INDIVIDUATION, IDENTITY, AND THE PARENTHETICAL by Toisha Tucker
My conceptual works provide a foundation for introspection of the self and the other. They are distillations of ideas transformed into controlled environments or objects. Through text, sound, photographs, paintings, and immersive installation, I ruminate on literary modernism, magical realism, and the notion of benign indifference. Or I offer thought propositions to the viewer—some declarative, some open-ended—that are platforms for questioning or thinking more broadly about the social constructions we have come to accept as truths.
Ultimately, my works are traces of thoughts and the interplay between the accepted realities and constructions of the spaces we inhabit and my own abstracted perceptions of them. Each work manifests my exploration of memory, time, and place while seeking to universalize the personal. Through my conceptual work, I continue to explore the landscape of my memory and my preoccupations with the malleability of language, history, literature, and epistemology.
untitled (ash), inkjet print, 16 x 20, 2012
Ash is a body of work that explores the pseudo-myth of my birth: I was born on May 18, 1980, the exact day that Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington State. Ash from the eruption settled across much of the Northwest and in one isolated pocket across Oklahoma, falling over my birthplace, Tulsa, during the first days of my life. Ash consists of three components:
A humidifier disseminating an “ash cloud”, using ash from the eruption,
A modified “notice” sign,
A photo book.
ash, book excerpt, printed material, full color ink on paper, 8.26 x 5.81, 46 pages, 2013
Ash is ultimately about how my uniqueness is affected by those individuals that enter the space during the hours that the ‘ash cloud’ is in the air. I posit that my birth myth makes me unique. By recreating the opportunity to participate in that uniqueness for the participants, those who inhale or choose not to inhale the ash, I beg the question of who is the interloper and who is not. Who is affecting whom in this gesture? Is my uniqueness affected by someone else’s inhalation? How so? And what of the boundary of individuation, if any, formed between the group of individuals who inhale the ash and the larger group that exists that has not?
My grandmother used to warn me that if I wore other people’s clothes, I would become them. In Clothes|Lines barcodes of identity the wardrobes of three individuals have been photographed and will be turned into ‘barcodes’ representing each identity. I am exploring clothing as a manifestation of both how we see ourselves and convey that with our clothes and how we are perceived and remembered and judged by that clothing. The ‘barcodes’ are then projected and the participant is afforded the opportunity to ‘wear’ the clothes—to have the lines engulf their body and to fully ‘become’ another individual.
thirty-two | female | tulsa dallas hartsdale oklahoma city ithaca south orange new york san francisco Philadelphia (clothes|lines) video projection, variable, 2013
[time passes in the parentheses.] The text piece[time passes in the parentheses.] is after the ‘Time Passes’ section of Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, in which life is subordinated to parenthetical notations interspersed among a description of a house being closed for the season. This piece seeks to reinvest the parenthetical moments—the living of our lives—with meaning while dually acknowledging that perhaps our lives are simply insignificant notations of the passage of time. There were seven parentheticals placed throughout Philadelphia in April of 2013.
[time passes in the parentheses.] vinyl, variable, 2013
Lines of Demarcation
I started this piece, Lines of Demarcation, the first day that I began working in my studio at the beginning of my second year at PennDesign. Each line traces the light and shadow through a southern facing studio window at the moment of my departure from the studio on days that I made something. It could be from sunlight, moonlight, or streetlight. The title is a historical reference to Portugal and Spain and the worlds that lay within the known and the unknown and choice and fate and finiteness. It represents the typography of making and the moment when the making ceases.
Lines of Demarcation (detail), ink on vellum, variable, 2012-2013
Lines of Demarcation (detail), ink on vellum, variable, 2012-2013
Toisha Tucker is a conceptual artist, painter, and creative writer. She received her BA from Cornell University in 2002 and her MFA from PennDesign in 2013. Her work explores language, literature, history, and epistemology and how one can engage them in knowing and re-contextualizing time, place, memory and social construction. She recently completed an Affiliated Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome and you will next be able to see her work in Art in Odd Places 2013: NUMBER street festival October 11-20 in New York.
Picasso in 10 Lines
Tell them the orange ocean. Make fear
a nude woman. Two characters are more
likely competitors than companions. Or
the cautionary tale with shadows?
Nothing is uglier than an angle struggling
under the weight of mismatched colours.
Lanterns are exaggerated faces. Be quick
to judge but slow in remonstrance. See
the fruit bowl stepping into a trompe l’oeil?
Follow its lead. Stub your pencil out.
Leave us. There is no generosity
in unwelcome surprise. Already
the neighbour’s yard clenches its
earthen jaw in anticipation; kids
sprint to windows upon waking.
If you have to cheat in the middle
of the night, vanish by morning.
Tell me how kindness works in
taming an undependable being.
Born in 1991, Jerrold Yam is a law undergraduate at University College London and the author of two poetry collections, Scattered Vertebrae (Math Papre Press, 2013) and Chasing Curtained Suns (Math Paper Press, 2012). His poems have been published in more than fifty literary journals worldwide, includingAntiphon, Counterexample Poetics, Mascara Literary Review, Prick of the Spindle, The New Poet, Third Coast, and Washington Square Review. He is the winner of the National University of Singapore’s Creative Writing Competition 2011, and the youngest Singaporean to be nominated for the Pushcart Prize. More information athis website.
The pilgrim in Stop & Shop:
broad hat, cloak. In the cantaloupes,
the pilgrim. No fruit coaxes.
Nothing ripe on sale looks new.
When I shout “extra safe!”
my wife cries
for Saint Benedict, learner confirmer.
Who will not lie nude?
The sunburn in Stop & Shop:
flip-flops, bikini. Seagulls flock each
unsunburned spot. Cabinets of milk.
The crotch is an animal knot.
I bitch out the loud window AC unit
while asleep, sleep-bitching evil
dream starfish with teeth. They bite.
Who knows the oceans of our blood?
In Stop & Shop the kid calls a split kiwi
a cooter. White Keds, Atlanta
Braves cap backwards. The man-kid.
But fruit is edible sex.
Parked in the Stop & Shop lot post
gym, I’m sopping sweat, I’m hard up,
craving chicken. In a bind: a coop.
Any cooked muscle is chicken.
The pilgrim forgoes all cantaloupe.
Stop & Shop is a bad rock
to Plymouth. The pilgrim doubts bargain fruit.
A good pilgrim will self-check out.
In my hands I have two hands.
Our hands. Hot palms planted in the pulp
of us. Juice pilgrimage. Fuck Stop & Shop.
The best fruit is never bought.
Born in Georgia, Matthew Harrison lived in Seattle and Los Angeles before moving to Western Massachusetts, where he’s completing an MFA at UMass Amherst. His work has most recently appeared or will soon in Yemassee, The Cincinnati Review, Gargoyle, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Ping Pong, JMWW, and others.
It’s still December still July
a blue cloud walks a dog across the lake
my hands fall off
I glue them back on
my head falls off
I warm it in the oven
I no longer exist I will
exist again tomorrow
I can’t remember
my name can you
remember my name?
it’s cold in the microwave
Even dogs have feelings even fleas
but fleas are not important
the Stanley Cup is important
energy drinks are important
lighter fluid is important it makes
fire for smoking pot and pot is
important God is important
he has feeling he has blue
fleas in his beard this isn’t
the 60s or it is he can’t tell
time his bones dance on the sea
You steal my hubcaps
I buy them back
you eat a peach
with a fork made of blood
it’s an old heart it weeps
each tear is a seed
or a metaphor for something maybe
love or the sadness of trees
leaves shaped like hands
hands shaped like leaves
your hubcaps my hubcaps
it’s a roadmap crumpling
un-crumpling in the dark
so many dimensions in the universe
only one dream a cold white flame
dancing on my forehead or passing
from room to room so quickly it’s
impossible to tell where it is where
it will go next I can tell where it’s
been it peels paint off the walls I see
cave drawings from the future not
a reflection of the past it’s the mirror
image a paper swan unfolding then
crumpling into a ball or a poem my
inner-child swallows before I can
read it tastes like love he tells me
Jason Gordon received an MFA from the University of Maryland, as well as a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His poems have appeared in Abbey, Bathtub Gin, the Delmarva Review, Poetry International, and Presa, among others. His first chapbook, I Stole a Briefcase, was a finalist for the Black River Chapbook Competition and was published by Pudding House Press in 2008. Currently he lives in Catonsville, Maryland, where he teaches English at a high school for students with emotional disabilities.
Miko seduced our mom with a gruesome story about Jews. When he was a boy, he told her, he followed the American soldiers into Bergen-Belsen. He saw the dead bodies and the bodies that were not yet dead. This he shared with her during singles night at the Unitarian Church three years after the divorce. Miko said his purpose there was to profit off the rich Nazis who’d come to bad ends. Thing is, the bodies moved him to compassion. He just helped the Red Cross workers, that’s all he could do. Miko told our mom this after she told him her granddad was liquidated by Hitler.
I got two brothers. We love our mom. We boys have turned out well, so it was good to see her happy. Miko was of high intellect, a sensitive man of the world. Name a country and chances were Miko had been there. He’d contracted malaria in a Brazilian jungle, had hunted a strange animal nobody’d heard of in South Africa. He’d been a monk in Tibet.
And Miko owned houses in Atlanta and Lake Tahoe, drove a Jaguar XJ6—just look out the window at it in the drive—and built a harpsichord from scratch. His daughter was married to August Wilson, the black playwright, he told us. I felt like asking Miko how he, Iranian by birth, found himself traveling through Hitler’s countryside as a kid, but let it slide.
Our mom married Miko in Mendocino, sent pictures of them on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, mist and wind and birds in the air, and a radiant flower, a gardenia, pinned to her dark gown. Of their honeymoon, she wrote: “Miko’s Tahoe getaway is a panacea. The air here dances across my taste buds, and the light? Oh, such purity. I feel as if I am living inside of a dream.” She hadn’t been this happy since her poetry book, My Bitter Love, was accepted for publication at Inspirations Press. The poems were about her struggle to overcome the pains she suffered after Dad left her for a younger more beautiful woman, a woman that she insultingly nicknamed Miss Nigh and Sly to try and undermine her hold on Dad’s heart. In any event she was a student of his, which was what our mom was for him before they were married. The happiness Mom experienced at the release of her book lasted until she read the reviews.
We brothers decided it was a mutual joke, that we all were players, that when Miko told his whoppers, the unspoken code was don’t question them. Otherwise the joy might disappear. Only then we find out Miko has cancer. Our mom tells us he may have six months to live, that she runs the air all night because when Miko returns from his treatments he’s hot and depressed. Sometimes she sees him in the backyard staring into the trees and leaves, and believes Miko is imagining himself dying like the people he saw dying in Bergen-Belsen.
We felt for her, and for Miko, but six months later Miko was going strong. He traded his XJ6 in for a BMW, and our mom sold the house she had received in the divorce agreement with Dad, this so she and Miko could move from Florida to Charlotte, where Miko had secured a better job as the new director of the Super Computer outlet at UNC. He was a brilliant Iranian, read scientific manuals, and my brothers and I were thrilled to see our mom regain some of her pride.
Miko continued with his chemo treatments, but alas our mom, for whatever reason, visited Miko’s doctor, behind Miko’s back, and found out Miko never did have that cancer he said he had. Nope. No cancer. Was it possible? Could a guy make up such a thing? When our mom informed my brothers of her discovery, they said, “That’s awful!” and “How could he?” but me, what I said is, “That’s great! I’m so happy Miko’s not going to die.”
“I feel sick to my stomach,” our mom said, and her words brought to mind the time I came home from school with a swastika penned in red ink to the hem of my shirt. This was way before the divorce, while I was in ninth grade. “I feel sick to my stomach,” she said, and told me to take my shirt off. I said, “It’s a good luck symbol,” but she grabbed my shirt by the collar and began to throttle me. She hit me in the face and her nail scratched my cheek so that it bled. I still have the scar. She normally kept her angst under control, but she’d recently found a cache of Miss Nigh and Sly’s love letters in Dad’s desk. She’d been going around the house, fuming, quoting the stupid things Miss Nigh and Sly said to him, stuff like, “because of you I will never again wish away time,” and “I love you dementedly.” I don’t think she meant for my shirt to rip, but it was old and thin. Once it started ripping she just ripped the whole thing off me and threw it into the garbage bucket under the sink. Then she sent me to my room without dinner.
I was happy for Miko’s lie. I didn’t want to understand our mom’s insistence that Miko had done something unforgivable. I even thought of the old footage I’d seen of Hitler addressing his people, the Germans, how it’s pretty clear what Hitler has in mind for the Jews that lived amongst them. Was it possible that our mom could have looked the other way in order to have the thing she desired? Just a little bit of happiness was all she’d wanted. Was it really too much to ask for? A feeling of being loved and kept safe in the face of the cruelties of the world? In Miko a storehouse of possibility existed, a path of redemption, a return to beauty, to youth. That Miko’s worth was contingent upon prescribed behaviors didn’t set well with me.
“That’s great!” I said, but she didn’t share my enthusiasm.
We were at a restaurant, just the two of us. As it turned out, Miko didn’t own a damn thing, she said. His fancy Lake Tahoe getaway was a rental, go figure. There’d never been a house in Atlanta. The Jaguar Miko once drove—yes, we’d all seen it in the drive—had never been fully paid for, and the BMW was also being bought on meager installment. Miko was clever, had not paid taxes in seven years. He was a liar, a liar! Supposedly Miko had two daughters, right? That one of them had been married to August Wilson was perhaps the most bald-faced lie of all, yet our mother had believed.
It was just the two of us. Our plates arrived. Our mother’s tears fell into her pastrami. She had used the money she received from selling the family house to buy the new house in Charlotte. Miko had arranged things so that the house was in his name. She had consulted a lawyer and the lawyer said that there was a chance she could get some of the money back, but the IRS had caught up with Miko, did she want to try to send Miko to jail? No, so all that money, almost forty thousand dollars, was lost. That money was half of all she had, and could have been used for her retirement.
“I feel like such a fool,” she said.
You’ve always been a fool, I thought. She had spoken often of the sacrifices she had made, such sacrifices being raising our father’s children, cooking dinner for everybody and basically succumbing to the conventional yet “unconscionable” role of suburban housewife. If not for us, who knew but that she could have become the poet laureate of the United States?
You never respected your children, I thought.
You never knew any of us, I thought.
I said, “We thought you knew but that you were looking the other way on purpose. We thought that Miko was worth it, that the pride he gave you made the lies worth it.”
“I hate him!” our mother screamed.
Everybody in the restaurant was looking at us.
“He should have died!” she screamed.
I reached across the table and put my hand on her hand. I’d never before made such a bold gesture toward our mother. “I hate his guts,” she said, and I told her it was all right, that even though she’d given him her money, she still had lots to be thankful for. “Think of the Jews,” I told her, and she looked at me as if I was crazy.
John Oliver Hodges lives in New York City, and is the author of War of the Crazies, a novella about commune life in upstate New York, and The Love Box, a collection of short stories. His short stories have appeared in Swink, American Short Fiction, Washington Square and about 50 other journals. He teaches writing at Montclair State University and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop.
Six hundred thousand children in the Horn of Africa are dying
from ribcages bloated with hunger. They wait
for helicopters filled with peanut butter.
–from “To the father at the restaurant” by Julie Krystyna Cheng
Helicopters of peanut butter stick
To the marshmallow clouds. Like raisins
In pristine white dough—the type of bone-ground
Dough that will someday become fine china.
No, you see, the sky is not the limit;
The sky is just a small round bowl.
We bounce around the edges,
Never finding the corners.
But in the serrated light of the spoon,
I hear a voice. It sounds like someone old
And very, very tall. I’m not sure
If he is the one with the spoon, or if I am.
He tells me I have high cholesterol.
I don’t eat enough fiber, almost no fruit.
David Poplar is a graduate student at the Brandeis University, where he studies Philosophy. He has published work in Boston Literary Magazine, Apiary Online, and PennAppetit, as well as more avant garde publications, such as the Dickinson Law Review and the New Jersey Law Journal.
Ling turns up for class every other week and falls asleep halfway through the lesson. I watch her from the other side of the room as her head drops. Her round cheeks redden and her hair falls over her face.
At the start of term I talked to her just before class. She told me that she once saw Saint Patrick march down O’Connell Street in Dublin. She says she likes the Irish and enjoys a good Guinness. I don’t take offence when she mimics my accent. I find her hilarious.
Today she has arrived late again. She sits at the end of the row of tables with a brown notebook and a pen. At first she seems attentive, nodding her head while the teacher talks about Notre Dame Cathedral. Ten minutes later I watch her droop. She fights to keep her eyes open. Eventually her eyes close and she slumps onto the desk. It’s then that I begin to wonder about her life. Has she sat up till dawn with a lover discussing life in London or is she exhausted having just worked a tedious shift at a restaurant? Now she looks so peaceful.
Ling’s head falls sideways on the desk. The tutor glances at her then continues with her lecture. The pupil next to her shakes his head while she snores. I sit and wonder if she’s dreaming. That’s when I close my eyes to get a feel of the world Ling now inhabits. I find I like it here in my own make-believe darkness as the tutor’s voice fades into the background. I imagine I am lying beside Ling outside the cathedral both of us snuggled up in a blanket to keep out the cold. Between dozes, we look at the tourists—a great bustle of people entering and exiting the building.
Ling turns to me. “Let’s go inside now that we’re here.”
We slip from beneath the blanket and enter the cathedral. Our boots echo on the old stone floor. Halfway down the aisle we stop and raise our heads. Shafts sweep unbroken from the floor towards the ceiling where they meet the ribbed vaults like a great oak with giant outspread branches.
“This is incredible.” I widen my eyes, feel something inside me lift and stir as I look at the light which pours through the clerestory windows illuminating the verticality of the structure.
Ling grabs my arm. “Can you feel the energy? Can you smell the scents of time?”
We inspect the frescoes, statues, and sculptural decorations.
Ling points to the stained glass windows. “People look for happiness in the wrong places. They travel here; they travel there—always in the search of something they’ll never find.” Her eyes shift from left to right. “Haven’t you felt at ease since you came through those doors?”
“Well, I sure feel different.”
Ling grins. “So do I. I find it difficult to concentrate in class. But now I feel I’ve found everything that I’ve been looking for.”
She lets go of my arm and runs up the aisle. I chase after her and stop to look at the altar. The marble stands like an iceberg encrusted with strands of gold. People sit, heads bowed, the smell of incense heavy in the air.
Ling turns to face me. “How do I look?” Her face is gleaming.
“You don’t look so tired,” I say
She smiles and pretends to yawn.
“Don’t talk to me about tired. What about you?”
“Everyone has a story,” I say. “Me, I close my eyes and try on people’s lives.”
She nods, and buttons up her jacket. “It’s so much cooler in here. The heat in class…so uncomfortable.”
The organ begins to play. The sound rises from the core of the edifice and enters the cathedral. Ling puts her hands to her ears.
She runs down the aisle doing cartwheels all the way to the exit. We go outside; the chill pierces our skin. We stop to look at the three portals depicting the life of the Virgin Mary, the Last Judgment and the life of St Anne. Our eyes rise to the headless statues in the King’s Gallery, then to the two huge towers which shoot into the waiting arms of the stars. The bell rings—a colossal, booming sound.
Ling puts her arm around me. “Think of all the people who have stood here over the centuries. Imagine if we could stay here forever and watch the world go by.”
I turn around to face her.
“Come on,” she says. “Stay with me.”
We hold on to each other our breath turning foggy in the air. We close our eyes. The tutor finishes her lecture. The projector hums in the background. Passersby stop to take our photographs: two frozen statues immortalized in time.
Kieran Duddy is from Derry, in Northern Ireland. He lives in London were he is currently working on a collection of short stories. He has been published several times in Wordlegs and Acquired For Development… A Hackney Anthology. In his spare time he likes to drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and listen to punk rock.
In the back of the house Sherry and Miranda were playing in the plastic swimming pool. It was blue on the inside. The plastic made the water seem blue.
Sherry stepped out of the pool, shards of grass and flecks of black dirt clinging to her feet. Her knees were brown and red with unhealed scrapes, and her hair hung wet from her head. Over the course of the summer, it had faded from white-blonde to green, a color like the sky when a tornado is approaching. The heat of the sun had warmed her shoulders to fever pitch and now set about drying the damp parts of her body: a hip here, a hand there, the bread dough curves of her calves. It was a warm August day and the third straight month of mornings spent playing with her sister.
“You look like a mermaid,” Miranda said from her cross-legged place inside the pool. Her skinny body folded in upon itself like a paper fan. Her eyes were slits, catlike in the sun.
“I am a mermaid,” Sherry said after a pause. “My name is Queen Esmeralda, the mermaid. And you are my subject!” She ran to the side of the house where they had laid out their treasures from the beach the month before. The things lay scattered beside their mother’s tools and gardening gloves. She grabbed two shells and clutched them to the two sides of her chest, elbows thrust out proudly. “You’re my mermaid servant. That means you have to bring me my crown.” She held the pose, squinting into the sun and perfectly still, while ants crawled over her ankles. Then she turned to Miranda.
Miranda hugged her knees tighter. Goosebumps rose like pinpricks on her skin, pale peach against the wet oak of her hair.
“No, I don’t want to,” she said. “I like being in the pool.”
“You’re a servant mermaid. I’m the mermaid queen. So you have to get me my crown.” Sherry tried to shove the shells into the top of her bathing suit. One of them scratched her chest, leaving an angry line. She frowned and returned to clasping the shells against her.
“No,” Miranda said.
“You have to, Miranda,” Sherry said. “Those are the rules.”
“What game are we playing?”
“The mermaid game,” Sherry insisted, pushing her elbows out further. “You’re my servant. So you have to get out of the pool and get me my crown.”
Miranda sighed. Slowly, limb by limb, she began to stretch out in the pool. The thin lines of her legs wobbled and leapt in the blue.
“I’m a mermaid, though?” she asked.
“Yeah, obviously, you’re just not important.”
“As long as I can be a mermaid, I guess,” Miranda said, and she stood up. Droplets of lukewarm water scattered off her as if she were a dog emerging from the ocean. She raised one foot to step out. The water rocked. “Wait, though,” she said. “How can we walk on land if we’re mermaids? If I’m a mermaid won’t I die once I get out of the water?”
Sherry stood still for a moment, shells clutched to her chest, elbows flagging. She always got caught in this trap, of having to break the rules after she’d made them. Usually Miranda didn’t realize the trick. Sherry thought she wouldn’t get it this time either. “No, it’s okay,” she improvised. “Because I’m the mermaid queen so I can walk on land. And even though you’re not as good a mermaid as me I can give you the power to walk on land too. So you can do that,” she declared. “But don’t get any ideas.”
“Okay,” Miranda said, and stepped cautiously out of the pool. “I guess that makes sense.” She held her breath until both feet touched the earth. “Where’s your crown again? Didn’t you leave it in the kitchen? Mama won’t let me come into the house if I’m wet.”
“Not my plastic crown,” Sherry snapped. She was stalking around the yard now, lifting one muddy foot after another, toes pointed as if she were at gymnastics practice.
“No?” Miranda stood, dripping.
“Mermaids don’t have plastic crowns. Do you think there’s plastic in the ocean? There’s not.”
Among the beach treasures were a dilapidated Sprite bottle and a collection of thin sea glass that looked very much like plastic. Sherry caught sight of them and hoped Miranda wouldn’t say anything. She walked round and round in widening circles. She stepped over stones and sharp sticks with ease. She left tracks in the mud.
“I don’t think we have any other crowns around.”
“I guess you have to make one for me, then.”
“Be quiet, subject!”
Miranda turned her back on the shallow pool, now leaking its contents into a wide black puddle, and on Sherry and her endless circles. She crossed her arms. Sherry, stalking around the yard, watched her standing there shivering and looking into the woods. The leaves were apple-green and thick, made golden by sunlight. The trees stood tall and thin. Plump-bellied squirrels and bluebirds shuffled and fluttered from place to place. Beyond the border of the yard, steps and steps beyond, the ground sank into a creek and then rose up again.
On the ground, forcing their way up through the pine needles and damp dead leaves, patches of wildflowers sometimes grew. A clump of pale pink was visible twenty feet in. It looked as if a princess had dropped her handkerchief. Rounding the tree at the edge of the yard, Sherry reached out one chubby arm and pointed.
“I want a flower crown, Miranda.”
“Okay,” Miranda said. “With those pink flowers there?”
“Obviously,” Sherry replied with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. Miranda took one baby step into the woods.
A year ago, while exploring, Sherry and Miranda had found a face in the ground. Sherry had walked too far into the neighbors’ section of the woods, and despite Miranda’s warnings, kept walking. Miranda was always whining about the rules. Sherry told Miranda she was looking for interesting rocks, or shells to prove that the creek had once been part of the ocean. They were learning in science class that all the water in the world was the same. Miranda was too little to know things like that.
Sherry had been walking, looking at the ground, when suddenly she shrieked and Miranda ran to her. When she reached her sister, Miranda, too, yelped and leapt back. Beneath their feet was unmistakably the face of a child. Pool-blue eyes, blood-red lips, pointed nose, porcelain skin. Sherry edged closer while Miranda backed away.
“Miranda, stop being stupid,” Sherry said, as if the idea of being scared, as she had been moments ago, was ludicrous. “It’s nothing. It’s not real.” Crouching, she lifted the face from the ground and pulled. It came loose in a reluctant squelch. The skin really was porcelain. She had picked up a doll, hard-headed, soft-bodied. All of the stuffing was gone from the body. The hair, too, was gone, eaten away by monsters or overzealous future stylists. Sherry held the thing high in the air like a triumph: a bald head with an empty child-shaped sack for a body.
“See?” Sherry said to her sister. “You were just being a baby.”
The porcelain hands hung lifeless and dirty from the flattened cloth arms. The eyelids lolled half open.
Sherry wanted to give it back to the neighbor girls, but Miranda cried and moaned, saying they would be mad. “Put it back in the ground, Sherry, put it back,” she shouted. Sherry shook the doll in Miranda’s face and lifted up the limp arms so they waved like a ghost’s. In the end, though, she agreed, and they hid the thing away underneath the forest dirt. Secretly, Sherry hated when the neighbor girls wouldn’t play with her, and she didn’t want to risk their anger. Now, walking around the yard, she wished the neighbor girls would come over so they could play a more interesting game.
“Miranda, hurry up,” Sherry yelled over her shoulder.
Miranda screamed. Sherry turned and saw her shoot out of the woods in a frantic sprint. Tiny buzzing creatures surrounded her, swarming around her legs and hips. Sherry jumped to the side and Miranda ran, screeching, up to the driveway, where their mother had come out of the house.
