Welcome to Issue No. 71 of Prime Number
A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose
Letter from the Editor
Submissions for the 2015 Prime Number Awards have just closed and judges are beginning their work of selecting our winners. We'll have news about winners and finalists this summer, and we'll publish the winners this fall. In the meantime: Go here for information about our terrific judges and full contest guidelines.
Also, we wanted to make sure you knew that Volume 4 from our Editors' Selection series is available. It includes the first place winners from last year's contest, plus great stories, essays, and poems from our 4th year of publication. Order Editors' Selections Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4, shipping now from Press 53.
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Issue 71, April-June 2015
Official Ship's Stationery by Jeffery Hess
Followed by Q&A
While stripping sheet metal from the aft berthing compartment aboard the mothballed USS Iowa, a Fleet Reserve worker found a letter that had apparently fallen behind a sailor’s locker at some point in the past many years. The bottom corner of the envelope was tan with age or perhaps moisture, but everything else was intact. Official ship’s stationery with the blue outline of the USS Iowa imprinted there, stamped, and ready to go. The shipyard worker couldn’t remember how long it had been since he’d seen an actual letter, let alone wrote or read one. It was like a message in a bottle, except this had a specific name on it—a woman’s name. Curiosity tugged at the guy and he looked over his shoulder. No one was around. One side of the envelope’s flap was loose already, begging to be ripped open the rest of the way. He turned it over and read the woman’s address. Instead of opening the letter, the shipyard worker licked the loose flap and took it to the mailbox at the end of the pier. His arm shook as he dropped it in. He didn’t get many opportunities to make someone’s day. And now, because of him, somewhere very soon someone would get a surprise.
The knock at the door caught Charlie Oliver mid-sip and startled him. Beer spilled down his jaw and dampened the skin beneath the collar of his white t-shirt.
They didn’t get many visitors in the course of a month. Solicitors, generally.
He muted the TV. Francine was most likely on the opposite side of the house. They’d grown into the habit of passing their days with little interaction since the kids had left the nest.
The swelling in Charlie’s joints was down a bit, and his legs were less restless than usual. Pain-free days were rare, and usually temporary, and so each of his four prescriptions was in arm’s reach, the orange bottles arranged on a tray table. Two brands of pain pills made him hungry, so the doctor prescribed appetite suppressants, which made him jittery and inconsistent, so the doctor gave him mood stabilizers, which he didn’t like because they took the lead out of his pencil. He hadn’t taken any of them in months, but kept filling prescriptions and stashed them in the bathroom in case he ever wanted to take them all at once. He considers doing so at least once every day.
The knock came again and Charlie knew he’d have to get up. Doing so was the last thing he wanted. His chair was surrounded by everything he needed to survive another day. He read biographies. Had Bogart’s on the side table now, beside the banker’s lamp with its cracked shade. On another tray table, one Tupperware container held mixed nuts, another stored chocolate chips. Between them was a pimento loaf sandwich he was saving to eat until Judge Judy came on. At his feet sat a cooler of beer. He had the newspaper in his lap, the remote control balanced on the arm of the chair, and a red pillow embroidered with a white cat behind his head. He wasn’t big on the cat, but no other pillow in the house was as perfectly suited to the task.
This was his refuge. On and around the television was everything the kids had ever made or given him over the years. His first-born’s handprint in plaster of Paris. How little her hand had been. Hard to believe she’d grown into such a seacow. His son’s high school wrestling trophies. Hard to imagine that peacenik beating up anyone. A mug with his other daughter’s picture as a peewee cheerleader—chubby then, and with buck teeth taking up as much room as her pompoms. And in addition to the ties, robes, canes, and electronic gizmos that remained in his closet or in drawers, the kids also gave him a dozen figurines of monkeys reading books. And every Christmas, they got him a Snow Baby from Hallmark, which he kept in a curio along the wall to his left.
He had never been conventionally close to his kids. They showed their love with these trinkets and Charlie cherished every item. He was never what people might call warm, but he showed his love by giving them three hots and a cot under his roof, braces to straighten their teeth, new clothes every school year, and doctor’s visits every time one of them was feeling poorly. They'd each grown up with televisions in their rooms, mainly because he didn’t want them messing with his set, especially since he was in front of it most of every day. He couldn’t stomach the violence in cartoons and video games. And they never cared to watch the news or black and white movies the way he did. He had a grandkid now he hadn’t yet met, and he wondered if he’d ever receive stuff from him to add to his prized collection.
What was missing was any reminder of his life before the injuries. Nothing from his time in the Navy. The only thing that suggested he had once been something other than the half-busted-down father of three was his cane.
The cane had an eight-ball for a handle. The cane itself was made of a bull’s penis. Francine had given it to him on his first birthday after the explosion. She’d said it was better than the three-dollar cane he’d gotten at Walgreens, not because it had cost a hundred dollars, but because it was made of bull penis. One long one, stretched, sterilized, and shellacked. “The salesman told me how men brag about restored virility after using these things. The handle was my idea, of course.”
Charlie had blinked once and looked at Francine. “I told you, my virility will be restored once I’m healed.” He’d held the cane at arm’s length. “Is this thing even sturdy enough to support me?”
Francine had upended the can to show him the rubber foot at the end. “A steel rod runs from this end to the other.” She’d smiled then and handed it back to Charlie. “Ouch, right?”
The eight ball was a nod to the pre-injury days when he won pool tournaments. The money he’d earned with a cue was the reason he got kicked out of high school sports. He’d hated that cane when he got it, but decided to keep it because the roundness of the handle felt good in his hand as he labored to walk. Over the past twenty years, the form of it was no longer round, but rather the shape of his palm. Or perhaps the bones in his hand had malformed to the ball, but either way, it was like a joint in a socket and the union allowed him power and comfort more consistently than any other appendage.
Another knock on the door in three distinct raps.
He reached for the cane now. The eight ball was scratched in places, but held a uniform shine. The effort of retrieving it made him grunt with pain and resentment. Fucking Francine. If she hadn’t cheated on him, he’d never have needed the damn thing.
With the next round of knocking, three raps preceded two pounds from the side of a fist that vibrated the room. Charlie was out of his chair. He squeezed the ball of his cane and felt the surge of power up his arm. He placed all his weight on one foot and stepped cautiously toward the door with the other. He was thin, barely in his fifties, but due to crushed bones and orthopedic hardware he moved like a man two decades older.
In the months and years following the injuries, he knew something was wrong—felt things weren’t right in his ribs and with his back—but had accepted the pain as penance.
These days, the doctors tell him the multiple fractures and crushed pelvis didn’t heal properly, that his bones and vertebrae were as porous as a loofah. The metal parts were overdue to be replaced.
Charlie opened the door to see Casey, their mail carrier. She was a sturdy woman with gray shorts tight enough to accentuate her swollen camel toe. Charlie could hardly look away.
“Hey Mister Oliver,” she said.
She wasn’t the best-looking woman in the world—a lanky chick with kinky orange hair—but that honey pot was fat and calling him. Things in the bedroom with Francine had dwindled down to nothing but perfunctory stuff on birthdays and anniversaries. He was lucky to tug one out in the shower every once in a while, more out of necessity than desire. The beer and the pain pills were a powerful influence in that regard. “What do you want?” he said.
Casey usually left their mail in the box. In all her years on this route, she’d had only one package from e-Bay for them, and a letter from the IRS that had to be signed for. On both occasions, the missus had handled it. Casey had never really talked to him before. “Uh,” Casey said, waving the letter, “I’ve got this, but there’s nineteen cents postage due.”
“I’m not paying for something I don’t want.”
“It’s addressed to your wife.”
Charlie grabbed the envelope out of Casey’s hand and looked at the familiar blue outline of the USS Iowa imprinted on ship’s stationery, his wife’s name in handwriting he didn’t recognize. It was all that was necessary for Charlie. A high-resolution photo wouldn’t make things any clearer. The distinct curves of a battleship are unduplicated anywhere else—he sees her wooden decks and all three turrets intact, though the ship had been decommissioned for nearly twenty years. Almost as long as Charlie himself. He looked at the return address: “GM2 Tony Swanson.”
“That stamp looks pretty old,” Casey said. “I’m no expert, but I showed it to Aaron, this guy in our office. He collects stamps and knows everyone since the First World War. He says, with the eagle on it and all, it’s from the 1980s. Actually, he said from 1988 to ‘91, because they raised the price then.”
Charlie had tucked all thought about that period of his life into the upper cupboards of his mind. Now proof of that time was in his hands, in Navy blue ink. Charlie dropped the unopened letter and stumbled backward. His cane slipped from his grasp as he backpedaled into the sofa table, knocking over the seashell lamp they'd gotten on Sanibel Island during their honeymoon. The lamp crashed when it hit the floor. Charlie staggered to the side, took a few more backward steps, then sank into his recliner.
Francine spent her days outside in the garden quietly working the earth. She could have sat inside with Charlie and drank, but she’d never liked beer and, as far as she could remember, she hadn’t enjoyed his company. She ran inside when she heard the squeak of table legs across the floor and something big crash.
“What happened?” she said, pulling off her work gloves on her way through the kitchen and tossing her wicker hat onto the couch as she entered the living room. The front door was open and she crossed herself, said, “Dear God, we’re being robbed.” Charlie slumped in his recliner, his feet out wide, his cane on the floor and the sofa table pushed back. “Charlie!” she cried out.
Casey startled her by saying, “He just got white-faced and kind of stumbled backward to that chair. Like a zombie on rewind.”
“He bumped into the table there pretty hard, but it didn’t look like it hurt much. He landed in that chair and ain’t moved since.”
Francine looked at the lamp lying in two distinct halves. “Well, that thing is beyond repair.”
“Is he going to be okay?” Casey asked.
“I’m sure he’s fine. Charlie, you’re okay, right?”
He didn’t answer. He just sat there.
Francine looked at him. She imagined that she would not be surprised when, some day in the not-too-distant future, she finds him dead of a heart attack or stroke, sitting in front of the TV with a beer can spilled in his lap. She knows he will look very much like he looks right now: pale, mouth open, spittle in rivers down his jowls, his eyes rolled back in his head, his neck at a torturous angle. Francine settled up with Casey from change in the bottom of her purse. She then looked at the envelope for the first time.
Charlie and Tony Swanson had been two of the best gunner’s mates stationed aboard the USS Iowa. They both worked in Turret One and spent time together off the ship. They lifted weights. Drank. Played pool. Tony never beat Charlie at pool, but he came close, often. His game was so good it challenged Charlie, pushed him to be creative. Made him sweat. As much as this pissed Charlie off, all he’d ever say to Tony was, “You gave me a good run for my money.”
Out at sea one day, Charlie heard the news second-hand from a boatswains mate who had heard that somebody’s wife had seen Francine and his good buddy, Tony, out together. This woman thought they were a couple, according to the boatswains mate, especially when she’d seen them kiss. The news had almost killed Charlie.
He coped with the pain of the news by trudging down the ladders and slamming open the door to the aft berthing compartment. He skulked through three aisles of racks before he got to Tony’s.
“Hey,” Tony said from the other end of the aisle. Tony had just folded a letter he’d written. He looked up at Charlie as he licked the envelope and pressed it closed. “What’s going on, Charlie?” Tony laid the envelope writing-side down and slid it under his pillow, as if to prevent Charlie from seeing his own address, his wife’s name.
Bunks were stacked three high on each side of an aisle barely wider than shoulder width. Charlie didn’t speak, even as he walked down the aisle and got close enough to Tony. Instead, he threw an elbow into Tony’s jaw.
Tony covered his head with his arms, but didn’t defend himself, and there was nowhere to run.
Charlie stopped pounding Tony’s skull when he heard the signal for gunnery exercises ring over the shipboard announcing system. “This isn’t over, asshole.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Tony said. “You’ve got this all wrong.”
It was all Charlie could do to hold down the bile jetting up his esophagus.
