PRETEND WE LIVE HERE, stories by Genevieve Hudson, reviewed by Ashlee Paxton-Turner

PRETEND WE LIVE HERE
by Genevieve Hudson
Future Tense Books, 168 pages

reviewed by Ashlee Paxton-Turner

“College people like getting greens with soil still on the stems. It makes them feel real in a world made mostly of plastic and propane.” This is what the first narrator, a 13-year-old Alabaman girl with a rotten tooth, tells the reader in Genevieve Hudson’s debut collection of short stories, Pretend We Live Here. This type of humor and keen observation peppers the entire collection of fifteen stories.

Hudson, who lives in Amsterdam, received an MFA in creative writing from Portland State University. She is the author of A Little in Love with Everyone, a book on Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Catapult, Hobart, Tin House online, Joyland, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Split Lip, The Collagist, No Tokens, Bitch, The Rumpus, and other places. In Pretend We Live Here, Hudson leads the reader on a journey alongside the many protagonists who are trying to find themselves.

The identity of the  “college people” in the collection’s first story, “God Hospital,” is wrapped up in doing what makes them feel real. For the thirteen-year-old narrator, Rae, “visualizing is an important part of how [she and her cousin] manifest the lives [they] want.” But the visualization always focuses on her cousin. So Rae, like many of Hudson’s other protagonists, must grapple with her identity and the life she wants through her experiences and the community in which she finds herself.

Hudson begins her showcase of identity-seeking not with a birth or a fresh start but with a familiar variety of decay, as the first story’s narrator explains that her “tooth has gone black.” Indeed, similar forms of tangible, relatable decay run throughout many of Hudson’s stories as their various narrators come to terms with what that decay (or loss) means for them. For example, the relationship between loss and identity appears in “Too Much Is Never Enough,” as the narrator reflects on her childhood, her dream of being a boy, and her deceased best friend, Mason. For a brief moment in time, the narrator and Mason were the same size and wore the same clothes. “Mason was exactly what a boy should be,” and when the narrator recalls her childhood, she remembers herself as Mason. He was “the man [she] never could be” and “the man he never could be.” In poignant language, Hudson expresses what it means for a desired identity permanently to be out of reach.

Identity-seeking for Hudson’s narrators, however, not only requires coming to terms with decay and loss but also with the very communities in which they find themselves by choice or by accident. In “Adorno,” the narrator finds herself in a bus with vegans and animal rights activists. She had joined We R Animals because she wanted “a purpose, something nonviolent, a set of rules to follow,” and she had told the vegans that she only ate fruit. “That’s why they decided to love me, to take me in,” she reflects. Fruit is indeed all she eats, despite the pangs of hunger that she feels. The narrator had craved this purpose, even if it meant being hungry and riding around in a van smelling of menstrual blood, which would be smeared across anyone wearing fur. She was trying to come to terms with how and why as a lesbian she had nevertheless slept with her sister’s husband. The van stops a petrol station where the narrator goes inside to use the restroom. But “[b]efore [she] know[s] what [she’s] doing, [she’s] peeling back the casing on summer sausage.” After a diet of only fruit, she is famished and eats the sausages too quickly but not without concluding, “I don’t care who’s looking.” She is not the “fruitarian” she said she was. The story ends with the narrator realizing that she’s simply not that person, and she “doesn’t even care.” It is that type of self-realization that permeates Hudson’s writing.

Hudson’s stories span the Deep South, the Pacific Northwest, and Amsterdam. Although it is not often that these landscapes and their cultural and regional identities appear side-by-side, Hudson expertly uses them to map out the kind of soul-searching and identity-seeking that can happen anywhere. In “Cultural Relativism,” the narrator returns to Alabama from Amsterdam because she “misses her dead brother.” But in Alabama, the narrator then mourns the fading, now long-distance relationship with her partner back in Amsterdam. She teaches courses in Southern literature. A student, RJ, tells her about how his friend, Tyler, killed his own mother. In her courses, the narrator prepares to “talk about trauma in the South, how it runs so deep, how it’s in the soil.” In this powerful story, Hudson reminds the reader that there are certain things that shape a person that can’t be outrun.

In Pretend We Live Here, the world is never as the narrators understand it. For example, there is no world where a bag of turnips can be exchanged for a healthy tooth, and yet, in “God Hospital,” Rae is searching for that very world—where a cure can be bartered for. That’s what connects these disparate landscapes and narrators—they’re searching for something that they may never find. But at least they’re searching. That might be the best lesson that Hudson can teach us. Keep pretending, keep searching until it makes sense.


Ashlee Paxton-Turner

Ashlee Paxton-Turner is a native of Williamsburg, Virginia, and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she was an English major with a creative writing concentration. A former Teach For America corps member in rural North Carolina, Ashlee is now a lawyer and graduate of Duke University School of Law.

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HALF-LIFE by Doug Ramspeck      

HALF-LIFE
by
Doug Ramspeck                                                                        

Guilt, it has always seemed to Roger, is visceral. It takes up residence inside the body, burrowing or maybe perching there, as much a part of you as your bones or blood or lungs. You sense it waiting even when no one else can see it, even when you stop obsessing and the days and nights slip past on their conveyor belts.

He remembers it clearly—too clearly—even after all the years. He is driving from his childhood home near Columbus, Ohio, to Grinnell College in Iowa, where he is about to begin his sophomore year. He is passing through Indiana and has gotten lost while trying to bypass Bloomington. Earlier he left I-74 and, with a bit of dead reckoning, imagined he might carve a few minutes from the trip on rural roads, but now, with the radio cranked up, his elbow out the window, he is no longer confident of his direction. It is August, dust rising from the tires as he speeds past bean fields and cornfields, and he comes to a slight rise in the road not long after passing over rusting railroad tracks. He hasn’t seen another car for miles, and he is pressing down harder on the accelerator, feeling the impatience of the Camry, and suddenly—in a moment he still dreams about—he sees the girl on the bicycle. Maybe she is ten or eleven, her head swiveling at the sound of the engine. She is neither at the center of the road nor at its verge, but directly in his lane, the afternoon sunlight angling across the narrow ribbon of pavement, the girl’s light hair windblown and snapping behind her like a small sail.

Now, so many years later, Roger carries uncooked bratwurst and buns and potato chips out the kitchen door to the gas barbecue. Earlier he called out the window to offer to make lunch for his son and his girlfriend, and they shrugged their acquiescence, both of them squinting into the noon light. He returns, next, with soft drinks and carrot sticks and brownies purchased from the store, then focuses on cooking the bratwurst to an even brown. His son is handsome—evident in the parade of girlfriends always hanging around the house, including the one on the back lawn now. Louise Miller is her name, or maybe Mueller, Lou for short. She is sunbathing on the trampoline in an orange bikini while Jack is sitting beside her. Earlier they were taking turns trying to outdo each other with back-flips.

And when Roger sits with his son and Lou in lawn chairs, the meal on paper plates in their laps, he looks across to where the girl is sharing the plastic recliner with his son, a white T-shirt pulled over her bathing suit—the orange still visible beneath—and he can’t help but notice how she keeps casting glances toward Jack as though with a kind of unabashed devotion. They are juniors in high school, and all Roger can think about is how she has no clue, none at all. The average length of time his son remains focused on any one girl is perhaps a month or six weeks at most, and the two of them are nearly there.

“Jack tells me you’re a cheerleader?” Roger says.

“Yep,” the girl says.

“That’s why she was better than me at flips,” Jack says.

Not even a week later, Lou is gone from their lives, and Roger’s son passes most of his days—when he’s not staying at his mother’s house—peering into the refrigerator, or with his friends in the backyard, playing poker at the picnic table. Then, almost at once, there is a new girl—this one with short reddish orange hair, and a flush of freckles, and a high giggle that pierces its way through the floor when Roger is trying to sleep. One night when he comes down the stairs in search of his glasses, his son and the new girl are reclining on the living room couch in the dark. Roger coughs to make his presence known, and by the time he returns from the kitchen, the lamp is bright beside them, and both are fully dressed. The television flickers, emitting sounds of explosions.

Perhaps three days later, in early evening, when Roger is just home from work, someone rings the doorbell. And when he opens the front door, Louise is there, her ancient Chevy behind her in the drive. Her hair is tied back from her face in a way that emphasizes even more than usual her youthful prettiness, and her deep summer tan. And the roots of her hair—parted in a jagged line down the center—are darker than the others around it, and she carries both of her flip-flops in one hand, wears white shorts and a teal blouse. The evening sun is behind her, the clouds swollen an angry pink, the wafer of sun half-submerged between the neighboring houses.

“Is Jack here?” she asks.

“He’s working,” Roger says. “Taco Bell.”

“Oh.”

“I think his shift ends at midnight.”

“I see.”

“Do you want me to say you stopped by?”

Her eyes narrow into such fine slits it is as though she longs to blot out the world. She says, “No … that’s okay.”

And her voice seems to be coming apart at the seams, and she dabs the back of her hand to her eyes, and after she drives off in her car, Roger opens a Coors from the refrigerator, carries it into the Florida room, and looks through the screen mesh at the backyard and the woods. And later when it is time for bed, he carries still another beer up the stairs, and he reads until the curtains of his eyes droop. Then he turns off the light and sleep swirls around him—like dipping into a brackish pond. He is dreaming, then, and in the dream he sees, as always, the collision sending the bicycle airborne, propelling the girl and the bike far from the road into the grass. At once in the dream he is out of the car, the bike gleaming and broken at the roadside, but the girl, seemingly, has vanished. And at that moment in the dream—and this is often the case—Roger awakes with a start, and he hears the garage door going up then down, which means his son is home.

Roger lifts himself. The green glow of the clock says it’s after two. He slips on his bathrobe, makes his way down the stairs, finds his son at the kitchen table, eating round slabs of bologna from a package.

The words must have been percolating inside Roger as he slept, for they arrive at once. He says, “That girl, Louise, came by while you were at work. What do you do to them, Jack? She was crying a little.”

“What?” Jack says, blinking, his mouth opening in a jagged wound.

“Just try to be a little nicer,” Roger says. Then suddenly he suspects he’s in the wrong here, and he tries to approach his son and to touch him on the shoulder, to tell him it’s okay, okay, but at once Jack is retreating up the stairs, off to bed.

Roger, for years now, has had floaters mostly in his left eye, a detritus that he sometimes mistakes for birds flitting past at the periphery of his vision. The floaters seem to come and go, drifting on their small rafts then disappearing, forever at the ready. It somehow seems that way now with Lou, who, within the week, is back on the trampoline with Jack, back in her orange bathing suit, back nuzzling her face into his son’s neck or leaning against him when they walk into the woods. There is a small stream they can stand beside if the mosquitoes show mercy. And Lou is now on the couch late at night—replacing the orange-haired girl, switching out one for the next—and returned to the kitchen table, returned on the living room floor, both of them on their bellies as they gaze at something existing on the small screen of a cellphone, their shoulders bumping.

Then on a Sunday late in the month, Jack invites a dozen or more of his high school friends to the house for hamburgers and hotdogs and chicken wings cooked on the grill, the boy insisting on doing it all by himself, paying for the food from his fast-food wages, playing host—with Lou—to the guests, fetching them soft drinks and snacks and blaring the music through the open dining room window. Some of the teens test out the trampoline, rising high into the air in defiance—for a few brief moments—of gravity. Others stand and laugh and flirt and squint into the sun. It is a muggy and excruciating day, the heat ranging toward triple digits, and most of the boys have stripped off their shirts, and most of the girls are dressed in shorts and T-shirts or bathing suits. Roger, who peers now and then from the Florida room, notices one girl he doesn’t believe he has ever seen before. She has a veil of dark hair down to her waist, and she is pretty and outgoing, touching the boys on the arms when she speaks, throwing her head back when she laughs, the thin sheen of perspiration making her skin glisten in the sun. Roger sees his son attempting not to look her way, attempting to keep a buffer of distance between them, to follow, instead, closely behind Lou, obedient, his eyes cast down. But now and then Jack’s eyes flit upward, latching onto the new girl as she sips her soft drink through a straw. It is unbearable, Roger thinks, to see his son laboring to maintain this new vision of himself.

Later Roger comes face to face with Lou in the kitchen. He has stepped there to retrieve the checkbook and envelopes from the drawer—bills to pay—and Lou, forever in that same orange bikini, forever with her vulnerable and naïve eyes, speaks to him in a voice that seems far more pressing and urgent than the words imply.

“Are we making too much noise?” she asks.

“It’s fine.”

“It’s nicer in here with the air-conditioning.”

“Yes, it is.”

Roger, in this moment, experiences a sudden and unexpected rush of feeling, so powerful he can’t at first identify it. And he begins thinking—despite that it makes no sense, despite that the girl he struck with his car would have been much older now—that Lou is like that girl—the one he walked into the tall grass to find. And he did find her, of course, her neck and limbs twisted into impossible angles, the bright reproach of blood everywhere. And suddenly Roger wants to warn Lou that she is likely to remain Jack’s girlfriend for the briefest stretch of time, despite that he is trying, really trying, and that girls, for Jack—especially since the divorce—are as temporary as the fireflies blinking on and off around the trampoline after dark. And then the most astonishing thing of all happens. Roger feels other words longing to escape from his throat, words he has never spoken to a single person, not even to his wife when they were married. He imagines telling Lou that, when he was a little older than she is now, he was guilty of vehicular homicide, that he struck and killed a child then drove off and never told anyone, that he took his car to a repair shop a few weeks later and claimed he’d struck a deer. He wants to say this to Lou in this moment, to describe how he knelt before the girl in the grass, how he could not bring himself to touch her, not even to feel for a pulse at her neck or at her wrist, that death was an impediment to the most natural impulse of reaching out. And he wants to tell Lou that rarely a day has gone past when he hasn’t thought about that girl, at least once, the guilt like a dusk sun that stains a lake its same deep red. Roger feels the words gathering within him, preparing themselves, but when his mouth opens something else emerges instead.

He says, “You’re a sweet girl. Jack is lucky.”


Doug Ramspeck is the author of six poetry collections and one collection of short stories. His most recent book, Black Flowers (2018), is published by LSU Press. Individual poems and stories have appeared in journals that include The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Slate, and The Georgia Review. He teaches creative writing at The Ohio State University at Lima.

TERMS AND CONDITIONS by Heather Holmes

TERMS AND CONDITIONS
by Heather Holmes

one month I am in philadelphia reading the Andrew Durbin book that describes this club The Spectrum, and the next month I am at The Spectrum watching women flog one another in an affectless way. that’s sort of how it is in new york, I guess, I say to someone later, ha ha, to read something is to conjure it. this is no safeguard against emptiness

I wonder at length whether writing always has to stake out a new and special way of seeing. I just wanted to talk about how bored they looked even as the leather began to break skin

.

I plant the hyssop. I wait it out.
I think about how far we are into this century and still I know three women named Geraldine, which G. #2 described to me as a man’s name suffixed diminutively.

all three are gay and one of them would like to fuck me. it doesn’t work that way,

.

even the best smartest scholar most critical of SM’s whiteness still refers to spanking as producing “a reddening”

…………….“Silvia Federici?” yes!
…………….“squeeze of lime?” Yes!
…………….“Forget This Network?” yes, Yes!

this isn’t abundance. Maybe I missed orientation day
I fretted. I undressed. I heeded all best citational practices!
I tried to avoid balkanization but the architecture of The Couple was of course very enticing
it is difficult to be a lesbian when you fuck men, but it’s not impossible. ask me anything.

.

if you’ve never heard of orange wine, it’s what happens when they just do all the stuff they normally do for white wine but instead of separating out the grape skins from the rest, they leave the skins in and let the skins stay and the skins and the juice all together, it ferments, it funks, one is left with skin-contact alcohol.

…………….“ok!” I shout. “Yes!” this is exactly what i’ve been looking for.


Heather Holmes is a writer and editor. Her work about art and embodiment has been published by or is forthcoming in The New Inquiry, Art21, The New Museum, Art Papers, and OnCurating. She writes about exhibitions digitally here.

 

 

 

Image credit: César Couto on Unsplash

WITH EACH PASSING DAY, THE MORE by D.R. Shipp

WITH EACH PASSING DAY, THE MORE
by D.R. Shipp

I realize I do not wish to fall to the bottom of a well. With no one
to hear my screams (and screams are all we hear). Light is a pinhole.

Dark days, kept on a catheter, a transfusion of blood, poured into beakers,
baked on a Bunsen—I purge the present from the protoplasm.

Loss happens so fast, yesterday it was 1979
and sorry we have no gas made my uncle burn like a country.

So, look sharp, time marches, one step, two step,
next step, goose step. Buckle up your boots.

Everyone here is a skin wrapped circuit of fear—good for a shock
but deadly knee deep in water at the bottom of a well.

Someone thought to bring light from the hollow, but instead they took it
and buried it in their wooden chests. To keep it safe.

My new American blood will be warm. I’ll burn alright.
Like the glare of a rocket. Like a book on fire.


D.R. Shipp, originally from Texas, is an observer surfacing for air, a writer surfacing. His work is found in select anthologies and online with publications or is pending publication in HCE Review, Silver Needle Press, 3Elements Review, and Waxing & Waning. He splits his time between now and then, the US and the UK. He can be found on Instagram @shippwreckage.

Image credit: Fredrick Kearney Jr on Unsplash

PENCIL ME IN by Hannah Harlow

PENCIL ME IN
by Hannah Harlow

On a rainy morning in October my son erased me during craft time at the library. We made a wind chime out of old spoons and gray yarn and colored beads in green and purple and orange and a jar lid with pre-drilled holes. The pencils were there to sign up for mommy/baby yoga the following day. A new three-year-old, Milo no longer qualified for mommy/baby yoga, but he still helped himself to a pencil. Ignoring the pointy end, Milo scrubbed the eraser over the ring finger of my left hand until the finger disappeared. Using my other hand to help the mother next to me attach the final string to her and her daughter’s wind chime, I didn’t notice until it was too late.

I shook my left hand like trying to wake a body part from pins and needles, but I could see right through it to the Dr. Seuss poster on the wall opposite and I had to come to terms with the fact that I now only had four fingers on one hand.

“I hate when that happens,” the other mom said. She lifted her long hair and showed me a blankness where her ear should have been. The baby in the stroller next to her began to cry. “Thankfully it helps with that!” she grinned and nodded at the source of the noise.

“Her no spoon,” Milo said and pointed at the other mom’s mess of a wind chime. She had used butter knives instead of spoons, which I didn’t even know was an option. She must have arrived early.

I thought I had hidden all the pencils in the house, but Milo managed to find one while I was in the shower and another while I cooked dinner and another when I had to take a shit and wouldn’t let him keep me company. He erased my hair while I slept, he whittled away at my toes while I chit-chatted with my friend Lucy at the coffee shop (who, despite not having kids, was conspicuously missing an ankle), and we said goodbye to my left hip during a repeat viewing of Thomas the Train, episode 32.

“You’re wasting away,” my aging father said when I dropped Milo off for a few hours so I could go to the dentist. Dad let Milo watch too much TV and fed him sugar exclusively, but I was trying to give Milo some solid male role models and while my dad may have been indulgent, he was also kind, intelligent, witty, and curious. “Are you eating?”

Dad looked sad, as he usually did when he saw me, I imagined less for how I looked than for how much he missed my mother and for all the things we couldn’t seem to say to each other.

“Who has time to eat?” I asked.

The dental hygienist talked my ear off (not literally, it was already gone) about dating apps while she cleaned what remained of my teeth, but when the dentist came in she let him do all the talking. It’s a chatty office. His current topic was the town’s schools.

“People move here because of the schools. Did you know that?” I did. Everybody did. “Immigrants. You would not believe how aggressive these moms get,” he continued. “And poor people. They rent apartments in town so their kids can go to our schools and get a better life. So their kids don’t have to grow up to be like them, cleaning houses,” he paused, “or cleaning teeth.”

I had two gloved hands—I knew the dentist had four kids and yet all of his fingers—in my mouth or I might have protested that the dental hygienist did not seem poor or uneducated or in any way lacking. My eyes flicked over to see her reaction, but she just handed over the cotton pliers with a blank expression.

“You know?” He looked at me, his hands still in my mouth, waiting for an answer. I shook my head back and forth so slightly he could have mistaken it for a burp. It wasn’t until the hygienist reached for the mouth mirror that I saw her missing lumbar. I wonder who’d done it to her, the dentist himself or an old boyfriend or some ancient, “old school” professor or her father or someone completely unpredictable like some random guy on the corner waiting for the light to turn and saying, “You should smile more.”

Later, when the receptionist asked if I wanted to schedule my next appointment, I told her I’d call her, but we both knew I never would.


Hannah Harlow has published stories in Vol. One Brooklyn,  SmokeLong Quarterly, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. She promotes books for a living and lives near Boston. Find her online at hannahharlow.com.

INSPIRED TO SEE: Paintings by Giovanni Casadei

INSPIRED TO SEE
Paintings by Giovanni Casadei

I was born and raised in Rome, Italy. Since the age of four I have been exposed to art, thanks to my Uncle Roberto, who religiously picked me up every Sunday morning to bring me to a museum to contemplate art. At the age of fourteen, I bought my first oil painting set with my savings, and I painted on my own for the next eight years. From 1978 to 1980, I studied at the Scuola Libera del Nudo (Free School for Drawing and Painting sponsored by the Academy of Fine Arts of Rome) under the instruction of the Armenian artist, Alfonso Avanessian. From 1980 to 1981, I was enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, then from 1981 to 1983, studied further under Alfonso Avanessian, during which I experimented with drawing, oil pastels, dry pastels, tempera, watercolor, acrylic, and oil paintings. It was a very productive, creative, and formative period for me.

On December 1, 1983, I arrived in Philadelphia. At the age of twenty-seven, I was beginning the biggest adventure of my life—to be an artist.

When I first arrived in Philadelphia, I worked as a house painter by day and as an artist by night. In 1988 I enrolled in a four-year certificate program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where I studied under Seymour Remenick, who became my mentor and friend for the last ten years of his life. Seymour gave me the support to make my own mistakes and to learn from them. His love for art, painting, and people was contagious. This love is an integral part of my vision as an artist. Seymour reinforced my belief in following my heart and what I love in life.

Since 1997 I have been teaching painting at various art centers in the Philadelphia area. I enjoy teaching and sharing my knowledge and experiences from my studio and as an en plein air painter with my students. I have found teaching to be inspiring, challenging, and creative. My approach to painting is to communicate to the viewer my love for life and humankind. I strive to capture in the act of painting a moment that exists in me, inspired by the light and colors that nature offers us every moment.

I am and always was inspired by light.

I have been painting for forty-eight years and I still remember my fascination for the light in Caravaggio’s paintings when I was six years old, and when I was a young adult I would spend hours watching the changing light from the crest of the Gianicolo over the rooftops of Rome. I would say that light is the subject matter of my paintings, and I still carry the nostalgic experience of light from Rome now in my work.

I paint from life, going on location to paint landscapes and seascapes in the Alla Prima Technique (resolving them in one sitting), or staying in my studio to paint still lifes in the Multiple Sitting Technique. I always paint from direct observation, and this is because I want to have the experience of seeing more than reproducing an exact copy of nature.

I want to describe the experience of seeing that comes to me as the feelings and intuitions I get in the act of painting. I want to express, with a kind of shorthand application of paint, the unspoken aspects of Nature as it is revealed by the ever-changing light. Light transforms objects; light transcends concepts. Light creates space.

As light breaks down forms into masses of illumination and shadow, and as light drains or saturates colors into spaces of moving intensities, the experience of seeing is endlessly changing, infinitely fluid and changeable. I have been painting landscapes and still lifes for such a long time because I see the world with new eyes every time I paint.

Communicating this spontaneity and the immediacy of nature through my process of painting, I hope to inspire others to consider the beauty of everyday life. To be present in the moment is what makes our lives richer.

[click on any image to enlarge]

Ocean City, Big Clouds. Oil on panel, 12.5 x 13.5″

Ocean City, 14th St. Fishing Pier. Oil on panel.

Sunny and Windy Day at the Beach. Oil on panel, 8 x 12″

The Music Pier and the Ferris Wheel. Oil on panel, 10.5 x 13″

Approaching Sunset. Oil on panel, 9 x 14″

Light and Dark. Oil on panel, 7.25 x 11.75″

Cloudy Day on the Delaware. Oil on panel, 12 x 12″

Strawberry Mansion Bridge. Oil on panel, 12 x 14″

The Columbia Bridge. Oil on panel, 12.5 x 14″


Giovanni Casadei was born and raised in Rome, Italy where he studied at the Scuola Libera del Nudo and at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, as well as under the instruction of the Armenian artist, Alfonso Avanessian. In December 1983 he arrived in Philadelphia, where he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under his mentor Seymour Remenick. He has been showing and selling his work in Philadelphia and other major cities for the last twenty years. More at www.giocasadei.com.

THE TOWER IN OUR CITY by Peter Leight

THE TOWER IN OUR CITY
by Peter Leight

is always visible, no matter where we are, it doesn’t even matter what we’re looking at. Tapered at the tip, lifting up without lifting off like the gathering before the spurt, smooth on the surface—smooth and clear as an idea you don’t even need to think about because everyone has the same idea. It is never out of position, never in the wrong place, it’s about the most accurate thing there is. Not attached to anything—a tower isn’t a leash or a collar. Not showing off—the tower isn’t an ornament or a loose translation. When something happens we turn to the tower, we point to the tower as if this is the real reason, asking the tower what are we supposed to do? What is going to happen to us? What have you done to us? Rising straight up into the sky the tower doesn’t waver or swing like a pendulum, never moves to one side or the other, as if it has an idea, or bends at the waist as if it has a different idea, or leans toward us in sympathy—it’s the kind of stability we are attached to and depend on and are also tired of at the same time.


Peter Leight lives in Amherst, Massachusetts. He has previously published poems in Paris Review, AGNI, Antioch Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, FIELD, Raritan, and other magazines.

 

 

 

 

Image credit: Simone Hutsch on Unsplash

BARCELONA ON A SATURDAY by Nicole Baute     

BARCELONA ON A SATURDAY
by Nicole Baute

Over dinner the Brazilian painter says she doesn’t believe in time, or maybe she says she’s skeptical about the measuring of time—I can’t be certain as we meet haltingly between languages. We are painters and photographers and musicians and one writer, me, in a crumbling Catalonian farmhouse at the foot of a mountain that looks like a pile of noses.

We are broken and wanting, drinking red wine until sunrise, some of us not sleeping at all.

I’m the serious one until the night I drink a shocking amount of sangria and dance like a Fraggle in an actual cave. Later, Javier asks, “What do you do with all that energy? Where does it go?” I’m not a great swimmer and as a child I broke my face on the ice trying to skate—hell, I broke my arm on the couch trying to stand—but when music hits me in a certain way I’m light through a prism that cannot be stopped.

I thought Catalan was a Spanish dialect, but it is closer to French or Italian and in town they speak it with pride. After a few weeks the women who run the flexitarian restaurant with the brightly painted chairs start calling me “guapa,” which is not Catalan but Spanish, and I think, we should tell people they’re beautiful all the time, in all the languages. Why don’t we do this?

Somehow, Spain is halfway. Canada is home, and my husband and cat and all our belongings are in an Indian city that makes me sick and sometimes crazy. We wanted to have a baby but I don’t feel safe there, where the air is toxic, where the hospitals are unpredictable.

The body listens to the head.

Still, I feel I’m an adult now, for the first time, at thirty-four. A person of no clear country, writing alone in a bedroom in El Bruc. Morning sun on my face all I need.

On a Saturday I go to the city to see Picasso. I stop for coffee and watch the barista give a bag of day-old bread to a man with a suitcase and a bed roll and a little dog afraid of everything.

The museum is a series of medieval houses with courtyards, all attached in mysterious ways. It’s a relief to see how long it took Picasso to become Picasso. There is a tiny sketch, “The Artist’s Eyes,” from Paris: a few lines of clean fire. And another, a gored horse with an infinite neck reaching to the sky.

Time happens, and I know there’s a certain power in my hips, my height, my stride. I wonder where it goes when I shrink, I thicken, I slow.

Eyes wild, legs splayed, spike piercing that horse in the heart.