Before Sherry could do anything, their mother had scooped up Miranda, folded again in contortions of pain, to bring her into the house. Sherry stood alone in the silent yard, shells at her side. The pool-puddle slid around her feet and trickled in rivulets down to the woods. She dropped one shell to slap a fat mosquito on her arm, leaving a splotch of blood and thready black legs. Then she went to the living room window and pressed her face against the dirty glass.
Inside, their mother had placed Miranda on the couch and encased her legs in ice packs and bags of frozen peas. One by one, her mother checked the swollen bumps to make sure the stingers were out. She turned the television on. They were not usually allowed to watch television in the afternoon. Miranda moved her hands back and forth over her legs as if touching the air above the skin might heal the skin itself, and she cried and cried and cried.
Sherry went back to the side yard. She bit her lip. She set both of the shells back in the space reserved for their treasure. She looked toward the area where the nest had been disturbed, but it didn’t seem any different from before. A last lazy wasp wobbled in the air near her, and she ran away, back to the living room window.
From outside, Sherry watched their mother braid Miranda’s hair while cartoons played on the TV. Miranda sniffled and rubbed her watery eyes with a handkerchief. The bags of vegetables and ice were draped over her bony legs from ankle to hip. When she shifted, a few of them fell off, and Sherry saw her skin, bright red and swollen. Miranda started sobbing again at the sight, and her mother shushed her, cradling her head with one hand, replacing the ice bags with the other.
It was noon. Sherry sat down underneath the window; she could not find shade outside. Sweat beaded on her forehead. She wondered if Miranda might get ice cream that night because of the stings, but then another screech of pain came from inside and she shuddered. She rested her back against the wall, biting her nails ’til they bled, and tried in vain to imagine the kind of wound that could inflict that kind of pain, that could make a person cry for so loud and so long.
Sarah Van Name
Sarah Van Name is a recent graduate of Duke University, where she majored in Literature and wrote short stories, poetry, and documentary pieces. She currently works as a marketing writer in Durham, North Carolina, where she is continuing to write fiction in the hope of compiling a collection of short stories.
You could tell they weren’t from around here by the way they spread their honey, with a finger instead of a spoon—all thin, pilling at the rug of bread. It was like the day she finally admitted she had Hitler mannerisms: those arms, the contortions, the albedo—even the way the sweat flew off her cheeks—the fact that she always seemed to be yelling: her spit, an electron planning its next escape. Already there were so many things she couldn’t do—just to be on the safe side. She would never grow a mustache, for example, but, of course, now she really wanted one. She would never ride bikes under a blood sun elbowing down the horizon: a siphonophore with its chain of red bellies trawling the deepest sea. Luckily, although she had not always felt this way, adventure was no longer something you had to go out and find on tippy toes on the bikes the color of last year’s foams, which are now utterly forbidden; it’s something that grows on you—a wax tough on the teeth—a hive wall, a symbiote. There was so much dead telemetry while she waited for the off chance the waters would come and float the relics of riverboats and steamships to her front lawn.
Carlo Matos is poet, fiction writer and essayist. He has published three books of poetry and one book of scholarship. His work has appeared in such journals as Paper Darts, Diagram, Atticus Review, Prick of the Spindle, and Arsenic Lobster, among others. He is an English professor at the City Colleges of Chicago by day and an MMA fighter by night. After hours he can be found entertaining clients at the Chicago Poetry Bordello.
Put your feet in my old sneakers for a minute. They’re nine years old and smell like a pubescent locker room, so hold your nose and just do it.
Now, let me take you back to my middle-school gym class.
Every day in “physical education,” as the euphemism goes, you are allotted five minutes to do the following: change into your uniform, lock up your stuff, tie up your hair, and sit down criss-cross applesauce in your assigned seat on the gym floor. This is all easier said than done.
First, see, you have to remember to shove your gym uniform and your Asics into the bottom of your backpack that morning. (Your backpack is purple, and monogrammed, and you’ve had it since the fourth grade. It’s embarrassing.) Then you have to remember your combination lock and—crucially—your combination. Then you have to navigate the crowds into the gossipy girls locker room, the haven of wiry track stars and sinewy-thighed volleyball players, and undertake the harrowing task of getting naked in public.
Strategically, you face the lockers, hunch your shoulders, and start removing your layers. White cardigan, American Eagle polo shirt, tank top, ribbon belt, stretchy flare jeans, imitation Birkenstocks. Bra and underwear stay on, thank God, so it isn’t really the nude scene you make it out to be. But when you think about your soft tummy and your bigger-than-normal boobs and the pink spots of acne on your back, this isn’t very reassuring.
Finally, though, you are dressed, laces tied, stuff locked up with the combination lock you remembered to bring. (Nice!) Now you go to your assigned seat. (This, I should say, is not actually a “seat” but rather a precise, unmarked location along hypothetical lines of latitude and longitude running the length of the gymnasium floor. Basically, your seat is invisible.) Anyway, the crowd organizes itself thusly, usually with the help of a visual reference or two. This year, yours is a particular stain about three-quarters of the way down and four inches to the right of the home-team foul line.
Once you’ve found your seat, it’s on to attendance, and then the hard part: dividing into teams to play the Sport of the Day. Here’s how it goes down.
Each team has to contain a specific number of players: exactly eleven players for floor hockey, for example, or nine for volleyball. Our gym teacher, a large, terrifying man with a voice of doom—we’ll call him Mr. K.—announces the team size and then sets the buzzer on the scoreboard. Once the countdown clock begins, you have thirty seconds to asssemble your team and sit down together in a straight line beginning at the edge of the basketball court. If you have not managed to find a team by the time the buzzer goes off, you are summoned to the front of the gym to be humiliated while parallel rows of heartless classmates look on. Then you’re randomly assigned to a team that most likely rejected you fifteen seconds earlier.
If you don’t understand the perils of this process, you don’t understand middle school. Or, at least, you’ve never been a shy, socially awkward nerd who also sucked at sports. Middle school is literally the worst place in the world for kids like that. If you are that kid, a lightning round of how-many-friends-do-you-have followed by ritual hazing of the losers is the absolute worst. See, you have one friend in that class, maybe two, which isn’t even enough for a cozy game of four-square. Suddenly, with the shrill blast of an electronic torture device, you and said friends find yourself swallowed up by a flash mob of identically clad adolescent beasts. Your friends, who might be nominally okay at the sport in question or maybe have a contact or two higher up in the social hierarchy, quickly disappear into the arms of other groups. Betrayal.
That’s okay. Shake it off. Keep wandering through the crowds as the seconds tick down. Timidly approach a cluster of acquaintances, girls who always wanted you to be part of their group in math class. The same principle should apply here, you figure.
The same principle does not apply here. These girls, with their gym shorts rolled up five times and the bottoms of their baggy t-shirts tied in knots at their waists, are not the same girls who beg for your help with trigonometry. In this cavernous room they are indoor-soccer superstars, floor-hockey phenoms. You make their team one too many, and you are apologetically—always apologetically—asked to leave.
Time is running out now, and your heart starts beating harder in your chest. Your teeth begin to chatter. You have an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, and you will do anything, anything at all, to not be called out in front of everyone. (It’s the archetypal “last one picked in gym class” scenario, I suppose, but with less formality and more back-room bargaining.) You approach every team still standing, hoping for an open spot. You insert yourself silently into various groups and stand there until somebody notices you, a technique which is neither time-effective nor persuasive. The buzzer sounds, and everyone scrambles onto the floor in team formation. Everyone except you, and the handful of other stragglers with whom you now go to great lengths to avoid eye contact.
“You!” Mr. K. barks at the straggler collective. “Up here!” Up you go, cheeks blood red, the chosen ones watching without interest as the rest of you are paraded onstage. After much unnecessary beratement, you are directed to Team 3, several members of which sigh audibly as their chances of athletic glory rapidy diminish. And part of you wishes you could apologize, because it’s true—you are truly awful at basketball, and volleyball, and indoor soccer, and floor hockey.
But the other part of you is angry. Angry at Mr. K., first of all, for picking on the already picked-on and totally enjoying it. You did some calculations the other day, and you found that if you split up 100-something kids into teams of nine or eleven or thirteen, you’re probably going to get a remainder. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just, you know, long division. So when Mr. K. drags a couple of kids to the front of the gym, he’s not punishing them for being lazy or for not following directions, but for being a mathematical inevitability—for being the remainders in your middle-school social scene. And that’s a dick move.
But more than that, even, you’re angry at your classmates. Everyone’s arguing and taking sides and making game plans and rolling their eyes at the shy girl with the undiagnosed anxiety disorder, and you just want to stand up there and yell, “My god! This isn’t the Olympics, people. This isn’t the Hunger Games. It’s. Just. Fucking. Gym class.”
You don’t, of course, because that’s not your style, and because you won’t acquire that sailor’s mouth for at least half a decade. Also because The Hunger Games hasn’t been written yet. But as you sit in the bleachers, teeth still chattering, awaiting the athletic trials still to come, you think about the day when you will finally be able to look back at this nightmare and laugh about it. The day when you can finally say to every school year, every gym class, every mean teacher that’s ever hurt you: let’s never do this again.
Seriously, though. Let’s never do this again.
Hannah White is a senior history major at the University of Pennsylvania, where she works as a program assistant and archivist at the Kelly Writers House. She has interned at the University of Pennsylvania Press and at WriterHouse, a writing community in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sensible Nonsense Project, Gadfly Online, Word Riot, and The Birch Journal.
My sister told me she was so hungry the night before that she had licked the inside of an empty sugar packet.
“I found it in the couch cushion and tore it open and ran my tongue along the inside of it,” she said. “Pathetic.”
She said this over the phone from Los Angeles, or from a place close enough to Los Angeles that she could get away with calling it Los Angeles. She had arrived two months before with the intention of getting a job in a tanning salon or coffee shop for a while before catapulting to international superstardom.
I told her I was sorry but I did not tell her I felt a little responsible, which is what she wanted me to say, I think.
When we went to LA together on spring break my sophomore year in college, I almost ran over Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers in a crosswalk in our rental car, and the moment seemed both otherworldly and dangerous, like the city itself. He threw up a calloused hand and screamed a word blurred by the windshield between us. It was better than an autograph.
When my sister told me she was thinking about moving, I was reckless. I said yes, of course she should, and that it was a great idea. I wanted her to go to LA, if only to put myself in proximity to a story like that one again. I would never live there, myself.
Lindsay Miller lives and works in LA and, as a journalist, spends her days interviewing celebrities and other notable people. She has written for publications including Wallpaper, The Huffington Post, LA Weekly, and Nylon. She holds a BA in print journalism and a masters in nonfiction, professional writing, both from the University of Southern California.
Every day, as I drive down Main Street and then turn in to the high school where I’m a long-term substitute teacher ($65/day), I pass rows and rows of $2 million houses. It’s a fairy tale I can see but can’t join. The houses are sort of like Candy Mountain and Gumdrop Hill.
A few years ago, in fact, Money Magazine voted the town a Best Town To Live In, a watershed achievement that was trumpeted in a banner across its Main Street and plastered on its idyllic, quaint storefront windows: the Starbucks (needless to say), the adorable toy store, The Happy Hippo, the obligatory “Oriental rug” shop with $10,000 area rugs “on sale” in the front display, the upscale consignment shop, Jamaican Me Crazy, where a used shirt costs more than three brand new outfits at Target. Did you know the town’s schools are “top notch,” according to Money Magazine?
In my top notch classes, the kids talk endlessly of 1) The size of their houses (“I went to Bryce’s yesterday—Oh my God! Have you seen his house?”) and 2) The vacations they’ve been on. Europe, cruises, Disney, and any number of fortress-like five-star resorts in Mexico, Belize, Antigua, surrounded by high walls and guards to protect against the intrusion of poverty.
Fiscal crisis? Economic meltdown? What?
Once, in a fit of a frustration, after some particularly long gush about some party at this kid’s brand new pool with fantastic sushi, I said: “Guys, there’s more to life than a big house!”
They cocked their heads as though hearing something interesting for the first time: “Like what?” one of the boys said, half joking.
Today, the kids are apparently watching the movie The Pianist, with Adrien Brody, as part of their “Holocaust Unit.” I’m standing in for a Special Ed teacher, and I’m ‘helping’ the students with their study guides; I sort of dart from need to need. I try to pretend I’m cheerfully indispensable.
As the kids watch the movie, they become more and more incensed. Incensed? At whom? The Jews, of course. “Why didn’t they just run away?” one boy asks when the Jews are lying down at gunpoint in front of the Gestapo while he shoots them in the head. “I’d run away.”
I start to explain, but another boy says, “Why doesn’t the Adrien Brody guy get a nose job. Then no one would know he was a Jew.” Several boys snicker. I’m Jewish, but I don’t dare say that. I may be Jewish, but I’m no fool. The teacher is at her desk, her plump arms crossed, a glazed expression on her young, pretty face; she’s from Swedesboro, working class, like most teachers. Her father says teachers are lazy shits who sit around all day and then whine they’re underpaid. “Why don’t you get off your butt and get a real job,” her father tells her, meaning office work, perhaps nursing.
“Teaching isn’t at all what I expected it to be,” the teacher tells me sadly, often. “I feel like my soul is being sucked dry.”
I nod. As for my soul, it was sucked dry so long ago it blew away like ash. My husband hates my guts—I hate my guts—but we stay together for now because I need his health insurance and he needs my body. I used to be some sort of genius. I got straight A’s in my graduate school classes in Special Education too, but I still can’t find a teaching job. I’m supposed to be grateful for this long-term sub job. “This could be your foot in the door!” the entire world constantly exhorts me. “Never give up! Visualize your goal and the universe will align with you!”
The principal’s son is in this class. The teacher’s very first marking period on the job she made the colossal error of giving the boy his real grade, an 83. She was hauled into the principal’s office at once and made to sit on a low student chair in front of his desk. The principal said her assignments were “unprofessional” and “pointless” and then personally did her next observation. He wrote, “Needs improvement” in every category, which is eduspeak for paving the way for denial of tenure; and once your tenure is denied, you are blacklisted. It becomes very hard to get a job, particularly if the superintendent or principal has political aspirations and/or knows a lot of people, like Mr. Principal of Top Notch High School in Best Place to Live In Fairyland. I’ve seen the best teachers of my generation driven mad by… well, you know what I mean. Dare I disturb the candy universe? Yes, T.S. Eliot and Ginsberg were on my teaching qualifying exam, and yes I got a perfect score on it, not that anyone cares.
The other day I met a failed teacher at an Apple store where I was applying for a real job (no luck). He hummed as he interviewed me. He said he was paid about as much to do this job as he was when he’d been teaching. He looked happy. I was jealous.
So a few weeks after her “observation,” when this teacher went to her online Gradebook, she saw the Principal’s son’s grade had been changed to a 93. Magic! But the teacher had learned her lesson and said nothing. The next ‘observation’ was “satisfactory.”
We learn our lessons well, we have-nots.
“Yeah, why doesn’t someone punch his nose and break it?” another boy offers now, leaning back on his chair, his long legs lazily outstretched. “If he had a broken nose no one would know.”
Ah, why didn’t the Jews think of this? All they had to do to avoid death was to break each other’s noses! Simplicity itself. All the Jews would be walking around Warsaw in their Bandaged Nose Disguises and no one would suspect! If only this Candyland kid had been there to plan it all out….
I say nothing to the boys, of course. I need this job. See under: food for my kids. You can’t say a thing, not a thing, because you just never know who knows who, who has connections to the board, the mayor, you name it. Last year, in a nearby Also Top Notch school district, a gang of about twenty kids broke into a girl’s house. She was on vacation with her family (Hotel Atlantis, on an island sealed off from the poverty of Nassau), and for some unknowable reason had given a copy of her house key to a friend. This “friend” and his pals and pals of pals then decided it would be fun to fill giant water pistols with urine, and spray all the rooms with giant arcs of pee. Oh, and jack off on to her baby brother’s stuffed animals, and defecate onto the Steinway piano keys. I am not making these details up. This is a true story. Every single person in the Also Best Place to Live In town knew who the kids were, but not one of the kids was suspended, much less arrested. Not one. They were connected. The mayor was friends with the ringleader boy’s family. The girl’s family settled for some undisclosed bribe.
In a Period 9 class, one of the kids offers to bribe me if I tell the teacher his PowerPoint presentation “crashed” when really, he tells me conspiratorially, he’d been “too whacked” to do it last night. When the teacher isn’t looking, he flashes me a $100.
He says, “Come on. I bet it’s more than you earn all day.”
As soon as I leave Candyland, it dissolves into fairy dust, and I forget about it.
I pull into my block. Our oak tree is dead and I’m worried its rotten branches will fall onto someone’s car or head, but we cannot possibly afford the $2000 to take it down; our heating doesn’t work either and in the winter I walk around in my down jacket all evening; the kids huddle in blankets. We don’t even think to complain, because that’s just how it is. Now it’s late May and my husband is out of work yet again, and all day long he sleeps on the recliner in the middle of the living room with the TV blaring endless reality cop shows, his favorite. It’s boiling hot, but it goes without saying that we don’t put the air conditioner on.
I pull into my driveway. My neighbor from Yemen is watering his tomato garden. He’s out of work too. His wife, in a head scarf and jeans, smokes a cigarette, staring at him with hostility. Across the street, three repulsive looking pit bull dogs are straining at their leashes from the slanted porch while their owner, a woman with M.S., limping around with her cane, caresses them. She just loves those dogs. Five or ten children ride bikes in the street, playing some sort of chase game, steering their bikes over an improvised ramp made up of plywood mounted on mulch. They have nothing scheduled, nowhere to go in particular. The other day I read about “kids today” in the newspaper, which is made out of spun sugar. According to the paper, “kids today” are too scheduled, too stressed about getting into “top schools,” also too coddled.
“You got him!” one of the kids shouts. “No, I’m safe!” “Liar!” “Faggot!” My youngest son is among them. I see him now, weaving in and out, a hesitant smile on his face, trying to navigate the line between the winners and the losers, the safe and the out, his small sunburnt shoulders already bearing the burdens of the world.
DC Lambert is a public school teacher serving an inner city school district and the author of War on Excellence: Our Giant Secret Education Bureaucracy and Me, a nonfiction narrative about the secrets behind the closed doors of our rapidly changing 21st century schools. She earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College Program for Writers. Her award-winning writing has appeared in such magazines as Stand, ACM, Columbia and Connections, and her academic book, Point of View in Mrs Dalloway: Rooms, Corridors and Houses, was recently published by Edwin Mellen Press. Read more here.
DO NOT USE QUOTATION MARKS TO INDICATE IRONY by Anthony Wallace
David Sarnovski taught only one creative writing course at Boston University, so he didn’t have an office. Sometimes he conferenced students in the Espresso Royale at BU Central, sometimes in a filthy Chinese restaurant at Kenmore called the Jade Inn. Sometimes he would just pull into an empty classroom, have a seat at one of the desks, and start talking about whatever he thought the issue was. Madison had met with him twice before and had tried to follow through on at least some of his suggestions, but the grades only seemed to be getting worse. He’d given her a B on the video store story, then a B minus on the Dog Chapel story. One of his comments was “do not use quotation marks to indicate irony.” Sure, she’d done that a few times, but it was hard to understand how a few quotation marks could get you a B minus. There were a few other margin comments, and a short paragraph at the end, but it was hard to read his handwriting, and none of it seemed to add up to much.
Sarnovski wore a Yankees cap and a beat up tweed sports jacket; he talked nonstop about writing a heroin-chic novel on Stegner money, out at Stanford, kicking back for a couple of years and soaking up the California sunshine. He’d asked the class to call him by his first name, but Madison privately thought of him as “Sarnovski.” Since she didn’t want to call him either David or Professor Sarnovski—or even Mister Sarnovski—she avoided the problem by not directly addressing him at all. She began her e-mails to him with a simple “Hello.” Madison had arranged a meeting via e-mail so that she could talk to Sarnovski about the B minus, and he’d written back that they would “touch base” directly after class. When the class was over she waited until everyone else had filed out, then she reminded him of their appointment. She knew he’d forgotten, although he acted like he hadn’t.
Sarnovski put the rest of his stuff in his Tumi shoulder bag, and together they walked down the unevenly lighted hallway. The course was scheduled at night, since Sarnovski had explained to the class that he wrote all day and this was the only time slot that fit into his schedule. He’d told them all at the first meeting that the writing must come first, must be always placed above everything else. The class met for three hours on Wednesday evenings, and sometimes if things really got going they didn’t stop for a break.
Without saying anything Sarnovski veered left into the first classroom he saw, flipped on the lights, and sat down at one of the desks in the back of the room. Madison supposed that he expected her to follow suit, which she did. “Close that door,” he said to her as she came toward him. “Would you please?”
She went back and shut the door and then took the desk opposite his. She went into her bag and brought out the story, which was called “A Journey to the Northeast Kingdom.” The story concerned a pet sitter named Heather who begins an affair with a married man, a tax attorney she meets while walking a pack of five mismatched dogs down Commonwealth Avenue.
“This is a really imaginative premise,” Sarnovski began. “But I have a few issues with the way you’ve followed through on it.
“I wanted to start revising,” Madison cut in, “but you didn’t give me much to go on.”
Sarnovski thumbed through the manuscript in a way that seemed dismissive. “Oh yeah, well, these margin notes are really designed more for me than for you, something to help me remember what I thought about the story when we meet to discuss it in conference. I do find it so much easier to simply meet with students in a seminar this small. Plus you have my commentary from the last two stories.”
“That’s true,” Madison said. “I definitely know what you don’t like about my work.”
“Yes,” Sarnovski went on, again thumbing the manuscript, this time licking his thumb beforehand. “And here once again are some of those things we’ve already discussed. Sentimentality, overwrought or stilted language, forced dramatic action or realization—I think I’ve laid it out for you pretty clearly to this point in the semester, so I’m not sure if you’re simply disregarding my suggestions or if these problems are really ingrained in how you’re thinking about this—I mean, they seem really entrenched.”
He set the manuscript on the desk, looked down at it, then looked directly at Madison. Apparently he thought this was some sort of showdown, and maybe he was right. She certainly felt that she was trying her best, that this story especially was the kind of work she’d imagined doing when she’d first gotten interested in creative writing back in high school, and now here was this Sarnovski telling her not to do exactly what she wanted to do. Whose work was it, anyway?
Of course she didn’t say any of this to Sarnovski. Instead, she returned his gaze as evenly as she could manage. Under the Yankees baseball cap his eyes flashed deep blue, almost purple, something at once attractive and menacing: a gaze intended to indicate both that he was a friendly soul but that she was taxing his very large store of patience. Madison was the first to look away. Her eyes landed on the manuscript. On the first page above the title she’d sketched the Dog Chapel, a small white New England-style chapel with a steeple on top of which, poised like an oversized weather vane, was a wooden black Labrador retriever with blue and white wings. Sarnovski’s response to the sketch was that she should “Resist the impulse to illustrate. Illustrations are for people who are (some word she couldn’t decipher) with language.” Whatever she did in Sarnovski’s class, it was wrong.
“Yes, the illustration,” continued Sarnovski. “It’s cute, you know, but a little amateurish. The same thing with the way you’re using quotation marks, which is a new wrinkle. I don’t remember you doing that before.”
“No, it was something I was trying out.”
“That’s, you know, sort of like air quotes. It brings attention to the fact that you’re using the word in a different way, usually ironic. Sort of like Doctor Evil with ‘The Laser.’” He made two gigantic quotation marks with the first two fingers of each hand, then burst out laughing. Apparently this Sarnovski thought he was a very funny fellow. “But if you start with that, where does it end? I’m happy you’re attending this ‘meeting,’” he went on, once again hooking his fingers in the air in a way that made him look like Richard Nixon giving the victory sign with both hands, but with the fingertips pointing downward, “and I hope this ‘meeting’ ‘helps’ you to ‘write’ ‘better’!”
At this he lowered his arms and laughed uproariously, a trick he used in class whenever things got a little tense.
They discussed the plot points of the story leading up to the epiphany, which Sarnovski said was forced, as was some of the language, and this was also evident in the way Madison was using quotation marks, which were designed to show that a word was being used in an unconventional way, or that the conventional meaning of the word was being challenged by the character, the writer, or both. The main thing he seemed to be insisting on was that everything seemed a bit forced, that things needed to be done more quietly, more seamlessly. And the ending was simply a lesson that the lawyer was too cynical and needed to open himself to the possibilities represented by the Dog Chapel. But the story didn’t take into consideration that the Dog Chapel itself could represent kitsch, sentimentality, oversimplification of emotion. The writer had painted herself into a corner in the way she had set the Dog Chapel up as a symbol. The story could work, but she needed to get more control of her material, to see that the story itself might suggest more possibilities than she’d realized.
Sarnovski droned on and on, and much of what he said really was interesting, but Madison was drifting away, thinking of how she’d tried to write a nice little story about something that happens in a Dog Chapel in Vermont. She’d gone there with her parents last summer because her mother had wanted to post a photo of their golden retriever Lucky who had died of a brain tumor the previous winter. Madison had thought the Dog Chapel was a stupid idea designed to get stupid tourists to part with their stupid money, but once inside the place unexpected things began to happen. And when Madison saw her mother kneel in the Chapel, fighting back real tears, all the battles they’d had throughout high school fell away and she saw her mother—felt about her—as she had when she was a little girl on her first day of school. Her mother said, “Mind the teachers and be polite. And when you meet another child just say, ‘Hello, my name is Madison. What’s your name?’” At recess she tried this and, to her amazement, it worked. By the end of the day she’d made more new friends than anyone in the class—ironically, she’d been enrolled in a Friends School—and when her mother came back to get her Madison ran into her arms. In the Dog Chapel this past summer Madison went up to where her mother was kneeling and knelt down beside her. She put her arm around her, and together they stood and thumb-tacked the picture of Lucky to a vacant space on the corkboard wall. Since then it had been completely different between Madison and her mother, as if the real women named Veronica and Madison had been held prisoner and were now suddenly free.
It was this sense of freedom Madison wanted to create not just in this story but in every story. The attorney could be free of his awful cynicism and womanizing, and the pet sitter named Heather could be free of whatever it was that always made her submit to male authority. They could be free, everybody could be free! As she had this conversation with herself she looked carefully at David Sarnovski. Beneath the bill of the Yankees cap his blue eyes flashed and glinted like thin patches of ice on a frozen pond. His chest and shoulders heaved up and down as he worked himself into a frenzy with his own ideas.
“I like the whole setup,” he went on. “I mean, I like that the guy is a real creep, the attorney is a real creep, as all attorneys are. The pet sitter is eighteen or nineteen, sweet, loves animals, as you might expect—and I like that she likes the Dog Chapel, and by that I mean I like that she takes it seriously, and by that I mean I like that she takes it literally. That she wants to go there with the picture of the dead dog and that she gets the attorney to take her there as part of a romantic getaway.”