When they’d first arrived in Norfolk, Francine and Charlie didn’t know many people in town. Charlie had made friends with Tony and had asked if he’d watch over her while Charlie was stuck on the ship every fourth day pulling overnight duty.
Every fourth day, Tony would check in over the phone, at first. Then he began coming over. Tony had a motorcycle he’d zip around town on. They both liked movies, and one night before Christmas they’d ridden into town to see Dangerous Liaisons. It was cold that night, but she’d wrapped her arms around his waist and held on. It was the most thrilling night of her life. Tony had slept on the couch that night and in the morning they read the newspaper and ate bagels. The vibration between her thighs wasn’t only from the motorcycle. She and Charlie had been high school sweethearts and were still newlyweds and she loved him, but nothing he did had gotten her revved up like being with Tony.
But until the night before Tony and Charlie were due to ship out, Francine had never even kissed Tony.
Three hours after the fight, while performing routine firing exercises, an explosion in Turret Two rocked the USS Iowa with a three thousand degree fireball that ripped through the ship’s reinforced steel doors and bulkheads as though they were made of paper. Deadly fumes exploded downward, filling the ship’s interior. Amid the fire, smoke, and bitter gas, Charlie and the other gunners mates from Turret One rushed to provide damage control and first aid. None of the sailors were prepared and hoses weren’t connected as if a fire was the last thing that could ever happen there. Charlie passed the corpses of dead men bent in prayer. It was like they knew they were about to die, like they felt it coming. And he wondered briefly, when his time came, if he would see the end coming. Would he feel it shaking the deck beneath his feet like an enemy attack?
Damage Control Central cut power to the section surrounding Turret Two. The interior of the ship would have been black if not for the blinding sunlight flooding in through the opening that the explosion had blown through the hull. Along with that light, water rushed in and they needed to secure the hatches before the space flooded completely.
Charlie had blocked out the smells of vomit and burnt flesh and ignored the anguished faces of the bodies he stepped over to get to the service hatch above an alcove that was filling up fast. As he went to lower the hatch, he heard voices. Two heads screamed up at him from the surface. The voices were almost lost amongst the barking of orders in the chaos behind him, but he focused on the two of them. The water was rising. He decided, though it happened so fast he didn’t even feel himself decide, that he had time to save only one of them.
He was right handed, but he reached down with his left to save the heavier man on that side of the hatch. The other guy was Tony.
Reading the letter's return address took Francine back. She’d been pretty hot stuff in her twenties, before the kids, before the vagaries of time and neglect and more time and more neglect, to the point that she resigned herself to a marriage that was barely verbal. It was fine with her at first. The man who had made her thighs tingle had died on the ship that day when she was still young and pretty, and though she missed him every day she felt in her heart that a near-loveless marriage was better than leaving Charlie alone.
In the beginning, she’d had three weeks to mourn while Charlie convalesced at the Roosevelt Roads Naval Hospital. When he came home from the Navy hospital, Francine had been so worried about his injuries that she’d catered to him. She got to the point where she could compartmentalize the anguish of losing Tony and only take it out and cry during private times in the shower.
The closest she’d ever gotten to shaking the grief was the first time she got pregnant. With one emotion dulled, she began resenting Charlie for being the one she ended up with. For the past twenty years, as she lay untouched in their bed, she thought of the man who hadn’t come home from that cruise. They should be together. She should be smelling his flatulence and morning breath, not her dirty old husband’s.
Francine ripped open the letter and read Tony’s words.
19 APRIL 1989
I suck at these things, but this is an important ocassion. I mean, riding with you and everything is really cool (especially the riding) but I’ve been thinking about you, and us. Charlie’s a great guy. You know? When we get back things have to be different. But like they used to be when we were all on the beach, laughing at the drunks. We can go back to that, right? Nobody knows the future.
Francine cried. She cried for the loss of her tormented love and for the years she’d wasted resenting Charlie as a result all the wrongheaded resentment of him being the one to come home to collect disability and suffer in pain most of every day all those years. She looked to the bowl on a table near the door where she kept her keys. It was a reflex, but she sat on the couch. There was nowhere to go. She tossed the letter to the couch and looked over at Charlie. She wiped her tears on her sleeve and said, “It’ll be okay, Charlie. Everything will be okay now.”
Charlie sat up after the ugliness in his head subsided. The images didn’t dissipate, but they calmed down like bubbling acid in a bucket. His face was wet as Francine swabbed it with a damp washcloth.
To this day, he didn’t know if the blame belonged to one of his fellow gunner’s mates out for revenge like the papers said or the negligent Navy brass, too stubborn to dispose of contaminated gunpowder. Maybe it was neither. Maybe it was both. But blame couldn’t bring back the forty-seven men killed and all the others forever fucked up, like him.
The door was still open but the mail lady was gone. Daylight fell around the room and the television flickered, the volume on mute. There was no sound in the room other than the rasping of his labored breathing.
Charlie got up without the assistance of his cane. His hips took the brunt of the force, and his legs were unsteady. Francine kept her distance. He felt naked without the cane, but he made it to the couch and bent slowly and picked up the letter.
The words weren’t perfectly clear, many were smudged: riding, really cool, different. But he understood their importance.
He wadded and threw the letter at Francine. It hit her in the midsection. “You disgust me.”
“It was nothing,” she said. “It was so long ago. We were so young. I was confused. It was nothing. Really. Just one kiss. I swear. That’s all it was.”
“You fucked him.” Charlie retrieved his cane and swung it like a baseball bat through the air and smashed the banker’s lamp. For the first time since the explosion he felt powerful.
“I didn’t fuck him,” Francine said with anger she’d forgotten she had in her. “You son of a bitch. In fact, I tried to, but he wouldn’t do it. Just like the letter says. And that only made me love him more.”
He didn’t allow himself to process that. He couldn’t.
If he had saved Tony instead of the heavier guy, he might have escaped the smoldering turret in time to avoid being crushed beneath a solid sixteen-inch round that fell from the damaged loading harness.
He raised the cane overhead to crack it down on the coffee table. The eight ball bounced off the slick surface of the table, and for a moment he thought he might lose his grip on the cane, that it might spin away from him across the room. The vibration made his palms feel as though they were being stung by wasps
“Put the cane down, Charlie. You’re scaring me.”
He assumed a batter’s stance. “I didn’t know,” he screamed out and then smashed a lower wall-mounted shelf with a line-drive swing. His first-born’s handprint in plaster of Paris, his son’s high school wrestling trophy, a mug with his other daughter’s picture as a peewee cheerleader, and a half dozen figurines of monkeys reading books. Each item crashed to the floor in its own time. Charlie watched them hit and then attacked each one individually as it lie there on the carpet, using the eight ball like the business end of a twenty-pound sledge hammer.
Francine huddled against the wall near the kitchen. The phone was close, but she didn’t know if she could dial 9-1-1 in time. He’d get irritable when he fucked with his meds, but he’d never been this crazed. “It was nothing!” she yelled. “You’ve got this all wrong!”
He bashed his way through the curio cabinet near the hall that held the Hallmark ornaments the kids gave him every year. Each glittery piece shattered upon impact along with the mirrored shelves. Shards of glass piled at his feet.
“I didn’t fucking know,” he said as he lunged for the table near the door with the bowl Francine kept her keys in. The bowl shattered and then the table went one leg at a time and toppled with the help of the eight ball. Every inch of carpet was covered with shrapnel. He swung at his beer cooler until it toppled over and cans spilled out. Charlie hammered one of the cans until it was crushed and beer fizzed in all directions and then he attacked the next, and the next. He hit the television tube with as strong a blow as he could muster. A crash of glass and the pop of blue and orange sparks filled the room. Extracting his cane, Charlie whacked the plastic casing around the broken tube until the cane got heavy and his arms grew tired. He whacked it from shoulder height, and then from waist high, and then managed a few half-hearted upper cuts like a crochet mallet. And then he stopped. Let the cane slip from his grasp. A wedge of broken mirror on the floor cracked beneath the heft of the eight ball as it fell. His breathing was labored and his lungs were unable to keep up.
He wished he’d done as much damage to wreck his own house as the turret had been wrecked, but this was still only his living room. There were no charred remains, no flowing seawater. There was only Francine.
She bent to retrieve her keys, but had to sort through shiny shards on the carpet. After a moment, she found them and stood, assessing the destruction. “Are you happy now? You just sit here and look at this fucking mess you fucking jerk.” She pulled the door closed behind her. She'd intended to slam it, but it opened in and her grip on the knob wasn’t solid. The effect she produced was nothing more than a woman leaving in a hurry.
Charlie had no idea where she’d go or how long she’d stay away. He wouldn’t have been able to see her even if he’d made it to the window because the sunlight filling the room made him squint. He breathed in shallow coughs. His cane was on the floor, but his bones ached too much to bend and pick it up. He stood there, without the benefit of his cane, blinded in sunlight, surrounded by the wreckage of his life, and listened as Francine started the car, and drove away. His pill bottles had to be somewhere on that floor, but then he had a medicine cabinet full.
Jeffery Hess is the editor of the award-winning anthologies Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform, and Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand (Press 53). He served six years aboard the Navy’s oldest and newest ships and has held writing positions at a daily newspaper, a Fortune 500 company, and a university-based research center. His writing has appeared widely online and in print and he holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. He lives in Florida, where he leads the DD-214 Writers’ Workshop for military veterans. His debut novel, Beachhead, is forthcoming from Down and Out Books.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I began writing this as an action story set during the mass conflagration aboard the USS Iowa, which was in our battle group in the Caribbean at the time of their turret explosion. The form this story took surprised me. I never planned for it to involve a love-triangle, but I followed the trail of these characters and this is where it led. While it’s vastly different than what I originally intended, I feel is still honors the sailors wounded and killed that tragic day.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best writing advice I ever received is: “Write tired.” Those words were spoken by Pinckney Benedict, a gifted writer and teacher, with whom I’m lucky enough to be friends, more than a decade ago and I’ve never forgotten them. I’ve always interpreted that advice to mean, “Choose writing over sleep.” This is something I do to this day.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: It’s an eclectic assortment, but I discovered John Irving’s The World According to Garp and Steven King’s Christine while in high school and they made me want to write novels. In college, I discovered T.C. Boyle’s short story collection, Greasy Lake and it made me want to write stories. Since then, everything from the old noir and crime writers to current literary heroes continue to inspire me.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I write mostly from a laptop, on my back porch, last thing at night, and from my dining room table, first thing in the morning. I begin each writing session by typing in a journal-type file. It’s not a journal in the strict sense of the word. Often I type up ideas, bits of dialogue, or I’ll pose myself questions there about a scene I’m working on and see if it develops. This warm-up works for me, probably because whether I’m writing an essay, a short story, or a novel, I never have to face a blank page.
Waiting on Something to Happen by Kevin Winchester
Followed by Q&A
The truck edged off the road, grinding to a stop in front of the house. The dog, an indeterminate, mid-sized breed, barked from the westward-listing porch. Joe looked at the dog and half-grinned at its false ferocity before turning his attention back to the truck. As the dog quieted, Joe could hear music wafting from the driver-side window. It sounded like alt-country, Ray Wylie Hubbard, maybe. The driver kept his eyes ahead for a few seconds, listening. One hand clutched the steering wheel like he was scared if he let go, he might somehow drift away, land some place he couldn’t get back from. His other arm rested on the doorframe, elbow jutting toward Joe and the dog. After a long second or two, the driver leaned out the window a bit, toward Joe.
“What you doing?” he asked.
Joe cleared his throat and spit. “Waiting on something to happen,” he answered.
“Don’t know. Ain’t happened yet.”
The driver looked forward again, staring through the truck’s front glass as if something might be coming at him from a distance, his knuckles clutched white around the steering wheel. The driver’s name was Ansel, a sometimes acquaintance of Joe’s but more often, just the boy from Shelby who sold him weed when Patty got sick. Joe didn’t much care for Ansel. He had a way of acting like they were friends or something. They weren’t.
