Welcome to Issue No. 73 of Prime Number
A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose
Letter from the Editor
We are publishing this issue, No. 73, on July 19, 2015, our 5th birthday. It was exactly five years ago today that we published our very first issue. It's been an exciting ride! I'd like to thank Val Nieman, our poetry editor for the full five years, as well as current editors Jon Chopan (fiction) and Amy Monticello (nonfiction), and of course Kevin Morgan Watson and Press 53, our publisher, without whom the magazine would not be possible.
In this issue we have, as always, some outstanding stories, essays, and poems. We also have three book reviews and a craft essay that we hope you'll enjoy.
Looking ahead, our next issue will be our contest issue. We recently announced the winners and finalists of the Second Annual Prime Number Magazine Awards and we'll be publishing the top three entries in Short Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry in Issue No. 79
e have been closed to submissions of late while we work through our backlog. If you have submitted to the magazine but haven't heard from us, please be patient. We'll respond as soon as possible.
One more thing: Prime Number Magazine is published by Press 53, a terrific small press helping to keep literature alive. Please support independent presses and bookstores.
Issue 73, July-September 2015
Life in Meetings by Peter Able
Followed by Q&A
My life consists of meetings. I have meetings with my therapist and my psychiatrist. I have my A.A. meetings and my group therapy meetings. I have meetings with my sponsor, meetings with my girlfriend.
“Try to get plugged in.” my sponsor says. “Get some guys numbers and use them.”
“Yeah, I know,” I say.
Reaching out—this is a big part of the Program. It’s all forced at first but eventually it becomes normal, like a reflex. My therapist calls it, “exposure therapy.” The idea is to “expose” yourself to the things that make you uncomfortable so that it will become easier. My brother says it’s about widening your comfort zone.
I go to a meeting and fail to get any phone numbers. After the meeting I think about talking to someone and the thought causes me to flee from the room like a man on fire. On the walk home I am hard on myself. The next day I talk to my sponsor on the phone.
“So you didn’t get any numbers, it’s not the end of the world. Did you try at least?” he asks.
“No, I didn’t try,” I say.
“Okay, well, it’s something we need to work on.” He says “we” and it is comforting.
I like my sponsor. He isn’t a hard ass. He’s patient. I’ve had sponsors in the past that didn’t have time for me if I wasn’t doing everything exactly as they say. That type of behavior just turns me off. I need to be allowed to think that I have free will.
I have a meeting with my psychiatrist.
“It’s my imagination. I can’t control it,” I say. “I’ll think that everyone in the world is in on something that I’m not part of. And then I think people can read my mind and it’s overwhelming and I’m frozen in fear.”
“Well there’s a number of SSRI’s you can take.”
This is a typical meeting. I talk about complicated problems and he winds up discussing medication. I guess that’s what I should expect. He’s just a psychiatrist, after all.
My girlfriend is a very understanding person. Or so she says.
“You’re lucky I’m so understanding,” she says. She says this all the time.
I do count myself lucky though. Not many people would put up with someone as neurotic as I am.
“Hello, darling,” she says. She is petite and beautiful.
After sex she humors me and we take turns reading from the Alcoholics Anonymous textbook.
“Rarely have we seen a person fail…” she reads. The words are comforting because they are familiar, but I do not fully believe them. I’m having a spell of cynicism.
“Let’s do something tomorrow.” says my girlfriend.
“I have my noon meeting tomorrow.” I say.
“That’s fine. We can do something after.”
“It’s Tuesday. I have my appointment with my therapist.”
She is indeed very understanding. But I think it is beginning to frustrate her, like she’s had about enough.
“I think my girlfriend has had about enough.” I say. My therapist searches my face for a clue.
“Has she said something?”
“No, but she looks at me in such a way.”
“So then you don’t really know. You may just be projecting.”
Most days nothing profound is said. A lot of the time it is just me rambling to fill the hour. Occasionally he’ll redirect or challenge me but mostly he just lets me go on chattering.
After therapy my girlfriend comes over and we watch a horror movie. We cuddle up on the couch. She has brought a tub of caramel corn.
“If you can catch one in your mouth we can do anything you want to do tomorrow.”
She knows I cannot do this. It has been tested.
I toss a piece of caramel corn into the air with tilted head and it smacks me right on the forehead. She laughs.
“Okay, same to you.” I say.
“Okay, but it might mean skipping your group therapy.”
She tosses one up and catches it easily. I do not want to skip my group therapy. Not that anything bad would happen, but nothing good would happen either.
I go to an A.A. meeting.
Me: “Dan, alcoholic.”
Group: “Hi, Dan”
Me: “I just wanted to tell on myself. I had the thought of a drink today. I just wanted to escape. Everything has got me feeling boxed in. So, yeah, that’s everything. Thanks for letting me share.”
Group: “Thanks for sharing.”
I feel relieved even though I had lied. I didn’t feel like drinking. I felt like dying. I suppose it was just a little white lie. Either way I feel better after my share.
After the meeting I get two people’s numbers who come to talk with me. Now I have something good to tell my sponsor. I am working the Program.
“That’s good. How do you feel?” asks my sponsor.
“I feel good, like I accomplished something.”
“You did,” he says. “You did accomplish something. Don’t belittle it.”
My girlfriend is proud of me even though she doesn’t really understand the Program.
“Are you going to call them?” she asks.
“Maybe not. It feels strange.” I say.
She understands this. If I had said I wanted to call them she would think it odd, I think. She’s at my place in jeans and a blue sweater. We start up and then we’re reading the Big Book again.
“Most of us have been unwilling to admit we were real alcoholics,” she reads.
I listen and the world fades away. I am allowed to be helpless. I am allowed my faults, my weaknesses. I am working the Program. This is how my life is measured.
“How’s your relationship with your girlfriend?” asks my sponsor.
“It’s good. It’s really good. Only I think she is getting bored with me.” I say.
“Well maybe you need to surprise her somehow.”
“I don’t think she likes surprises.” I say.
“Well you would know better than me,” my sponsor replies.
The idea of surprising my girlfriend sticks with me. It might go very well, I think. But at the same time I see how it could go bad. What would it be? Flowers? Jewelry? A reservation at a romantic restaurant? An engagement? I ran the possibilities and outcomes over and over in my mind.
“How have you been feeling lately?” asks my psychiatrist.
“I’m having racing thoughts in the evening.”
“And how long has that been the case?”
“About the time I started taking the SSRI’s,” I say.
The doctor hears what I have to say but is hesitant to give up on the medicine altogether. With his beard and thinning hair he cuts the dose in half and sends me on my way. I will take it but I will do so ironically.
Me: “I’m Dan, alcoholic.”
Group: “Hi, Dan.”
Me: “I’m struggling with dealing with life on life’s terms. I’m worried things won’t turn out how I want them to. I feel like I don’t have the courage to change the things I want to change. I don’t even know if they should be changed at all. I guess I need to pray for the wisdom. Yeah, I guess that’s my answer. I need to pray more. I hardly ever do. That’s it. Thanks.”
Group: “Thanks for sharing.”
The guy that shares after me is high on life. He’s belabors a point. His point is that he is good at working the Program, that others should emulate him. “That’s what works for me,” he says with false modesty. His self-righteousness tears at me like a garment caught on a rusty nail.
Despite this one person’s share, I do get the charge I was looking for. I feel more confident after meetings. It begs the question, ‘Why don’t I go to more meetings?’ I think it’s pride. I want to do things on my own. I want to prove to myself that A.A. isn’t my entire life like it seems for so many others.
“So you’re not enjoying meetings?” my sponsor asks.
“No, not really.” I say
“Well they’re not meant to be enjoyed. They’re our medicine. You have to take your medicine.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“No not ‘I guess.’ That’s how it is.” he says.
My sponsor seems to be frustrated by my lack of progress. I should have been asking him about doing a Step Five but I was still struggling with steps one and two. He must be tired of answering the same questions, I think. Oh, well. That’s what he is there for.
At group therapy everyone speaks but me and a middle-aged black woman. She has her reasons just as I have mine. My reason is that I’m scared. I don’t want to waste everyone’s time with my petty grievances. Everyone else’s problems seem so urgent. When there is a lull in the conversation I feel compelled to speak but I do not, neither does the middle-aged black woman.
A lesbian with a nose piercing always speaks about her marriage.
“It’s like I’m the only one trying. It’s just so easy for her and that’s my main problem with her. She doesn’t have to try but her not trying makes me jealous so that makes me think she should be trying. I feel justified. I don't know.” she says sobbing.
There isn’t much I can take away from this. It’s not all gems. But I do get something out of it, I think. Hearing people talk about their problems day-in-day-out does something for me. I guess that’s how group therapy works. That’s all I know about it anyway.
My therapist calls. I have forgotten our appointment. He says if I come right now we can still do it. I leave right away and arrive at 5:30.
“So how is your relationship?” asks my therapist. I feel as though he is prying. But that’s what I pay him for, I guess.
“Good, you know,” I say. “We see each other almost every day. We never fight. Everything is tranquil.”
“Do you still worry that she is going to break up with you?”
“No, I don’t know. Not really. I guess it was just a passing fear. But at the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised. She seems a little distant sometimes.” I say.
“Maybe you could surprise her somehow.” This is the second time that has been suggested. Maybe there is something to it.
She comes over after my appointment. She sets down her things inside the door and convenes to the couch. She is looking at me as I change into a sweatshirt. She is expectant. I don’t know if I have what she wants. I sit down next to her.
“How was your day?” I say.
“I finally said something to Carol at work.” she says.
I immediately know what she is talking about. Wasn’t I a good boyfriend? I listened. I cared. She wouldn’t break up with me. She just wouldn’t.
“How are your meetings?” she asks.
“Oh, I don’t know. They’re fine. But I’m getting tired of walking the line.”
“What do you mean? What line?”
“I have ten therapeutic meetings a week. I think it’s a lot for anyone to take.”
“But it’s important for you. It’s important for us.”
My misgivings about her feelings slip away. She is the one. She understands. I come to a decision. I decide I will propose. I will get a ring with my next bonus check. It won’t be much but I think she will be happy with whatever I am able to afford. I am excited.
Me: “I’m Dan. I’m an alcoholic.”
Group: “Hi Dan.”
Me: “I’m doing really well lately. I decided I’m going to propose to my girlfriend. Things just seem like they’re coming together—like they’re starting to click. It just hit me all at once: this is the girl I want to commit to! She is perfect for me. I’m just glad I didn’t lose her before I realized it. I think she will most likely accept the proposal. If I wasn’t I probably wouldn’t be sharing about it now. Anyway, that’s all. Thanks for letting me share.”
Group: “Thanks for sharing.”
After the meeting I am critical of my share. Why did I need to blurt out all that stuff? Did everyone really need to know about my proposal plans? It was all just a pat on my own back. Look at my happiness; I’m doing alright; I’m better than you.
I tell my sponsor I am doing well but that I may have been feeling a little too self-righteous lately.
“Well look,” he says. “When you find this new way of life it’s only natural to want to tell people about it. We just need to be careful of bragging.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’ve been doing—bragging.” I say.
“Okay so what’s the opposite of self-righteousness?”
“Humility?” I say, a little unsure.
“Right, so here’s what you’re going to do: in the morning you’re going to pray for humility. You’re going to ask God to remove your ego from the equation. And then you’re going to try to be of service to others. Do this every day and I guarantee results.”
“Okay.” I say. It is a tall order. I don’t know if I can do all this. I don’t know if I care enough to try. Wasn’t my life already better than it had been? Did I really need to do more? Wasn’t going to therapy and sharing at meetings enough?
To get a jump on the praying I pray that night. I get on my knees and say the Third Step prayer: “God I offer myself to thee…” It all feels sanctimonious and I don’t really buy it. I don’t really believe that saying these words is going to change my life like some sort of magic spell.
I want to call my sponsor and say that it didn’t work but I decide to try a few more times. You hear it in meetings all the time: “Don’t leave before the miracle happens.” I don’t want to be one of the ones who does. I can easily see myself stop attending meetings if I don’t push on with the spiritual side of it.
“You’ve been on the same dose of Lithium for a while now. How do you think it’s been working?” asks my psychiatrist.
I don’t know how to answer this. It’s hard to weigh and measure my own thoughts.
“It’s been good,” I say.
“How has the speed of your thoughts been?”
“They’ve been a little slower, a little more normal since we decreased the SSRI. Can we just stop that altogether?”
Today my girlfriend comes over and I feel unworthy of her. Maybe my praying for humility has overshot the mark. I am extra sweet. I make us tea and sandwiches. She sits on the couch with a blanket on her lap. She seems distracted. I ask her if everything is alright.
“Are you invested in this relationship?”
I am taken aback. This isn’t what I was expecting.
“I am,” I say with heart-felt sincerity.
“Okay, I wasn’t sure,” she says.
She is happy now. She rests her head in the crook of my arm. I think this might be as good a time as any.
Me: “I’m Dan, a grateful recovering alcoholic.”
Group: “Hi, Dan.”
Me: “Things have just been clicking for me lately. I’ve been feeling charged by A.A. I’ve got four months sober and I’m getting ready to start working on my Fourth Step. I proposed to my girlfriend last night and she said ‘Yes.’ I mean, things are just going so well. I can’t believe the change from the hopeless pill popper I was four months ago. If I can do it, anybody can do it. Thanks you guys. Thanks for letting me share.”
Group: “Thanks for sharing.”
Again a tad self-righteous, I think. Oh well. I am working the Program.
Pete Able’s work has appeared in Tsuki Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, Wilderness Literary Review and Forge Journal. He is 33 and lives in Philadelphia.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was surprised at how easy the words came. This piece is largely based on my life and I usually find it harder to write stories that are true.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: In college one of my professors said that some people write for revenge against reality. I think that motivates a lot of my writing.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Donald Barthelme, Tom Robbins, and Haruki Murakami.