He paused, took a pair of wire-rim reading glasses from the top pocket of his sports jacket, and picked the manuscript up with both hands.
“Let’s go right to the climax of the story, right to where he looks at her and has the ‘epiphany.’” He hooked his fingers in the air to make two oversized quotation marks, straining a bit inside the tight jacket and smirking. “That’s where I have the biggest problem, and that’s where I think the story goes off course. Some words we can change, the quotation marks we can delete, but—the center of the story—the place where everything comes together, or is supposed to—well, I just don’t buy it. And for a few different reasons. For one thing, I don’t think the change is earned by what happens in the story. For another, I like him as a creep, so I’m not sure I want him to change. That might be a red herring—to think about the story in terms of something happening to him, that something has to happen to him.”
Sarnovski paused again, looking very satisfied with himself. He looked her straight in the eye over the metal tops of the reading glasses. His eyes looked bruised, sensitive. His hands as they gripped the manuscript looked unusually expressive.
“What about her changing? I mean, what about her seeing that he’s a creep?”
Madison didn’t say anything. But what she wanted to say was that she thought the idea of the course was that he would help her write the story she wanted to write, not take her story and do whatever he felt like doing with it. She wanted to explain that she’d used the quotation marks to indicate how every word potentially is charged, how language is always turning back on itself, simultaneously constructing and deconstructing itself, in the process trapping us in a world of logical construction and deconstruction. Sarnovski hadn’t noticed that, as her characters emerged, the quotation marks went away. It probably was a corny way of doing that: he was probably right about that. But one thing she was sure she wanted to do was to free her characters, and the trap of irony was one of the things she wanted to free them from.
Sarnovski meanwhile continued: “But let’s back up before we consider that as a strong possibility for revision. Right now we get to the part where she puts the picture of the dead dog up on the wall and then kneels down in one of the pews toward the front of the Chapel. He looks at her, her face colored with light from a stained glass window in which a beagle is chasing a rabbit, and what happens? What exactly is the chemical reaction that occurs?”
“He sees her innocence. Or at least that’s what I was going for. He sees what he’s lost.”
It caused Madison tremendous pain to say this—to have to explain the story to him in this way. Almost unbearable pain. Almost like he was a sadist, or a rapist, even, and she was allowing it. But now she couldn’t stop herself. “He’s so cynical, like with everything he says about the B and B where they stay, a place where people sit around in the afternoon sipping tea and working wooden jigsaw puzzles, plus what he says about his wife, and then he has this pure moment when he looks at her tacking the picture of the dog to the wall and then kneeling down—the way the light comes through the stained glass—just the purity of that moment—”
“All right,” Sarnovski interrupted. “But let’s consider what the Dog Chapel itself actually is. I mean, as a complex literary symbol, let’s discuss what it represents.” But this time he didn’t stop to ask what she thought it was supposed to represent. “Kitsch. Sentimentality. An oversimplified emotional response.” He tapped the paper for each item on his list. “I do understand that she can be guilty of that—should be guilty of that—and still be a sympathetic character. I mean, good grief—carved wooden dogs flying up to heaven! But for him to experience something life-changing because of that would mean that you, as writer, are endorsing that—that sensibility—and asking the reader to accept it as well.”
He paused again, looked directly at her.
“Is that what you intended?”
“No. At least not how you’re describing it.”
“Well then, that’s the point, isn’t it? I mean, that’s my central point here today. That story and what you’ve set up might mean different things to different readers. Things much different than what you intended them to mean. Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s a matter of control. You’ve got the characters, the situation—everything, really. But then you just lose control of the story. The story becomes not an interesting and complicated reflection on sentimentality and the questions it poses, the question of how attractive the Disney response is—what we might call the Disney response: It’s a small world after all, whistle while you work—the whole boatload of clichés they peddle down there in Orlando to the tune of billions of dollars a year—and the darker questions that response poses because it’s so attractive. Do you see where I’m going with this? Do you understand what I’m saying? Do you see what I’m saying about the unexplored possibilities here, about taking complete ownership of the material and seeing it through to the furthest possible conclusions?”
His eyes met hers and everything stopped, just for a moment, as she raised her arms and hooked her fingers into gigantic quotation marks and said, “I do!” Then they both laughed. The tension in the room had been broken, and something else had come to take its place, and even when they’d stopped laughing she kept her hands in the air, fingers curled like two talons. He looked, and she looked; her arms were getting heavy. Finally she let them fall, and it came as no small surprise that Sarnovski’s open hands were there to catch them. But his eyes, when they peeped out from under the bill of the Yankees cap, were full of pain—or perhaps it was fear—blue-white and floating just above the empty glare of the reading glasses, as if he’d fallen through the ice and hers were the only hands that could pull him to safety. As if she alone could save him.
Anthony Wallace is a Senior Lecturer in the Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University, where he is also Co-director of “Arts Now,” a curriculum-based initiative to support the arts at BU. Tony has published poetry and fiction in literary journals including CutBank, Another Chicago Magazine, the Atlanta Review, River Styx, Sou’wester, 5-Trope, the Republic of Letters, and Florida Review. His short story “The Old Priest” won a Pushcart Prize and was published last fall in Pushcart 2013. His short story collection The Old Priest is the winner of the 2013 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and will be published this September by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
When I hear about the death of a friend’s baby, it usually takes my heart two or three days to catch up to the news, to feel what a heart ought to feel, something like sorrow, or anger, or befuddlement, not necessarily in that order, and generally all at once. When Daniel’s baby girl died at just eleven months old, I downloaded all of her pictures on facebook, stared at them for hours, days, until I resembled less of a mourner and more of an addict, having no intention of giving up her addiction. “Emma will be forever missed,” someone posted on Daniel’s wall. Emma is (was?) short for Emmanuel: God with us.
When Corey’s baby boy died yesterday, at nine months old, I went to the coffee shop two blocks from my apartment in Long Island City, found my usual spot by the window, drank my coffee, ate my scone, read every page of the New York Times—a tourist gang-raped in India, North Korea’s hunger, AT&T’s dash of orange across black and white journalism, Anne Carson’s email excerpts, punctuated with less popular linguistic emblems, like the “<.” (I don’t remember what emotion the “<“actually expressed—it seems we already have “!” for surprise, “?” for confusion, and “.” for things being over, like death. I wouldn’t know how to use the “<”, but I liked it.) I didn’t cry—though the article about rape in India would’ve been the right moment to do it—and I must have appeared as normal as everyone else reading the newspaper. The world read the same world-news as I did, and it continued to be chatty and opinionated, without missing a beat in the Sunday morning dalliance and overture.
The gentleman next to me, typing away at his computer, offered to look up my destiny from an astrology website. He pointed toward the Pulaski Bridge before us and told me that he grew up in Brooklyn, Hebrew school on Saturdays, Chinese take-out (obviously non-kosher) on non-festive days. He studied American History at Columbia, and now lives abroad. He said he doesn’t feel American. I asked whether that was because he lived abroad or if that was the reason he lived abroad. I asked out of politeness, not interest. He said he’ll save that story for next time. Then he asked me for my birthdate. And I said, “I’ll save that for next time.”
I tell my friends about Corey’s baby over dinner at their house in Astoria. I had to spell out, rather than say out loud, the word “die,” since they have kids. Luca, a three-year-old girl, Ilan, a twenty-week-old boy, and another boy due in a few days. His name will be either Johan, Yohan, or Ewan, all derivatives of John, all three meaning: God has been gracious. My friends have already decided that God “has been” gracious to their unborn child. They’re not trying to put on spurious faith, they’re not trying to sound religious or annoying, they’re not even prophesying a long, happy life over their third child (though that would’ve been understandable). Because we are good enough friends, I can ask: would you still see God as “gracious” if what happened to Corey’s baby happened to Johah or Yohan or Ewan? Because we are good enough friends, they know that I’m not looking for some brush-off platitude. They both become quiet. They put their forks down. Luca tells her mother she wants ice cream for dessert. Not apples. Not broccoli. Not rice. Just ice cream. Her mother hugs her tight. Tucks her bangs behind her ears. Her father says, sure, she can have some ice cream, and Ilan can have some ice cream too, and if something were to happen, to these kids or to “God has been gracious,” he just doesn’t know how he would go on. He doesn’t know if he could go on. He just doesn’t know what he’d do. How to go on being a husband and a dad to the remaining kids. How the hell does Corey get out of bed every morning, make breakfast and go to work? He doesn’t know. He would need some crazy strength beyond what he could come up with himself. Some fortitude to keep him from sundering. Something to keep him from plunging. Something, well, like grace.
There is leftover Korean miso soup, fried sweet potato, and chicken with shiitake mushrooms. We put them in tupperware and take out a brand new tub of ice cream. We call for the kids to come back to the dining table. Luca shows up in a Dora the Explorer bathing suit and beach sandals, with not an iota of worry about the forecast of snow throughout the week. She eats her bowl of ice cream as if it were summer. After dessert, her mother changes her into her jammies (pink), and she insists on wearing a princess dress (pink) over her (pink) jammies. Dining as a vacationer and sleeping as royalty, it has been a good day for Luca.
“I just don’t understand,” I say to my friends. Without my detecting of it, my heart is beginning to catch up to the news about Corey’s baby. Perhaps I should’ve taken down that astrology website from the gentleman at the coffee shop. Perhaps I should’ve told him my birthday. Maybe he’d even tell me something about my death.
If stars can speak, and if constellations narrate with a historian’s precision, then it must have been a clear night when the shepherds kept watch in the field, walking distance from where Mary gave birth, and the night that the magi, Egyptian wizards, came bearing gifts. I have a cubicle in the Writer’s Room on Astor and Broadway. It is open twenty-four hours a day, and I often stay past midnight. I look out the window. It is snowing—the forecast was correct. The gray haze blurs up the sky without a star in sight. There is nothing in the sky to guide me, so instead, I walk a couple of familiar blocks toward Soho, to a deli that lights up the street corner with fluorescent bulbs, and I buy seven cupcakes. Back in the Writer’s Room, I eat all of seven.
“I don’t understand either,” Luca’s mom texts me at my seventh cupcake.
Sonnets, psalms, plays—comedy and tragedy—are left untouched on my desk. I don’t have the stomach tonight for hollow eye sockets, hoary kings gone mad, a prophetess burning at the stake. Instead, I pull up pictures of Emmanuel on my computer again. I study her eyes. I study her ears. I look for possible details I might have missed previously—perhaps a new fold in her chubby arms? Fingernails that need to be cut? A cut that needs bandaging?
I am finally crying, by the end of the second day, in my cubicle, looking at photos of Emmanuel I am crying over Corey’s baby.
There is an order to things, the stars tell us. When things become out of order, people will lose their hair and babies their breath. Children begin wearing coats and stockings on snow days, and beach sandals only at the beach.
As the tears fall, they collect around my lips, stretched, shaped like the beginning of a smile, a simper, and I prepare all my membranes and faculty for sonorous roar, from deep in my belly, a loud hurrah: this is not the end! Death is not the end! Life doesn’t end here, Emmanuel! There are stars in the sky, and fire beneath the earth. Where cancer and starvation, psoriasis and child trafficking are burned in flames of sulphur—a thousand, a million, times more brilliant than the fires on May 30, 1431. Or the Brown Building fire (23-29 Washington Place. Very close to my cubicle in the Writer’s Room).
Dear Joan of Arc, you who listened to the stars, died shining and incandescent. You who know about being silenced, and about injustice—take care of the babies.
Olivia 子琁 Tun
Olivia 子琁 Tzu-Shuan Tun lives in New York City, just a few blocks from MOMA’s PS1, which she enjoys. Other things she enjoys include: Taiwanese mochi, dogwood trees (pink), Eastern European writers, the gym’s steam room, and her mother’s praises. Things she hates include: steroid creams for psoriasis and psoriasis. She is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Columbia University.
Jim O’Loughlin teaches in the Department of Languages & Literatures at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the coordinator of the Final Thursday Reading Series and publisher of Final Thursday Press. Read more here.
CONVERSATIONS OVERHEARD IN A BOWLING ALLEY WHEN THERE IS A CITY WIDE POWER OUTAGE
by Jennifer Faylor
My childhood sweetheart left me because I am an ancient jar of honey,
forgotten about but still sweetening in a cool dark place,
a thousand furious bees having loved me into existence.
My mama let strangers hide under my bed, then fed them
in the morning; cold coconut soup, her specialty.
Well, the day of my birth my pop was no where to be found,
and legend has it he was hunting down a local villain,
it’s that or he was on a park bench with a handful of breadcrumbs,
conducting interviews with a sampling of the pigeon population.
I’d like to learn the language of god, so I can chat
at night when everyone else has gone to sleep. The hardest part
is that I don’t think god uses an alphabet.
I hurt a guy bad once, I broke a guy’s heart.
Now, he sings to his furniture. Operetta to the ottoman,
and sad country songs to the four poster bed.
I just bought some land, want to build the perfect house–
one with big heartache closets,
that I can hide in when I’m blue, and skylights,
skylights everywhere, so that when the power’s out like this,
we’ll have enough starlight to play monopoly.
Jennifer Faylor is a poet and chocolatier who lives in New York City with her goldfish Edison and Marguerite. She has her MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. She’s been published in such places as Redivider, Bat City Review, and Straylight. Her chapbook The Case of the Missing Lover is published by Dancing Girl Press.
But if we wanted to,
we could paint speeding cars,
sneak into business class,
eat oysters in months with a W,
turn back clocks with just our fingers,
and mend the wind-up toy versions
of both our broken hearts.
“How,” says the movie Indian
inside your tired and frantic brain.
“Weight,” says the bathroom scale
we both got on together.
“Clear,” says the busy maitre d.
“Stile,” says your backyard fence full of flowers.
The noisy kitchen’s full
of “bathe, warm, coddle, grate, zest.”
“Here, here,” says the old British guy on TV.
“Join,” say the corners of all your sturdy furniture.
“Wing,” say the birds in your small tree.
William Winfield Wright is a Fulbright Scholar and a Fishtrap Fellow. He was born in California and lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he teaches at Colorado Mesa University. He has published in 14 Hills, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Field, The Ninth Letter, Permafrost, The Seattle Review, The South Carolina Review, Third Coast, and elsewhere. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart and featured on Poetry Daily.
If I miss one thing it’s the butterfly mobile I bought in Mexico, now hanging on a nail and gathering dust. One of the painted cardboard butterflies has already been crushed and smoothed out and you can still see the seams. I don’t remember exactly where I bought it, only that it was at the green side of a gravel road. I want to say it was at the bottom of that pyramid of stairs, but maybe I’m only trying to glorify the place in my mind.
If I’ll miss one thing it’s the market. The teenage boys grinning and joking and slapping me on the back. The women calling out my name and touching my arms and pinching my waist to tell me I’ve grown fat or thin, when really it’s neither. Making me feel I belong when we all know I don’t. These are merchant’s tricks, I know, but they are the only people who touch me, greet me, make me feel human and not a specimen. And the piles of shining vegetables seem so full of possibility. Such power that comes with a few coins. Anything I want: eggplant, tomatoes, a sack of multicolored beans. They’ll even peel the garlic for you if you like. I try not to feel bad. I think about the girl who does it, and the smell of her fingers, and whether she has a lover, and what he thinks of it. Whether he likes that persistent tang of garlic under her fingernails or not. Maybe it’s better if he doesn’t. Better not to have a baby stashed in a basket under the stall to keep him out of the glare of the sun and from crawling underfoot.
I thought that mobile would hang over a crib. I thought so even when I bought it. I saw it as the focal point of some magical butterfly-filled room in which a baby would laugh and kick. In my mind, the room is white and unfinished, but I see the crib and the blue butterflies and me telling my child I saw these once in Costa Rica. My child will have a jungle imagination. I bought her dolls in Africa so she would know from that beginning that it’s right to have friends of all colors. Maybe that’s the problem with my children, that they are too much anticipated, that I have named them already. What’s that about counting your hatching chicken eggs all in one basket? Maybe my children were too fully realized, my idea of their selves so carefully cultivated, grown and matured (pigtails, Band-Aid knees, trust and no curfew) that they just wandered off whole. Or they felt rushed into being and were born to some other person, turned down some other avenue. It never occurred to me to look for them in the world. But maybe they’re already here.
Lily Brent is a master’s student at Columbia University. Before graduate school, Lily worked at a holistic residential program for orphaned and vulnerable teenagers in Rwanda. Her experiences are chronicled at redclimbinglily.wordpress.com. Lily’s writing has previously been published by 42Opus and featured by fictiondaily.org. Lily is a graduate of Oberlin College and a proud New Jersey native.
He hides under hot
lamps and sandpaper eyes.
Lay your wrist on the sidewalk.
I can draw chalk in your veins, father.
are turns the corner, frozen
despite his friction, friction despite
my icy eyes thanks to mother.
A pressure that’s bonded my mind
to hers like the bolts of this bridge
but over his void. Father,
wait no longer and wander further
with me to the felled park. All lands
must wait their wait for a green of crops.
A mystery exacted only until
its black blanket smother
of wall a distance
between father and son. And now
its time one of us admits
we’ve already arrived.
You burgeon into peony
as air unfurls its density,
warmth, puff balls. Rather,
father, let them around
your pedals. Duck back away into
the trees, close your eyes,
we can hide differently
Alex Schmidt holds a BA in poetry from Columbia College Chicago, and an MFA in Poetry and Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. He still lives in North Carolina, where he works for Trader Joe’s. When he is not working or writing one might spot him reading a book as he walks his dog, riding his bike to the library, or trying to keep up with his wife when she jogs. Much of his time, recently, is filled with experiencing the various “important” films one might call a necessary supplement to the creative diet. He also maintains a blog semi-regularly at Sausageshapedearth.wordpress.com.
It was lunchtime on the Miracle Mile—a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles that’s not quite downtown and not quite the West Side. My mother, who always hated the hot, walked beside me in her crisp linen dress. Beneath the linen, her stockings and slip made a fft fft shifting sound, keeping time to the clickof her slingback pumps. Heat waves bent the air. The streets were empty—streets that had civilized what was once ice, then tar pits, then desert. All had made way for the city of angels.
Beside my mother, I was office appropriate in a banana yellow cotton skirt and top combo. I was eleven and it was 1973, when all the clothes were Laffy Taffy colors.
From elementary school through high school, I spent my summers working with my mother, who was a secretary in a lawyer’s office. Lunchtime was the highlight of my day. On that particular day, at my request, we were headed past the office towers and the gas station on the corner to the lunch truck for gorditas. I anticipated the greasy scent of the truck and the weight of the silver-wrapped sandwich I would carry back to my mother’s office.
The lawyer she worked for was a former FBI Special Agent who had investigated the Black Dahlia murder. The Dahlia was a beautiful, dark-haired young woman famously mutilated and left in a field during the 1940s. My mother and I had watched a made-for-TV-movie about this woman, whose looseness was said to have contributed to her death. Even thirty years later, a woman on her own, divorced like my mother, risked speculation—blame for whatever unhappy ending might befall her.
“They assume you’re cheap,” my mother would say, wrinkling her nose at the word “cheap.” It was one of the worst ways she herself could judge you. Dyed hair, hoop earrings, white shoes, gum chewing, smoking on the street all marked you as loose in my mother’s eyes. Even though she was not yet thirty, she did not participate in the swinging ’70s. My mother wanted always to be above reproach—to prove that she was better than the way we sounded on paper—apartment-dwelling single mother, divorced twice, no college.
After working at the FBI, the lawyer started practicing probate law. He wrote wills for little old ladies whose pack-rat houses belied their squirreled-away wealth. One of the first jobs I ever had was to go through a small wooden file box filled with thumbed-over index cards and remove all the client cards marked DECEASED. In my mind, “Dahlia” and “deceased” mingled with a macabre thrill.
The lawyer took long vacations—five or six weeks at a stretch during which he and his wife ate their way across Europe. When he was gone my mother ran the show. The truth was, even when he was in town, his clients relied on her more than him—a source of pride and bitterness for my mother, who earned a secretary’s salary. So convinced was I that she deserved her own name on the door, I lied to friends. Though queasy with the thought that I would be found out, I always said she was a lawyer.
But from late June to September, I didn’t worry about keeping up appearances with school friends. I rarely saw them and that was fine with me. During those hot months, after our long day’s work, my mother and I had Coke floats for dinner, spooning vanilla ice cream and foam from real Coke glasses. We ate them in our nightgowns while watching old movies. We played Scrabble until two in the morning even though we knew we would be tired the next day.
During West Side Story I would dance around our apartment wearing my mother’s hand-me-down peignoir singing, “I feel pretty.” And in those moments, I believed that my freckles and red hair, which didn’t ring the “pretty” bell, would one day add up to my mother’s porcelain skin and brunette beauty.
After our late nights, we would drag ourselves into the office like hungover roommates. We’d skip breakfast. By lunchtime I was ready to eat.
On the lookout for the gorditas truck, I was squinting into the next block when I saw them. Three boys about my age, on the brink of being teenagers. They were walking backward, facing our way, saying something to a woman as she proceeded down the sidewalk. We gained on the scene but they didn’t seem to notice us. Unable to pass them, we moved along behind. Witnesses.
I couldn’t see the woman’s face but she seemed old to me. The skin on her arms loose and flabby in a faded tank top above a short floral skirt. She wore high heels but no stockings. Her hair was the color of ashes, dirty with the sun beating down on it. A zip-up sweatshirt hung over one shoulder and she scooted along in her high heels like a little girl playing dress up.
The boys were taunting her. Puckering up, they made kissing noises, jostling and knocking against each other as they laughed and played at something that would be more menacing as they got older. Their shiny black hair and skinny white t-shirts put me in mind of 1950s New York. I imagined them playing stickball and hanging out on stoops like in the old movies my mother and I watched. I wondered if these boys, who probably lived in the low, squat houses and apartments just a few blocks from the high-rise office buildings, had laughed at this woman before. I wondered if she had a name among the neighborhood kids like “the Dragon Lady” who sat at the House of Pies counter near where my mother and I lived.
The boys didn’t touch the woman but they moved in front of her, blocking her way. She tried to get around them. Once. Twice. Three times. Then I heard her low whine as it boiled to a growl. She jutted her head at them the way a goose honks violently at a predator. My mother and I were finally gaining speed, about to move past them when the woman picked up the hem of her skirt—delicately as if to curtsy.
I was right alongside her when I saw her bare bottom beneath the skirt. My mother and I kept walking but the woman’s tormentors stopped. As I passed them, I saw the look on one boy’s shocked face. Turning, I saw what he saw—the woman’s dark pubic hair beneath her lifted skirt—a grownup eyeful he had not bargained on. The woman dropped her skirt and moved on, free of them at last.
“Why did she do that?” I said in a loud whisper to my mother. Despite the intimacy of my life with my mother, I had never seen a naked woman before. I had never seen what I was becoming. With my newly forming breasts and hips, my impulse was to protect myself. Especially the part of me that made me feel vulnerable to boys and men.
“She’s not well, baby,” my mother said, eyeing me as she kept up her brisk walking. We stepped into the street to cross at the next corner. Instinctively she reached for my hand even though I was way too old for this. I took her hand as I looked over my shoulder and saw the woman cutting through the gas station and moving on her way. With the lift of her skirt, she’d called their bluff, stopped them in their tracks. She might have been crazy but even then I knew I’d witnessed something powerful.
A few years later, when I was about 17, I thought back to that woman. My mother and I were exiting a subway car. By then, my fully developed body seemed always to announce my arrival before I was ready to be noticed. As we left the car, pressing along with the crowd, a man behind me cupped his hand between my legs. Shamed by his grab, my cheeks red, I heard my mother berate herself. “I should’ve made you wear a slip,” she said. To my mother, a slip—that thin membrane between propriety and cheap—could mean the difference in how men treated you. To my mother, a slip could save you from ending up in a field like the Black Dahlia.
But as I was beginning to make my own way in the world, I wondered. Maybe what really saved you was the courage to growl, honk, and lift your skirt.
The essays of Andrea Jarrell have appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love” column, Narrative, Memoir, Literary Mama, The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor among other publications. “On the Miracle Mile” is part of an essay collection she’s working on—a memoir in stories. After growing up in Los Angeles, she lived in Austin, Santa Fe, New York City, a small town on the coast of Maine, Paris and now suburban Washington, D.C. Place factors into her memoir in significant ways. She is a graduate of the Bennington College MFA program and a recipient of a Martin Dibner Writing Fellowship.
She has begun to go to the gym twice a day, once in the morning, once in the evening. She will run fast, moving up the speed every five minutes, until it is going at nine and she can barely breathe. Roxy’s body has transformed in the last year; no more arm fat or slack ass, she is all sinew. Her shoulders have ridges, indents. The weight room is emptier in the morning and she can stand in front of the mirror watching her triceps, her deltoids.
Roxy gets lost on the way to her aunt’s, and by the time she finds the right street she knows she will have to turn around pretty soon.
Her father had warned her, so Roxy is not wholly surprised at the mess of the house, the smell.
“Lenore,” she hugs her, “You need to get a cleaning service in here.” Her aunt holds on to her, only coming up to her shoulders, squeezing her around the waist. She looks up at her. They sit down on the couch, Lenore lighting a cigarette. She apologizes. “Don’t,” Roxy tells her, “It’s fine.”
“You’d think I’d know better after watching Maggie but it’s an addiction.” Roxy waves it away.
“You look so thin,” Lenore says.
“I’ve been working out,” says Roxy.
“Jesus, the fits you threw just to get out of a soccer game.” Lenore laughs. “Has your dad spoken to Rog?”
Roxy shakes her head.
“Of course,” Lenore says. “He wants everyone in the family to think… He called last night and I didn’t answer.”
“That’s good you’re being strong,” says Roxy.
“He doesn’t even feel guilty,” Lenore tells her. “And you know why?”
Lenore looks at her nailbeds, picks skin off with her teeth.
“Because we don’t have children,” she says. “That makes it ok.”
“That’s so wrong,” Roxy tells her.
“Have you talked to your grandparents?” Lenore says.
Roxy shakes her head.
“I just want to know if everyone thinks it’s my fault, I don’t know if,” Lenore takes a few deep breaths, laughs at herself in a few coughs. “I just don’t know if they believe he’s shit or if they’re just saying he’s shit, you know?”
“I haven’t really talked to them about it,” Roxy says.
Lenore leans back against the couch, closing her eyes. She reaches around next to her blindly for her cigarettes but doesn’t find them.
“This fucking year,” Lenore says.
“I know,” Roxy says.
Lenore sits up straight, “Christ. Is this distracting or a downer?”
“Both,” Roxy says. “I’m kind of past needing distraction.”
“You’re ok,” Lenore asks.
