she’s done the same thing herself. It doesn’t even matter. She wants to lavish envy and help arrange the blossoms. The woman looks at the card, which my sister’s left lying open.
“John?” we hear her say. After all, the building’s built for acoustics. “Why, who’s John?”
My sister reddens to her nose. “Blanche!” she squeals, as though trying to shut her up, but obviously not. “A girl never tells.” She’s looking right at us, a traffic light with teeth.
As he holds his cake, Mark sounds some chords on a piano, and, gaining assurance, puts down the plate and soon is off on For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow and we’re happy to fill the silence and gather round. He’s got flour on his blue pants, a strong musk meant to penetrate pepperoni. My father, holding his plate high, chimes in with the words, and we join in, switching the he to she. I turn now and again to see my sister by her flowers from John, making a show of admiring the card. She’s blushing in a gray stocking cap made from a dead woman’s leftover yarn ball, seemingly at the end of her script, and the image vanishes with the unexpected and unwanted filling of my own eyes.
My brother somehow gets out of going to the actual Bon Voyage, just me and her in the backseat with Mom and Dad up front. The drive is silent, my sister wiping her eyes with a positive smile fixed on her face, her gaze straight ahead to the future. It takes an eternity for S.E. Portland to give way to industrial concrete, hitting red light after red light. Another decade before the gleam of water, the ship.
On the wharf we hug, we all hug. I’m hugging our dad, our mom. They’re hugging each other, a little slapstick to shake the gloom. The scent of sheep has been replaced by the brackish Willamette. There is a log jam at the ramp going up to the ship. She turns and hugs me once more and it feels like a real one, one she’s held in special reserve for me. Clouds gather over the water and gulls stand on the gunwale cables. It’s humid, over eighty, and by the water it’s like standing in sweat. In tears, I think. Something salty and unwanted. Yet the gray stocking cap persists.
The horn blows, and soon the land cables are reeling. There are no streamers of confetti like on Love Boat, and no smiles. Not many people, either, just a few waving back at their families. My sister is not among them, but we watch it sail out of port and disappear into the bright clouds.
My grandfather’s home movie collection arrives on my front stoop. I’m married now and miss my sister sometimes. The ship docked in D.C. and she didn’t get back on board, they say. Her exact whereabouts have remained murky, a mystery. Once in a while I receive a late night phone call. I pick up and no one is on the line, just a man in the background yelling like Apollo Creed, streams of husky abuse. I don’t know if it’s from my sister. I don’t know if she’s in a bad place and secretly dialing and setting the phone down is the only way she knows how to tell me about it. If so, who am I to judge? If she’s found a duplicate for our dad, I’ve found someone to make his duplicate out of me. I am too busy fighting, using much of his old lines, to think about my sister much. I need saving, some part of me knows this, maybe it’s why I pick up the late night calls, but I’m focused on military matters now, the next aimed finger, the smuggled bottle. I am happy to receive boxes. I imagine they contain part of the outside world, where great expanses of unarguable truth exist, of hope, of light.
Inside the box I find: one Kodak Brownie regular 8mm projector, one Gaf Dual-8 projector, an armful of cameras—wind-ups as well as sound—an Argus 800 motorized editor viewer machine, a Sears tripod movie screen, and a Sunkist orange crate full of plastic reels each containing 200 feet of home movies, 1951-1982. I do not care to view these films again, being that I own a copy of the videotape transfer already, but I do find, at the bottom of the Sunkist crate, a margarine tub full of 35mm slides. The lid is marked “Baby Christen.”
The images play against the window of my study. They are all of Christen, a toddler, maybe one. She’s sitting in a bed of bleached gravel playing with a yellow shovel, and atop a white car hood, simply put there to take pictures of her. There are cacti in the background and the sky is an immense blue—my grandparents’ mobile home in Glendale, Arizona. Our dad is not in the pictures; he’s most likely taking them. I can hear the German shutter’s precision as older folks, my mom’s parents, and my mom herself, stand around admiring this new being in the world. The desert sun surrounds and suffuses this little person, and at the very center there is a face I have never seen before. She’s loose-lipped, accepting, and full of wonder. Wonder at the world around her, and at me, it seems, who, holding each slide up to the sun for more light, sees that there is more light, a vast and punishing new light.
Eric Day teaches and writes in Phoenix, Arizona, where he lives with the best family under the sun. His novel, Finding May Wonken, has been selected as a finalist for the Bakeless Prize in Fiction. He is presently working on his 5th interesting mistake, a collection of essays about growing up in Oregon called Raised by Trees.
Q: What was the origin of this piece?
A: I wrote this in one sitting, then spent weeks and weeks revising it.
Q: Why are you a writer?
A: Because I’m generally very boring
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: Farfisa in a cathedral
Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?
Q: What are you working on now?
A collection of essays about growing up in Oregon.
Of Jumping the Shark
By Stephen J. West
Followed by Q&A
After my three older sisters and I tumbled out of the family van, I anxiously shuffled in place to keep my bare feet from burning on the sandy pavement. My mom coated us with weapons-grade sun block, draped colorful towels over our shoulders and handed us sand pails, shovels, water bottles, and snacks. As we raced along the path to the beach, the sun block on my face started to melt and ooze, stinging my eyes when I rubbed it away. Before I even caught my first glimpse of the water, I remember listening to the enormous explosion of the surf crashing on the shore—I could actually feel it boom inside of me. I felt disoriented. The cozy beach with sandcastles and sailboats I’d been imagining disintegrated into something harsher to match what I sensed waiting for me on the other side of the dunes.
I don’t remember much from the rest of my first day at the ocean, but I know I barely touched the water. The beach was covered with people, and all of the kids seemed to be having fun splashing around in the gently curling waves, but I couldn’t find reassurance in that. I didn’t see anything out there in the water, but I knew it was deadly. I imagined myself wading in just to test the temperature when suddenly I’d be pulled underwater by a powerful riptide, drawn further and further away from the shore and my shrieking sisters, the bronzed lifeguards sprinting, diving and swimming Baywatch-style out to where the foamy greens meet the blackish blues of deep surf and the thrashing fins of the blood-mad sharks that would shred me, my white trunks flashing like butcher’s paper in the pinkish red water.