Ansel turned back toward Joe.
“You going?” he asked.
“Best go. It’s what you oughtta do. It’s only right.”
“I reckon,” Joe answered.
Ansel shook his head, put his other hand on the wheel, and again stared at the distance in front of him. After another long pause, he faced Joe again.
“You need anything? Kush? Northern Lights? I got a little Skunk left. It’ll help you get through.”
Joe reached over and scratched the cur’s ears and neck. The dog let out a half-groan, half-growl and cocked his head to one side, angling Joe’s hand into a more preferable spot. Joe stopped scratching and the dog whined, nuzzled the underside of Joe’s arm before giving up and resettling a few feet away on the porch.
“I don’t think so,” Joe said.
“Suit yourself. Might be gone next week.”
“I reckon it might.” Joe answered.
Ansel turned the radio louder, revved the truck’s engine twice.
“You best go. You’ll regret it later if you don’t,” he said, then dropped the truck in gear and pulled off without waiting for Joe to reply.
Joe watched until the horizon swallowed up the last sight of the truck, and then let his gaze linger a few seconds more. In the opposite direction, the sun etched below the tree line. Mid-fall, and the air, already with a telling edge, cooled even more as the shadow of the pines advanced across the porch. There was a time Joe would call this his favorite season. A time of year he felt… balanced, as if everything hung suspended, weightless and unencumbered. The blank sky above him its bluest, the earth beneath his feet it’s most solid. He felt a certainty he could not name, but was yet palpable. Real.
A slight breeze lifted and Joe smelled wood smoke. The Satterfield boys, setting up camp somewhere down the old fire road below his house, near the shallow creek. They’d sip Wilkes County moonshine then climb into their tents early. Before dawn, they’d rub their eyes and swear softly as they made their way in the darkness to tree stands. This year, Joe knew they’d not pass on the spike bucks, or even the does. Nearly two years out of work, benefits and unemployment checks only memories, a freezer full of meat was trophy enough. Everybody had their cross.
The dog raised his head and sniffed, the scent from the campfire stronger now. Joe thought of the fireplace in the cabin near Maggie Valley, how the flue was slow to draw at first. That same wood smoke smell filled the room, leached into his and Patty’s clothes, her hair. By the end of their week there, it became a part of Patty, and he breathed it in, breathed her in, for six uninterrupted days. They returned every year, and every year it was the same. He wondered if the cabin was empty this week. Their week. Patty’s parents owned the place, but rarely used it, preferring instead to rent it to vacationers. Joe sensed in them a reluctance in allowing him and their daughter a free week during peak season. Patty denied it, but Joe knew. He knew, just as he knew her parents had probably rented the cabin for the week.
The dog sniffed at the air once more. Joe patted his haunches, stood, and stretched his arms skyward. When he did, he lost his balance, the listing boards of the porch causing him to stumble slightly I’ll fix this porch, he thought. Replace the rotted corner posts with treated four-by-fours. Sure up the joist. Make the thing level again. Joe planned to go in and work a couple of hours in the morning, he’d start on it after that. Sunday, latest.
Joe went inside. Nights, with the house looming cavernous and incomplete and his sleep fitful and light, weren’t easily navigated. For nearly a year, he listened, listened through a veil of half slumber, half attention as if in hearing he might protect, he might ward off. He slotted night sounds into categories—usual sounds or sounds needing assessment and interpretation. Over the past year, Joe realized he had no category for silence.
The next morning, Joe scraped what was left of the eggs into the bowl, followed by the last two pieces of bacon. He filled his thermos with coffee and poured the last half of the pot down the sink. The steam rose in a column and he felt the heat moist on his face like a balm. He set the bowl of egg scraps and bacon on the porch, filled the bucket with fresh water, whistled for the dog, and left for work.
The Saturday shifts for manufacturing and assembly had been cut first, nearly two years ago, along with the third shift. Joe did what he could, his job in planning and scheduling allowed him to spread out the work orders enough to keep the second shift running piece meal for another eight months, but then they, too, had to be let go. Saturdays now, walking through the stilled shop, hearing only the echoes of his footfalls, reminded him of how things once were. Orders had picked up a little, but not enough that Joe had any real reason to be at work on a weekend. He managed his duties during a forty-hour week with time to spare, but he began going in for a few hours when Patty’s sister started coming over to sit with her on Saturday mornings. It had become habit. Joe turned on the lights in his office and began sifting through the job packets on his desk, the same as he did every morning.
Joe compared the printed routing sheets with those on the computer, making sure nothing had fallen behind schedule. It hadn’t and he knew it wouldn’t. The boys in the shop understood self-preservation and knew full-well how to stretch the runs just enough to make production without getting far enough ahead to create downtime. A man with nothing to do didn’t last long.
After he’d checked all the jobs in process and lined up the work orders for Monday, Joe opened his email. One new message, a calendar reminder. Memorial Celebration for Patricia: 3:00 pm, Saturday. Fairview Country Club (@ the Riverside Gazebo). He hesitated, the cursor’s accusatory finger pointed at the message. He thought of her parents, her brother and sister, wondered if her father and brother would get in eighteen at the club before the service. Joe saw them, joking in the mahoganied locker room, drinks at the bar, her father swirling his Scotch-rocks in the air as he droned on, replaying every hole, his index finger raised like an exclamation point above the drink. They invited Joe to join them at the Country Club, once. He enjoyed knocking it around the muni course as much as the next guy, and he shot in the mid-eighties, ten strokes better than Patty’s dad or her brother, but they couldn’t tell it that day. The course played easy, or should have, for Joe. More forgiving and shorter from the member tees than what he was used to, but he beat it around everywhere. Broke a hundred, but not by much. They asked him to play a few more times, but Joe knew the invitation only came at Patty’s insistence. He moved the cursor, checked the box, and hit delete.
Joe rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, then walked into the plant. He went first through the stockroom, then the bar stock racks, following the flow of raw materials from blanks to finished components. He liked the oily smell of the machine coolant, the uniform stacks of material staged on one side of the CNC lathes and milling machines, appreciated the sharp glint of turned metal, the smoothed edges of cast iron arranged in the bins on the opposite of the machinery.
He stood near the final assembly lines, staring at the bins of components snaking back through the shop, the rows of assembled door closers stretching toward packaging and shipping. Joe realized he’d been standing there for some time when he heard a jangle of keys behind him. He turned toward the sound.
“Hey, Leon. I didn’t know you were here. Figured you’d be in a deer stand somewhere.” When the lay-offs started, Leon convinced management to keep him on by offering to take over the janitorial work for the plant. Leon agreed to a pay cut, which allowed them to cancel the outside service they’d been using and save some money. Before, he manned the forklift on a split shift, third and first. He gathered the overnight inventory pull sheets from the printer when he came in at four, and then spent the next eight hours delivering pallets of material throughout the shop. Joe liked him. Like most of the guys in the shop, Leon hunted, and every year, he always gave Joe a couple of venison steaks and bag of jerky.
“Coolant line broke on the Pfauter gear hob late yesterday. Had to put down four bags of Speedi-dri, wanted to get it up ‘fore Monday. Just looks bad, you know,” Leon answered. “Them deer’ll wait. Didn’t figure I’d see you here today, either, Joe.”
Joe shrugged. “I come in most Saturdays.”
“I know, but today… I mean, Mrs. Patty’s memorial…” Leon shifted his weight, jingled his keys again, and glanced away from Joe for a second or two.
Joe could see Leon felt bad about bringing it up, and he hated it for him, but what could he do? “Hell, Leon, town this size… history calls the shots.”
“I didn’t mean no disrespect, I just—“
“Don’t worry about it. I know you didn’t.” Joe shrugged again, looked out across the shop then smiled at Leon. “Yeah. Well, I should let you get back at it. Don’t work too long, now, you hear? Find some time to get in that tree stand, I’m about out of jerky.” Joe waved and walked toward the door.
It was late morning. Joe spotted the knot of blaze orange caps in the parking lot of Hawfields General Store. Hawfields sat at the crossroads near his house and the store served as the big game check-in station for the area. Joe knew from the circle of hats around the pickup’s bed they were sizing up a kill from the morning. He slowed to make the right turn past the store, toward home. At the far end of the parking lot, he saw the Satterfield boys. They stood by the bed of their truck, too, but it didn’t look as if they’d had any luck. He recognized Randy and Hank, but not the younger boy standing with them. He threw up his hand. Randy waved back, half-hearted. Hank and the boy looked into the bed of their truck instead.
Joe pulled into his drive and stared at his front porch with the truck still running. When they built the house, Joe had the contractor clear the front yard of most of the trees, mainly to make best use of the south facing exposure. The rest he left, and now the oaks and maples framing the house created a stark red and yellow backdrop of leaves. The road they lived on was a dead end with few houses, their house the last. He and Patty watched the seasons change from that front porch, an unplanned benefit of clearing the front yard. When he remodeled the original steps and added the ramp to the porch, it had somehow weakened the structure, causing it to list. Joe kept promising to fix it, but it became less and less of a priority as the months passed. But now, what excuse did he have? In his mind, Joe calculated footage, listed materials. Tear the ramp off, replace the corner post. Probably be best to replace the lower joist, too, fasten it to the corner post with lag bolts. He checked his watch. He’d fix some lunch, then drive to Builders Supply, get started on the porch that afternoon. It needed doing, no sense putting it off any longer. The ramp was… it needed to come off and the wet weather of the fast-approaching winter would send the porch to rot before spring. He didn’t have anything productive to do for the afternoon, anyway.
After lunch, Joe grabbed a couple extra tie-downs from the shed and tossed them in the bed of his pickup. He counted again the number of deck boards he’d have to replace. As he started climbing into the cab, the Satterfield’s truck pulled in behind him. Randy sat in the driver’s seat, and now he looked past the young boy, who sat in the middle of the bench seat, toward Hank. Randy jerked his head, motioning for Hank to get out. Hank said something, first to Randy then to the boy. Finally, all three of them edged out of the truck and came up to Joe’s truck. The brothers both leaned on the bed of the pickup. So did Joe. The boy stood a few feet behind them, between the two trucks, shifting his weight while he toed the ground as if he hoped to unearth something of interest or distraction.
The Satterfield boys both spoke and Joe answered. Randy looked skyward and drew in two quick breaths, like an animal would scent the air. Without thinking, Joe breathed in, too. He caught a hint of wood smoke again. The boy shuffled, the bill of his orange cap tilted up only enough for him to cut his eyes toward the men, before he returned to troubling the ground by his boot. Hank cleared his throat, but didn’t say anything more. It didn’t surprise Joe, the brothers weren’t known to be very talkative, but he sensed they had something to say now.
“What can I do for you boys?” He asked. “I was fixing to go to town. Gonna rebuild the porch, put the steps back on.”
“We was of a mind to catch you ‘fore you went to the Memorial,” Hank said. Joe remembered he was the older brother. “Randy said we ought wait, but…”
“You caught me.”
“Yeah,” Hank said. “I see we did.” He propped his right foot on the truck bumper, leaned into it as he looked at Randy. Randy looked at the boy. Joe studied the brothers, noticed Hank trying to urge Randy to speak by squinting his eyes at him just so. For a second, Joe found it amusing, but then the feeling that the boys needed to say something important gripped him again.
“Joe, you know we appreciate you letting us hunt on the bottom land,” Randy finally said.
“Not a problem.” Joe looked toward the porch, jangled his keys. “You know, I—“
“This here’s our nephew, Sarah’s boy, Sammy. It’s his first year hunting with us.” Hank said. He turned around and grabbed the boy by the shoulder, gave him a stern guide toward Joe. The boy glanced up, made eye contact as he shook hands, but he just as quickly looked back at the ground. Sammy’s got something to tell you,” Hank said. “Go ahead, boy, tell him.”