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 in a café by hand and then edit and revise on my laptop back in my cave, a studio apartment with little to distract.
The Meat Man by Amanda Pauley
Followed by Q&A
A dirty white truck with a shiny load labored up a lengthy driveway. Brunner’s Meats sent their trucks far and wide, far and wide within the city limits. Rarely did they venture out into Chester County, and never as far as Wabun. Wabun was full up with farms. Full up with cows and manure and chickens and pigs. The people of Wabun did not need store bought frozen meat, but the truck kept on anyway. It rolled along with a large freezer mount in the back. A freezer that was full of prime top sirloin, super trimmed filet mignon, and boneless rib eye. A controlled freezer that discriminated against light colored meats. It bore only the bare minimum of chicken and turkey, three whole of each to be exact. Most of the cold space was dedicated to neatly wrapped strips of deep bloody reds.
The driveway split two hayfields. Then it split two cow pastures, speckled with dozens upon dozens of fat cows, and entered the woods. Great oaks shaded the drive. Dune looked to the right and the left. The woods around him were so thick that one could not see clear space but every now and again where one might squeeze a truck in between tree trunks, but not very far. The driveway broke free from the shade and into a cleared yard with a farmhouse, several barns, and an acre or two of garden.
“How very self-sufficient,” commented Dune as he surveyed what was none of his business. He wore a button up shirt, two buttons undone and a size too small to annunciate his physique, and pants that fit well where pants fit best.
Dune inspected the yard. Two young children sat on overturned buckets shucking corn. They stopped their ripping and tearing and watched the stranger with unforgiving expressions, each gripping a shiny yellow cob with a left hand and freshly torn shucks with a right. Dune’s eyes kept going over the yard and barns as he stepped out of his truck. At the front door to the farm house a middle-aged woman appeared. At the sight of the oval of her face, the thickness of her lips and the size of her wide set eyes and long eyelashes, Dune smiled with satisfaction as if he had been proven right about something.
“Hello ma’am,” Dune said.
She read the red letters on the side of the truck and noted the shiny metal of the freezer as the man stepped closer.
“Hello there. Can I help you?” she asked hesitantly.
“Is the man of the house home?” Dune asked and he was answered with an over here from the barn. Dune turned as a sizeable man stepped out of the shadow of a barn and into the light of the yard. While Dune’s eyes opened a little wider in recognition, the man made no such sign.
“Can I help you?” asked the man.
“Yes sir. I’m selling meat. Are you in need?”
John, the large man, the family man, the man of the farm, blinked and cleared his throat, seeming hard put for a response. He considered the younger man before him, and then looked at the dirty white of the truck and the shiny metal of the freezer and the red letters. John’s gaze went from Dune to the pigpen where no less than twelve pigs rested in the mud and the sun. Hens roamed the yard, and at that very moment a noisy threesome of a screw was taking place between one hen and two competing roosters.
“Meat?” John repeated, sounding unconvinced.
“Yes sir. Prime top sirloin, super trimmed filet mignon, boneless rib eye, and . . .”
“Well Mister . . .”
“Dune,” Dune said.
“Well, Mister Dune …”
“Okay Dune. I don’t need any meat. I have about all I can handle already.”
“I understand that problem, but I can still give you a good deal.”
“But I don’t need any meat,” John repeated moving closer to Dune but then stopping suddenly.
John smelled of sweat and hay and tractor oil. Dune’s neatly pressed and tight fitting clothes gave off an odor of detergent, softener, and a cologne called Rustic Rain. The odors met between them and formed an invisible wall. The chickens had finished their copulation, several of the pigs adjusted themselves in the mud, and John’s wife’s face relaxed when John thanked Dune and told him to have a good day.
“You too sir, and I thank you for your time,” Dune said. He inserted himself back in his truck and shut the door firmly.
“You too ma’am,” he acknowledge the woman on the porch, who was adjusting her apron strings and watching him. Dune turned the meat truck around slowly and carefully in the yard avoiding the chickens and children and two cats. He continued to scan the perimeter until he was in the woods again.
John looked at his wife who raised both hands waist high, palm up in question, giving her posture the resemblance of the old paintings of the image of Jesus. John shook his head and said, “The man has got to be daft or something. Meat? Meat.” He mumbled still as he went back to the barn and his tractor and his tools.
John’s eldest daughter came out of the far chicken coop where she had been forking out old bedding. She wore denim shorts and a thin shirt in the heat. Sweat shone on her freckled forehead and her long hair was trapped in a loose knot at the nape of her neck. She was even better looking than her mother had been which was saying quite a bit. She was in full bloom at seventeen, a soft shape despite farm work but something was off about her gaze. Her green animal eyes seemed to know of things beyond her pastoral home.
“Who was that Daddy?” she called.
“Nobody. Somebody’s idiot,” her father called back from the barn.
Ellen, dragging the pitch fork along, went over to her brother and sister still shucking corn. They were covered in silk. Ellen picked a piece off of her brother and petted his head.
“Who was here?” she asked.
“A meat man,” said the boy ripping half of the shuck off an ear.
“Yeah, a man selling meat,” said the younger sister, also ripping a shuck off an ear.
“Meat? Well,” Ellen said. She squeezed the boy’s ear lobe playfully and went back to her chores.
The next day John quit cutting hay at noon and got in the truck and drove to the house for lunch. He was washing up at an outside spigot when the dirty white meat truck rolled up the driveway again. John looked up and the water ran down his face darkening his shirt in the shape of a bib.
Dune’s arm had been resting in the open window and he raised only the tips of his fingers in greeting. John did not respond.
“Hello again sir,” Dune said matter-of-factly.
John’s wife looked out the screen door from the kitchen where fried chicken cooled and corn on the cob steamed. The table was set. She stood cradling a bowl of dough in one arm and punched the quickly rising yeasty mass back down with firm thuds of her balled fist. When John spoke she stopped pounding and her fist settled down in the dough and stayed motionless as she watched the exchange, the dough filling in around her fist.
“You’re back?” John asked with a definite slant to his voice.
“Well, Sir. We try to give people plenty of chances when we have sales going on. I have shoulder pot roast and sirloin steaks on sale. Top quality,” Dune straightened his collar as he spoke. He wore a different set of tight fitting clothes and today smelled of an aftershave someone had named Summer Heat.
“Mr. Dune. I don’t know how else to say to you that I don’t need any meat. Did you see all those cows in the field when you drove up here?” John asked, bewilderment clearly contorting his face.
Dune’s eyes darted around the yard. He looked to the barn and then at the house and up and down the gardens and as far around the clearing as he could see.
“Well, yes sir. But my boss tells me to try unusual places. To sell in places you don’t even think would need selling to and you are bound to find someone who wants to purchase. That is what he says, and it tends to work for me,” replied Dune.
“With all due respect for your boss, Mr. Dune…”
“It’s just Dune.”
“Whatever it is, Dune, with all due respect you are trying to sell meat to beef-raising, hog-killing, chicken-growing farmer.”
“I have two frozen turkeys left. Eighteen-pounders. Grain fed.”
“Grain-fed turkeys? Mr. Dune. Dune. Mister. I don’t need any meat!” John had run out of patience. It was hot. John’s dinner was waiting. His fields were waiting. “Now, thank you and have a nice day, but we won’t be needing any of your meat.”
“Well sir, I think it is not always a question of need, sometimes it is about the wanting,” Dune said.
“If you wouldn’t mind seeing yourself down the road, I have to get back to work. Or lunch. Somewhere, but I have to get there.”
“Yes sir. I understand,” said Dune.
There was another smell in the air. Coconut or butter cream. A lotion or a hair shampoo? As Dune climbed back in his truck his head turned back suddenly as if he had caught it too. It could have been John’s wife at the front door scraping the dough from her arm with a knife, or the shadow behind her which Dune saw in the rearview mirror as he drove the truck back into the woods then the cow pastures and then the hay fields.
The next day Dune drove his truck along the highway in the afternoon. He had only made one sale today and his face was grim until he passed by the country store and saw John getting out of his truck all alone and going in the front door. It was the same front door that Dune had gone in three days prior when he passed by Ellen on her way out and she smiled to him a direct invitation.
“Third time’s the charm,” he said out loud. He tapped his hand on the dashboard as if possessed by a sudden enthusiasm.
He drove up the highway and turned up that same driveway, watching in his rearview mirror. He passed by the hay fields, then the cows in the pasture, and crept slowly into the shaded woods. This time he picked a spot in the woods where his truck fit in between the trees and he pulled off the driveway, having only inches to spare on either side. Branches scraped and screeched against the mirrors and the freezer and he had to back up and angle better several times. It would take skill to back that vehicle out again. He looked to make sure his truck was not visible from the road and then he got out and went on foot toward the farmer’s house.
At the edge of the clearing he saw her. She was tall and had brown curly hair tied back in a ponytail. She could have been sixteen or twenty-two, hard to say. She was heading toward the largest barn, one wall of which also formed the back wall to the pigpen. She carried two buckets of scraps piled high. Dune went around to the barn staying in the edge of the woods just out of sight. This barn was open all the way through the middle on the bottom floor so trucks could pull under. Dune stood just inside the barn where he was not visible to the house, but where she would be able to see him from the pigpen. He watched her dump scraps to the hogs and they jostled and grunted. Satisfaction and stink filled the air. When he saw her put the last empty bucket down he made a noise, trying to imitate a bird, but it just came out as a weird noise and she looked his way.
She was startled for a moment but recognition followed quickly and she turned her head slowly backward for a quick inspection of the grounds before she began to walk toward him.
“What took you so long?” she asked as she moved into the shadow of the barn’s loft and then closed in on him.
“I had to find out your address first,” he said.
“You found it.”
“I’ve been here three times now,” he said watching her without blinking.
“Well. I know some who can get the job done the first time.” She gave that inviting smile again and walked toward a section of barn that was partly full of clean, stacked square hay bales. Dune followed.
If he had not taken his time, he might have been all right. But unfortunately for Dune, he must have known a thing or two about women and he took his time. Time enough to hear a farm girl say nasty things. Time enough for her to kiss him with those wide lips she had inherited from her mother. Time enough for her father to come home, walk into the barn with a pitchfork and find Dune screwing his eldest daughter.
What could John say later, but that his arms followed his brain’s immediate command, which was to jam the pitchfork into the meat man’s back. The screaming brought his wife out of the house, leaving tomatoes to scald too long in a creamy white pot of boiling water, so that later, by the time things settled, there was only a burnt paste of red, permanently glued to a blackened pot.
John’s wife entered the barn within seconds of the screaming, eyes wide and probably expecting to find either John or one of the children, who fortunately, were swimming at the creek just then, the victim of a farming accident. Instead, she saw her eldest daughter reclined on the hay, naked from the waist down, healthy thighs opened to a man that had tried not once, but twice to sell them some form of sirloin, his pants unbuckled and around his knees, the pitchfork sticking from his back, his body writhing atop Ellen’s, and John looking toward the loft in some sort of effort not to see his daughter, undoubtedly debating the medical benefit of removing a jammed in pitchfork lest he cause further damage. John’s wife’s shrieks joined her daughter’s, and the barn cat’s kittens awoke in the loft and tottered sleepy-eyed to the edge to see this exhibition at its peak. John kept looking toward the rafters as if searching for something, an answer, a different story, or a better ending, but there was none.
Amanda Pauley completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Hollins University. Her stories have appeared in the Press 53 Open Awards Anthologies, Cargoes, Clinch Mountain Review, Canyon Review, West Trade Review, The Masters Review Anthology III, 2014, Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review, Gravel Literary Journal, Steel Toe Review, Mud Season Review, Crab Fat Literary Magazine, and Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things. She was a 2012 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize finalist, a runner up for the 2013 Andrew James Purdy Prize for Short Fiction, the runner up in the 2013 Bevel Summers Short Short Story Contest, and the winner of the Arts & Letters Prize for Fiction in 2013.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: How much fun it is to take a true story – there was a meat seller who came to visit me at my invitation when I was a teenager, under the guise of selling meat to my parents – and twist it into something else.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Elevate the text! Though oddly enough, I’d say that doesn’t apply to this particular story.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Conner, and Joyce Carol Oates.
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 best at home at my desk next to a window with a view.
3 Poems by D.M. Aderibigbe
Followed by Q&A
Ode to the Day We Lost the Future
the headmistress’ voice broke
inside my ears– her voice wrapped
up the term. My classmates dispersed
into their parents’ clasped fists.
Alone, I sat in the school lobby,
my result sheet in my hands
like a baby:
waiting and waiting and waiting.
The headmistress grabbed my hand
as a monkey does a banana;
home moved closer.
Outside the house,
my mother’s voice
beat the afternoon to life;
my father was pressing her head
to the frame of their marriage.
Where I stood, my eyes soaked
my palms to shreds.
– For my grandmother, upon losing her third child.
July 11, 1982
at the hospital gate: my grandmother
stood on the edge of herself.
My uncle’s head on her hips, the sun
grew cold around them:
my grandmother’s lips,
Leaves at the mercy of a violent breeze–
Mumbling a language only her God
understood. My grandfather
came out of the ward
their daughter was dying–
his face, wearing a message
from the dead. My grandmother’s
scarf slipped from her head,
laying on the ground
like a lifeless snake– her hair, insignia
of madness. She swung
her legs– her slippers dived in the air
like birds. The street stared–
My grandmother, a moving monument.
My uncle screamed: my grandmother
unable to see her madness.
after Chloe Honum
Dec. 2, 2010, Lagos.
We were gods: I and Uche: we made
women with our mouths, hanged
them around our teeth like braces.
His father’s house, clouds coagulated
like steamed stew– forcing evening
out of its duty little by little.
We argued: I and Uche:
we emptied our thoughts
into the inglorious past
our feckless fathers mapped out for us–
Aren’t these men supposed
to be our heroes,
instead of their women?