My curiosity eventually overcame my fear and I got in the water—and no, I didn’t die. I think I even enjoyed it a little. I remember just before we left for the ride home, I commemorated my survival with a few keepsakes from the souvenir shop: a pocketful of shark teeth, a t-shirt with an image of a smiley shark in aviator sunglasses, and a braided necklace displaying a single extra-large shark tooth. Riding home in the back of the family van, I wondered where those teeth in my pocket came from, picturing the entrepreneurial attack survivor sitting by a bonfire plucking them from his femur and thinking of the profit he could turn, or the torso of a boy that washed ashore a few miles from the site of his disappearance and the handful of teeth extracted from it that were delivered to the surviving family amidst tearful embraces, only to be donated to the souvenir shop a few days later because they were just too emotionally volatile to keep.
It was the early 1990s when I went on that trip to the beach with my family, so I would’ve been around eleven years old. Here’s the problem with that. Sometime before we left, I watched Jaws for the first time. I don’t remember if I watched the whole movie or not, but I saw enough shark’s-eye view camera shots of limbs dangling like bait and heard enough ominous E and F notes to make my first visit to the beach feel like tape left on the editing room floor. I know I’m not alone. Twenty years have passed since I saw Jaws, 35 since it made its debut, and like you, my time spent paddling in any ocean since then has that soundtrack, even though it has to this point maintained such a soft and slow repetition of those E’s and F’s that they’re barely noticeable. But that doesn’t make me feel any more secure. Every time I kick off my sneakers and wade out into the ocean, I hear the orchestra strike up in the soundstage of my memory; I picture myself from shark’s-eye view and the flesh on my legs feels just a little more delicate.
I’m also terrified of spiders. “Terrified” might be a bit dramatic; I’m more loathe of them, and there’s a movie I watched around the same time I saw Jaws that I blame for it. A few scenes from Arachnophobia still haunt me: the corpse in a pine box that’s sucked to the point of mummification; the dead bird that lands with a thud while the spider creeps away and the farm house in the background comes into focus; the adolescent girl showering with her eyes closed when the killer spider emerges from the shower head and washes down between her breasts, down the length of her stomach, below her bellybutton and out of frame as the image on the screen is replaced in my mind by glistening spider fangs poised over teenage genitalia.
I’ve heard that a person will eat an average of seven spiders in his lifetime, most likely on the coldest early spring or late fall nights when one of them, like any living thing, is looking for a warm and dark place to safely deposit its eggs before dying. I’ve woken up from a dead sleep on several occasions coughing and gasping for breath, when that thought comes to mind—seven spiders—and I’ll remember that suspicious midnight coughing fit whenever my stomach aches, wondering if it might be caused by a sticky egg sac clinging to my esophagus, my foster babies about to hatch from the cottony cocoon in my stomach and pour out of every orifice of my body to devour the world.
There are friendly versions of spiders—like the fuzzy googly-eyed variety that appears for Halloween—but they’re usually represented by an empty web, the trace of the absent killer that’s lurking somewhere nearby, like the shark under the water, its geometric web the visual equivalent of the E and F notes. Charlotte’s Web depicts one of the only inherently good arachnids I can think of. Charlotte is the Jiminy Cricket to Wilbur’s Pinocchio, the Machiavelli to his Prince. In the end, Charlotte dies, everyone on the farm cries, and she leaves Wilbur with that cute little egg sac, a more endearing version of one of an average of seven I imagine inside my body at any given time. Instead of smashing it right away and eliminating any chance of being sucked into bacon strips, Wilbur becomes an ideal foster parent, raising the babies in Charlotte’s stead and all is harmony on the farm. But this, as we know, is fiction. A pig could never raise spiders.
With sharks, we don’t make them friendly or sensitive like Charlotte, but we do neutralize their threat. Just look at the NHL’s San Jose Sharks. S. J. Sharkie patrols the crowd in the Shark Tank, a mascot who’s replaced his menacing teeth with a churlish grin, leathery skin with a hockey jersey, and razor sharp fins with fuzzy hands to shake. How many parents do you think have snapped a photo of Sharkie with his furry jaws open and resting flaccidly on the crown of their child’s head?
Before Sharkie, there was the Land Shark. The Land Shark made its debut in 1975 during the first season of Saturday Night Live, and, like Sharkie, it was a person in a shark suit. The Land Shark was cunning and could hunt us anywhere: in our houses and apartment buildings, our living rooms, our bathrooms, and even our bedrooms. With the same E and F notes from Jaws, the Land Shark would disguise itself as a plumber, a candy gram, a long-lost relative, even a dolphin—anything at all to get the unsuspecting victim to open her door—at which point the outrageous attack ensued, and we laughed heartily at the absurdity of our fear.
The shark craze reached its anticlimax in 1977 with the antics of the Fonz, when he literally jumped a shark on an episode of Happy Days. The story was a blatant homage to Jaws, down to the bursts of E and F notes and underwater shots of a shark that was being kept in a ring of buoys just off shore, apparently waiting for the Coastguard to take it away. Never one to back down when faced with a battle of machismo, The Fonz agreed to a challenge proposed by the “California Kid,” a local beach bum who was tired of the Fonz stealing his spotlight. The challenge? The Fonz had to jump the only thing in the world he was afraid of: the shark in the ring.
No surprise, the Fonz is victorious. The California Kid bailed before the jump, and the Fonz overcame his fear and dramatically soared over the shark to the delight of the crowd watching from the beach. Viewers of the show were less impressed. Avid fans stopped tuning in after that episode, and I like to think they watched reruns of the Land Shark on Saturday Night Live instead. “That is just too unbelievable—the Fonz would never do that, would never wear that,” they would have muttered as they cranked the knob on their faux-wood-paneled Zeniths, desperately trying to escape the image of the Fonz on skis clinging to a tow rope in jean shorts, his iconic white t-shirt and black leather jacket suddenly less cool when paired with the yellow swimmee wrapped around his waist. As if those millions that had watched Happy Days since 1974 had seen too much—as if the Fonz was no longer the most desirable greaser on television, no longer had killer hair and a natural odor of motorcycles. As if jumping the shark had changed all of that. I think what the Fonz did, what Happy Days did, was important no matter what history has concluded. The Fonz actually jumped a shark, a real shark, not a cuddly kid friendly shark, not an ironic shark, but the real fucking thing; there was an actual shark lurking in that ring beneath his amazing water-ski jump, a real-life human-shredding shark—or at least that’s what Gary Marshall wanted us to think.