The young boy looked back at Hank, then Randy, before turning to face Joe. “Well… I…” He shifted his weight, looked at Hank and Randy again, his eyes pleading.
“Tell him,” Hank said.
“I thought… I mean I saw it, but I didn’t see it good and I know I shoulda waited, shoulda made sure…”
“It’s the boy’s first time deer hunting, Joe. You know how it is, buck fever and all,” Randy offered.
“What?” Joe asked them. Something had happened, he knew that, but he couldn’t imagine what it might be. The feeling of it, the dread, he knew, remembered from the time he and Patty sat in the doctor’s office. The weight of the room closed in on him that day. He felt it in his chest, in his stomach. Wiped his palms on his pant legs. Wiped them again and again until finally, Patty had taken his right hand in hers and squeezed it ever so lightly and for an instant he imagined, no, felt a light breeze blowing around them and on it, the scent of ripening apples. Just as quickly the scent disappeared, replaced by a rank smell and Joe felt as if they were lost deep in the woods, rotting leaves wet around their feet, the ground beneath the leaves shifting and unstable. Joe shook his head. “What?” he repeated.
Randy and Hank turned away from Joe and started toward the bed of their truck, pushing the boy ahead of them. Joe hesitated, then followed them. A tarp covered the bed and Joe saw that something lie beneath it. He looked at Randy, Hank, then the boy. The boy met his stare for a second, his eyes now wild, frightened. Joe noticed the boy’s lower lip quivering slightly. Joe glanced at the tarp, back at the men. “Damn it,” he said. “What?”
Hank reached in and threw back a corner of the blue tarp, revealing Joe’s dog, it’s eyes frozen open and sightless, it’s mouth gaped as if, as the thirty-aught-six slug rifled through it’s bowels, the dog suddenly gained language and wanted to speak, to tell of something right and beautiful it had found as it romped through the orange and red leaves drifting in slow circles toward the earth.
“It’s your dog, ain’t it?” Randy asked.
Joe didn’t answer for several seconds, then turned away and looked across the trees.
“Sammy thought it was a deer,” Hank started. “He didn’t know, shot too quick, that’s all.”
“We hate this, Joe,” Randy told him. “I know it couldn’t have happened on a worse day for you.”
“We’ll pay you for him, for your trouble,” Hank said. “Do whatever you say.”
Finally, Joe answered. “He’s a stray. Wandered up soon after Patty got sick,” he paused, then turned to look at the three of them. Randy and Hank looked him eye to eye, unwavering but apologetic. The boy stared at the dog, crying hard now, snot bubbling from his nostrils and his breath coming in wet, sucking sounds. “An accident,” Joe said. “First time hunting. An accident.”
The boy nodded and sobbed something unintelligible. Joe sighed.
“I need to get to Builders Supply, pick up the lumber for the porch ‘fore they close. I’d appreciate it if you’d just leave him wrapped in the tarp around behind the house. I’ll bury him later.”
“We figured the least Sammy could do was bury him for you,” Randy said. The boy nodded his head in agreement and wiped at his nose with his shirtsleeve.
“No call for that,” Joe said. “Mistake’s all it was. Looks as if Sammy’s punishing himself enough as it is. Leave him yonder.” Joe turned and climbed in his truck. Hank and Randy carried the tarp past him, the boy stumbled along a step or two behind them as if he were lost, unsure of his role at this point. They nodded as they returned to their truck and then backed out of the drive. Joe sat for a minute longer, staring at the tarp, before putting his Ford in reverse and driving away, too.
Joe checked his watch as he left the loading dock at Builders Supply. Two-Fifty-Five, probably not enough light left to get much done on the porch today. The weight of the lumber in the back of the truck forced him to keep his speed down, brake sooner. At the edge of town, he slowed even more as he approached the entrance to the Country Club. He had no intention of stopping. What point would it serve? He had things to do, things now complicated further by the Satterfield boys. The Memorial was her parents’ idea, not his. It’s the thing to do, they’d said. Our daughter would want something like this, they’d said. Only a year past and already they were turning her memory into a fundraiser.
Joe shook his head and drove past the entrance.
After unloading the two-by-ten joists and corner posts, Joe stacked the decking a few feet in front of the existing porch, using two-by-fours he’d found in the shed as standards between each row. He placed each board exactly so, uniform, each row repeating the last. He then went back to the shed and found his mattock and shovel, which he carried to the edge of the trees in back of the house, and leaned them against a white oak. He went for the tarp, trying to lift it gently, but the dog’s body had now grown stiff and cumbersome, forcing him to drag the tarp the short distance to the oak tree. Joe grabbed the mattock and paused, studying the ground in front of him before taking it in both hands and raising it over his shoulder, pushing himself onto his toes as he brought the mattock up and over his head, his entire body flexing with the motion as he brought it downward, sinking the blade into the dirt up to the hickory handle. He felt the shock of blade to ground vibrate through bone and muscle. He worked the mattock free and swung again, again, and again. His muscles warming, loosening, his heart pushing the blood along his veins, quicker, stronger, with each arc of the tool. The earth opened, the gash growing methodically each time Joe brought the mattock down. Again and again and again and the breeze lifted and the leaves fell around him and the afternoon spiraled into evening and the evening to night and night to day.
Kevin Winchester is a North Carolina native, where he now lives, writes, and teaches. Winchester won the 2013 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Award. His short story collection, Everybody’s Gotta Eat, was published in 2009. Other work has appeared in Gulf Coast Literary Journal, Barrel House, Story South, Dead Mule and the anthology Everything But the Baby. His creative non-fiction has appeared in the anthology Making Notes: Music in the Carolinas, Tin House and a variety of other publications. Winchester is also a songwriter and bass player with the folk-rock band, Flatland Tourists, whose latest release spent two months in the Top Ten of the Roots Music Charts.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The piece originated from a line in a Shovels and Rope song called “Keeper.” The song is about a man who works away from his wife, on an oil rig, and how he spends passes the time before he sees her again. The line in particular is “waiting on around on something hadn’t happened yet.” That line fixed itself in my mind and I kept thinking about the character who might utter that line in that way. I had no idea of story, only the character and that line. As I wrote, I began to realize what, exactly, the character was “waiting on,” and from there, the story formed. Most of my work unfolds that way—I don’t know my character’s story when I began, but this story surprised me in how completely it was revealed to me during the first revision. While I tinkered a lot with language, the story itself changed very little after the first draft. That doesn’t happen often for me.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Elissa Schappell always told me, “just make the work.” Many English teachers through the years had created this notion in me that writing fiction (or poetry, or songs) was something magical, something that came as an occasional gift from the muses or as a revelation from some spirit being. Elissa’s statement, while maybe not “advice” in the traditional sense, helped me to realize what a crock that notion was. It helped me realize that writing was work—you show up, sit down, and make the work, every day. And yes, I’ve always tried to follow that advice.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Only three to five? That’s tough, but I’ll give it a shot. First, I have to mention Jack London’s Call of the Wild. There’s nothing that remarkable about the book, or London as a writer, but it was the first book I read that made me realize that 1) books—and by books I mean writing, reading, literature in general—could take me anywhere and everywhere; and 2) it was the first time I read something that made me think, I’d like to write a book like this one day. Again, so many others, but worth mentioning are Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, John Hawkes, and most of the absurdist / dark comedians of the sixties and seventies—Vonnegut, Pynchon, Barthe, Keller, etc. More recently, Ron Rash. I suppose that’s a start.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: I cannot write in public at all. I’ve tried on a couple of occasions. Didn’t like it and didn’t produce anything worthwhile. Most of my writing is done in my “office” at home, which is nothing more than a large closet with a desk, computer, and bookshelves. Sometimes, if I feel a change of scenery or location might provide a little motivation, I will go into work very early and write in my office there.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in The Thomas Wolfe Review, April 2013, Volume 37. We are happy to give the story new life online in Prime Number Magazine.
3 Poems by Ruth Foley
Followed by Q&A
Myth: eels, uneaten, will return
to life in the night, lip below
your bed or into your pillowcase,
pulse around your ankles. Myth:
children taste nothing but sweet.
Enough can ever be enough.
Myth: dogs sleep facing west,
cry to the north. Rivers pour
themselves south instead of down.
Water is enough to bring you
clean. Myth: not that the ring
is there below the surface, but
that you could ever still
the swimmers enough to catch it.
That it is smooth. That it should
be yours. Myth: weaving eel
skin can protect you from
visitors. Dark men at the door
are lucky. You can check anyone's
tongue. Myth: I wanted what
I could not speak. I thought
I would be heard. Not that breath
disappears before it freezes—
that part is true. But that
it belonged, submerged, to you.
Never Have I Ever
Seen the fish, but held myself from gasping for the illusion of grub or meal.
I have never sat on a stone wall with my feet hanging over the water, never watched the falling stars or their reflection.
Besides, what falls and what shoots? And how to know?
All of my songs are exile songs, but I have written none of them.
I have never spiraled like snow, never risen when I was supposed to be drifting. I have never burst in a surprise of glitter.
Tethered myself or allowed myself to lift. Been lifted.
Once the rain begins, I have never asked it to cease.
I have been doubled, but never recognized. Have been almost halved. I have never known the difference, it seems.
Against an alligator, I have never lost.
Have never been found or founded. Nor inhaled the dust of mortar.
I would have said I had never thought of delphiniums, but I never lie about the important things. I never knew its larkspur secret, never knew its poison.
I have never painted my eyes with the dust from a moth, and would bet you have never either.
If I bet at all, which I never do.
I have never crouched beneath a hedge, waiting for snakes. I have never believed in the snake before it came.
Have you seen shrimp and thought fingers? Held fluttering and thought froth?
I have never closed my eyes in front of a fire, never sat outside the smoke, never trusted the end of smoldering.
I do not recognize birds by their nests or calls. And I do not answer.
In the rumble of an engine, I never hear escape.
I have never drowned a hornet in a bird bath, but I have let one sink. I've laid a branch for honeys or bumbles.
Not once have I stood aghast at the blue.
I'm told it's possible to miss yourself in a mirror or a photograph. It is said we do not recognize our own voice.
If led to something pulsing, I cannot help but reach.
Listen: no one wants to believe this, but I have never laid my longing down in the tumble.
A tumbleweed of hyacinth, I say
but the flower is wrong—think
blue, think pink, think a creamed
bridal white. Magnesium or
copper, something in the soil
unseen and unremembered.
Essential, like potassium or lime.
Coffee grounds. Steel wool. I
would rummage in the cabinets,
bury random trinkets at its roots.
Today, I heard about a man who
sat beside a dying fox, both
panting on the macadam, temporary
companions. We all make our own
journeys—how I hate the word.
Nothing is ever destination. Besides,
he might have made it up—the fox
returned to life, waiting out
the lie of the workday, the drive
to a sympathetic veterinarian.
Dead things stay dead. They roll
across the dead end street in
the smallest wind, but that doesn't
make them living. I'm told
it's possible to propagate hydrangeas,
something about cutting the plates
of leaves at the diameter, then
a series of mysteries, then
a cacophany of blue. Or pink.
Something about aluminum,
something about pennies. Something
that should be flat and bypassed
filling instead, and rounding.
Ruth Foley lives in Massachusetts, where she teaches English for Wheaton College. Her work appears in numerous web and print journals, including Antiphon, The Bellingham Review, The Louisville Review, and Sou’wester. Her chapbook Dear Turquoise is available from Dancing Girl Press. She serves as managing editor for Cider Press Review.
Q: Poetry demands boldness, that we claim things, assert understanding. In “Never Have I Ever,” you push back at that mystique. How did this poem come to be?
A: I’m not generally a fan of poems that assert too much understanding, poems where the speaker knows all the answers. I wonder about things all the time, ask questions, look things up. And I still don’t always find my way to a satisfactory answer. There’s a lot of room for mystery in poems, and my favorite poems live in a bit of mystery. I think perhaps the role of poetry for me is not to know the right answers but to ask the right questions.