“Yeah,” Roxy says. “Doing fine.”
“I don’t really have time for that this year.”
“What about classes?” Lenore asks.
“I’m going to have to leave soon,” Roxy tells her later. “I should get to at least the second half of this class.”
“It’d be so much fucking easier if I were in school right now,” Lenore laughs. “School or something.”
She calls her grandparents from the car. They always talk on the phone together, two phones in the kitchen, one on each nightstand next to their beds. They sleep in two beds pushed together, like girls on a sleepover.
“Howie,” her grandmother calls out. She hears him pick up the other end.
“It’s Roxy,” her grandmother tells him.
“Roxy,” he says.
“Hi Poppy,” she says.
“She just came from Lenore’s,” her grandmother says.
“What were you doing there?” he asks.
“Just a visit. Dad suggested it,” she tells them.
“It’s nice to do that,” her grandmother says.
“Then what was the heavy breathing for,” says her grandfather.
“How does she seem?” her grandmother asks.
“A little frenetic,” Roxy says.
“He called her last night you know,” her grandfather tells her.
“Drunk,” her grandmother says.
“He was at the bimbo’s apartment.”
Roxy’s phone beeps and she looks down at it; low battery.
“What a year,” her grandmother says.
“I’m going to sign off,” her grandfather says.
“Love you, Poppy,” Roxy says. He hangs up.
“You know, he doesn’t want to make Seder this year,” her grandmother tells her.
She gets on the treadmill, starts out steady. Turns the incline up. She imagines herself running up a mountain right now. She could outrun anyone. Her knees don’t even ache, not with this much adrenaline. They almost buckle when she gets off though. Her music was too loud because now her ears hurt and she takes out the headphones. As soon as they are off, a guy approaches her.
“You were going so high today,” he says.
Eyes closed, she leans against the railing of the treadmill. She thinks her breathing must sound like an animal’s.
“I don’t know how you can stay on the machine every day.” He squats next to her. She shrugs, head against her arms. “Do you ever run outside?”
“Nope,” she says.
“Last year I did that, ran outside a lot, well actually I started two years ago, but last year I ran the marathon. Which was because I was running outside. That’s why I mean I ran the marathon.”
“You’re limping,” he says as she begins to move toward the mats. She turns to him, and pantomimes a pout. When he sits next to her, she can see the outline of his dick against his thigh covered by the thin, red mesh shorts.
“I was just coming in and saw you from over there,” he says. “I think I’ve been going to the gym more this year.”
She looks at him. “Oh yeah?”
“I always catch you here,” he says. “I mean, when I’m here.” She thinks about pushing him into the weight room and the way his penis would feel as she slid her hand down it from outside of his shorts.
A weekend night, she clenches her fists as someone tries to squeeze in next to her. Owen bends down to talk to a girl. She is fat, no that’s not right, she is normal. He would think she was fat, though. He looks up; he wanted her to see this. She squeezes her way back to their booth. Lucy slides over, and she slides into the booth. They look at Owen, now across the bar talking to a different semi-unattractive girl.
“Just so you know, Derek’s over there too.” They stare at Derek, reaching for a drink, throwing an arm around a friend. Lucy pulls Roxy behind her toward the group, a handful of boys, one or two girls.
Derek moves closer to her, to talk about something, a class, a mutual friend, and she feels the heat from him. She wonders what Derek would do if she were to put her hands or nose or lips against the back of his neck, just to feel some heat.
“Where’d Luc go to?” Derek turns his head, whips it back immediately. They lean out and there, back in the booth, Lucy and Jeff kiss quickly. Derek looks back at Roxy and she at him. They laugh, he doesn’t look away from her. Roxy takes a sip, turns it into a gulp and then downs it.
“A double just means more tonic here.” She stands, bumping into someone. “What a nightmare,” she says. Derek nods. Someone comes up behind her, slides a hand from between her shoulder blades down to her back.
“You haven’t been here in awhile,” Owen says.
She turns, they don’t break eye contact, he puts his hand on her waist, pulls her in. She can feel Derek move away from behind her, sees him walk around them, back to the boys.
Owen walks past her, and she follows Owen out. She finds matches when they get home. She can hear him peeing in the bathroom, wishes he would have turned on the water so she didn’t have to hear.
Owen takes his shirt off, sits down, hard, on the bed. “Come here Rox,” he says. She doesn’t immediately, and his self-consciousness is obvious.
“Get over here,” he says. She shakes her head, pulls her shirt off. A purple bra against white skin, and he doesn’t seem to notice the difference. She knows then that he isn’t even looking at her, because if he were paying attention, he would see that her body has changed. He doesn’t notice her breasts, small now, strange and small. As she walks over, as he kisses her stomach, unzips her jean, she wonders if maybe the difference is only apparent to her and to Lucy. He kisses her ear, licking it, Rox, he groans. So she gets on top of him, hair falling around their faces. She wonders why she can’t feel the heat that must be coming from his body.
She gets into the shower immediately, turning the water on so hot her skin could melt down the drain. She leans back against the wall, warm for the first time that day. Shaking a little, mainly in reaction to the heat. She thinks of her mother, asking them to put their hands on her, touch me, she told them. Her hands on her mother’s stomach, distended with fluid, the cancer kid whose skin Roxy imagines burning slowly away, bubbling from the radioactive medicine, bleeting as it died. Roxy knows she is not dying, that this is an imaginary illness, a strange sickness that has become a part of her and not the dying of her mother. When she gets out she’ll order a pizza, put something inside of her tonight that will stick.
Lucy comes downstairs as soon as she hears Roxy on the phone for pizza.
“I heard him come in,” Lucy says.
She is accusing her, hoping for a denial, an explanation, but Roxy shrugs, so what? Roxy looks at her phone, at the time.
“He’s just so not worthy,” Lucy says. Roxy rolls her eyes. “Alright, fine, you just…”
Lucy looks for the words, “You just need to take better care of yourself. “
“This won’t do anything to me.”
“Why not?” Lucy asks but there is no answer. “Want the blanket? You look freezing.”
“We are always running out of hot water,” Roxy says. Lucy brings the blanket over, sits next to her. They get under it, toes touching.
“Still cold?” Lucy turns toward her, throws an arm over her, draws her in.
“Roxy,” Lucy sighs.
Roxy’s cell phone rings, the pizza. She rolls over to get off the couch, out of the room. She goes out onto the porch, money in one hand. As the deliveryman turns around, she opens the box of pizza. Steam rises into the air and she lowers her face, breathing it in.
Lenore calls her in the morning, earlier than Roxy would have assumed Lenore would be up.
“What are you doing today?” Lenore asks.
“Class, maybe the gym,” Roxy says.
“Do you have time for a nice lunch?” Lenore says, “I know when I was in college I always loved when some visitor would take me out for a nice lunch.”
“Sure,” Roxy says. “That sounds nice.”
Lenore names a French bistro, a few blocks away from campus and they meet there at noon.
“This place is great, we can eat outside,” she says to Roxy. Lenore orders a bottle of white wine, a special treat she says, and stares at it as it’s being poured.
“You have no idea how nice it feels to get out of the house,” Lenore tells her.
“I’m sure,” Roxy says.
The food comes; a salad for Roxy, a croque monsieur for Lenore. Lenore rests her cigarette in the ashtray and moves to fill Roxy’s glass of wine. “You drink so slowly,” she says to her.
She fills hers and puts down the bottle, turns her face to the sun.
“You know what’s corny?” she says to Roxy. “I always think of your mom on these days. Or, days that feel like this outside. That’s not it. Beautiful days just make me miss things now. Rog. Your mom. My brother.”
Lenore stays like that for a few minutes, shivers, sips her wine.
“That woman called me last night, told me I was ruining her relationship,” Lenore tells her.
“You’re kidding me,” Roxy says.
“Can you believe that?”
“She must be crazy.”
“It feels like I’m talking to Maggie with you,” she tells her.
Roxy walks her back to her car, and Lenore leans against it.
“I remember college with your mother,” she says, “Jesus it could have been last week. Going on dates, tanning on the roof, topless. She managed such good grades, though.
“So you’re going to class now?”
“The Soviet Union one,” she tells her.
“Jesus. Think I’d like it?”
Roxy shrugs, but takes her to class anyway. They sit in the back, Roxy taking notes, Lenore looking out the window. The class is small, and Roxy knows that the professor has noticed Lenore.
“Is this your sister?” he says on the way out, turning to Lenore.
“No, just her old maid aunt,” Lenore smiles, pulling Roxy close.
As they walk out, Lenore looks at her. “Don’t be so embarrassed,” she says. Roxy doesn’t respond.
“Are you mad at me?” Lenore asks. Roxy shakes her head.
She runs hard that evening, almost two hours. She knows she’ll have to do something else tomorrow, maybe swim, because her knees can’t take this much. She’ll ice them when she’s home, take some Advil, it’ll be ok. He comes up behind her while she’s waiting for the water fountain.
“What got into you today?” he says.
“Nothing,” she says.
“C’mon,” he says. She shakes her head, smiles, not realizing how tired she was.
She ices, she takes three Advil, but in the morning her knees are sore. Walk it off, she tells herself, shake it off. They’re just stiff. She gets a text from Lenore, What class is today?
She doesn’t respond, and Lenore calls her.
“Want a bagel?” she asks.
“I’ll get my own breakfast,” Roxy says.
“Oh Rox I need to come meet you today,” Lenore says, “Rog has been totally incommunicado. I fear the worst.”
“What could be worse?” Roxy asks.
“Nothing,” Lenore says, “I mean, the worst is when there’s nothing.” Roxy can hear her beginning to cry.
“Want to bring over the bagel?” Roxy asks.
“Do you have cream cheese?” Lenore asks.
Her father calls her.
“Just checkin in,” he says.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi,” he says. They are quiet, she leans her head against her refrigerator and closes her eyes.
“Daddy my knees hurt from running,” she says.
“You gotta be careful with those joints, they’re with you for life,” he says. Words like that make them uncomfortable around each other.
“So,” Roxy says.
“Lenore says you’ve been so sweet with her,” he says.
“She’s driving me nuts.”
“Have some compassion, sweetheart,” he tells her. She opens her eyes, hooks the phone against her ear. Lenore buzzes up and comes in, bag of bagels in hand. She plops down onto the couch, holding out the bagels for Roxy to take them.
“Lenore just walked in,” she says. Lenore waves in her direction.
“Alright,” he says, “Call me later.”
“Love you.” She presses the phone against her shoulder while she opens the fridge, pulls out her ice packs. Lenore walks next to her, takes the phone from her ear and talks into it, “Hello?”
“Was that Sam?” Roxy nods, slaps the ice packs over her knees.
“Ah Roxy,” she starts in. “This place is nice.
“I didn’t tell you this because I didn’t want you to think I was gross but we slept together a few nights ago,” Lenore tells her.
“Do you think I’m a bad woman?” Lenore asks.
“Of course not,” Roxy says. For a moment, she imagines Lenore in bed, smoking cigarettes, chatting with a nude Roger.
“You know how that is, when you just want them and you’re like no it’s so weak but it’s like there’s still so much chemistry,” Lenore asks.
Roxy shrugs, “I can imagine,” she says.
“Are you still…?” Lenore asks, trailing off.
Roxy promises Lenore she can accompany her to class later. She ices for an hour and limps to the gym. She gets on the bike but it’s not running and she’s off soon, lifting weights, watching herself in the mirror. She can see the swelling in her knees.
She goes straight to class from the gym; she didn’t sweat enough to change clothes. She waits outside. Lenore is late. She calls her cell, no answer. When she gives up and goes inside, there’s Lenore. She stands at the front of the room, talking to her professor.
Roxy turns back around, walking out of the building. She begins to run down to the river, past the museum.
Her knees ache and then the pain is sharp, too sharp to keep running. She slides down on to the grass next to the runner’s pathway, pulling her knees up to her chest.
Jane E. Sussman
Jane E. Sussman lives in Los Angeles, where she writes fiction for television, the screen, and the web. Her writing influences include Hemingway, Didion, Rushdie, and Chandler, as well as the gothic literature of the nineteenth century, Keats, and Milton. She can be followed on twitter and instagram @janeesussman.
On the bridge, the birdgirl waits with a weight in her ribcage.
Symbolically, a sailor and his sweetheart. A sparrow pecking
at a cigarette. A sparrow pecking at salt for snow. Next to the
pizza place, she keys up a door with a horseshoe over it, then
goes to sleep with hair clips in—Like the firepower rainwater
has on Fort Torch Falls, the level rises in a surge—Exhausted,
she whispers into her pillow: “Bring me things with wings.”
*WE’VE COME FOR YOUR YUENGLING YAMMERING*
Frank O’Hara has a few nosey people coming over: “It’s a party!”
he announces, then into the parking garage he disappears like the
Boston Bruins blowing a three-games-to-none lead in the Stanley
Cup playoffs to the Philadelphia Flyers. To my knowledge, Frank
Zappa isn’t being played in any of the elevators in O’Hara’s build-
ing, but, well, most likely still lingering up there are my 11th floor
farts—Child caregivers beware: goes a man painting famous faces
onto a hotdog cart, tryna get them to blend into the murals of Dirty
Frank’s Bar. And of his Franz Kafka kasha recipe? An approxima-
tion. It’s missing something: Aretha on the juke? Ben on the stove?
Rabble-rouser scavenger hunt. Flying kites, we still don’t know,
so we’re left to wonder right when we need to least—The last line
of my horoscope reads, “Walk away without any words, for now.”
Paul Siegell is the author of three books of poetry: wild life rifle fire, jambandbootleg, and Poemergency Room. Born on Long Island, educated in Pittsburgh, employed in Orlando, Atlanta and now Philadelphia, Paul is a senior editor at Painted Bride Quarterly and has contributed to APR, Black Warrior Review, Coconut, Rattle and many other fine journals. Kindly find more of Paul’s work and concrete poetry t-shirts at ReVeLeR @ eYeLeVeL.
you wrote me a letter
a smile big as a swollen peach
gushing on your face
while your mother intently told you everything
about the people she hates
you phone fucked me on my childhood bed
while my Southern Baptists slept resounded in the next room
(Everything Southern Baptists do is resounding;
not like my pitiful whispering.)
In the morning I woke
to a crow on a tree
the imagination of you shaking in my belly
and the news that my mother’s brother
had swallowed the entire morphine clinic
to the point of absolute death
it made me feel like I was being eaten by the mouth
of a grey sun,
of a sun in an overcast sky
but hotter than I’ve ever thought
to beg for
Later, sitting next to a strummed guitar
on a rotting porch
watching my brother
like dice he was betting on
I averted my eyes from my mother’s rotting thumb
and thought of your imaginary
mouth swallowing me
in its warmth
and I felt joy
and I wondered if everything wasn’t like this
deranged humming bird of a moment
but I just haven’t been looking close enough
to see it
buzzing always right there,
little wings of thin trash
flipping my stomach to the flowering between elation
Chavisa Woods is a Brooklyn-based literary author whose work pushes boundaries of narratives around class culture, gender, and sexuality. Her most recent novel, The Albino Album was published by Seven Stories Press, 2013. Woods’ debut collection of fiction, Love Does Not Make me Gentle or Kind (Fly By Night Press, 2008) was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist for Debut Fiction. The second edition was recently released by Autonomedia Press through the Unbearable imprint in late 2012. Woods was the recipient of the 2009 Jerome Foundation Travel/ Study Award for emerging writers in 2009. She has featured as a reader with a number of renowned institutions and festivals including a multi-day performance at The Whitney Museum in New York City, as a member of Butch Morris’ Chorus of Poets. Woods’ poetry, short, stories and essays have been published nationally and internationally in publications including The Evergreen Review, Matador, The New York Quarterly, Sensative Skin, Jadaliyya, and many others.
THE IMMACULATE SADNESS OF PETER J. BEECH by Dan Micklethwaite
He misses it immediately, the soft glass of that screen. The sinking, only slightly, of his finger against it.
There is a pining at work within him for that formed plastic mass.
The minor desert of his palm looks back at him falsely without it; even more arid, now that the mirage is gone. The ways in which the sunlight, the tube-light, the streetlight had slipped across it, fussing with the things he was wanting to know—they’d nagged him as bad as the pleas of a lover, but he’d still opt for that above the warmth of that light on his bare open skin.
So used to it. So accustomed. So comfortable, knowing it was with him, on him. In his pocket, his jacket, his hand. So used to bringing it home and charging it before he went to sleep each night. So attuned to the vibrations it made upon message receipt. Checking its emails, its messages, its social networking notifications and proddings and feedouts of banter and digital chat.
Regular. Clockwork. Reliable.
Five-star product rating.
But more than a product. A pet, almost, at the constant beck and call of its master, always happy to help, constantly supplicant, the judder of a phonecall its little tail wagging. The ringtone its jovial bark.
This thought—this notion of smartphone as furry familiar—it gives him an idea. Bounces him back from where he was teetering, on the slick canyon-side of despair. Most people he knows, if they lose a device, they’ll announce it, sure enough—as soon as they can reach a computer, they’ll log into a network and fess up to their foolishness, or rage at the indiscriminate nature of petty street thieves. But they won’t try too hard to get it back.
This is, for Peter, too soon a leap from loss to abandonment. Too smooth a transition from one piece of kit to the next. He can’t do that, himself. Time and ownership are concepts that still hold too great a sway in his life.
No. There has to be a search before the search can be called off.
Peter Beech plans to make posters. The same way that dog owners/cat owners/gerbil/hamster/rabbit/tortoise owners do, if one of their menagerie guests happens to flee.
Intends to find the nearest library, log onto a computer, mock something up—something eye-catching, yet mournful—then print out twenty, thirty, fifty copies, go around sellotaping them firm onto lampposts and bankwalls and on the clear plexiglass behind benches at bus stops. Intends this and it firms up his shoulders, delivers a trim kick of adrenalin direct to his legs.
But then he gets lost.
Or, rather, realises he was lost already.
That is, looking ahead—at buildings, down shopping arcades, sidestreets and inner-city thoroughfares—he can’t quite work out where he is. It’s different if you have a map. It’s better. Better still if you’ve got a map that shows your real-time location, which tracks you, holds an arrow in place to signify in which direction you’re heading. Lets you know you’re in the clear, without doubt that you’re on the right track.
No map means no clue, and no clue means shitness. Means standing in the middle of one of those shopping streets gawking alternately at the sky or at the ground, too embarrassed to risk catching anyone’s eye. Even though he’s increasingly aware that that’s exactly what he’ll have to do, if he wants to be given directions.
Eyes drawn down level with most everyone else’s. Watching them. Tear ducts watering slightly in the cold and the bright of the day. Wiped away with the left sleeve of his thin woollen jumper—doesn’t want anyone to even begin to think he’s upset.
People all staring dead ahead, as eager to dodge contact as he is himself. People all lugging bags full of food and Christmas shopping around at their sides. Hobbling their own knees with the heavier ones. Reluctant as he is to reach out for help.
A woman, blonde, notes Peter looking, switches her own eyes away. A man mouths Fuck. Off. to him when he catches him staring at the stuffed toy monkey tipping out of a deep pocket in his coat. A pigeon shits on the ground just next to his foot, and he shifts, sets off walking against the grain of the traffic, trying as best as he can not to clatter shoulders or elbows with anyone else.
Breathing space and he stops still again, gives the whole searching for helpfulness thing another half-hopeful shot.
It works. Someone’s coming over. A girl, in her late teens. Brunette. Smiling. Certainly helpful. A little bit hot. Too late does he notice the clipboard in her hand.
She unravels onto him a spate of sorrow, sob stories related to him through a customer-service smile, same as a newsreader. She lets him in on the grim reality of a certain condition, and the harsher-still realities of the care, tells him all it’ll take is a few pounds a month, tells him again, and he can’t open his mouth to explain that he hasn’t really got any money to help her, even if he wanted to. Can’t open his mouth until she comes to close hers. And she doesn’t. Her voice has a curious lilt to it, from another county perhaps. Possibly from the Midlands, even, but then again possibly not. Eyes just on the blue side of green, he notices. Less and less aware of losing track of what she’s saying, though he’s doing so more and more fully.
When she does stop speaking, he simply stands there gazing dumbly at her for a few seconds before fumbling about with his tongue for something appropriate and proper to say.
His tongue doesn’t comply.
Instead, it cuts to the chase.
Excuse me, but do you happen to know where the library is?
Whoosh of the doors and already the itching that’s in him is slightly relieved. Something mechanical, robotic is almost essential. He gets a surge of comfort in the sensor’s semi-sentient presence. Steps through, watching the slickly sick green of the carpet, the vaulting height of the bare, spare ceiling.
Everyone here either with their face in a book or in front of a painting or in front of a screen. Ten computers and only three people currently using them. Fancies his chances of enacting his plan.
Dropping to eye level again, he searches for the helpdesk, finds it. Finds a sign taped to the front of the desk that reads, on laminated white card, Please use self-sevrice machines to check books out. Late fee queries only.
Thinking, calmly, Fuck it, he heads towards the machines. Doesn’t have time to waste attempting conversation with someone who clearly isn’t being paid to talk. Not the sort of person who talks much at all, probably, that librarian. Not the sort of person who’ll empathise or sympathise with Peter’s plight. His need to recover his phone. His old, current phone.
Logged on, he heads straight for the browser. Blanks, momentarily, on his purpose for coming here. Has his habitual cycle in action now. The pattern he follows each and every time he hits the internet.
Personal emails first.
Jobseeking emails next.
Social networking site A.
Social networking site B. (Separate tab)
Blog. (Checking if anybody has commented on his last entry. No new updates.)
Personal emails again.
Social networking sites A and B again.
Contemplates what he’ll write to enlighten people as to what’s been going on. Mulls over how best to broach the subject. How can he possibly deal with it without coming across too overwrought, or distraught, or ridiculous. How can he wring both pathos and a laugh from 148 characters. How can he enlist help and support from people without directly asking for it.
Can’t think of anything. Twigs back onto what he’s meant to be doing here —
Has hit a wall.
Realises he doesn’t have a photograph of his phone with which to make a HAVE YOU SEEN THIS? poster. His only camera had been part of the phone, so he’d neither been able to nor given thought to turning it back on itself.
Of course, he could just wheel around on the internet again, seek out a stock image of the model. He could. But, in Peter’s mind, that would be like a dog-owner using a picture of Lassie to help them retrieve their missing collie, Max. In Peter’s mind, using a stock-photo to find a specific, well-used, personalised phone sounds magnificently daft. Using a photograph of any old screen to help chase down the one he’s missing doesn’t make the slimmest bit of sense.
Besides, there is a scratch, nearly a chip, at the top left front corner of the casing that’s very distinctive, if you know where to look. And stock pictures certainly won’t include that.
Stares at the screen, around the screen. But not into the distance. Into the desk, into the hint of red laser-light that floods out beyond the ovaloid base of the mouse. Gears grinding and brain ticking round.
No solution. Nothing easy. Unless—
30 minutes up. Please wait 30 minutes before using IT facilities again.
The message puts him off whatever line of thinking he was on the verge of jumping into. He squashes his palms flat on his thighs. Shuts his eyes, takes a breath. Takes another breath, opens his eyes. Checks to his left and his right. Empty terminals in both directions. Empty all over now. The other three users must have logged off and left already. Glances back at the helpdesk. Librarian’s pencil-neck still craned over, obsessing over something that’s probably not work.
Librarian not looking, he shifts onto the next chair. Again it sags. A very quiet but undeniable pneumatic hiss.
Logs on. Goes through the whole cycle again. Responding to two emails. Responding to one comment on social networking site A. Laughing soundlessly. Laughlessly, almost. Jokes going completely when awareness returns of the space in his pocket. Whatever solution he’d nearly come up with wasn’t about to re-materialise now.
Lost my phone. Message me numbers please, he updates, then castigates himself for missing out your.
Sweet hushing sound of the breeze on the left side of his face, as he sits, bent forwards, on the bench. Analysing cracks he can see in the paving, grasses and weeds showing through in microcosmic pantomime of returning rural sprawl. A downtrodden dandelion pressed prone like a bridge between two flagstones.
Breathing in and out as feet scurry past him, eyes only looking up as high as knee-caps of children and the mid-shins of adults. Breathing in and out and his fingertips twitching and touching in patterns against his palms. Places them on his thighs, steadies himself.
His gaze sweeps the curved shopping plaza in front of him, pausing every few seconds to note the names on the separate storefronts, and the colours used to mark each name; to construct and then disseminate a brand identity, a logo, a thing redolent to him of icons on a screen.
Constant viewing of life through a frame about 5 x 3 inches. Sitting around and knowing stuff only according to the dictates of a device that’s little more than ghost to him just now. Knowing facts, gleaned and raided from the collective minds of millions, via a small search engine data entry box. Being able to find the answer to any question the world outside his smartphone threw his way.
This thing—that thing—that had given him exactly what he’d been told and now believes he wants. Black plastic perfection he’d trade for almost anyone he’d met. Honestly. Because it knew more, did more, spent more time alongside him. Kept him connected to as much as was out there to connect with. Never held back any secrets. Never left him completely alone. Never picked on him, or chatted shit behind his back. Never slept in someone else’s bedroom. Never held anybody else’s hand. Never said no. Asked only for electricity. A few pounds a month. A few pounds a month and it was his absolutely. Came with a warranty, on the off-chance it was ever less than reliable. On the off-chance that it suddenly started acting more human and making mistakes.
He barely moves. Except to fidget on the bench to stop his backside from numbing. Drops his eyes back down to mid-shin level. Pigeons skitter and strut with rock-star arrogance between the moving feet, and step over and around his own shoes, before winging it promptly for another spot as soon as those shoes shuffle.
Without his phone, and being, ever since he was seventeen, without a wristwatch, he isn’t certain of the time, or even of exactly how long it’s been since the losing occurred. From the placing of the sun in the sky, he figures it’s somewhere close to four o’clock. But he isn’t confident. He’d had an app that could do that for him, if he wanted.
He hadn’t given his parents notice this morning of when he might return home, but wants to be back for around six, so as he can eat with them, partake in a meal his mother has cooked. Something warming, he hopes. Comfort food. A stew, rich with beef stock and red wine. Comfort food and then bed, and perhaps just waiting it out until he can arrange for a replacement handset to be sent. Camping there beneath his covers. Going into hibernation. Sleep mode.
But then, he does have a laptop at home. And there is Wi-Fi there. So perhaps everything isn’t all the way bad.
Peter J. Beech takes solace in considering that.