Here’s a theory: Gary Marshall, the creator of Happy Days, knew it all along, knew this particular stunt would kill the Fonz, would kill his show, and this scene was his masterstroke. And it was ironic—more ironic than even the Land Shark could imagine. He could only have dreamed that “jumping the shark” would become the phrase used to describe an action that betrays the integrity of something’s original purpose. Maybe he knew the German origin of shark is schurke, a word that refers to a person acting immorally—“shirking” ethical responsibility. Maybe Gary Marshall was upset about the sensation surrounding sharks in the midst of the Cold War—after Vietnam, after the Korean War, after World War II. Maybe he thought it was too willful a way for people to avoid the real dangers in the world, the kind we pose to ourselves.
How absurd and ironic those postwar years were, Gary Marshall might have thought as an angsty twenty-something in the mid 1950s, a proto Fonzarella suspicious of the Cleavers and their track homes, smoking marijuana cigarettes and mussing up his perfectly parted hair, a blacklisted beatnik regular of Los Angeles coffee shops writing poems filled with political vitriol that desperately tried to express what he felt about the injustice in the world. But Gary Marshall’s poetry would’ve gone largely unacknowledged. Maybe he met a girl, got married, had a baby, cut his hair, quit smoking, bought a house and a car, and found a job in Hollywood to pay the bills. But what if he never really quit that poetry; what if, after two decades of success, in the heart of middle-age, after watching people shriek at Jaws and laugh at the Land Shark—what if his thoughts returned to the real-life sharks that those beasts were named after, the ones that annihilate humans not one at a time and randomly, but decisively, en masse, like those responsible for releasing that Great White over the sea of Japan, glinting in the sky on a sunny and clear August day, the perfect beach day, a sleek and silver monster cruising overhead, its engines humming a soundtrack of E and F notes that vacillated so rapidly they would’ve been barely noticeable to the humans below when the bomb named Little Boy plummeted toward the sprawling grid of Hiroshima.
Gary Marshall would have been around eleven years old when the bomb was dropped. What if he was haunted for the rest of his life by what he saw on the news the night of August 6, 1945, the image of the mushroom cloud below the opened hatch of the U.S. bomber and that unbelievable footage of an entire city of humans razed by a tidal wave of nuclear fission. What if while sitting in a theater with his family in 1975 watching Jaws and listening to the people shriek in fear, his wife and kids clinging to him, Gary Marshall remembered what he really feared, what he watched thirty years earlier at such a tender young age, and he thought about the decade that followed with its imaginary satisfaction that America was so eager to believe in. What if he smirked at the absurdity of the hysteria incited by a fake shark, and an idea that would annihilate Happy Days once and for all hatched inside of him.
Maybe Gary Marshall thought about the people on the beach that day everything changed, like an eleven year old who might have been making his first trip to the ocean with his family, all smiles and laughter. Maybe he imagined that, at 8:15 a.m., the boy’s excitement was disoriented when he heard and felt an unbelievable boom just on the other side of the dunes that didn’t match the sound he expected the surf would make, and his first glimpse of the water was met with searing white light he couldn’t rub out of his eyes, and not the sandcastles and sailboats he imagined. Maybe Gary Marshall thought about those unsuspecting families disintegrating on the beach and the black rain that fell down on them, their faces melting and oozing into grotesque masks as the sharks that should’ve been their only real fear that day morphed into glowing clumps that bobbed in the waves as the E and F notes hummed off into the distance overhead. Maybe Gary Marshall believed that if that day wasn’t considered a betrayal of integrity in any lasting way, if we could drop a bomb like that for no real reason and then shirk our responsibility for it, then he had to do it. He had to write one more poem; had to have the Fonz jump the shark.
Stephen J. West received his MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa and now lives in Morgantown, West Virginia where he teaches writing at West Virginia University.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: I love how Montaigne wanders around in his essays, and by the end, leads a reader to some surprising idea—no matter how estranged it is from where he began. With this essay l wanted to wander upon something like that by starting with one of my favorite pop culture references.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: Casio Sampletone SK-1.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m currently finishing a biography of an avatar called Crisis Shoes.
interviewed by Bill Wolak
At the age of eighty-three, Naoshi Koriyama has just released his first book of poems in Japanese. After publishing nine collections of poetry in English and three books of translations from Japanese into English, Mr. Koriyama has translated his own poetry into Japanese himself. Naoshi Koriyama’s poetry could be characterized as imagistic free verse that translates human experiences into approachable poems. His poems are brief, usually less than a page in length. His topics vary from nature–Wordsworth is one of his favorite English poets, to persona poems, such as one in which an artist father explains the meaning of his paintings of naked women to his daughter, to love poems of exquisite sensitivity and insight, to political poems condemning the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to depictions of everyday scenes of domestic turmoil and tranquility.
Naoshi Koriyama was born in 1926 in southern Japan on Kikai Island, Kagoshima Prefecture. He studied English language at Kagoshima Normal School, and English literature at the University of New Mexico and the State University of New York at Albany. He served for many years as professor of English at Toyo University and is now retired. He lives in Kanagawa, a suburb of Tokyo.
Bill Wolak and Naoshi Koriyama met in Tokyo on a sunny July afternoon in 2010 at The International House of Japan, which was formerly a mansion belonging to the Kyogoku Clan, feudal lords over what is now Kagawa Prefecture, and is now a private non-profit organization founded in 1952 to promote cultural exchange and intellectual cooperation, reminiscent of the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. During that meeting, the following interview was started, and it was completed during the following months.
Bill Wolak: How many languages do you speak?
Naoshi Koriyama: I’d say I speak three, Japanese, English, and my Amami Island language. I know just a little bit of French.
BW: You have been writing your poetry for a long time in English. When did you first start to learn English?
NK: I entered Kagoshima Normal School in southern Japan in April 1941. That was my first encounter with English. Initially, we had about four English classes a week in 1941. The war started in December, 1941, then English classes were slashed as the years went by. By 1945, there were no English classes at all. I got drafted in June, 1945, and was in the army for two months till the end of the war. I returned to school after the war and graduated from Kagoshima Normal School in 1947. I taught one year at a junior high school on Kikai Island in the Amami island chain. Then I got enrolled in the Okinawa Foreign Language School in Okinawa to learn English intensively from September1948 to March 1949. Later, I came over to America in a group of 52 students from the Ryukyu Islands, which include the Amami Islands, the Okinawa Islands, the Miyako Islands, and the Yaeyama Islands. I studied at the University of New Mexico for one year and then transferred to the New York State College for Teachers at Albany, where I majored in English and minored in Social Studies. In Albany I started to write poetry as advised by my English professor, Miss Vivian C. Hopkins. Ever since, I’ve been writing poetry.
BW: Why do you think your English professor in Albany advised you to write poetry in English back around 1952?