The pocket where I kept my hero’s
dying voice when we departed
like electric shock–
My step-father’s drunken voice
over the speaker pounded
in my heart. I ran.
Running on a track, filed
with ranges of trees;
leaves bent and rose
like Muslims in prayer.
It rained. Raining.
I ran. Running–
The flaming butt of a cigarette,
the only light in the sitting room.
My step-father’s voice spread
into the darkness– my mother
lost an eternal battle.
My step-father spread more darkness,
his courage soaked in his tears.
Then, he apologised.
D.M. Aderibigbe was born in 1989 in Nigeria. He holds a B.A in History and Strategic Studies from the University of Lagos. His work has been selected by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani for the APBF New Generation African Poets Chapbook Series. A recipient of 2015 honours from The Dickinson House and the Entrekin Foundation. His poems appear in African American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Normal School, Notre Dame Review, Poet Lore, Spillway, Stand, and have been featured on Verse Daily. His first full-length manuscript, My Mothers' Songs and Other Similar Songs I Learnt received a special mention in the APBF/Prairie Schooner 2015 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. He's also co-editor of More Than a Number: Poems and Prose for Baga. His essays appear in B O D Y, Blueshift Journal and Rain Taxi.
Q: Discuss your process as a poet, what sparks a poem and how you work it through to completion (or abandonment.)
A: I begin poems through manifold processes. Sometimes a word flies into my head. Sometimes a line, and a poem rises like sunlight from there. There were days I woke with lines lodging in my head like ache. At other times, poems are sparked by exigency. Such as things I come across while jumping around Lagos on different danfo buses. For instance, one day, while still an undergraduate at the University of Lagos I left school for a friend's house in Bariga, (a slum in Lagos where I was born). While on a street just before the street I was born, a man was seriously raining blows on a woman just on the other sidewalk. Two men tried interfering. But the man kept the two men away, saying "Iyawo mi ni, kilo ko yin ni be?" Meaning "She's my wife, what concerns you?" In Yoruba. That particular event reminded me of my past and birthed a lot of poems in my first manuscript. There are other things that push me to my writing desk too, but I think these suffice for now.
Talking about how I work a poem through to completion, this process is a chameleon's skin. This is because at times, the line or word that sparks a poem ends up not being in the poem and at other times it ends up being the nucleus of the poem. Same thing goes for events which spark some poems. Severally, I've ended up wanting to write about a particular event but ending up writing something else. You know the muse is an erratic god.
Q: “These men were supposed to be our heroes/instead of their women.” The tension between male and female is palpable in these poems. Thinking of Achebe’s portrayals of a nation struggling between its own vision of itself and a colonial one, how do you see these struggles in the context of a changing society?
A: If I were to be Achebe's fruit, I cannot be older than his 3rd or 4th grandson. I say this to underline the chasm between the time Achebe lived and the time I live. Achebe's time was predicated by nationalism and its concomitant struggle for freedom. Hence, everything at that time was nationalistic including literature. Achebe like most of his contemporaries such as Soyinka, Okigbo, Ngugi among others tried to show how Africa and Africans should strive not only to be independent politically, but culturally and socially. Such independence was achieved (even though we all know it is only on paper as Frantz Fanon rightly observed). As such focus shifted from external struggles to internal struggles. Such as the struggle for equality by the African woman and improvement in the quality of their life. If at the end of the day, victory is achieved by the African woman, another struggle will surface like a child one didn't know he had. This is because the African society is a teleologic one and is striving towards perfection. Hence, once one struggle ends, another begins.
Q: What did you collect as a child – rocks, insects, stamps? – and why?
A: Ha!! As a child I was an implacable insect collector. At my mum's shop where she sold alcoholic drinks and pepper soup, I would turn matchsticks on the side of the kerosene stove she used and go along with the empty matchbox to hunt for insects. I would cup a housefly, then a spider, then a dragonfly, then a millipede and other insects I can't name and put all of them inside the matchbox. I would close the box and open it every 10 minutes to see what and what insects survived and didn't. I did this for quite a long time but couldn't get my desired result, because instead of the insects to battle themselves they were all struggling to escape from the matchbox.
I can't say why I collected insects at this time other than to say it is one of those puerile things we all did at one stage of our lives.
Q: Please tell us where you write from now – the landscape of your physical surroundings – and is that the landscape of your imagination as well?
A: I currently live in Lagos, the city where I've practically lived all my life. Lagos is the most populous black city in the world and by far one of the most developed. The city shares so much similarities with major cities in the world such as New York, London, Berlin, Milan, Tokyo, Paris among others. Hence, as a big city, Lagos is complicated with so much stories to tell. And I'm the kind of poet who almost cannot write poems without locales. Physical setting plays a major role in my poetry which is which you will see Lagos and other cities in which I've lived featuring in my poetry, covertly or overtly. So somehow I can say that the landscape of my physical surrounding is the landscape of my imagination as well.
2 Poems by Janet Joyner
Followed by Q&A
February 4, 1944
Théâtre de l’Atelier
“Je suis là pour dire non.”
- Antigone, Jean Anouilh
(Neutral décor. Three identical doors. At curtain rise: all the players are on stage. They are seated … They are chatting, knitting, playing cards. One of them, The Prologue, stands up and moves down center to the proscenium edge.)
The Prologue addresses the audience: So, here we are. These characters are going to play for you the story of Antigone. Antigone is that skinny little girl seated over there, and who isn’t talking… She’s thinking. She’s thinking that she’s going to be Antigone, that in a minute, she’s going to suddenly spring up from… the little girl no one took seriously… to …
To have known on your bare feet
the feel of palace floors,
to have tip-toed
to reach the hand
of your father,
Could any of this
(or only just this)
have prepared for that clanging,
of the last Theban gate
closing behind, drowned out
by the fear drumming
in your heart.
Expulsion from home:
on the road, on foot,
in rain in cold,
in rags in menses;
the daily desperation for food,
the exquisite knowledge,
the cost of saying:
Another February 4th
Rosa McCauley Parks, February 4, 1913—October 24, 2005.
Whether she had ever heard it said,
ever read of Thebes and that other girl’s “No,”
her own refusal was bound to spread.
Small matter that only the slightest thread
connects her birth to a French Résistance show,
whether she had ever read, or heard it said.
What counts is how the dates are read,
are fixed in the head, when someone needs to know
how refusal of humiliation is bound to spread;
how standing up by sitting down only led
more resistance to persistence of old Jim Crow,
whether or no she had ever read, or heard it said
how word, how song, how ancient play was thread
enough to string a steady way through throe.
Her civil, disobedient refusal was bound to spread.
Care for the ill grandmother, then mother, instead
of high school was her earliest lot, yet even so
whether she ever heard Antigone’s name said,
her own iconic refusal would become widespread.
Janet Joyner’s poems have appeared in numerous magazines, with prize-winning poems honored in the 2011 Yearbook of the South Carolina Poetry Society, Bay Leaves of the North Carolina Poetry Council in 2010, 2011, and in Flying South ’14. Her poetry manuscript, Waterborne, is the winner of the 2015 Holland Prize and will be published by Logan House Press in the fall.
Q: Discuss your process as a poet, what sparks a poem and how you work it through to completion (or abandonment.)
A: Usually what sparks a poem for me is a deep feeling, then, possibly, a meditation upon it. Often the writing, the attempt to capture it, is a way toward the understanding, the reliving, or the letting go, of it.
Q: Your career as a teacher of French language and literature can be seen in the first of these poems – in what other ways do you think this immersion in another tongue has affected your own writing?
A: That’s an interesting question. I imagine all writers are influenced to some degree by reading other writers, especially the study of others’ works. And of course fluency in another tongue is also fluency in another culture, which always offers a purchase for viewing, understanding one’s own. I do think the sound of the language, the fact that poetry in a language which has no accented stress as English does, no weak and strong syllables, and depends, therefore, on repeated sound for its rhythms, has influenced my ear. specially, the lyrical quality in much of my poetry, as in the villanelle here.
Q: What did you collect as a child – rocks, insects, stamps? – and why?
A: I wasn’t a collector, but as a child of the out-of-doors, I was a fascinated observer of tadpoles in streams and lizards that miraculously changed their color, or taunted with that billowy tongue!
Q: You’ve beautifully linked the cost of refusal from ancient times to the 20th century. As we confront incidents of horrific violence on American soil over the past few years, in what way might we find a new voice to say no – or to say an equally powerful yes?
A: It’s the great question for every age, isn’t it? What it will tolerate, what embrace. It is my hope that remembrance of the long past out of which we come, its highs and lows, will enable us to reject what blinds us from our common humanity in favor of choices that might realistically further the path towards genuine community and peace.
3 Poems by Elizabeth Langemak
Followed by Q&A
Three Kinds of Wreckage
You and I move in together and our boxes checker the floor. There
are so many they make a new floor that cannot be walked on
and so we lay on the bed and sweat, or stand in the doorway and sweat.
I cut open your first box. Inside is a hammer, a cookbook, a book
on the Yangtze River. In the next: some hangers, a teapot, your
cufflinks, soup, an old kite string knotted like art a child could
make but did not.
Flotsam, I wonder, or jetsam? You have stepped into the kitchen,
and I am sweating again. Inside the hot room of my head I can
hear part of me laughing, but this part is small and surrounded by
boxes that can’t be unpacked. Our apartment is so undressed
that it pulses with white, like wave tips about to uncurl on a beach.
There is a third kind of wreckage, I know, but I cannot remember
its name. It does not wash up but hides, swallowed, until someone
comes and marks it
with buoys and by pulling it onto a ship a woman can claim it,
even if it wasn’t hers. Even if she doesn’t know what it is.
Because I have learned what revelations are worth I have them all
the time, which is only to say I have become very good at making
nothing. This, for example, begins as thoughts on a deer, but it is
damp as morning tents in gray light so I strike it. It swoons to the
ground, the deer still inside it.
For most of the day I have perched here, quietly, thinking about
Snow is falling simply into the river below, but dropping in clumps
from the tree branches. I must trust that the big snow is false.
I must consider the falseness of that thought as well.
What I Think of, and What I Don’t
Yesterday my mother said her marriage is good but not what she
expected. Soon I will know this starting with the garter I will wear
through the evening and forget
to tease off. In the morning you and I will wake up together and
the night will seem like a beautiful thing that makes nothing
different, like a birthday with more flowers, under lights. So much
surprises me that should not. Alone in my room through the last
unreachable zip, I have not yet realized that my dress will continue
after our wedding, that two days later I will carry it into our
apartment like the white, light woman I was for a moment and it
will hang in our closet like the brightest, heaviest coat. I must
think it will disappear,
like the Mexican food and the cake or even the night, which like
the dress shines like a new thing for some hours, and then becomes
what it’s always been.
Elizabeth Langemak lives in Philadelphia.
Q: Discuss your process as a poet, what sparks a poem and how you work it through to completion (or abandonment.)
A: I often start at the beginning of a poem, with an idea for what I want to write about, or a phrase. Then, if things are going well, the poem swerves at least slightly - or entirely - away from what I intended and ends up better for it. The process could take a few hours, or a few years –typically, it takes me a few months of working back and forth between a poem and a few other poems. It’s good if I can get some distance from what I've written before I come back. Generally, when I return to it, I’m hoping to find that swerve, or –in poems that are further along- for the gaps of logic that I’ve filled in in my mind, but not onthe page. When I'm ready, I show them to my first reader, my husband, who is also a poet. He has a laser eye for the extraneous, and also a sixth sense for the ghost in the poem,and what that ghost might be trying to say that I’m not translating well. I sit on his ideas for a while, and then play with them until I feel the poem is finished. These prose poems are part of a larger group of prose poems on similar subject matter. I wrote many of them over the course of a year, and much more quickly than usual. Some were part of an experimental salvage project to see if I could reclaim some failed poems that weren't working out in lines, but I thought might have promise in some other form. Writing those salvaged poems was fun, and led to writing more prose poems from scratch. The revision process for the prose poems felt a lot faster, and looser,and I'm not sure what that means. Being free of the line put my primary focus on the image and the sentence. At first, writing these prose poems made me feel like writing in lines was like wearing a winter coat in the summer, but after a while, when I returned to the line after many prose poems, it felt much more like wearing a winter coat in the winter . A winter coat with five dollars in its pocket.
Q: The latest overused media phrase is “unpacking," as in, unpacking the elements of a new piece of legislation or a papal encyclical. What's the worst/best part of unpacking in real life?
A: I love all kinds of packing and unpacking, but I particularly like unpacking boxes after a move. Even when the boxes are full of my own things – things I may have looked at just a few days earlier - unpacking makes me touch, hold, consider, and reconsider every object, and arrangement of objects. I’m always sort of tickled by how much things I know very well can still surprise me.
Q: What did you collect as a child – rocks, insects, stamps? – and why?
A: As a child, I collected a lot of pretty typical things: stamps my mom saved for me that I would soak from their envelopes, smooth glass and stones from the beach that I'd need to run under a faucet to see their true colors, basketball cards of players I didn’t know for the pure pleasure of opening their waxy packages. Probably, I collected these things for whatever reason anyone collects anything – 1t was a way to have things when I didn’t have other things and a primitive childlike way to think about what “completion” means, and if it’s possible.
Q: We love the landscape of "On Revelation,” a landscape in gray and white. What kind of landscape do you inhabit these days?
A: Thank you! When I try to describe myself in a particular landscape, I usually fail. Like anyone else, I imagine, I live in landscapes within landscapes. I live in Philadelphia, a big city landscape marbled with smaller wild spaces, in a small apartment that keeps many of the people who populate my inner and outer landscapes. When I think about my children and their lives - my teenage step children and my infant daughter – I can feel the scope, another landscape expanding and contracting simultaneously. When I teach, it’s the same thing: the vastness of literature, and a classroom, and then also the singularity of every student, or every text. When I think about writing, and what that landscape feels like, I think about trying to live in particulars, and plucking them from a vaster landscape of possibilities.