A: Never Have I Ever is a children’s game—or a drinking game, not that I would know anything about those—where the object is for a player to list things s/he hasn’t done but which the rest of the group likely has (I had a friend in high school who had never eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She won this game a lot). I’m not sure why I started thinking of how I might create a list of crazy things that a speaker could claim never to have done—I mean, if she had lost against an alligator, she likely wouldn’t be around to tell us about it—but I do know that I was thinking a lot at the time about honesty and the ways in which we can lie—or tell the truth—by omission. Around the same time, I was in the audience at a storytelling competition where a young woman claimed to have crushed a moth and used the dust of its wings as eyeshadow. I simply didn’t believe her.
Q: The presence of death in life in “Dry Hydrangeas” reminds me of the line, “Can these dry bones live?” Might you talk a bit more about seeing the constant exchange of faces between one world and the other?
A: This may be related to the idea of a lack of certainty I talk about above, but I like the way you put it here: the world is a constant exchange of faces between one and its opposite. A lot of poems—a lot of writing in general, I suppose—live in one aspect of the world. A lot of poems are about grief or anger or beauty or joy or whatever, and I have plenty of poems that fall into that mode. But the fact is that there are aspects of grief that are simultaneously quite life-affirming (I have yet to be at a wake or funeral where nobody made a joke), and there are aspects of joy that are not at all joyful. Human beings are capable of such levels of complexity that I doubt I’ll ever write a poem that navigates it all. But I can start by putting together seemingly disparate notions, opposite motion, ideas that seem mutually exclusive, and then seeing what happens. I like the tension it creates, for one thing, and as a reader, I enjoy pulling apart the threads of opposition in a poem and seeing how they’re all woven together. I included that exchange of opposites consciously in drafting this poem, but I find it to be a useful revision technique, too; when a poem is lying flat on the page, one of the first things I ask myself is whether it needs a bit of its opposite to give it texture.
Q: What is your experience with eels?
A: My immediate response is to say, “They’re creepy and they’ll continue to move for hours after you cut them into pieces,” and it’s true—look it up on YouTube if you dare. The longer version is that freshwater eels in particular are compelling in a visceral way for me. First, there is the fact that they live on the floor of lakes and rivers—if you’re swimming in a lake, it’s likely that you’ll see some sort of fish, but you’re probably not going to see eels unless you pull them up while fishing. Again, I come back to my love of mystery. Second, their lizard-brains appeal to me in that, like snakes, they can seem single-minded, which, when combined with the idea that they are practically all muscle, is something I find quite moving. They have the capacity to be both driven and powerful, a sort of all-consuming mentality that feels simultaneously human and alien to me. They’ll travel hundreds or thousands of miles to spawn in salt water, and that also feels like something human beings can relate to, as sexual compulsion is maybe one of the few ways in which people can be as focused and consumed as eels seem to be. Finally, I read somewhere a long time ago that it was bad luck to leave eel uneaten because it will come alive again, and another superstition that if you leave cooked eel overnight, it will turn raw again by morning. I think both myths are connected to whatever it is in the eel’s nervous system that allows it to keep moving long after it should, so it all comes together in a big jumble of image and gut feeling for me. And, truly, I once saw a video online of eels moving long after they’d been butchered...and I can’t get it out of my head. They’re creepy and they’ll continue to move for hours after you cut them into pieces. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Twice.
Q: When did you begin writing, and what was your first publication?
A: I’ve been writing since I was a kid and my brother and I wrote skits to perform tor my parents. My cousins, my brother, and I wrote skits for our own amusement and probably nobody else’s. I wrote terrible poems and stories in school. But I became serious about poetry as an undergrad when I thought I had signed up for a creative writing survey course and the professor announced on the first day that it was actually going to be all poetry. My first thought was to take him up on his invitation to leave—about half of the students did—but then I decided that being a little afraid of it meant that it might be really good for me, and it was.
I’m not certain if my first accepted poem ever made it to print. I never got a copy! It was in a journal called Now Here Nowhere, or at least it was supposed to be. Shortly after that, I had a couple of poems accepted for The Chariton Review, and I think those are the first ones that saw print.
3 Poems by Chera Hammons
Followed by Q&A
The forest is astonished
by the sound of its own voice.
It hasn’t heard itself speak
in such a long time. A sigh,
a clearing throat, a hungry
rumble, wet yawn.
But nothing like what I hear now
as I walk among trees
I can’t see through.
A bear must be waiting in the woods.
What else could it be?
I thought the forest had forgotten
it had bears. I had too.
Maybe the heavy snap is only
a branch cracking under a freezing,
or shivering under the thin-veined foot
of a winter sparrow as its pulse slows to its rest.
A bird’s timid hot heart, then,
no rough-padded paw with snow-balled claws
snapping where it steps,
looking for me.
The growl in the woods is the brook loosening its flow,
ice groan, and snow sloughing from
the pine canopy. It must be.
But the trees rush. It’s loud for nothing rushing.
I might have come too close to a dangerous thing.
Listen, it breaks through the saplings, flea-scabbed,
shaggy as a pony, Viking-heavy, lumbering
shuffle through what it pleases. Near-sighted
and soft-nosed it will find me
standing without any witness in bear country.
Statistics are tidy where there is risk, and
never wrong for long. My belly will tear in its
fish-gutting jowls, the snout that furrows hives,
a stung nose the only pain it has ever felt.
But I have felt it other places, haven’t I?,
understood it better. I know enough to hurt something.
Why not? This place is
his or mine. Then find me, if you dare,
and let the survivor
write the stories.
When I bring the paint pony home,
she backs out into the rutted pasture
one long inch at a time, unwilling,
heels hanging off the lip of the trailer
as she clutches it with her toes like a diver
about to fall backwards from high up.
I bought her cheap, already middle-aged
and passed around God knows where
to gather bad habits, white-rimmed and frightened now
to leave the box she had feared getting into.
No matter. I don't buy the young ones anymore.
I've lost what it takes to be the first to break something
and send it on after my bones
have ached against all its whims.
I would rather fix the already-broken ones.
Even then, I only keep the best for myself.
The horse I've had longest, the one
who has most outlived his usefulness,
arches his neck and shuffles on arthritic legs
when he sees the new mare's feet on his ground.
When I used to ride him, I was a kid and
he'd run away with me. Scared,
I'd pull his head to my knee, and we'd circle
until he relaxed into more human thoughts.
He doesn't know how things have changed,
how much I would like to retire. To afford a will
that doesn't need repair.
I turn the paint loose in grass taller
than what grew in the pasture I got her from.
Maybe this one will be worth keeping,
good enough to stay here awhile, and make me stop
looking for better.
Not just another far-off bright spot
in the field in the sun,
one I won't want to know long enough to name.
They were safe if they stayed in corners,
and they usually did,
tiny suspended mouths with hesitant octaves,
brown natives who understood the unspoiled landscape
of plaster and dust and where the roof leaked.
They spent more time in our family than any of us,
though they were scarcely remarked.
The fugitives, lost or switching walls
in stealthy treks across mossy carpet, fell into
societies of children led by my cousin who claimed
the too-small mandibles couldn't cause us any harm.
He pulled their legs off one at a time to prove it was true.
As the spiders found their spaces, no one laughed;
the boy could not stop himself
and pulled them apart until only their torsos were left,
curiously oval, pitted and shivering, blank as buttons.
We sat back on our shoes tonguing the holes in our teeth
and stranger gaps.
When I awaken sometimes now to a red raised place
capped in a small white spot of venom,
I know a relative lives where I sleep
and wonder how it has found me out.
It knows, and is bent on revenge.
It does not leave, even when I wash the sheets, would stay
even if I could change these legs
wherein seem to lie all my iniquities.
Chera Hammons is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Goddard College in Plainfield, VT. Her work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Raleigh Review, Rattle, Sugar House Review, Tar River Poetry, Tupelo Quarterly, and Valparaiso Poetry Review, among other fine journals. Her chapbook Amaranthine Hour received the 2012 Jacar Press Chapbook Award. She is a member of the editorial board of poetry journal One. She lives in Amarillo, TX, with her husband, two horses, two dogs, three cats, and a rabbit.
Q: Your lovely poem “Horse Dealer” takes us inside the relationship of human and horse. Might you extend that to how a poet approaches, wrangles, struggles with the poem?
A: It might be helpful to give a bit of background for this poem (but I should warn you that I could “talk horses” all day long). There's a sentiment that I've heard many times among horsey folk: "There are too many good horses in the world to keep feeding a bad one." By "bad," they don't necessarily intend to say that a horse is mean, or incapable of improvement, or of poor quality. They usually mean that it's the wrong horse for a particular person. A horse that a timid rider finds hot and spooky might just be intelligent and quick to a bolder rider. One of the main mistakes inexperienced people make is buying a horse that's too much for them, and then not being able to admit it. They end up being afraid of the horse and not doing anything with it. And the undesirable behavior of many horses is learned in defense to rough or ignorant handling, or to being spoiled by well-meaning but naïve owners. Long ago, when I had more time and nerve, I used to buy horses that needed a tune-up to correct issues like being barn sour, prancy, or pushy. I'd work with a horse for a few months, and then sell it to someone I felt was more suited to it than the person who sold it to me. I always hoped I’d fall in love with one of those horses and keep it, but that only happened once.
I’ve also unintentionally bought and sold many horses. By that, I mean that I didn't buy the horses I've had with the intention of ever parting with them. I hoped it would work. But it's like any relationship— sometimes you give it a fair try, but it's just not clicking. The wrong horse requires the same commitment of time and resources as the right one, if not more, so why would you keep putting your time and money into the wrong one?
If you wanted to extend this to a poet's relationship with her work, I think you could on some levels. There are a lot of parallels. The poet starts out with an idea, a shape in her head, something she wants to accomplish. She takes the idea and makes it into a real, tangible thing— the draft on a page, the horse in the pasture. She gives it a chance, takes some time to be objective about it, tries different approaches, explores how she can make it more into what she had in her head. Eventually there's a point of decision— to further commit, to keep sharing and revising, to start sending the poem to publishers and maybe put it into a manuscript— to keep the horse— or to stop spending time on something that isn't working and move on to something else. Either way, having written the poem that didn't work, or having worked with the horse that isn't right, can be beneficial or destructive. It can harm your confidence, or you can learn from it and use what you've learned to get closer next time. You have to teach yourself to be humble enough to let go of what's not working, but you also have to spend enough time on it in the first place to know whether it will work or not. The trick is in knowing how to get the most out of your effort, how not to get frustrated, how to be both patient and realistic.
And to take it a bit further: just as you can hear the voice of a good poet in her work, you can tell by a horse's personality what sort of owner it has.
Q: My father once encountered a black bear, each of them working along one side of a huge wall of grapevines until they came almost face to face. Both of them fled. Your narrator is preparing to battle a “dangerous thing” that might be just a winter sparrow. Of the many schools and philosophies on nature, where would you align yourself?
A: Thomas Berry said, "The natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong. To be alienated from this community is to become destitute in all that makes us human." I haven't studied many natural philosophers, but I know that nature is where I ground myself after an exhausting week at work, when my body aches and my head is filled with someone else's finances and small talk, after those five days in a row during which I didn't even know what the sun felt like.
What a relief it is on the weekends to sleep until the coyotes or owls wake me, then to go out and become myself again in the wind, beholden for an hour or two to no one. How much more honest everything seems. How it makes me calmer, kinder, more connected to what is happening all around me instead of in my head, on television, or on the computer screen. It re-centers me and adjusts my perception of the space that I occupy, my role in it.
I find it vastly comforting that someday I will be a part of the same earth that houses everyone who came before me. The natural world, with all its dangers, offers an unapologetic purity that I haven't found in anything manmade. It has its own kind of order and fairness, and even having seen some of its violence first-hand, I would still rather take its brand of brutality than mankind's.