NK: I spent my freshman year at the University of New Mexico from 1950-51. When I came to the University of New Mexico in a group of 28 students from the Ryukyu Islands, which lie between mainland Japan and Taiwan, I didn’t feel too much of a culture shock there because I was with that group from the island areas. However, when I transferred to the New York State College for Teachers at Albany by myself in September 1951, I had difficulty adjusting myself to the new environment. Miss Vivian Hopkins must have thought writing poetry might alleviate my loneliness and feeling of inadequacy.
BW: You were born on Kikai-jima (Kikai Island) in the Amami chain of Islands, which has its own language and traditions. What was it like growing up on Kikai-jima?
NK: In our grade school years, we wore kimonos sometimes and Western-style pants and jackets at other times. We walked to school barefoot. The nearest grade school, about one and a half miles from my home, only had six grades, so for the 7th and 8th grades, I walked to another bigger school about four miles each way. At our hamlet on Kikai-jima, we had a festival on August 8 by the lunar calendar. During that festival the island people danced in a circle, like at a Bon festival dance of mainland Japan, where the people offer food and drink to the souls of their dead ancestors.
BW: How are the Amami languages different from Japanese?
NK: In general, it is said that the Amami languages are dialects of Japanese. The Amami languages have many old Japanese words which mainland Japanese people must have brought in ancient times. However, when we speak our island languages, no mainland Japanese can understand them. So, these are independent languages, rather than dialects of Japanese, I’d say. The Amami languages are closer to the language of Okinawa than to Japanese. There are a dozen islands in the Amami chain of islands. Like any other groups of islands in the world, the language of each island is quite different from that of other islands! That must be true for the Hawaiian Islands and the Philippine Islands, as well. Language is such an interesting cultural property, but now the island languages of the Amami Islands are fading away like many other indigenous languages around the world. When I was a schoolboy back around 1935, I used to speak the island language at home all the time, but now no schoolchildren can speak the island
language. I’ve read in the paper that around the world one indigenous language is dying out every two weeks.
BW: Did you have to learn Japanese like a foreign language, or was it like learning Spanish after you have studied French?
NK: When we were children on Kikai-jima, we always spoke the island language at home. We spoke no Japanese at all. At grade school we were told not to speak the island language. Anyway, we didn’t feel as if we were learning a new language. We knew we were learning our own country’s language, rather than a new language, perhaps because we knew we were Japanese and that we were learning our own language, even though the Japanese language was different from the language we spoke at home.
BW: Do you still get a chance to speak the Kikai-jima language?
NK: My wife is also from Kikai-jima, so we used to speak the island language very often. But now, since our children don’t understand it, we speak Japanese instead. Nevertheless, when I call my 85-year-old cousin on Kikai-jima, we speak the island language on the phone. When I visit Kikai-jima about once every three years, I try to speak the island language as much as I can in order to feel more at home on the island. The language of Kikai-jima is different from the languages of all the other islands of the Amami chain of islands, so I speak that island language. Rather complicated, isn’t it? I could understand someone from another island only if we both speak rather slowly.
BW: Who are the Japanese poets that you read for pleasure or that you admire?
NK: I’m sorry, I have to confess that I’m not much of a poetry reader. I seldom read Japanese poetry for pleasure. If I am asked to give the names of some of the poets whose poems I enjoyed reading and translating while working on the book of Japanese poetry which I co-edited and co-translated with Edward Lueders, Like Underground Water–The Poetry of Mid-Twentieth Century Japan, I would mention such names as Nishiwaki Junzaburo, Shimaoka Shin, Ibaragi Noriko, Shinkawa Kazue, and Tada Chimako. However, I do enjoy reading and translating classical Chinese poetry by such poets as Tu Fu, Li Bai, and Su Shi.
BW: You have had a long encounter with American and English poetry, both as a student and as a teacher. Are there any American or English poets that you enjoy?
NK: If I were asked to name only one poet I most enjoy in English literature, I’d say it’s William Wordsworth. I have enjoyed and still enjoy reading William Wordsworth. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read his “Tintern Abbey” poem and “Daffodils.” Of course, I also enjoy reading Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson. I also enjoy reading Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnets. His “Wreck of the Deutschland” is too difficult for me. In the Medieval Period of English literature, I enjoy reading Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” I once fooled around with his Middle English, trying to write a long narrative poem, “Chaucer Goes to Expo 70,” in Middle English! Among American poets, I’ve enjoyed reading many poems by Robinson Jeffers. His poem, “The Eye” is my favorite. In addition, I’ve enjoyed reading The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. I even translated the whole anthology into Japanese, but my translation remains unpublished, since I have been unable to find a publisher.
BW: Now let’s turn to your poetry. In general, your poetry could be characterized as imagistic free verse that translates human experiences into approachable poems. Would such a statement be an oversimplification of your style of writing poetry?
NK: Your characterizing of my poetry as “imagistic free verse that translates human experiences
into approachable poems” is very appropriate, I think. Years ago, when I once submitted a poem to some poetry magazine, the editor wrote, “Thank you for sending us your impressionistic poem,” on her rejection slip! So, you might add “impressionistic,” just before “imagistic free verse. . .” I never thought of characterizing my own poetry. Thank you for trying to characterize my poetry.
BW: Can you explain a little about your writing process? Where do you do your writing? Do you tend to write at any particular time of the day or night?
NK: Just like some other poets, I jot down any impression I get in my notebook, whenever I get one, say, while helping my wife bake bread, kneading dough, or looking at cherry blossoms through train windows, noticing a hibiscus flower open in our yard, looking at Venus brightly shining by the new moon, admiring the beauty of an attractive woman, and so on. Then, looking at the jottings, I type a rough draft of a poem on my word processor. I mostly use my word processor, which I like much better than the computer. Somehow I like the feel of my fingers on the keyboard of the word processor much better than that of the computer. I know word processors are no longer manufactured. But black ribbons are still on the market, which helps. I seem to be a step behind the technology of the times. I do my writing in my office at home, where it is quiet and I feel free, looking at the persimmon tree just outside the window from time to time. I don’t set any particular hours for writing. I write whenever an idea for a poem is fermenting in my mind.
BW: Do you tend to write your poems out on paper first, or do you type them on the word processor?
NK: I jot down any ideas on my notebook, but I don’t write poems on paper. I directly type them on my word processor.
BW: Do you revise your poems, or do you tend to write complete poems that need little revision?
NK: I revise my poems often. I remember reading in an essay that an American creative writing professor said, “The secret of good writing is rewriting.”
BW: What is the purpose of poetry?