3 Poems by Marie Pavlicek-Wehrli
Followed by Q&A
for my mother
Stunned by the iron heaviness of her blood
filling the tiny
veins in my head, she charts a blue lined map
of streams winding
my skull, then eases down to encircle my eyes
and ears, speaking
her words, telling me stories. Years later, under skies pale
as the bluish milk
of a swollen breast, the creeks I follow rush on,
flow into rivers
and over spillways, until what feeds the mouths of hungry
carp flinging themselves
up and over each other, feeds me, too, and all I can see
is a bed
of fish thrashing scale over scale, their white edged gills
like smoke swirling
over the thunderous water, their tails a hammering
of iron tongues.
Dreaming the Never Born
All night they are falling out
of their beds, the sky rushes in,
voices call, shout-out the heads
of the tired, all rust-shattered,
grease-sleepy. The wake isn’t
salt-eyed, the wake tale is this,
she remembers, what takes time
isn’t the arrow, isn’t the narrow
branch fattened, water-stained,
bursting in mid-leap, slipping
from bark’s skin. My daughters,
I never saw you, you slept
curled in the curves of my arms,
wearing your stick grins, swearing
through lips grease-kissed, wary, no
charm could explain the workings
inside you, no schematic drawing,
that which is my lot, the inhabited
hallways inside me, offer no clue,
who is this that never became you?
Crammed into pockets of a black leather bag and far
from the faraway Pacific the shells are hidden in a bureau drawer
in the room at the top of the stairs
where I go to slip away and listen
in that hour of gray quiet
when no one will miss me
Beneath me beneath the house’s damp basement
rides a hillside layered with shale and coal
and riddled with tunnels collapsed or forgotten
while above the house’s flat roof
clouds blow by their shapes open and close
like the web of a crocheted doily stretched between two hands
Outside below the window where the dog all day long
jumps to meet the gate
lies the cinder lot
its color a lake of rusted water or a sea of ground cloves
depending upon the day and the hour
But now with one hand
I recite my petition for quiet I pray
that no one discover where I am so that I can go on
holding in the palm of the other
these shells of polished brown and black
with their tiny spots of cream
Hold carefully their smooth backs exotic and miniature
and dream of what is other—
these creatures plucked from a sea
I will never see
My fingers read each shape rub the tiny teeth-like openings
curving into their undersides
their mouths that never open—
Outside a bus groans by
and when it stops at the top of the hill
where the street leans alongside a blossoming locust
old women wrapped in black skirts and sweaters
will lift their swollen ankles
and step off into dusk.
Marie Pavlicek-Wehrli (www.mariepavlicek.com), poet, painter, and printmaker, is a graduate of Seton Hill University (B.A., Studio Art) and Warren Wilson College (MFA, Poetry). She has been a Fellow at both the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Ragdale Foundation. Her poems have appeared in various journals and anthologies, including Raleigh Review, Watershed Review, Border Crossing, About Place, Ekphrasis, Poet Lore, Beloit Poetry Journal, and others. She is a recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist’s Grant in Poetry and leads poetry workshops at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD.
A: Poems most frequently start as fragments—an image, a memory, a piece of a dream, a phrase that repeats itself like a loop playing in my head. If the impulse to work isn’t accompanied by one of these fragments, I let something in my immediate line of vision or an overheard piece of conversation suggest a starting point and I go from there. The poem develops associatively; sounds find echoes, as do images; patterns of syntax constructions occur or a certain underlying rhythm emerges, etc. It’s difficult to articulate what exactly happens in the poem’s early stages because much of the process is intuitive, but through a seemingly disinterested though very attentive play with the material of language itself— as if it were clay or paint— I get an inkling of what the poem will be about. The next step, which can go on for many drafts, is the shaping— and it’s through this process that I more consciously construct the poem, juggling all of those elements in the poet’s toolbox until—if I’m lucky, have worked hard enough, been patient enough, and have kept some spark of life in it—the poem is finished. I’ve abandoned or temporarily abandoned many poems, some at the early draft stage and some that I’ve worked on for a long time.
Q: In “Secrets” the narrator’s fascination with secrets enclosed in seashells is opposed to a ruined industrial landscape that hides its own hidden caverns and tunnels. How does such a place affect the people who live there?
A: This is something I think about a lot. In the place where I grew up—a steel mill town outside of Pittsburgh—people lived very close together. Big families—many of them Catholic—and small houses. There was little privacy and the secrets that one had would be difficult to keep hidden, though surely some people did. I know they did.
I have to admit that I often find the post-industrial landscape seductive— simultaneously ravaged, ugly, scarred, and beautiful. I sense an honesty about it. It wears its history openly and posits the questions; How did this happen?, Who did this?, and Why?.
I think that the people who live in “ruined industrial landscapes” understand quite early on that a pretty low bar of expectations has been set for them. The blighted landscape, a mirror to the self, confirms it. But there’s still an inner life which imagines some different scenario for how one’s life will unfold. These are the most intimate secrets, hidden even at times from our own selves.
Q: What did you collect as a child – rocks, insects, stamps? – and why?
A: I didn’t have a specific type of item that I collected but I did have a hidden drawer in my dresser where I stashed things like my mother’s autograph books from when she was a girl, holy cards and little plastic statues I’d won in grade school contests, handkerchiefs embroidered by a great aunt, old keys and coins that I found in my father’s workshop, pieces of worn, colored glass which I’d set on the window sill. Later: thick black vinyl jazz records, 78rpms, found inside an old cabinet stereo, someone had given to my dad and which I claimed as a combination window seat and sound system for my bedroom. I realize now that much of what I was drawn to collecting were things touched by other people, objects that showed age and wear¬. Or—in the case of the contest prizes—that affirmed my own secrets, my hidden ambitions.
Q: The way a mother imagines her child seems quite as real and powerful for the unborn as the one in her arms. How much of who we become can be traced to the visions of our mothers ¬— and fathers?
A: Again, this is something I think about a lot, both as a daughter and as a mother of two grown sons. The ways that a woman takes on the visions of each parent are complex and convoluted, conscious and more often, I think, unconscious.
As I age, I recognize more clearly there are connections between the person I’ve become and the impressions I have internalized over the years about who my parents were, what they valued, how they saw themselves in relation to the larger world, etc. My mother’s love of language and ideas, stories, conversation, and the value of an education, led me—I know this now—to poetry. My father’s capacity for hard work, the way his hands were always nicked and dirty, and how tired and frustrated he often was, gave me an awareness of what physical labor demands of human beings, of class structures, and also of the value of “making do.”At times, when I’m working in the studio, working with my hands, I think of the years he spent in his garage, alone, working, aiming, in his way, for perfection in what he was doing.
It often occurs to me, especially during conversations with siblings or close friends, that we’re always in conversation and/or struggling with an ever-changing version of who our parents were, even after they’re long dead, and especially once we have children. We’re imprinted, deep, below the surface, and that’s a big part of the material we tangle with in living our lives.
A Lonely Place Between Minor Miracles by Jason Tucker
Followed by Q&A
I’d promised Amy something beautiful. Down here, beautiful things would always come along eventually. Then they’d be even more beautiful after the long time you had to live without them. But there was never any knowing just how long it would take between remarkable things, or if those things would be able to make up for whatever it was you had to wait through in the meantime. Where I was taking my not-quite-wife, beautiful things would arrive suddenly, and their disappearing would be just as abrupt. In the middle of a life I must now admit I knew she wouldn’t want, something rare and precious would reveal itself. We’d just have to wait for it.
By the first spring after I’d moved her here, eight months after I’d brought her to the place of my raising—a place rural and remote even for Alabama—it had been so long and our days had been so exasperating that we’d both forgotten that we were waiting for something good to happen. On my morning drive to work, I saw the overnight explosion of rich lavender blossoms I’d missed for three years in Ohio. I was already in my office at Judson College when Amy called, awestruck on her way from our house in Greensboro to her office in Tuscaloosa at The University, struggling to drive, talk, and at the same time drink fast enough what she was seeing and smelling, this breaking drought, when a vastness that felt so empty and hostile the day before seemed so full and inviting all of a sudden.
Until I was eighteen, I’d lived in the Black Belt—that rich-soil strip across the center of Alabama that that was once home to the best agriculture and the most slaves, but was now home to a handful of the poorest counties in the nation. You wouldn’t think much was worth much here, until some magic like this materialized out of the nothingness. I remembered the feeling of these kinds of surprises, these punctuations to the broad, stark solitude, like a single exclamation point struck at random somewhere on a sheet of unlined paper. Only in these years of my coming back, everything I’d grown up around returned to me through Amy’s eyes—those of a foreigner, an immigrant, an invader who didn’t have the decency to repent in shame from the upstate New York that made her. She had to endure many trademark Southern inhospitalities—both the slippery subtle kind (“Oh, honey, I can see how your hair could be so pretty!)” and those that were anything but (“White pussy!”)—and it quickly started to sour me on home more than home already had soured itself to me. I’d loved this territory, but I’d hated on it a lot too. Now I was trying to love it as an insider and as an outsider at the same time, even though the whole place seems set up to keep you from doing that.
“What are all these purple flowers?” she said, crackling in and out of cell service along Highway 69. “They’re everywhere! And how do people keep from running off the road for staring at them?”
“I know!” I said, knowing then, as I do now, there’d be no words good enough to get it right.
I’ve thought the annual wisteria bloom was something we should have held festivals for, but this was an event that would never cooperate with a crowd. Wild wisteria is only truly impressive when it strings itself in chandeliered draperies across acres of hundred-foot water oaks and sweetgums and loblolly pines—terrible places for people to gather and gawk and eat funnel cakes. The color and the aroma are always strongest on clear, cool, wet-garden mornings after a nightlong soaking rain. The eruption only lasts about two weeks, and you never can tell exactly which two weeks it’s going to be. You just wake up one morning and the world is different. In your first outdoor breath, you understand, at last, what purple smells like.
One well-tended vine blooming along a trellis can deceive you into thinking you understand what wisteria is capable of. It attains something else with its fleeting magnitude. It changes the entire landscape, like if a mountain sprouted up one morning on you otherwise flat horizon. Appealingly gothic among the ghostly woods, artful and mysterious as very old wrought-iron filigree, it vanishes as quickly as it came, fading like a myth from some dead culture. It’s everywhere at once, then just as suddenly, it’s nowhere at all, its pinnate fronds again indistinguishable among the countless other woody vines that curtain the roadside woods. It can feel impossible to reconcile the aggressiveness of its being there from how thoroughly it isn’t there when it isn’t there.
But people don’t talk much about it. They seem content to keep their ecstasy private, if they have any at all. John Allan Clark—call him John Allan, not John—was regularly more enraptured with things than I was, even when I did feel some rapture. My best friend since first grade, he and I would drive down every dirt road in the county looking for what the place was all about, and during those short blossomings, finding where the best, most dense patches of Wisteria were hiding out in the overgrowth of those hills. Few others were so excited about it.
“It’s pretty,” you’ll hear, as I did from my father, but that’s about as far as the appreciation went. “But once it takes hold somewhere, you won’t never get rid of it.”
Daddy’s appreciation of the vine was outweighed by the burden it caused—one more aggressive piece of encroaching wilderness he had to constantly beat back to the edge of the property line. It always seemed a shame to me that such a thing bloomed and died, year after year, but went uncelebrated. Easy for me to say, I suppose. I never had to fight it for control of my land.
The next Saturday after the bloom was perfectly wet and overcast. Amy and I drove around the looking for the largest purple clusters we could find, some still where they’d been years before. It was early April and the air was already getting uncomfortably hot and humid by mid-morning. Even Amy rode with her window down for once, her dark, goddess curls pulled back into a low ponytail to keep them from snarling. She said she’d come for the ride only if I promised not to stop anywhere until we got back home, and that nobody would see her.
We both carried the dull hangovers from drinking bourbon at home the night before when we’d stayed up very late again trying to make sense of our workweeks, of this place, of her place, of fleeting moments that made you happy, of those that were supposed to but never really did. For all the talking we’d done the previous evening, we mostly kept quiet as we wound along the narrow gravelly ribbons of the county roads I hadn’t driven on since high school. Mostly, we’d just point and say, “look over there.”
Amy curled up and laid her head against the pillar of the car door. I petted her shoulder and slid my hand down to squeeze hers. She squeezed back. The thick air and its heavy, complicated perfume held on to our bodies like tailored clothing. Its drowsy weight felt nice on top of the mild sickness, and both things helped dull the jagged edges of what it felt like to live here.
I’m sure wisteria doesn’t mean any of this to anybody else. But I’m really not interested in whatever anybody else says it means. I do detect some faint echoes of Southern courtliness, with which, for many a glossy Southern lifestyle magazine, the flower has become associated, but that ain’t how it lives with me. Yes, there were lots of antebellum houses around here—this being former plantation country—and many of us did like to affect, with varying degrees of irony after we’d had ourselves a little bourbon, the soft, stylish accent of the extinct high Southern society most of our families never had the money or status to participate in, but all that was just old wallpaper, old furniture reappropriated like a steampunk hipster’s found art. It didn’t have much to do with how people lived or why they lived that way.
We rented a one-story ranch house built in the 1970s with nothing in mind but low cost and the low-profile ability to ride out an Alabama tornado. Set back a couple hundred yards from the road, sheltered by thick patches of woods, its front yard studded with tall thistles and knee-high fire ant beds, it was only distinguishable from the neighboring cow pasture by four strands of barbed wire and a perimeter of unruly azaleas. If you squinted really hard, you could see the only other visible house at the other end of the pasture. Nobody else was around to see you or hear you or make you feel like your presence on the earth would make any difference at all.