When Monet was obsessed with his water lilies, he wrote to a friend that despite his advancing years he would continue to try to render what he feels. But Modigliani is my favorite; my heart understands the black slits of his eyes. He died at thirty-five, leaving his portraits behind.

I’ll turn thirty-five this year, and until now I’ve hidden my work. In computer files, in emails to myself, in dreams.

But Picasso. Those mad planes of color. Shapeless pigeons and geometric breasts. The human figure split open like an egg. I refuse to experience the gallery in order. I move forward and backward through births and deaths, through successes and failures, through the blue period and the rose period and the period where everything mixes into a mucky brown. I wander the museum for two hours or maybe two years and when I finally leave I am two inches taller.


Nicole Baute grew up in rural Ontario and currently lives in New Delhi, India. She recently won the 2018 Pinch Literary Prize for Fiction and came in third in Wigleaf‘s Mythic Picnic Prize. Her short stories and essays have been published in Joyland, River Teeth, carte blanche, and elsewhere. Nicole teaches creative writing online at Sarah Selecky Writing School and is pursuing her MFA at the University of British Columbia.

 

 

Image credit: Janis Karkossa on Unsplash

 

TWO FLASH PIECES by Francine Witte

TWO FLASH PIECES
by Francine Witte

Waves  

Mary counts the ships. Rodney has just broken her heart.

“You’re like the ocean.” He points to the blue water carpet. “You will ebb and flow, you’ll see.”

There are five ships. A mother duck ship and four little ducklets. Last night, the radio talked of an oil spill.

“I hope those are rescue ships,” she says, “for the poor oily birds.”

She moves closer to the ocean. Foam tickle of water rushing towards her.

“The little black bird eyes,” she says. “Blacker now with sludge.”

“Think of it this way,” Rodney says from the shoreline, “they’re only birds and really won’t know the difference.”

She looks at the last of the ducklet ships. She hopes they can save the birds and towel the goop off the ocean skin.

Rodney keeps talking, but really he is just a memory now. This time, the foam tickle of water, pulling away.


Weakness

Sarah has a weakness for ice cream and so she buys a cow. She slips her landlord a twenty, and he agrees to let Sarah keep the cow in her closet.

Mornings, Sarah gets up, pulls the cow from her closet, and tugs the milk from the cow teat. Then she turns the milk into ice cream, and for dinner, she has a giant bowl of it.

This goes on till she meets Dave. Handsome and tall, but lactose intolerant. So much so that he can’t even say the word “cow” without feeling ill. However, Dave has such heart-stopping blue eyes that Sarah gives up her ice cream routine.

Besides, Dave lets her sleep till noon.

One day, the cow gets hungry and starts to bang itself against the closet door. Sarah tells Dave that it’s just wind.

Dave doesn’t believe her. “Besides,” he says, “the wind doesn’t moo.”

In the end, Dave leaves her for lying.

Sarah cries for a while—big, gloopy tears that eventually stop.

Then she opens the closet and feeds the cow.


Francine Witte is the author of four poetry chapbooks and two flash fiction chapbooks. Her full-length poetry collection, Café Crazy, has recently been published by Kelsay Books. She is a reviewer, blogger, and photographer. She is a former English teacher. She lives in NYC.

 

 

 

Image credit: Ben Wiid on Unsplash

DRAWING A BLANK by Emily Steinberg

DRAWING A BLANK
A Visual Narrative
by Emily Steinberg

Pipe Bombs to 14 in the mail

































Emily Steinberg is a painter and graphic novelist and has shown her work in the United States and Europe. Most recently, she has been named Humanities Scholar in Residence at Drexel College of Medicine where she will teach medical students how to draw their own stories in words and images. Her visual narratives No Collusion! (2018), Paused (2018), Berlin Story: Time, Memory, Place (2017), A Mid Summer Soirée (2015), Broken Eggs (2014), and The Modernist Cabin (2013) have been published in Cleaver Magazine. Her graphic novel memoir, Graphic Therapy, was published serially in Smith Magazine, and her short comic, Blogging Towards Oblivion, was included in The Moment (Harper/Collins). She earned her M.F.A. and B.F.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and is currently a lecturer in Fine Art at Penn State Abington. You can see more of her work at emilysteinberg.com.

LEO RISING by Anna Dorn

LEO RISING
by Anna Dorn

The first thing I do when I wake up is open Evie’s Twitter. I’ve been doing this every morning since she left about a month ago. If one of my patients did this, I’d roll my eyes. But I can’t help it. Evie won’t answer my texts or calls. This is the only way I can hear her voice.

@LeoRising has five new Tweets. (I always thought astrology was nonsense, but Evie treated it with a religious reverence. The rising sign, she told me, is our surface self, our outward appearance. And Leo is the best, she said, and apparently I am one too). I always look at her profile picture first. In it, she’s narrowing her eyes at the camera in a way that never fails to excite me. The look says: I’m smarter than you. It’s the precise face I fell in love with.

The five nighttime Tweets suggests insomnia. When she couldn’t sleep, Evie would take a Klonopin (which I prescribed) and start Tweeting like crazy. The glow of her phone always woke me up, but it never bothered me.

Her first Tweet is: I prefer to date women because I like having orgasms. I smile, then shutter at the memory of having sex with men. The way they’d jab and poke relentlessly. I’d yelp in pain, but disguise it as pleasure because I believed my self-worth was tied to my ability to please men sexually.

The second Tweet throws me for a loop. Hello, my Twizzles. I have some exciting news. @simonschuster is publishing my book of essays in May 2019. For those of you who just want me to shut up: sorry!!!

Fuck. Evie had been writing a book since we met, when I first started treating her, but I didn’t think it was anywhere close to being finished. She’d always been very private about it. All she would say is that she was “turning a mirror on society,” which I found both obnoxious and cute.

I’d always had a vague paranoia that Evie was writing about me, despite her frequent assurances that she wasn’t. But how could she leave me out? A hot young writer has an illicit affair with her sexy, older, psychiatrist. I mean, it’s juicy.

It would also ruin my career.

Listen, I knew that sleeping with Evie was completely inappropriate. I knew I should have referred her elsewhere when I caught feelings, but I couldn’t. Our sessions were all I looked forward to; they became what I lived for. Evie was the first woman who made me feel out of control. When she made the first move, I so wanted desperately to say no. But I didn’t.

I close Twitter and go to the bathroom, where I begin doling capsules into my palm. 20mg Cymbalta, Omega 3, Vitamin D, 5mg Adderall. After gulping them down, I slide out the scale from under the sink. 117, ugh. When I go above 115, I start to feel anxious. It’s ok, I tell myself, I’ll run six miles today instead of five. I’ll eat only vegetables. I’ll drink lemon juice with cayenne pepper.

On the way downstairs, I peek into Evie’s former office. I tried not to interrupt her when she was working, but sometimes I liked to watch—her grey eyes focused intently on the screen, brows furrowed behind fake tortoiseshell-framed glasses. A white fur vest remains draped on her desk chair.

Evie left abruptly, so a lot of her stuff is still here. When I texted her about it, she didn’t respond. It used to drive me crazy, the way she’d leave things around the house. But then I started to like it, the little reminders of her presence. And now I have month-old dirty mugs littered around my house like some kind of derelict.

Rain begins falling just as I open my front door, as if the universe is playing a sick joke on me. I close my eyes and envision my legs galloping through the dusty trails of Elysian Park. Sharp rays of light cut through the eucalyptus trees that tower above my head. I’ve hit my stride, and my mind starts to quiet. Passing muscled men and dogs, leaving them in the dust, gives me pleasure and feels symbolic. Few people can keep up with Fiona Archer.

As I shut the front door, Evie’s Tweet floats into my brain. I try to reason with myself. 2019 is a long time from now, I’m sure she’d change my personal details to protect me. I doubt she wants to ruin my life. But Evie is selfish, and reckless. These are things I once respected about her, but now they feel terrifying. I pick up my phone and think about texting her. Something along the lines of “I better not be in your fucking book!!!” But that would be insane. And besides, she would never respond.

On our first proper date, I cooked for her. Afterwards, we sat close on the couch sipping from a bottle of Laphroaig and talking about the few subjects we hadn’t covered in therapy: namely, me. At one point, she became horrified I had her full name in my phone, like she was still my patient. She quickly changed the entry to Lioness, emphasizing with a stern expression that she never uses a last name when she cares about someone personally and I should do the same. I remember a flutter in my stomach.

She cared about me.

I go out to my cottage where I see patients. I used to see them in the main house, but Evie didn’t like it—she said it disturbed her process to be around all that “deranged mental energy.” I built the cottage about a year ago. And by that I mean I hired someone to build it. I’m not that kind of lesbian.

On the path, Vivaldi brushes up against my pant leg. She’s one of the feral cats that runs through the yard. I named her because I like the name, not because I like the composer. I kneel down to pet her bright orange mane and she opens her mouth to unleash a yawn.

I open the cottage door from the back; patients enter through the front, where there is a small waiting room. I keep it stocked with magazines from before the smartphone era. Since rich people started moving into Echo Park, I’ve been able to charge more. Today, I just have two appointments.

As I start up my desktop, my Five O’Clock floats into my head. My mentor taught me to think of my patients only by their appointment times. Five is a special one, mostly because that was Evie’s time. But I also like the girl who took her place, and I’m pretty positive she wants to fuck me. It’s twisted, I know, but it feels good to be wanted. I think about the day I decided I wanted Evie. She was wearing a pink slip dress completely inappropriate for outside of the bedroom, and kept opening her legs slightly to reveal a sliver of lacy black underwear.

I was taken by her audacity. Most women are so timid, always skirting around what they want. Evie’s an alpha, like me. After she did my birth chart, she just looked at me impressed. Then she kissed me hard on the mouth, which quickly turned into fucking, our Leo manes flying around with abandon. I could never pin down a diagnosis with Evie. I think she just wanted to talk about herself, or maybe she just wanted me.

I refresh my email and a few new ones pop up, one of note: Last Minute Appointment Cancellation. I don’t even read Eleven’s explanation, but I do notice she addressed me by my first name, which always bothers me—I went to medical school for a reason. The no-shows always apologize, as if I care. I respond with my cancellation policy. Evie said that when I treated her, she wondered if a bot wrote my emails—they were so “sterile.”

My stomach tightens after I hit send. I can’t run, I’m fat, my ex-girlfriend is about to publish an exposé that will surely ruin my career, and I don’t have anything to do until five p.m. Before I know it, I’m looking at Evie’s Twitter again, narrowing my eyes back at her profile photo. As soon as my gaze hits @simonschuster, I shut the browser, then open Spotify on my computer and turn on my speakers. I zone out to the robotic thwacking of an electronic composer while watching dust dangle in in harsh beams of light.

My phone begins to ring, and I practically jump. I hate talking on the phone, but I practically leap to answer it. I don’t even care who it is.

“Hello?” I practically shout.

“Hi, Fiona,” says the voice. It’s my sister. Not my favorite person, but I’m desperate.

“Hi, Nicole,” I say. I assume she’s calling about a friend’s child with anxiety or depression again (everyone thinks their kid is mentally ill). My sister only seems to want to talk to me as it pertains to my medical expertise. My whole family. They’re interested in me less as a family member and more as a psychiatrist they happen to know well. I’m obnoxious and unpleasant, but I have special knowledge that can help them. They’ve always made me feel like my personality is something I should take great care to suppress.

“Are you going to Mom’s for Easter?” she asks, surprising me. “I’m asking because she’s being a nervous wreck about it, per usual, and I somehow lost my mind and offered to help.”

“I hadn’t thought about it,” I say, which is true. “But yeah, I guess I’ll go.” What else am I going to do?

“Great,” she says with a tone that suggests the opposite. “Also Mom mentioned something about you, err…having a friend?”

I’m shocked. My family has never explicitly mentioned my sexuality. “Friend” may sound indirect, but I assure you it’s the closest anyone has gotten.

When I told my mom I was gay, she pretended not to hear me.

I wonder how my mom knows about Evie, then remember that time Evie and I ran into her at Whole Foods on the way back from Malibu. My mom seemed oddly taken with Evie. She values beauty highly. Also, Evie is a charmer.

“She left me,” I say. Naturally, the one time my family takes an interest in my love life, it’s at the height of my heartbreak.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Nicole says. And then she hangs up.

I awake my desktop. A new email pops up, thank god. I scan it and immediately recognize its kind.

Nearly every day, a patient asks me to prescribe her (I stopped treating men a long time ago—too needy) a stimulant, a benzo, or both.

It typically goes something like this:

A bold patient—borderline personality disorder, a manic depressive in a state of mania—will ask in session in dramatic tones, as if she is delivering a closing soliloquy in a Shakespearean drama. A timid patient—generalized anxiety disorder, manic depressive in a state of depression—will email me, often days before our appointment. If she wants a stimulant, she will say: Dr. Archer, I’m having trouble focusing at work. A doctor in college (grad school) diagnosed me as ADD and prescribed Xmg of Adderall (Ritalin / Dexedrine / Vyvanse). My workload has recently increased, and I’d like to renew my prescription for improved concentration and productivity.

 If she wants a benzo, she will say: Dr. Archer, I’m having trouble sleeping. My internist prescribed Ambien (Lunesta), but it results in strange sleep behavior, such as cooking pasta in the middle of the night (and I’m allergic to gluten!). A doctor in college diagnosed me with panic disorder and prescribed Xmg of Klonopin (Xanax / Ativan / Lorazepam). As I’m facing serious stress at work (school / my marriage), I’d like to renew my prescription.

The way Five’s email was worded made it clear the drugs were recreational—too explainy, too polished. It clearly went through numerous drafts, was revised by her pillhead friends. Years of anxiety have resulted in Five’s mild dysthymia, a low-grade depression. Five is a law student, so she’s likely surrounded by stimulants. She probably tried it, experienced that flash of euphoria—like me in medical school—and wants more. I had one law student patient tell me her friends used to snort Dexedrine in the bathroom in between classes. I prescribed her Adderall, so she could use more safely. One time she came into my office with bright blue powder on the edge of her nose. I never mentioned it. I’m sure this would horrify my colleagues, which is one of many reasons I don’t have any. I’d last about seven seconds in a group practice. I find office interaction insufferable. I don’t care about traffic patterns and I don’t watch television.

I pretty much always give my patients the pills they want. Listen, I’m not enabling addiction. I prescribe these drugs in safe quantities—I published a celebrated paper on micro-dosing in medical school. I can spot an addict from a mile away, and I always refer them elsewhere. Science has made astonishing advancements in the last twenty years, and there is no reason we shouldn’t be taking advantage of it. My patients want to feel as good as they possibly can, and who am I to stop them?

But today I’m on edge, and I find myself wanting to say no.

I take a deep breath. I know nothing about this book, I tell myself. Becoming anxious without having all the information is irrational and unhelpful. This is what I tell my patients. But soothing the mind is easier said than done, and that’s why I get paid the big bucks.

“Hi,” Five says when I greet her in the waiting room.

“Hi Fi—Lily,” I say. The words come out scratchy at first because I haven’t used my voice all day. I clear my throat. “Come on in.”

I walk over to my couch, and she sits on hers. The room is cast in a golden glow. The pleasing aesthetics of my office provide a brief respite from my mental chatter. My style inspiration was a Freudian analyst in a 1970s Woody Allen film. But let’s be clear, I don’t fuck with Freud. I’m strictly CBT – that is, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Evie said I’m old school, I should be using Mindfulness. Evie thought she knew everything. In her defense, she was usually right.

“How are you doing?” I ask.

She fingers a lock of thick raven hair, which briefly flickers red in the light. This is always the most awkward part of the appointment, especially for my introverts like Five. The borderlines come marching in—hair frazzled, mascara smudged—instantly ranting about parking ticket that ruined their life. The extroverts are easier, but less interesting. I experience pleasure from extracting the introverts from their shells, from uncovering the brilliance behind the layers.

“I’m good,” she says. Normally I would bring up her email, to spare the introvert the pain of having to initiate a conversation. But not today. “School is stressful.”

I’ve treated too many law students. They love to complain, and none of them want to be lawyers. Many consider themselves artists, others just want to get rich and sit on a beach.

“Oh, yeah?” I ask.

“Well.” Five crosses her pale thin legs. She’s wearing a lavender shift dress that brings out the pink tint in her skin. “Maybe not stressful.” She becomes entranced with a silver ring on her finger, spins it with concentration. “More boring.”

“I had to read a statute the other day for this issue with my neighbor—psychotic dog,” I say, mainly to entertain myself. “Anyway, I couldn’t get through the statute. I just gave up. I don’t know how you do it.” I’m lying. I would never read a statute. I have a lawyer for that. I wonder if I should call her, then take a breath. That would be premature.

Five giggles. “I never really do the reading,” she says as though she’s admitted to committing a felony.

“What would you rather be doing?”

“Painting,” she says, her gaze still cast on her finger.

Suddenly, there is a loud bang in the distance. Five jumps, and so do I. I’m angry at myself for losing my cool. I cross my legs and smooth my hair.

“I think it was one of my neighbors slamming a door,” I say. Honestly, I have no idea, but explanations comfort people.

“The one with the crazy dog?” She looks embarrassed, as if she’s said something inappropriate. My borderlines will ask me about my orgasms, but the introverts act as though they’ve crossed a line just for following up on something I say.

“Probably.” I cross my legs. “So why haven’t you been painting?”

Five looks up at me for the first time, her timid grey eyes meeting mine. For a second, I shiver—mainly because her eyes are almost the exact same color as Evie’s. Gray is among the rarest of eye colors, as Evie reminded me constantly. The women also share the same delicate frame, fair skin, and nearly-black hair. But Evie is more dramatic in her appearance, bolder in her behavior. Five reminds me of people I used to date before Evie. Symmetrical women who were awe of me, who clung to my every word. Women I made orgasm in twelve seconds. Women who never left me.

“I don’t know.” She begins twirling her ring again, then looks into my eyes with a gaze I recognize well: longing.

“How is your anxiety?” I ask. I wonder if she’ll have the balls to bring up her email.

“It’s fine. Same old. It comes and goes.” She pulls at the bottom of her dress. I catch a glimpse of the inside of her pale thigh, then quickly look away.

Soon Five is talking about her low sex drive. We almost always end up here. I wish I could just tell her she’s a lesbian and save us both some time.

The clock strikes six, and Five still hasn’t said a word about the email.

“I’m afraid our time is up,” I say.

She brushes a strand of hair from her face. “Did you happen to get my email?”

“Oh.” I feign forgetfulness. “Yes, of course. Do you remember the name of the doctor who diagnosed you in college?” This isn’t something I would normally ask.

“Um,” she says faintly. “It was student health, I’d have to go back and check—” She reaches into her purse. Pulling out her iPhone, she catches my gaze for a brief second. Her eyes are cold, distant. As she scrolls through her phone, I watch her slip away.

“—Don’t worry about it.” I don’t mean to say this. “You said 10mg right?”

“Yeah,” she says. Her body slackens, and a wave of relief washes over me.

“I’ll call it in tonight,” I say.

She flashes me a brief smile, then—as if embarrassed—stands up abruptly and approaches the door.

“Hey,” I say as she’s almost gone. “I expect at least a painting out of this.”

“You got it, Fiona.”

As I’m filling in Five’s patient chart, an email comes in from tomorrow’s Nine O’Clock. Another introvert wants Adderall. I don’t respond.

In the kitchen, I find myself lingering over Lioness again in my phone, imagining the disappearing typing bubbles. I put my finger on the dialogue box and start crafting and deleting several unhinged drafts about how her book better have nothing to fucking do with me. I set the phone down on the marble counter, and I decide to order Thai. Evie never liked Thai, so ordering it feels like an act of resistance. I know I’m not supposed to be eating carbs, but who cares if my life is about to go up in flames. I order all my favorites: shrimp spring rolls and papaya salad and Pad See Ew.

While I wait, I shower. The pressure of water against my body drowns my thoughts. Afterwards, I slather my body in rosehip seed oil and take a half a Klonopin. In the closet, I run my fingers along the edge of a floor-length fur coat Evie left behind. Just as I drape it on my naked body, the doorbell rings.

“Joey,” I say, opening the door. He’s been my delivery guy since I moved here. About a month ago Evie invited him in to smoke a joint with us. We ended up chatting and laughing for hours, I don’t remember what about. Ever since, Joey always leaves a tiny nug in the bag. “What a treat.”

“Oh…Fiona,” he says. He seems taken by me, staring at where my coat opens and reveals the top of my chest. “I thought you were Evie for a second. In that coat.”

I bat my lashes. “I can be glamorous too, you know.” I feel an immense sense of power in being objectified.

“Right.” He hands me the bags, and my eyes meet his. For the first time, I notice they’re annoyingly beautiful—bright green and almond shaped with thick lashes. “Is she…around?”

As I hand him the cash, rage bubbles up inside me. I’m no stranger to random attacks of anger, but this one feels elucidating. I’d peeled away to bed early that night, leaving Evie and Joey alone on the couch, sitting close and laughing hard. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, just like I didn’t think anything of it when Evie told me early in our relationship that she’d cheated on every lover she’d had. But she always left them soon after, she’d clarified, as if this morally absolved her. Lucky for her, I’ve never cared much for morals. Everyone cheats, I remember thinking.

Joey tugs at the bottom of his shirt, flits his eyes. He’s pretty, but dumb. I can tell from the way his mouth hangs open that any sort of meaningful conversation with him would present a serious challenge. “I’d like to say hi,” he says, and I want to punch him in the face.

“She left me,” I say. I tighten the top of Evie’s coat and think of her Tweet—not the book Tweet, but the first one, about the horrors of heterosexual intercourse. “Right after you couldn’t make her come.”

Just as Joey’s face begins to fall, I slam the door in his face. I drop the bags on the floor and charge upstairs. In the bathroom, the other half of my Klonopin crumbles into my sweaty palm, coagulating into a grotesque yellow paste. Without thinking, I squeeze my palm into a fist, crush the pill, then let the dust sprinkle onto the floor. In the cool quiet of my bedroom, I inhale deeply through my nose, exhale through my mouth, calming my nervous system without pharmacological assistance.

Downstairs, I eat standing up at the counter. In between bites, I pick up my phone, linger over Lioness. I think about how, if she happens to be looking at my contact, Evie will be seeing those freakish bubbles. But I doubt she’s thinking of me. She’s surely moved onto her next prey.

I still send the text. Congrats on your book…I’m not in it right? Haha.

I put my phone down on the counter and continue eating. I revel in the sweet and savory flavors, bits of peanut and basil, the gooey bliss of the thick noodles. As I rinse my plate, I think about Lily. It’s probably best she sees someone else. I’ll send her some referrals tomorrow.

My phone alights. A new text from Lioness.

My book has nothing to do with you, Fiona.


Anna Dorn is a writer living in Los Angeles. A former criminal defense attorney, she regularly writes about legal issues for Justia and Medium. Her article on juvenile life without parole was published in American University Law Review. She has written about culture for LA Review of BooksThe Hairpin, and Vice Magazine.

 

 

 

Image credit: NASA on Flickr

THREE POEMS by James Grinwis

THREE POEMS
by James Grinwis

The Mouse Named Ralph Created the Mouse Machine Named Ralph

This was his third story,
the one after the one about dinosaurs
turning to glue and the ship trapped in a raindrop
sputtering back to life.
The kindergarten teacher did not
understand, but the boy knew
how it had to be. Mouse machines. Ralph.
I was sipping beer from a paper cup.
The music was an old adagio.
People were watching videos downstairs.
I had driven past the office building where
I used to work, and it struck me,
something about proximity, the meaning
of occupying space, the perspectives
maintained whether you are passing by
or holed up. How one can become
a machine that is used. I held dreams
of becoming a writer, I wrote a story
about a man driving, his hands melting
into the steering wheel, his feet
turning to glue. Showed it around, no one
liked it. Said it had been done already
or something or needed to be crisper, as in a cold
bite of lettuce you take late one night
after running in the heat a long time. But keep
trying, it was said. I was sinking into a forest
of mud. My dog had come to drink
the little pools of water
that sat on top of the mud. The moss
crawled along the banks of the stream,
and the sun struck the moss
in an image of such softness it made memory
a tangible thing. I was walking with my son.
We discussed the ins and outs
of woods, and wooden-ness,

.
.
how ticks drop from trees
and burrow into the scalp,
though baby ticks aren’t bad, he said,
nothing that is a baby is bad,
they are peaceful, harmless, food for birds.
Numb inside their chitinous slumber,
a whole colony of them growing under the bark
the way a bruise spreads over the skin.
.


.
.
Mist Moving on in The Guise Of A Cow

Under the canopy:
a storm, a dogsled, a ghost
with no shoes
trying to make noise.
A good place
would be on the other side
of where he came to be
one morning,
as the wind curled
into his eyes, slug-like,
snapping in two.
A certain flamboyance
crept into the boathouse.
A curious candle
drove off in a strange buggy.
He crawls into a space
and leaves there,
on Sunday afternoon,
a desolate dance number.
There is no room for flowers,
no room for the wind
through a flower,
or the field it’s in.
.


.
.
Brainscape with Parasite

When the worst is imagined
and whether it has grounds
in reality, the floss gets stuck
between the teeth that
have known too many gummy worms,
prefiguring a nightmare
of the teeth. There are lice out there,
and slugs. Which does
one conquer first, lice,
slugs, or gummies. A continual debacle
in the textbook version
of debacles is what has hooked me
to this: my friend Jenny fills me
with great desire when she’s talking
on the phone or just walking
around or sitting there. I imagine
terrible things. The dog has fleas,
a terrible flea, and it’s in his ear
and driving him crazy,
and because he can’t speak
I am haywire about what
I don’t know. I think of babies
who have suffered the same fate
as the dog. It seems there’s no way
out of these things, the oracle says.
She’s not a classical oracle,
wears a bandana in place of a bra,
and with one of her boots missing, well.
She wonders where on earth
is that boot it was there
a minute ago, how did it
get away from me, as if it were life
that was getting away, and then
a dust mote and its assemblage of horrors
appears to keep things
whole. Like a good, honest king
.
.
.

setting off for a night of debauchery,
disguised, but suddenly checked,
wondering what makes the sky so hot,
why is separateness
disparate from unification,
like moveable type, or a horseshoe
thrown as if the thrower meant
to throw it at somebody’s head,
and it almost makes it
because we’re human, not animal,
a fact which enables
figments of the imagination
to gain great weight
such as found in a madman
or a saint. She attempted saintliness
and it brought doom.
The threshold of existence
sways as the slug meanders
his odd way forward, and the wind
is late in coming. Wind is
wind, the voice of someone
vengeful, and such thoughts
can’t be let go of, or imagined from,
to make way for a huge mist
spreading across life
like an elephant who wants
to push his onerous bulk
through sweetness.


James Grinwis is the author of two books of poetry, The City From Nome (National Poetry Review Press) and Exhibit of Forking Paths (Coffee House/ National Poetry Series), both of which appeared in 2011. His poems have been relatively quiet since then, though recently have made appearances, or soon will, in journals including Hotel Amerika, Bennington Review, Poetry Northwest, Rogue Agent, and Willow Springs. He lives in Greenfield, MA.

 

 

Image credit: James Hammond on Unsplash

A BRIEF GUIDE TO DISSECTING THE FINGERNAILS OF A QUIET GIRL by Megan Lunny

A BRIEF GUIDE TO DISSECTING THE FINGERNAILS OF A QUIET GIRL
by Megan Lunny

The dissection, in simple terms, is a search. Imagine searching your house for a pair of socks. Now, imagine searching your specimen—for our purposes, the body—and this time, the body is your house, and its secret is a pair of socks, misplaced somewhere in the body for you to unearth.

It might help to think of the specimen as a landscape. In time, you will memorize the specimen like your favorite city; yes, think of the geography—the plains, the valleys, the deserts—in time, you will navigate all of them.

It’s a complicated process. On your first try—or several—you will likely fail. You might, for instance, conclude everything about a body with very little to say, or—worse yet—conclude nothing about the body that says everything.

I do not say this to scare you. Really, this is an approachable line of work—pleasant, even, some might say.

For now, we start small. Today: the fingernails of a nice, quiet girl a few months before her eighteenth birthday.

When we enter the lab, her body will seem surprisingly small in its petri dish: the body of a child, not a girl of nearly eighteen. This is partly because she stopped growing before middle school, and partly because of the nature of her decomposition, which has progressed at an abnormal rate.