In planning his evening in accordance with the websites that he’ll visit, the emails he’s likely to receive—mostly recommendations from online retailers—the Friends he might acquire or lay off because they don’t interest him anymore or simply haven’t expressed sufficient shock or sympathy at the major event of his day. Contemplating the old faces he might look up, and which events for whose birthdays he might be getting invited to—invites he can leave to stand for a few days, so as he doesn’t appear too keen, or which he can let lie indefinitely, if he so chooses. Musing on the news sites he can visit to get the lowdown on the outside world—the latest protest highlights, the latest unemployment figures, the latest who’s fucking who. And, after that, which chillout music he might hunt down and play in the background on repeat as he checks his social networks again for any information that might relate to the item he’s currently missing the most.
He’ll have to find the bus station first, though.
The thought of it keeps him seated a few moments longer. He’d let himself get carried away with a fantasy, and now reality is striking back, hard. Recollection rising that he has seven miles to travel before he can do any of that stuff.
Looks up again, beyond the pigeons, beyond the moving feet and shins and knees. Looks at button-like signs in shop windows, at buildings with Home icon silhouettes. But more closely he looks for faces. People standing still, almost photographic, frozen. People, just one person, who can tell him where he needs to go. Someone helpful, useful, capable of performing the simple task of pointing the way. He looks for more charity workers trudging about with practised grins and clipboards, looks for mothers taking a break on other benches with their children tucked in prams. Looks for police officers, and for businessmen who might need the bus to get back home.
Looks down at his palm, where the light plays.
Dan Micklethwaite lives and writes in Yorkshire, England. When he’s not writing, he’s usually reading, and when he’s not reading, he’s often trying to convince himself he can paint. His stories have featured or are forthcoming in BULL, NFTU, 3:AM, Emerge, and Eunoia, among others. A selection of poetry and prose and links to his other work can be found here.
1976: I spend my days on the couch with grandma while mom’s at work at the diner. Grandma eats chocolate bon-bons and watches soap operas. We play outside and she smokes a cigarette while I commence my plan to rid the world of bees. It’s quite simple: all I have to do is uproot every flower in the ground and the bees will not survive. There are many flowers and I have been unsuccessful in recruiting other revolutionaries.
1980: Mom is gone to California, leaving me with Grandma. She sends a postcard with no return address. There is a picture of the Hollywood sign. Grandma yells at her a lot over the phone. Mom hangs up. Grandma says mom flipped her lid. I put the postcard on the fridge. I want to visit but Grandma says there’s nothing out there for us. I have to repeat second grade. That doesn’t seem fair.
1984: Grandma quits smoking after she finds me with a cigarette. It isn’t lit, but she takes it from me and crushes it into the ground. Mom calls needing money. I talk to her for a moment but I don’t have any money so she wants to talk to Grandma. She says she wants money to come home. She says she’ll be here in a few days if Grandma will wire her the money. Grandma sends it but Mom doesn’t come back and her phone number is no longer in service. Grandma swears a lot. She smokes a cigarette; she says she’s still quitting but that damn girl…
1988: Grandma’s sick. She’s sixty-two, still young. She says it’s breast cancer and age has nothing to do with it. Her doctor says she really needs to stop smoking. Mom’s been coming and going. When she’s around I make myself scarce. When she’s around I head out for the creek and just stay out there all night. Sometimes I hang out with the Coronados; they’re married but not much older than me. Steve says he’ll teach me to drive. I drink a six pack with them; two six packs and they laugh at all the things I say. I tell them about my mom but they already know. She’s a bitch, that’s what Steve calls her and I try that word out at home when she’s there. She runs after me but I’m faster. I want to drop out but the school says another couple years.
1992: Grunge. Grandma’s dead. Mom’s remarried somewhere in Texas. They have a two year old. She says she’s ready to raise this one. I tell her to lose my number, tell her she doesn’t have to keep in touch now that Grandma’s gone. I think she thinks it’s a relief. The Coronados moved. I live above the corner store and read and drink and listen to music and drink. When I have the money I do a little coke. It makes this dead town seem all right.
Desiree Wilkins works in Philadelphia and lives nearby with her husband and their son. Her fiction has appeared in the print literary magazine Happy and online at First Stop Fiction.
I kind of really love bees. While most kids were taught, through hilarious example by terrified adults, the various dance-like moves that help one evade these fuzzy little stingers, I learned to watch them buzz on by as they made their eponymous line toward a flower or fellow worker. I liked to watch them nestle into our rosebush to get at nectar and pollen. I liked it when they’d land on my shoe as I sprawled on my back to cloud gaze or read or while away my summertime days. I felt, I don’t know, like it was a little blessing. Bees be with you. And also with you.
It might be an invention of mine, but I seem to remember there being way more bees around in those days. You could hardly walk from your door to the door of your best friend without crossing paths with a few. I remember one day when a neighbor kid named Eric told us that he had once eaten a dead bee. The fact that he was comparatively already a very adult-sounding eleven years old, we couldn’t help but take him at his word. It tasted, he said, like all the other dead things in his (what I now understand to have been fabricated) catalog of gastronomical bad choices. It tasted “like pizza.” What was this, but one more reason to love bees? They tasted, when dead, like the staple of my diet. I was maybe downright in love.
Do you remember a few years ago when scientists started buzzing about the sudden vanishing of bees? There were dark theories about cell phones interfering with their innate navigation equipment. There was fear that without their busy little bodies to pollinate flowers, the plant world would suffer enormously. And once, at a beer tent in college, a friend told me in a hushed and horrified voice that Einstein had once speculated just how long humanity could limp onward without bees.
“How long?” I asked, also duly horrified.
“Five years,” he said scientifically, and finished the Michelob Golden Light that cost him three tokens.
In the split second of shared silence, before the band started rocking and rolling again or some reeling friend crashed into us, I think we played out the gravity of a beeless world. The conclusion was never said aloud, but we both knew it to be true: we need bees.
I’m happy to say that bees are still with us, though maybe they’re just better at population control than we are (I have a theory on bees as stewards that I’ll get to in a just a minute). You know when a bee is within a mile radius of you sometimes by the telltale boogie-woogie that some less entomologically inclined folks are prone to busting out. It is unmistakable, and unfakeable in the way all instinctive responses to the world are. My own grandmother had a very specific sound she would make in the event of a bee sighting—sort of a hybrid of yodeling, gobbling, and shuddering with one’s vocal chords, if there is distinction between any them, and I think there is. There is a famous story in my family of an outdoor wedding reception that was gate crashed by a veritable community of hornets. I’ll admit hornets are definitely more cantankerous than their honeycombing cousins, and they probably react more antagonistically to sudden movements and shrill yodel-gobbling, and as they convened for the mother of all buffet lunches, allegedly covering entire dinner plates in small war parties, I only suspect that fire was exchanged from both sides, and casualties were somewhere in the dozens. Hornet Old Timers probably still gather groups of their great-great-grand-pupae and engross them with the horrors of the lunch outing that had gone so grievously wrong. A few can probably point to the blank spaces where several legs used to be, or to a wing that had tasted the edge of someone’s folded napkin which, had they learned their letters, the hornets would have known to say CONGATS DANNY AND SONJA. And the young ones probably shudder, preparing to have that night the kind of horrible dreams little hornets hate.
But hornets are hornets and bees are bees, and I openly admit my bias. It goes so far as admiration, really. We could do worse than to try to be a little beelike.
Bees love the earth with a rare breed of stewardship. And they’re not in it for the hipness of caring, or the fashion and posturing. Bees transcend trends.
They have parrot tongues that have learned, over time, the speech of flowers, and when one takes the time to talk to others in their own words, great secrets are revealed; it is among the rarest joys of friendship. They understand that their greatness comes from each other—they share a vision, and a dream dreamed together yields a people with fearsome and unshakable unity.
They are not without their art, either. They are architects and I wager they are gifted, though sometimes bashful, singers. But a celebration thrown by honeybees is the envy of all other creatures, and they have been known to dance and sing with the healthiest sort of violence there is.
When summer wanes and winter waxes, they secure their doors and windows and settle in for a period of quietude, of reflection, of food and storytelling. They remember their fallen friends by name, and sometimes pass those names on to the little ones in the nursery, just learning to hum. I imagine them loving their children—and in that, they are immortal. They pass along lore and knowledge and all the things they have collected in their innumerable summers. They are natural teachers, you see, because they are also students of everything they encounter.
They are kind, they are generous, they are patient. But they also have a little fight in them, and if cornered, you will taste venom. But take heart—they are slow to anger, and strike as a last line of defense because sometimes, that sting is fatal in several significant and invisible ways. Though honeybees are not, by their nature, killers.
You probably know what I’m talking about, really. Among the swarms of people on the street, on the bus, in your office, around your supper table, there are probably honeybees. Aren’t they just the best?
I sometimes will flatter myself by looking for the bee in me. Sometimes, I do see little snippets—a stripe here or there—but then I’m never sure. The life of a bee, secret or otherwise, is about the most appealing one this imagination can summon. I can see it now.
Somewhere it’s Thanksgiving. Only I’m not alone. Instead, I’m someplace between a small town and the woods—not so far away that a trip for bread and milk is a chore, but just far away enough that the stars are not strangled by city lights at night, and they can be seen with magnificence.
Somewhere, in that house, there are people crowded in a kitchen. As the so-called king of this little castle, the power and responsibility of preparing the turkey falls to me.
Somewhere, in that house, there are kids being rambunctious. Siblings and cousins have endured about all a human can endure of delicious smells, and their only recourse to imploding with hunger is to explode the cushions of the couch into a fort.
Somewhere, probably very near me, is my counterpart, by lovebird, my wife. The combined efforts of our families to fill the walls to capacity with noise and with joy is insurmountable. We smile, we kiss, we choreograph an elaborate dance between stovetop, oven, and conversation. We’ve done this before, I think. We’re still getting the kinks out, but we’re not bad.
Somewhere, in this honeybee life, my dreams are understated but rich; I’m just another worker in the hive, and I’m satisfied. Simplicity is my nectar. I am drawn to it madly. The arrogance that is required to chase ambitions isn’t there, because there is not room for it around the table or in bed.
Somewhere, I have committed to a life. I am sometimes unsure but I am unafraid, because whenever I feel the sting of fear or doubt, there is a calm voice and loving hand to quiet it, to pull it free, and to kiss the little wound it left.
Somewhere, that makes it all better.
Somewhere, I’m not alone. Not ever. Because bees stick together.
I’m a believer in other worlds, other universes, even, where possibilities play themselves out. When I was maybe eight years old, my Dad tried to explain the theory through a simple but dramatic example. He picked up a blue Bic pen from the table and rested it on its tip.
“This pen can fall in how many possible degrees?”
“Three hundred sixty, right?”
“Right,” I assured him.
“Until it falls, every one of those degrees already exist as the final outcome of where the pen landed. And only when I let the pen fall,” and he did, “do we know in which outcome we are actually living.”
“Oh,” I said, to assure him that I understood, which was a lie.
“But in another universe, we’re living in the one where it fell another way. And they might be having this same talk right now.”
True to form with all these discussions, I felt the immensity of the idea, feeling the truth of it but not the scope. Not really. How could I, little eight year-old me, think that in another universe, I was not chubby, or I was not obsessed with Legos, or, most incredible and unfathomable of all, I was not even alive. Twenty years down the timeline, I am still at that table, in a way, trying to work out the implications of a pen that fell a different way.
In my devoted study of comic books, I eventually encountered the convention of the “multiverse.” Though each major publisher has its own slant on it, the basic suggestion is that on Earth 1 or Earth 616, things are pretty much as we know them, because that’s our Earth. But somewhere, somewhere else, there is an Earth 96, and on that Earth, things panned out a little differently. It was a way to sort through problems with bloated continuity. The strange adventures during the Golden Age? Oh, that was all on Earth 2, so pay them no heed, and read onward, unmolested by contradictions and quandaries. That was the idea. It helped me, with its primary color visual aids, to more fully realize the possibilities of a You or a Me or a Dr. Fate or Zatanna happening Somewhere that is not Here.
A former girlfriend of mine is fond of spouting out the attractive phrase coined by Gottfried Leibniz: we live in the best of all possible worlds. I like that phrase, and I like that idea, but I confess there are some days I don’t wholly believe it. And maybe there isn’t a Best among all those Possible Worlds. I mean, maybe, in that same somewhere in which I’m sweater-clad and carving up a holiday bird, maybe some cured disease went uncured. Maybe some act of love or revolution or revelation never occurred. Maybe Hitler won the war. Maybe, in that somewhere, I’m actually not all that happy.
I can’t help but dream about the place now and then. Though it pains me, sometimes, to think about all the things I did not or could not or would not commit myself to in this world, but there’s nothing to be done about it, aside from choosing to commit now to something, to somewhere—to try to better the chances of this really being maybe the best of all possible somewheres.
I guess what I’m saying is, it might not be too late to start living like the honeybee I dream of. But am I a honeybee? Can I devote myself laboriously, industriously, remorselessly to making the world a little sweeter for someone else? Can I be that bee? The sting of uncertainty is sharp, its poison terrible, but I carry a fearsome anti-venom, always in my pocket. I carry hope.
Andrew Browers is a freelance writer, theatre artist, and storyteller. Born in Cloquet, Minnesota, he holds a BFA from Bemidji State University, where he learned how to write, perform, fall in love, and keep warm amid life-threatening winters. He is the founding Artistic Director of the Ghost Light Theatre Company, dreams of writing comic books, and will often pump his fists to rock and roll. He currently lives in Minneapolis.
THE LONG GREEN STRETCH, THE TALL TREES, THE CLOUDS SHAPED LIKE STARS by Benjamin Woodard
I’m not supposed to get calls after nine, but when the phone rang, my old man didn’t stop me from answering. He’d already removed his leg for the night—it stood upright on the cushion next to him—so he just stayed there and stared me down with these death eyes, these ass-kicker eyes, as if I’d planned the whole thing to interrupt his lame TV show, and he grunted while I walked over to the cordless and slunk into the kitchen.
It was Maura. She said, “God, I don’t even want to talk to you. I can smell your stink through the phone.”
And, yes, I’m kind of dumb enough that I did a pit check. She heard me sniffing and made one of those disappointed tsk sounds on her end, like she was picking up where we left off, back last month when we found ourselves tanked on strawberry Boone’s at Billy Hurlbrink’s big woods party and I licked her neck after we got kind of glued together, at least in our minds.“Glad to hear we’re back on speaking terms,” I said.
My old man grunted again. A warning grunt. A don’t-make-me-hit-you-with-my-peg-leg-in-the-middle-of-my-TV-show grunt he’d grown fond of since his accident.Most days aren’t too fun.I sidled up against the sink of dirty dishes in the dark.“You’re a last resort, I’ll have you know,” Maura said. “Gonna leave for Grandma’s funeral tomorrow morning and you need to come feed the animals while we’re gone.”
I said I couldn’t and ran a finger over a greasy bowl.
“You don’t understand the term ‘last resort,’ do you?” Maura was all sarcastic now. “Trust me, you’re the last person I want around my pets.”
“How about Saddam Hussein?” I said, thinking of some lethal jerkoffs we’d all like to avoid. Like Billy Hurlbrink’s older brother, Ed, he of the strawberry Boone’s procurement. Ed haunts the neighborhood, does go-kart races two towns over and acts as if that’s something special, as if it’s his career. “Want Saddam feeding your animals?”
“You’re an idiot, Tripper,” Maura said.
“Who told you to call me that?” I said, though I knew fully well she heard it from the Hurlbrinks.
“It’s just a name.”
“Bullshit it’s just a name. Billy tell you to call me that?”
“Jeez, nobody really thinks you’re going to, you know,” she said. “Like your dad.”
“Then don’t call me that again.”
“First say ‘yes.’”
“You want me to start calling you a name?”
“Jeez, of course not.”
I looked down at my shadowed body. I could barely see my legs, as if they’d already been blown off me. My old man muttered to himself in the other room. It was time for his pills. He keeps count so I can’t nab any.
“Must be nice,” I said.
“What must be nice?”
“Getting away for a vacation.”
“My grandma is dead,” Maura said.
“Still,” I said, “beats hanging around here with the living, don’t it?”
She tsk-ed me again, but she didn’t outright answer, either. Princess Cocktease didn’t have to. I knew I was right.
Now I’m heading over to Maura’s for day three of my pet duties, my obedience. One of her pink bras dangles loose in my imagination, all silky and soft. What a dipshit I am, letting my pecker decide my fate.
Ed comes out of the bushes smeared in motor oil and black sludge: Total gearhead, double dipshit. He catches up to me, getting his stroll on, a twig shooting out of his matted hair.
“Hey there, Tripper,” he says in his crazy way.
“Name’s not Tripper,” I say.
Ed laughs. He tags me with his fists, leaves a little bit of black behind on my jeans and shirt. Expecting more, I curl up in a ball on the ground.
“Can’t believe you,” he says. “After all that booze I get Billy for you little fudge packers, least you can do is show me some respect.”
He offers a hand, gets me to my feet. He brushes me off like he cares.
“Where you headed?”
“No place special,” I say.
“Just enjoying those legs of yours, I bet.” He makes a chainsaw sound and pretends to hack through me with his hands. “Bet your dad’s got some sweet painkillers.”
“I wouldn’t know,” I say.
The two of us walk side by side—a regular dynamic duo—to the end of the street, past the collapsed sheds, the empty foundations, and the half-trailers full of snotty little kids chasing each other around with Wiffleball bats and firecrackers. Ed fires off mean eyes and they scatter. I turn left instead of my usual right and I lead Ed away from Maura’s place. All I smell is engine grease, like Ed showers in the stuff. I kick at a stone that bounces up the dirt shoulder and hangs off into the woods.
“You know someday I’ll be pro,” Ed tells me. “Down at the track they say I’m on my way. Wouldn’t hurt to be tight with a guy like me.”
“I’ll think about that,” I say.
Nobody ever feels completely safe walking next to Ed Hurlbrink.
“Where you headed again?” Ed says.
“What were you doing in those bushes back there?” I counter.
“If you ain’t going nowhere, maybe we’ll head over to the diamond. Feel like it? Maybe you’ll let me work on my jab? My right hook?”
This cracks him up.
I look back and can barely make out Maura’s driveway. I don’t want to peel off. I can just imagine Ed following me back and stealing the TV or breaking something or feeding one of the animals a food it’s not supposed to eat. So I keep walking like I don’t have anything to do but walk, like I’m some kind of sissy freak that goes on walks for exercise.
“Know what I did the other night?” Ed asks.
“Nailed that Maura. That friend of yours. You hear me? Nailed ‘er.”
I nod. He’s looking to make me nuts. A classic Hurlbrink move. But the whole thing is déjà vu because not long ago, just around the corner from here, a whole slew of us hopped off the bus early to watch Billy slaughter this weirdo, Keith Clements, a beat down that started with Billy making claims on someone Keith liked. Just like Ed and me right now. Only difference was Billy used Keith’s little sister as his target—which is sick. Libby’s nine.
Point is, Billy got under Keith’s skin, and Keith ended up with a busted tooth that led to extra torture from Billy and me and everyone else.
So I smile at Ed like a dummy, act like who cares about Maura.
We walk and we walk and we walk until Ed finally says, “You’re wasting my time, Trip,” and he rams me into the side of a mailbox. I go down. My ankle splits open. “Say hi to your daddy for me,” he says with a chuckle. “Tell him watch out with them power tools.” Then he lopes away into somebody’s yard.
Slipping into Maura’s using the Hide-A-Way key, I feel my sock spongy with gore.
Ed’s got me all pissed off.
The little indoor orange cat I sometimes call Firecrotch (though I think she might be named Sunny) prances over, tangles my legs while I try to get inside. I swear she acts like I didn’t spend two hours petting her just yesterday between spelunking missions of Maura’s bedroom, and I nearly drop, which makes me swat at her and shout and I’m yelling “Jesus, give me a minute, will you, Crotchspark!”
She scampers. I hop to the bathroom.
Twist on the bathtub faucet and poke my naked foot under the cold, cold water. The blood above my ankle swirls down the drain in a peppermint pattern.
Stupid clumsy old man. Fucking chainsaw. Doesn’t he know that shit trickles down to me? That being a kid sucks enough without cutting your legs off? I hate having to deal with Ed. Like his family’s something special. Like he’s some kind of superstar. Truth: He and Billy come from a long line of flunkies and pyros. They live on food stamps and charity. And they go ride the go-karts.
Listen, Ed, go drive your go-kart off a goddamn bridge. How about you and your brother stop handing out shitty nicknames? Tripper. That’s a clever one. Like you’re so special.
I roll tight my wet sock and press it into my back pocket.
Maura said my old man didn’t fall on accident, but that he chopped his leg off on account of having me for a son. She was kidding, of course. But there’s some truth in every joke.
I slap on three short band-aids like stitches and then I dig through the bottles in the medicine cabinet and choke down a pill that looks like the kind my old man devours. It sticks in my throat so I suck from the tap.
“Firecrotch,” I say, wipe dribble from my chin.
“Sunny,” I say. “Sparkbutt.”
I pad into the hallway, the kitchen, the living room. But no cat anywhere.
The fish tank bubbles soft against the wall, all neon.
I kind of expect to see Ed flop around the corner with the animal limp in his arms, to learn he’s outwitted me and followed me here and drowned her in a bucket of vinegar, but he doesn’t.
Instead, I peep her through the backyard windows. Firecrotch hangs there near the rabbit cages: tail curled, head darting, she swaggers on the long green stretch like she belongs to the grass.
Only thing is Firecrotch isn’t allowed outside.
I slip my foot into my sneaker and make for the screen door, which is ajar on account of my own carelessness—the gory leg, the tangled feline greeting—not Ed Hurlbrink, and I jump the brick steps and turn the corner in time to see the little dimwit tiptoe into the dark underbrush of the surrounding woods. Moron won’t survive this move. She has no experience, no history of owls, dogs, hailstorms. Her biggest adventure to date was probably a trip to the vets or a dustup with a field mouse.
So I pick up the pace: grass swooshes, pants swoosh, the smells of fresh dirt and a rusted old swing set fill me up. I tuck head and charge into the mystery behind her.
Bye -bye lawn.
And if this sorry excuse for a neighborhood qualifies, so long civilization.
I use my sweetest voice, my softest, calmest intonation. “Kitty! Kitty!” But the twat keeps inching forward, through the stick piles and fallen limbs, the old crumpled leaves, the pitted ground and jagged rocks, like she doesn’t remember the good times we’ve shared, and I clutch at the tall trees with their rough bark like elephant skin, and I put my lips together to make little chirping sounds. And I reach and I grab, but it’s like there’s an invisible wall between us. Like we’re dancing. Like we’re in sync in two halves of an underworld.
And I’m thinking about Maura and her attitude and the way she thinks I’m her dog, with her tsks and everything when I’m just trying to be a good fucking boyfriend, and a part of me just wants to say screw it to her and her cat, but another part of me comes up with a declaration, a kind of deal: I won’t completely fuck up this simple mission of feeding a cat while my girlfriend is staring at her dead grandmother in a pine box, meaning I will nab Firecrotch here from certain death by bear or bobcat or coyote and bring her home, and in return I’ll get me some decent luck for once, something that’ll make sure I don’t turn out like my old man, or Ed, or even Billy, and somehow no one will call me Tripper anymore and we’ll all end up happy.
Maybe something like that will happen.
Even a part of it would make for a pleasing development.
I’m all full of sweat and itches.
By the time we pass the spot of Billy’s big woods party, Firecrotch is not even looking back anymore. I’m no concern at all to her pea brain. I’m watching this stupid creature move deeper and deeper toward her own tragic fate and I can’t do a single thing to stop her. She goes on trucking through the scene: busted glass jumbles the beauty, as does the old sofa. My gut flinches. I wobble on a bottle of strawberry Boone’s, same bottle I tossed into the sticks that night, feeling all grown up littering, and I catch myself before I take another header.
Swear to God I reach her I’m going to drag her home by the tail.
I try the voice again, try the chirping sound, tread softly. Stop and rub my thumb and middle finger together, like I’m dangling a live goldfish for her to eat. But jack shit works. Firecrotch jumps forward, onto a thick collapsed tree trunk, then takes off and before I know it I’ve completely lost her. She blends right in with the other oranges all around: the leaves, the splintered wood, the sunshine.
I stop for a second, catch my breath.
Leaving me in the lurch. Screwing me over.
That’s Maura’s cat, all right, fulfilling her role in my life exactly.
I wander around the wild some more, totally pathetic. I start thinking of an excuse to tell Maura. Something about Ed. I’ll surely never see that pink bra again. I look up at the leaves and the sky, at the clouds that all seem to be shaped like stars today. As if this might give me an answer. Staring at that blue, at that puffed up white with edges and points, I think of Maura’s last words on the phone: “You’re at least reliable.”
That’s her version of a compliment. Not that being reliable means much. It’s not like reliable and gullible are all that much different, right? Think about it.
I do, looking up at the sky.
And I realize, over my breath, I’m hearing this low whir shake through the leaves and the trees like a fly zapper. It gets louder. Then after another second or two I’m seeing the source of the noise as the front of one of those monster blimps, you know, the kind you see at baseball games and carnivals, cuts into my view.
It floats by just perfect in the middle of the sky, this goddamn silver balloon.
“What the hell is that thing doing?” I say, certain that nobody is going to reply.
The blimp stares me down. It shines up there.
I take another step forward with my neck craned. I’m wondering where they’re going. I’m thinking they’re lost. Why would they be here?
Could they spot a cat?
Could they see me?
Then I hear the snap of sticks, and my feet sink.
I’m dropping …
… into a hole, a grave, a well or something …
… that swallows me and I crash at the bottom with a shower of hole-hiding camouflage pelting my head: branches, leaves, corrugated cardboard. It all comes down and I’m wedged in this musty smelling thing probably dug out by a kid with nothing else to do. By a weirdo like Keith Clements or his sister Libby. This tomb. My bloody ankle cranks and I feel drips soaking my sneaker. My clothes are covered in dirt. When I look up, all I see, framed by a rectangle of brown earth, is the green and the clouds and the blimp.
Freedom. Maura. My dad.
I’m scratching my way back into it, but there’s nothing much to grab. All I want at this moment is to jump out, for maybe Firecrotch to appear with a rope, like Lassie. For my weakling arms to kick into survival mode and do some good for once.
But none of this happens. My nails pull back and I don’t budge an inch. I’m a goddamn loser.
“Hey,” I say. “Hey! Anyone hear me?”
I glance around at the dirt. I close my eyes so my ears work better.
“Ed,” I say. “Ed or Billy or anyone. Can you hear me?”
“Firecrotch,” I say. “Sunny.”
“Keith,” I say. “Libby. Can you hear me up there?”
Nobody responds. Nobody’s head pops over the edge of the hole. I don’t hear footsteps or meowing, just the blimp.
Firecrotch could be in a hole of her own nearby.
This whole area could be full of holes.
I open my eyes and dig into the dirt, pull loose some roots. They snap when I yank.