Amy is social. She likes to smile and say hello to people walking down the street. She likes there to be people walking down the sidewalk. She likes there to be places to walk to. She likes there to be sidewalks to walk down. Even though I’m the far more adaptable of the two of us, I’d grown to prefer all those things, too. But that’s just not how country folks lived. Everything was too far apart to build sidewalks everywhere but in the middle of town. We’d have to drive from our house just to get to where sidewalks started, to say nothing of driving to haircuts or doctors appointments or restaurants that didn’t have gas pumps out front. And it was always either too hot or too cold to walk down a sidewalk once you drove to it. Every so often, you’d get maybe fifteen minutes when the weather was just right, but you’d have to catch the world when it was on its way from being too much of one thing to being too much of something else.
Amy took out her phone and looked at a picture she’d taken of herself. In it, she wore one of her pretty-but-not-too-sexy teaching dresses and stood in front her favorite towering wisteria display—a huge patch on County Road 4 right near our house. The largest one either of us had ever seen, this was the first she saw of wisteria. She’d stopped the car and gotten out. Ordinarily, she’s fitfully terrified of bees and wasps, but then she felt alive and exhilarated at the mounting of swirling and buzzing that vibrated the whole woodline, the whole metropolis of insects all more drunk on the flowery air than she was. This was the same spot she had to drive past on her way to and from work.
The previous semester, she had a terrible schedule in which she didn’t get home until after nine at night, and had to leave again by six the next morning to make it to class on time. On both ends of the day, it was almost always dark when she’d driven down County Road 4, which short, but paved with tar and chert gravel, full of sharp curves, had no lines painted on it at all, and in the warmer months was threatened to be swallowed whole by the tall grass and reaching wilderness that beat against your side-view mirrors if you got too close to the edge. One night during those first few weeks, she approached two cars stopped on the road with their headlights on. As she slowly eased her car around them, someone shone a flashlight so they could see her face. The same thing happened the next time, and the next. Soon, they learned her schedule and recognized her car as local, so they dropped their suspicion of her. They even started waving as she crept by. She’d nervously wave back. These weren’t police or people just hanging out to talk in the middle of a deserted road (which people did sometimes. Idiots. Goddmanmit. Gonna get somebody killed.). Very likely they were moving drugs. Most likely something hard. Knowing what was popular around here, I’d guess meth. Maybe cocaine. But these guys seemed friendly enough. They might have even been protective had she gotten to know them. Or they could have been the opposite. This was as certain of the situation as either of us wanted her to get.
Amy’s favorite flower spot was that same spot, and so now, for her, and therefore also for me, wisteria had gotten all tangled up with those meanings too, even the meanings that were just mysteries. Amy sighed and uncurled in her seat a little to talk about it one more time. Each time she said the same words, she got a little more comfortable with them, slowly emptying them of fear and anxiety, filling them instead with something like acceptance. “Remember when,” she said.
I’d also promised Amy two years. Just two years. We’d just finished grad school together at Ohio State, and come out with identical degrees. It was 2008, and all the jobs had gone away. Amy still says we could have gotten by in Columbus, and she’s probably right. But I couldn’t see past the two full-time, college-level teaching jobs we found in Alabama, which were separated by what my upbringing (but not hers) had taught me (but not her) to call “driving distance.” People tend to have long trips to work down here. We spend a lot of time driving alone. And living alone. I hauled Amy down to Greensboro to live alone with me.
Before she’d even visited, Amy looked at my photos and read my newspaper stories and asked a lot of questions and listened to my talking. “It must be beautiful where you are,” she said once, meaning where I was from. I had trouble trusting her sincerity, but it proved real and unwavering. She genuinely and intensely wanted to know everything that I was and everything that was behind me. In my Ohio apartment—which soon became ours—she kept this quiet boy talking with thoughtfully leading questions and the rapt attention of a deliberate empathy I’d never before experienced.
“Do you think I’d do well where you’re from?” she said, smiling and flirtatious.
“No,” I said, laughing a little because the truth felt like the wrong thing to say, so wrong it was funny. “Not even a little.” She gave a playful huff and slapped me on the arm. Three years later, when it came time to move there and see for ourselves, I’d even convinced myself of what I’d started telling her. “It’s not that bad. You’ll do fine. ”
She was from central New York, which I’ve learned has its own enrapturing beauties, inviting and infectious. Glacial lakes, big, dramatic hills, plant life so tender that during three out of four seasons it tempts you to go roll around in it, which is the opposite of what anybody with any sense does back home.
“No wonder this place breeds so many hippies,” I said, eyeing the delicate roadside greenery on our first trip out to meet her folks. She laughed. She thought grass was just grass everywhere. In the long darkness of its winters, viny plants and sawtoothed grasses have a much harder time turning feral than in the endless Alabama sunshine. But there were other plants here. Many others. Some kind of flower was opening all the time, even in January. I talked about wisteria like it was a miraculous spectacle the Catholics just hadn’t gotten wind of yet.
There is a native species of American wisteria, but that’s not the one I’m talking about. It’s more regulated by the environment that has adapted to it over a very long time. Like so many other plants, Chinese wisteria was brought to Alabama from Southeast Asia for domestic gardens, but it quickly got loose and started weaving itself into the lonely woodlands. As a relatively new immigrant, Chinese wisteria confounds all the local systems that spent so much time adapting themselves to cope with different things.
One thing we don’t say when we talk about Southern culture and its symbols is how young it really is, how you should really think of it all as recently imported, relatively speaking. We don’t say how Southern culture—in fact all culture—is an appropriation of whatever broken pieces of older things we had lying around. We talk about Southern traditions like they go back to the beginning of time. This place pretends time began some time shortly after 1838, when there was virtually nothing left to remind us of the Choctaws.
Amy grew up in what she called a small town. But that town had neighborhoods and restaurants and basic services that worked all the time. There were stores and places to eat that kept regular hours. The earliest lessons her father—a lifelong bartender and bar owner—had taught her about being an adult centered around proper comportment in bars and restaurants. She got early praise for knowing how to order, how to respect and identify with the staff, how to tip.
Here, you ran a good chance of just about any place being closed at prime times on random days, no matter what the sign on the door said. If we wanted to go out, we’d have to make the hour drive to Tuscaloosa or the ninety-minute drive to Birmingham, and then another one to get back home. When we’d get back to the house at the end of long teaching days, it would feel like such an ordeal to go anywhere or do anything that we’d usually just stay home. I’d stop at the Piggly Wiggly on the way home. I’d cook collards and rutabagas and locally farmed catfish because those were the best and just about the only things the Pig had to offer. We’d eat it. Then we’d wait until it was time to get up and drive to work again.
Just about everybody was quick to tell the New Yorker how best to behave. Most of the advice was incompatible, but the consistent themes were that she’d have to give up however things were done elsewhere. I think an honest state motto would be a combination of “Get off my land” and “Hang up whatever you been; put down whatever you brung with you; you in Alabama now.”
These were aggressive acts all their own, but they paled next to the things these unsolicited advisors wanted to warn her about. This was a place that punished invasion. This was a place that wanted you to know that you weren’t safe, that nobody was safe. There were those who simply turned away from Amy in a hoity, obsolete, Southern aristocratic huff when she told them where she’d grown up. Others told her not to go walking on the road, not to go pretty much anywhere alone, that folks disappeared sometimes, that girls especially disappeared sometimes, that you’d get raped around here for saying this or saying that or voting for Obama, that I’m not gonna hurt you; don’t worry; where you headed walking on the road all by yourself; don’t worry; you’re scared aren’t you; no, I’m not gonna hurt you.
“You’ve just got to go with it,” my friend Scott told her. Scott and his almost-wife both even said “nigger” to Amy all the time just to challenge her, just to see what she’d do. “Things here ain’t like they are where you’re from. And if you fight it, if you try to live like the world is how you want it to be instead of how it is, you’ll be running straight back to New York with your tail between your legs.”
I started to realize just how much of an emphasis my hometown people placed on cutting it, handling it, making it, getting by, surviving here. It seemed like a great many folks thought that if you weren’t suffering, you weren’t earning your right to live. I know imports from the North and Midwest who’ve lived here longer than I’d been alive, and still they were regarded as outsiders. My mother moved from the adjacent county when I was a baby, and still Marion doesn’t feel like home; its people don’t feel like hers. Plenty of people do extend help and love and charity around here, sure, but little of it comes without a dose of punishment. We make it harder on folks who come in from outside, then when they leave in frustration at our incomprehensibly casual cruelties, we point to their fleeing backs and say, “See. Look how weak they were. Not like us. We’re still here. We ain’t weak like that. We’re from Alabama. We can handle it.”
Amy would miss the flowers when we left. So would I, but neither of us has had a single thought of moving back among them. Years later, she still says, “If I could take wisteria with me, I would take wisteria with me.”
Chinese wisteria is much more fragrant, and far more ruthless in its growth than its tame native cousins. Unlike the profitable domestic crops of catfish and crawfish—for which we do hold annual festivals around the state—such wild things don’t accommodate commodification. It defies control, and refuses to be changed exactly because somebody asks it to change. This is what the Alabama-raised poet Andrew Hudgins calls “cussedness,” and it’s the most supreme of all rural Southern values. Wisteria doesn’t like to be coddled, babied, nurtured. It doesn’t want your easy life. It thrives on neglect. It would rather take care of itself.
And, of course, it ain’t from around here, either.
I’d try to bring some with us. When we’d leave Alabama for New York, I’d dig up a gnarled, old, wise-looking, wrist-thick rooted cutting while it was at the height of its bloom. In its plastic pot, it would put out a respectable few leaves and runners every year—far less aggressively in the scant Northeastern sunshine—but it would refuse to bloom again. I’ve read it can take fifteen years to return to flower once it’s transplanted. It has patience. Cussedness. I can’t even begin to guess what it thinks it’s waiting for.
Wild wisteria also shows how Alabama is far from unified. There is no universal Alabama identity or experience. It’s a Confederacy. When Amy was taught Civil War history in school, she was taught that there were a group of people on one side and a group of people on the other. She was also taught to feel proud of herself for being on the moral, abolitionist side in that war, despite the handicap of being born a hundred and seventeen years after it ended. I was also taught about two sides, but I picked up on a deeper truth about the Southern states, even though my teachers, in a different way from Amy’s kept saying “we.” It wasn’t that the Confederate states all wanted to belong to each other; they wanted to be left alone by everybody, including each other. One of the reasons the Confederacy failed was the top-level realization that they couldn’t hold together without something strong at the center of government contrasted with the general population who thought that being left the hell alone was the whole reason they were fighting off the Yankee invaders to begin with. The states had been telling the Yankees to leave them alone. As the war went on, they were saying the same thing to the Confederate government. Get off my land. Winston County, Alabama even seceded from the rest of it, becoming for a brief time, its own independent nation.
Y’all who don’t know can find an astonishing degree of individuality here, even over things that you’d think would be unifying. The only unifying thing I can find in my home is an intense desire to be left the hell alone by everyone. There’s a charming, inventive side to that cussedness, but it also means that for any given symbol, we’ve all got our own private meanings. And it means that we can too easily pretend we can write whatever meanings we want into symbols whose history really won’t allow for that. The Confederate battle flag, for example, is forever inseparable from slavery and the following generations of public and private terrorism against black people in the south. But that’s not what they told us in school.
When Amy tried to bond with her own freshman college students over the enthralling thing that was happening in this strange and special place, she’d expected them to be as enraptured as she was. They didn’t know what she was talking about. Either they’d lived their lives in the cities and the suburbs—where the wild things had mostly been paved over—or they’d lived in the country and somehow never noticed the momentary magic. And none of them wanted to hear from some outsider what was so special about their lands, which were to be defended from intruders across all history. (Well, all history after about 1838. Nobody likes to talk about who the intruders were before that.) Amy’s students expected her to learn from them, to adapt to them, to love and revere this place in only the ways they’d been raised to love it and revere it and defend it. Amy came home that night with one more way of feeling sad and separate from everybody around her. She’d been called Yankee in truth and in jest on pretty much a daily basis, along with the genuinely respectful “yes ma’ams” students gave all their elders, but here was a new and unexpected way she was given the message. Get off my land.
“I don’t care,” she said that night. “I’m still going to enjoy it. They don’t know what they’re missing.”
“You don’t get much here,” I said. “You’d think everybody would walk around happy for the few days you actually do get something.”
“You’d think,” she said. “But no. When the first sunny days happen in Ithaca in the Spring, everybody’s walking around smiling and strangers are being extra nice to each other on the street because they know they’re both having a good day for the same reason. They just came through something really hard and now suddenly it’s better and everybody wants to be happy about that. Here everybody’s still miserable no matter what’s happening around them.”
“That’s true,” I said. “When you hear somebody described as having an easy life, it’s always an insult.”
“I’m sure it is,” she said. “And I’m sorry, I love the wisteria and I think it’s beautiful, but it’s not enough to make up for the rest of it. It’s not worth the wait.”
I realized that life here would always be full of waiting. John Allan, who was running his own little newspaper at the time, compares living here to birdwatching. “You wait for a long time to catch just a tiny glimpse of something miraculous. So many things happen here that just can’t happen anywhere else.”
He means wisteria is one of those things, but only one. He finds little meaningful jewels everywhere. He was endeared by Dorothy’s Country Kitchen when they told him he’d have to wait on his pork chop, and so they handed him a half-empty plate of greens and black eyed peas. When his chop finished frying, the cook stabbed it out of the pan with a fork and carried it out to him like that, plopped it on his plate still sputtering with Crisco, leaving a dripped trail of it behind him on the floor leading out from the kitchen. “Where else are you going to see that?” he said like it was a reason to stay alive.