Apoptosis is the process by which cells shrink in the dish, and occurs over a period of one to two days in most organisms. Not this girl. She will last a few hours, at most. No scientist of repute knows why this is, though if you ask her parents, they will nod gravely when you inform them of their daughter’s atrophying state.

Yes, they will say. She’s been disappearing for a while now.

You must work quickly before the specimen is gone. But neither should you rush. You must be careful when handling specimen, and this girl is especially fragile.

Move closer to the petri dish. Peer into the dish until you have a clear view of the fingernails. Use a magnifying glass, or a microscope, if you must.

The first thing you will notice is that the specimen’s fingernails do not look at all like fingernails. Indeed, they look like craters—like the moon has shed its rough skin and draped it over her edges. Observe: the fingernails, cracked, with serrated edges.

This is caused by a process formally known as anxiety, in which our specimen tears the fingernails of one hand with the fingernails of the other, peeling away until she bleeds. Most likely, this phenomenon is triggered by real or imagined constraints, such as a shortness of breath or a tightening of the chest.

Most likely, imagined. Most likely, feels real.

Based on the uneven edges of the fingernails, it follows that the specimen is afraid of loud noises. Imagine her, small and perpetually nervous, tearing her own edges when things get loud—let’s say she’s in the backyard with her parents in early May, and the three of them stand in a kind of isosceles triangle, with the specimen closer to her mother, and the heat amplifies everything as her mother screams, feral and unforgiving, at the specimen’s father, who is drunk and looks like he might topple over. Imagine him screaming back terrible, drunken things, his words too thick for his mouth.

Now imagine the specimen, their daughter, silent amid the screams, hands working furiously to peel back the fingernails.

See? This is how she screamed.

You will also notice that our specimen has shorn the fingernails to unimpressive stumps.

From their size we can conclude that she is aware of her smallness, that she carries this feeling wherever she goes, buried underneath the fingernails. Imagine, for example, that our specimen is walking a brightly lit street with another girl. Imagine that the second girl has a louder voice, a wider smile, and hair the exact color of honey. As they walk, people they know and don’t call out to the second girl.

Imagine the specimen sitting in her closet later, a slowly growing pile of fingernail shavings at her feet. The small space makes her feel bigger, until it doesn’t.

Turn your attention to the cuticles. Notice the skin, raw and pink, around the nail, scabbed in a few places. If you were to press down on this skin before, maybe she would have cried out in pain.

Press down. See? Now, nothing.

Most likely, the specimen wants to tear off her fingernails but has run out of room and has started to tear off her skin instead. Most likely, her fingers sting as they take tests, play piano. Most likely, she doesn’t notice—except for maybe once, last winter.

Imagine it: the specimen surrounded by snow as she walks toward a yellow school bus. The day is bleak and cold, and a friend in a blue coat walks behind her. The friend points out that the specimen should really get a manicure—or, at least, a pair of mittens. Imagine the specimen tearing off another strip of fingernail before she shoves her hands into her pockets.

Imagine small teardrops of blood in her jeans pockets later, when she takes them out.

When performing a dissection, it is paramount that you do not form emotional attachment to the specimen. You mustn’t, for example, attempt to console her, even as she begins to tear her fingernails in the petri dish. You mustn’t clean up the piles of fingernail shavings that will gather at her feet, or the blood that will crust along the cuticles.

She is a specimen in a petri dish now.

She does not need your sympathy.

That is all for today.

Dispose of your gloves. Put away the lab coat, the goggles.

For caution, move the petri dish to a cold climate—the specimen will be better preserved under low temperatures. Or clean the dish thoroughly, if the specimen has already decomposed.

Wash your hands afterwards. Scrub beneath your fingernails until all remnants of the specimen have vanished from your skin.


Megan Lunny is a former Bucks County High School Poet of the Year (2017) and was named a 2018 Foyle Commended Poet by the Poetry Society of London. Megan received a National Gold Medal in flash fiction from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards in 2018 and is a 2019 YoungArts Finalist in Writing/Short Story. Her poetry has previously appeared in Acumen Young Poets, and her flash fiction is forthcoming in The Best Teen Writing of 2018. She wrote “A Brief Guide to Dissecting the Fingernails of a Quiet Girl” while studying creative nonfiction with her dear teachers and friends at the Kelly Writers House.

ANGELS IN THE ARCHITECTURE by Dawn Davies

ANGELS IN THE ARCHITECTURE
by Dawn Davies

It’s twilight on the fifth floor of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, and a weak light seeps from the underside of the plastic-lined blackout curtains. It is growing dark against his wishes, yet Jacob Silbergeld no longer has the voice to catch the attention of a passing nurse who could adjust the transitioning of light he has hated for most of his life. Twilight is when slippery things happen, when one can be led by the hand to unwanted places. Twilight is when buildings surge in the skyline and become otherworldly, a time when one can lose control. Jacob had fought against its demons for years with distractions of all sorts: films, friends, or when all else failed, a good book and a single malt scotch, but he is no longer in control of his environment, and the coming of night frightens him. He brushes his left hand over the blanket in search of the call button.

It had been a regular day at the Southampton cottage. Jacob had built the place by hand after retirement, indulging his architectural whims with ornate, paneled cornices, wild like curls of hair, rounded oak doorways, and a meandering granite walk lined with lily of the valley. He’d sat in the garden watching a colony of red-winged blackbirds getting ready to pull up stakes for the season. It was near dark when he finally stood and his right leg, which hadn’t worked well in years, buckled and caused him to lose his balance. He fell over the sundial onto a weed-covered stump. He heard the thick snap in his right hip socket, which led to an ambulance ride back to Manhattan, then surgery and rehab, and then, two months later—a week before he was scheduled to go home—a left-side stroke with hemiparesis and aphasia.

Breaking a hip was like the corruption of a bearing wall and floor joist, without which any structure, from the simplest barn to the loftiest cathedral, would crumble. Like any floor joist, a hip could be repaired. But the stroke took his freedom, his speech, the right side of his body. Benjamin, his old friend, was out of options. He’d begun the steps to close up the Southampton place and get Jacob permanently back to the city where his doctors were. He was nearly ninety, after all.

“Don’t sell the cottage,” Jacob had said, but Benjamin didn’t understand the marble tongue, the bee-stung muscles of the mouth, the frantic, dog-like look in Jacob’s eyes.

Back in the dark, his hand hits plastic. He fumbles for the call button and presses it. Someone needs to come quickly. Turn on a light. Do something. A panic swells within him at the dimming of the light.

He sees a shadow in the corner, but before it has time to rise, a nurse appears, the short, quick-talking one with the purple clogs, white cardigan, and red, curler-set hair. Jacob knows her because she smells like cinnamon Chiclets. He remembers her name is Penny.

“What do you need, sweetie? We’re busy tonight.” Penny leans in, hand on the doorframe, without committing to the room. He tries to tell her, but his mouth turns sideways in a grimace, and he releases a groan.

“We’ll be back in to get you ready for bed in a little while. You have to potty? You didn’t wet yourself again, did you?” Penny walks over and peeks under his sheet at his withered legs. She pats a hand near his bottom.

“No. You’re dry, praise the Lord. Here, let me turn on your TV.” She leans over his bed, her breasts near his face, a gold cross dangling in front of his eyes, then swings the arm of the small box television towards the bed and aims it at Jacob’s face. Wheel of Fortune announces itself, with its clicking roulette wheel and its stupid sampling of humanity guessing letters to simple riddles. The laughter of strangers calls him into sadness. He had always disdained television, but this set injects a grainy, rainbow-speckled light into the darkening room, for which he is grateful.

“We’ll be back in a little while to turn you, sweetie,” Penny says, and she’s gone, her compact, solid frame and rounded little arms and elbows reminding him of a Degas sculpture he’d once seen of a dancer looking at the bottom of her foot. If this nurse could stop for just a moment and stand in the doorway again, he would see it, he was certain of it—a hint of one thing sitting very still inside another.

The corner opposite him scribbles with moving shadow. He refuses to look there, yet his heart beats hard, like it always does when shadows assert themselves in the night. He looks instead at the television: a silly man in a suit holding a microphone, a contestant jumping up and down and clapping her hands, while her enormous breasts sway two directions at once and nearly pull her down into the pronged wheel. The wasting of time. What they don’t know of waste and of time. What you can never get back, he thinks. Things can change like that.

Once, not long ago, on a cold fall day eight years into his career, he saved a child’s life. He’d been limping across the Upper West Side on his way to the Automat on Broadway. His right fist stung with cold as it gripped the top of his cane. It was hard going on a windy day. Red and gold leaves floated like fires down to the ground, and he was so lost in thought that he almost missed it: the little boy darting after a rubber ball into the street, the woman on the stoop screaming “Stop!” Without thinking, Jacob dropped his cane and grabbed the boy by the back of the coat, swinging him around over the sidewalk just in time to keep a laundry truck from running him over.

He righted the child on the sidewalk and ran his hands quickly over the curly black hair, while the child stifled a sob and cried “Auntie!” Jacob looked sharply at the woman as she rushed from the steps to hug them both. He leaned into them for a moment, then pulled back to look at the boy, his cheeks so red and his eyes so bright and black that he almost swore he saw an echo of his old girl, Alice, in this boy’s face, the small assertion of one thing nested so still inside another, a shading, really. It had unsettled him.

Jacob knelt and hugged the child to him hard, sniffed his hair—it smelled dusky, like fire on a fall day—then peeled himself away, picked up his cane, and continued on his way, limping past buildings he knew like friends, eyes focused on angles and arches and designs across the skyline. He did this to distract his mind. The child would have been about the same age as Alice’s child, he thinks, and that’s when the shadow rose up from behind a row of ash cans in an alley, massive arms bulging, battle-scarred. It stood like a marble sculpture. He panicked and moved toward the street, then held his chest for a moment while his breathing returned to normal. When he looked back, the umbric figure was gone. That evening the darkness pressed against him like a problem, hot and oppressive and he couldn’t wait to get home. Later, he found himself near tears thinking about the child he had saved. About Alice and her child. About the life they didn’t have. He turned on all the lights in his house and stayed awake until the sun came up and relieved him of his fear.

He sees a movement in the recess next to his closet that lifts and surges like a gestural drawing in a nightmare, a boogie man, shoulders the size of a tank, roaring up then settling back down, angling back into the dark, and his heart jumps weakly in his chest. Damn it. He presses the call button again. Nothing, nothing, except wheels of fortune clacking in the dark. Now an orange juice ad, a blonde Nazi child sipping cold juice through a striped straw. The darkness swells, and the shape stirs. He feels a wet sting on his left side. He presses the call button.

It takes an eon for Nurse Penny to come, this time sailing through the door, rushed, annoyed, leaning quickly to turn down the volume of that stupid show.

“What is it, sweetie? Mein Gott!” he thinks he hears her say, like his mother would have.

“You’re sweating. I’ll be right back.” His left hand grips her rounded forearm, and he pulls and says, “Don’t go. Don’t leave me in the dark. Something is in the room! In the corner!”

But the nurse hears a gurgled slur in his throat and peels his speckled claw away from her. She doesn’t like the patients touching her skin. She peers under the sheet again and says, “Uh-oh, I see what you’ve been up to, Mr. Silbergeld. You’re all wet. I’ll be right back with someone. We’ll change you.”

She turns quickly and leaves again, and the shadow lifts and begins to surge and press toward him. Jacob sees a helmet on a molten head, nose like a bull. He calls out for help, but there is no one.

“I will not look at you,” Jacob says to the figure. “You cannot get to me here. Get away!” Its shape is clearer now. It rises up out of the corner, dappled in television light, like the winged warrior on the Mohawk Niagara building.

“Help!” he cries out again. “Mein Gott!” though he hasn’t spoken German since coming to America in ’32 after his mother’s funeral. Jacob had come home from school and found her on the floor, purple in the face, her hands still white with the flour she’d been using to knead bread. He and his uncle set out for the States two weeks later, leaving Jacob’s father behind in the institution from which he would never be released.

It was during the rough, storm-sieged ocean crossing that the beast-like shadow first appeared to Jacob, the night Jacob thought that he, and everyone else on the ship, would surely die in the storm. He believed its apparition was the first indication that he might be taken by dementia praecox the way his father had been. He didn’t tell his uncle. Instead, he quietly braced himself for the beginning of what he expected to be a terminal state of deterioration. Insanity. Institutionalization. But no other sign manifested. Only the dark form that haunted him and appeared when he was most vulnerable, the one he never dared to look at. The one that showed itself during that dangerous boat ride and never went away. Over time, he grew to believe it was the way his mind processed fear, but it didn’t help him feel less afraid.

Nurse Penny returns with another nurse, the big one Jacob doesn’t like, the one with the red nose and rough hands. Their arms are full of sheets, blankets, cloth bed-liners, a nightgown, and towels. The form in the corner softens but stays. Folds inward. Don’t they see it? Jacob, thinks. Why do they not trip over its big feet?

“We’re here to get you ready for bed, Mr. Silbergeld,” the big nurse says in the voice she used for old patients: loud, flat, and condescending. When she pulls the light cord, the room floods with a cold fluorescence and, to Jacob’s relief,  the shape briefly disappears.

But after his eyes adjust, the umbra begins to swell and fill the corner once again. There is no getting away from it. There never is. It has eyes and they look at him. For the first time in his life, Jacob looks back, briefly, before turning away. Nothing happens. He has not become a pillar of salt. He has not spontaneously combusted. He hasn’t melted or been possessed by shedim—the demon spirits his mother had once warned him of.

The nurses flank him on either side and begin the choreographed moves they practiced several times per day, first stripping back his blanket and sheet, leaving him bare and wet and branchy on the bed, a hint of his former self, the meat of his muscles eaten by time, his bones picked clean.

“He’s wet,” Penny says.

“Must be 7:30,” says the big nurse, who looks at her watch. “Yep. Every night, like clockwork. Here, roll him toward me. Look at that scar on his leg. Wonder what happened there.” They turn him like a piece of timber onto his numb side, and he thinks he is falling. He calls out, fumbling with his left hand for the bed rail and hitting Penny in the chest.

“Look out! It’s right behind you,” Jacob tells her. A warning, but she doesn’t understand.

“I think you’re getting fresh with me, Mr. Silbergeld,” Penny says.

“Those days are long gone,” the big nurse says, as she swabs his bottom and rolls the urine-soaked pad under his left hip, then rolls him back on top of it.

But they aren’t gone, he thinks. It was just a moment ago, a week, really, that he took Alice to see the Manhattan Municipal Arts Building the day before he left for basic training. He had suspended architecture school to join the Army after Pearl Harbor and had wanted to show her the magical quality of Beaux-Arts before he left, so he could experience his two loves in one place, one essentially nestled inside the other.

He kissed her under the Gustavino ceiling tiles in the South Arcade, something he had longed to do since he first saw the sweeping curves of tile that rode the building like a wave. He leaned down, smoothed her black curls back from her forehead, and pressed his lips hard onto hers, wanting to brand her with his kisses, leave his mark on her before he left. She laughed when she pulled away to catch her breath, her teeth flashing like small pearls, and this was when he knew loved her. He asked her to wait for him, and she said yes. Later that night they made love for the first time in a cheap motel they rented by the hour. Separating from her to report for basic training was like peeling his skin away from his bones.

Jacob loved Alice through the European theater, writing weekly declarations of his love home to her, and of his promise to marry her as soon as he got back. When the ‘Dear John’ came without warning, telling him she had married another, the shadow returned, looming large, skulking behind every tree, following him into his foxhole, disappearing during battle, but reappearing soon after the gunfire ceased, and his breathing returned to normal. He had gotten himself shot in Bastogne, and during recovery, which took place at a military hospital set up inside an old church, the shadow was so ominously present that Jacob thought he was truly going insane. He confessed to his nurse that he was seeing visions, and she told him not to worry about it, that it was due to fever brought on by infection. He wasn’t crazy, she said. He was just in the middle of a war. But how could he not worry? The beast never seemed to go away.

Jacob arrived home months later with his limp and his cane and his shattered right thigh, to find that Alice had died in childbirth. The door of hope he had always held open closed for good. He finished architecture school like a puppet on a string, automatically, almost without thought, then left for Albany, where he designed large office buildings without passion, without curve, without bravura or swag, without love.

Some years later, he ran into their old cantor, who spoke of Alice.

“She married so quickly,” the cantor whispered. “She had to. She was already with child and the math didn’t make sense, if you know what I mean. She gave birth four months after the wedding. A son.”

“What? Whom did she marry?” Jacob asked. “I must know.” But the cantor said he couldn’t say any more. He had been asked not to.

Jacob pressed him. “Who was it? Who asked you not to say anything? I must know the family’s name.”

The cantor shook his head and made a gesture of locking his lips with an imaginary key, and Jacob knew he wouldn’t get anything more out of this man whose promises stuck like brick and mortar. When the cantor saw the tears in Jacob’s eyes, he softened, saying only that the boy lived with Alice’s husband’s family on the Upper West Side. Later, Jacob noticed the cantor hadn’t said the boy lived with his father. He said the boy lived with Alice’s husband’s family. What did that mean? Was the cantor implying that the father was dead? Or that Alice’s husband was not the boy’s father? Was he the father? Did he have a son? After limping for weeks up and down the entire Upper West Side and seeing no boy with red cheeks and curly black hair, Jacob decided it was best not to meddle. What would it accomplish anyway? He tried to put the idea of the child out of his mind, lest he be driven crazy in a different way. Still, Jacob never stopped looking for the child who reminded him so much of Alice. He looked in restaurants, on subways and buses, in schoolyards and movie theaters and shops. He couldn’t help himself. This went on so long that he eventually began looking for a young man, then an older man, then finally an old man in his sixties. He never found him, but he never stopped looking.

Jacob’s love for architecture returned, and he devoted himself to his work, to creating useful yet lovely things that would loom high in the sky and assert themselves for generations, leave a little of himself for the future, and a little of Alice, too, for he loved her still. He would put a bit of her in each building he created, a hint of her sitting very still inside something solid, tucking carved masonry angels into friezes on gambrels, or whimsical turrets, or between parapets. He made a name for himself, working long past retirement until he was old and bent, closing each workday late in fear of the dreaded dark, and the shape of night, and the beast that waited in dark joints and junctions to terrify him and take his sleep.

The nurses pass him over the wet, rolled pad, and onto his other side, and from the corner of his eye, Jacob sees the giant form by the closet lunge up to where the ceiling meets the wall. In the light it shines a bright gold and is studded with gems. Jacob groans in terror, his right hand unable to grab for the railing or for the nurse. His bowels release in a pool beneath him, and a foul smell soils the air.

“Christ on a crutch, now he’s done it,” the big nurse says.

“Oh, Mr. Silbergeld,” Penny says, turning her nose away from the bed. “He’s not well.”

“It’s the bloody feeding tube,” the big one says. “It always makes them poo like that. Godawful. Hold him there, now,” and she turns briefly toward the giant form in the corner, which stands gleaming like the Civic Fame statue, golden and frozen, nine feet tall. Why does she not see this creature, Jacob thinks. She’s in its arms.

The big nurse returns with a wet, soapy cloth and cleans his bottom like a baby, and then dries him while Penny holds him stiffly on his side. They lift the corner of the fitted sheet at the bottom, then the top corner of the bed, and roll it under Jacob. Then they place a clean sheet on each corner and tuck it under the soiled, rolled one. They roll him back over the lump, then pull the lump away, fitting the clean sheet over the mattress. They rub lotion into his back, change him into a new hospital gown, and on, “One, two, three,” they hoist him by his elbows to the top of the bed. He is bird bones and air. Nearly nothing. They prop him toward his right side, facing his head toward the corner of the room.

The shadow form makes eye-contact, takes a knee, then bends as if in thought, or as if it is waiting for them to leave so it can finally do something terrible to him. On the television, the sparkling wheel spins in circles. Jacob is nearly insane with fear, but he cannot figure out how to convey this to the nurses. He begins to cry.

“There, Mr. Silbergeld,” Penny says. “You’re all tucked in for the night.”

“He’s very clammy. He’s grayer than usual. He looks like stone,” says the big one.

“No fever, though. I’ll note it in his chart.”

“Don’t leave me,” Jacob says. “There is a beast in the corner. I don’t feel well. There is a fluttering in my chest. There is something about to break in there,” but all the nurses hear is a wheezing of air through his vocal chords, a chewing of his tongue, the babbling of a very old man.

“Sleep tight, sweetie,” Penny says as she reaches over him for the light cord. He smells cinnamon Chiclets. She turns out the light, and the anemic blue of the television washes the room. At least there’s that.

“I’m afraid,” Jacob says. “Don’t turn off the TV.” But Penny pushes the Off switch, and the room goes dark.

“You done?” the big nurse asks from the doorway.

“Yes,” she says. “I’ll meet you in 516 after I wash up. The smell in here. I think it’s in my hair.” She turns and walks out, leaving the door open just a crack, light from the hall slicing into the room like an upended knife. It isn’t enough.

Jacob screams and rattles the side rail. They forgot to give him the call button. They left him alone in the dark. They left him alone with something in the room. Something is wrong inside him. Something is about to break.

The form grows, golden and blue ice, shoulders like a thunderbird, and the face of the bull has shaped to form something oddly human, battle-scarred, clothed in solid, heavy, studded armor. It expands to fill the area near the foot of the bed, growing past the corner, past the height of the ceiling.

Jacob feels a warmth that floods his feet and an explosion in his belly. The blood fades from his head, and the wings unfold from behind the beast for the first time, sharp and solid, like cutlery, and when he sees the wings, his fear fades. It is not a demon. It never has been. How could Jacob not have noticed all these years? Fear had possessed him so thoroughly he had been unable to see that the looming beast had never meant to harm him, but had simply been watching him, or perhaps watching over him.

The darkness wanes, and the room brims with a golden light. Jacob’s eyes overflow with tears, and he rises up to meet this beast, this warrior angel that has always presented itself in times of battle, the one that asserted its form into every structure he built, the one that came in the night, the one that was with him when he crossed the ocean during the storm, the one that was with him the night he saw the Manhattan light push from behind the General Electric building like a nimbus and told his uncle, “I’m going to make buildings like that when I grow up,” the one that was with him the time he turned impulsively into a bookstore instead of going home and had seen Alice for the first time, wearing a gauzy spring dress, her curly black hair pinned with combs behind her ears, the silk seams climbing up the pillars of her legs, her red lipstick like a neon sign, this angel that was with him in his foxhole, and with him on the day he saved his own son in the street—the angel he had feared was a demon his whole life, the one he need not have ever feared.

A song fills the room. Perhaps it is German or Yiddish he hears, or perhaps Hebrew from his childhood days in synagogue, Hebrew sung in verse by fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers, nations of fathers filling a portico, a hall, a prayer service chanted through a tiled sanctuary, the sound swelling in his ears, the corners of the room disappearing, the walls dropping low, joists and struts and columns falling away like folded cloth, rafters turning into dark birds and flying, windows melting like sugar tears, and they lift together, past the fifth floor window, and walk toward the plane of the horizon, up, up to where Alice awaits, her soft curls washed in mist, the golden guardian at his side, wings spread, sword at the ready.


Dawn Davies has an MFA from Florida International University. She’s the author of Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces, which was published by Flatiron Books in 2018. Her essays and stories have been Pushcart Special Mentions and finalists for The Best American Essays. Her work can be found in The Missouri Review, Arts & Letters, Narrative, Fourth Genre, Brain, Child, Chautauqua, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere, as well as in various anthologies. She lives in weird Florida.

 

 

Image credit: Conor Sexton on Unsplash 

CYANOTYPE by Michelle Matthees

CYANOTYPE
by Michelle Matthees

No one bothered
to tip me
back into my own image.

Now, I’ve got
one eye seeing
forever thru an extra

lens of margin,
the moon’s side inside
of the book’s binding.

A string from my bonnet
pursues fact, bends
into view. I am dusk

opened, compressed ink
off a library pad,
the holes of punched

O’s. Write this
she eloped
No change #2943.

The bluing wind
around my visage
made room for me


Michelle Matthees’ poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Memorious, The Baltimore Review, J Journal, The Prose Poem Project, and Superstition Review. In 2016 New Rivers Press published her collection of poems, Flucht. She is a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s MFA Creative Writing Program. More information about her work is available at michellematthees.com

Image credit: Wang Xi on Unsplash

CHILDREN, CAUTION by Leslie Lindsay

CHILDREN, CAUTION
by Leslie Lindsay

I receive a text from a friend.

Since preschool, our girls have been kindred spirits. They are on the brink of young adulthood, buds pressing through tee shirts, splotches of pink and red in a constellation across their hairlines, limbs long and gangly.

“Is Kate able to come to the park? The one by your house?”

I pause, like cold water pouring over my naked brain. It’s taking time to not panic about letting my daughter venture to the park alone, with a friend. I worry. Perverts. Sunburns. Crazy mothers.

“By the way,” she types. “They found her in a bathtub full of water.”

I know this friend’s relationship with her own mother is estranged. Alcohol. A slew of dysfunction fueled by addiction. My friend’s mother’s issues, like mine, are rarely discussed, but there, under the surface, boiling and festering. An unnamed force connects us as friends, as mothers.

“How devastating,” I respond.

It’s been two weeks since a similar image of my own mother slithered across my mind’s eye. Bathtubs, beds, another intimate piece of one’s life.

“She’s alive, but barely. They’re going to take her to a hospital,” she types back. I tell her I’m sorry.

“She doesn’t have long,” she responds. “It’s the alcohol. Her systems are shutting down.”

And they do. A week or so later, another text alerts me that her mother passed away. Two women, one in Missouri, one Tennessee. Mental illness. Substance abuse.  Both estranged from their daughters. Gone.

“The girls are at camp this week; we have a lot to process. Let’s do lunch,” she says.

The shabby chic tea room sits nestled in a valley among corn fields and gravel roads. I’m late. Maybe a little lost.

“I’m here,” she texts, “Should I get a seat?”

I’m behind a transport shuttle for old folks, the sprawl of the Chicago suburbs under my tires, stop lights and road construction. Building up, breaking down. The bus is white. The emergency door reads, “Children. Caution.” The words are stacked on top of each other, printed in big, black lettering. I see a woman’s body inside, her head, neck, legs jutting into the middle of the aisle, leaning forward, eager, anticipating her stop, her next statement. She’s gesticulating, waving her hands back and forth, frantic. I think she is telling the driver where to turn, where she needs to go. And there’s this part of me saying, turn around, look at me; I need to see your face. But she doesn’t. I don’t need to see this woman’s face; I know it looks like mine.

The horizon begins to look familiar. The green fields. The sign. I follow the gravel road laced with pits and potholes.

My friend dresses up a bit, sandals instead of tennis shoes. A flouncy shirt. And immediately I’m glad to see her, sisters in estrangement. The hostess leads us to our table. We sit and lean forward, peer at the menu, handwritten with seasonal favorites, peaches and blueberries, smoked applewood meats, croissants and peach tea. We order.

She pushes the cranberries around her salad and makes a pile of candied walnuts. Nothing’s wrong with the food; it’s us. Our emotions are out of whack; the part of our bodies that digest food are processing the aftereffects of death. A thought crosses my mind: is it okay for me to be here, enjoying food alongside a friend in the summer’s sun while our mothers rot and decay in ground beneath our feet?

I take a bite. I chew methodically.

“She had a slew of cats, at least twenty” my friend says. “They’ve been taken to the shelter. It’s the best thing.”

Of course.

“Some were sickly, dying. Others hungry, mangy. It wasn’t a good situation. No way was she was caring for them, even when she was alive.”

I know how substance abuse is: nothing matters except you, your fix.

“And the smell. Cat barf. Overflowing litter boxes. Garbage.”

The candied walnuts disappear. The peach iced tea. The fruit cobbler is delivered. Each in its own crock topped with vanilla ice cream and a dusting of cinnamon. The spoons are frosted. A hot wind blows. Do they know we are here, together, left-behind daughters talking of their collective loss, the hurt and estrangement?

The ice cream melts on my tongue. I eat greedily, scraping the bowl with my spoon, filling myself with the sweet taste of freedom. And then she leans forward and says, “I have her money. But I don’t want it. It’s tainted. It’s no good.”