With that in mind, the speaker's nerve might come from the fact that she asks herself if the sound comes from a sparrow, the weather, the trees, a bear, but never another person, who would be just the sort of enemy most likely to tell a story about it.
Q: What other lore or family stories do you have about spiders, especially those “harvestmen” so coolly dismembered?
A: Aside from that vivid incident in the poem, which actually did occur, I don't have many particular spidery memories, although I do remember seeing the harvestmen (we called them "daddy longlegs") sitting quietly in their corners sometimes after that, and that I felt both sorry for them and repulsed by them with that strange childhood brand of guilt. I don't think harvestmen are even actually spiders.
I'll also admit that my first reaction to spiders in general is usually not a charitable one, but I like to think I'm open-minded, and I have finally come to appreciate them for the useful and interesting creatures that they are. As such, I have come to a tacit arrangement with most of them. If one crosses my path, we'll suddenly see each other and pause. There will be an awkward feeling-out: Are you toxic? Are you aggressive? How likely am I to ever see you again?-- If the answers seem to be no, no, and probably never, then we'll go our separate ways peacefully.
Tarantulas abound in my current neighborhood, but I've never feared them because they’re so big they don't seem real. Once when I was little, when we still lived in the city limits, my dad caught one in the garage and put it in a jar for us to see up close. It had a spot of silver paint on its back. After a day or so of observation, we drove it outside of town and released it. A few days later, it walked right back into our garage. That seemed like something a pet would do. I don't want to cuddle with one by any means, but I do enjoy watching the large and docile things going about their lives. In the autumn, you can sometimes see dozens of them crossing the road together, on the way to somewhere I haven't found out. They all walk the same direction with such purpose, like a switch just flipped that day and told them it was time to go.
A beautiful yellow and black orb weaver moved into our backyard last summer. My husband and I watched her build perfect, intricate webs every day or two, spinning the thread out in in widening spirals completely indifferent to our admiration of her. Visiting her became a part of our daily ritual—we’d feed the ponies, water the nearly-wild roses, and then "go and see the spider," who always offered us something new. When cold weather came, she disappeared, but there are signs that she prepared for another generation before she left. I look forward to seeing this year's orb weavers when they are mature spiders with their own webs sparkling in the morning light.
I don't ever seek out the harvestmen, though—not anymore. I still feel that in some way I owe them a debt, and there is such a kinship to them in my memory. When I find one, I lose it again.
Q: When did you begin writing, and what was your first publication?
A: I was raised in a household that loved books, and my mother, an elementary school teacher, is a reading instructor extraordinaire, so I learned to read pretty organically around the age of three or four. I began writing about the same time. I remember writing, on brightly colored scraps of paper, these messy little lyrics about woodland creatures. They made perfect sense to me, but I’m sure they were nonsense and squiggles to anyone else. I really loved Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson early on, because their work has a lot of nature in it and does not generally have inaccessible vocabulary.
By fourth grade, I was writing poetry openly and often (as well as short stories and plays). If I finished my classwork early, my teachers would allow me to read or write, which was really nice of them. If I wrote, they would come by, read what I was writing, and comment on it or read it out loud to the class. Everything I wrote then was about horses. My plays had talking horses in them. My stories were about wild horses being tamed.
My first publication was a horse poem that I sent off when I was in seventh grade. I remember being so excited that it was accepted. I told all of my teachers. It wasn’t until I was several years older that I realized that the publisher accepted everyone who sent a poem with the hope of selling the writer the anthology in which the work appeared. After I found out, I felt completely duped (especially since my kind parents had, of course, purchased the anthology).
In high school, I often sent really terribly sentimental, inspirational-verse-type poems to the local newspaper. Though I took them quite seriously at the time, and would now like to give a shout-out to the high school friends who suffered through reading them, I sincerely hope that they were never archived anywhere.
My first real success came when I was almost 19, in my second semester of college, and I stopped writing only sonnets and couplets on the advice of my first creative writing professor, Bruce McGinnis. It was like an awakening, that I didn’t have to be so constricted and formal. I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before. The same semester, some of my work won second place in the Texas Association of Creative Writing Teachers’ annual competition (McGinnis had entered my work into the contest without telling me). The pieces were published in the association newsletter and the college paid for me to travel to the conference that year to do my first reading. That gave me the confidence I needed to start sending my work to legitimate places, to think that maybe poetry could be more than a pastime. My real poet self slowly grew from there, and is, I hope, still growing.
3 Poems by Kelly Nelson
Followed by Q&A
I set foot
in the Tick Tock Diner
say my mother’s
“Are you related to…”
“Are you related to…”
I don’t know, am I related?
They tell me he was tall.
Smart. Athletic. Good
looking. “He could’ve
How come I’ve never heard of him?
in the Minnesota nice:
“He was …
“All the girls were heart
broken. He could’ve
I double back and re-ask, the part about being a thug.
“Oh, Lars shouldn’t have told you that.”
“Oh, I was hoping you wouldn’t find that out.”
Find out that
Find out that I am
• • •
Here I am
walking these streets
abandoned creamery, empty silos, long-gone train station.
Walking these streets
are people who knew
this uncle I never knew
who remember his name
remember what he’d done
silent hints to the stranger
I am here.
• • •
Beautiful small town girl
girl who became my mother
you raised me
a reporter, an anthropologist craving
You must have known
dig him up.
Reading microfilm scrolls at the Otter Tail Library
Caught in Siege
Man Wanted As Suspect
in the slaying
of a gas station attendant
Sheriffs and deputies
agents of the State Bureau
of Criminal Apprehension
lay in wait
Over a loudspeaker
or shots would be
through a window
of a cabin
Lake, a cabin
of stolen cigarettes
and one stolen pistol
boxes of ammunition
and two women
of Clear Water
the wanted man
the brother my mother
never mentioned she had.
What the English teacher, Gym teacher, Chaplain, Librarian, House Father, Principal and Superintendent said about him at Red Wing Training School for Boys
This boyhas been baptized and confirmed
but has never read the Bible
reads adventure and mystery stories
though is not to be trusted to properly handle books
is fairly trustworthy
but needs to be held in check
This boyhas not demonstrated a healthy attitude toward Church activities
though he is very neat and clean about his person
seems always on the verge of mischief
but is not actually in trouble often
seems to give up easily
though he participates in basketball and softball
This boyhas done very well
except for two escapes
gets along well with the group
but doesn’t seem to have any real friends
gets along well in Phy Ed class
except for his excessive use of profanity
more than any other boy in the schoo
• • •
There is a wall here that needs breaking down.
There is an inherent sullenness
a latent resentment
a smoldering belligerency
hidden deep within this boy’s make-up.
He needs superior force.
He needsthe teachings of the church.
He needs the consistent discipline of a farm.
• • •
This boy asked if he could
be placed on a farm
said he would prefer a farm
to his mother’s home
said he would like to work a farm
in North Dakota
though he has no particular farm in mind.
On a farm the boy
could prove himself.
A farm would be valuable
for his personality adjustment.
• • •
Thirteen months later
two inches taller
twelve pounds heavier
blank lines on his Visitors Record
this boy is released
to his home town
and his mother.
Kelly Nelson is the author of the chapbook Rivers I Don’t Live By (Concrete Wolf, 2014). Her poetry has appeared or soon will in RHINO, Quarter After Eight, Found Poetry Review, Another Chicago Magazine and the 2015 Best American Experimental Writing anthology. She received a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts in support of the lyric, found biography she’s writing about her outlaw uncle. She chairs her city’s public art commission and teaches Interdisciplinary Studies at Arizona State University. Visit her website at www.kelly-nelson.com
Q: “Found” poems demand a different skill, to take the words available and shape them into a cohesive poem. Can you talk about the process and pleasures of found versus non-found poetry?
A: I am writing about a man (my uncle) who spent nearly 20 years in prison and generated a very long paper trail. Found poetry provides me with techniques for incorporating the voices of judges, wardens, detectives and psychologists into my poems. The language I’m borrowing from prison records, letters and newspaper accounts helps to capture the 1950s and 1960s in a way my own vocabulary in 2015 might not.
Q: Share with us the experience of digging through a newspaper morgue or ancient microfilm to find the stories that become these poems.
A: One of the most memorable moments from my days spent in archives: a research librarian instructed me to put on white gloves before handling a mug shot of my uncle.
Q: What kind of dislocations have you experienced, in mediating between the stories told by family and those told by authorities?
A: I wish there were more family stories about my uncle. He wasn’t talked about. I spent half my life not knowing he even existed. The book I’m writing is very personal to me yet it’s about a person I never met. I’m trying to track down friends and accomplices, people who knew him as an adult, to hear their stories about him.
Q: When did you begin writing, and what was your first publication?
A: I began writing poetry in high school and had my first poem published in a literary journal right after college. Then I stopped, or I should say, I shifted. I worked as a journalist, I worked as an editor, I went to graduate school and studied anthropology. And then, during a snow delay at the Houston Airport in 2009, I returned to writing poetry and have been publishing my work since 2010.
3 Poems by Gabriel Welsch
Followed by Q&A
If you must look at the sky
and see God in every stiff
cloud peaked like Cool Whip,
save me further deductions.
The world, clearly, is not enough
with you. The gassy, bloated
white holds plumes of ice
noxious with what we mortals
cook and spew to hue the pink
of a smoggy sunset’s show.
The clouds are as simple a soup
as earth. And earth the accident
of a star, like that one shot
in the shower some Thursday
before the day’s indignities.
Embrace this accident as proof
of numbers—what the endless
can do, given enough chance.
Letter to the Saints
You must have been giant
to spread yourselves so well
across time zones your minions
could not foresee in the days
this ball of rock was flat.
Extra metatarsals and meta-
carpals, hair down to your ass,
extra biomass to keep popes
in business, peasants in pews.
Your reliquaries tell of your
copiousness, of the elephantine
coupling that spawned
your excess of body and—it seems—
tolerance and virtue. The pope
is not an excellency but
an immensity—hills quiver
at his step and the air blanches
in hope it is enough to inspire
the holy lungs, the sacred alveoli,
the bronchial passages
of divine express—and the Christ
of course suffered in a skin
made frail and small, too normal
to resist the nails for long,
too ready for the thorns,
too ready for the language
it would inspire. There
is that word again, that call
of breath, of spirit, of light—
of more meanings than we have
time for here in these words,
this column thick and long
like a finger held up to point
at the sky, at what we hope
is God, at what we want
to be better than earth.
On a Week with a Bombing, a Factory Explosion, and Two Earthquakes
I don’t engage with tragedy.
Even as you mourn the freshest loss
another occurs, and so in your wailing
you have announced one more important
than another, due to the random
sequence of events. Unless, that is, you believe
in God, in which case it is all part of a plan,
which means God has chosen some as deserving
of death, which means we have invented something
that has decided to foster our prejudices.
For that, we should cease all talk of equality.
Let the rich pave their roads, and deign
That we may do so. Let the children starve,
Happy to acquiesce to the plan. Let us have
At one another with knives or our clawing hands,
Pulling flesh and earth toward us as a deity
Wishes. Let us flail at the oceans
As they eat away at our ground. Let us breathe
The sooty air as it strangles us with the fortunes
of those who, uncaring, enjoy the will of god.
Gabriel Welsch writes fiction and poetry, and is the author of four collection of poems, the newest being The Four Horsepersons of a Disappointing Apocalypse (Steel Toe Books, 2013). Recent work has appeared in Moon City Review, Weave, Main Street Rag, Mid-American Review, Heavy Feather Review, Digital Americana, Tupelo Quarterly, Quarter After Eight, and New Letters. He lives in Huntingdon, PA, with his family, works as vice president of advancement and marketing at Juniata College, and is an occasional teacher at the Chautauqua Writer’s Center.
Q: Your precise and clear-eyed poems put me in mind of Frost’s “Design” – “What but design of darkness to appall?” Any reflections on that poem or poet?