Somehow, for him, this place and its eccentricities are enough, even when he sends me a text message to tell me how much he hates it, how conflicted he is about it, how constantly it gets in the way of his living how he wants to live. He and I have spent many a late drunken night talking about all of this, about how alluring and abusive our home place can be. But he loves it more than he hates it. He loves it better than I can. He can also drink a lot more than I can.
“Write about it,” he slurred one night we drank deep and talked deep. “But don’t just make it into a paper tiger. That’s too easy to do and too many people do it that way and it’s worth a whole lot more than that. It has to be.”
He finds more fleeting beauty because he never seems to wait for this place to present him with anything in particular. I need too much control to just wait that openly. That also means that he finds ways of loving people here much more deeply than I can, of loving them for what’s underneath the cussedness they use to get along in the world. Maybe I’ve just got too much cussedness for that.
Whether during a visit or a phone call, Mama usually says the same thing about how my parents’ life is going and what’s happening in it. “Not much,” she says during pretty much every time somebody isn’t in the hospital. “Go to work and come home. Go to work and come home.”
I was an only child. Few left alive on Daddy’s side of the family lived here anymore. Mama still had brothers, nieces, nephews, and cousins about forty miles north up in Bibb County. Ever since she married Daddy, she’s been waiting for a chance to move back, waiting on the year he can give up the auto body shop and she can give up the state liquor store, waiting on grandchildren, waiting on the time they can retire so they can get their lives started.
It was mostly the isolation that got to Amy, the daily emptiness of casual intimacies and the lonesick life all those days of purgatory would add up to. An overflowing week or two here and there really weren’t enough. Around this time, I included one of my favorite quotes from Annie Dillard in a weekly column I’d been writing for John Allan’s newspaper, The Perry County Herald:
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
I’m always tempted to add words to it, though. When I try to repeat it, I usually get it wrong by projecting myself onto it, tacking on an opening clause for my own subconscious reasons, my own fears of stagnancy and wasted life that had hit me so hard as a teenager. Here’s what I turn it into “We must be careful how we spend our days, because that is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
I’d promised Amy two years and no more, and I meant that. I rediscovered the small, charming things of the place, and the deep wonderfulness of a few close people within the larger crowd of embittered indifference, but it wasn’t enough for me either. Alone in our rented brick house at the edge of the cow pasture, I could get fascinated by snakes and plants and mushrooms and the weather; John Allan could come over once in a while, stay over once in a while (Amy loved him too); we could have my parents over for a stiff and silent dinner (which is how we’d always eaten every meal throughout my growing up), but what else was there to do? Who else could we become but two more in the loose confederation of hermits scattered across these unending woods and pastures? So happy to see the wisteria blooming again, we’d say. “It’s amazing!” John Allan would say, and we’d talk about where it was showing the strongest. “It’s pretty,” Mama or Daddy would say, and we’d go back to the sounds of chewing and forks dragging across or plates. Then the wisteria or some other sudden wonder would go away again, and we’d go back to forgetting that we had anything to wait for.
I suppose the thing you wait for can’t mean very much without everything you go through while you’re waiting. No one story can capture it. For Amy and for me, wisteria accumulated little fragments of all the exhausting days and nights we’d been living through, and all the thousand miniscule things that made each one them a slightly different kind of exhausting. There were many beautiful things that came along, too, that turned into similar symbols—an interesting animal would visit the house we were renting—a barred owl, a golden eagle, a fox squirrel, a rattlesnake—or we’d happen into rare perfect night with friends—but somehow they only kept reminding us of the hard, dull, desolate time and space between them. But we both wanted our days to matter more than that. We wanted each one to be full of its own things. We didn’t want a few days a year filled with the burden of making up for all the emptiness that stretched out on either side of them.
After eight months of living there, after eight months of azaleas and gardenias and magnolias and crepe myrtles and camellias and month after month—even in the winter—of blossoms unfolding on all kinds of tame and wild things, when the wild wisteria finally erupted, when we woke to se that, as sudden as fireworks, its miles of vines had erupted grape-cluster flowers throughout the untended roadside wilderness, when the magnitude if its fragrance changed the air and how we breathed it, when the succulent air and distracting beauties made it difficult to drive, before she’d begin to live her own answers to her own question, Amy said, “how can so many people who live in a place so beautiful be so sad?”
Since then, after two years, we’ve moved back to New York and now to Wisconsin—going where the jobs are, helping Amy’s father after his first heart attack, later helping him die—and I’m still wondering about that. Amy says she’s glad for those two years, but that she’d never want to go through them again. Neither do I. Home isn’t enough for me, so I’m still elsewhere, building new ones in places that can weather hard things but don’t go out of their way to suffer. I wonder why I felt the need to put us through that in the first place.
Maybe I thought she needed to see the place that first made me. Maybe I thought it would help her understand how I worked, and that insight would help our marriage. Maybe I wanted to prove that her life had been too easy, even as I was hoping to avoid a hard life myself. Maybe I’d carried with me a lot more of my homeland’s pride-in-its-own-suffering than I thought or wanted. I don’t think that I wanted her to suffer by moving her to my hometowns, but I did want her to see lots of other people who lived their whole lives in ways foreign to her, suffering in ways that nobody in their right mind would take on voluntarily. And so I made her sign up for exactly that. We needed jobs, sure. That’s what I said was the priority. And it would be… educational. And illuminatingly hostile. And beautiful. Sometimes. Eventually. You’ll see. You hide and watch.
Jason Tucker's essays have appeared in The Southeast Review, River Teeth, Cream City Review, Waccamaw, The Common, and Sweet, among other places. He lives with his wife and daughter in Boston, where he teaches writing at Suffolk University and GrubStreet.
Q. Can you describe your writing space for us?
A. I'm a mostly-stay-at-home parent, so I don't really have a writing space. Sometimes I can write on the couch in that unpredictable interval while the toddler's napping. Sometimes I can make a few notes while she plays on the floor in the living room of our small apartment: I keep my laptop open on the stand with the TV we never turn on, and I can hit a few keystrokes as I walk by, but I don't have long before she's clinging at my leg, or trying to push me out into the room where she can play with me. Sometimes I can write for an hour or two in the half cubicle I'm allowed in the English department where I teach part time. When we can afford a babysitter to cover more than teaching hours, I go write in the upstairs of the public library. All I need is a little quiet. Otherwise, I've learned that I don't need an office to write in. But no coffee shops. I can't work in a coffee shop. Too much other work going on. And I feel like I have to keep buying things to justify the space I'm taking up. And if I can't find a seat, I get mad at people who clearly aren't buying enough to justify the space they're taking up. You can see how it's very distracting.
Emergency Preparedness by Kate Hellman
Followed by Q&A
When a hurricane hits, you are supposed to seek shelter. “Shelter” is a relative term. Weathermen on the local news are usually talking about a house, a school—someplace secure, with a generator stashed away in a basement and windows that can be boarded up. When Hurricane Irene edges its way along the Connecticut coastline, I am sitting in the passenger seat of my best friend’s Mercedes, drinking gin out of a travel mug, and trying to decide whether we should go out later that night, once the storm lets up
“Bitch,” James says. This is how he almost always addresses me. In practice, it sounds more affectionate than one might think. “I’m not wearing Brooks Brothers for my health. I didn’t iron my favorite shirt so we could hang out in your driveway.”
I’m actually the one who ironed the shirt. When I point this out, James reaches over, pinches my thigh where the hem of my dress meets it, and coos, “What a good little housewife.”
“If I was your wife, I’d smother you in your sleep so I could steal your trust fund,” I say. Then, remembering the conversation’s purpose, I add, “We should definitely go out tonight, but only if we end up somewhere with cabs. I’m not driving anywhere.”
“We could take a train into New York.”
“New York is flooded, darling.”
“Trains are probably down, anyway.” James yawns. “Whatever. We can stay in for one night, I guess. Sundays are never that exciting anyway.”
I hum my agreement and twist around to peer into the backseat. “We should bring the supplies inside.”
“Supplies” is a relative term. Earlier in the morning, we had set out for Target with a printed copy of FEMA’s recommended hurricane supply list and every intention of stocking up for the storm. Instead, we got high in the parking lot, took a nap in the backseat of the Benz, and lost our list. Our improvisation upon waking up left a lot to be desired.
A normal collection of supplies might be—nonperishable food items, flashlights, extra batteries, a first aid kit, a battery-operated radio, clean water, blankets, rain gear, matches, and spare clothes.
Our collection of supplies includes—Battleship, a single box of organic macaroni and cheese, a board game called Oh No! Zombies!, a six-pack of miniature Play-Doh containers, a Blu-Ray copy of Sharktopus despite the fact that I don’t own a Blu-Ray player, three cases of beer, and a Star Wars Lego kit that I keep calling a Deathstar even after James snaps at me that it’s called an X-wing fighter, and Christ, Kate, how hard are you trying to make my life?
The closest thing we have to a flashlight is a Zippo I need to add more fluid to, and the closest thing we have to a battery-operated radio is James’ iPhone, which is set up on the dash between us, playing a Mountain Goats’ song on repeat.
“We are maybe not as prepared as I expected us to be,” I admit. “Do you think we should go back out for more supplies?”
“Shut up. I like this song,” James says. His eyes are closed, and his lips are silently forming the words to the song. He blindly holds out his hand for the mug of gin. I pass it over and mouth along to the lyrics, too.
People say friends don’t destroy one another. What do they know about friends?
As far as most people who meet us are concerned, James and I are interchangeable. A phone call made to him will most likely be heard on speakerphone. An invitation extended to me will almost always result in both of us showing up. On the few occasions when friends bump into me without James in tow, there is an inevitable furrowing of the brow, as if they think they should recognize me from somewhere, but can’t quite place me under the circumstances.
This lack of identity is almost soothing. When James isn’t there, I don’t have to be anyone. When he is there, I only have to be who he tells me to be, and that story changes based on what bar we happen to be in.
Despite his penchant for sleeping with lovely, painfully stupid boys and my habit of kissing my way through our university’s entire gay-straight alliance, James has what might be called delusions of heterosexuality. He is enamored with the idea of convincing strangers that the bond between us is anything more than friendship. When we go day-drinking, he tells people that I am his fiancée, the prep school sweetheart he was always destined to settle down with. It never strikes me as a particularly reasonable cover story, but no one has ever called us out on the lie. I take to keeping a ring on my keychain, just in case. At night, the pretend romance usually gives way to something closer to pretend prostitution. Occasionally, it is a deliberate instruction. He calls me up, tells me we’re going to the casino, and says, “Wear something tight. I want people to think I’ve paid for you.”
But James’ favorite lie to tell people has nothing at all to do with sex. He likes the idea of people—it doesn’t matter who—believing that we are brother and sister. It’s believable enough—through sheer accident of genetics and something I’m not afraid to call fate, James and I look so similar that a single glance can leave people mistaking us for blood relatives. We share the same German-Italian heritage, the same brown eyes, the same nearly-black hair cropped into the same short, androgynous style. When I wear heels, we are the same height.
The first night that James and I hang out, we get drunk in a cheap hotel room with half a dozen other students from our university’s gay-straight alliance after a school-funded conference trip. I have been in the group for five months and get along well with most of the other members, but I’m not actually close to any of them. As a general rule, I don’t like people, and I have never been particularly good at pretending that I do. I am talkative, but too sarcastic, too blunt, too easily bored to make normal conversation. I spend most of the night wishing I was elsewhere, and I have to keep a drink in my hand in order to stop myself from saying anything that would come out too cruel.
James is new to the group and unwilling to contribute much to the conversation. Instead, he allows his attention to fix on each member of the group in turn, tracking every movement, every word spoken, every detail of face and body until he finds a flaw that is so unforgivable that he has to move on. He grimaces at Jeanna’s diesel-dyke bravado and Kelsey’s tendency to cry when drunk. Samson’s self-proclaimed aspirations for pop stardom have him on thin ice from the start, but when he mentions in passing that he is half Filipino and half Jewish, James walks away so abruptly that all Samson can do is stare after him, stunned.
I don’t know how long James spends watching me try to drink my way into being sociable before he comes over. He unzips his backpack and takes out a bottle of wine that costs more than this hotel room. He tops off my glass and takes a step back to examine me—my dark hair and eyes, the death-grip I’ve got on my drink, and the almost palpable sense of how much I don’t want to be here. Finally, he squeezes the flesh of my wide hips and declares, “Look at you! If you weren’t so fat, we could pass for twins.”
It is simultaneously the worst insult and the sweetest compliment that he has given anyone all night. My face burns, and I think about how I’d give anything in the world to never hear the words “look at you” again. But his declaration feels like a promise, and I’m so starved for approval from someone who seems impossible to please that it doesn’t seem much harder to starve myself for real.
For two months, I subsist mainly on celery and cigarettes, until I have whittled my shape into something less offensive to the cruelest, prettiest person I have ever met. It takes seven weeks and three days until James slings an arm around my shoulders in a bar and says to someone we’ve just met, “This is my sister, Kate.”
It is never “look at you” after that night—always “look at us, look at us.” And it’s easier, really. Being James’ sister-fiancée-whore is easier than peeling back nineteen years of layers and trying to figure out who I might be when left to my own devices. So I order another drink, and I put on the fake ring, and I smile at strangers, and most nights, James’ lies are truer than anything else I’ve ever known.
When a hurricane hits, you are supposed to make sure that you have enough prescription medication to last for seven days. When you are an addict, there is no such thing as enough prescription medication to last for seven days.
We pour the pills out on my kitchen table and line them up in four neat rows of six, with one left over. I split the spare pill in two and swallow half of it. James takes the other, then ducks down to snort the split residue off the table surface. Even though the pills are so perfectly laid out, we count them again, just to be sure.
Twenty-four pills, two hundred and forty milligrams of oxycodone.
“I’ll go check my room for more,” I offer.