My mother had nothing to give. Instead she left a mountain of debt. Scraps of material. Patterns. Dust. Broken promises. I push the dessert away.

“He was terrible to me: her husband.”

I don’t know if I can stomach what comes next, but I must. For those tender, delicate formative years of my friend’s life, he crept into her room and did unmentionable things. She tried to tell her mother, but she sided with him, always.

My skin prickles and I wince. It’s deplorable. I know nothing, not a single utterance will make the truth any less bitter. I know what it’s like to be stripped of one’s innocence, of one’s childhood, because it happened to me, but in a different form.

We’ve lost our appetite. We ask for the bill. We praise the food, the setting, and deep down inside, we are empty.

To our right, a large barn is filled with trinkets and treasures made by artisans and craftsmen. A vintage market is being held at the tea house. A white tent flaps in the wind. We need a diversion, and so we go, leaving behind grief and hurt. Our first stop is a jewelry maker whose booth is filled with pendants and earrings, bracelets. I pick one up that catches my eye. An enameled disc with a four-leaf clover embedded in the middle. I spin it around, inspecting each leaf, slightly bent and broken, but intact. I note the price and feel it’s too high.

The artist notices my interest and steps forward, “You can place this on a necklace of any length, a bracelet, whatever.”

I nod.

“These are genuine four-leaf clovers, sourced from Ireland.”

I’m not sure if she’s being honest, or hinting at a sale. Perhaps she went out in her backyard and searched for them herself? Maybe they blossomed over my mother’s grave? “Thanks,” I say, and place the item down.

We stroll through the lavender-infused tent. Soaps. Lotions. Hair ties. Baby bibs. I tell my friend I am looking for miniatures, “You know, like for a dollhouse?” It strikes me that I am looking for diminutive things that represent home and hearth, comfort and security. Small, smaller. Infinitesimal. The ones I need are so minuscule, a grain, if they ever existed, and I know they are nowhere to be found.

I ask anyway. “Any dollhouse miniatures,” I venture. “Fairy garden items?” The woman with a nametag on her shirt shakes her head. “Nothing like that.”

Sometimes I imagine my mother on a remote island where she sews doll clothes and sells them to rich tourists on the street. The idea tumbles in my mind, bitter and calculating, like spinning a plot for a novel.

Could it be that in her final act on earth, she was giving us a gift? One in which she removed herself permanently from our lives?

Yet narcissism defies that. By its very nature, narcissism seeks to draw attention, to bolster its image to that of superiority, to sequester admiration. By not being here, she’s given us a lot to ponder, and, perhaps, miss.

I purchase a pair of earrings, a few hair clips for Kate and Kelly. I smile as the artist hands me the bag filled with her handiwork.

My friend looks at items, holds them to the light, a discerning smile on her face.

“You should get it,” I prod. I’m not sure why I do. I think it’s because I’ve already purchased something and feel she needs to go home with a memento.

She places the soap down.

We both know we need more than a bar of a soap to wash away the years of sand, to slough off the hate and anger, a lifetime of loss. We circle to the front of the tent, hover around the first artisan, the one with the four-leaf clovers. She picks up the pendant, inspects the verdant plant pressed under glass, in a circle the size of a quarter. Along the top, the word luck is inscribed. She tells me her husband’s birthday is St. Patrick’s day. But it’s more than that; this pendant means something to her. She holds it to her chest, near her heart.

“I’m going to get it,” she says defiantly.


Leslie Lindsay is a mother, wife, and writer living in Chicagoland. Leslie is the award-winning author of Speaking of Apraxia (Woodbine House, 2012). Her work has been published in The Awakenings Review, Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Manifest-Station, the Ruminate Blog, and The Mighty. Leslie is at work on a memoir about her mentally ill, interior decorator mother and her mother’s eventual suicide. She reviews books widely and interviews authors weekly at www.leslielindsay.com. Leslie is a former child/adolescent psychiatric RN at the Mayo Clinic. Read her craft essay “Is Memoir Automatically Therapeutic” on Cleaver.

Image credit: Pixabay

PAX ROMANA by Christopher Blackman

PAX ROMANA
by Christopher Blackman

For a time I felt harmonious and whole,
if you know what I mean. Ringing bells alone

could make a Christmas and when I climbed
the red rungs of the fire tower to survey the tree line,

there wasn’t any smoke visible on the horizon.
Every good despot remembers things this way—

that stretch of time that precedes the pageant’s end.
Before is always better, but I am not indiscriminately

nostalgic. I always know when a moment will be mourned
while it’s happening. And along came a discordance,

something that broke me thoroughly, irreparably,
you might say, the way objects forged from a single piece

can never be fixed, only patched. And patched I am.
Isn’t it strange straddling these two centuries the way we do?

When I was young I was in love with “Wanderer
Above the Sea of Fog.” Now I have claustrophobic dreams

of trying to push through the crowd to the doors
of the train, and wandering through the Gap,

looking for chinos in that length but this color,
and do they have it in the back, which I’ll never know

because I leave to catch the last train back to waking
before dream clerk returns from the stockroom.

Nowadays, I think I’d like to see that painting’s face,
to name those mountains. I’ve grown to like specifics.

In Coshocton, Ohio there’s a roadside attraction
called Unusual Junction—an old depot famous

for housing the original sign from the Price is Right,
autographed by Bob Barker. I can picture it now:

the mass of light bulbs, a blinking incandescent dollar sign
in the Unusual Junction just as an archipelago of clouds

begins its procession around the moon, and below,
the closest thing to moorland in America lies still.

The foothills of Appalachia take shape in the distance,
giving way to steep mountains that drape the continent’s breast

like a sash carved from 500 millions years of glacial drift
and tectonic collision. I knew then that I would remember

the splendor of the moment, as I do tonight, sitting
on a balcony in Newport News, Virginia, bitten repeatedly

by mosquitoes—the buzzing, swarming little shits—
as they come from the marsh below this apartment.

I swat at them casually, as if they weren’t responsible
for killing more humans than any other thing in history—

as if right this moment they weren’t spreading malaria,
West Nile, Zika. Our ancestors were passed over

by mosquitos like a final plague, which lead me here to Virginia,
sitting on this porch, staring across the dark farm where all day horses

grazed in the pasture. An orange Sunkist machine sits next to barn,
so startling and gorgeous, and I had to travel here to find it,

beneath the din of every insect in the marsh calling out for a mate.
I am here because of my discordance. I am here because mosquitos

let my ancestors live, allowing me to travel to this remote peninsula,
and there are worse places to be exiled. I look to you, strange machine

in the dark, and paraphrase Virgil when I say that one day I’ll come
to remember even this moment fondly, when it is completely behind me.


Christopher Blackman is a poet and educator from Columbus, Ohio. He received his MFA in poetry from Columbia University and his poems have been published in the Atlas Review, Typo Magazine, EuropeNow, and Muse/A Journal. He has been an instructor at the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop, and currently lives in New York.

Image credit: Wikipedia

the juvenile connection by Kathleen Hellen

the juvenile connection
by Kathleen Hellen

perched on spindles of the branching spring
the wren with conspicuous brow, the buff sparrow with its
white appetite, ravishing the seed, the tweet-tweet-tweet of hunger
quickening the delinquent, like Proust’s madeleines in tea. The earlier
received, the more vivid the doting on what’s set like concrete. The synapses
snapping, crackling like the sugar-sweet cereal of sleep, that first dreaming
we were older, after prom, on Jeter’s farm, waking to the slick of summer skin,
the starch in sheets, our bodies tuned instinctively to bird-sound after frenzied heat.
A neuro-autobiography, the bulb’s proximity to what lights up emotion, the birds
outside the window like little time machines.


Kathleen Hellen is the author of The Only Country Was the Color of My Skin (2018), the award-winning collection Umberto’s Night, and two chapbooks, The Girl Who Loved Mothra and Pentimento. Nominated for the Pushcart and Best of the Net, and featured on Poetry Daily, her poems have been awarded the Thomas Merton poetry prize and prizes from the H.O.W. Journal and Washington Square Review. Hellen’s poems have appeared in American Letters and Commentary, Barrow Street, The Massachusetts Review, New Letters, North American Review, Poetry East, Seattle Review, the Sewanee Review, Witness, and elsewhere. For more on Kathleen visit www.kathleenhellen.com.

 

Image credit: Jonathan Slater on Unsplash

SEAN’S ROOM by Blake London

SEAN’S ROOM
by Blake London

Steam from the shower moves in columns to the ceiling. I’m holding Sean’s hand, and his eyes close with the bathroom door—we twine and twist into sheets of flesh. Sean said the comedown is the hardest, but I’m still electric, can hear a crooning in the static of my fingers on his spine. It’s a slow dance with small movements, and the glow in my bloodstream says sway, so we make the steam vibrate in the small space. My fingers smooth water from the divots of his waist. The lazy warmth of him runs down my legs, floods the pale stucco floor. His curves, his hardness, his breath on my neck all feel ancient and half-remembered, and here I am, touching him for the first time again. We let the water run down the drain, dry off with a shared towel, and crawl under the duvet.

I wake first, watch the shuttered light play on his shoulders. The street outside is three floors down and a busy that bustles during rush hour. Sean was lucky with his room assignment—a queen size bed (instead of the standard twin), and nearly twice as much floor space as his flatmates. We’re both Americans studying for a semester at King’s College, and since my apartment is a half-hour’s walk to Waterloo, most of my nights are spent at his place.

Sean stirs in his sleep, and I bring my arm around his back. I know soon we’ll both rise and get ready for class, but for now, the morning is draped around us, and I’m hard against his back. He stirs again. My eyes drift over his shoulder to the billboard and his newspaper clippings, a smattering of headlines and monochrome stills: Theresa May and Donald Trump in a sombrero, Kim Jong-un playing Xbox with Hillary Clinton. At the start of the semester, Sean had started pinning clippings and funny headlines to the billboard over his desk, a collage of the world formed during his semester abroad. It was one of the first things I noticed when I came home with him the first time, and it caught my eye now, with the comedown kicking in and his hips grinding against my hard-on.

“Morning.”

“Morning,” he says, turning on his side. “How you feeling?”

“Great, actually. Coming down still. You?”

“Good.” He plants his lips on mine and I can feel him smiling. I kiss his cheek, his jawline, play his nipples between my teeth before kissing down his navel. The window light casts bright bars on his erection, and the mattress gives a bit under my palms as I take him in my mouth. The sheets and duvet are bundled on my side of the bed, and the sex is quiet and liquid—soft moans, a laugh and breath between positions.

 

Sean and I met on Tinder a couple weeks earlier, made plans to grab drinks at a pub filled with retro American arcade games. I was on antibiotics for gingivitis, and he was just recovering from a gastrointestinal infection, so very little drinking was done, but the date ended at his place with us having sex to Frank Ocean, and I stayed there most nights after.

Last night, though, was the first time I’d tried ecstasy. Half a pill half an hour before the club, the other half right before entering. Sean had done it a handful of times, said he’d guide me through it. We took the tube to Old Street, popped the second half of each pill on Cowper Street in the line at Club XOYO. Sean had told me what to expect: the euphoria, the tension in the jaw, buzzing in the joints—and I’d done my own research.

A few minutes after we walked in, I started to feel it.

“Hey, Sean?” The club was only starting to fill with people, and we were still on the top floor, dancing to the thump of the bass below.

“What’s up?”

“You know how you were talking about M-Dick?” He’d told me earlier that night that most people can’t get it up when rolling, a variation of whiskey-dick. But, on the rare occasion, MDMA can do exactly the opposite—orgasm from the slightest touch.

“Yeah?”

“I, uh, definitely don’t think I get M-Dick.” I was pretty sure it was just precum wetting my boxers. Pretty sure. Sean moved his shoulders back, looked down at our hips locked together.

Now the club was coming alive. I pulled him onto one of the empty couches. We started dancing on the back of it. “You’re feeling it now.”

Oh, I was feeling it. I didn’t know my hips could move like that, watching them jerk and move so loosely, so freely. Usually, when dancing, my arms move in strange, grasping circles over my head like a drugged, drowning shipwreck survivor. But there, on top of that couch in a nearly empty room—still flailing like a drowning victim—I was enjoying it!

“Wanna go downstairs?” Sean in my ear. Oh man, did he feel good to touch. Wherever he was going, I wanted to go. The gum was a good idea. The lockjaw was kicking in, and the rhythm and cushion of the chewing gum was like a feverish game.

Downstairs, the heartbeat of the thudding dance floor sent mine racing. Somewhere on the stairs, we’d run into a couple of Sean’s friends, and soon we were all on the stage at the front of the club.

“How’d we get here?” I shouted across the couple feet between me and Sean. He smiled and blinked and kept dancing–couldn’t hear a word I said. I leaned into his ear to repeat myself, but instead I kissed it, and said, “This is great, man!” He nodded again.

I didn’t expect the high to be so clear. Instead of the lazy high of weed leaving everything hazy and warm, the ecstasy turned everything sharp and flowing, like sculpted glass. The club full of red and blue light, the white of the strobe, the purple of Sean’s shadow pounded into my chest, and we could have stayed like that for hours—rolling walls, connective tissue, this man I loved melting into my bloodstream.

We left the club at 3AM, caught a bus, made a second dinner of Nutella sandwiches, and slid into the shower. The MDMA smoothed out my clumsy self-consciousness but left me conscious of everything. Of the water, of Sean’s curving shoulder blades, of the simple joy of feeling connected. It was a moment of life made vibrant, and we stayed in that shower until the water grew tepid.

 

The next evening: the comedown. I’m writing a paper, and vertigo is playing through my mind in a panicked spiral. My pupils are arrow slits through which painful spears of light are thrown. I delayed it with a nap and coffee earlier, but this evening the dull roar has become a panic attack in my chest. I expected a painful hangover, but this is a hangover from hell, injected with steroids and anxiety.

Sean sits across from me at the library table. His highs and comedowns are always milder than mine, whatever the drug. I don’t want to let on that there’s a war zone ripping through me, so I take slow, deep breaths.

“How you feeling?” I ask with what I hope is nonchalance. “How was the comedown?”

“Not bad at all. It just hit me a little earlier today.” His eyes drift up from his laptop, calm and blue and watching me. “How are you?”

“Eh,” I say, glancing around the stacks. “I’m still coming down, I think. Pretty anxious right now.”

“Oh? You okay?”

“Yeah, fine. Fine.” My mind was traveling elsewhere, unhinged from the nervous energy gnawing at my legs. Funny, the bundle of anxiety binding my chest shut and my brain murky and stagnant as a choked pond. I reach for Sean’s hand. “Just on edge, I think.”

Later, I would tell him about the panic I felt, after the attack had passed. That’s how I handle things, in the moment—I wait for them to pass like a specter that I’m afraid naming will strengthen.

I don’t know if he understands that, if I do myself, but he holds my hand anyway. The memory of his comfort is stronger than the comfort itself. His lips tighten in a smile, and I do feel better—holding his fingers still holding a buzz.


Blake London’s work has appeared in Euphony Journal, Red Cedar Review, and eFiction Magazine. In 2013, Blake was the recipient of the Wyoming Young Authors Prize in Poetry, and he currently performs spoken word poetry with The Excelano Project. Originally from Gillette, Wyoming, Blake London is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and resides in Philadelphia.

 

 

Image credit: Luiz Felipe on Unsplash

STONEHENGE by Erik Fuhrer

STONEHENGE
by Erik Fuhrer

The apocalypse goes to Stonehenge during the summer solstice
and sings Joni Mitchell’s Blue while tripping on shrooms

The apocalypse is a teenager
The apocalypse is three billion years old
The apocalypse blows perfect smoke rings with its chipped lips

Where were you when you first met the apocalypse
What poem were you reading
Don’t name a T.S. Eliot poem
Name a poem without the apocalypse in it
Hope that such a poem exists


Erik Fuhrer holds an MFA from the University of Notre Dame. His work has been published, or is forthcoming, in BlazeVox, Crab Fat Magazine, Dream Pop Press, Crack the Spine, and Maudlin House.

Image credit: Alec Foege on Unsplash

TWO FLASH PIECES by Valerie Fox

TWO FLASH PIECES
by Valerie Fox

Celebrity Crush Unplugged

Instead of getting on the highway, Jake starts to drive deep into the woods, past the Savage Funeral Home and out 147, past Iona’s Country Bar. I can tell by now that this so-called spontaneous road-trip has been meticulously planned. I think, Iona’s in there, so is Lucky, so is Fran. I give a quick squeeze to my red rubber stress ball. Jake’s got his box cutter handy, for just in case we get into an accident and need it to free ourselves from our seat belts.

He says, tell me about your celebrity crushes, now and before. Go!

I say, well, I had a giant crush on Led “Zeppo” Zeppelin because he wore very tight pants and Larry Hagman…

Hm, says Jake, adding click sounds, almost not like a human, the way you’d expect an insect to talk if it were five foot nine inches tall.

…Larry Hagman in I Dream Of Jeannie with his military haircut but not in Dallas (too shallow). I show him my binder full of pictures of dapper Mr. Peanut, which luckily I have stowed in my duffel bag. I still totally have a crush on my one cousin who is a legit local celebrity, he’s in insurance. I surprise myself with how all in I am with this evolving excursion as I reminisce with Jake, our faces lit up by occasional headlights from oncoming traffic. Twiggy, Princess Grace. I would like to have dinner with Twiggy. I confide that I always swoon over actors playing the bad boy and sporting an F. Scott Fitzgerald haircut and champagne habit. I’d like…

Scott!—my companion yelps and immediately starts to melt into my grilled cheese sandwich. I start to intuit that being late for work at the Chef Boyardee plant is the least of my worries. But I like Jake. He has a great name. We’ve been dating for at least two hours. 

 


 

Rules For the One-Armed, Two-Person Rowing Race

Let’s call the two rowers Mary and Melody. Mary is on the left (L). Melody is on the right (R).

They are seated next to one another in their small boat, facing the center of Lake Harmony.

The person on the left (Mary) will use her left arm to row. The person on the right (Melody) will use her right arm to row.

The slight northerly wind adds tilt, intrigue.

Mary (L) has her left hand on her oar. Melody (R) has her right hand on her oar.

Count to establish a rhythm, begin.

Row. Row. Row.

You might remember at summer-camp as a youngster taking part in a “three-legged race.” This isn’t really like that. But it isn’t exactly not like it.

Row.

Mary brushes the right thigh of Mel, and Mel brushes Mary’s left shoulder-bone, where, underneath her calico blouse, it joins her arm.

Mary is laughing so hard that she has her eyes closed. Melody is laughing so hard she is practically melting into Mary, but not lunging. Melody is composed.

There is no clear-cut finish line, but if there were it would be Mary (if you are Melody) and Melody (if you are Mary).

Open your eyes, close your eyes.

Open, close.

Now you are well away from the shore.

You have chosen your partner with care.

The winner is not necessarily the team that finishes first.


Valerie Fox’s most recent book is Insomniatic [poems] from PS Books, and her other volumes include The Rorschach Factory (Straw Gate Books) and The Glass Book (Texture Press). Her poems and stories have appeared in The Cafe Irreal, Juked, Sentence, Across the Margin, Hanging Loose, Apiary, West Branch, Ping Pong, and other journals. She has a chapbook, The Real Sky (Bent Window Books), which features art by Jacklynn Niemiec.

 

 

Image credit: Tomás Fano on Flickr

THE GRAVE YOUR AMBITION DIGS FOR ITSELF by Gabriel Welsch

THE GRAVE YOUR AMBITION DIGS FOR ITSELF
by Gabriel Welsch

The ridiculous dissatisfaction with good fortune
begins in shade, when every bit of luck pops up
like a harlequin jammed in a jack-in-the-box,
and the hue of the lip is wrong wrong wrong—
ignoring for the moment the creepy leer of clowns,
or the gut twist borne of a springed lurch, or
the clatter of the trap click and clack when it opens—
and though the arms of the clown spill forth
jasmine blossoms and jars of honey and—hey, why not?
even bags of Krugerrand—though the clown
bearing gifts wobbles on the end of a spring
that will tilt time after time toward you,
that lip is always there, garnet when it should
be ruby when it should be vermillion when
it should be crimson, and you can go on
like this, barnstorming the shades of meaning
in shades, arguing the hewn nature of hues,
noting the carat weight of gilding on every lily,
and no matter how you recognize the pathology,
complain through observation meant as objective
(by all rights, compared to others, you should be happy
with all you have), you know you not only lack
everything you think is yours, there are things
you do not yet know you want. The clown wants
your attention, that bell on his hat a mad clapper
of the proximate, and the spring keeps him right there,
eye level and leering, a St. Vitus dance over the grave
your ambition digs for itself. The last time
you picked him up, had the strength to deny
the lure of that crank on the side of his box,
and could place him out on the porch, the crows
came to have a look. You left his head out there,
in icy November, to glaze over, the bell muted
in its sheath of watery glass, and when the crows
pecked at his head and tore the collar from his neck,
he was brought down to size, nothing left
but a stump of neck impaled on a spring,
the dance lived in every tuft of breeze, and the neck
warmed every day there was sun, the rays
landing on the plastic skin, gold again, and warm
as if alive.


Gabriel Welsch is the author of four poetry collections, most recently The Four Horsepersons of a Disappointing Apocalypse (Steel Toe Books, 2013). His fiction and poetry has appeared in journals including Georgia Review, Southern Review, Harvard Review, and Missouri Review, on Verse Daily, and in Ted Kooser’s column, “American Life in Poetry.” Recent work appears in ThrushGulf CoastdecomP magazineRumble Fish Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, and Moon City Review. He lives in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania with his family, works as vice president of strategic communications and marketing at Juniata College, and teaches occasionally at the Chautauqua Writer’s Center.

TALENT AND LUCK by Yaki Margulies

TALENT AND LUCK
by Yaki Margulies

Every night, after a long day spent creating the universe, God removes His talents from inside His chest, like a handful of featherless baby birds, glossy with blood, and lays them on the bedside nightstand before turning out the light. “He’s a genius,” everyone says. “What He’s done with the universe, it’s just great. Can’t wait to see what His next project will be.”

I’m so happy for God. I really am. We went to grade school together. Then I went to a public high school and He (of course could afford) an expensive private school. His success is nothing but a blessing. His talents are incomparable.

I remember as a kid, God would look at my drawings in art class. He said they were really good. He can create anything with a flick of His fingers. But I think my drawings really made an impression on Him. He saw something in my work.

Most days, I read about His exploits in the tabloids I stack at the front of the grocery store. I’m stacking when I’m not bagging. My success doesn’t match that of my esteemed classmate’s, but had circumstances been a little different, I think we (God and I) could have been considered contemporaries. In another universe. He still invites me over for dinner at His home sometimes, which is very nice. But I just feel like a third wheel when I’m there, sometimes a seventh or eleventh wheel.

When He goes to sleep, God takes His talents out and lays them on His nightstand, where they softly pulse and coo. You won’t read about that in the tabloids, but I know this because I’m a personal friend. He keeps me in the loop about His various habits and complexities. I have access to His private phone.

One of these nights, when God has peeled back His breastbone and exposed His damp, fleshy talents, placing them beside Him to sleep, I will grab the key hidden in the potted fern and creep into His bedroom. I’ll take His talents. And then, given every advantage, I’ll slough off the grimy patina of grocery clerking, and rejoice in my true potential. Oh how they’ll exclaim that mine is truly an infinite genius. And they’ll wonder, what will He do next?


Yaki Margulies is a writer, actor, comedian, and musician, originally from Seattle, WA, now living in Los Angeles, CA. His writing has previously appeared in Word Riot, Flash Fiction Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, and other publications. He also creates the webcomic, Moose Hoopla.

 

 

 

Image credit: Matt Artz on Unsplash

WHEN MY MEMORIES BECAME HIS MEMORIES by Vivé Griffith

WHEN MY MEMORIES BECAME HIS MEMORIES
by Vivé Griffith

My not-yet-stepdaughter sprawled on the couch, laptop open. Annabella was twelve, her long hair parted straight down the middle. That evening I stayed with her for the first time while her father went to a work event. It seemed more normal than I’d imagined, just another evening at home. I read a magazine while she did homework.

Then someone was in the backyard.

It took determination to get there. A chain link fence surrounded the property, and one side of the house was blocked with a garage. Through a single gate hidden in a cluster of bushes, someone had found the way in.

I leapt up and discovered a woman stalking about, dressed in a sports bra and running shorts. I was alone with my boyfriend’s daughter. I was responsible for her safety. But this was a woman who looked like she was out for a jog, with no place to hide a weapon. She climbed the cement steps to the door and peered in the window. When she saw me, she startled, then backed away. I opened the door.

“Oh god, I’m sorry. I didn’t think anyone lived here.” She was visibly embarrassed, unsure where to put her hands.

Her name was Merri Gale and she was considering buying a house in the neighborhood. She thought this house was still on the market, still vacant. So she’d jogged over and let herself into the yard.

“We’ve been here a few months,” I said, making of my boyfriend and his daughter a we that included me. “Do you want to come in?”

She followed me. When I went to introduce Annabella, she startled again.

“I know you,” she said, studying her closely. “Yes! I worked with your mom.”

She looked from Annabella to me and back. She threaded together a story she’d tell at the office the next day. But she didn’t say so. Instead she shrugged.

“What are the chances?”

Merri Gale has lived around the corner a dozen years now, and I’ve told this story many times. But tonight it comes up and something is new. Annabella’s dad, who is now my husband, insists he was there.

“You weren’t,” I tell him. “It was just me and Annabella.”

Chris doesn’t bat an eye. “But I saw her through the window.”

I’m not sure when my memories became his memories, his memories mine. So often we fill in the details for each other: where we stayed in Portland, the name of the Thai restaurant with the great lettuce wraps, what year we put the cat down.

I’d been single a long time when we met, living alone in a series of small apartments, working jobs long enough to earn the money for a long trip with a backpack. I considered myself independent, well suited for going it solo. What struck me most about cohabitation in those early months was how we went days eating the exact same food.

We drank Costa Rican coffee, both of us adding sugar and a good dollop of cream, out of identical mugs. We ate oatmeal with raisins, setting the same bowls down on the yellow Formica table. Some weekend mornings one of us said, “Pasta breakfast!” and we boiled penne and tossed it with butter and pecorino. For dinner, chicken curry. My rice on the side, his underneath.

“Hey, do you want some chocolate?” I’d ask in late afternoon, and break him off a few squares, taking a few myself.

Our clothes smelled of the same detergent, our hair of the same shampoo. At night we lay beside each other. The room grew stuffy from each of us exhaling our heat. How could I continue to be one person when my biology was so mingled with another?

We can’t stop arguing. “I know you weren’t there,” I say, “because it was the first time Annabella and I were alone in the house.”

We are making dinner, moving in a familiar dance. I’m chopping vegetables. He’s putting cups in the dishwasher. He taps my hip and I scoot aside to let him grab a spatula from the drawer.

“I stood right there on the den steps and she was looking through the glass,” he says.

“No, she looked through the door. She couldn’t have reached those windows. It’s too high from the yard.”

We are exasperated. I expect him to back down, but he doesn’t.

“It’s like Jackie O.” I remind him of a favorite This American Life story where Robert Krulwich recounts the time he and his wife saw Jacqueline Onassis on the street waving. Krulwich’s wife thinks she is waving at her, and waves back, waving bigger as Onassis waves bigger. Then she realizes Onassis is hailing a cab.

Krulwich’s wife tells the story differently. For one thing, Robert wasn’t there. He had claimed her memory as his own, as Chris has claimed mine.

He remains unswayed.

“What was she wearing?” I ask.

“How am I supposed to remember?”

“Oh, you’d remember.”

I text Annabella, who now goes by B and lives in Los Angeles.

“Do you remember when Merri Gale peeked in the back door?”

“Yes!”

“Who was there?”

“Hm… Me…And you?”

I don’t report her hesitancy to Chris. “She says it was the two of us,” I tell him. I return to the texts.

“But not Daddy?”

“I don’t think so.”

“She says you weren’t there.” I build my case.

Then she goes further: “Because he probably would’ve known what was up, but I recall being really confused.”

I read this verbatim. “You see?”

Then I ask if she remembers what Merri Gale wore.

“Jogging clothes and some kind of visor.”

“Exactly!” I type. “He would remember that, and he doesn’t.”