NK: The purpose of poetry is creating something beautiful, something inspiring, something enduring in the universe. Deep at the bottom of my soul, I have an ardent prayer: “I wish I could write a single poem that would be enduring and could be read by some readers in future centuries.” I do believe that poetry is something that must arouse joy, instill wisdom, inspire hope, and generate encouragement in readers. I find no meaning in writing ambiguous, foolish poems.
BW: At the age of eighty-three you are publishing your first book in Japanese, a selection of your English poetry that you have translated into Japanese yourself. How has that book been received?
NK: Many poets to whom my publisher had sent complimentary copies wrote to me warm notes or letters. However, as far as I know at the present time, only one newspaper in the Amami Islands, The Nankai Nichi Nichi Newspaper, printed a book review of my first poetry book in Japanese, entitled “Shijinn no Inryoku” (The Poet’s Power of Attraction). I am hoping a few other newspapers may have printed reviews of my book that so far have escaped the attention of my publisher and me.
BW: Was it difficult for you to translate your English poems into Japanese?
NK: No, it wasn’t difficult at all to translate my own poems into Japanese. However, it’s
quite difficult to translate English poems by others into Japanese.
Lesley Wheeler and Chris Gavaler interview each other
Chris Gavaler’s second novel, School for Tricksters, was released in February by Southern Methodist University Press.
Lesley Wheeler’s second book of poetry, Heterotopia (July 2010), was selected for the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize by David Wojahn.
The two authors teach at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and have been married since 1993. They conducted this interview by email while in Wellington, New Zealand, where Wheeler is serving as a Fulbright Senior Scholar.
Lesley Wheeler: As I reread School for Tricksters, I find myself trying to remember any book or lesson in any class I ever had that treated indigenous American cultures or history. I was never taught about the U.S. Government Indian School system, for instance. Our college friend Scott Nicolay was doing a lot of independent research into the Lenape, I remember, after finding arrowheads in his New Jersey backyard, and he probably influenced our reading; I know you and I started to follow novelists Louise Erdrich and Leslie Marmon Silko when we were in our early twenties. You grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, probably a couple of hundred miles from the school in Carlisle where your new book is set. Did you know about what had happened there?
Chris Gavaler: I grew up completely ignorant of Native American history. I cringe at the memory of a group of white suburban dads leading their sons through “Indian Guides” activities, making construction paper headdresses and rubber tomahawks. I had cousins in Carlisle, so had visited the town a dozen times without ever hearing of the Indian School. It wasn’t until after college that I started studying Lenape history on my own, tracing forced migrations from New Jersey to Oklahoma. I remember staying up till sunrise at our kitchen table, tearing the uncut pages of an obscure missionary diary while you slept behind the bedroom door in our first apartment. Erdrich’s Love Medicine—a novel in stories and so influential to School for Tricksters in multiple ways—I read next to you in bed.
I think interrogating history—its accuracies and inaccuracies, its knowables and unknowables—is a central element of both our second books. Research for me mostly meant ordering Indian student files from D.C. and interlibrarying out-of-print books. I phone interviewed Jim Thorpe’s daughters in Oklahoma, and I made one visit to the Indian School campus—now an Army War College—with the kids while you were away at a conference. Research for you was something very different. Your “texts” were far more personal and immediate.
LW: Yes, and each came in multiple versions. My starting point was an oral library of stories remembered from my childhood—tales from my mother and her siblings, my grandmother, and other aunts, cousins, and family friends about Liverpool, England in the forties and fifties. I did re-interview some of those people by phone and in person. Although others had passed away by the time I wrote my way into the series that became Heterotopia. Growing up, I had found those anecdotes of my mother's girlhood incredibly compelling: as a baby she endured the Blitz and afterwards her city was in rubble, her parents barely able to keep their four children fed and warm. I grew up in Long Island and New Jersey in the 70s, eating Wonder Bread and watching “Gilligan's Island,” and it was so hard to comprehend how different a world my mother had lived in just two or three decades earlier. As I grew older and kept turning those stories over in my head, they kept gaining power and I kept coming up with new questions about them. In the end, though, I did a ton of book-work too, as well as visiting twenty-first century Liverpool to wander around the parks and museums my mother had described. I needed as many different perspectives as possible to reconstruct the necessary detail.
One danger of drawing on a more personal kind of history is that you're appropriating stories that belong to living people—people who very well might tell you off if you get it wrong. I've been pretty lucky in that. My mother, especially, seems to appreciate these poems, and she's told me that I captured the feeling of that time and place well. You, though, are not only writing about strangers, but you're crossing lines of race and gender. One of your main characters, Iva Miller Thorpe, was a white woman, and Sylvester Long was a young man of mixed race. All that boundary-crossing makes your novel intensely interesting but also scary. Many people take offense at the very idea of a middle-class white guy telling a story about racial passing in that brutal Indian school system. Why did you need to tell this particular story? What would be your response to people who say you shouldn't try?
CG: I sent drafts of my chapters about Ivy to her daughters, who seemed delighted that I was writing about their mother instead of their father. But I know that the Ivy I created—while tightly based on the available facts—is not and could never be the real Ivy. That’s true of all historical characters, but the novel’s tensions between fact and fiction are especially strong. I was drawn to her and Sylvester Long because they were already invented characters. They invented themselves. They falsified forms and constructed whole lives in order to fake their way into the School. I’m an outsider to Native American experience, and so I’m depicting Carlisle through the perspective of two other outsiders. My boundary-crossing (writing as a woman, writing as the son of ex-slaves) echoes the boundaries that Ivy and Sylvester crossed themselves. It is scary. I have cringed at white authors who appropriate similar identity positions. But I feel that “middle-class white guys” need to address and struggle with exactly these sorts of issues. Avoiding race allows white writers and readers to fall into the illusion that “white” is the norm, the default mode of experience.
Heterotopia tackles a different but equally intriguing challenge. Where I’m going far from home for my subject matter, you delve deep into the personal, exposing yourself and your extended family on the page. How do you negotiate the complexities of writing so autobiographically? What are the emotional and aesthetic dangers and rewards?
LW: You know, I don't think of Heterotopia as an autobiographical book at all. My first collection, Heathen, is full of personal details and experiences, but by the time that book came out (2009) there was an awful lot of artifice between any of the finished poems and their originating moments. I sometimes feel when I finish reading a book of poems by another writer that I've come to know that person intimately. I love that sense of connection—in some fundamental way it's the main thing I want from any piece of art—but I do think it's at least partly illusory.