James laughs and says, “The Weather Channel says the storm will be over before tomorrow morning. Do you really think we’ll go through all of these in less than twenty-four hours?”
This feels like a trick question.
In my bedroom, I find three Vicodin, one Percocet, an eighth of an ounce of weed, and the half-empty bottle of cabernet sauvignon we didn’t finish last night before bed. I hide two of the Vicodin and the lone Percocet in my nightstand—for emergencies, of course—and bring the rest of my spoils back downstairs.
James empties the wine into my coffee mug, a thirty-two ounce monstrosity with the words “shit’s about to get real up in this mug” printed on the side. He takes a sip and peers at me over the rim of the cup. “Is that all we were keeping in your room?”
“Of course,” I say. I tip my head towards the pills on the table. “Is that all we were keeping in the Benz?”
“Of course,” he echoes.
Neither of us wants to admit how we know the other is lying.
The first night I take the pills, I don’t even realize I’m high until halfway through the night. James has his wisdom teeth pulled on a Monday and declares himself ready for an adventure on Thursday. We make plans to go to the beach with some friends from school, and James is a disaster from the instant he rolls out of the passenger seat of my car. He is sleepily delighted by everything he sees—the weak bonfire the others have thrown together, the dirty ocean water that smells like a moldy basement, the group of people he can usually only tolerate—and keeps losing his bottle of oxycodone in the sand.
I make him give me the bottle and declare myself his caretaker for the evening. No one objects, despite the fact that I’m at least four drinks in and can’t be trusted any more than he can. I’m more of an enabler than a nurse. When he asks where the whiskey is, I show him to the bottle. When he asks for another pill, I give it to him.
He tells me, “You can try one, if you want to,” and I want to.
It takes twenty minutes for the pills to start working, and by the time I notice that anything is different, my whole body is on its way to numbness. When my friends touch me, I can feel the warmth of their hands on my skin, but nothing more detailed than that. If I close my eyes, I can’t even be sure what those hands are doing. The lack of sensation fascinates me, and I wander among the group, asking everyone to help me find the boundaries of it. The whole experiment feels silly, and everyone is willing to indulge me. They pinch at my forearms and run their fingers through the black bristles of my mohawk, laughing when my demands for touch become more insistent.
“Hurt me,” I tell them, when everything else has failed to register. “Come on, really fuck me up. Punch me, or something.”
Unsurprisingly, a request to be punched doesn’t exactly go over too well with the group of people who think they are my friends. The sole exception is James, who says, “Hold still, sweetheart,” and pitches an orange at me with all the precision he acquired on his high school baseball team.
When I wake up the next morning, an enormous purple welt has bloomed against my thigh. It lasts for three weeks and aches so much I have to wear dresses every single day because I can’t stand the scrape of skinny jeans against the raw, abused flesh. But on the night it happens, it doesn’t feel like anything at all.
When a hurricane hits, you are supposed to do your best to remain alert and aware of the weather conditions. Sitting on my front porch with James while fifty-mile-an-hour winds tear the leaves from the trees in my yard, it’s hard to be aware of much else. I flick my lighter a fourth and fifth time, but the flame won’t catch. It sparks and goes out, sparks and goes out.
“Face away from the wind, you stupid bitch,” James offers.
“There is no away from the wind,” I say. I gesture vaguely around with the same hand that’s clutching the packed glass pipe. “There’s wind everywhere. I’m pretty sure that’s the point of a fucking hurricane, actually. Are you going to tell me to avoid the rain, too?”
He shrugs as if to say that he wishes we could, but it isn’t really an option; we can’t smoke in the house. No matter how far back we sit on the porch, the wind blows a thick sheet of rain over both of us. The gray wool of James’ suit pants is damp enough to have darkened to nearly black, and my bare legs are slick from the mist. I hold the pipe to my lips and flick the lighter again. I’m not surprised that it still doesn’t work. The wind around us is strong enough to strip the trees of their branches and have the power lines stretching into dangerous curves, so it stands to reason that it would be strong enough to keep us from getting stoned.
James cups both his hands around the lighter and says, “Try it now.”
The flame flickers out after a few seconds, but that’s long enough for me to light the bud and take a deep, desperate breath in. We smoke the rest of the bowl and half a pack of cigarettes this way—one of us smoking, the other shielding the flame with both palms. After we run out of things to smoke, we drag ourselves back into the house, take a few more of our carefully rationed pills, and curl up on the couch together to nap.
Later that night, I wake up with James’ fingers combing through my hair. I assume that the gesture is an attempt to stop me from rolling around so much in my sleep, but it’s unsuccessful, if the way I’ve managed to tangle myself in my clothes is any indication. My dress is rucked up around the top of my thighs and twisted around so much that the side seam runs in a diagonal slash across my torso. One of my heels has been kicked off, presumably with a great deal of enthusiasm, since it’s halfway across the living room. James’ glassy eyes don’t stray from the documentary playing on the television screen, but he still knows I’m awake.
“Mussolini was such a daddy,” he says.
I squint at the screen, but my vision is too blurry to make anything out. I can barely remember where I am, let alone what Mussolini looks like. I close my eyes again and say, “Sure he was.”
James must take this as an invitation, because he launches into yet another one of his enthusiastic rants about fascism. I wind my fingers into bracelets around his slim wrists and sneak his hand out of my hair and over my ear so I won’t have to hear him.
James has an alarmingly persistent hard-on for almost any European male who has ever committed a war crime. Most of our friends find it charming that he has a tendency to get stoned and chatter on about World War II. In private, the one-sided conversations become more serious. He tells me very quietly and carefully how things “should have gone,” and I stare at my hands and pretend that my stomach isn’t churning. I take much longer sips of my drinks during these conversations. When he is at his drunkest, he twines his skinny arms around my neck and calls me his Eva Braun, and I always pretend not to hear. He knows that I do not share his twisted views, and he knows that if I actually contributed anything to these conversations, I would be contributing a whole-hearted refusal of every one of his ideals. He doesn’t expect me to agree with him; he expects me to be silent.
The pills make it easier to ignore him. So do the drinks, and the coke, and everything else I’ve tried. They are the only things that make it possible for me to stay close to him. I get fucked up so that I can stay friends with James, and I stay friends with James because he lets me get fucked up. I wish I knew which of these came first.
I am not a stupid girl, and I am not under any delusions that he is a good person. James is, at his core, a Neo-Nazi and a sociopath who values me for the straightness of my nose and my willingness to waste my body into the shape of an apple core so that I can look good on his arm when we go out for drinks.
But he takes care of me in the only ways I want to be taken care of. He gives me pills when I ask for them, and he buys my liquor until I turn twenty-one. The first time I overdose, he sticks two fingers down my throat to get the drugs out of my stomach. The second time I overdose, he coaxes me out of the ambulance so that I won’t wake up cuffed to a hospital bed. The third time I overdose, he lounges around outside the bathroom and yells, “Kate, stop being so dramatic!” while I make myself sick, and we laugh about it until I feel better. There hasn’t been a fourth time yet, but if there is, I know that he will be there with me, petting my hair and offering me sips of water and never once giving me the lectures that I’m not ready to hear. He loves me in the sickest way he knows how to, and if I’m high enough, it feels like enough.
James pinches my thigh again and snaps, “Are you listening to me?”
“I’m always listening to you, love,” I say. He smiles and begins talking again.
The last time I use, I am in Providence, Rhode Island. There is no “before”—no time spent picking out this night’s incarnation of the little black dress and stilettos I always end up in, no cab ride to the club from whichever hotel James and I are staying at, no joint flirtation with the bouncer so that he’ll take a shine to James or me or both of us and waive the ten-dollar cover. There is no “after,” either—no staggering back to the hotel with the assistance of whoever offers a body to lean against, no hangover in the morning, no drive home to pick out a new dress for the next adventure.
There is no “before,” and there is no “after.”
There is only a snapshot of the “during.”
I’m wearing a pair of heels that are the color of a stop light. James keeps calling them my ruby slippers, and I keep laughing, even though it’s not funny. We’re both leaning against the back wall of a bar, and James is vaguely involved in a conversation with a boy a few years younger than us. I know the boy will probably be coming home with us, and I’m preemptively bored by the idea. For the past two years, we have been living this same night over and over again. It used to feel like a mad adventure, but now, life with James feels just like those last few minutes before I met James—monotonous and dishonest and so, so suffocating.
On a stage at the other end of the bar, a man in a vinyl mask is stroking himself off with one hand, and snapping a flogger against his own back with the other. I’ve been to this club a dozen times before, and I’m almost positive that there has never been a live BDSM show here before. It’s not as exciting as I expect it to be.
I hook my chin over James’ shoulder and say, “The ruby slippers are killing my feet.”
His hand drops to the prescription bottle-shaped bulge in the pocket of his skinny jeans. “How tragic. Do you want something for the pain?”
I’m not in pain. I’m bored, and I’m tired, and I’m drunk, but I’m not in pain. I know it. James knows it. The nameless boy who’s going to come home with us probably knows it. I nod anyway. James taps two Percocet out of the bottle onto my palm, and I chase them with a sip of Jack and diet coke. On stage, the man with the flogger groans into a microphone, but when I look over at him, his expression is blank.
Kate Hellman is an undergraduate student at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts. She currently resides in Connecticut, where she spends her time writing, changing her hair color, and aggressively live-tweeting her opinions on Lifetime Movies. "Emergency Preparedness" is her first published piece.
Q: What was the thing that most surprised you during the writing or revising of this piece?
A: I was surprised by the difference between the essay I had planned to write and the essay I ended up with. I sat down to write a piece about substance abuse, and what came out was a eulogy of a friendship.
Think Like a Horror Writer
When Paulo Coelho said there are two types of stories, “the voyage of discovery — and a stranger comes to town” (Handler, Richard. “A Stranger Comes to Town.” CBC News. 19 May 2009. Web. 14 May 2014.), he was giving us a glimpse at the two main archetypes of story structure, Quest and Horror, and what’s most useful for a writer of literary fiction to note is that there is no need to confuse horror structure with horror content.
Here’s what I mean by that: A story about a vampire who comes into a rich family’s house on a stormy night to kill virtuous maidens sounds as though it uses the archetypal Horror structure (“a stranger comes to town,” and more, below) as well as using the content that makes up what we call the genre of horror. But we can remove that genre content—the monster, the killing, the big estate, the stormy weather, etc.—replace it with whatever unique or idiosyncratic content we want, and by doing so we can turn from the specifics of what the horror writer creates toward the method of how the horror writer thinks.
Take, for example, Raymond Carver’s classic short story “Cathedral.” A blind man—someone not quite as “normal” as the narrow-minded protagonist—comes into the house. The protagonist’s life has been on a downhill slide already, but now comes this Other who is using his Otherworldly experience and awareness to possess the protagonist’s wife and to challenge the basic, safe assumptions of the ordinary world, making life fall apart even faster. The protagonist’s revelation at the end is a vision of another kind of world than his own, through a Gothic cathedral. Although this story is in the world of an ’80s suburb so mundane that the cathedral is drawn on an old shopping bag that had just held onion skins, we have a complete and successful use of Horror structure.
But why should writers of literary fiction try thinking like a Horror writer (“stranger comes to town”) over thinking like a Quest writer (“voyage of discovery”)? Part of what makes Quest and Horror the two main archetypal story structures is that they are fundamentally opposite. In Quest, the protagonist leaves the ordinary world, going into the Otherworld, and through this travel the protagonist gains allies and increases in ability. In Horror, the protagonist stays put, somehow confined, and the Other enters the ordinary world; in the resulting struggle, the protagonist, who is somehow at fault, declines and faces inevitable solitude. Literary fiction is generally more suited to the latter because otherwise, in Quest, once a journey starts and the protagonist defeats opponents and overcomes obstacles—even in a story without any adventure or action genre content—we start to lose the essence of literary fiction, which could be described, as Dave Eggers cunningly puts it, as “quotidian epiphany.” The literary Quest can indeed succeed—often through some manner of road trip—but the literary essence is so much easier to maintain when our protagonist stays put, and when his or her ordinary worldview is challenged by something Other.
So what are fundamentals of thinking like a Horror writer? Very briefly:
•Implication, or Inevitability
For the Horror writer, the protagonist is held in a single setting through the heart of the story. This can be a house (“Cathedral,” “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”), a grocery store (“A&P”), even a teenager make-out spot (“Greasy Lake”). Paired with implication (below), this can mean that the protagonist’s own lack of personal growth seems to physically imprison him or her, as in “Cathedral” with the (self-) unemployed and (self-) friendless protagonist, who has nowhere else to escape when the blind man comes.
For the Horror writer, something inhuman enters the ordinary world. This can mean that someone comes into the story who is strange to the protagonist’s current understanding of what it means to be a normal human, and facing this or fending it off becomes crux of the protagonist’s struggle. For the writer of literary fiction, this offers the opportunity to highlight qualities in the protagonist through contrast against the Other. In “A&P,” Sammy can at first seem young and full of enviable promise compared to Stokesie, but when Queenie enters from some Otherworld of mid-day martini parties and elitist fashion sensibilities, Sammy by contrast is suddenly poor, clumsy, and doomed.
For the Horror writer, the protagonist continually weakens. Where this is often literal in stories with horror content (weakness via limping on a bitten leg, dropping the last silver bullet, regressing into a monster, etc.), in literary fiction this can be figurative, through mistakes, loss of options, increasing immorality, and so on. The protagonist also weakens by losing friends or loved ones, which leads the protagonist into solitude, or, more negatively put, aloneness. For many writers of literary fiction, personal growth for a protagonist is based to some degree on empathy and community, and that allows the aloneness of the Horror structure to be a kind of little death or soft damnation, which can make a final revelation in the story all the more powerful.