She sends laughing emojis and returns to her life halfway across the country. I return to the dinner we are making and will eat together off matching plates.

“If you don’t remember an attractive woman barely dressed in running clothes, you definitely weren’t there,” I announce.

Chris comes from generations of storytellers, people for whom narrative is the family glue. The stories repeat, like this one:

In 1951 Chris’s father was crossing a Manhattan subway station near the Polo Grounds on his way to take a midterm at NYU. He was the first in his family to go to college, made possible by the GI bill. He’d survived months on the front line at the Battle of Anzio during World War II, then eighteen months in a Staten Island hospital recovering from tuberculosis.

He was rushing through the station when he heard his brother’s voice.

“Connie! Connie!”

Dick and a few friends pushed toward him. They were headed to the stadium to watch the New York Giants play the Brooklyn Dodgers in the playoffs, a game the entire city was tuned in for.

“C’mon, Connie, come with us. We’ll getcha in.”

Connie said no. He had a test. In the future he’d forget what class the test was for, but his brother Dick remembered the game for the rest of his life. Bobby Thomson hit the pennant-winning home run, the “shot heard ‘round the world,” into the stands just below him.

“It was right there,” Dick always said, his voice resonant into his 80s. “Bobby Thomson hit it right there.”

He could still see the people scrambling to grab that ball a few rows away.

I didn’t grow up hearing this story, and I only heard Uncle Dick tell it once before he died. Maybe it morphed over time. Was Connie really taking a midterm? Was it really an accident that they ran into each other? It doesn’t matter. It’s a great story. I’ve told it at dinner tables, to old friends, at a reception for Don DeLillo, whose Underworld opens at this game.

I’ve appropriated this bit of lore, shaped this memory into my own. But in this case, I know I wasn’t there. And Chris knows he wasn’t either.

After I moved in, I’d pause in the street at For Rent signs. Usually a garage apartment drew me, a tiny place tucked behind a house with stairs to its own front door. I didn’t really think of leaving. I just believed I could only be totally myself in a space that was totally mine.

Yet here I am in a life where our shoes are kicked off next to each other under the Formica table, our bank accounts and vacation schedules synched. Even so, we’re together less than we used to be. I teach a few nights a week, leaving him to eat alone and sink into Netflix. He heads out to open mics and takes Sunday afternoon voice lessons.

A month ago he moved into another bedroom, the one still painted the deep purple B chose as a girl. He wasn’t sleeping much, and his not sleeping meant I didn’t sleep, and we were both stressed. So each night we lie in bed and thank each other for the day’s little sweetnesses, a ritual we’ve held through our entire relationship.

“Thank you for making eggs this morning,” he’ll say. And me, “Thank you for checking in after my meeting.”

Then he shuffles across the house. Some nights I rise to use the bathroom and hear him playing the guitar quietly. My room is still as I slide back into bed.

I worry: Does this mean we’re growing apart? Will we still be close if we don’t wake beside each other? What part of marriage is about proximity?

We make other concessions to aging. Neither of us can drink coffee anymore and our house doesn’t fill with that seductive scent. I brew myself green tea. He makes his potion, blackstrap molasses and coconut oil. When I gave up gluten six years ago he stopped buying English muffins, and it’s been ages since we shared a pasta breakfast.

And yet we are connected in more significant ways. We’ve raised a kid together, spoken at memorial services for each other’s fathers. We’ve sat beside hospital beds while we each had major surgery then helped each other bathe in the weak early days of recovery. Our lives, and indeed our memories, are intertwined.

One afternoon Chris wanders into a furniture store and there’s Merri Gale, selling mid-century modern pieces restored for upscale pricing. Like us, she’s older now, her hair cut shorter. She probably doesn’t take jogs wearing only sports bras.

He asks: “You remember that time you came into our backyard to look at the house?”

“Yeah.” She laughs, still a little embarrassed.

“Do you remember who was there? Was it me or Vivé or both of us?”

Merri Gale pauses and then replies: “It was just Annabella. She was there alone.”


Vivé Griffith is an Austin-based writer, educator, and student advocate. Her poetry and essays have appeared in The Sun, Oxford American, Hippocampus, and Gettysburg Review, and her op-eds in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Texas Tribune. She teaches storytelling to activists, poetry to adult students returning to the classroom, and creative nonfiction at Austin Community College. Find her at www.vivegriffith.com

ORIGIN STORY by David Marchino

ORIGIN STORY
by David Marchino

He’s a grotesque in primary colors, as much David Cronenberg as Clark Kent. The cartoons and the movies and the coloring books—they usually forget that. The idea of Spider-Man is, at its core, revolting. When it is time to suit up, Superman bears his classically handsome mug. Batman, Captain America, and Green Lantern, at the very least, leave their chiseled jaws exposed. With Spider-Man, everything hides beneath his spandex. Should you be saved by him—hung up in his gangly, yet muscular arms as he swings you off to safety—you’d look into the face of your hero, and there’d be no reassuring grin or playful wink, but, instead, two pupil-less eyelets, teardrop-shaped and alien, staring hugely as if frozen in shock. It would take all you could muster not to scream.

When I happened upon a dog-eared issue of Amazing Spider-Man in my cousin’s basement, I was hooked immediately. At ten years old, I was beginning to recognize that I was different from most other kids. Far beyond bashful, I spent entire school years clammed up, perennially scooched far enough down a lunch table that the only thing I risked brushing elbows with was the applesauce skid along the wall. It was easy to see why I took to Marvel Comics’ resident nerdlinger. Though not yet privy to the exact details, I sensed something about me was off. And, like many kids whose social misfires had been blanketed by the label of “different,” I wanted to believe that my peculiarity was the shadow of some unknown, dormant greatness everyone else was too dense to see.

Just as Spider-Man had been bitten and mutated into something superhuman, I recognized my DNA as similarly scorched. The trouble was I couldn’t figure out what was making me this way—all antsy and shy. The truth of it all, now that I’ve begun to unpack it, is that my parents had been living with undiagnosed mental disorders and balanced out their mania with booze and painkillers. In short, my home life had all the stability of a powder keg. When I try to recall the specific instances of those turbulent years, my memory turns foggy. Paid professionals have explained to me that this is one of the brain’s coping mechanisms. To save you of the gory details, the brain will sometimes splice together long bouts of trauma into a single episode that acts as a prototype of everything that happened. A gruesome highlight package of sorts. If I allow myself to replay my own, I find myself ten years old, frantically dialing 911 on a red, curly-corded phone that my father has ripped out of the wall. Some of mom’s teeth have been knocked out and are sitting in the sink, waiting for her to collect them when this is all over. She is pinned down by my father’s arm, and every time I take a step forward to help, my jelly legs knock over one of the half-finished cans of Budweiser strewn about our living room. When I finally make my way over to them, I grip on to Dad’s forearm and he turns at me with a scowl on his face. He raises his other arm over his head. At this point, the sound kicks in, and I realize everyone is screaming. Dad’s fingers curl in to a white knuckled fist, and, in that moment, the memory gives out. Everything goes black.

Crazy as this sounds, for the longest time I couldn’t source these type of episodes as the origin of my anxiety. I lacked the context. In my shaky understanding of how families operated, this breed of violent episodes was par for the course. Regarding any guilt I could have put upon my parents, my ignorance absolved them. All I could recognize was that, in school, everything seemed to come harder for me than it did the other kids. Without transgressors to charge, my unprocessed feelings weighed on my shoulders like sad-boy barbells halted mid-squat and my guilt turned inward. The problem, I figured, was me. Real life, I’ve come to understand, is hardly kind enough to give the cause of all your problems eight legs and a radioactive glow to ensure your pitiful ass doesn’t miss it. When I started having weekly panic attacks in the fifth grade, the grownups made clear that this was the function of therapy—to waive the Geiger counter, to uncover the elusive cause.

Where Spider-Man factors into the rest of this, I’m sure you can surmise. Throughout everything, issues of Ultimate Spider-Man remained clutched in my hand. (I specify Ultimate Spider-Man as this series focused on teenage Peter Parker. The Amazing series, at the time, had the wallcrawler bumbling around as a thirty-something, teaching high school and rekindling romance with old girlfriends. While I couldn’t recognize the extent of my parents’ abuse of the time, I like to think that some subconscious part of me was aware enough to retool my feelings into a general aversion from anyone older than college age who claimed to be “getting their life together.”) One of my therapists once asked me to identify my role models. While I had yet to understand how problematic my parents’ behavior had been, labeling them a model anything felt like out-and-out fibbing. As I turned over his assignment, my middle and ring fingers instinctively curled inward to reflect Spidey’s web-shooting gesture. When he would later suggest that whatever emotional wound I was tending could be soothed by the presence of Christ, I looked into his ruddy face and quipped that, for his information, the webhead had also resurrected. Twice. Furthermore, I had my doubts the son of our Lord could split a motorcycle in two with his bare hands. Case closed.

I wasn’t this snarky at all of my sessions. In actuality, by the time my parents split up a few years later and my home life calmed down, I’d bought into the idea of the talking cure. Staying healthy all that time, I credit, in part—and I mean this sincerely—to Spider-Man. Not only did his adventures provide a world to escape into but also evidence that there was good to be done by us screwed-up kids. Spidey was a kid who was not particularly handsome or popular, who had a difficult home life, and who tried to always do right while also working his tail off to stay alive. I was happy to count the parallels between his living situation and my own, but I, nevertheless, had struggled initially to consider my own survival at home as something remarkable or even as deserving sympathy. Abused children have a knack for skirting credit that way. In this respect, I suppose, my adoration for the wallcrawler acted as a sort of practice in giving myself praise. Through Spidey, I was teeing up to love myself.

Something I’ve always felt mixed about was the need for a cliffhanger at the end of a comic book. I recognize the need to tantalize the reader, to give them a reason buy next month’s issue, but it always felt like a raw deal that just after Spider-Man had rescued the orphans from the burning building that the Green Goblin decided to break out of jail and start firebombing cars. I always wished for Spidey a day when the police scanner would go hush, and he’d get to perch beside his favorite gargoyle, with his sweaty masked flipped up over his mouth. He’d stay there enjoying the breeze, letting the sore muscles in his back de-clench. So, too, did I hope for a day when my therapist would unlock the door in my head that would let me move past all the trauma that’s now a decade old. I’d slip off the vinyl couch, wet-faced and tired, turning to him as I exited to mention that I’d run out of sad. But I’ve come to learn that the parts of you that have been singed by trauma are still—and forever will be—parts of you. I don’t need a spider sense to tell me that there are panic attacks in my future or that I still have a good amount of rough therapy sessions left in me. All that matters though is that I keep moving on to the next issue, to the next day.


David Marchino is a Philadelphia-based creative nonfiction writer and educator whose work has appeared in The Penn Review and RKVRY Quarterly. His essay “No Goodbyes” won the 2016 Penn PubCo Award for Best First-Person Narrative, and his personal narrative “Going Places” was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart. Also in 2018, Marchino served as Assistant Director of the Summer Workshop for Young Writers at the Kelly Writers House. Currently, Marchino serves as a Citizen-Artist on behalf of ArtistYear, teaching a creative writing curriculum at Alexander Adaire Elementary in Philadelphia.

THERE IS MORE TO DEATH THAN LIFE by Dan A. Cardoza

THERE IS MORE TO DEATH THAN LIFE
by Dan A. Cardoza

The past cannot be cured –Queen Elizabeth I

Buddy is a good friend but will be an even better Marine. He is open to following directions. He will die face down in Pleiku, far away from his dreams, alone. But today, Buddy is twelve and entitled to his share of dreams. After all, most nightmares are reserved for adults. Buddy’s stepdad had a job for us.

I wait at the bottom of the wooden steps. Buddy bayonets the spring-hinged door, with the tip of his dad’s .410 shotgun barrel, now pointing straight at my big red heart.

Ok, Dan, let’s get this done.

BANG!—As the heavy redwood screen door slams hard against the chipped teal door jam. Dark crows explode off a crooked sycamore branch. I drop my shoulders with relief. Cradling his dad’s Remington break action, single shot in the crook of his elbow, Buddy skips down the steps, flipping the shotgun shell high in the air, ass over tea kettle, catching it in his right-hand palm, just as his feet step to the ground.

Grab her! He croaks in his broken preteen voice.

What the hell? At ten, my voice still rings clear, like a choir boy.

Here, hold the gun then, he barks, tossing the gun at me with a little extra push.

Buddy dives in the shadows, hidden under the wooden steps and snatches up Cat-Cat in his oversized hands. If he were a wide receiver, his fans would be frenzied with glee, chest bumping.

He pushes to his feet, cradling her in comfort. His torn Levi knees stained with lime green and grass rash.

Buddy stands and grunts. Let’s walk toward the tracks.

Why? It’s easy to see Cat-Cat is days from kittens.

You will know soon enough, Dan the man. Then Buddy imagines his stepdad’s cuffed hand, on the back of his neck, like a warm baseball glove. He quickly marches forward.

After about twenty minutes, we reach the railroad tracks. The creosol vertebrae ties and steel rails extend their endless spine deep into the woods, and then evaporate into the forest. We do not speak.

My mind fights a hooked rainbow trout in my skull. As it fans its desperate gills, gasping for water, I wonder why I follow my impulsive friend, without any real knowledge of what he is planning. I feel guilty for something I didn’t do, but I follow.

These are mill town tracks for trains made of steel, for cargos of logs to lumber, then lumber to market. In the August heat, we follow the drifting ghost of tracks through a forest of Cedar and Spruce. The steel tracks mirages flow ahead of us like rivers of mercury. We walk south speechless about something obvious. In another thirty minutes, we reach a bend in the spine.

We are nearly engulfed in a forest of Douglas Fir, Cedar, and red oaks; each tree with its own scintillating electric green address. He stops abruptly.

Buddy gently strokes Cat-Cat’s fur, with the calm of betrayal, he has grudgingly learned from his mother and stepfather over the past years. He then gently places her in tall dried weeds and thistles, nearly ten feet from tracks crushed granite bedrock.  She obediently sits and reverently gazes up at him. Buddy knows all too well the nuances of reverence and obedience. He takes two steps back, yet does not call her name, because he is aware she may follow. He slowly back steps several more feet. This hypnotic dance seems to lull the forest back to sleep, if just for a few seconds longer. And, just before the alarm rings. It’s heartache quiet.

I smell smoke, as the wind returns in the tall trees. I see a bloody explosion, in slow motion. And only then do I hear the sound. I view my arms still stiff from holding a now invisible shotgun. Somehow Houdini has conjured the shotgun from my arms. My ears pound steel on steel, then ring like a tiny purple bluebell flowered forest, announcing death in every small tinkle and jingle. From the leftovers of Cat-Cat, newborn kittens pour from her hyaline sack, wriggling desperately for a chance of air and life. They crawl on their slimy bellies, blindly thrashing the thistles and dried witch weed stalks in a sticky, raspy sound, never to be forgotten.

We stare at each other for an abbreviated eternity. Buddy then cracks open the hot barrel, as it ejects a smoking plastic shell with hot brass: his only shell. The casing summersaults to the tracks, smoking hot, cracking the shiny iron rail, then settles to the crushed granite.

Buddy turns quickly, determined, and begins his quick pace toward his home. I follow. We each walk our own I-beam of mirrored steel. As we walk, balancing on our high bar, we faintly hear the dry weeds crackle and rattle manically. It’s the muzzled sound of a mad Guiro. With each step we take, a new bloody thatch of silence grows at our heels. Death will be slow in its mercy, if at all?

Dad said to only use one shell. Buddy quips as he looks down at his rail, concentrating hard so not to fall.

I don’t answer. I only hear the sounds of shuffling sneakers on track, the gathering caws, punctuated only by the intermittent defining silence.

The train tracks river us along, into an imagined shallow lake, all mirage. We slowly wade all the way back. By the end of our trek, I am drowning in guilt and begin mourning a lost friend. We part ways for good at the corner of Sunset and August.

In the haze of midnight, Buddy envisions he is leading troops into battle.

I hike into sleep and listen to the muffled sound of a raspy Giro in tall, dry weeds, the crazed caw of crows.


Dan A. Cardoza is the author of two chapbooks: Nature’s Front Door and Expectation of Stars. His work had been published in Amethyst, Ardent, Better Than Starbucks, California Quarterly, Chaleur Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, Curlew, UK., Earthwise, Entropy, Esthetic Apostle, Friday Flash Fiction, Oddball, Poetry Northwest, The Quail Bell, Skylight 47, Spelk, and Vita Brevis.

 

 

Image credit: Pacto Visual on Unsplash

DINNER by Naomi Xu Elegant

DINNER
by Naomi Xu Elegant

He was standing outside the double doors of the restaurant, sweating underneath his blazer. He was exactly on time. He saw a girl walking towards him, a close approximation of the one whose picture he had on his phone. He waved to her. She didn’t wave back.

“Amelia?”

She waved back. Amelia. She was wearing a puff-sleeved pink fur coat, cropped at the waist. He could tell by the sheen of it—his ex-wife had been fond of mink—that it was faux. She trotted up to him and kissed his cheeks in quick succession without having to tiptoe.

“Nice to finally meet you, Jim,” she said.

“The pleasure’s all mine,” he said.

He chided himself for not preparing a wittier greeting.

“Have you been here before?” he asked.

She shook her head. He liked the way her hair bounced off her shoulders. He wiped his hands on his chinos, fearing sweat, and opened the door for her.

He was relieved she hadn’t been brought here before by some other man from The App, which he felt would have made his choice of restaurant seem unoriginal. He guessed she might be lying, but even that possibility reassured him because it would have meant that she had lied to make him feel better.

Their waiter seated them at the corner table Jim had requested beforehand, and handed them drink menus. Amelia began flipping through the cocktail list. Jim remembered the age listed on her App profile: twenty.

Would she try to order a drink? Would she be asked for her ID? Would he have to argue with the manager to save face? Would the manager assume she was his daughter? Shit. He had been trying not to think about his actual daughter, who was ten, far enough developmentally from the girl—woman—in front of him to soothe his niggling guilt. But he and his ex-wife had had their daughter unusually late. In fact, it was quite possible—very likely, if he was being honest with himself—that he was the same age, maybe even older, than Amelia’s father. He decided to avoid the topic of family.

The waiter was back, expectant.

“The lychee martini for me, please,” Amelia said.

“I’ll have a Maker’s Mark,” Jim said. “Neat.”

The waiter left. Amelia grinned.

“I love fancy restaurants. They never card.”

“Have you been to many? I’m sure you’re popular on The App.”

“I’ve had a few Companionships. Mostly guys in their thirties, a few in their forties.”

“I’m surprised the algorithm matched us up, in that case.”

“I upped my age limit to sixty-five last week.”

“Ah,” he said.

There was a brief silence.

“Your coat’s not real fur, is it?” he said. “I know a great place in the Garment District that–”

“Of course it’s not real fur. I’m against animal cruelty,” she said.

He glanced at the black leather purse dangling off her chair.

“How about you?” she said. “How long have you been on The App?”

He thought about lying for a moment, but admitted, “You’re my first match.”

The waiter set their drinks down. She picked hers up, swilling the pale straw-colored liquid around in her glass.

“Well, cheers,” she said. “Guess I’m popping your cherry.”

He laughed, and then worried that he’d laughed a little too loud. He sipped his bourbon and wished he’d ordered a beer.

For dinner she had the fig salad and the halibut, and he had the beef tartare and the roast tarragon chicken. He learned that she was from Akron, Ohio, but preferred Manhattan (“I’m already such a New Yorker”); that she wasn’t registered to vote (“I’m not super into politics”); and that she hoped to go into marketing after graduating from NYU.

She displayed polite interest in his job (“Do you ever, like, make speeches in court, like Erin Brockovich?”) and in his stamp collection, especially after he told her he owned one stamp equivalent in value to a year of her college tuition. Every so often one of them would make a cultural reference that the other pretended to understand (Juuling, Pasolini). Neither was ever convinced by the other’s feigning. A 2005 Bordeaux helped them both along.

At the end of the meal, buoyed by alcohol and a decaf espresso, he asked her if she wanted to go back to his apartment with him. She spooned out the last of her pomegranate soufflé before answering.

“Definitely. We should discuss terms first, though.”

“Terms?”

“You know. T&Cs. It says on The App…?”

“Right.”

He’d forgotten about the The App checklist they were supposed to go through before—what had the phrase been?—“consummating or otherwise advancing the Companionship.”

She pulled out her phone and started reading aloud.

“Consent, blah blah blah…‘Have both parties outlined their expectations of the Companionship?’ So I’m fine with whatever, sexual stuff. That was one of your expectations, right?”

He glanced around the restaurant and prayed the waiter wouldn’t come with the check just yet.

“Yes.”

“Cool. Okay, next…‘Have both parties agreed on a mutually beneficial gifting arrangement?’” She looked up from her phone. “Did you have a chance to look through my gifting preferences?”

“Uh…”

“I’ll read them out for you,” she said. “So I put down ‘dinners, shopping sprees, surprise gifts to place of work or study, weekend trips’…does that sound good?”

“Uh, yes.”

“Don’t worry,” she smiled. “I’m not one of those girls looking for help with student loans.”

The waiter placed their check on the table.

“Thank you,” Jim said. “Thanks.” He handed his credit card to the waiter. “Thanks so much.”

The waiter left.

“Alright, one more thing. ‘Declaration of any other current Companionships or App-external intimate relationships.’” Amelia paused. “So I’m single in real life, but I’m seeing a couple other guys from The App. You?”

The waiter came back with the receipt. Jim stared at it, not sure how much to tip. He wondered if she was watching him, if she would be able to see the number he wrote down. He wondered how much her “couple of other guys” would tip. Under ‘gratuity,’ he scrawled forty per cent.

“No other Companionships and no…App-external intimate relationships,” he said, stumbling over The App’s clunky phrase. He couldn’t bring himself to repeat what she had said: “single in real life.” He tried not to dwell on her blasé delineation between ‘real life’ and whatever plane of reality he existed in for her.

“Alright. Shall we?”

He held the restaurant door open for her and she stepped out onto the curb.

“So,” he said.

“So,” she said. She smiled at him, which he took as encouragement.

“We can walk to my place, if you don’t mind…”

He realized she wasn’t listening. She was staring at something behind him. He turned to look. He saw a lanky boy with magenta-colored hair and two wan girls with nose piercings. All three were wearing black and all three were taller than Jim.

“Amelia, what’s up?” the pink-haired boy said.

Jim looked at her. He saw her shrink into herself.

“Caleb. Hey.”

The pink-haired boy glanced at Jim, then wrapped his arms around Amelia in a hug that Jim felt went on for a little too long.

The hug ended. There was a silence. Caleb and the two girls looked at Jim and then at Amelia.

“Is this your…?” Caleb said. Jim braced himself for ‘father.’

“This is Jim,” Amelia said. “Jim, these are my classmates. Caleb, Kyra, and Veronica.”

“Nice to meet you,” Jim said. The pale girls smiled at him without much commitment. He didn’t know which one was Kyra and which one was Veronica. He realized they didn’t care if he knew.

“We have to go. I’ll see you guys around,” Amelia said. She grabbed Jim by the wrist and tugged him away.

“See you later, Amelia,” Caleb said. Jim prickled at ‘later,’ unsure if it was a colloquialism or if Amelia and Caleb did in fact have plans ‘later.’ He consoled himself, recalling that she had told him she was “single in real life.”

They were heading in the opposite direction of his apartment. She was walking too fast and he could see her face was red under her makeup. He wondered if he should comfort her, but he felt too hurt himself. He felt embarrassed that he had embarrassed her. He felt ashamed. He felt angry that she had made him feel ashamed. He felt too old to feel ashamed.

They walked for a couple of blocks in the wrong direction before she stopped at a street corner and fished a pack of cigarettes from her purse. She offered him one, and he took it.

“Sorry about that. I was a little thrown off,” she said. “They’re just classmates. Not really my close friends.”

She handed him the lighter. He realized that the time between his first cigarette—snuck in the woods at Andover when he was fifteen—and this cigarette was over twice the amount of time she’d been alive. He lit the cigarette.

“Caleb isn’t a close friend?” he said. He felt a twinge of petty jealousy he hadn’t felt since he first began to suspect his ex-wife was cheating on him. It excited him, then depressed him.

“Not really. My real friends know I’m out with you, that’s what I meant,” she said. “I wasn’t, like, trying to hide it. Whatever. Which way is your place?”

Rather than walk the few blocks back to his apartment, he hailed a cab to avoid the possibility of running into any other NYU students who had ventured into Midtown that particular Friday.

In the taxi, they didn’t speak. He stared out the window. She thumbed through Instagram on her phone.

When he flicked on the lights in his apartment, she purred in approval. She shrugged off the pink faux fur jacket and let it drop onto the floor.

“Your place is gorgeous,” she said. “I love high ceilings.”

She drifted towards the living room window.

“Ugh,” she said. “What a view.”

He looked at her looking at it, and tried to imagine seeing that view for the first time—the shrouded tops of the trees, the black glint of the reservoir at night, the looming silhouette of the Dakota, which he could never look at without thinking of the wintry day John Lennon was shot there, and which he now could not look at without thinking that she was looking at that building now, and seeing nothing.


Naomi Xu Elegant is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies history and English and enjoys eating noodles. She is from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

LIBERTY/LIBERTY by Leia Darwish

LIBERTY/LIBERTY
by Leia Darwish

you can’t hold your man…………….you can’t

hit a jet going six hundred miles per hour

…………….with a .50 calibre machine gun

the second week in June

will be when he gets caught cheating

when your napalm…………….gets the ally

June eighth twenty-nine

…………….the domestic-issue cover up

sixty-seven…………….the night you wait up

twenty-fourteen stricken from the record

…………….the typewriter’s letter h

sticking out of your left foot…………….once

there wasn’t even breath enough to say

…………….here…………….where the hull contracts

help…………….him on the couch like can I have my legs back

they’re falling asleep………… ….lucky

………………in the room where the torpedo hit

where he was seen coming………………out late at night

when the court said………………adultery

is hard to prove…………….so often as to make it a habit


Leia Darwish is a writer and editor based in Richmond, Virginia. Her poetry and nonfiction can be found in diode, The Journal, PANK, The Pinch, The Paris-American, and elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

Image credit: William Hook on Unsplash

HUMAN HYDROPONICS by Isabel Theodore

HUMAN HYDROPONICS
by Isabel Theodore

A girl at a house show expresses surprise and delight that I am from the Philippines. Her academic concentration is in environmental studies. She talks to me about conservation pursuits for American students on the rivers and shorelines. I say, ha ha, yeah, we could use the help. Too glib: she thinks I mean it, or she just thinks I’m mean. Two years from that moment I write tongue-in-cheek poems about my mother, who waded in those rivers simply to scratch the red welts leeches left on her skin. How when she visits home now the tap water makes her stomach curdle.

I haven’t been to those rivers myself. Instead I hold between my brain and my skull the memory of the tiles in her old Laguna house, sticky with damp dust, nineties squares in squares. The heat waves feel like mine, the dead wasp husks in the doorframes and the hindquarters of cabinets mine. The language belongs to someone else.

But any island place I go I watch the ocean to see if that feeling can withstand revocation. I mind the sea in screensavers and Windows 10 default desktops. I bought a ticket to Moana, less a cinematic experience and more a Kodak film carousel corollary to in fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In the movie a girl of color from an island nation makes her people into explorers again, but outside the AMC, Google Earth gently dispels the illusions of places still left to see.

For my part I didn’t learn to swim until adulthood. My parents crossed an ocean to get here just to worry I would drown in a swimming pool.

The statuettes in front of my colleges have nickel-bronze faces but our future I think we immigrants chip from granite, and sometimes with bare upturned hands. Its contours stark, featureless, brazenly unscripted: where your nose would be rests my confusion. The site of your brain is the site of my language loss. This world we build from the wet scuffed sand. In the midst of work that does not end I stop to ask what other path should my hand have taken, my voice. Where was left to go. What ocean blue untouched. What have you left for me other than this. What have you left for us.


Isabel Theodore is a writer and adventurer, but most of all a ham-fisted and mad-as-hell all-around bad sport. She was born in the Philippines and currently resides in Atlanta, and her poetry has recently been featured in LEVELER and WUSSY. She can be found @docfission.