A: It’s hard not to like Frost, and for me the word that catches me in your question is “precise.” While acknowledging how subjectivity aggravates precision, and nodding to the fuzzy unknown that animates many poets, for me precision is one of the joys of writing, when I find a way to say something that resonates as real, with bonus points in the methods are surprising and unconventional. Frost makes that look easy much of the time, and I admire that about his work. I’d not read “Design” (or recalled having read it) before this prompt, but it is a fine example that reifies much of what I feel about his work.
Q: Television news seems to have added the role of hired mourner/keener to that of town crier. Is it possible not to “engage with tragedy” in a media-saturated world – how can that be accomplished?
A: I worry that television news has made it harder to “engage with tragedy” due to what we know about its manipulative techniques. Because so much coverage is politicized, amplified, and extreme, the danger to me is to grow more distant and critical—at least, that’s how I feel. More numb and inured than engaged most of the time. That’s part of the impulse that resulted in the poem, and as I considered how easy it was to step away, I imagined other viewpoints that might make it easy to dismiss, particularly as some reactions are ones of futility, ascribing horrible things to some greater plan. So, to answer your question, I do think one can work at disengaging (though the poem contradicts its opening line, which was part of the game) by becoming numb to it.
Q: The saints indeed have some interesting physical attributes - I’ve always been drawn to Wilgefortis, known as St. Uncumber, who grew a beard to foil plans for an unwanted marriage. Your saints encompass space and time – but is there one in the official calendar who intrigues you, and why?
A: There is not a particular saint to whom I gravitate. I just find the idea of reliquaries bat-shit ridiculous and surreal. And they are ubiquitous, such that I then start to wonder about supply and demand on that, and imagined that the saints, upon being beatified, suddenly ballooned so that there was enough biomass to go around. That said, I often think of St. Jude, who I have heard described as the Patron Saint of Lost Causes, mainly because my now deceased maternal grandmother gave a medallion of St. Jude to my sister to keep in her car, and that association perturbed my sister. The only other might be St. Urho, as I worked with a guy of Finnish descent who would always celebrate (to the extent that reticent Scandinavians celebrate (that would be his joke) St. Urho’s day by wearing the purple and green.
Q: When did you begin writing, and what was your first publication?
A: I have always written, but did not begin writing seriously until the early 1990s when I discovered writing workshops as an undergrad at Penn State. My first publication was in an Ohio journal, Confluence, in 1996, with a poem titled, “Domestic.” I was in the first year of earning my MFA in fiction, but a friend who attended open mic nights regularly heard me read it and suggested I send it to his friends at that literary magazine.
Spring Peepers by N. West Moss
Followed by Q&A
Part 1: Nineteen
Like all nineteen year olds she at once assumed she was perfect, deeply flawed (which anyone might realize at any moment), and was unaware that this was the pinnacle of her life, that she would never be more anything than she was right now. It would only be in deep retrospect, in mourning for what she had once had and misunderstood, many years later, that she would understand how natural and complete her perfection had been at nineteen, how all nineteen-year-olds were perfect, really, just buds opening, perfect in their ripeness. Maybe by the time she was fifty, she would be able to distill her sense of her once-self and know, with regret at not having known at the time, what she had once possessed and unwittingly squandered.
As it was, at nineteen, she behaved with profound assurance while being secretly so insecure that she could be talked out of almost anything with a casual comment. She was certain, for instance, that she was ready to make mistakes and was in a hurry about it. With no one to play devil’s advocate, she grew more sure, dropped out of college and moved to St. Croix, just like that, confidence and ignorance being so often the same thing.
On the island of St. Croix, she stayed with a friend of a friend and his girlfriend, who introduced her to hard-core veganism, sprouts and soy shakes in the morning, pot and complicated rum drinks at night. He helped her buy her first car, a ’69 VW bug sedan hand-painted a turquoise green that the Rastas on the island simply could not get over. “How much you want for that car?” they’d shout at her at stoplights. “I’ll give you fifty bucks!”
She learned how to drive a stick shift, and how hard it was to drive a stick shift on the left side of the road, and when a cop pulled her over, she learned that a person’s supposed to buy car insurance when they buy a car. “No one told me,” she said. He let her go. Thank God this had happened here, where no one would ever see how little she actually understood.
She got a job at a restaurant in the middle of Christiansted where young waitresses wore bright-colored sarongs so they looked like a tourist’s cheesy version of sexy tropical flowers.
At night after the restaurant closed, the wait staff and bartenders stole whatever crappy bottle of liquor the owner wouldn’t miss, and drank it on the beach. One night it was peppermint schnapps. They did shots of it and all kissed one another slowly, laughing under the moon, waking in the morning on the beach with splitting headaches, feeling like the rising sun was trying to murder them with its brightness.
Sex, of course, was utmost, and she set her sights on Bobby, an older guy in his 30s who was a frequent customer at the restaurant. He was Irish-looking with red curly hair and freckles, and came in late every night for a scotch. He wore salmon-colored Izods with the starched collars standing straight up. It was the eighties. All the other waitresses wanted him and that was enough for her to choose him over the other guys she could have had.
Her entire strategy was to ignore him. She was pretty sure no one had ever tried that before, that she had invented the concept of playing hard to get. And miraculously, to her anyway, it worked. When he came in for his drink, she brushed up against him then turned away and spoke to someone else - simple as that. By the second night, the bartender said that Bobby had been asking about her schedule, and on the third night, after trying to get her attention a few times, he walked up to her and just said, “Have dinner with me.”
“When?” she asked.
“You tell me,” he said. She said the next night would be good, but wait, no sorry, that wouldn’t work. Maybe next week? His lean toward her became more pronounced. He was handsome, he really was, and boy did he like her.
“Call me,” she said, and left without giving him her number. They were both intoxicated by her power.
He came in the next night at the beginning of her shift. She asked him, “So, what are you doing tonight?” and he whispered, “Whatever you tell me to do.” It made her laugh. She said, “I’m done by 1:00a.m.” He was parked outside by quarter of.
She followed him in her turquoise VW out to where he was house-sitting, a palace on a hill with a gray/blue Great Dane who sat at the outdoor pool with them, one massive paw on top of the other. The pool was shaped like a lake and was lined in dark blue mosaic tiles. Bobby brought out a bottle of Champagne for her, a bottle of scotch for himself, and a little bowl of coke for them both. They swam in their underwear beneath the stars, the Great Dane looking on, expressionless.
She left a trail behind her as they stumbled through the house to the master bedroom. Her purse was by the door somewhere, her sarong on the floor after that, her underwear (still wet from the pool) slapped onto the tile floor, her shoes, her earrings all along the way. They never turned on a light. He began kissing her somewhere just inside the front door, saying nice things, like, “You’re too pretty for me.”
He tasted of cigarettes and scotch, which was a new taste to her and so not unpleasant, the way it might have been if she had been a little bit older. His arms were strong and she could feel every single cell in his entire body focused right at her. She loved it. “Look at you,” he said, shaking his head and laughing as he stood while taking off his shoes. “Are you sure about this?”
“Come on,” she said, kneeling on the bed, naked, “I’m sure.” Before climbing in with her, he took a big drink from the scotch bottle he’d carried in, then crawled to her and tipped her slowly down onto the pillows. She heard the Great Dane sigh and settle on the floor nearby.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, a few minutes into sex, she became aware of something weird happening, like Bobby was on automatic pilot or something. His body was still moving, but he stopped murmuring to her, stopped holding her face, and almost the exact second that he came, almost that exact moment, he began snoring, almost before he even finished, while he was still rolling off of her.
She had only been with one other guy, a serious high school boyfriend, and wasn’t sure what to do. She said, “Bobby,” a few times and poked him, but he didn’t respond, leaving her disappointed and confused. Then out of nowhere, he made a gurgling noise like he was clearing his throat, turned over, sat up, scratched at the red hair on his chest, smacking his lips together loudly, saying something she couldn’t make out.
She heard the Great Dane’s nails clicking on the tile floor coming up to her side of the bed. The moonlight made Bobby visible as he arose; he walked to the end of the bed and stood there, his feet wide apart. Then she heard it, a steady, strong stream of urine against the foot of the bed. She froze, one hand on the dog. Bobby farted loudly. The stream stopped and then started again. She held her finger up to her mouth telling the dog to keep quiet. Bobby finished, then got back into bed and began snoring again almost before his head hit the pillow.
She looked deep into the dog’s soulful eyes. “Get me the fuck outta here,” she thought, and in the dark, she slowly, silently, like a thief, retraced her steps, getting her earrings off the bedside table, feeling around for her underwear, damp from the pool still, and then her sarong and her shoes, and finally her purse.
The dog stood at the front door with her, looking like “Take me with you.” She whispered, “Sorry man,” tip-toeing barefoot out into the night, closing the door as quietly as she could behind her.
She was still riled up from the seduction and the cocaine, and was scared that Bobby might wake up and want to talk or something, God forbid. She rifled through her bag frantically looking for her car keys until she remembered they were still in the ignition. The old VW was facing down the long driveway and she got in, locked the doors, and eased off the hand brake so that it started to roll. Not wanting to wake Bobby, she didn’t start the car until she was halfway down the driveway, and then, best as she could in the old car, sped away.
She didn’t really know how to get from this part of the island to her place, but St. Croix was small enough, and she’d find her way home eventually. She opened all of her windows, smelling the ocean air and then started up a long, winding hill that the moon was sitting on top of. She took in big whiffs of the night-blooming jasmine, feeling more and more relieved the farther away from Bobby she got.
But when she crested the hill, a hill she had never crested before on a part of the island that was virgin territory for her, she was confronted unexpectedly by the neon, belching, terrifying Hess Oil Refinery down in the valley, taking up her entire view. It was lit up like daytime, with several chimneys that threw fire twenty feet into the night sky, a grotesque cross between the Emerald City and some gulag she had read about in high school only last year. She took her foot off the gas and the car stalled, and there she sat at the top of the hill in the moonlight.
There was nowhere to go but forward, so she started the car again and drove, trying not to even look at the refinery as it passed her on the right, mile after mile, stinking of rotten eggs. She didn’t know why she was sort of crying, and then why she was sort of laughing. The whole night, maybe everything, was just so disappointing, so much lamer than it promised to be. Was it all like this? Was being on your own really this horrendously underwhelming?
Bobby came by the restaurant the next day and had brunch with some friends in her station. She gave the table to another waitress, who wanted to know how the date had gone, and of course she didn’t tell the truth. She just smiled and shrugged, trying to look mysterious instead of humiliated and confused.
He had his collar up, of course, when he came to her, and put his hands on the bar on either side of her, all smiles. He leaned into her ear and she could feel all the other waitresses watching, which she liked, the being watched, the evidence that she had gotten someone none of the others could have, even as she recoiled inwardly from him, pitied him, hated him a little even. “I’m sorry,” he whispered in her ear. “I was kind of an animal last night.”
“Yes,” she said, “you were.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll ever go out with me again?” he said, still whispering, smiling, leaning.
“No,” she said, laughing. “No, I will not,” aware that to outsiders watching them, she and Bobby looked intimate.
“Give me another chance,” he said, leaning, leaning. “I could do so much better.”
She smiled and blinked slowly. “Not with me you can’t.”
“But they don’t need to know, right?” He tilted his head toward the rest of the room, at all the pretty waitresses who were watching them. It dawned on her that she had the power to salvage something for them both here, if she handled it right.
“They don’t need to know,” she said, standing on her toes and kissing him on the mouth, slowly, right in front of everyone. “Now go away,” she whispered, and he went, smiling and shaking his head.
She heard him mutter, “Holy shit” as he walked away.
Later, the let-down of the oil refinery and of Bobby coalesced into one disappointment when she thought back on her year in St. Croix, the rotten-egg-stink always just over the hill, just as things started to get good.