Looking up, I think this is the view Maura’s grandma gets to enjoy from now on, up on her perch in the great beyond.
“Great Beyond, hey, it’s me,” I say. “It’s Alex.” Then, kind of embarrassed: “It’s Tripper.”
More junk blows down and it lands in my mouth. I spit and reach up. The top of the hole waits a few inches above my fingertips.
The blimp slowly cruises from left to right. No help at all. If it sees me, it doesn’t care. The whir grows softer. It flies away. Then all that’s left is the breeze and me. A fern hangs down, as if offering a hand.
So I claw.
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His writing has been featured in Numéro Cinq, Drunken Boat, Hunger Mountain, Rain Taxi, and other fine publications. You can find him here.
In the room with the damp dog bed
Peco the black cat
Figure eights around me
Ants crawl in the wooden kitchen below
The smell of pesto and pine
I am a long way up
He planted the cherry tree in my garden
Intensifying this place
To again and again begin
He built this house of light.
Stephanie Papa is a writer and teacher living in Paris, France. She is originally from Pennsylvania. Her work has been published in the Prose Poetry Project and 5×5 magazine, Rumpus, and Cerise Press. She is a Poetry Editor for Her Royal Majesty magazine. She also organizes the Writers on Writing program, a series of readings with international writers in Paris.
It was the not-so-early morning, coming on about nine o’clock, in the early spring or end of winter, whichever one prefers, and Dr. Naismith’s game the Saturday prior had just made the town feel alive and made its boys feel like they could be men going somewhere, elsewhere. Dismissing the papers on the desk, it was decided that today Sherwood Anderson was more important. There is no sense in trying to explain just what that means, but it is something one can’t help feeling, something one might try to explain nevertheless.
That Saturday, like all of the other Saturdays of the season, had brought the town out of its kitchens, living rooms, and Main Street offices. Of course, that Saturday’s game required a drive to a dusty gymnasium in a slightly bigger town. The hour’s drive to watch the boys play Dr. Naismith’s game had been spent differently by the different citizens of the town. Some had clambered aboard a bus, freed by the absence of seatbelts. Others had chosen to ride privately in their own vehicles, enjoying the ride, the accompanying conversations, and radio stations.
In the gymnasium, crowds filled the bleachers and the small alcoves leading to the bathrooms. Game time came on, and a young Caroline Lane pushed her way towards her seat, surrounded by the faces that belonged—according only to Caroline, that is—to amateurs. Of course, anyone else would have recognized that these faces simply belonged to students and maybe a few of the school teachers—Caroline actually being among those very teachers—who were too afraid to admit that they were more grown up than was preferable and insisted on sitting with the students in hopes of catching some of their passing youthful high school energy. But Caroline couldn’t see all that well from her seat what with everyone standing up. She was resigned to look between the arms and shoulders of those around her, wondering how long this process of bending her neck this way and that would continue. “Well, are they going to stand all night? Have I come all this way to miss even what’s right in front of me?” she muttered.
Caroline Lane, affectionately called Liney by those who knew her best, was in fact fast growing into the kind of person that one must refer to as an adult, fast forcing her to become more grown up than she might have liked. New thoughts kept coming into her mind—some less than profound, like her categorization of the faces around her as the faces of amateurs, but there were other thoughts, too. During the hour’s car drive, Liney drove down the road feeling rather isolated, despite the presence of her two companions. She was about to leave that town, the town she had not so long ago traded for her own hometown tobacco town. Liney was used to trading one tobacco town for another, but now preparing to leave this town, she felt grown up. At twenty-six, Liney had decided to take the backward view of life. This was a view of life decidedly unknown to the amateurs around her. It was known to the adults, the grown ups, and Liney couldn’t decide if she liked having the privilege of holding to this view or not. She chose to sit with the young students because part of her was not ready to let herself start small-talking with the other grownups and restrict herself to their nostalgia of their own (and soon her own) youth.
During the ride down, keeping one arm pressed against the driver’s window while the right hand held the steering wheel, Liney thought all the thoughts that she wasn’t sure she should or could articulate. She briefly thought of the burden on her little brother, Skip. To be Skip meant to become the head of Horner & Co. at some unspecified time. She thought of her own uncertainty, and to the outsider, Liney would have been a half-tragic figure, imagining her new maturity as something that set her apart but something that she did not particularly want to take hold of her.
Liney very much wanted someone to understand this feeling, but all the times she came close to explaining it to her traveling companions, she stopped and realized that there wasn’t enough time. There wasn’t enough time to bring them into her life the way she might have liked and might have done so had she known them just several years prior. She was leaving, and they were nice enough traveling companions, but that’s all they could be. They couldn’t really understand her new maturity and backwards view of life. They were not in a position to understand her isolation or her uncertainty. What a difference a few years make! They still had the youthfulness of twenty-three. Liney was about to remove herself for the second time in her life from a place that had given her a sense of stability, and perhaps, that’s what had brought on these thoughts and feelings.
When Liney was still very young, her mother, Martha, had suffered several miscarriages. The little boy who came into the world as Liney’s very own flesh-and blood brother, Skip, radiated with a sense of the present, of the here-and-now. He was the child who saved their mother from herself. He was the child whose impulsivity would probably forever spare him from taking this backward view of life that had caught hold of Liney. And Liney was a little envious of him. Just as she was a little envious of her traveling companions who also were free from this thought.
At the game, Liney watched the boys use Dr. Naismith’s game to imagine their elsewhere. Liney saw the boys fight for their chance to get to that elsewhere. They hoped, just like the town hoped for them, that Dr. Naismith’s game would grant them their departure from here and a new sense of sophistication. They saw no other alternative for getting from here to there. And yet, Liney, with several ways to get from here to there, was envious of them, too. These boys, much like Skip and her traveling companions, did not have to surrender to this maturity or uncertainty. They would either get there, get to elsewhere, or they would figure out what to do with themselves and content themselves here. They were not subject to this grown-up self-doubt that comes with trading what one has always known of what held one together during the deaths, funerals, and obligatory yet strangely consolatory ham biscuits.
And these boys were also Liney’s students. And lately, she felt she had nothing she could say to them. It was too hard to connect. It was too difficult to realize that they would continue to enjoy the space of the town that she had to leave behind. Of course, no one said she had to leave except herself. She told herself that the time to leave, to move, to go had come, and so she was leaving. And as the countdown drew nearer, it was hard to look at these boys. They were going to keep living and breathing in the space that had become her home. They were going to keep dreaming of leaving by the grace of Dr. Naismith and his game, or they wouldn’t leave at all. They would be granted departures and senses of sophistication by that game. And yet Liney had granted herself her own departure and somehow this new sense of sophistication had just befallen her. And there was nothing she could do about it.
There are only a few good words to begin with, and Liney wasn’t always sure that she knew them. After awhile, back in the car, “Well, I don’t know. That’s not what I meant. That’s not what I mean. I’m always on the verge of saying what I really want to say, I think, but I never quite get it. I suppose I’d better stop talking.” A few minutes later, “I do think it’s really terrific that they won. That has to mean so much. I’m so glad,” she added.
Liney was never going to get her traveling companions to feel this same sense of sophistication. And so, Monday, back at school, she ignored the papers. They didn’t seem like her papers. Sitting behind that desk, she realized that it didn’t really feel like her desk. None of it seemed real. In Winesburg, she would have been the banker’s daughter or maybe she would have been George Willard. But here, she couldn’t collapse into a car or onto a bed and have it neatly told by Mr. Anderson just the same. She couldn’t have her departure and sophistication wrapped up in the niceties of small-town Ohio. Here, Liney was subject to the intense desire to depart and to stay all at once, all at the same time. How lucky her traveling companions were to get to stay and keep embracing those old walls of the school, even if most days those walls never seemed real, even if half of the time, it all felt like a game, even if in departing, she could finally drop the act and become herself again, whoever that was supposed to be.
Today, Sherwood Anderson was more important. There was no more time to look at the papers, the classroom, the students. Liney’s sophistication told her that she must make that departure because it was the very assurance of such a departure at some time that brought her here in the first place.
Ashlee Paxton-Turner is a native of Williamsburg, Virginia and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she was an English major with a concentration in creative writing. A former Teach For America corps member, who taught high school mathematics teacher in rural North Carolina, Ashlee is now a law student at Duke University.
The museum’s glass box was hidden from light
in between the hopeful columns, the scarabs swarming in a pool
of cloth. Somehow they made the presence of my mother’s body
more familiar, in the way her shadow made it more foreign.
It takes a distraction to move us
further from ourselves, at the same time, closer;
it’s the sickness of the mirror, how it moves
from reflection to the well to reflection again.
My mother and I held hands as we walked, lest one of us be lost
to the museum—and part of us is still there
—the thin wrap of my wrist against hers
like plagiarism, the rooms cool around us like wet paint.
When she said my name it rose like a balloon
in a circus tent. Those scarabs pressing against glass
like my children’s faces to animal stunts, like my own
against my mother’s waist, its yeasty scent.
The scarabs’ color, the imitation that longs
for its sea. A line dividing them, an aquiline nose.
It was getting late, the day descended like the hood
of a jump-rope over my eight-year-old body.
I knew we would be the last ones left in the rooms—
it was the usual case—and if not for the announcer’s voice,
a woman’s shoes clicking like coughs, like my mother’s
surgical heartbeat—we might not have noticed our own need
to leave and gone on for hours, training from one display
to another, stopping again at the sack of scarabs
in their square box, the shape the world was once regarded
to be. Me on tippy-toes, as if on the high-dive, beginning to fall.
Moments in the Trees
My mother’s owl face is becoming more owl-like,
something startled in the wilderness
when it hears a human voice,
even its own, like an unexpected
reflection in a window pane
when the mind is years ago
in the village that no longer is
a village, thinking of that boy who no longer is
a boy. Her brow furls like someone
blowing into a reed
to push music through, tightening
the pitch into its eye, sharpening,
until the voice is gone.
Then, she looks at me with caution,
before her eyes close
again, for now.
Nicole Greaves (“Sack of Scarabs” and “Moments in the Trees”) teaches English and various electives at The Crefeld School in Philadelphia. She holds a BFA in Writing, Literature and Publishing from Emerson College, an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University, and a certification in secondary English from Bryn Mawr College. Her poetry has appeared in The American Poetry Review; Philly Edition, Jacaranda, and Calliope. It has been awarded prizes by The Academy of American Poets and the Leeway Foundation of Philadelphia. In 2003, she was the poet laureate of Montgomery County. Recently, she completed a manuscript of poems, In the Waiting Room. She lives right outside of Philadelphia with her husband and two children.
The world was churning itself clean. The poisons in the rivers were becoming poisons in the seas. The poisons in the seas were basically harmless, diluted. Rain was moving in cycles, making laps between the ground and the sky. Runoff was still an issue, would always be an issue, sure, but the world was mostly one big compost pile, turning heaps of garbage into highly oxygenated soil. Nothing was unnatural. Beavers make dams and humans make cities. Everyone was close by.
In America, minimum wage was $7.25 and a gallon of gas cost $3.34. There was something wrong with our soup but we were taking care of it.
Molly threw a party and invited everyone she knew. Seventeen people came. She smashed up ice in the kitchen sink and asked her husband if everyone was having a nice time. Then she cried and wiped her eyes with her freezing-wet fingers.
The Supreme Court was deciding if gay marriage was okay, was alright, was kosher. Everyone was turning their Twitter icons pink and red. No one could remember why this was an issue in the first place. Due process, someone said, whatever that meant.
When I was eighteen I drove to Sarah’s house in the middle of the night and told her I loved her. We talked in her entryway. The ceilings were tall. She didn’t love me back. Not even close. Later I drove to a church parking lot and smoked on the roof of my car. I looked straight up out into outer space. I was feeling centered. The rest of my life would be mediocre and forgettable, but in fifty years I would remember all this in perfect detail.
I’m nobody’s favorite Friday night, I thought to myself, and think to myself still.
What’s happening to this country’s sense of family values? My mother asked. What’s next?
What’s next indeed.
The couple decided to remove every undesirable thing from their lives. They would no longer fold their socks. They would keep their socks in a wicker basket. They would search through the basket when they needed a pair of socks. No more folding socks, they decided. They were done folding socks.
So things went on. So things continued.
If you got this message on Twitter — LOL! Look at these pics of you! — somebody had been hacked. If you clicked the link, you’d be hacked too. And on and on for no apparent reason, with no apparent point, to no apparent end. Some researchers estimated 90% of email traveling through the wires was SPAM.
Renata Adler, Speedboat:There doesn’t seem to be a spirit of the times. Is that still true, I wonder?
The SOC 3312 professor wrote ZEITGEIST on the chalkboard and turned to face his students. Had everyone heard this word? Did everyone know what this word meant? In the whole university, this was the only classroom that still used a chalkboard. It was an oversight but nobody noticed.
It was a time of nonchalance. A time of boredom. A time of repetitive motion. A time of expectation. A time of entitlement. A time of crushing, incomprehensible debt. A time of disappointment. A time of brevity. A time of leisure. A time of unprofitable art. But trust me, it’s best not to think too much about it. If you think too much about it, it might fall apart. And then what? And then a time of perseverance, I guess.
Have you ever waited around for someone to die? She asked. A better question would have been: Is this your first time?
North Korea’s nuclear missiles were aimed at the White House but no one really cared. We could shoot a missile out of the sky. We could see everything at once. We were, for all practical purposes, omnipresent. Hyperbolically: omniscient. Still, we asked them to please aim their missiles somewhere else.
I didn’t eat in interesting places. I didn’t eat in bars that gave away pint glasses on Monday nights. I didn’t eat in restaurants that served the best chicken and waffles in Dallas. I ate at McDonald’s and Wendy’s and Raising Canes. I microwaved microwavable taquitos. I went where I felt I belonged. What more could you ask of someone? What more was there?
When she spoke to her patients, she talked about them in the third person, as if she were narrating their lives. Oh he hates it when she brings him his pills but he knows he needs them if he’s ever going to get any better.
While it rained, I listened to my wiper blades turn their tiny rotary motors, back and forth, high-pitched and mechanical, the sound of a robot blinking. I was, I realized, surrounded by robots. The future had come and no one had said anything.
It was a time of unprecedented belief. It was a time of evangelical faith. It was almost impossible to know how to be brave.
On Wednesday nights we ate at Waffle House. We ordered piles of hash browns and covered them in lattice-patterned ketchup. The lights were a buzzing yellow and the tables were wet. We stayed for hours, building pyramids of half and half cups. At some point we must have stopped going but I can’t remember the decision being made.
When a person died, they went into the ground and became part of the compost pile, part of the heap, part of the unending 10th-grade-science-textbook circle of life. All the arrows pointed to the right. Clockwise. Reincarnation probably wasn’t true, but we might come back as some sort of foliage.
Sometimes our phones buzzed and we didn’t know why. Were they keeping things from us? It wasn’t always clear who was in charge. When we wanted to assert our authority as consumers, we’d say, Can I please speak with a manager?
An ice floe broke away from Alaska and took 400 people with it. Off they drifted into the Arctic. They called for help on their cell phones and boats came to pick them up. They walked single file up the gangways. The article didn’t mention global warming, but I kept thinking, Global warming. We were at odds with nature and technology: war on all sides. Imagine if the boats hadn’t come, if 400 people had floated off to Russia.
The police accidentally left a man in solitary confinement for two and a half years. His toenails curled under his toes. He’d been arrested for drunk driving. The state paid him $15million and apologized, but it was too late, he’d lost his mind.
At the office they handed out red foam Frisbees and blue rubber balls. An hour later an email went out reminding everyone they were professionals, we were professionals, this was an office. Given the option to become animals, people became animals. Even bears behave in confinement. The number of jokes made about blue balls was an office best and would never be beaten.
Fear made us dull. In break rooms, we talked about our weekends.
More and more I walked around with my hands in my pockets and my hood pulled over my head. I was all bundled up. It was hard enough to feel part of anything let alone like you belonged. Nearly impossible for me. I was well-intentioned but underwhelming.
That night the whole world smelled like fireworks. She was getting drunk on Shiner and the band was so loud she could see the bass notes in her pint glass. Her BMI was on the low side of average. She asked her friend if this was a honky tonk, and her friend said no, this wasn’t a honky tonk, this was a bar. She drove home tipsy, but, as usual, everything was fine. Her life was what they called charmed. In 60 years, nothing would ever go wrong.
6 years after I told Sarah I loved her, she married a Canadian and unfollowed me on twitter.
Everything we were putting into the earth would one day come back out again. It all moved to the right, clockwise. We would send a few things into space, but those things didn’t really count. It was impossible to create anything new, and it was impossible to do any real damage. We were all, all of us, part of the natural world. We stood at chest-high counters and drummed our fingers against the marble. Can we please talk to the manager? We said, setting everything back in its place, solving every problem.
Michael Nagel is a writer and editor. He and his wife live in Dallas, Texas.
My artwork is a product of the ground beneath my feet. I do not own a car, so my experience of a place is created entirely through biking, walking, and the occasional use of public transportation. Because of this, I have a very intimate relationship with sidewalks, as well as the buildings and streets with which they are connected. I am endlessly curious about the things that people discard onto the streets, a no-man’s-land of both public and private space in which no one is held accountable, allowing for a strange sort of freedom. This concrete space between roads and homes has proven to be one of the greatest influences in my work.
In the morning I go to buy milk from the bodega across the street, where the shopkeeper’s knowledge of English is limited to “hello” and “thank you.” I like them there. People loiter in the doorway of the tiny corner store, socializing with the shopkeepers who talk to them from behind scratched bulletproof glass complete with transparent compartments with every sickly sweet candy wrapper meticulously organized into its own secure drawer. In this wonderful community gathering space, however, people are constantly separated by these peculiar safety glass barriers, by a need for security that implies distrust. This observation led me to create a series of barriers in which I replicated three different models of bulletproof transaction windows using sheet mirror. By making these forms reflective, I wanted to make the viewer aware of the physical and metaphorical barriers that exist between humans and even within the individual. The mirrored surface also displays the great extent to which people are shaped by their environment.
Barriers 1, 2, & 3, Sheet Mirror, 22 x 24 x 3 inches each, 2012
During my extensive walks through the city, I began to notice all of the empty drug bags strewn about the streets of Philadelphia, blown into concrete corners and against fences by the wind. I find these tiny objects, suddenly useless and cast away into the world, to be evocative vessels that are deeply and tragically symbolic of the issues plaguing my community. As objects completely foreign to me, the drug bags fascinated me for their specialized purpose. Their range of specific sizes, colors, and prints indicated a sort of forbidden language. I began to obsessively collect these tiny bags and cast them in various materials such as glass, wax, plaster, and paper pulp, transforming the scorned and rejected vessels into a ghostly wall tapestry.
There are over 40,000 vacant lots within the city of Philadelphia, each overflowing with weeds, shattered glass, mismatched shoes, telephone poles, scrap metal, broken televisions, food packaging, concrete rubble, and almost any thing you could ever imagine. Given the fact that these treasure troves of rejected objects are particularly common in my neighborhood, I find many abandoned and decaying objects as sources to include in my artwork. For this untitled work, I selected a car tire from an empty lot, as it is an ever-present yet unnoticed object that also holds iconic significance within the history of modern and contemporary art. In this untitled sculpture, thousands of flame-worked, thread-like glass creatures drip with wax and creep out of the inside of the tire, mimicking the way that nature inevitably reclaims abandoned man-made objects.
Untitled, Found Tire, Flameworked Glass, Wax, Approx. 1 x 2 2 feet, 2012
Untitled, Found Tire, detail
While walking to my studio each day with my head toward the ground, eyes scanning for objects to inherit, I tend to trip over large cracks in the ill-maintained sidewalks. These cracks, although commonly seen as a testament to a neglected and crumbling community, are a beautiful symbol of nature’s way of creeping into our very controlled and harsh human architecture. I wanted to find a way to express to others the beauty I saw in those fractured sidewalks, and to change people’s negative perceptions of a public space. In Maintenance, I repaired and hand-filled every crack in my studio with various colors of plaster in order to fix, yet accentuate and highlight, the imperfect networks of crevices beneath our feet. This highly labor-intensive performance resulted in colorful bolts of lightning, veins rushing across the ground in a map of harmonious, poetic lines that only nature could create—illuminating the very cracks that humans try so hard to contain.
I view disregarded urban communities as places where artists are needed most in the world. In this body of work, I have been ritualistically collecting the mundane residue of urban life and reconfiguring it into a conceptual, artistic vocabulary, thereby infusing it with a sense of permanence and spiritual significance that transcends its previous connotations. This will allow people to reimagine their cities how to interact within them. I create these installations with the goal of sharing my ideas, improving communities, and, ultimately, revealing the spiritual beauty I see in the urban world.
Morgan Gilbreath is a mixed-media artist, art historian, and community activist whose work deals with concepts of place, labor, and urban life. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a concentration in Glass, a Bachelor of Arts in Art History, and a Certificate in Community Arts from Tyler School of Art, Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. Morgan is a Saint Andrews Society of Philadelphia Mutch Scholar, through which she studied the History of Art at the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2012-13. She was most recently awarded the Tyler School of Art Partner Scholarship to study kiln-formed glass and public art at Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Washington in the summer of 2013. Morgan currently lives and works in Philadelphia, PA.
A review? In the Times? Impossible. It’s an Off-Off-Broadway. Two offs. And Beth is only sixteen. Yet Cedric Plum’s judgment, the judgment, is seven paragraphs and in her sunburned hands. But why now? Weeks after her opening? While she’s trapped in South Carolina?
So she should read this, right? This would be good, or why bother. Right?
But what does Mr. Plum mean by cute? By not unfolding? Oh. No. The thunderbolt from reading the words—an anathema on the stage—only shocks Beth for a split second. That’s because she faints. Fades into darkness atop the bright beach rental’s kitchen floor. Beth has never fainted before, and it’s a gradual ordeal. The Arts & Leisure section sails to the sandy lime vinyl faster than she does.
“Beth? We’re back,” her mother calls from somewhere. “Stop playing around, sweetie.”
Michael, her ensuing stepdad, who has an odd smell and who only speaks in cliché, has to step over her prostrate body to get the butter cream wedding cake in the fridge. Yesterday, for a full hour, Beth had done a deep breathing body scan, a very important relaxation technique, in the hallway of this beach house prison, so both mother and Michael assume this partially unconscious Beth is merely Beth releasing her actor’s tension.
“Up and at em,” Michael says.
She opens her eyes and everything’s cloudy, but she can make out the man’s chest hair, creeping out the collar of his blue T, like pubes. Why couldn’t this be his fault? Wasn’t it? His weird cuminy sausage smell. This urgent location wedding, ripping Beth from her title role for an entire weekend, thus leaving her precious part in the hands of Marian, that hussy understudy. Such stress had to have hindered Beth’s connection with the world of the play, her connection with the rest of the cast. That’s what Cedric the critic didn’t understand. Beth’s special circumstances.
“She’s acting. Act as if you want to be here,” Michael says, less faux. “Let’s hit the pavement. Might rain later. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
From the looks of it, neither has read the review now spread on the vinyl of this God forsaken lemon yellow house. And speaking of yellow, doesn’t Cedric Plum’s claim that Beth doesn’t use her senses classify as yellow journalism? And is this even legal? To slaughter a minor like this? And now what? Has she been fired? Have they called? What if she just drops her cell phone into one of those gullies? These thoughts come in screams as she peels herself off the floor, peels herself a banana, and scoops up so much peanut butter that Michael smirks as his scent (cilantro and bacon?) wafts over, hovers above the slices of white bread she’d vacantly lined up on the counter. She eats the sticky sandwich, the second, the seven Oreos.
This savory sweet gorging does such a fine job numbing her, plucking from memory her rooted sorrow. (That’s a line from her Macbeth monologue, the one she’d auditioned with. Why couldn’t Cedric Plum have critiqued that?).
She doesn’t even notice what color beach cruiser she sits on, just knows it has silver streamers and a basket for her Triscuits. She pedals. Belches. The chinstrap of her helmet impairs her crunching through this buttery, stiff wheat, crackers that cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff (more Macbeth; it comes to her unbidden). The breeze chaps her bloated cheeks, and now that the Triscuits are all gone, the shame of Cedric Plum’s second paragraph—the vanity of ignoring others—settles into her taut gut.
Meanwhile, it’s a five-speed and Beth can’t change gears so can’t cruise on these deceiving slopes, and the other players keep talking.
“Look, Beth. A frog!”
“Like a frog in a frying pan,” Michael says.
Beth slows down to make them diminish, but this only makes Plum’s “forgetting her responsibility as an actor” barb ring louder, ring truer. And this marshland. It smells like Michael.
“Come on, sweetie!” Beth’s mother calls through cupped hands.
Fine. She’ll pedal. She can do this. Keep on, keepin’ on. She’s a sparkling princess for fuckssake (paragraph three). Memories of bicycle journeys with her childhood friend, a fat girl who doesn’t even know what a headshot needs to look like, fortifies her. Yipee! Beth is scaring herself, hallucinating perhaps. This is what her Stanislavsky coach meant by not pouring cement on the scene. Only the ball of her foot on the pedal, only the infinite blank canvases amidst these South Carolinian colors that hurt her eyes. The battle cries of all her acting, singing, and dancing teachers, past and present, course through her pumping legs. Action verbs! The ego Chakra is orange! No indicating!
She sings and pedals and passes her mother. Oh yes. Macbeth is ripe for the shaking. Beth passes Michael, rings her goddamned bike bell, then turns to stick out her tongue at this oppressive pair, but Michael gains on her. Her mother gains on her. She’s out of breath and hears no more battle cries. Just the harsh words from that critic to pedal through. She slogs, slows, skids her feet on the grass, and kicks the kickstand down with her flip-flop. It’s over. She quits. An all encompassing quit. There’s a clap of thunder and pellets of rain to emphasize this, the end of Beth’s life.
Only, it doesn’t end. The flight back to New Jersey takes off as scheduled; coasts sans turbulence.
“So, what’s your game plan?” Michael has taken the middle seat as a courtesy.
He opens a pack of those shortbread cookies with the raspberry goo stamped in the center and they erupt all over his tray, the airplane carpet, Beth’s sneaker.
“You’re going to sulk? That it? Bad review. New weird stepdad. No turning the frown upside down?”
“Michael,” her mother says, pained but not looking away from the window of white air.
“You think that’s the way to play when your chips are down? You gotta roll with the punches.”
“What does that even mean? Roll?” Beth says. “If I’m punched, my jaw breaks. I can’t enunciate. Much less roll.”
Michael eats a cookie that had fallen on the ground. “You’re splitting hairs,” he says, yellow crumbs flying from his lips.