 

 

 

Image credit: Anna Sullivan on Unsplash

MARLOWE by Andrew Jason Jacono

MARLOWE
by Andrew Jason Jacono

Christmas morning two years ago. Cold and snowless. My father hauled a leather instrument case through the front door and set it at my feet. Next to its handle was a little gold plaque, its logo embossed in fine script. Martin & Co., Est. 1833. Up close, the case smelled like his car: a mixture of coffee, Red Bull, and sweat. I unfastened its buckles and pulled the top open. Inside was a new guitar. A particularly beautiful one, smaller than a dreadnought. Black, gourd-shaped mahogany body with ivory binding along its waist and edges. Cream-colored, vintage-style tuning pegs, pearlescent fret inlays.

I lifted it by the neck and set it on my leg. I started playing an old Beatles tune. Blackbird, I think it was. The chords echoed warmly through the house. I could feel the windows vibrating.

In the year after I got it, I brought the guitar wherever I went. To town, to school, halfway across the world, back home. It would never complain if I strummed too hard or plucked too softly. I’d play it under trees, on park benches, in my room until my fingers smelled like rust. I’d think about it whenever it wasn’t with me, the measured jangle of its strings, the way it would grow warm against my body.

My friends always joked that I was in love with it. If that was true, then they were, too. Whenever I played with them, we’d all undulate back and forth, as if the guitar itself were a great sea vessel cruising on sounds that ebbed like briny ocean swells. During school breaks, we’d sit around campfires, and I’d pluck Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver songs, and everyone would sing along. Our collective noise would swing and reverberate and die out in the dark beyond the flames.

When we all went to bed, I’d lie down with my guitar. I’d stare at it in the dark. I’d touch its strings. It would help me fall asleep.

It’s become quite battered. I’ve dropped it on the ground, scraped it against walls, and hit it on household items dozens of times. The first injury was the most memorable. I was improvising a melody on a chair in my room, swaying with my eyes closed, when the body smacked the edge of the desk in front of me. It gave a deep, hollow groan that made me cringe. The divot is still there, shiny and triangle-shaped, directly below the bridge.

I initially hated these injuries and wear marks, but as more have accumulated, I’ve become comfortable with them. I’d even say I have a few favorites. The first three frets are crusted with dead skin that won’t come off even when I scrub them. A series of wormlike pick furrows extends about three or four inches below the pickguard, markers of hours of aggressive strumming. The bottom left corner of the body, where I usually rest my forearm, is slicked with grease and a few shades darker than the rest of the guitar. There are many other dents and scratches, some of which I don’t know the origin. I’m sure there are more I haven’t noticed.

Even though it’s never been there, the guitar has come to smell like the attic of my old house. Like damp wood and must and boxes of forgotten memories. I’ve wondered what I’ve done to make it smell like that. Maybe I haven’t been as caring with it as I should have. Maybe it’s just a normal part of the aging process.

Despite the hardship it’s been through, the guitar doesn’t seem to mind. It takes it all in stride, like a graceful, singing, dancing woman. A woman I’ve decided to name Marlowe.

Sometimes I stare at Marlowe and wonder what she’ll look like in five years. In ten. In twenty. I can’t imagine all the stains I’ll give her. All the dings and dents she’ll accrue. I wonder how close she’ll come to breaking.

I feel like I’ll always be young, but time is playing me like an instrument, too, plucking and shortening my strings. What’ll I look like in five, ten, twenty years? What’ll I smell like? How many wrinkles will I have? How many scars? How many more memories?

I’m not sure. But I do know that Marlowe will be in my hands. And together we’ll be singing.


Andrew Jason Jacono is a senior at Wesleyan University majoring in English and French Studies, and he has been writing ever since he could hold a pen. A proud Manhattan native, he is a mountaineer, guitarist, Francophile, and wine enthusiast. His work has previously appeared in Short Fiction Break, Reverberations Magazine, and the Vignette Review.
To learn more about Andrew and stay updated on what he’s working on, you can visit his website: www.andrewjacono.com.
Image credit:  Scott Gruber on Unsplash 

ICEBERGS by Leslie Pietrzyk

ICEBERGS
by Leslie Pietrzyk

Like you’re supposed to hate winter, with its cold and mountains of snow and how slip-walking on ice is a bitch and all that shit. Honestly, I love it. Honestly, I’d move to Alaska or the Arctic Circle or the South Pole if anyone would let me. In another life, I’d beg to be a penguin. Or a polar bear, except they’re going extinct.

Jase is staring at me like he always does when I’m not talking, like I’m supposed to entertain him with “scintillating” chatter 24/7, and whenever I’m not doing that I’m only a girl who’s failing in some deep and significant way.

He’s my best friend, and he’s the one guy at school who talks to me with purpose, and I want that to keep going, so I say, “I was thinking about winter.”

“I didn’t ask,” he says. “Think about whatever.”

“Well, right this minute it’s winter I’m thinking about,” I say. “And penguins and polar bears.”

He says, “God, I hate winter.”

“You cliché, you.” I smile like it’s a good-natured joke, like at heart I’m a good-natured person, which I’m not. I’m about ready to dissolve into a thousand-million-trillion specks of dust, something someone swipes away with a broom without noticing.

He says, “Stop talking like we’re in school. We’re not in school.”

I look around. We’re in the school library or “media center” where there are some books and posters and shelves and random displays someone set up, shit everywhere. I see computers and carrels and buzzy study groups hunched around tables and slouched legs-over-chair-arms across the good chairs, popular kids gossiping about their dreary lives in whispers.

I open my mouth to tell him he’s a fucking idiot, but I snap it shut. Maybe Jase is right? What if we’re not in the school library or “media center”; what if we’re actually huddled on a massive iceberg drifting through the Arctic Sea (yes it’s Ocean but Sea’s prettier). We’re pressed close, sharing one sealskin parka, quarreling over the pocket, floating through shadowy arctic daylight, gently freezing to death as our minds skid and slide through insanity—like, imagining being in the school library or “media center.” What if Jase is invented by my mind, and I’m freezing to death in the Arctic, no one close by except the world’s last, lonely polar bear, and I’m adrift, alone in the gloom, we’re—

Jase has been talking this whole time, possibly something important but probably not, and finally I hear my name, him saying, “Stephanie, you’re so far away. It’s like you’re traveling this abundant distance without me.”

I laugh because he’s always showing off words in italics and spouting stuff that ends up all awkward. But he’s still staring at me, and I lean in, making sure I’m not wrong, and I’m not. Glittery tears balance in both eyes, then one glides along his cheek. It’s real. Jase is crying in the school library which I didn’t even think could be a thing.

I say, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know what? That’s not a real response.” We wait through a tiny moment of silence. “In fact, that’s a stupid response,” he adds, sounding back to the real, non-crying Jase I know.

So I say, “Are you crying?”

“Goddamnit.” He sends his head flopping forward onto the table with a low thunk. His too-long black hair feathers down like lacy curtains.

“Is something wrong?” I ask. “I mean, something real?”

“You’ll never understand,” he says, voice muffled.

“Are you suicidal?” I don’t know why I ask that. The words scare me. The iceberg that was in my mind is a million miles away now. The AC hitches on and cold breeze prickles every hair on my arm, lifting them to attention. Like fur. Like an animal. Like a going-extinct polar bear.

He hasn’t answered.

I whisper, “Jase, do you want to hurt yourself?”

He doesn’t know that I know he did, once, when he was eight, before we were friends—he flung himself off the roof over the garage and broke his leg. The story is that he wanted to fly.

But in the secret journals we kept last semester in creative writing class that I shouldn’t ever have snoopily read, he wrote how he jumped because he wanted to die. He could have been bull-shitting because he’s the world’s biggest bull-shitter and has to be bull-shitting now. He could pop up his head and go, “Gotcha,” laughing his ass off at me and my whisper.

Finally, he looks up, his red-rimmed, teary eyes glowing like a lab rat’s. “Does it ever feel like you’re all alone? Like maybe you’re the only one here? Like everyone else is frozen in place except you, like you’re the only one?”

One word pulses neon in my head. “No,” I say.

He releases a long, even sigh. “Me neither.”

His hand rests on the wooden table. A mom or teacher or even probably a girlfriend would grab hold of it, grab on and rescue him, like hauling in a long, heavy rope. I want to do that. But I keep staring at that hand, mesmerized, watching it the way earth’s last polar bear might, I imagine, thinking, meat; thinking, survival; thinking, me, me, me, me. Can there be something else?

“Gotcha,” Jase says.

“Got me good,” I agree.


Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of Silver Girl, released in February 2018 by Unnamed Press. Her collection of unconventionally linked short stories, This Angel on My Chest, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Short fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Southern Review, Ploughshares, Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, The Sun, Shenandoah, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Iowa Review, Washingtonian, The Collagist, and Cincinnati Review. www.lesliepietrzyk.com

 

Image credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

 

THE FEMALES by Wolfgang Hilbig reviewed by Ryan K. Strader

THE FEMALES
by Wolfgang Hilbig
translated by Isabel Fargo Cole
Two Lines Press, 129 pages
reviewed by Ryan K. Strader

“Perhaps…I should speak of castration, castration that mutilated my interior world,” mutters Herr C., the unnamed narrator of The Females. “I wasn’t operated on, it was all left attached to me, but the cells that steered it were dimmed; my cells, certain cells of mine, were sterilized and castrated. It was a castration of the brain, and fair femininity was the forceps they used.”

Herr C. is speaking from the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and his narrative addresses the problems of gender and sex in a society where gender divisions are supposed to be a thing of the past. Herr C. isn’t physically castrated, but his masculinity is supposed to be “sterilized,” the “cells” that govern his male perceptions are supposed to have been made inert.

Except, the cells did not remain inert. It seems to be a general rule of human experience that whatever is denied becomes an obsession, and it’s certainly true for Herr C.: his stream-of-consciousness narrative is shaped by “the females.” He thinks about them constantly and looks for them everywhere. Is this a failure of the state? A personal failure? Or is the text about something else entirely?

The Females was my first encounter with the late writer Wolfgang Hilbig, who grew up in East Germany and was allowed to move to the West in the mid-80s. He died in 2007 and was buried in Berlin. Isabel Fargo Cole has been translating his work for twenty years now. She started working to gain Hilbig an English-speaking audience before his death, and The Females, from Two Lines Press, is her sixth Hilbig work.

Wolfgang Hilbig

The Females is a slim book, just 130 pages, with no chapter divisions and text that is sprinkled with ellipses and hyphens that emphasize the free-association quality of Herr C.’s ruminations. The plot itself is also slim: the catalyzing event is the narrator’s loss of his job, where he worked in the basement of a factory. Through an iron grate he could watch the women upstairs working the factory machines and joking with one another. After losing his job, Herr C. claims that “all the females of the species had vanished from town, and with them had fled every trace of femininity. —Not only that, I felt that even feminine nouns had fallen out of use.” For the rest of the book, Herr C.’s monologue is shaped by his search for the females, and his perceptions of women, femininity, and sex. He moves back and forth in time constantly, covering his childhood spent partly in a work camp, his education, his attempts to be a writer, his inability to securely hold a job and his difficulties dealing with the labor offices.

Hilbig’s prose has been described as “earthy,” but this isn’t just a stylistic quality. His ability to use coarse physical description and imagery as a commentary on the individual’s relationship to the state is what I found most striking and artful about this little book. The narrator guides us through his skin conditions and masturbatory habits; it’s certainly “earthy” and even a bit gross sometimes, but the body illustrates the physical and moral collapse of the state. The human body is a reliquary for history’s failures, in this case the rupturing social experiments of the East German “new society,” where both class and gender will disappear. Herr C. describes genitalia and skin lesions with animalistic gratuity, but the point is that while the state has tried to forget what it means to be human, the human body does not forget.

Isabel Fargo Cole
translator

My favorite example of this Hilbigian (if this isn’t a literary term, it should be) quality comes later in the text, when the narrator wakes from sleepwalking; he notes that sleepwalking seems to be one way that he “loses contact” with himself, and decides that the only “practical” way to find contact with one’s self is surely “not by bowing to the descriptions of you by others, which are often as cruel as can be.” The “description” that Herr C. then begins to talk about is the physical act of “procreating,” but his play on the various ways that the word “engender” can be interpreted and used allows his discussion about “descriptions of you by others” to move easily from talking about physical procreation to the social creation of the self as a civic subject:

If I become I…If you let me, just once, I’ll leave the trash heaps of my own free will, I’ll never be a pornographer again, I’ll forego my revenge. I’ll forget the state’s attempt to extirpate my gender by keeping my capacity for procreation secret; yes, I’ll accept it, I’ll forego procreating, I’ll never try to engender anything but myself. But they refused to believe that I wanted to forget, they wouldn’t even open their institution’s gates for me.

I’d made a serious mistake, I hadn’t pledged to keep engendering their idea—the idea that desire was permissible only as a gift from the state—no, I’d merely pledged to engender myself. And in so doing I forgot that I’d been recognized as an innate evil.

“Engender myself” means several things simultaneously here: it does mean a gendered self, as Herr C. feels that gender has been erased from his experience, but it also means to be known to one’s self (to “make contact” with one’s self instead of “losing contact”) and to engender the ideas of the state, to replicate (or “procreate”) the dominant narrative of those who control ideas and language.

This passage also illustrates the other sense in which I read The Females: as a tale about the oppression of the artist who is Othered by the state: in this particular case, the writer. Herr C. wished to be a writer, is haunted by the drafts that he wrote and lost, and tormented by the “pedagogues” who have assured him that his writing would be worthless. True to his obsession with the females, he suffers most when he remembers his mother scoffing at his ability to become a writer. The power of language to control the identities of subjects is affirmed by Herr C.’s recollections, and the role of language control in shaping whole societies is illustrated by his faith in the fake news of his own social context, always mixed in with his perception of the body and sex:

I was an uninvited guest in the literary sphere, and the literature I was permitted to read was one that couldn’t corrupt me—and, avid to learn something about the relationship between my prick and the females, I felt great respect for everything available in print. From all I was able to learn about the problem, it seemed conclusive that my prick was distasteful to the females; the females, I believed, preferred to go to bed with Enlightenment literature; I was at best a sad case study in those disquisitions.

[F]or heaven’s sake give myself time, I was told, by the newspapers, that is, for I had no confidante; yes, the newspapers were beginning now and then, in the section aimed at young people, to touch on questions of the relations between the sexes.

There are endless discussion points here: the power of the “literary sphere,” and questions about what makes something “literary” or culturally powerful, along with the temptation of state information to act as a “confidante” and source of identity for people. Herr C. is a subject of his language and only knows his physical experience through the language that has been provided to him; when he chaffs against sexual isolation, he is also chaffing against the sanitized language that has been used to control his perception of himself and his social role.

I should mention that Hilbig is not only transparent and sometimes grossly sharing-too-much in these passages; there are also moments of dark humor that made this reader chuckle, although they may not be for everyone:

Indeed, I knew that in their hearts the females loved men such as Lenin, who had no prick…or at least nothing was known about Lenin’s prick.

If there was something to be known about Lenin’s prick, then I am confident that Herr C. would know it and would share it with us.

Besides Herr C.’s proclivity for the word “prick,” there is his interesting proclivity for the word “female,” rather than “women.” At first this seemed to simply be another of Herr C.’s earthy descriptives that he just couldn’t shake. In wondering about females, he asks “mustn’t the females be made from earth as well?” and points out the bodily fluids that males and females share. But then Herr C. points out a deeper association that he is making, that comes from his childhood experience in a work camp, and it is both troubling and sobering: “I felt I must describe the females who lived in the torment and the simple solidarity of these barracks, where they were called females, because women staffed the guard details. That was where that honorific was invented: the females.”

In short, the “females” are the other human beings that have been dehumanized or Othered, like Herr C. It is meant to be an “honorific” that indicates solidarity and shared suffering, both in the sense of physical isolation and in the sense of cultural marginalization.

The book kept my attention because of the philosophical insights and the quality of the questions that the narrator’s experience poses about state and gender, identity/physicality, historical memory and the individual. Isabel Fargo Cole, in a wonderful 2017 interview with Joseph Schreiber of 3:AM Magazine, explained that what drew her to Hilbig’s work was that he had “courage,” that he described “dark things” and was able to charge that darkness with “mythic significance.” Hilbig is writing about the GDR, but “he ruptures the surface reality to delve far beneath it, and ends up in a place that seems timeless.” One of the great gifts of writers is timeless dissidence: courageous writing doesn’t vanish after the act, it remains present on the page to be read and re-read. The Females challenges several contemporary narratives in ways that are courageous and timely as our social milieu asks over and over again: What is the role of the individual, the artist, the writer? Which identities are privileged right now and which are subverted, and what is the cost of that subversion? What does it look like when those costs accrue over a generation or two? These are timeless questions though it continues to require courage to ask them.


Ryan K. Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.

BITTER ORANGE, a novel by Claire Fuller, reviewed by Elizabeth Mosier

BITTER ORANGE
by Claire Fuller
Tin House Books, 315 pages
reviewed by Elizabeth Mosier

Part of the pleasure in following an author, as I have followed Claire Fuller from her first novel to her latest, Bitter Orange, is coming to recognize her voice, even without a title page. Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons introduced me to Fuller’s eerie, ironically rendered English countryside of dark forests and haunted seaside villages, and to her characters held captive by lies. From novel to novel I’ve admired how she uses intelligent but naïve narrators to withhold information from the reader, sustaining unnerving suspense while signaling dissonance beneath the well-mannered surface. At this point, I’ll eagerly read anything she writes. And Bitter Orange is her best book yet.

Fuller had me at the novel’s first line, narrated by Frances Jellico: “They must think I don’t have long left because today they allow the vicar in.” The vicar is actually her old friend Victor, not a chaplain but disguised in his “dog collar” to gain admission and to ask: What really happened at the countryside estate she shared with a mysterious couple twenty years before, in the summer of 1969?

As the dying Frances wastes away physically and mentally, she hints at her own culpability in the crime she recounts:

More images come then, one superimposed on the next. And I abandon chronology in favour of waves of memory, overlapping and merging. My final look through the judas hole: I am kneeling on the bare boards of my attic bathroom at Lyntons, one eye pressed to the lens that sticks up from the floor, a hand covering the other to keep it closed. In the room below mine, a body lies in the pinking bathwater, the open eyes staring up at me for too long. The floor is puddled and the shine of wet footprints leading away is already disappearing. I am a voyeur, the person who stands at the police tape watching someone’s life unravel, I am in the car slowing beside the accident but not stopping, I am the perpetrator returning to the scene of the crime. I am the lone mourner.

Frances’s story—and her adult life—begins that summer, at age thirty-nine, when her mother’s death liberates her from caregiving. She moves from their London flat to Lyntons, hired by the American owner, Mr. Liebermann, to assess the estate’s “items of architectural interest.” Liebermann has read Frances’s article on Palladian bridges in “an obscure periodical read…by probably only a half dozen academics,” and he flatters her by seeking her expertise. In truth, she is an amateur, with one year at Oxford and the rest of her education earned at the British Museum library, where she learns to place more faith in the published views of academics than in what she sees with her own eyes.

From novel to novel I’ve admired how she uses intelligent but naïve narrators to withhold information from the reader, sustaining unnerving suspense while signaling dissonance beneath the well-mannered surface. At this point, I’ll eagerly read anything she writes. And Bitter Orange is her best book yet.

Settling into a room last occupied by the late (and last) Dorothea Lynton, she unpacks her luggage, an odd haul including her deceased mother’s undergarments, old-fashioned evening dress and, it seems, an as-yet untested mental list of parental rules. As she rips out the old, reeking carpet in her bathroom, Frances discovers a peephole in the floorboards, offering an irresistible view of Peter and Cara, who are at Lyntons to report on its condition and contents to assess market value. Spying opens Frances to more transgressions; she witnesses, then joins, the couple filching bottles from the wine cellar and “flogging” other items unlisted in the inventory.

Claire Fuller

Peter justifies these thefts as protection against the owner’s plan to sell any “interesting” items they find to American collectors. There is historic basis for his suspicions; during WWII, Lyntons was requisitioned by an American regiment and robbed of family heirlooms. Frances’s acquiescence would be inexplicable—without the clarifying context of her own secret acts of reparation: ruthlessly offloading most of her mother’s things and clandestinely burying a fur stole left to her by an aunt whose affair with her father caused her parents’ divorce.

As Peter and Frances tour the mildewed library, eyeing the warped books and buckling shelves as deathwatch beetles click within the walls, they speak to the different ways of valuing objects, as treasures or as transactions. He says, “I see a room which needs repairing, or ripping out and starting again. You and Cara see antiquity and beauty. The more something’s falling down, the more you bloody like it. Both of you are always looking backwards, when you should be looking forwards to the future.” Frances replies, “But everything we have, everything we are, is created by the past.”

Frances’s social and sexual inexperience, combined with her desire to belong, makes her the perfect foil. Soon she’s sharing every meal with the couple, neglecting her report to flirt with Peter or serve as the audience for Cara’s implausible stories. Their biographies are full of holes, their provenance confusing. Cara wears a wedding ring, but Peter is married to someone else. Raised in Ireland, Cara speaks convincing Italian and cooks pasta with authentic ingredients she has shipped to the estate. A baby boy they avoid discussing was conceived and lost under mysterious circumstances. Is Cara crazy with grief? Does Peter take care—or advantage—of Cara? Fuller’s genius for page-turning plot means the reader can’t begin to get the story straight until she reaches the end of the book.

But Fuller’s keen psychological insight is, for me, what distinguishes her voice on the page. She furnishes Bitter Orange with intriguing events, but frames it with deep understanding of the complexity of human behavior. She draws her characters so meticulously that, when the trio discovers a “museum” of Lynton family antiques stashed in the house’s orangerie, we already know what Frances will do. And we know her well enough to fear that her habitual submission to authority will ultimately convict her of the crime she’s witnessed—as recompense for another she’s concealed.


Elizabeth-MosierElizabeth Mosier logged 1,000 volunteer hours processing colonial-era artifacts at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park Archeology Laboratory to write Excavating Memory: Archaeology and Home (forthcoming from New Rivers Press in 2019). A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, her nonfiction has been selected as notable in Best American Essays and appears widely in journals and newspapers including Cleaver, Creative Nonfiction, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She writes the “Intersections” column for the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin. Read more at www.ElizabethMosier.com.

EVERYDAY MADNESS: On Grief, Anger, Loss, and Love, a memoir by Lisa Appignanesi, reviewed by Gabriel Chazan

EVERYDAY MADNESS: On Grief, Anger, and Love
by Lisa Appignanesi
4th Estate, 261 pages
reviewed by Gabriel Chazan

Lisa Appignanesi’s latest book comes at a time in which most of us regularly feel beside ourselves in what she describes as an “everyday madness.” She devotes herself to describing this mundane madness, something which could be called trauma but is experienced by almost everyone, in three manifestations. The first section of the memoir, on grieving her late husband John, is already startling in its blunt reality: his last words to her, which I will not include here, are far from kind. Already here, however, the reader finds something different from the narrative that might be expected: “this is not a romantic tale,” she writes. Although we see a slow healing, what is presented here and what interests her most is a close examination of the taboo moments of anger and unmooring so bound up in grief.

This is a book of ideas almost masquerading as a memoir. Appignanesi is a writer acutely interested in psychoanalysis and literature, swiftly bringing both Freud and Hamlet to bear on her own story and toward thinking about the role of the widow.

If this were all the book was about, it would already be somewhat unconventional but Appignanesi aims toward something wider, an analysis of a kind of feeling. This is a book of ideas almost masquerading as a memoir. Appignanesi is a writer acutely interested in psychoanalysis and literature, swiftly bringing both Freud and Hamlet to bear on her own story and toward thinking about the role of the widow.

The second section, on politics and society in this moment of Trump and Brexit, is riskier than the first, aiming like Olivia Laing’s recent Crudo to map the incessantly frustrating moment in which we live. While this section is somewhat more general, it fits into the writer’s attempts to make sense of our wider social context through literature, psychoanalysis and art. Appignanesi’s assortment of voices can be astonishingly prescient and helpful. For example, during the hearings of an aggravated Brett Kavanaugh, Appignanesi’s book almost miraculously responded to me, in the midst of her riff on Seneca, “you do not place justice in the hands of an angry man.” She moves deeper into looking at the feelings of anger here, in a moment in which so many of us are angry at this administration and feel an urge to rage. Appignanesi moves for a more balanced perspective. She offers strong connections and an attempt at perspective to our polarized moment.

Lisa Appignanesi

Lisa Appignanesi

The final section is the strongest. Appignanesi shows the complex relation of a sibling relationship through observing her oldest grandson after a younger brother is born, revealing the “everyday madness” of this jealousy that must be passed through. She takes the “inner turmoil” of moving from being an only child to having a sibling seriously. She also moves recursively into her own memories of her extraordinarily challenging sibling relationship. She finds in children an echo of her own grief and anger as well as the wider anger of the current political world. While the things she seeks to tie together are disparate and not all of the connections work, it is the very trying that makes the book what it is. What makes Everyday Madness particularly interesting and worthwhile is its unpredictability, an almost real time chronicle of a progressing line of thought.


Gabriel Chazan is currently completing an MA at University College London in the
History of Art.

IT’S CALLED A DIRTY WORD: How a Contract Gig Changed the Course of My Book, a craft essay by Steph Auteri

IT’S CALLED A DIRTY WORD:
How a Contract Gig Changed the Course of My Book
A Craft Essay

by Steph Auteri

The first piece I ever published was a personal essay on workplace sexual harassment. The title alone— “Sexy or Sexual Harassment?”—made my intent clear. I was using my writing as a means of interrogating my own experiences. Of working out for myself what these experiences meant.

The one comment the piece
received was from a woman indignant at my non-response to the harassment when
it first occurred, some six months before. I had kept quiet for a number of
reasons: I didn’t want to create an uncomfortable work environment. I didn’t
want to jeopardize a career opportunity. I didn’t know if I was overreacting to
the uncomfortable encounters I’d experienced. It didn’t occur to me that my
silence might make me complicit in the continued behavior. It didn’t occur to
me that the way I reacted could have a positive, productive impact.

In the same way, it
didn’t occur to me that what I wrote about
the experience could also have an impact. That it could be used to shine a
light on important issues. For years, I wrote in order to work through my own
experiences and later, to feel less alone. Back then, my writing was selfish.
With every essay I wrote—about income disparity in my relationship or about low
libido or about painful sex—I looked inward.

My mind-set and my
writing stayed much the same for the next ten years. But in 2013, I was
recruited to oversee the launch of an organization’s new website, lead an
editorial committee of sexuality professionals, and create a monthly online
newsletter. Though I had sometimes adapted clinical content for a more general
audience, most of the writing I’d done previously used my own story as a
jumping-off point. This new job would require me to schedule ten to twenty interviews
per month so I could create longform articles for readers used to perusing academic
journals. As an essay and listicle writer without a degree in the field of
sexuality, the prospect made me feel like an impostor.

Still, I said yes. I had
recently placed a book project to the side, resigned that it would never find a
home. I felt adrift. It made sense to shift toward work that would pay my bills
versus continuing to chase my elusive, writerly dreams.

The book in question was
a memoir about how I had become a sex writer in order to fix what I saw as my
own sexual dysfunction. That manuscript had grown out of my confessional writing,
and incorporated lessons at the end of each chapter—my attempt to help people
learn from the mistakes I had made. Publishers seemed to love my voice, but felt
the approach was too bifurcated. When my agent and I threw around ideas for
approaching the book in a different way, that moved me further away from the
book I wanted to write. Responses from my agent became fewer and further
between, until they stopped. It was time to move on.

And then, just a few
weeks after accepting my new job, I learned I was pregnant. This news came after
several years of fertility testing and treatment. At that point, the book seemed
to recede even further. Here I was, finally accomplishing my dream of becoming
a mother. Maybe it was time to let my other dream, my book dream, go.

Being a new mother and the senior writer and editor for a
professional organization more than filled my days, with steep learning curves for
both. I pushed myself harder than ever, and never felt more fulfilled. I was
falling in love with my daughter. I was learning a lot at my job. And in
creating content that allowed professionals to stay on top of their field, my
work felt more meaningful than writing sexy short pieces on my waning libido
and painful sex.