I had wanted to tell the stories in Heterotopia for a long time but couldn't make them work until I figured out how to acknowledge my own mediating role, the gap between what happened and my poems. So I'm definitely in there but not, I think, in focus. These are poems about other people. I did identify deeply, though, with one of the main characters in the book: my version of my mother as a girl and young woman is partly a projection of what I might have felt in her position. I'm sure I became myself, though, partly by watching and imitating her, so in some ways I'm a projection of her, right? And the bookish girl is a type that I have had a ton of literary experience with as a reader (Jane Eyre, Jo Alcott, Meg Murray, Lauren Olamina, a thousand others), so I probably drew on other imaginings of similar characters, too.
What I'm saying here is both a confirmation of your earlier point and a refutation of it. That is, yes, identity is performance; I'm self-conscious enough to think about that constantly out on the streets as well as in the cave of a poem. At the same time, though, all writing seems autobiographical to me. Where are you in School for Tricksters?
CG: I think of autobiography as a genre of fiction: an author’s self-conscious construction of remembered (and so inevitably distorted) experience. Writing just isn’t a medium for delivering “truth,” not in any objective sense. The most you can do is draw attention to the idiosyncrasies and inaccuracies. But then I also think the opposite is true: most fiction is secretly autobiographical. A fiction writer’s subjects and their subtexts reveal a lot about that writer, usually unintentionally, and especially when patterns emerge. And School for Tricksters does fall into a pattern for me. I seem to be drawn to stories about “fakes.” I’m not sure why that is or what exactly about myself I’m exposing. At a basic level, to me fakes are a metaphor for fiction writing. As an author, I craft highly complex lies, and I prefer stories that acknowledge that fact rather than ones that conceal it. If writing is a con game, I want my readers to be in on the scam.
In School of Tricksters, Sylvester Long is literally a con man. After graduating from Carlisle, he published a best-selling an “autobiography” about his childhood on the plains hunting the last of the buffalo (he actually grew up in Winston-Salem, NC). At one point he describes how his tribe (he was no longer a “Cherokee” but a “Blackfoot” now) disapproves of liars. He seems to be winking at the reader, daring us to see through his game. It’s rarely that extreme, but I think all writing plays that same game.
“Forged,” the first poem in Heterotopia, uses a similar metaphor of forgery, drawing the reader’s attention to ways in which the poem, and by extension the whole book, cannot achieve its surface goal of recreating your mother’s Liverpool. Your version is “purified / of reeking like a fairy tale / or a film set” and filled with “ardent lies” that still strive to create a “history” that’s somehow “true.” I recall reading an earlier draft of that poem when it was titled “Remembering my Mother’s Childhood,” which evoked the same paradox. The poems of Heterotopia have gone through a long process of writing and publishing before evolving into this final version of the book. Could you describe some of that process and how you feel about those evolutions?
LW: I guess revising is all about figuring out who your readers are. An earlier version of this manuscript was called She Doesn't Remember the Beatles and the most narrative poems were in the front of the book. The contest judge, David Wojahn, and my editor, Peter Covino, persuaded me to adopt the more theoretical-sounding title Heterotopia and to move the most challenging poems forward. I found that advice scary but also exhilarating because it authorized me to present an intellectual book. It might seem funny that as an English professor I was afraid of seeming too thoughtful, but I was. I was a relentlessly, alienatingly brainy kid and I've been in flight from that my whole adult life. This book feels like a reconciliation of past and present, feeling and mind. Oh, that sounds very pretentious, but the experience was still liberating.
There's also a mundane consideration involved: Peter wisely pointed out that variations on the word "memory" were too frequent in the final manuscript, and that all poems are about remembering, really. That's a big part of how "Remembering My Mother's Childhood" became "Forged." I just needed to widen the vocabulary. This happens when a clutch of poems becomes a book. Put together, individual pieces illuminate each other, but they also make your writerly tics more visible, and one has to revise with the company of other poems in mind.
This seems like a good moment to ask you about your project's evolution from a sequence of stories into a novel.
CG: Originally I thought I was going to write a novel about Jim Thorpe and Marianne Moore (she taught Thorpe at Carlisle during his Olympic fame and just before her own poetry career took off), but they became supporting characters after I discovered Ivy and Sylvester. I began writing back in 2002, plotted the whole book, drafted two chapters, and stopped cold when I realized I was killing the material. I paused for a year while writing unrelated short stories, and I when I came back to my Carlisle research, it was suddenly very clear that the book wanted to be a story sequence. Something about that kind of fragmentation, leaving and reentering the larger narrative at different moments and vantages, seems essential to representing the fragmented identities of my two protagonists. It couldn’t be a traditional novel with a single, unified voice. The first draft evolved into my MFA thesis at the University of Virginia, and that version was perhaps a bit too fragmented (my second faculty reader said it “enraged” him, though I think he was suffering from some of his own issues). The next few rounds of revisions tightened the narrative threads and eased the reader’s movements in and out of the characters’ lives. My editor at SMU and I debated a long while about whether to call the final product a “novel” or a “novel in stories.” Both terms are accurate, but we settled on the second because she was afraid of reviewers wasting valuable column space harping about form. The novel in stories is one I particularly like because it allows me to write in smaller, semi-independent units while still constructing a larger arc. The project I’m beginning now seems to be sliding into the same approach.
With Heterotopia behind you, what are your next writing plans?
LW: When I finished the first full draft of that book, I became the head of my English department and writing time became much more compressed and desperate. I became obsessed with the idea of writing a novel-in-verse—a better idea than it sounds, since it's easier to keep writing when you have a thread to come back to. What I came up with was a fantasy-inspired novella in terza rima, beginning with a woman who hears voices. It's really weird and I'm not sure where its natural home is. From there I began to write a lot more poems about listening, reception, and communication, some of them science fiction-y or supernatural and others that are lyric in a more familiar way. I'm calling the manuscript in progress Signal to Noise. I have more than enough pages of verse, especially if I include the terza rima sequence, but it definitely needs more time for shaping and settling (somewhere between six and eighteen months, I'd guess, though it's hard to say).
I'm balancing creative and scholarly projects for as long as I can manage both, and Signal to Noise definitely bridges my recent scholarly projects: my 2008 book concerns poetic voice and my new work involves community. You may have noticed that we're currently in New Zealand. I was lucky enough to win a spot as a Fulbright Senior Scholar at Victoria University in Wellington, researching poetry networks here. I'm writing this answer to your question less than two weeks after the devastating Christchurch earthquake of February 2011, and I've been simultaneously sorting through messages from home about some unexpected family disasters. I can see aspects of both filtering into my newest poems.