“I think that critic was on to something. You’re a closed book. A clam. You don’t look at us. Don’t speak to anyone. Not even that flight attendant when she asked if you wanted a snack pack.”
“Yeah. I know. You’re right.”
“You don’t think I’m right. You’re trying to get me to shut up.”
“Yeah. I know. You’re right.”
Before takeoff, Beth’s agent had called to break the news, that Marian the understudy would now be playing Beth’s role, but there was a Long Island theater doing The Miracle Worker that Beth would be perfect for. Blind, deaf, and dumb. Yes. A community theater, but Off-Off Broadway was dead. Real artists knew that. Or hey! Maybe it’s time to go back to your junior year. Let go of that tutor. Take a break from the stage.
“Yeah. I know. You’re right”
So Beth does. She takes the yellow bus, pours flammable liquids into beakers, gets a mild crush on a football player, Steve, and sits with him at the Water Tower to drink bittersweet beer.
“You don’t talk much,” Steve says, itching his large neck.
“Yeah. I know. You’re right.”
But then, between the mile-run for gym and photos for yearbook, Beth the girl without senses, Beth the quitter, Beth the anathema onstage, sees a sign. Not a metaphorical one, but an actual one: Auditions! Macbeth! Come, you Mortal Spirits, Tuesday, 4:00 pm.
It is Tuesday. It is 3:51.
“Life’s but a walking shadow,” she moans on opening night as she gambols through the agony of losing her wife (not enough had auditioned so there’d been gender switches, plus a need to draw from Special Ed to fill the smaller roles).
The shadows are stark across the front of her unfolding body as she reaches out for Seyton upright, ruddy and swaying on his special crutches.
“It is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” comes out in one breath as she spirals downward, all five senses acute as she notes every last one of her fellow castmates.
The messenger approaches with the tidings that Birnam is on the move. She sees it. Hears it. Feels it. Yeah. That’s the stuff.
A review? They’d reviewed her? No. Wait. Stop. It’s a school play. A public school. This place had a paper? And who the hell is Trudy Higginbothin? A ninth grader? A ninth grader reviewed her Macbeth? Trudy’s judgment, the judgment, is in her pencil-callused hands. What does she mean by tense? Beth? Deep-breathing-body-scan-relaxed, Beth?
The quitting comes faster this time. By second period she’s already vowed to extract herself from life. “Yeah. I know. You’re right,” she says to Trudy. Who feels bad. Who had to turn in something for her photojournalism project. And has Beth met Mr. Firestein? He’s really serious.
“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Michael says over a dinner of halibut and pilaf, the fish comingling with the musky spearmint emanating from his polo shirt.
“I think you were great, sweetie. Memorizing all those lines. Keeping up with Trig.”
“Yeah. I know. You’re right. May I be excused?”
“Fine. But remember what I said,” Michael says. “He who laughs last, laughs best.”
Out in the cold night, crunching the frozen grass beneath, she calls her line from Act I, Scene 4 up to the half moon—“Let not light see my black and deep desires!”
Because Beth’s problem is Macbeth’s problem. No. Worse. Macbeth wants to hide his desire to kill the king, but Beth doesn’t want to murder Cedric Plum and Trudy Higginbothin in the silence of night; she wants to murder them publicly. A hanging. That’s why Beth keeps quitting, because she knows too well her inner-Macbethness. Her ruthless ambition, greed, insatiable need for power, and her hatred for all those who don’t agree that she should rule the world. She has to quit. It’s for safety.
But She Stoops to Conquer opens in March, the weekend before Spring break, and Beth’s Kate Hardcastle is a more relaxed approach to the role. Plus, on opening night the curtain call goes awry. Actually the curtain itself goes awry, falls on top of Trudy Higginbothin’s head. An ambulance takes her away, so, surely, no review will be written. The critic is not only in the play, but her condition is unstable. Beth goes home, happy with her performance. Happy to know there will be no words in ink to say otherwise.
No. Wait. Stop. Alex Chung reviewed the play? He doesn’t even go to this school. And there was an accident. Why not report on Trudy’s head trauma? The faulty rope-pulley system? What about that? Or what if Beth just crumples this pale green Xerox of grainy photos and misspellings? Chucks it in the metal trash bin? There. Swoosh. That’s the sound of her tossing it, making the shot.
But Cindy Ho doesn’t toss the Jersey High Picayune in the trash. Cindy Ho reads it, asks Beth what she thinks of Chung’s jabs, that Beth is affected, floating on the surface. So Beth still sees Alex Chung’s limp body dangling before a crowd when she closes her eyes at the dinner table, still finds herself on the back lawn in the darkness, howling at the crescent moon for strength to really quit this time, to save herself, but not until she knows Uncle Vanya at the community theater in Long Island is a no-go.
Maggie Light teaches Composition and Theater at Otis College of Art & Design and Literature at Westwood College. She received her BA in Drama from the University of Virginia and her MFA in Creative Writing at Otis College. Her fiction will be published in an upcoming issue of Larva Lamp and she’s currently working on a novel about theater people forming a mild yet effective rebellion.
“Were you looking for ghosts?” The police officer inspected the three of us—twenty-one, twenty-two, and twenty-three years old. There was no way we could tell him the truth.
Earlier that afternoon we’d passed my hardcover copy of Weird Pennsylvania back and forth over takeout Thai food on the floor of our apartment, which was getting emptier as each newly graduated roommate moved her belongings out. Between forkfuls of pad see-ew, I pointed out that we weren’t far from one of the book’s allegedly haunted places. Under the right conditions, Irwin Road, in Pittsburgh’s North Park neighborhood, was said to be permeated by a blue mist and any combination of witches, evil dwarves, hanging ghosts, deer-human hybrids, and lonely dogs. Up until then, we’d had no post-lunch plans. We didn’t have post-college plans either, but this would at least occupy us for an evening.
Twelve hours later our mode of transportation, a black Toyota Corolla, was askew off the side of a dirt road. The dirt road led directly to the main road. All we would have had to do was put the car in reverse and back up in a straight line. This was attempted, but did not go as planned, and we were covered in mud and weeds after trying to push the car out of the ditch it had settled in.
As the fractured sunlight became brighter through the trees, the dilapidated house from which we were unsuccessfully retreating began to look dirty, small, and vulnerable—a far cry from the shrouded creaky hideaway we were headed toward an hour earlier.
The three of us dragged ourselves back up to the highway, or whatever a busy road outside of Pittsburgh is called. As we sat there, high on exhaustion and waning adrenaline, we noticed the lack of people who slowed down, much less stopped, to inquire as to why three girls would be sitting on the side of a suburban road at 6:30 a.m.
Then someone did stop—someone in a white car with lights on top. The police officer mentioned that an abandoned vehicle had been reported down that path right there, and did we know anything about it? Yes, we said; it’s ours, we said, and AAA is on their way.
“Looking for anything?” the cop asked, like it was a Steven Spielberg movie and we were another band of dirty-faced kids in search of treasure.
“No,” we answered too quickly.
“Some people come down here because they think it’s haunted,” he said. His sheepish face told us that he was embarrassed to know information like that and even more ashamed to have to pass it on.
As he drove down the path to investigate, we realized that we had graduated from college a month prior, and a cop had just rightfully suspected us of looking for ghosts. This was before we knew that we would spend the rest of our summer, and year, and twenties, doing just that— chasing what makes us feel scared and alive. The possibility that these spectral and ephemeral things exist is enough to keep us piling into cars at midnight, driving out to where the moon is brightest, and waiting.
Lydia Pudzianowski was born and raised right where Pennsylvania juts into New Jersey. She migrated to earn a BA in creative nonfiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh, where she was managing editor of The Original Magazine. Currently, she is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Northwestern University, where she served as managing editor of issues 142 and 143 of TriQuarterly. She wants to continue her journey west for the sake of tradition but sees no reason to leave Chicago. This is her first publication in a journal she doesn’t edit.
Spicing up realist landscapes with fantastic nudes and infiltrating austere family tableaux with whimsical eroticism, American Arcadia is a mixed distillation of artful irreverence and subtle mischief. Here is the story of its making.
In 2005, my partner Daniel Isengart and I took a trip to Madrid, where we spent many hours at the Prado and the Reina Sofia. On the day of our return to the States, we found ourselves aimlessly browsing through the souvenir shop at the Madrid-Barajas airport, where a pocket-format deck of cards depicting famous nudes by (mostly) European masters—some of which we had seen at the Prado—caught my attention. On a whim, I bought it. Back in Brooklyn, I happened to walk past a stoop sale one late morning and, among the usual junk and knick-knacks, made out an extra-large deck of playing cards with prints depicting “American Life, Manners and History” by the popular 19th-century lithographer duo Currier & Ives. I bought it for $1. To my amusement, the stack included a legend that informed me that the original prints had been “hand-colored by a dozen or more women in a assembly-line manner” and that the deck of cards I held in my hands was “Printed in Hong Kong.”
At home, armed with scissors and glue, I married the European and American decks, superimposing classical nudes by the likes of Cranach, Boucher, and Goya over Currier & Ives’ illustrations of town views, weather scenes, steamboats, trains, and sports events. I was most enthralled to see how each rarified nude blended in—or clashed—with Currier & Ives’ all-American populist imagery. The extreme pleasure of conflating frivolous High Art with puritan American 19th-century culture felt like slowly turning a kaleidoscope and watching a whole new New World magically, neatly fall into place.
The offset four color printing process by which both sets had been cheaply produced facilitated my playful mixing and matching of the wildly varried pictures, each new pairing conjuring up new scenarios: at the very least, the homogenized, matted color palette of both sets prevented any chromatic clashes. Whatever stood at odds in terms of iconography I “rectified” through proper (or gleefully improper) alignment. Still, as I went on cutting and pasting, I remained keen on highlighting the tension within each chosen pair of cards, striving less for seamless harmony than for the kind of dazed ecstasy reminiscent of the culture shock I experienced 25 years ago (and often still do) in New York City as a newly arrived, expatriate European artist.
The fact that each card of th American deck had its own title only added to the fun: by keeping the titles intact, I practically inserted the European Masters into an American context. As a result, what puritanism and patriotism dictated to Currier & Ives in terms of subject matter, moods and colors, has been radically transformed. It now appears as if the titles had not been penned by the earnest (though business-savvy) American duo but rather by some divinely deviant madman whose comedic cosmic whimsy adds a touch of deadpan irreverance to the dream-like permutation of serious and light imagery, demoting much of Currier & Ives saccharine vision of America to a kind of slapstick that juxtaposes New and Old World values to hilarious effect.
In retrospect, I recognize that the excitement I derived from making these surrealist collages (an art form I am proud to call part of my Belgian heritage—just take a peak at the risqué collages of my compatriot Marcel Mariën) is connected to my admiration for the American expat Gertrude Stein and her deep fascination with words and pictures. Fittingly, she stressed in her Lectures in America: “I like a picture, that is an oil painting to do anything it likes to do.”
The Four Seasons of Life: Middle Age. A sorrowful Lucrecia by Lucas Cranach (1533) is magically transplanted inside the elegant foyer of a mid-nineteenth century American household. Alas, Lucrecia is not about to luxuriate. Oblivious to the domestic bliss that surrounds her, she remains cloaked in her own darkness. Lucrecia has no eyes for the glorious summery Hudson River-like landscape visible from the front porch, no eyes for the freshly groomed little boy standing at her feet next to the family dog, and no eyes for the pretty blond girl descending the staircase with her look-alike doll. Instead of joining the fun and tumble or, rather, carrying on with her domestic duties, Lucrecia is about to stab herself to death. This absurd scene of domesticity gone awry recalls Tennessee Williams’ ability to mix outright poetry with a macabre, almost crude sense of humor. In a strange way, we all understand why Lucrecia wants out.
Home From the Brook conflates Renoir’s Bather with GriffonTerrier (1870) with yet another cliché image of the joys of wedlock by Currier & Ives. Husband, clad in full fishing gear with hat and boots, and bookish stay-at-home wife relax on an elevated terrace in serene seclusion surrounded by natural wonder. She holds a book in her lap, possibly a romance novel, but her attention is now exclusively on him. Separating the two and possibly interrupting the light colloquy about fishing, or acquaintances, or politics, or servants, stands a voluptuous bather. At her feet is her black terrier. As if aware of the prudish couple, the mermaid-like nude, undoubtedly the catch of the day, covers her pubis while clutching her bridal-white undergarment for cover. A naughty accent of red ribbon calling to mind virginal bloodstains brilliantly punctuates the immaculate transparency of the scene. Renoir seems to be saying under his breath, Silly prudes Currier & Ives!They try in vain to dress nature in undergarments closed at the throat, but look at what I found on my way the brook!
The Life of a Fireman No. 1. For some reason or other, Currier & Ives considered that there is nothing more picturesque and universally fascinating than a good fire. Like savvy television producers more than a century later, they staged a number of dramatic fire scenes. In this one, firemen are seen answering the call of duty in the middle of the night. Possibly foreshadowing what they’re about to witness, Beauty and Death confront each other in the foreground. The ominous presence of the “Two Young Girls” (Deux jeune filles—LaBelle Rosine by Antoine Wiertz, 1847) both underscores and resists the blatantly heroic narrative staged by the two American lithographers.
American Winter Sports. Here is another fishing moment courtesy of Currier & Ives, but this time with a catchy Cupid as bait. Caravaggio’s Amor Victorious (1602) illustrates a line from Virgil’s Eclogues: Omnia vincit amor et nos cedamus amori (“Love conquers all; let us all yield to love!”). If all sports are linked to sensual pleasures, Amor is my all-year-round favorite sport. And if ever there were to be another Winter Olympics in Salt Lakes, I pray this Ace-winning Cupid be outfitted with a pair of figure skates and become everybody’s favorite quadruple-jump challenger.
Winter Pastime. Baby It’s Cold Outside! Gabrielle d’Estrées and her Sister in a Bath (1595) are nonchalantly checking out each other’s tiny pouting flower buds, which await voluptuous blossoming in the coming spring. For them, winter pastime means sensual hibernation inside as opposed to frolicking in the snow outside. The Two of Hearts befits the moment just right.
Filip Noterdaeme is an artist-provocateur best known for his Homeless Museum of Art (HOMU), a pastiche of the contemporary art museum he created in 2003. He holds a Bachelor in Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York and a Masters of Arts from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. He writes a blog about art for The Huffington Post, lectures at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum, and teaches art history at the New School, New York University, and CUNY. Noterdaeme was born in Brussels, Belgium, and lives with his partner Daniel Isengart in Brooklyn. His conceptual memoir, The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart, written as an homage to Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, was published in March 2013 by Outpost19. Visit the Homeless Museum atwww.homelessmuseum.org. Learn more about his book at www.outpost19.com/Autobiography
The day my father’s friend, Wade, tried to build us a screened-in porch on the front of our house was the day my mother decided to move out. Wade made his living by selling muscadine grapes and handmade cowboy hats. He lived in a trailer off of I-85, on a piece of land that used to be large but had been whittled away as he sold acres to pay for his liquor without having to get a regular job. Wade enlarged his trailer with plywood and sheet metal and duct tape. My mother called him a redneck, a bum, a white trash ignoramus, but my father saw it as ingenuity.
“My friend Mary Ann has a screened-in porch,” I said. I was about ten, and to me, that was about as close to luxury as you could get in a town like Kite, South Carolina. “She’s also got one of those above ground pools. Sometimes her daddy finds dead baby mice in it. They try to go swimming and get killed by all the chlorine.” My parents were arguing about Wade the night before he was supposed to come and build our screened-in porch.
“Why are you guys going to the hardware store tonight?” she asked my father. “It’s late, and they’ll be closed. That doesn’t make any sense.”
“That’s why you should never drink pool water,” my father said to me. He turned to my mother. “Imagine how wonderful it will feel to sit outside and not get eaten up by mosquitoes.” There was a knock on the door. I knew it was Wade, because it was past dinner time, and no one came to the door after seven.
I opened the door and Wade stood there, in a dusty and wrinkled shirt, carrying a hammer and nails and a six pack of beer. He wore a lopsided cowboy hat with the word Rebel etched in the crown and feathers hot glued to the brim.
“Hey, sweet pea,” he said to me. He tried to come inside, but I blocked the doorway. I could see the beer cans sweating, and I knew he’d just bought them. Wade didn’t have a refrigerator. He had a cooler and he mostly ate canned soup, Spam, and white bread anyhow. I could always smell it on his breath.
“My mom says you’re an ignoramus,” I said. I didn’t know what the word meant, but I liked the sound of it on my tongue. I’d just learned how to curse, but this was as close as I’d come to cursing at an adult for a while.
“Isn’t that sweet,” Wade said. He tried to come inside again but I didn’t move.
“My mom thinks it’s weird that you guys are going to go to the hardware store this late. She says that it won’t be open anyhow. She thinks you’re up to something.” This last part was my own assumption. I didn’t trust Wade. His hair was the color of rusted nails and his eyes shone like oil.
“Let Uncle Wade in, honey,” my dad said from the kitchen. I moved over a little and let Wade sidle past me, like a crab. He didn’t shut the door behind himself.
I followed him to the kitchen, where he put the six pack of beer in the fridge. My mother stared at a magazine in her lap. My father was talking about the screened-in porch.
“We’ve got to go get a staple gun,” my father said. “Do you have a staple gun?” he asked Wade. Wade shook his head. He stared at my mother. “We’ve got to get some two-by-fours and screen. Surely they sell all of this at the hardware store. Surely it can’t be that expensive.”
“We can get screen at the dump,” Wade said, “and we’ll find other places to get wood and stuff. Don’t worry, it won’t cost that much. I’ve done this a hundred times.” He turned to me.
“We better get going. You wanna come along?” I didn’t answer but I followed Wade and my father out to the car. My mother sighed and I heard her slam the magazine down on the table, start collecting dishes with too much force. I think she knew I’d always choose my father over her.
“We’ll be back in a few, Linda,” Wade said to my mother as he slammed the front door. Wade drove a small truck, with duct tape on the bumper. I squeezed into place between my father and Wade on the front seat, and I was so close to him that I could feel his arm hair brushing my shoulder.
Wade pulled down a long gravel driveway that sloped through a construction site. He turned off the headlights and parked the car near the skeleton of a house. My father didn’t ask any questions. Wade got out of the truck, and motioned for my father to follow him.
“You stay here,” he said to me. I watched as they went to a pile of wood and pulled out long strips. They carried it back, four pieces at a time, over their shoulders, and began filling the bed of the truck.
“I think this is illegal, Dad,” I said to my father.
“Wade knows what he’s doing,” my father said, but I could see the confusion in his eyes, the worry, as he glanced behind his shoulders and worked faster than before. I got out of the truck cab and went to where Wade was examining a piece of pine.
“You know that you and my daddy could get arrested for this,” I said, though I wasn’t sure.
“This isn’t illegal, it’s recycling,” Wade said. “They’re going to throw this junk out anyhow. This is scrap wood. The stuff left over. No one wants it.” I didn’t believe him, but when he handed me a piece of wood to take back to the car, I took it. Soon, we had the bed of the truck filled. Wade laid a tarp over it and told me to tell my mother that we got it at the dump. “She’ll freak out,” Wade said. “It’s just her nature.” I kept my fingers crossed. Somewhere an owl called, a low vibration through the air, who cooks for you, who cooks for you, who cooks for you now? I’d grown up hearing owls call but this one seemed different. My father held onto my hand. I didn’t realize that this wasn’t the first illegal enterprise my father had been a part of. I didn’t know that sometimes the danger is worth it.
We got in the car, but when Wade turned the key in the ignition, the only sound was a sputtering roar. He stopped, cursed under his breath, and tried again.
“What’s that noise? Something wrong with your car?” my father asked. Wade turned the key again, and again.
“No, you idiot, it is supposed to do this,” Wade said. He punched the steering wheel. We sat there in the dark for a while, Wade pushing at the key, trying for a miracle. “You got jumper cables?” Wade asked.
“At home,” my father said.
“Well go and get them,” Wade said.
“That’s got to be like, ten miles down the road,” my father said.
“Thumb a ride,” Wade said. “Run. Steal a horse. You’re creative, so get going.” My father couldn’t argue with Wade’s logic. In his eyes, there were greater things at stake. I respected him more because of this danger he faced. It seemed, to me, like an act of kindness. He got out of the car.
“You stay here,” he said to me. “Help Uncle Wade.” My father disappeared into the dark halo of woods and gravel paths that surrounded the construction site. Wade and I waited, listening to the crickets and the cars up on the highway. Wade started humming something under his breath.
“What is that?” I asked. He lit a cigarette.
“An old blues song,” Wade said. “Your father and I used to listen to it, all the time, as kids. It was an old song even then.” He paused for a moment, thinking. “Your mother used to listen with him—Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, all of it.” I had never heard my parents listening to blues music together. My mother loved country, pop. She didn’t appreciate the sweet humming, harmonicas, disharmony of the blues. Wade got out of the car, held the cigarette tight between his teeth. “You think unloading some of this wood will help the truck start?” he asked me. I followed him.
“I dunno,” I said. “I don’t know anything about cars or wood.”
“What do you know about?” Wade asked. He threw back the tarp and took a board over his shoulder. I didn’t know how to answer his question, and I still don’t, and I think that’s why I remember that night. As Wade unloaded the truck, taking back pieces that he didn’t think we needed and smaller boards that were little more than scrap wood, I thought about my mother. I knew that she didn’t want a screened-in porch, that no matter what my father brought back, it wouldn’t be enough to hold her still. I knew that she felt trapped, in the same way as the finches that sometimes found themselves in our attic, confused about how they got there in the first place. I knew that all my father was doing was providing her with another exit, another escape route.
Wade continued singing, even as the police car crackled down the gravel path. At first, I thought it was my father, but then I saw the white of the car, the unfamiliar headlights. I didn’t alert Wade. I didn’t yell, “Run” or take off into the woods or drop the wood in my hands. Instead, I let the cop car come to a stop by Wade’s truck. By then, Wade had noticed the car and stopped to watch. He still held a board over one shoulder. The policeman stepped out of the car. Neighbors had called the cops, more out of curiosity than any real worry. When I told this story to people, I always wondered if he had been telling the truth.
“You don’t need to bother explaining,” the officer said. “It don’t take much to figure out a robbery.” Wade looked at the ground, and then the sky. The officer saw me. “Why you got this kid out here so late?” he asked. Wade turned to look at me, as if he’d forgotten I was there. His eyes met mine.
This is when my father—after successfully hitchhiking home and grabbing the jumper cables—drove back to help jump Wade’s truck. The officer draws his pistol, then yells at my father to put his hands in the air, et cetera. Later, looking back, I would realize that what happened next was an unbelievable story, almost a bad bar joke. As Wade turned around, the piece of wood slung over his shoulder turned with him, and happened to nail the officer in the forehead. I know it seems unbelievable, but that whole night was a parade of missteps and backfires, and at the time, I didn’t think much of it. The officer fell to the ground, not so much from the injury, which was no more than a bad bruise, but from the shock of it.
I don’t really remember what happened next, but somehow the officer got his radio out and called another cop. It turned out that Wade had an outstanding warrant with the Kite police department, for a bar fight. One police officer read him his rights, patted him down. They seemed excited from the conflict, as if nothing like this usually happened. Another officer stood with my father and I and watched us, as if we might run off into the woods and fields, or evaporate into the sky.
They took us to the police station, first Wade, and then my father and I in a different car. On the way to the police station my father tried to talk to me.
“I didn’t know all of this would happen, Carrie,” he said. I just nodded and kept my eyes focused on the back of the cop’s head. “If I’d known, I wouldn’t have let you come,” my dad said. He wasn’t talking down to me. From that night on, my dad stopped treating me as if I was a kid, and instead acted as if I was his friend or accomplice, depending on the situation.
“When your mom comes to pick us up, don’t make it sound as bad as it was,” my dad said. “Just soften it a little. I don’t want her to be worried about you. You weren’t scared, were you? You didn’t feel as if you were in danger, right?”
“No, Dad,” I said. I didn’t remind him of the sheen of sweat on the back of his neck as he tried to fill the bed of the truck with all the wood. I didn’t tell him that this whole night felt like holding your breath, that I didn’t know what was going to happen anymore.
“Maybe I’ll build us a gazebo,” he said. “Or a picket fence, or a vegetable garden, or an above ground pool.” I thought about what it would be like, to wake up one morning and find the bodies of dead mice floating in the chlorine, their paws and whiskers drooping, their eyes like little drops of tar.
I think the police considered charging my father with child neglect, because of all the danger I was in. They glared at him as we waited for my mother to pick us up. But when she did come, their eyes softened, and they let us go without a struggle. She looked so tired. In towns like Kite, people have a different notion of forgiveness. My mother drove us home in silence. My father tried to start conversations with her. She stared at the road and didn’t hum blues or rock‘n’roll under her breath, not even country, which she liked to listen to when she cleaned the house or felt tired. When we got home, my mother stopped for a minute, stared at the front door, at the light radiating from the living room windows, at the empty front yard, the half-dead magnolia tree that dripped red seeds and boat-like leaves and southern-smelling flowers onto the lawn.
“I’m not doing this anymore, Neil,” my mother said to my dad, watching his eyes open and his lips part like he was about to say something else, like he was doing all he could to swallow his words.
“It’s late, Linda,” my dad said. “Let’s go inside, let’s get some sleep, let’s forget about this until morning.” My father’s philosophy revolved around never making grand decisions at night, because that was when the worst part of you came out. My mother didn’t answer him. She turned off the car and got out, leaving the key in the ignition. My father watched her go to the door and unlock it and enter the house. He got out of the car, followed her through the open door, watched her toss her clothes into a suitcase.
I followed my mother out to the porch and waited for the taxi to come. Her bags lay next to her. She must have called the taxi before she even left to pick us up from the police station, to convince the driver to drive the hour and a half from Greenville to Kite, pick her up, and take her to wherever she planned to escape to. She sat on the front steps, pulled a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of her pocket. She lit a cigarette, and then handed me the lighter.
“Give that back to your father,” she said. She smoked with an easy rhythm, like a jogger’s breath.
“He didn’t mean it,” I said. I thought about what my father told me to tell her, when we were in the car together. “I wasn’t in danger. We just got confused. Wade told him that it was scrap wood. You know how Dad is.” I didn’t understand why it had become my job to hold my parents together. My mother sighed, stood up, laid her cigarette butt on the porch rail, and took my hand.
“Can you handle him?” she asked. I knew that if I said no it wouldn’t fix anything. I didn’t tell her that handling my father wasn’t my job, that I was a child and too small to handle anything like that. I didn’t ask her to stay, because I knew that she couldn’t forgive that much. I didn’t want her to take me with her, and later, I understood that wherever she ended up, she needed to be alone. I didn’t tell her that I needed her, that there were some things only a mother could take care of, that I was afraid of the places my father kept inside his head.