I threw myself into this
work, letting my personal writing fall away. In writing about the ethical
implications for therapists in cases involving domestic violence, I buried
myself in state laws and case studies and spoke to therapists about their own
approaches and responsibilities. When I wrote about medical advances in the
understanding of genital pain disorders, while I was interested in how it
related to my own experience, I remained focused on what researchers were
discovering about the source of such pain, and what it meant in terms of
diagnostics and treatment. When I spoke to sexuality educators about the
evolving state of sex ed, I gained a deeper understanding of the moral argument
behind the debate, the nuances of various types of curricula, the impact of
funding decisions.

A few months into
motherhood and almost a year into my new job, I realized that I missed writing
my own material, missed connecting with readers outside that organization. I
was unwilling to leave behind the job I found so fascinating, so I began
writing in the brief spaces of time I was able to eke out between work and
motherhood. Instead of falling back into the familiarity of purely personal
essays however, I began to pitch more researched and reported work, tapping
into the network of people I’d built on the job, keeping tabs on the latest
peer-reviewed clinical studies.

I wrote about the metrics
that don’t exist for measuring female sexual desire. I wrote about child development
and early childhood sex ed. I wrote about the gender gap in medical research. I
wrote about the pharmaceutical industry’s push for a “female Viagra.”
My job had helped me develop my journalism skills, and I leaned into these new
abilities, eventually weaving together the personal and the universal. As I
reported more and more stories, I began to hone in on my passion points:
sexuality education, the medicalization of female sexuality, rape culture. Instead
of writing for myself, I wanted to use my writing as a tool that could
dismantle years of cultural conditioning.

After reporting a number
of these stories, I realized that the book I had put aside wasn’t really about
me, about only me. It wasn’t about my
own struggles in the bedroom. My story was only the jumping-off point to delve
into larger issues.

A year and a half into my
job, I went on a weekend writing retreat in Rhode Island and revived my book. There,
tucked into wingback chairs, wrapped in chunky sweaters and fuzzy blankets,
removed from the inexorable pull of motherhood, I rewrote my first chapters and
outlined the remaining ones. Instead of a strictly chronological memoir, my
book would be comprised of overlapping essays, each tackling a different Big Issue.
This time, I wouldn’t lock myself in a room, relying only on my own history to
fill pages. This time, I would have to do the research. Reach out to
professionals and innovators. Go experience the empowerment self-defense
workshops. The trauma-informed yoga classes. The fundraising efforts of
grassroots sex ed organizations. This time, I would have to leave the cozy
retreat house—and my isolated home office—and look beyond my own story.

I am no longer with the
organization that pushed me to approach my writing in new ways. But the book
that grew out of those lessons was recently published.  When I began my first iteration of this book
seven years ago, and even when I returned to it nearly four years ago, the news
cycle was the furthest thing from my mind. But as the book shifted and grew, as
I looked outside of myself, outside of my own experiences, I couldn’t help but
tap into its terrible universality. Which is what makes the book so much
stronger than the one I originally set out to write. That one would have been a
monologue; I want this book to be a
conversation.

As the book shifted and grew, as I looked outside of myself, outside of my own experiences, I couldn’t help but tap into its terrible universality. Which is what makes the book so much stronger than the one I originally set out to write.

When people find out I wrote a book, they ask me the title. They want to know what it’s about. “Its called A Dirty Word,” I say.”It’s about the ways in which our culture treats female sexuality like a dirty word.”

They then inevitably mention how timely my book is. I always say, “Unfortunately, it’s always timely.” 


Steph Auteri is a writer and editor who has written for the Atlantic, VICE, Pacific Standard, the Establishment, and other publications. She is also the author of A Dirty Word. Learn more at stephauteri.com, and on Twitter and Instagram at @stephauteri.

ASK JUNE: The Undercover Girlfriend and the Campaign Quandary

Dear June, 

I’ve been dating a girl I’ve come to love so much these past months. We started out as friends a few years back in high school and I began to develop feelings for her last year. Finally able to confess, I was relieved that she still wanted to be my friend, although I didn’t get a clear yes or no response to my confession. A few weeks later, I confronted her about how I still felt and she told me she wanted to be with me as well. I was so happy! We started dating, but it was off to a rocky start due to keeping it a secret from our friends and families. But after the rain came a rainbow so to speak and now we’ve been together since February. However, we still are keeping it a secret. Our seven month-iversary (I believe it’s called?) just passed and I can’t stop thinking about her family. My mom and brother know I’m with her, as well as two of my best friends and a friend of hers. Her mother has been nothing but kind to me, so I feel guilty for not telling her, as well as my other, extremely close friends. The issue with all of this is that I’m also a girl. We were both brought up Christian, but my mom and brother are way more relaxed about things than I think her family is, as well as my extended family, but I’ll keep this within our physical household limits. Her mom has spoken before about loving others and not judging anyone, but I can’t help feeling that she’ll come to dislike me if she finds out I, a girl, have been with her daughter all these months without saying a word, not to mention my girlfriend’s mother’s husband has clear views about same-sex relationships. As in, they’re wrong. 

Another thing that bothers me is that, although my mother and brother know I’m in this relationship, they still make jokes about me one day having a husband and kids as if I’m still the “straight” girl they raised. I know they don’t mean any harm, but it feels like they don’t see my relationship the way I see it, as something that can last long term. I don’t know what to do in this situation, so just keeping quiet and feeling guilty has been my song. My girlfriend and I have talked a lot about what to do before and we agreed to just keep it a secret, but this has been weighing on me so long now, especially when her mother calls me her “daughter’s friend” or says I’m “like her sister” (yikes) at times. Sorry for such a long message. 

Thank you for reading this far! And thank you for your advice column, June! You as well, La Wally! 

—Phlustered in Philadelphia 

Dear Phrend,

Please don’t feel that you have to apologize for a long message. It is much easier to answer detailed letters: less speculating, fewer alternate scenarios. And have you seen the length of some of my replies?

I can certainly understand why the situation with your girlfriend (let’s call her Adrian, a solid Philly name) and her family makes you feel tense and uncomfortable. It is no fun to worry that your warm relationship with them is based on their being—or pretending to be—unaware of the truth about your relationship with her, and it can be excruciating to have to watch what you say and do almost every minute you are with them, and to be forced into evasions and half-truths and maybe even some outright lies.

But I hope you realize that, even if you can’t help feeling guilty, you have nothing to feel guilty about. For one thing, it does not sound as if are going out of your way to create a false impression. (In fact, I wonder whether Adrian and her family are at the “don’t ask, don’t tell” stage of the coming-out process, with everybody preferring to avoid a confrontation. Of course, this might not prevent the family from being shocked, shocked if forced to face reality.) Besides, even if you were actively deceiving Adrian’s family, doing so would not be morally wrong, since having a same-sex relationship is not wrong in itself, and since you and Adrian apparently have good reason to expect some unpleasant and unwarranted responses if you do come out to her family.

Whether keeping the relationship secret from Adrian’s family is a good idea practically or psychologically is another matter—and, despite your references to “guilt,” I think that is what your letter is really about. There may come a point where the discomfort you feel around her family puts such a strain on your relationship with Adrian that her coming out strikes you as the only way to preserve it. From your letter, it sounds as if you may be reaching that point before too long. It may also have occurred to you that, either because one or both of you can’t maintain the “very good friends” pose much longer, or because you are out to other people and in other situations, Adrian should tell her family preemptively, while she can still have some control over how the family finds out. You may also have reason to fear that, the longer the two of you wait, the worse it will be when they do learn the truth.

On the other hand, one or both of you may sense that the better course is to keep quiet and let her folks catch on little by little, over time, on the theory that they will gradually come to know, and maybe even accept, the real situation through experience rather than some explicit announcement.

From your letter, I can’t tell whether either of you thinks that telling Adrian’s mother and stepfather about your real relationship will create problems for you, and her, beyond disapproval—some initial disappointment from her mother, perhaps, and a few distant harrumphs from her stepfather? Is there reason to worry that her mom and stepfather might go beyond just “disliking” you until they come around, but actually refuse to see you ever again, or even demand that Adrian stop seeing you? And what about Adrian—might they actually disown her? How much power—the bread-and-butter kind, not just emotional control—do they still have over her? Does she have a job? Is she still in school? Is she living at home? Is she financially dependent on her mom and stepdad for living expenses, tuition, or health insurance? Is her stepdad a seriously homophobic, patriarchal bully who controls the family dynamic and the purse strings? Does Adrian have a dad, and where does he fit in?

But here I am, speculating. I get the sense from your letter that, despite plenty of misgivings, you would come out to Adrian’s family if the choice were yours alone and that, at the very least, you would like to revisit the issue with her. Does Adrian know how stressed you are? Are you and she able to speak candidly about this stress and weigh it against some of the problems, even danger, that might result from coming out to her family? The two of you need to keep talking and, perhaps, reevaluate the situation.

As you seem to understand, the decision whether to come out to her family is Adrian’s, not yours. Few decisions are more personal and difficult; and if she decides that she is not ready, you will have to live with that. Bear in mind that, if her parents learn that you two are a couple, she is likely to be the one who bears the brunt of their anger and disapproval; her having deceived them, much less your having done so, will probably be of far less concern to them than her being in a same-sex relationship.

Even though the choice is hers, you can try to persuade her to come out—but without pressuring her: a tall order! And of course you can break up if the stress of secrecy becomes unbearable, although I suspect that, at least for the time being, there are less drastic measures you can take, such as seeing less of her family, spending more time with mutual LGBT friends and other supportive people, and hoping that Adrian comes around. Or that the secret leaks out. Or that her parents wise up on their own.

These practical and psychological issues are all worth exploring not just with Adrian, but also with a trusted professional counselor, a local LGBTQ organization, or a peer-counseling group. If you would rather stay anonymous, or stay home, the GLBT (yes, I know the acronym reverses the usual order) National Hotline, or its Youth Talkline for people under 25, might help. Google them. Remember, though, that peers are just that: it can be very useful to consult them, but you need to make up your own mind.

Now on to your own friends and family. As to those “extremely close friends” you haven’t told yet, try not to feel guilty about them, either. Tell them when you feel comfortable doing so, and weigh the practical pros and cons. Think about how likely it is that confiding in your closest friends will result in your being outed to your whole social circle, and maybe even Adrian’s if you and she come from the same community. (More likely than you think, in my experience.) On the other side of the equation, it’s worth considering whether telling one or more of these very close friends could be of real help to you, deepening the friendship and giving you other sympathetic listeners. (I’m assuming that these close friends would indeed be sympathetic. If not, who needs ‘em?) It’s also worth weighing, but not very heavily, whether your close friends will be hurt or angry when they eventually learn that you have told another close friend, but not them. In most cases, a true friend can be made to understand how hard it is to come out, especially when your partner wants to stay closeted, but be prepared for some initial stiffness.

As for your mother and brother: this has to stop. If you say so, I’ll accept that they mean no harm. But they are not taking you seriously. I think you should be explicit with them the next time they allude to your future as a married hetero mom. If you are bisexual and have told them so—or if you haven’t talked to them much about your orientation, and don’t know or don’t really feel like discussing whether you may be bisexual—try saying: “Come on, guys, I’m with Adrian and I hope to stay with her. Please lay off with the husband stuff.” If you are a lesbian and have told them so, say something more like: “Come on, guys, you know I’m a lesbian.”

If they keep it up with the future husband comments, escalate. Tell them that they are hurting your feelings and that’s it’s really important to you that they stop.

Do they talk about your future hubby and kids only when other people are around? If so, you will have to take them aside and give them a little private speech. Again, start off light and friendly, but ramp it up

I hope that you and Adrian work it out. Falling in love with a good friend, and finding out that she loves you, too, is uniquely wonderful. Whatever happens, you will always have that great joy to remember.

Long message!

La Wally says:
You need to talk to your girlfriend again! You have to make sure she knows how bad you feel. Then take it from there.

You also have to tell your mother and brother that you don’t want to hear those husband and kids remarks ever again. Don’t let them get away with this!

Ward would like to add:
You don’t have to tackle all these problems at once. Start by talking to your girlfriend—and try to be supportive no matter what she decides to do.


Dear June,

I’m a recent college graduate with mad STEM skills. I just started my first full-time job last June. My question is: should I quit it to go work on a political campaign until the election? I feel strongly about the candidate and even more strongly about the fate of the country. The job is unpaid, but my role will be important—and I think my skills could really help. Despite the fact that my parents are furious at the very thought of my quitting my job, the fact is that I am very employable, and could maybe even get my old job back, even though they are so pissed off at me they have refused to give me a leave of absence. I have enough money saved for college loan payments, health insurance, and really basic necessities for several months, and no rent to pay (since I never did get around to moving out of my parents’ basement). I have plenty of great places to couch surf in the other towns I may get sent to, and the campaign will help out with shelter if needed. There also seems to be plenty of food and coffee. What should I do? 

—Eager in East Falls

Dear EE,

If you’ve read more than a couple of my columns, you know what my answer will be.

In any event, you’ve already answered your own question: you listed several reasons for quitting and campaigning, and none at all for staying. The closest you came was mentioning that your parents are angry, and I do have some sympathy for their position. They probably worry about your future and feel that they have some stake in it after helping you with school, enduring the constant bass line from the basement that shakes the kitchen floor, etc. But, unless you are kidding yourself, you will get a new job with little trouble—which sounds right, since you are young and have STEM skills. In fact, your brief experience using those skills in a political campaign may have some resume value as showing versatility and a sense of civic duty.

Your folks may also think that you are being irresponsible. But it is not as if you are going off to lounge away your life among the lotus-eaters. You are trying to contribute to society at a crucial time—and not even for very long, since November is coming up. Go for it!

P.S. The magazine should already have emailed you a copy of this letter. Time is of the essence, and publication can take a while.

La Wally says:
If you are passionate about it, do it! Something good may come out of it. My only question is: will your parents kick you out of the basement, and if so, will you care?


ask-june-square-for-facebook-no-border-300pxCleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at AskJune@Cleavermagazine.com. Find more columns by June in her attic.

 

La Wally is the nom de June of June Cleaver‘s adult daughter. In real life, she’s an artist and entrepreneur. What’s up with her name? In choosing a pseudonym, the two of them considered the names of the original Cleaver family offspring, both boys, but rejected “Beaver” for obvious reasons. “Wally” alone seemed too masculine and generally hideous. But “La Wally” brings to mind Catalani’s wonderful opera. Speaking of which, have you seen the movie Diva? You should.

A Conversation with Translator Marian Schwartz Interview by Ryan K. Strader

A Conversation with Translator Marian Schwartz
Interview by 
Ryan K. Strader

“If books don’t get published, they don’t live,” argues Marian Schwartz, the prolific and award-winning translator of over seventy Russian works. Thanks to Schwartz, significant 20th and 21st century Russian books have been brought to life, including work by Nina Berberova, Polina Dashkova, Mikhail Shishkin, and now Leonid Yuzefovich.

While doing research for Cleaver’s review of Yuzefovich’s Horsemen of the Sands, I was intrigued by Schwartz’s commitment to bringing Yuzefovich to English readers. She has translated the first of three novels in a historical detective trilogy by Yuzefovich (Harlequin’s Costume, 2001). And now Archipelago Books has just published Horsemen of the Sands, which contains both the title novella and a more recent novella, The Storm. Schwartz graciously allowed me to interview her about her advocacy for contemporary Russian literature in general, her appreciation for Yuzefovich in particular, and why we should read more translated literature.—Ryan K. Strader


Ryan K. Strader: You translated Yuzefovich as early as 2001, and in a wonderful 2010 interview with The Writer’s Guide, you describe Yuzefovich as a Russian novelist who you think the rest of the world should be reading. What is it about Yuzefovich’s work that has drawn your consistent admiration and support?

Marian Schwartz: I’m a major advocate for him and am looking forward to getting much more of his work translated. Not only is his writing elegant and intelligent, his subject matter and his approach to that subject matter will appeal to the English-language reader. He knows how to tell very human stories set in the modern day but also very human stories set in the past, and in that sense I find him tremendously compelling.

RKS: When did you first read Horsemen of the Sands?

MS: I read it fairly late, long after I’d read and translated The Storm, for example. The book was originally published in the early eighties and had recently been reissued in Russian, and he suggested that I might find it worthwhile, which I did. This is one of the few early publications that he felt had stood up.

Leonid Yuzefovich

RKS: Horsemen of the Sands features a historical figure, General Ungern, who fought for control of Mongolia during the Russian Civil War. You mentioned Yuzefovich’s “historical angle,” and I know he has written about General Ungern before. Can you tell us how his interest in history influences his work?

MS: He’s a historian by training, and his dissertation was on medieval diplomacy. He wrote about General Ungern before, in Autocrat of the Desert, which isn’t available in English. Also, a book of his that won several prizes last year, The Winter Road, is from the same period, the late Civil War in Russia.

You can see his background in the meticulous and loving detail. In the earlier versions of the story he included a great many Chinese and Mongolian words relating to details of the culture, religion, history, and so forth, so many that he actually took out some them for the second edition, having realized that when he wrote it he was so taken by Mongolian culture that wanted to include everything he could, and now he realized that at some point it started getting in the way of the story. His love of Mongolia persists. When he wins a prize, his treat to himself is to buy an artifact from Mongolia, like a little Buddha, so he has quite a few artifacts now at his apartment.

RKS: In Horsemen of the Sands, you didn’t always translate the word gau, the word for the amulet—why did you keep that word?

MS: The gau is a key image in the text and acquires a definite emotional overlay in the course of the story. I kept it, but I interspersed it with the word “amulet” sometimes, for two reasons. First, to remind the reader of what it meant. But second, to emphasize the outsider’s gaze that Yuzefovich establishes in the book. One of the important themes in the book is the outsider’s encounter with an exotic culture—what to them is an exotic culture—and using the foreign word is a way to introduce that outsider gaze.

In fact, the author is not the only “other” involved. There is also the narrator, a Russian officer serving on the Mongolian border in the 1970s, and there is Baron Ungern himself, also a European, who has become obsessed with Mongolia to a much greater extreme than the narrator or the author. On the one hand, you want to keep that sense of their fascination through the use of the exotic word, but you want to remind the reader of the ever-present duality. There were several other instances of foreign words that I kept, both to feed the reader’s fascination with this exotic culture but also to emphasize that the author/narrator/Ungern/reader are “other.”

I think that English readers have had a fairly narrow idea of what Russian literature and culture are, and I think it’s about time that situation changed.

RKS: You just returned from a visit to Moscow, where you spent some time with Yuzefovich. Can you tell our readers a little bit about when you first met him and your current relationship with him?

MS: I first met him after I had started translating him. We had had email correspondence in connection with the first book I translated, Harlequin’s Costume. So we had been in touch then but had not met. Then, about six years ago, when I was in Moscow for a conference, we met there.

We’ve seen each other a few times now, including in New York for Russian Literature Week, an annual event put on by Read Russia, which brings in Russian writers and translators for literary events around the city. In 2016, Yuzefovich came and I took him sightseeing. His son had told him he had to see the Village, so we took the subway down from Lincoln Center. We went to a diner for breakfast, which he loved—we had a wisecracking waitress and quintessential diner food, all of which he thought was great. That was a lot of fun. We did the quintessential West Village walking tour, finding the narrowest house and various authors’ houses. Our route took us past my old haunts in the South Village, through Washington Square, and all the way to the Flatiron Building. At the end of the day, he made a very interesting comment. He said that he liked New York because it was a city of the 20th century. Cities in Europe, including Moscow, have a very long history, so you’re looking at beautiful and fascinating but very old buildings. But New York is a city of his century, built largely during his lifetime.

RKS: There are several beautiful scenes in Horsemen of the Sands. My favorite one is when the narrator describes the East and West as mirrors on either side of Russia: “Russia looked first at the right, and then at the left, each time amazed that its reflection in one mirror did not look like its reflection in the other.” I’m curious about your favorite scene from the novella, and what you think makes that scene compelling.

MS: In the beginning of the story, when the narrator sees the herder Boliji for the first time, Boliji is sitting with his back to the river and looking out at the land. Similar to your idea of the East and the West, the idea of looking at the world completely differently. As Westerners, we don’t sit with our back to water and look at the land, but that’s what Boliji does. This is one of the reasons we like foreign literature: it makes us think of things we have never thought before, that aren’t part of our culture.

RKS: What about The Storm, the other novella in this volume? Do you have a favorite scene or image from that story?

MS: The scene Nadezhda Stepanovna goes to buy the berries hit me hard. There’s so much tension in the story there, so much emotional intensity.

She sets off with the simple intention of buying berries, but the process becomes intensely emotional—anything but an ordinary purchase. The way Yuzefovich develops her anxiety is brilliant. I’m often interested in how writers bring the reader along from one emotional state to another. The scenes like this that work are the ones that do so in tiny steps. The most famous example I can think of is in Anna Karenina, when she goes to the train station at the end of part seven. Starting out, she’s not thinking about killing herself, but by the time she throws herself under the train, we’re there with her. Tolstoy has taken us through minute gradations of emotional change, so that when the time comes it’s perfectly obvious she’s going to kill herself. It seems inevitable. Yuzefovich is able to do that as well, to move the character along from one emotional state to another.

RKS: You’ve translated more than seventy books now. What do you hope that American audiences learn from the Russian texts you’ve translated?

MS: One of the reasons that I became a translator—besides the fact that I like doing it—was that I felt it was the one thing I thought I could do better than a Russian could do. I was never going to be a scholar, but I could write in English and I could translate. I could help broaden the reading audience for the literature that had meant so much to me. If books don’t get published, they don’t live. We are only now recovering much of the 20th century, which was little known behind the Iron Curtain and little published until that barrier fell.

Just as when two readers read a book and have two different understandings of it, the translation is another reader. So the translation is a new book, heavily based on another book, but in many ways a new book. People don’t like to think about it, but it’s so.

I think that English readers have had a fairly narrow idea of what Russian literature and culture are, and I think it’s about time that situation changed. I want to bring out books that work differently, that are written differently, and that show different aspects of the people and the culture. I’ve done four books recently that are set wholly or in part in Siberia; we’re seeing books set in the Caucasus and Central Asia. We’re seeing many more books written by women. Bringing more diversity to our notion of Russian literature and showing that there are books to appeal to all kinds of readers is certainly a goal of mine.

I mean, let’s mix it up, not everything is Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, or Chekhov! Those books were written a very long time ago. Let’s fast-forward to the 21st century, to what women and different ethnic groups, for example, are experiencing and writing about.

RKS: What do you wish readers knew about the role of the translator?

MS: Just as when two readers read a book and have two different understandings of it, the translation is another reader. So the translation is a new book, heavily based on another book, but in many ways a new book. People don’t like to think about it, but it’s so.

Translation is not just a matter of words, of looking up words in a dictionary. Translation is using English to its full extent to convey the sense of the original. In the same way that the original author used their language to its full extent, the translator has to use English to its full extent. Otherwise the translation isn’t going to sound like authentic language. The translator writes the book anew, because they’re writing it in a new language, which has different tools and different resources.

Because we read so few translations, the English language reader is less comfortable with this duality. Whereas people who read translations all the time accept it as a matter of course. I don’t think we’ll be able to get more comfortable with the idea of two simultaneous authors until we read a lot more in translation.

RKS: What is the next Yuzefovich book that we should be on the look out for?

I’m hoping it will be The Winter Road, Yuzefovich’s prizewinning documentary novel about two noble generals, one Red and one White, who faced off in the Far East at the end of the Russian Civil War.


Ryan K. Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.

SLEEPING DRAGONS, stories by Magela Baudoin, reviewed by Katharine Coldiron

SLEEPING DRAGONS
by Magela Baudoin
translated by Wendy Burk and M.J. Fièvre
Schaffner Press, 140 pages
reviewed by Katharine Coldiron

Thank goodness Magela Baudoin’s first book to be translated in English, Sleeping Dragons, is so short. The fifteen stories in this collection (adding up to only 140 pages) are so precise, bursting with such potency, that to increase the collection to 200 or 250 pages would just about kill the average reader. Nearly all the stories are perfectly formed, energetic little spheres—like new tennis balls, popping with their own elasticity the moment they drop out of the canister—and only so many of these spheres can hit a reader between the eyes before she must stop, dazed. The overall impression is of a writer with years of craftsmanship already behind her, ready to don the halo of South American literary fame.

Baudoin is Bolivian, but she is clearly influenced not just by the humor and confidence of the usual South American figures (Borges, García Márquez), but also by the sharpness of American minimalists like Raymond Carver and Lydia Davis. These stories are expertly honed, whittled to beauty and often terror. In “Moebia,” for instance, a journalist falls in love and moves into a prison—the story offers no real-world logic for this development—only to suffer heartbreak and stillbirth. In “Vertical Dream,” a highly interior story about dreams and windows, Baudoin asserts:

Forget the present, forget the now. People carried around an obsession with the future—a fear. It disturbed them—like a nightmare unfolding—the idea that they, or their successors, might descend into vulgarity, or worse, poverty. For poverty was the quintessence of horror.

The point of view varies from story to story; the author shifts easily from first person to second person to third. “The Girl,” one of the longest stories in the collection, dissects a couple’s disapproval as their friend’s wife descends either into madness or a neurological disease. Baudoin chooses to tell the story from a distant, omnipotent third person perspective, shifting rapidly from one set of motivations to the next. Head-hopping stories often feel loose and undisciplined, but this one is tight as a drum. The girl of the title is the one person whose head Baudoin never peeks into—except that the end of the story physically opens it up.

Magela Baudoin

Some of the stories in this collection seem to be the result of a conceptual constraint or a gimmick, such as “A Wristwatch, a Soccer Ball, a Cup of Coffee,” a dialogue-heavy piece that integrates these three objects into a conversation between a boy and his grandfather. Or “Wuthering,” which merely summarizes the tale of the Brontë siblings, in conversation. The oddest and least successful of these examples is “Mengele in Love,” which, given the book’s origin in South America, should be self-explanatory. But it’s one of the only stories in the book that feels incomplete. The narration is so internal, so unexplained, that the story feels like a series of unwoven threads, left hanging awkwardly. Perhaps the story would be less acceptable (particularly now) if it were charming, rather than its chosen mood of haphazard unease, but as written it’s just confusing.

None of that confusion is likely due to the translators, Wendy Burk and M.J. Fièvre. Their work is exemplary, transmitting Baudoin’s clear and plain language almost savagely across the page. In “The Red Ribbon,” for instance, a paragraph that’s been making flowery excuses for an underage prostitute’s position suddenly, and powerfully, withers: “when that indigenous reality collides with city life, freedom becomes a yoke dragging women into the world’s oldest meat grinder. Poverty grinds it all up: at an unimaginably young age, Indian girls surrender their bodies to urban fantasies for next to nothing.”

The overall impression is of a writer with years of craftsmanship already behind her, ready to don the halo of South American literary fame.

The two most moving stories are “Something for Dinner,” the opener, which feels like a Coen Brothers scenario crossed with the childhood of Julián Herbert, and “Opening Night,” which contains a species of quiet heartbreak too small and unglamorous for the likes of O. Henry. In it, a young man who works at a dry cleaner and loves opera almost to an obsessive degree comes within inches of seeing his favorite, Carmen, under the perfect set of circumstances. We root for him to get what he wants. But he does not. And his loss is so terrible that the story can grant solace neither to him nor to us. “He walked in smaller and smaller circles, finally arriving at the table in the back, as dizzy and bewildered as a child.” It’s the kind of disappointment that can’t be helped, in life or in fiction, and that wracks the reader, even if she has only invested a handful of pages into this fictional scenario.

The Spanish title of this book is taken from one of its several six-page stories, “The Composition of Salt” (originally La Composición de la Sal). The English title is taken from a different six-page story, but it represents the collection perhaps more properly than the original. Dragons sleep inside the walls of these stories, between the characters, inside their minds and their families, under their beds. These dragons come in many forms, but they are inescapable, and dangerous. Thankfully, Magdela Baudoin’s scalpel of a pen can perforate that danger and leave us free to roam about in their territory. What a relief.


Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Rumpus, Brevity, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.