What are you writing and/or planning to write, over there on your laptop on the other side of the living room?
CG: When you were head of our English department (and so my boss), you sent me a couple of honors students searching for a professor to teach a seminar on superheroes. The course, now a regular department offering, gave me license to dive into comic book research. The result is a series of scholarly articles with ambitions of becoming a book, a screenplay I seriously doubt will ever become a movie, and most currently a swirl of fiction ideas that are growing from random short stories to a fully plotted novel outline (working title: The Patron Saint of Superheroes). Tomorrow after you drop off our son at his school and start your hike to campus, and after I drop off our daughter at her school and return to our frigid but peacefully empty house, this laptop and I will be tapping away on that. And looking forward to your returning with print-outs of your latest poem drafts for me to read.
Dean King Interviews Charles Shields
Author Dean King interviewed biographer Charles Shields before a live audience during the concluding session of the 2010 James River Writers Conference in Richmond, VA. With the generous assistance of James River Writers, King, and Shields, we present a recording of the complete interview for your enjoyment.
Charles J. Shields is the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Holt, 2006), which was a New York Times bestseller, and recently completed And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life slated for release in November (Holt). He is vice-president of Biographers International Organization, and blogs about his experiences as Vonnegut’s biographer at http://www.writingkurtvonnegut.com
Dean King is a writer of narrative nonfiction, including most recently Unbound: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival (Little, Brown, 2010), and biographer (Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed, 2000). He crossed the Sahara on camels and in Land Rovers while researching his national-bestseller Skeletons on the Zahara (2004), which was the subject of a History Chanel documentary and is being developed as a feautre film in London, and he trekked the Long March trail in the remote Snowy Mountains of Western China for Unbound. King’s writing has appeared in Esquire, Men’s Journal, Outside, and the New York Times. He is a co-founder of the James River Writers in Richmond, Virginia.
The Wilding, by Benjamin Percy
Reviewed by Sharon Harrigan
I spent my childhood in a big city and most of my adulthood in a bigger one. I never went hunting or even held a gun. So if you had told me that a work of fiction could make me want to shoot, I wouldn’t have believed you. But that was before I read The Wilding.
This lyrical fable about the impact of man on nature and nature on man is so skillful at describing the primal pleasures of hunting that the reader experiences the adrenaline rush of Graham—a scrawny, asthmatic, twelve year old—when his grandfather gives him a brand-new .30-.30 lever-action rifle. Graham “listens eagerly and stares with an enchanted expression on his face, as if the rifle were a long shapely leg capped by a red high heel.” Holding the gun gives him “immediate confidence.” Even though he is pre-pubescent, he understands the thrill when his grandfather says, “This will penetrate like there’s no tomorrow.” Justin, Graham’s father, remembers his first time: “the power, the lurking pleasure of the cold metal fitting into his warm hand.”
The relationship of these three male characters—Paul, the grandfather; Justin, the father; and Graham—forms the throbbing heart of the book. The prologue begins with a haunting scene from when Justin was twelve. His father handed him a gun, showed him a bear trapped in barbed wire, and said, “I want you to kill it,” as if “killing was throwing a knuckleball or fixing a carburetor.”
At the start of the story, thirty years have passed since that incident, but “little [had] changed between Justin and his father, even as Oregon changed all around them.” Justin still cows to Paul, a domineering hulk of man who personifies the negative extremes of masculinity. He is “a force of nature, moving through life with reckless abandon.” “The low growl of his voice” is “like a distant shout of thunder.”Justin is a high school teacher who used to enjoy his job, but “the work begins to rub away at your heart.” The low pay, the endless piles of paper, the exhaustion, make him feel “as if nothing he says or does matters.” His wife chastises him for not grilling steaks, lifting weights, screaming at football games, and taking a wrench to leaky faucets. She calls him “tame.”
Graham is “the type of boy who . . . makes his bed every morning . . . and never begs for candy stacked next to the cash register.” He favors chinos to jeans and tows the line, even though Justin encourages him to “live more adventurously” because “boys are supposed to do horrible things. It’s in their nature.”
Most of the action takes place over a weekend, when these three take a hunting trip to Echo Canyon, days before a construction crew will start turning it into a golf resort. At the end of this incredible ride of a weekend—full of danger and triumph and grief and (ultimately) some satisfying revenge and poetic justice—all three men (and they are men at the end) are transformed by a bear that their guidebook says is not supposed to exist.
Woven into this trio are the stories of Justin’s wife and the man who stalks her. Karen “wonders why so many men go through life thinking of themselves as predator and women as prey,” yet also enjoys the animal desire she provokes. Brian, a locksmith and a veteran from the Iraq War, meets Karen for the first time when she accidentally locks herself out of the house.
Brian’s story provides some of the most comic elements of the book (when strangers sight him in the woods and mistake him for Big Foot). Bobby, the developer, also lightens this dark story when he is chased by an owl and his false teeth fall out. Bobby has “a deep set of wrinkles, like parentheses that imply he always has something hidden behind what he is saying.”
The writing is subtle and poetic, leavening the tense action with controlled and metaphoric language, as alive as the blood throbbing through our veins. The school secretary wears lipstick that “makes her mouth appear like a bleeding gash.” Karen’s lips and teeth remind Brian “of bones seen through a wound.” The landscape is made up of “plateaus and buttes stacked up like slabs of meat,” and trees “scabbed over with bark the color of dried blood.”
The Wilding manages a tricky balancing act. It tackles timely subject matter on a grand scale—the way real estate development can destroy the wilderness, war can ravage the minds and hearts of soldiers, white-collar jobs can stifle our connection to nature, greed can form unlikely alliances, and stereotypical gender expectations can damage marriages—but it is never preachy. It is filled with the threat of danger but doesn’t feel like a violent book.
Although my desire to shoot a gun may not last long, I predict this book will. You can’t read it without having your worldview transformed as much as the three men who went hunting in the canyon.
Sharon Harrigan's work has appeared in Pearl, The Rumpus, and Slice magazine. She has work forthcoming in Apercu and Mid-American Review and is a columnist and features writer for Albemarle Family Magazine. She has a B.A. from Columbia University and is an MFA candidate at Pacific University
Sudden Flash Youth: 65 Short-Short Stories, edited by Christine Perkins-Hazuka, Tom Hazuka, and Mark Budman
(Persea Books, June 2011)
Reviewed by Sharon Harrigan
The editors of this new anthology are experts in the exponentially expanding art of flash. Mark Budman is the publisher of Vestal Review, one of the best-known literary journals of its kind, and Tom Hazuka has co-edited four anthologies of short fiction.