Implication, or Inevitability
For the Horror writer, the protagonist is somehow at fault. This can mean that the protagonist is at fault for the confinement, for the decline, and even for the Other entering the ordinary world. Implicating the protagonist has a couple of advantages for stories that use this part of Horror structure. First, much like the decline into aloneness, it can add power to the revelation that will end the story, or to the striking lack of a revelation that will end it. Second, it justifies the struggles that the protagonist goes through—the protagonist brought it all upon himself—as opposed to the protagonist’s being merely a passive victim of bad luck.
When the Horror writer doesn’t want to implicate the protagonist for whatever reason, an alternative that can offer the same effect is inevitability. Here, the protagonist cannot escape fate, or the pull of the past. So while the protagonist may be innocent or virtuous, implications from the past, or even from humanity itself, play themselves out yet again in the struggle of the story. The advantage that inevitability provides is that it can turn the protagonist’s revelation at the end into an apocalypse, a new understanding about life that was in fact present all along and therefore should have been apparent all along. This can be as intense as the final cry in “Bartleby, the Scrivener,”—“Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”—or as subtle as Sammy’s “of course” in his final and inescapable loss of innocence into adulthood as he stands alone outside the A&P.
Ultimately, thinking like a Horror writer allows the writer of literary fiction to lean on the foundation of a universal storytelling archetype, which often draws the instinctual reaction out of readers that a “real story” has just been told. But thinking like a Horror writer also allows us to relax our worries over plot, narrative drive, and even theme coherence, and to let these concerns stand on their own, like a great scaffolding, so that we can be free to climb in all directions, free in space to explore those characters and images and unique subjects that we love so much at any angle and depth we wish, that kind of freedom from compromise and restraint that led us to become writers in the first place.
Josh Woods is Editor of the fiction anthologies Surreal South ’13, The Book of Villains, and The Versus Anthology (all three books focusing on literary fiction with a horror slant). His work has appeared in The Nevada Review, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days, and Black and Grey Magazine, among other places. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of the Press 53 Open Awards in Genre Fiction. He graduated from the MFA program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and is currently an awarded Associate Professor of English in Illinois. He has also just completed his first full novel.
David Payne's Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother's Story reviewed by Clifford Garstang
Barefoot to Avalon
Atlantic Monthly Press, August 2015
Breathless. That’s not a word I normally would associate with a memoir, but it’s the word that often came to mind as I was reading novelist David Payne’s new book, Barefoot to Avalon. Subtitled “A Brother’s Story,” the book begins with the death of Payne’s brother, George A., in a highway accident that Payne witnessed. The reader is breathless in the reading; Payne is breathless in the telling.
The subtitle is perfect, because the book is as much George A.’s story as it is Payne’s, and focuses on their roles, relationship, and failures as brothers.
In the opening chapter, where we learn of George A.’s death in November 2000, we also learn about his struggle with bipolar disorder, as well as Payne’s own alcoholism and disintegrating marriage. Flash forward six years, and we get a closer look at Payne’s problems, which have only grown worse: financial strains, mounting tensions with his wife and children, and his repeated attempts to end his dependence on booze. Significant, too, is the conflict between Payne and his mother over whether he should write George A.’s story, a project he was then contemplating. “It’s disrespectful to your dead brother’s memory,” she says when he asks what she thinks. But Payne persists, because obviously it’s his story, too. His brother died in Payne’s car, with Payne watching, their tense relationship belonged to both of them, and yet their mother feels it’s George A.’s alone. Payne proceeds without her blessing.
Which raises the specter of one of the stresses in Payne’s relationship with his brother—a rivalry for the affection of their parents. (Oddly, a third brother, much younger, doesn’t figure in this competitive calculus and is mostly absent from the memoir.) In retrospect, at least, Payne is all too aware of this jealousy. George A. is the recipient of a car. A valuable shotgun. Hunting trips. Support and refuge when he stumbles. Payne is also jealous of George A.’s early financial success as a stockbroker. And, although Payne is several years older, George A. is the first to marry, leaving Payne with the feeling that he’s falling further behind. (The title of the book is a reference to a seminal moment in the brothers’ competition when George A. first beats Payne in a footrace.)
The memoir then jumps back in time for a closer look at the brothers as boys and then young men, spending vacations at the family’s summer home on the North Carolina coast. We follow them through their elite prep schools, the break up their parents’ marriage, George A.’s first mental breakdown, awkward relationships with step-siblings when their mother remarries, college successes and failures, troubles with women, career missteps, until we return in the chronology to that fateful highway accident in which George A. is killed.
Payne, who once aspired to be a poet, has published five novels. He clearly knows what he’s doing as he develops the “characters” and reveals their stories, including his own, with drama and suspense. The prose is often lyrical, giving the reader a sense of how Payne views the world. And always the narrative unfolds in an urgent, breathless style that suggests how much Payne needs to tell this story. It’s a fascinating, memorable read.
Curtis Smith's Communion Reviewed by Clifford Garstang
Like his earlier essay collection, Witness (reviewed for Prime Number by Jessica Handler), Curtis Smith’s latest book, Communion, is a graceful meditation on fatherhood. Whereas Witness focused on the very survival of Smith’s infant son when a heart problem is discovered, the new book takes on questions of spirituality and faith.
Smith’s child is now older, eight or nine in most of the collection’s 21 short essays. He’s a precocious, serious boy, curious, with diverse interests. He’s into karate and hockey, enjoys hiking in the woods with his father, and is fascinated by ancient Rome, Vesuvius, and the natural world. What makes the book so charming is the obvious pleasure Smith takes in facilitating his son’s interests, even when he doesn’t particularly share them. Smith’s approach to fatherhood is taking great care to open as many doors for his son as possible, letting his son choose which ones to enter, which to forego.
The title essay, “Communion,” opens the book. Having finished his catechism classes, Smith’s son receives his first communion under the watchful eye of his parents. Smith himself is not a believer, but he tells us he’s glad that his son is “starting his spiritual journey with a God who loves, a God who teaches.” The spiritual journey is a recurring theme. In “Prayer, a Personal Evolution,” we see Smith in a summer job during college, finding his own spirituality among a seminarian, a preacher, and a born-again girlfriend. After graduation, he teaches in a school that begins each day with the Pledge of Allegiance followed by a moment of silence, clearly an invitation to prayer. Smith takes the opportunity to experiment with what sort of prayer works for him. And now, with his son, he practices a bedtime prayer ritual, despite being a non-believer, giving thanks for “the gifts of health and home and love so easy to take for granted.”
The question of belief surfaces again in “On Not Believing” but this time it is the boy who raises the issue. “I don’t believe in Santa Claus,” he says. “Do you?” (Later, in “Left Behind,” he will admit that he also doesn’t believe in angels, devils, goblins, or elves, although he does believe in ghosts because he’s seen one.) Smith says, “Although my heart remains open, I can’t deny the peace that has accompanied the abandonment of my struggle to justify God.” Here we also learn that Smith has been reading the Bible, despite not being religious, because he desires “to better understand what is important to so many.” It’s not hard to see where Smith’s son gets his curiosity and open-mindedness.
He’s a sensitive boy, too, aware of his parents’ feelings. Smith and his wife discover by reading a school essay that their son longs for a “brother or two,” although he doesn’t share this with them because he doesn’t want to upset them. “On Longing” also deals with the couple’s difficulties conceiving, so the discovery of their son’s wish is particularly poignant. At the same time, the boy doesn’t seem to want much in the way of material possessions, making him all the more unusual among modern boys (although at one point, to cheer him up in a down moment, Smith offers to take him to the toy aisle at K-Mart).
Father and son are also fond of hiking and of exploring the outdoors and serious questions at the same time. “My son thrives on the exercise. . . . The boy also loves to chat, and he employs the woods’ hush to delve back into his questions about the world and his place in it.” Among other things, Smith tells us, the natural world teaches them both about “perception and reaction,” the differential that “divides the survivor from the victim.” He is aware that humans, unlike most animals, are free to rise above instinct and “dream of what may be.”
Smith’s writing never disappoints. His language is sharp, the ideas fluid and seamless. Regardless of whether one has children or not, this is an edifying read. But especially if you have children, especially if you struggle with how to instill in your child a spiritual consciousness even though you are not religious yourself, this book offers a potential guide. There’s no preaching here. Just a bit of communion.
Charles Ades Fishman's In the Path of Lightning: Selected Poems Reviewed by John Guzlowski
Charles Ades Fishman
In the Path of Lightning: Selected Poems
Time Being Books, 2012
I can’t say that I’ve been reading Charles Fishman as long as he’s been writing, but I can say that I’ve been reading him almost as long as he’s been publishing. I missed his first book Mortal Companions when it came out in 1977, but I was there when the second book, The Death Mazurka, came out in 1987. It hooked me with his deeply felt and beautifully written poems about the Holocaust, and I’ve stayed hooked through The Country of Memory and Chopin’s Piano and most recently In the Language of Women.
In the Path of Lightning: Selected Poems, his most recent book, gathers together the best of the poems from the books that came before it, and in doing so it presents the reader with an almost overwhelming reading experience. Charles Fishman has lived a life shaped by a world shaped by war, Holocaust, injustice, and death, and he isn’t the poet who turns away.
You see this in the last three stanzas of “Ghosts Cry Out,” an early poem from Mortal Companions:
Each day we are brutalized: the ice hastens.
We live among strangers who slaughter their infants.
The rulers survive—our heroes are slain or broken.
We see only death, the earth ripped open
like the soft furred belly of a cornered fox.
The wars come in waves: everything we love is pulled
beyond our holding.
Our parents go down beneath cold blindfolds of water.
Our children drown under crashing blackjacks of surf.
Ghosts cry out for the green blood of the earth.
Fishman is not afraid to tell us about the floods that drown us, the fires that burn us. His poetry is the poetry of witness. The first poems of his I read were those about the Holocaust in The Death Mazurka. He wrote like a man who had stared into the fire of the ovens for a long time. In the title poem, after describing a Jewish woman dancing at the end of her life, he writes how he wants to reach back through time and join with her in her dance. In some square where Jews had died, he finds he can’t “take his fill” of images of desolation and death, of bones and “scorched teeth.” And through this contemplation, he somehow does the thing he imagines, joins with her in dancing her “death mazurka.”
But he’s not just a poet of the Holocaust. He writes too about Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor, the Black Death and the fall of the Twin Towers, and the small killings and pains we read about in the paper and then turn the page to something else, a schoolgirl killed on the night of her prom in New Jersey, a young man in New York shot 19 times by the police because he couldn’t speak fast enough to stop the shootings. Fishman’s muse has given him the task of writing about the slaughters we visit on each other and the slaughters God, bored with peace and loving strife and grief, visits upon us.
Fishman’s world is a cemetery. “The soil of Europe,” he says in “A Legacy,” “is laced with bones.”
But he is not simply a journalist of pain, desolation, and death, scribbling down and conveying the facts. He’s an artist, a poet, whose primary concern is to tell us who the bones belonged to and what their dying meant. The bones, Fishman wants us to understand, are not simply another kind of cheap asphalt substitute. The bones are what’s left of people who laughed and dreamt, bled and suffered.
We feel that first concern in so many of the poems. He wants to make sure that we know that these bones belonged to someone and that that someone mattered. I think that the poem “A Dance on the Poems of Rilke” in Chopin’s Piano (2006) most clearly announces this primary concern:
A Dance on the Poems of Rilke
I remember a Czech dancer who danced on the poems of Rilke.
In the particular hell of Ravensbrück
where Gypsy girls were sterilized and babies
were drowned at birth where dysentery torture
and typhus took life after life and grotesque
experiments in the inducement of infection and pain
were cultivated as a fine art where women
of every European nation slaved for Siemens
through endless moonless nights and cut trees
dug pits loaded and unloaded railway cars and barges
where abortion was inevitable and sexual cruelty the rule
and where a woman could be martyred for using rags
as tampons or merely for adjusting her dress
a certain Czech woman who knew every word danced
to the poems of Rilke moving sinuously to each
of his Orphean sonnets bowing gracefully with the first notes
of each Elegie: she felt the dark music of Rilke’s heart
each soaring leap of the spirit each lunge toward grief
Though she is gone and we no longer know her name she
is the one who showed even a halting step could be a triumph
and a dance on the poems of a dead poet might redeem.
The ending of this poem signals Charles Fishman’s other primary concern as a writer. Like all great writers, he asks, “What keeps us alive, keeps us living, keeps us wanting to live?” What redeems us from the fires that burn, the floods that drown us?
In the poem “At the Edge” from Country of Memory, Fishman asks himself and us this very question.
What are we here for
if not to know beauty,
to taste the last sweetness
of being, to find the last
scatter of bones?
He asks this question, suggests this question, and tries to answer it throughout In the Path of Lightning. From the first poem in the collection, “Naomi Ades (Age 3) Falls out a Window and Sees an Angel,” to the last, “Snow is the Poem without Flags,” Charles Fishman “wrestle[s]with the wind” to uncover the beauty, sweetness, longing, dreams, love, faith, desire, and joy that somehow outlive the plagues and slaughters that haunt our bones. He’s not always prepared to tell us where it comes from or what it finally means, but he knows that this thing is there and that finally, as he suggests in “A Dance on the Poems of Rilke” it might redeem us.
Charles Fishman listens to the world with a stillness and intensity most of us can’t imagine. He knows there are voices in the wind, and he hears them and listens to them, and then he tells us what they are saying in a voice so direct and selfless and loving that we feel that we ourselves are hearing these voices, and they are telling us truths that we can’t ignore.
ohn Guzlowski is published in The Ontario Review, Atlanta Review, North American Review, and other journals. His poems about his Polish parents’ experiences in Nazi concentration camps appear in his book Lightning and Ashes. Regarding the Polish edition of these poems, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz said the poems are “astonishing.” Guzlowski has recently published his first novel Suitcase Charlie, a noir crime novel set in a Chicago neighborhood of Holocaust survivors in the mid 1950s.