I just said, “Sure,” and took my hand from hers, like a tree pushing away its leaves. The taxi pulled up, a shuddering yellow in the night, and my mother picked up her bag. Years later, when my mother would call me, late at night, from far away cities that didn’t seem to exist on maps, I would remember this feeling of loneliness. The feeling was etched into my skin that night, and it would quiver whenever I saw other friends’ moms, but also Winstons, blue asters, mockingbirds, wine coolers dewing in the grocery store. I had known mothers who disappeared. I knew it wasn’t unusual, that in this day and age, maternal bonds were weaker.
The last thing I remembered, as I sat in my father’s attic and played his dusty records, was the ending to this story. I remembered standing out on the porch, watching the taillights disappear, and soon I could hear the music roaring from the living room, these sad blues records, evil, that’s evil, I don’t need no woman, I don’t want no grindin’, Why don’t you hear me cryin’? It overtook the house, and flowed down the street, into the surrounding woods and fields and all the way down the highway, through the middle of Kite, South Carolina, following my mother as she pushed further and further away from us. I went inside and saw my father lying on the living room floor, his records spread around him, the tips of his fingers clinging to the fibers of the rug. He sang along to the music, under his breath, but I couldn’t hear his voice. I could only see his lips move, his fingers pull as if he were trying to hold himself to the ground, as if at any moment he might let go and float upward and disappear.
Julia Hogan was born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina. She writes about blues music, birds, and her family, because that is what she loves. Julia is a 2013 Scholastic Gold Medalist in short fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, and a portfolio silver medalist. She is also a 2013 Presidential Scholar for the Arts semifinalist and National YoungArts finalist for creative nonfiction. You can find her poetry in the upcoming issue of the Monongahela Review.
Street signs reflect neon blinks on and off and on and back
from the turn signal click-resting-pause between inhales
drawn shallow between chapped lips and flaky nostrils.
“East” – off – “East” – off – “Ease” – off – “ ‘e’s off” – “’e’s off”
as the traffic light changes from mid-October to early spring
and the policemen waves pedestrians
to their apartments, chins tucked to their chest
like sleeping pigeons, making church balconies
when all the trees have been uprooted
and turned into desks and dressers
pedestrians pile their lives into
and I clamp my crooked teeth onto the steering wheel
and let love and all its offerings
change lanes without signaling –
I’m too old to chase after them, clenched fist waving
in the air.
S.I. Adams was born in Honolulu, Hawaii and raised in southern Ohio. A Cornell College graduate, Adams now writes poetry and tends bar in Cleveland. This is Adams’s first publication.
When Bridget was sixteen, she met a sardonically mumbling School of Visual Arts dropout named Robert Fein while they were both browsing for cheap shoes on Eighth Street. Robert was too bug-eyed and slight to be handsome, with dim pitted skin and a puffy, disconsolate pout, but something in his manner convinced her that he would be a safe and desirable person to know. He had his own place at the edge of the devastated East Village neighborhood not yet blandly rechristened as Alphabet City, and within weeks of their first meeting Bridget moved in with him.
Bridget assumed that her father would be happy to get rid of her. By now, he barely reacted to the steady stream of failing grades on her report cards, his stock objection—“This isn’t very acceptable”—being vague enough to pass for a comment on the deplorable New York City public school system. So she was unprepared when he hotly objected to her moving out to live with a pair of fictitious “NYU girls” whom she claimed to have met last year in Forest Hills.
He glared at her, desperate. “I could always get A’s with my eyes closed, without even opening the book.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“Well, that’s mature. Go and make fun of it.”
“We have the baby to take care of. And Martina doesn’t want to put up with you anymore, if it means you are going to—”
“I get it! We know Martina makes the rules! Don’t want to mess with Martina! So once I get out of your way, your life will be easier. You’ll have the perfect family! I’ll be out of your hair, absolutely. Oh, no, I forgot! You don’t have any!”
In her bedroom she packed the clothes that still fit her, her mostly blank diaries and a few favorite children’s books. She felt edgy and vengeful, as if she were shoplifting her own things. How many years had she spent in this room, playing long, lonely doll games, or reading while watching TV? Nobody had ever come to see what she was doing until Jessica learned how to walk. Now she was out in the playground, so at least Bridget wouldn’t have to physically detach herself from the cherubic twenty-three-month-old, who mysteriously adored “Widget” and followed her everywhere, even into the bathroom. Her father had retreated into his own room, and after a moment of eerie hesitation, she left without saying goodbye. She already felt darkly ashamed for making that crack about his baldness, but too insecure—would he care?—to apologize.
After she dropped her bags inside his apartment, she waited on Robert’s mattress while he uncorked a black bottle of cheap champagne. In the drunk and stoned sex that came after, she wondered why she wasn’t more swept up in this symbolic moment. He might as well have carried her over his threshold. She was electrified, also unsettled, by the abruptness with which she had exited childhood. She had just turned seventeen.
Living with Robert—locally known as Bobby Fear—reminded Bridget of an Elvis song, playing an X-rated version of house with a pomaded rock singer who wasn’t much older than she was. He seemed to have hundreds of friends. Not because he liked people that much, she discovered, but hated spending one minute alone, so that he made her accompany him everywhere, to his boring band rehearsals in the Flower District, to cop from his dealer in Tompkins Square Park, and to shop for his B-movie wardrobe of alpaca sweaters and silvery sharkskins. They dyed their hair together over his tiny kitchen tub and he painted her toenails a glistening garnet. They would stay out all night and devoured a counter egg breakfast before falling into his single bed just as morning had started to roast the apartment. By two they awoke for sex, languid with heat and hangover, and then, over Sweet Sixteen donuts and cafe con leche, they would critique the bands on last night’s bill and compare notes on the books and filmmakers they loved and their childhoods. And Bobby would talk about drugs, which Bridget could mostly take or leave, though they interested her because he was so into them.
He turned her onto his favorite: opium, a big deal to score. One evening they huddled over a saucer, Bobby heating the resinous dab with a glowing tip of hanger-wire, while she sucked the exotically revolting smoke through a toilet-paper tube.
“Hold it in.”
She swayed with her eyes closed, spine rippling with pleasure, till he guided her backward to their bed. Each time she felt she was falling, warm currents cradled and lifted her, over again, like a Ferris wheel tilting deliciously back.
On stage, Bobby transformed himself, stylized, demonic. He was the founder and lead singer of a band called Anatomically Correct. While his deadpan bandmates fine-tuned their industrial feedback, Bobby danced with seat-ripping abandon at the stage’s edge. He screeched disturbing baby-talk at any scantily dressed female drunk enough to have ventured within spitting distance of the stage, and otherwise assumed kung-fu-inspired stances that could only invite vicious heckling. As the tension mounted he leapt onto teetering tables with catlike precision, defensively stamping at “fans” with his sharp-toed boots while taunting all the “honky retards from New Jersey.” Despite his being a honky himself. From New Jersey. He had a hiply eclectic audience of neighborhood scene-makers, horn-rimmed culture critics and belligerent outer-borough types, all of whom probably shared the same baseline desire to see him get his ass kicked. “Oh, I’m not going to be stuck in this kind of venue for long,” he assured Bridget who dreaded the worst till the house lights went up. And he was beginning to get local press coverage. Girls he claimed not to recognize would call out his stage name as he strode with Bridget around their neighborhood, all of them dressed to kill in 1950’s cocktail-wear they scooped up for nothing in thrift shops.
She occasionally earned twenty dollars off the books by typing NYU term papers or writing sales slips behind the counter at The F-Stop, a tiny, fascinating photography bookshop whose real bread and butter (“seductive esoterica discretely conveyed”) was advertised through academic journals. But mainly her day draped around Bobby’s. She pasted up club flyers, waited bleary-eyed until the distribution of the door take, and spent hours dissecting her boyfriend’s impossible nature with friends who were both sick of, and helplessly loyal to, him. Sometimes he would hurt her pride by failing to try to conceal his tacky backstage infidelities, but even these humiliations seemed pro forma, a part of her job description.
By their second year together she began to weary of her Bobby-centric existence. Not that she was tired of Bobby, whom she considered the love of her life and best friend. But shouldn’t she find her own thing? Some girls she knew were developing their own creative gigs. And sometimes they also worked in massage parlors or peep shows to cover the rent. Some wouldn’t talk about what they did; others nihilistically flaunted the part in harsh lipstick and tights like torn spider-webs. Bobby escorted her to an acquaintance’s Chelsea photo studio so she could get paid three hundred dollars to pose nude for porn pictures while he read Philip K. Dick in the front office. On waking that morning she’d ingested a Quaalude to help her get through it, so that the whole scene went flabby, collapsing in places like an old balloon. She hadn’t thrown up when the affected young pornographer, a Luckies pack tucked in the sleeve of his tee shirt, disdainfully tossed her a stuffed bear and told her to “cream on it.” She just pitched it back to him and rolled onto her stomach. But she did vomit when she got home, on the floor of their bathroom, and then screamed at Bobby to clean it up. Which he did, and after she refused to let him come near her.
Her mother turned out to be receptive to Bobby, who shamelessly flirted by asking her to name her favorite Italian film director, or whether she thought he needed an eye exam, holding her by the arm on Broadway so that they could compare their ability to decipher bawdy newsstand headlines from a distance of several feet. Helen seemed amused, even seduced, by Bobby’s nerve, though she said she would like him better if he hadn’t influenced Bridget to drop out of high school. At her repeated urging, Bridget applied for her GED. A year later, she was admitted to Hunter, where she majored in English, a little embarrassed by this wimpy default of a major, but what did she want to do but read very long novels, and mull over what she had read? And what was her long-term goal, other than finding one? She trained to earn more as a word processor.
She enjoyed writing papers but for the next two years it was as if she were pacing a tightrope while balancing two unrelated personae: the sleep-deprived undergraduate who rushed to a series of part-time jobs and researched “Theatricality in Moll Flanders” under buzzing fluorescent lights at the school library, and the raccoon-eyed underground girlfriend posing upstairs at the Mudd Club in tight brocade dresses, black opera gloves, peeling fake pearls. She partly savored the incongruity, though she worried it meant she would never fit in anywhere.
Bobby left on a four week European tour, and returned with a serious habit. Well, how many great artists had been addicted to something? He kept wheedling Bridget to let him fix her too, bragging about his deftness with a hypodermic. “They call me ‘the doctor,’” he repeated, eyes agog, like a bit actor in a movie about drug addicts. For a moment she considered giving in, since his desire to initiate her seemed so much greater than hers to refuse. Then it occurred to her that he might be subconsciously interested in “accidentally” killing her. This suspicion vaporized with the speed of a dream, but a residual queasiness made her pull away.
“Okay, but you aren’t one.”
Her friends were tired of hearing her complain about Bobby. Well, what was Bridget supposed to do? There was a barbed hook connecting them. She still thrilled to his reckless persona on stage, as if he were her own looming shadow, an untethered twin, who could slither up walls and pounce over the ceiling. But if she was carrying cash in her purse. she had to take it with her to the bathroom.
Certain experiences were said to restructure the brain, like those ducklings imprinted for life on a cardboard mother. And real mothers were left with the cells of grown children woven into their own biological tissue. When Bobby drifted in sleep on her breast she could feel her heart painfully draining and filling at one time, as if they were two beings maintained in a lifelong transfusion. How did anyone ever manage to say goodbye, even if only to go the post office?
Eventually, Bobby lost his record contract. His band members quit. At Bridget’s insistence, he qualified himself for welfare and began a methadone program, which made him gain weight, transformed overnight to a toad from an elegant tadpole. The cause was edema, whole buckets of sub-dermal fluid, a methadone side effect. Wasn’t it partly her fault?
“You think I’m never going to move out,” she warned him. “Don’t count on me staying dependent my whole life!”
“Why not?” He looked bored. “I don’t mind.”
One day, as casually, he proposed marriage. “Relax. Just for the benefits. Not because we care.” Benefits? Was he serious? She was only twenty-one! She didn’t want to be married and living on public assistance.
Then came the opportunity she had unconsciously awaited: approval of an extra student loan coincided with an invitation to crash in her best friend’s apartment. With Suzanne’s help, she moved her most precious belongings while Bobby was out at the clinic. But sneaking was pointless. The drug made him passive, indifferent. When she returned the next day for the rest of her stuff, he watched from their bed with his cheek on the mattress and only one eye and his mouth moving.
“Arrivederci.” His voice at half-speed, mocking her. “Au revoir. For now, baby.”
What if she was never able to connect with anyone again? What if he couldn’t either, and no one stepped in to watch over him? She furiously stuffed papers and books into two shopping bags and a backpack.
Then she stood under the shabby old heaven of Houston Street watching a gold wave of freshly-gassed taxis competing to get to her first.
During the first months after she moved out Bridget was too busy and anxious to miss him, trying to complete her coursework while word-processing at Merrill on evenings and weekends. Then she heard Bobby was back on heroin, skinny and practically handsome again, resurfacing in a Prince-inspired wardrobe and makeup and living with a rawboned ex-model who made leather rock and roll pants. Mutual friends reported they were performing a weird cabaret act of an intense smarminess no one could swear was intentional. Despite this report, which she received in scornful disbelief, she was beginning to be visited by a recurring dream-specter, one she wouldn’t shake for years, with wounded, contemptuous eyes, with Bobby’s familiar erection and mouth, whose game it was to invade her with longing and fade in the same waking instant.
Bonnie Altucher grew up in New York City and has also lived in Paris. She received an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. Her poetry was published in Roof Magazine and she has been awarded residency fellowships in fiction from the MacDowell, Ucross, Ragdale, and VCCA colonies. She lives in Brooklyn. “Bobby Fear” is an excerpt from her unpublished novel about a therapy cult in New York in the ’60s and ’80s.
In the desert, the day after Thanksgiving, a physicist friend told me I would find what we were seeing, sandstone walls mottled and cragged like giant seahorse forests, in a Hamlet soliloquy. Quintessence, he said, that’s what this is. Fire, air, water, earth, and this—spirit. Spirit is soul to an atheist who shoots lasers through things we cannot see and who goes to the desert to be quiet as the bighorns, invisible against pale rock. We ate leftover turkey sandwiches on a rock in a grove that might have been called an oasis if we’d been escaping from anything. He said things that were scientifically false to see if I would believe him. He tricked me approximately twenty-seven percent of the time, he said, which was about what he’d expected of an intelligent history major. That evening, we got a small motel room but only for watching movies, because we liked the kind of movies you find in motels. After I fell asleep, he snuck out and found a smooth spot in the sand under an ocotillo and spent the night there. I found him in the morning, interpreting the rocks like they were clouds. He said that one time he’d told his mother that he went into the desert and didn’t speak for three days. Don’t ever do that again, she said. You like it too much, that silence.
Lauren Guza Brown
Lauren Guza Brown is a teacher and writer living in New York. She graduated from San Francisco State University’s MFA program in 2012. Her writing has appeared in several publications, including The Colorado Review, Spain from a Backpack, LA Inside, and *82 Review. She is currently at work on a novel set in the California desert.
For the last two years, I worked as a Staff Assistant for the Career Services office at Cedarville University. My job was to review résumés. A student comes in for a peer review, feeling little confidence in her ability to write a résumé and none in the merit of her past job experiences of baby-sitting, lawn-mowing, and cafeteria work. When she leaves, though, together we have crafted a pristine portrait of her, dressed her in words and white space perfectly suited to win her the job of her choice. She simply needed reassurance, and who could not be reassured by watching all the best things about oneself slowly fill a single piece of paper?
In “Strangers,” a song by the British rock band White Lies, lead singer Harry McVeigh recalls a lonely one-night stand. “I pressed my ear to your chest,” he begins, “and heard something personal. A whisper that knew my name.” McVeigh seems disturbed by this sudden, unexpected intimacy. “Is this how your heart treats all strangers, with love and affection? Then I feel cold and empty.” Most of the people who visited me at Career Services were strangers. We dug around their past, going through drawers, looking under the bed for anything that might make the résumé better. “No stone unturned,” as McVeigh sings in the pre-chorus. I asked them where they have worked, what they like to do, how involved they were in high school, what job they aim to attain with this particular résumé. I asked them to pinpoint the essence of who they are, and to capture that on the page and show it to me. By the time they left, I knew more about them than I do about many of my friends. McVeigh’s voice in the chorus rings out in my mind as they walk out: “Strangers don’t hide.”
Isn’t my own résumé all about hiding, though? At its best, it is a metonymy for me. It stands up and fills in for me, pleading my perfectly polished case to the hiring manager, begging for the job I don’t deserve. At its worst, it’s a carefully constructed lie. One of the things I harp on when editing résumés is the need for consistency: make sure the locations are all in line and right justified, italicize the name of each job position, either put a period after every description or do not include any. Neither is correct—only be consistent. My own résumé follows all the rules I give the students who come visit me in my role as “résumé expert.” It’s beautifully aligned, symmetrical, with just the right amount of white space. It is a model of consistency.
But my real life is much messier. Nothing stays in the straight lines I so easily force on myself in the confines of the résumé. There is my résumé self and there is my real self, but too often only I know the difference. Afraid of being a stranger, I craft a résumé self in my everyday life: consistently aiming to prove to my family and friends that I’m cut out for the job, hiding the way my limbs, like the girl’s limbs in the song, “treat all strangers with love and affection.” My objective in this essay is to tell you, the reader, why I need the résumé self, why I pretend that consistency is a virtue, to ultimately dig down and find the essence of who I am. It might not fit on one, nicely formatted page, but stay with me. After all, strangers don’t hide.
My ability to write and edit a résumé self comes from my family. We are a stack of beautifully sculpted texts on cream-colored, watermarked printing paper, bound together in a leather portfolio—this shows our unity, our closeness, and our general excellence as a family. But look behind the lines and see the things the résumé selves hide, the cracks they smooth over, the pain and suffering they disown: my mom’s brother who died of AIDS around the time I was born, the three babies lost to miscarriage, the house constantly filled with the dissonant sounds of arguments punctuated with slamming doors, the crushing debt brought on by the economy’s downturn and the expense of private education, the ever-growing distance between me and the rest of the family.
As a child, I learned that one’s character is what one does when no one is looking. We use the résumé selves when everyone is looking. Alone with ourselves, we tear the papers down and try to get a look at each other’s true nature. Then we get in the car, smile centered and in bold on the page of our face, close the doors, and with the résumé selves firmly in place, speed off to church. I’m not trying to make my family sound evil or sinister; we are just fractured in a normal way. Beneath the résumé selves is not only disagreement and anger, but love as well. Even this love, however, is misrepresented in our public images. At home, I throw acorns at my younger brother and try desperately to beat him in video games. My mom, unable to let go of her protective instincts, still expects Sarah, at age twenty-nine, to listen and obey everything she says. Courtney and Emily fight over fashion and which men on TV are more attractive. But when other people come around, we just sit up and stand in portrait formation, another form of the résumé self.
My family also informed me of the evils of compromise. My dad tells me that compromise only means one has no principles and no longer believes in anything. I do not share this belief, but it’s hard to shake your upbringing, no matter how much you wish to. My family seems static in the face of my own terrifying uncertainty. We’ve lived in the same house for almost two decades now. Our days together pass by with little variation. Even our disagreements are predictable and cover consistent topics. Our lives are rigidly oriented around the dinner table, used for the community experiences of breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as various card games, usually pinochle. My family’s beliefs—religious, political, financial, cultural—are starkly uniform—aside from my own, of course. There’s the way we were taught and that’s all. That’s the truth.
I think that’s part of the reason why, when I was thirteen years old and afflicted with debilitating depression and anxiety over my identity, the future, the existence of an afterlife, the terrifying concept of eternity, the banal nature of life, I could not bring it up with my parents. I paced around outside their room at odd hours of the morning, heart pounding as I tried to convince myself to turn the door handle and wake them up, looking for answers and comfort. I slid down the wall and cried for a while. Eventually, overcome by fatigue and fear, I got up and ran quickly back to bed, awake in the dark and haunted by my own thoughts.
I used to condemn my family for hiding behind their résumé selves, especially from the most serious issues of life. But eventually I realized I was the worst offender. I do my best not to tell them anything intensely personal about me, especially things I know they would dislike. I hide the real behind the résumé, which proves I’m not a stranger, I guess. But the big questions of life, of love, of art, of humanity, slip between the lines.
One of my mother’s repeated lines of advice for me as I prepared to go off to college was the simple didactic phrase: “don’t touch girls.” This was not a joke. She pulled me aside and told me this with a stern face to emphasize the message’s importance. As I understood it, this was not simply an unwarranted yet normal parental attempt to safeguard a son from the dangers of sexual activity, but it was a literal command: Do not touch girls at all. Not even a friendly hug.
While well-intentioned, this advice, especially since it was given after I had already kissed a girl, had already experienced the feel of a girl’s skin under her clothes, fostered a guilt complex in me. I had already seen a girl naked and a girl had seen me too. More things I cannot tell my family.
The music video for “Strangers” is compiled of what appear to be webcam recordings of people engaged in various, often rather abnormal, online sexual encounters. A woman dressed as a unicorn prances around. A man slowly undresses, then redresses himself in women’s clothing. People dress up as orca whales or wear bunny suits. These moments are all cut together and crescendo, becoming more bizarre and urgent as the song builds towards the end. Amidst the craziness, though, sits one rather beautiful Asian woman. She takes off her shirt and it is implied that she begins to touch herself.
My confession, my destruction of the résumé self, the self whose family and friends would not suspect to find me a stranger, is that I would fit right in that music video. I have been that Asian woman before. This is something I have told to one, maybe two people before now. But I’m taking White Lies’ lyrics to heart. If my friends are true, if my family is strong, then they will find the real me even when I cannot. McVeigh is right again as he ends the chorus: “there’s nothing stranger than to love someone.”
You, as my reader, may find such an admission strange in an essay about consistency. Depending on your own point of view, your own upbringing and beliefs, you might find this particularly strain of guilt tragically silly. Or perhaps you will identify with it and understand how it fits in with an attempt to divine whether a real me exists under the résumé self or whether I’ve become a total fake, whether I’ve airbrushed myself even to myself.
As I told you from the beginning, though, this essay intends to force the real me out of hiding and whether you find it to be foolish or not, the real me struggles with guilt and regret over past sexual experiences, as much as the résumé self hates to admit those even exist. The résumé self is the one with all the friends, many of whom are girls, who know me as a feminist and a defender of woman’s subjectivity. How do I reconcile this with what I know of myself that they do not, that I am also a man who fits as one of the sad souls in the “Strangers” video?
Those sad souls ultimately are not being judged for their proclivities, but rather being viewed with sympathy as people desperate for a connection, finding it the only way they can. The crazy thing about the résumé self, whether in regards to sex or being scared to admit my fears to my parents at age thirteen, is that I’m proud of it. I feel pretty skilled when I pull off the résumé self and the real self extremely well, all in the same day. I take pride in the fact that no one knows more about me than I want them to. But I miss the point. The people in “Strangers,” both the song and the video, are lonely. They turn to strangers because they don’t have anyone else. But I do. Why do I put all my desire on people I barely know, on strangers, allow myself to be naked, emotionally or physically, with them, but stay clothed and guarded around my friends and family? I shouldn’t, but I feel like I’m continually applying to keep the position.
The reference section is the part of the résumé where you list the people who can back up all the grandiose claims you just made about yourself. It is supposed to prove that you have not just fabricated a résumé self, but that you are actually as competent, capable, and professional as the crisp piece of paper suggests. I’ve just spent a whole essay telling you how I hide from everyone, though, so who could I recommend that will tell you the truth about myself?
At the end of the song, McVeigh imagines the woman he slept with now in the shower, “gripping the gaps in the tile, just holding on tight.” The connection they had has abruptly ended. Strangers may not hide, but—just like the students who came to see me at Career Services, where I helped them find the truth about themselves and record it on a page—they don’t stick around long either.
In the end, the résumé self is not a total lie. I am most of the things the résumé self says I am, but not all the time. But no one is the same all the time. Our bodies change, our hair grows and is cut back, our cells constantly replace each other, our character develops, our beliefs change. None of this makes us any less of a person. The résumé self is mostly a defense mechanism. Just like at age thirteen, I’m still afraid to break the barrier—whether it’s opening a door to my parents’ room, tearing apart an expertly crafted piece of paper, or baring myself emotionally to people who actually know me—and really trust someone else with a piece of myself.
The résumé self will likely never totally disappear, but I can learn to use it, learn to deserve the jobs I’m granted as a son, a brother, a friend, and maybe eventually, even as a lover, a husband, and a father. And if so, that will be an impressive résumé indeed.
John Michael Mumme
John Michael Mumme is a 2013 graduate from Cedarville University where he earned degrees in English and Technical and Professional Communication (TPC). He loves reading, writing, and the Dallas Cowboys. He considers himself an amateur film critic, and you can read his reviews here. By next August, he hopes to be enrolled in an MFA program in Creative Writing with a concentration on fiction. This is his first published piece.
The baby ate one of the puzzle pieces, a little bitty piece. He never choked or even coughed. The piece was cardboard and mostly blue sky with just a smidgen of white cloud. Its shape was similar to a chalice and did not vaguely resemble food. It certainly looked tasty to the baby, although in the baby’s mind, interest in the puzzle piece was not limited to a gustatory experience or oral fixation. Just as easily, tasty might refer to something requiring further exploration. The baby might have been trying to understand the puzzle piece. The baby did not, however, learn much from eating the piece aside from the fact that he could get away with it. So many puzzles were missing pieces. You got used to it and then, you threw them away.
She was reading. She was reading everything when the winds started up. The Russians were in one corner, the wry Brits in another. Trees whipped in spindly tantrums and still the pages of the books turned. The fat novels and the slim novels, the witty poems and the grief stricken, detailing a sad collapse. The memoirs full of chiming clocks and wooden horses. The stories of food. Rain joined the wind, fierce and clattering. The noise rose and fell against the house. She read on through the night, leaning into the coal-soaked pool of light, and then, into the pink dawn, wrapped in a pilled blanket. The wind stopped. The rain turned to a faint mist. She was reading. She was bursting now with words and stories, she was stretched thin and still she gobbled, the books in towers around her, keeping her in, keeping her.
Mercedes Lawry has published poetry in such journals as Poetry, Rhino, Nimrod, Poetry East, The Saint Ann’s Review, and others. She’s also published fiction, humor and essays, as well as stories and poems for children. Among the honors she’s received are awards from the Seattle Arts Commission, Hugo House, and Artist Trust. She’s been a Jack Straw Writer, a Pushcart Prize nominee twice, and held a residency at Hedgebrook. Her chapbook, There are Crows in My Blood, was published in 2007 and another chapbook, Happy Darkness, was released in 2011. She lives in Seattle.