The 65 authors in this collection—from well-known writers to those making their debut—interpret the short-short form and the coming-of-age theme in almost 65 different ways. All of the stories are short (less than 1,000 words), but some are as long as three and a half pages, and others run only half a page. Raphael Dagold’s “The Two Rats and the BB Gun” is of the shortest variety; an homage to Aesop’s Fables, it even includes a moral at the end. Steve Almond’s “Stop”—one of my favorites—is also a scant half page and is as distilled as a prose poem. Its title refers to the rest stop where “you” (a teenager girl) work the register at Roy Rogers. Stop is also a command. The title balances perfectly with the last word of the story, its opposite: persist. The girl at Roy Rogers doesn’t stop smiling, remembering, being kind and polite, doing her job. She doesn’t stop her life just because her best friend died in an accident down the road. She persists in hoping: “this could be love, this clean violence, the meaty shavings and steel beneath.”
It is difficult to effect a transformation in a couple of pages, but most of the stories do, and none better than Alice Walker’s “Flowers.” A little girl skips from hen house to pig pen, thinking “the days had never been as beautiful as these.” In the woods she stumbles onto a dead man, stepping “smack into his eyes.” Then she sees “the rotted remains of a noose” and “the summer was over.” This is a fine example of a complete story arc in compact form.
Some of the stories end with a punch line. For instance, Stuart Dybek’s “Confession” recounts the young narrator’s habit of saving his “deadly sins for last,” after the priest has fallen asleep from the excruciating monotony of the boy’s catalog of petty indiscretions. For penance, the priest says, “Go in peace, my son, I’m suffering enough today for both of us.”
The funniest story is Ron Carlson’s “Homeschool Insider: The Fighting Pterodactyls.” It is a satire about home-schooled children desperately trying to create a real-school experience—with teams, mascots (the fighting pterodactyls), and even detention (not being able to leave the kitchen table all day). What makes it so fresh is its earnest good humor and childlike language. Who can resist a narrator who talks like this? “I asked Joylene what our school colors were and she said, green and green, after our Plymouth and the color of our fridge, which is avocado, another spelling word.” At the homeschool prom, they “just turned on American Idol and Joylene cried quietly for a while which was kind of like the prom anyway.”
Though small in stature, many of the stories are big in theme. In Julia Alvarez’s “Snow,” the narrator, a recent immigrant from Cuba, sees “a flurry” of “dusty fallout that would kill us.” Elizabeth Erlich’s “Friday Night” follows a girl from the suburbs who spends the night with a friend in Manhattan shortly after the World Trade Center attack, passing posters labeled “missing” and “hero.” It is “the most important night of [her] life so far” because she loses her innocence. She also loses something from her pocket and the story ends: “please find all the missing people and my phone.” The intersection of these two losses explodes the story with meaning.
A few of the stories were previously published in magazines or other collections, and at least one is an excerpt from a published novel. But most were written for this anthology and are not available elsewhere. The Ron Carlson story is in that category, and its delightful wit and heart are worth the price of the book.
Sharon Harrigan's work has appeared in Pearl, The Rumpus, and Slice magazine. She has work forthcoming in Apercu and Mid-American Review and is a columnist and features writer for Albemarle Family Magazine. She has a B.A. from Columbia University and is an MFA candidate at Pacific University
Anti-Twitter: 150 50-Word Stories, by Harold Jaffe
(Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2010)
Reviewed by Caleb Powell
Harold Jaffe’s literary vision may not be unleashed by psychotropic drugs, but his prose suggests a hypothetical “David Markson on LSD.” He challenges the reader to connect previously undiscovered synapses, reminiscent of Markson’s brilliant collage masterpieces, yet from a completely different aesthetic, one that documents cultures in chaos. The ramifications are unsettling. Jaffe is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, anthologized in Best American Short Stories, and the author of fifteen books, including Jesus Coyote and 15 Serial Killers: Docufictions. His latest, Anti-Twitter: 150 50-Word Stories, uses “Anti-Tweets” to blend the journalist’s talent for headline with the poet’s lyricism, conveying the violence, indifference, absurdity, narcissism, and pain inflicted by the machine of uncontrolled authority. The central trope asks: How can society find the horrific and bizarre so damned entertaining? When we are titillated we should be appalled, and this should cause discomfort.
He writes with irony: “Sotheby’s announced plans to auction the largest privately owned collection of torture devices on record…Proceeds will go to Amnesty International.” With eloquence: “Naked, she lies on her back in a mangrove swamp in the jungle denseness.” He highlights the neo-sexual: “Machines provide exactly what you need.” And comic: “A Polish politician has criticized a zoo for acquiring a ‘gay’ elephant.” Even the titles of the Anti-Tweets incite, as shown with “Cows & Republicans.” Jaffe touches the macabre, brutal, and tragic: “A man who beheaded a fellow bus passenger pleaded not guilty on the grounds that God had instructed him to kill.” And: “Family members confessed to the murder, accusing the boy of collaborating with Israel.” In “Anorexic” he confronts one of the most despicable advertisements ever: “The designer who portrayed AIDS sufferers and Death Row inmates to sell overpriced Benetton clothing is back…” And in a poignant musing, he hones in, with bold italics, on Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide in Portugal rather than be deported to the hands of Nazi authorities in occupied France: “(Benjamin)…Inhabited that place at which weakness and genius coincide.”
Anti-Twitter evokes emptiness or outrage with bombastic, unapologetic, and often subversive iconoclasm. Jaffe’s implied positions are not always congruent with my own nihilism and cynicism, his certainties and passions may seem reckless, but there lies underneath a controlling mechanism. He simultaneously illuminates and rails against the proverbial darkness, yet succeeds in presenting coherent arguments. A powerful and worthwhile read.
Stephen Millner, past president of Artists of Yardley, graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in Fine Arts, studying under photographers Walker Evans and John T. Hill. Other influences at Yale included Jack Tworkov (abstract expressionist), Vincent Scully (art history), and cultural icon Buckminster Fuller. Millner’s current artistic output centers on photography and mixed media works. His mixed media pieces combine original photographs with printed ephemera and acrylic paint. Millner has exhibited in many area galleries. Millner grew up in Trenton, NJ and now lives in Yardley, PA with his wife Marie Kane, the 2006 Bucks County (PA) Poet Laureate.