Part 2: Fifty
What a rotten decade this had been. It had taken her father years to die, for one very major thing. At the hospital a few years back she’d seen the worst thing she thought a person could see, her father asleep in his hospital bed, his gown pulled up oddly and his wrinkled pink penis and balls sitting there, stuck onto him like a Mr. Potato Head nose and mustache. “Put out my eyes,” she’d joked to her husband. “Put out my eyes.”
But it turned out that seeing her father’s genitals was not the worst thing she’d see by a long shot. When he’d panicked, for instance, disoriented and drugged and had crapped on the bathroom wall in the hospital, that was worse, and worse still was that the poor guy knew what he had done and was frantically ashamed.
And worse than that was sitting with him in the nursing home, month after month. When it was time to leave, he’d reach for her hand and say, “How will you know where to find me?” His eyes would get big and watery and she’d sit back down.
“I’ll come look for you right here.”
“I hope you can find me. I just hope you can find me again.” She’d finally have to pull her hand away and go home, hoping all night that she would be able to find him again in the morning. He’d had a place in the heart of New York City, just off Bryant Park, his kitchen shelves overflowing with unopened bottles of Champagne…it was hard to reconcile this before and after.
And sadder than all of that even, after he died, was when her mom told her, “I can’t hear the spring peepers any more.” Endless, over-lapping endings, one after the other, stretching on forever without relief. It made life hard to look at straight on sometimes.
But it wasn’t just her dad’s protracted death that wore her out, or her mother’s increasing age. Grown-up life was a lot of hard work for almost no reward. The furnace broke or the roof leaked, or just when she thought she was catching up, her property taxes would jump. She was slightly failing at everything, and after her father’s death, life had backed up on her like a 10-mile traffic jam. She was fifty and felt like cortisol was dripping from every pore.
At the end of the semester, she go away, she’d take a year, is what she’d do, to try and let the years of fruitless labor and endless mourning wash over her and away, she hoped. She’d take walks. She’d listen to people. She’d never rush anyone on the road or at the supermarket. She’d try to right herself, however a person did that.
On the final day of the semester, her husband got up early and helped her pack the car. “Don’t forget to come back home,” he said, nuzzling her neck sleepily in the driveway. His hair smelled like their pillows.
She had a meeting in Virginia the next day and planned to make a trip of it, stopping at a farm in Caseville with a man in his eighties who had been a friend of the family for forever. “With Dad’s death,” she had written to him, “I feel a constriction of the inner circle, and so I’d like to see you, even if it’s just for a cup of coffee.” He’d written back, “Come stay at the farm for a night and I’ll buy you a nice meal.”
She pulled into his driveway in Virginia in time for dinner, the early May sun still hanging in the sky. Peering through the glass front door of his house, she saw him, white-haired and ghost-like. She rang the doorbell but he didn’t hear it, so she knocked and shouted, “Hello!” and he turned, smiled, and waved her in.
He had a full head of white hair, preppy clothes and opinions about everything. He was upset, for instance, that his fifty year old son wanted to be an actor. “I don’t know what to do,” he said over his first martini at dinner. “He’s throwing his life away.”
“He’s fifty,” she told him, “there’s nothing for you to do anymore.”
“I like you,” he said. “You’re terrific,” and for a moment she knew he was right. She could see how her laughter fed the old man, echoed the real happinesses of his youth. He said, “Oh, I’m having so much fun.”
“Me too,” she said, and patted his hand, thinking of her dad, gone only a few months.
They split a steak and he said, an impish grin on his face, “How about a second martini?”
“Sure,” she said, “what the hell.”
Back in the farm’s driveway, the moon had risen. He turned off the car and said, “I’m just going to call my girlfriend. Would you say hello to her? I’ve told her all about you.”
“Of course,” she said, getting out of the car and stretching. She could smell cut grass and the sky was a lovely navy color with light still behind it like the blue of a stained glass window.
“Oh, Patricia,” she heard him shout into his cell phone “we’re having the best time. You’d love her. Yes. Yes. Maybe on her way back.”
She watched him talk to Patricia in the driveway, and realized that a stream of urine was arcing from his pants, hitting the gravel in a strong, unself-conscious, horse-like jet. She almost laughed, but it wasn’t exactly funny, or rather it was the kind of funny that made her wish she was far away. He handed her the phone, and she chatted with Patricia, watching him to see if he had become aware of what had happened, but he gave no indication that he had. He had a wet circle the size of a dinner plate on the front of his Chinos, and when he led her upstairs to show her the room she’d stay in, she saw that he had an enormous wet circle on the back of his Chinos too.
He turned to her on the stairs. “It was a happy marriage,” he said down to her, “between your mother and father. Was it?”
“Yes,” she said, “yes. They were happy together, right up until the end.”
At her bedroom door, she said, “I’ll be gone before you get up in the morning so we should say our goodbyes now.”
He hugged her, and she hugged him back. She had seen much worse, and would see worse still that she couldn’t even yet imagine. Who knew when or if she’d ever see him again, and she’d come to learn that the moments that most make you want to run away from were the ones you had to stay for, or regret. She’d learned that proper goodbyes inoculated you against swarming clouds of regret.
He smiled at her with such sweetness that she put her hand on his face a moment and smiled back, feeling an enormously vulnerable patch of stubble on his cheek that his razor had missed that morning.
She listened while he descended the stairs and could see from her window, which was in a sort of a wing of the house, that he’d turned off his bedroom light almost immediately. She waited another few minutes and then tiptoed downstairs, careful not to make a sound. Once in the car, she locked the doors and eased off the handbrake, letting the car roll halfway down the driveway before turning the key in the ignition.
With many hours to kill before her meeting in Charlottesville, she took the back roads and drove slowly, feeling better and better the farther she got from the old man asleep in the farmhouse. She drove way below the speed limit, her windows all the way down so she could smell the early spring smell of cut grass and turned-over fields. There were deer along the side of the road, bathed in blue moonlight welling up thinly in the night like ghosts.
The best she could figure out to offer was to bear simple witness as the people she loved failed and righted themselves…and failed again. She’d do her best to right herself, now. What else was there for her to do?
She was glad to be driving farther away from home. It meant that, eventually, she’d have to choose to turn around and head back, whenever that might be. Her husband would be there, smelling like sleep. She could hear the spring peepers off in the fields, and a dog barking far away, faintly.
N. West Moss is the winner of The Great American Fiction Contest of 2015 from The Saturday Evening Post. Her work has also won two Faulkner-Wisdom gold medals (fiction and non-fiction), and Lunch Ticket's Diana Woods Memorial Prize for creative non-fiction (out of Antioch). She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, MacDowell and Cill Rialaig. She has completed a collection of short stories, which is looking for a home, and she is at work on the final draft of her first novel, set in New Orleans in 1878.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The first half of the piece (from when I was nineteen) has been with me for about thirty years, but didn’t have enough of an arc to make it a story. The moment that the second half happened last summer, I was stunned at the way the two stories reverberated off one another. I was driving through the back roads of Virginia mulling it all over, and felt compelled to write it down.
Megan Mayhew Bergman's Almost Famous Women, reviewed by Sarah McCraw Crow
Megan Mayhew Bergman
Almost Famous Women
Megan Mayhew Bergman’s new story collection, Almost Famous Women, features fictionalized versions of real women who lived daring, unusual lives, who as a result of that daring were often forced to society’s edges. These are mostly women whose names we vaguely recall or else never learned, such as the artist Romaine Brooks, daredevil motorcyclist Hazel Eaton, dancer Lucia Joyce, motorboat racer M.B. “Joe” Carstairs, Oscar Wilde’s niece Dolly Wilde, Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter Allegra Byron, pilot and writer Beryl Markham, jazz musician Tiny Davis. Many of these thirteen stories share a time frame – early-to-mid 20th century, when the Great War still reverberated and racism, sexism, and homophobia were more blatant – and a few characters show up in more than one story.
The stories’ narrators tend to be the women standing behind or next to the almost-famous women. In “The Siege at Whale Cay,” Georgie, who once worked as a mermaid showgirl at a Florida spring and is now kept by boyish heiress Joe Carstairs, recounts a debauched 1930s gathering at Whale Cay, Joe’s private island where celebrities, politicians, and misfits go to escape. Georgie tries to make sense of her life with Joe, who in turn is tortured by her own past and seems to revel in tyrannical behavior towards Georgie and others.
In “Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period,” we get glimpses of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay through the eyes of her sister Norma, an almost-famous woman herself. We see the before (the sisters’ troubled, threadbare Maine childhood) and the after (Norma at Edna’s farm, after Edna’s death, shooing away or taking in young Millay scholars as she recalls Edna’s morphine habit and decline). And in “Hell-Diving Women,” bus driver and backup musician Ruby narrates a heartbreaking story: She’d do anything for her band-mate Tiny Davis, the self-destructive star of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, their all-female, mostly black big band, as the band travels through Jim Crow-era South. A little scene setting from that story:
“That afternoon they arrive in Kinston, Ruby steering the bus to a spot behind the armory. The girls are already in their dresses and jackets, hair curled, their faces made up for the Tobacco Festival…Anna Mae sits away from the fray in her white column gown, trying to stay clean. Her eyes are closed, but Ruby can see her lips moving, practicing her set. Further back Tiny is running through finger exercises, her trumpet silent, her fingers arched and limber.
“We’re going to start with ‘Jump Children,’” Rae Lee is saying at the front of the bus, clipboard in hand. “And if anyone gets to asking you about what race you are, you just smile and pretend you can’t hear a word, understand?”
Another affecting story is the collection’s first one, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children,” about conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton near the end of their lives. Daisy and Violet have been used and abused since babyhood, and narrator Daisy, the tougher, more impulsive twin, can’t always separate fact from fiction.
Here, Daisy remembers nights onstage at a New York bar:
“Some nights I felt like a woman – the warm stage lights on my face, the right kind of lipstick on, the sound of my voice filling the room, Violet singing harmony. Some nights I felt like two women. Some nights I felt like a two-headed monster. That’s what some drunk had shouted as Violet and I took the stage. Ed had come out from behind his table swinging.”
“At night, our legs intertwined. This was not like touching someone else’s leg. It wasn’t like touching my own, either. It was comforting, warm. We were, despite our minds’ best efforts, one body.”
Despite its noirish title, the story “Who Killed Dolly Wilde?” reminded me of Anita Brookner and even Henry James with its tone and telling, as the mousy friend of glamorous, troubled Dolly Wilde is driven at last to take action. The story is set mostly in World War II London during the Blitz; as the city crumbles and burns, Dolly declines from drug use and cancer.
“(Dolly) spent a lot of time screaming in her bedroom, complaining about the wallpaper. She claimed she couldn’t be left alone with bad wallpaper, because that was how her uncle Oscar had died, and she was his reincarnation, and wasn’t it dangerous to leave a narrative thread dangling that way?”
“Dolly was the exclamation point in my life. She made me feel things: adoration, anger, frustration. She was always in love and it made her glow.”
It’s a complex and fascinating story. The diction felt slightly off, though; some of the phrasing (“track marks,” “cane” instead of walking stick) made the narrator feel more like a 21st-century American woman and less like an Englishwoman born at or before the turn of the 20th century.
Bergman has also effectively reworked Shirley Jackson’s chilling story “The Lottery,” giving the fatal lottery a reason beyond tradition. I was intrigued to read it, but still wished for another story about a real Almost Famous Woman.
I appreciate writers who manage to combine historical fiction and short stories, illuminating an odd character or corner of history; I’m thinking of writers like Jim Shepard and Lauren Groff. Bergman’s stories make a terrific addition to this category. Almost Famous Women’s stories peer closely at these women of an earlier era who were driven to make art, break barriers, or even just love another woman, whose drive often made them difficult and demanding (though surely no more difficult and demanding than men who made art or broke barriers). And in letting the friends, sisters, and servants of these women do most of the telling, Bergman gives us nuanced, surprising stories. It’s an affecting collection.