PORTRAIT OF A BODY IN WRECKAGES, poems by Meghan McClure, reviewed by Claire Oleson

PORTRAIT OF A BODY IN WRECKAGES
by Meghan McClure
Newfound, 43 pages
reviewed by Claire Oleson

Excellent writing is often lauded for its ability to transport and disembody the reader, to enrapture so completely that its audience floats along the sentence and forgets their place in the room. Meghan McClure’s Portrait of a Body in Wreckages does not do this, instead, much of its excellence is found in its proficiency to embody the reader, to address them in their own physicality, and move along the level of the cell as well as the sentence. Composed in blocks of poetic prose, this work explores the speaker’s relationship with their body, its limits and its multitudes, its wholeness and breakages, and its existence within both anatomy and language.

Oscillating in focus and tone, much of Portrait of a Body in Wreckages educates, telling us “Your right lung is bigger than your left” and “Ounce for ounce, bone is stronger than steel” These quick and fascinating statements begin inside the medical and clinical, categorizing, and analyzing of anatomy which demands a distance from the body to know (it is very difficult to test for yourself, on an inhale, which lung feels larger). But McClure does not keep this distance for long. She carefully bestows her readers with knowledge and then makes this knowledge personal. Soon after presenting us with the anatomy of lungs and bones, McClure says of the same body with bones stronger than steel, “It breaks so easily. Give me your arm- I will show you. A small skiff off a rocky shore.” Here, we encounter lines that are at once direct and indirect, lines which might call a reader into their arm in a sudden revulsion, an expectation of breakage, but which also cast us off into an image of the sea shortly after. McClure’s use of the second-person in this instance, and throughout the book, reminds the reader of their body and how they can receive sensation even when untouched, even just from text. The last sentence of this block, “A small skiff off a rocky shore.” takes us back out of the body, past skin and past the alarm of the previous sentence, into an image of wreckage which McClure revisits and enriches throughout her work. This skillful turn from the intimacy of direct injury to the openly-connected picture of flotsam allows the reader both relief and space for fascination.

Portrait of a Body in Wreckages succeeds in accomplishing the opposite of what so much of great literature is hailed for; instead of taking us into a far and previously unimagined world or sensation, its skill lies instead in bringing us home.

As one moves through Portrait of a Body in Wreckages so too are they invited to move through themselves, to remember the possibilities of their perpetual yet invisible interior. McClure explores this interiority when she writes: “the way cells divide and elbow out until they become the word cancer and leave room for nothing else.” Cells are given their own bodies, they have elbows, they have intention, they contain the ability to be and make words of themselves as realized when they “become the word cancer” a phrase which again widens the lens of the reading, nudging the reader to consider how this body of work functions as a text as well as the ways in which the reader’s own body might work inside of these words. There is a delicate coexistence being built here, one which practically demands a physical involvement in this book, and invites a literary involvement with the body.

Meghan McClure

In a discussion of what words belong to pain towards the end of the book, McClure explains how the word “shatter” doesn’t fit well with how the body actually breaks, suggesting “For injury, instead, let’s try: fracture, bend, splinter, crack, chip, scratch, slit, cut, rip, tear, gash, rupture, split, score, nick, break, wreck.” It as if we are being welcomed into the creation of a new and highly intentional lexicon for what can go wrong in what we inhabit, in what we are. There are, for McClure, right and wrong words for how the body can go to wrong ends, for how and where it is wrecked. Interested not only in being correct in both its personal and medical terminology, McClure also presents the body as “an instrument of empathy” something which has the capacity to feel, to personalize and bring home, actions, touches, injuries, and words which happen outside of itself and its cells. This capacity, and this notion that the body is something inherently empathetic with other bodies, gives Portrait of a Body in Wreckages its talent to touch without contact, to explore the unlit and unfeeling internal worlds of its audience (both emotional and biological) without employing a scalpel.

Portrait of a Body in Wreckages opens with: “The body is the first landscape.” immediately tossing the reader into the body as a place inhabited and explorable. This initial image and definition of the body illuminates as simultaneously known and the unknown, this bodily landscape being the first of something we have as well as too sprawling a thing to be comprehended in a single glance. Much of the writing that follows builds off of this establishing understanding, providing its reader with a landscape, though one which is shifting and pulsing, one which is perhaps more comparable to water than solid ground.

Written in fragments, McClure has given us glimpses of the body in pain, in exaltation, in dualities, and in pieces. She shows us how the body might be presented “Only in wreckages, because to tell this as a coherent thing would be to lie about what the body is.” Devoid of a single sustained narrative, plot, or perspective, autobiographical but not autobiography alone, and poetic but unlineated, Portrait of a Body in Wreckages has wrecked itself to become itself, to mirror the body and to supply us with a deep and reflective surface in which to see both an other and ourselves. Set out against the white of a hospital bed or the white of the page, we see bodies in surgery and bodies in childhood overlapping and coalescing into the body of an adult woman who tours us through our own wholeness and breakings. This work is embodied in itself and asks to be not simply read, but participated in, to be felt through and ached across. Portrait of a Body in Wreckages succeeds in accomplishing the opposite of what so much of great literature is hailed for; instead of taking us into a far and previously unimagined world or sensation, its skill lies instead in bringing us home.


claire-olesonCleaver Poetry Reviews Editor Claire Oleson is a writer hailing from Grand Rapids Michigan. She’s currently studying English and Creative Writing at Kenyon College. Her work has been published by the University of Kentucky’s graduate literary journal Limestone, Siblíní Art and Literature journal, Newfound Journal, NEAT Magazine, Werkloos Magazine, and Bridge Eight Magazine, among others. Contact her by email. 

WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS, stories by Chaya Bhuvaneswar, reviewed by K.C. Mead-Brewer

WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS
by Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Dzanc Books, 205 pages

reviewed by K.C. Mead-Brewer

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is part of a unique legacy of writer-physicians—Nawal El Saadawi, William Carlos Williams, Anton Chekhov, to name a few—and the unexpected harmony of these pursuits is showcased throughout her collection White Dancing Elephants, winner of the 2017 Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize. Written with a straightforward, refreshingly uncluttered voice, these stories center on the urgent human desire to heal and be healed.

Many of Bhuvaneswar’s characters are medical professionals themselves, grappling with death or identity or love, who turn to the realm of the poetic and mythological for guidance even as they snap on their latex gloves. In “The Story of the Woman Who Fell in Love with Death,” a modern-day boy looks for his disappeared sister within the titular myth, never relenting in his search even after marriage, children, and medical school.

It was never deliberate, how he would look for his sister […] It was just that he’d never believed she was dead […] The boy imagined life for her, a life she might reveal to him, her children and his children playing together, his wife coming to love her as a sister.

The images eventually made him get married, and in the marriage, he was happy but waiting. Waiting for his sister.

There was life in between the years of searching and imagining—a job for him, first at another Starbucks, then medical school, because it fully distracted him.

Or perhaps it isn’t simply that medical school “fully distracted him,” but that it fit into a larger mission of healing and resuscitation he’d been working toward his entire life, unwilling to cede his sister to death. He might’ve been willing to cede her instead to the handsome god Death, though, if he could know for certain it was what (and who) she’d truly wanted. If he could know she hadn’t forgotten about him. If he could know she’d run away with Death by choice instead of having been defeated.

Gods, myths, stories within stories—Bhuvaneswar’s quiet, magical real style reveals a beauty that is constant and unflinching, found even in the face of D/death. Throughout this collection, her fascination with Indian myths and poetic traditions is folded into the everyday lives of her characters. In many ways, these stories almost read like modern-day fairytales—timely and timeless, magical even as they haunt.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Bhuvneshwar opens the story “Neela: Bhopal, 1984” with a trusted (read: imagined) forest—a place of mystery, animals, and escape; a place where games are played—introducing characters simply as “you and your brothers.” These nameless Indian children were sold into slavery by a father who could no longer afford them; they soon die with little explanation or fanfare. “All this was caused,” the story says flatly, “by someone important, an American, used to ordering some work to be finished somewhere else….” This flatness—another hallmark of fairytales that Bhuvneshwar masters—works hand-in-hand with the intuitive logic of this story to reveal a much more insidious, all too real kind of logic, the kind still used today to justify slavery, child labor, and deadly pollution.

A particularly striking example of Bhuvneshwar’s use of fairytale elements may be seen in “The Orphan Handler.” Even the title sets up a classic storybook state of mind. Here, the magic of orphaned little girls is normalized. The orphan-handling nuns not only expect their wards to have the ability to change into animals, but they know that they’ll be the ones dealing with and subduing this magical ability, transforming them from children of power into quiet girls who obediently cook and clean.

Written with a straightforward, refreshingly uncluttered voice, these stories center on the urgent human desire to heal and be healed.

“The Orphan Handler” sets up clashes between motherless girls and childless women, marking another vital thread that weavs through the collection: the wrestling of female identity with motherhood. Bhuvaneswar’s stories consider women of color who are depressed, who struggle to get pregnant, who undergo IVF, who suffer miscarriages, who must find satisfaction in saving children’s lives in lieu of creating them, who desire children in order to feel their own worth.

In “Talinda,” the narrator wonders if the desire for children may have led not only to the betrayal of a friendship, but to a physical death sentence:

Tired by marriage—or maybe by his marriage to Talinda specifically, with its burdens, the heaviest of which was extreme privacy—George pulled me in. The lingering touch on my arm, my back, my hand. The grateful smiles that never felt straightforward. Then his expression when I told him how I’d tried and failed a few times to have a child with donor sperm. “I know what it’s like to hope and be disappointed,” he’d said. “To wait, and want, and not have children. To be the only people waiting in the world. Believe me, I know what it’s like.”

George and Talinda tried a lot too. Wasn’t clear now, if her in vitro might have speeded the cancer. She would’ve kept trying, but George was the one who made her stop, unable to bear how unrelenting she was. They’d just gotten to the point of discussing adoption when her new symptoms started.

It’s a relentlessness that not even the narrator can explain:

Why do people want to have children so much? Now I don’t know. The instinct, the hunger to have a child—it’s no different from what drives the cancer growing inside Talinda. It’s involuntary and primal. Primordial.

Similarly, the narrator of “Asha in Allston” attributes her entire (now broken) marriage to the disappointed promise of children:

Remember, when we came here, you believed we’d have four sons. An optimistic belief but not impossible, since I come from a family of ten, you from just five, and the astrologers had said we’d have sons. Their predictions made us get engaged.

In “The Life You Save Isn’t Your Own,” the heroine Seema believes her life to be a garden of mis-sown seeds that have “flowered into vines that [bind] her tight.” The seeds: daring to want love, romance, and children. The vines: being single and childless at forty-three. “Miscarriage number five from the sperm bank only confirmed what [Seema had] already suspected: there wouldn’t be kids.” This is the same confirmation that the heartbroken narrator of “White Dancing Elephants” feverishly denies as she wanders a rain-soaked London in desperate search of green-space, of the forest where she and her yet-born (miscarried) child will be safe together at last. Where the world will make sense again. Where her child will live, even if she does not.

Terrence Holt, another writer-physician, once said in an interview with NPR, “death is the mother of beauty” and that “an appreciation of human suffering and our limited tenure on this Earth is essential to seeing our lives and seeing the world we inhabit.” This is an appreciation that doctors and mothers have unique access to, one that’s made painfully, exquisitely clear throughout White Dancing Elephants, wherein the god Death himself is “so beautiful” that our heroine is unable to look away.

In so many fairytales, young lovers are drawn together as if by fate. As if their love were inevitable. Unstoppable. Bhuvaneswar takes this a step further in these stories, showing the seemingly inevitable, unstoppable, fateful love between parent and child, even between parents and unborn children. But she also shows us this quality within the inevitable, fated nature of the god Death. For though he (Bhuvaneswar uses the masculine) is often dreaded and cursed, he is not the same as violence or abuse or cruelty—a difference Bhuvaneswar boldly highlights throughout this collection. It isn’t Death who brings cruelty, but we humans. Instead, Death marks a new beginning and can help bring the preciousness of life into focus: growth and decay forever mirroring each other. By juxtaposing this god with countless births and lovers, Bhuvaneswar underscores Death’s role in the realm of New Beginnings. She reveals both his pain and his solemn beauty, challenging us not to look away.


K.C.-Mead-Brewer

K.C. Mead-Brewer lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Her writing appears in Carve Magazine, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, and elsewhere. As a reader, she loves everything weird—surrealism, sci-fi, horror, all the good stuff that shows change is not only possible, but inevitable. For more information, visit kcmeadbrewer.com and follow her @meadwriter.

A Conversation with Ada Limon author of THE CARRYING, interview by Grant Clauser

A Conversation with Ada Limon
author of THE CARRYING
published by Milkweed Editions

Interview by Grant Clauser 

Ada Limón is the author of several poetry books, including the National Book Award finalist Bright Dead Things, which was named one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by the New York Times. This year Limón released her fifth book, The Carrying, to wide acclaim, including being named a Best Book of Fall 2018 by Buzzfeed. Since the release of The Carrying, Limón has been traveling extensively for poetry events but was able to take some time out for Cleaver to discuss the new book and aspects of craft in her poetry. She lives in Lexington Kentucky. —Grant Clauser


Grant Clauser: All of your books, including the new one, include some mix of past events and present. Does a certain amount of time/space between events and the writing about the events affect your approach to it?

Ada Limón: Sometimes I write right in the white heat of the moment. Sometimes I need to do that just to work through what I’m trying to process. Other times I wait and need significant distance. Usually, the perspective changes with time. Writing about the present moment allows some freedom, however; there’s a familiarity with the moment that doesn’t need to be unearthed so the poem can come from a very authentic place without much need for research or personal mining of a certain event.

GC: When you wrote Bright Dead Things you worked for a media company (I think) in New York City. How did the change in environments from NYC to Kentucky affect the writing of your newer poems?

AL: I was actually already living in Kentucky by the time I wrote Bright Dead things, but I had just left New York. I was the Creative Services Director for Travel + Leisure Magazine. Moving to Kentucky gave me two much-needed things: time and space. My writing changed significantly because I was able to have long moments of silence and breath. I was also surrounded by wild things, green trees, grasses. The landscape gave me a new mode of writing.

Ada Limon

GC: In the new book, noticed recurring images of recovery, repair, rebuilding, remaking (such as in “Dandelion Insomnia”). Did that kind of theme-building happen spontaneously or does that come to the surface once you begin sorting poems into a manuscript?

AL: I think you’re right about those themes, and I do think they occur naturally. It’s usually because there is something big that I am going through. I am feeling some overwhelming need or question and the poems reflect it. Even when I’m unaware of what the I’m processing, the poems tell me. When the book starts to come together I look at what it is that I’ve been writing toward, and then I’ll start to give myself prompts so that I can go deeper into those themes—push myself further.

Naming is really important to me because I think when we name things we are more tender to them, we care about them, we understand them better. But I am also very aware of the hubris of naming things.

GC: The Carrying opens with a poem in which Eve is naming animals and ends with you thinking to yourself about the name of a bird. In between, there are other instances of naming or coming to know things. Is naming a kind of understanding or a kind of possessing or does it mean something different in your work?

AL: Naming is really important to me because I think when we name things we are more tender to them, we care about them, we understand them better. But I am also very aware of the hubris of naming things. Who are we to reach out and name something without language? I think that’s why I see the Eve in the poem trying to get the animals to name her, she realizes that they may have more wisdom.

GC: In “The Last Drop” which comes almost at the end of the book, there’s a feeling of resolve–that even the struggles in life are good. Could you talk about that and how it fits in the scope of the book? (one of my favorite poems in the book, by the way)

AL: Thank you! I wanted to get to a place where I was accepting of the mess and whirl of my world. That poem is all true, and I was feeling overwhelmed by everything: the horrid disease of Alzheimer’s, the death of my husband’s ex-girlfriend, her cats we were adopting, all of it was so much. And a month before our wedding, so this prose poem was a way for me to accept and absorb all of that without being too overwhelmed by it, it gave me a place to put it and a way to talk about it. I’m glad you like that poem; it’s one of my favorites too.

GC: This book shows a wide variety of lines lengths and stanza choices. Some are dense and some use a lot of open space, but the single stanza poem and couplets seem to be used most frequently. What attracts you to those forms, and how do they work differently for you?

AL: You know, I am always guided by what the poem wants. The poems that want to be slower have shorter line breaks, and the poems that want to be faster have long lines, the fastest are prose poems. The couplets usually are quieter, and they tend to be dialogues of a sort. I love working with form. My first book has a crown of sonnets. I’m interested in how form can both constrain and free you at the same time. It allows for each poem to operate differently.

GC: In “The Leash” and other poems there’s a kind of snowball effect (more in the single stanza poems than others) where the poem gathers emotional weight as it rolls down the hill. I imagine the hardest part of that kind of poem is how to end it. What are the challenges you go through in that kind of composition?

It’s easy—or rather satisfying—to always make the endings big and really stick the landing, but you need to stay true to the poem and make sure you’re responding to what you’ve already written, not what you had in your mind.

AL: Ah yes, you are not wrong about that, it’s all about the ending with the poems that have a certain kind of momentum or guided unraveling. The biggest challenge I face with poems like “The Leash” or “Bust” or “Dead Boy” is trying to make sure that everything is working together and that any tangent you go on still brings you back to the core of the poem. And then, of course, the ending, it’s easy—or rather satisfying—to always make the endings big and really stick the landing, but you need to stay true to the poem and make sure you’re responding to what you’ve already written, not what you had in your mind. You have to listen to the poem at that point and follow the poem’s instincts and not force an ending that might feel inauthentic.

GC: The poem “Trying” travels an obstacle course of subjects and emotions to get to a kind of resolve. What’s the key to maintaining control in a poem that operates like that? Or is control not even a consideration?

AL: I think it’s less about control there and more about release. “Trying” is a very natural poem, so that it has to feel like it’s effortless—even though of course it’s not—and it has to move in a way that feels like the mind moving. So you have to let go a little, allow the poem just to be and not worry it away. Poems that take place in the world of the now and the world of the body can easily get won over by the mind, so it’s more about releasing them before the mind turns it all into an intellectual project.

Marie Howe once told me that a teacher had told her: don’t listen when they say your work is no good and don’t listen when they say it’s great.

GC: In “American Pharaoh” the line “racing against nothing but himself” seems prescient to other moments in the book—that you can be successful when you measure yourself against yourself, not the judges, not the other horses, not society. That seems like a good lesson for everyone, but could that be especially important for poets who are constantly measuring their success against others?

AL: Oh I think any time we can have a lesson about not measuring ourselves against others, it will be highly beneficial. For the most part, I think the poets I love and admire are always trying to out-do their last poem, they want to get better, to get deeper, smarter, realer at all times. But, of course, when awards get listed or prizes come out, it’s easy for any artist to feel that sting of failure or ache of envy, but none of that tends to serve us. None of that is why we write. We write to connect, we write to figure out the meaning of life, to feel better about our world, our being, we write to make sense of the mess, to question, to rail against something, we write to save ourselves (sometimes from ourselves). So in some ways, you’re very correct in drawing that parallel between poets and the horse, our only enemy is time itself.

When awards get listed or prizes come out, it’s easy for any artist to feel that sting of failure or ache of envy, but none of that tends to serve us. None of that is why we write.

GC: Can you tell us one of the best bits of writing advice you’ve received from a teacher, mentor or friend?

AL: Marie Howe once told me that a teacher had told her: don’t listen when they say your work is no good and don’t listen when they say it’s great. Which I think is very true once you’ve reached a certain amount of success. And it makes me keep my head down and do the work. Nikky Finney once told me, at a particularly tumultuous time of my life, “know the elders are there doing what they do and be at great peace.” I think of that often too. These help me a great deal because they are both about trust and surrender, and I know I need that. I need to surrender and I need to trust this work. This work that is such a privilege to get to do in the first place.


Poetry craft essays editor Grant Clauser is the author of four poetry books, Reckless Constellations, The Magician’s Handbook, Necessary Myths and The Trouble with Rivers.  Poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Cortland Review, Gargoyle, The Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry and others. He works for a New York media company and teaches poetry at random places. Find him @uniambic.  Email craft essay queries to grantclauser@cleavermagazine.com.

 

Ada Limon author photo credit: Lucas Marquardt

 

AFTER THE WINTER, a novel by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey, reviewed by Robert Sorrell

AFTER THE WINTER
by Guadalupe Nettel
translated by Rosalind Harvey
Coffee House Press, 242 Pages

reviewed by Robert Sorrell

At the beginning of Guadalupe Nettel’s newly translated novel After the Winter, twenty-five-year-old Cecilia moves from her native Oaxaca to Paris. She arrives there without the usual image of Paris as a “city where dozens of couples of all ages kissed each other in parks and on the platforms of the métro, but of a rainy place where people read Cioran and La Rochefoucauld while, their lips pursed and preoccupied, they sipped coffee with no milk and no sugar.” However, there is something usual in her expectation for Paris. “Like many of the foreigners who end up staying for ever […] with the intention, or rather, the pretext of studying a postgraduate degree,” she takes up residence across the street from Père Lachaise cemetery, final resting place of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, and Edith Piaf. “At different periods in my life, graves have protected me,” Cecilia shares, and the small apartment overlooking the cemetery suits her macabre nature perfectly.

Cecilia is one of the two first-person narrators in After the Winter, the other being Claudio, who grew up in Havana and now lives in New York City where he works in publishing. Like Cecilia, Claudio also has his quirks. His apartment is “a stone corridor very like a prison cell,” and he avoids interacting with people, not so much because he doesn’t like them—he maintains a few long-term friendships—but more it seems because he is afraid of the control he’d lose if he had to factor another person into his plans. In the novel’s first few pages he reveals, “I find living things frightening; you have to take care of them or they die. In short, they take up time and attention, and I am not prepared to give those away to anyone.” He makes this comment about plants, but it easily applies to humans as well.

In the beginning, the novel alternates between Cecilia’s and Claudio’s chapters, as Cecilia settles into her life as a student in Paris and Claudio continues his life in New York and his on again off again relationship with an older, well-to-do woman named Ruth. Ruth dotes upon Claudio, buying him expensive meals and treating him to nice bottles of wine and snacks from an expensive bakery. Beyond these niceties, Ruth seems to genuinely enjoy spending time with Claudio, who is sent nearly into fits of panic after their dates or sexual encounters. “You might say that we are good lovers if it were not for the fact that when we have finished,” he reflects, “I am flooded with an inexplicable sensation of disgust.” Claudio’s treatment of Ruth is just one of many signs that he is deeply unwell. Another is the morbid way he considers his apartment: “Here—and I give thanks to God for this—I have neither relatives nor friends I am overly close to. […] Protecting it from any intruders is my way of honoring my sanctuary and of turning it (I like the image immensely) into the mausoleum where I would like to be buried for all eternity.”

It is hard to know what to do with images like this, and other images earlier in the work, that, with a heavy hand, suggest Claudio is suffering from undiagnosed OCD. The way Nettel portrays Claudio and Cecilia often hovers between eccentricity and genuine mental illness. Yet, these actions and thoughts do not emerge as issues that the characters must grapple with, but rather as the author’s central way to develop their personalities.

In this sense, Nettel mainly defines Cecilia and Claudio by their preferences and neuroses. The way they decorate their apartments, or don’t, how often they call their friends, what they like to eat for breakfast. Nettel seeks to draw out her characters through these small particularities. She shows us Claudio enraged in his kitchen after his espresso machine breaks. “It is unconscionable the degree of security household appliances can give to us,” he says. Here is Cecilia cooped up in her Paris apartment, the opposite of Claudio’s fastidiousness: “I tried to wash myself only as much as necessary so as to avoid suffocating in my own odours.” It’s as if these moments on their own speak volumes about her characters’ personalities. These early sections of After the Winter show the dangers of trying to create a character out of personal habits and quirks. The way Claudio gets out of bed, the way he organizes his apartment, Cecilia’s love of cemeteries. I got the feeling that these details could be insightful or telling, if they hinted towards other aspects of personality, but they seem to be presented as self explanatory, without acknowledging the gulf that often sits between thought and action.

Guadalupe Nettel

Because of this, in the first half or so of the book, Claudio and Cecilia have the impression of cartoon characters, their opinions and the way they maintain their apartments seems exaggerated to take the place of personality. It’s also clear that neither Cecilia nor Claudio know what they want out of most situations, and while that is not abnormal, it causes a slight problem for a novel that is focused so closely on them and told in first person narration. Further, while Cecilia and Claudio do sometimes act, they seem to often fall into the trap of passive narrators/ main characters: things always seem to be happening to them, but they never seem to be doing anything themselves. This effect is exacerbated as we move into the first winter of the novel and both retreat further into themselves, rarely interacting with others. “By December,” Cecilia admits, “my life had been reduced to a ghostly state.”

And yet, as the novel goes on, somehow in spite of the early surface treatment, Cecilia and Claudio start to attain mass, to gain qualities and desires more telling than how they decorate their apartment or the fact that they both seem to have morbid fascinations. Cecilia meets her next-door neighbor Tom, an Italian who is an excellent cook and shares his food and music with her as the two slowly enter into a relationship. Tom, however, has a serious illness that frightens him deeply. He takes a long trip to Italy to see family and contemplate the rest of his life without telling Cecilia when he will return. It is during this trip that the event the novel has been leading the reader toward finally occurs. Cecilia and Claudio meet.

It happens, of course, at Père Lachaise cemetery, where Claudio is looking for the grave of poet César Vallejo. He’s accompanied by his friend Haydée, an acquaintance he’d made during his university days in Paris. After graduation, Claudio moved to New York, and Haydée stayed in Paris where, years later, she would meet Cecilia. When Claudio suggests a stroll around the cemetery, Haydée is reminded of her friend who lives in an apartment right at the cemetery’s edge. And so the three of them head into Père Lachaise in search of Vallejo’s grave.

The alternating structure of the novel, switching between Cecilia’s and Claudio’s perspective, makes the reader wonder from the very beginning when the two characters will meet. And yet, maybe because their meeting has been so built up in the reader’s mind through the juxtaposition, the initial interaction is a bit of a letdown. Claudio immediately falls for Cecilia for no apparent reason. He describes the moment as like a “meeting of souls,” and shares later, “I have not been able to get [Cecilia] out of my mind ever since.” He is drawn to Cecilia through her apartment, which is fitting given his fraught relationship with his own and the strange way that his personality and his apartment seem to collapse into each other. Cecilia’s is a small place “devoid of pictures or any decorations or distraction,” that leads Claudio to incorrectly assume that “as I am, Cecilia was a lover of order and cleanliness.” Yet, Claudio mistakes this spartan quality—the result of malaise and, Cecilia says later “completely unintentional”—for carefully studied austerity. This is the mistake that starts Claudio’s obsession with Cecilia: he mistakes an apparent trait for her real personality. After meeting in Paris, Claudio writes fervent emails to Cecilia, quickly deciding he is in love with her and that for the first time in his life he has found someone “suitable for me.”

By this point in the novel it becomes clear that neither Claudio or Cecilia are particularly reliable narrators, and that their own judgements—such as Claudio’s belief that he is in love with Cecilia after seeing her apartment—are often skewed, the motivations different than they appear. Claudio believes he sees a reflection of himself in Cecilia, and throws everything into wooing her instead of focusing on the life he has already built in New York City and Ruth who, despite the terrible treatment, still seems to love him. Cecilia, on the other hand, seems deeply unsure of what she wants, if she wants to live in Paris, or live at all. Claudio and Cecilia keep in touch over email, visiting each other a few times, before it becomes clear to Cecilia how little Claudio really cares for her. Soon after, her neighbor Tom returns from Italy, and his condition worsens. Cecilia often considers killing herself, yet, the time spent with him in the hospital gives her an incredible sense of meaning. She shares that it is, “the most important experience of my life. I, who had always considered myself useless, had, at last, the impression that I was good for something.”

The portrayal of mental health in After the Winter leaves much to be hoped for. Claudio’s (eventually diagnosed) OCD seems too obvious, pulling on vague cliches about cleanliness and organization, and Cecilia’s depression seems gratuitous and uncomplicated. But it’s hard to say whether this might be due to the fact that the reader is getting their experiences from a first-person narration. This viewpoint doesn’t relieve the author of responsibility, but it does complicate the issue. What are the ethics of portraying mental illness in such a way? It reminds me of the question around stories of addiction and eating disorders: is there any way to tell these stories without glamorizing the experience, and maybe even having an effect on readers that is the exact opposite of what the writer intended? For me, Cecilia and Claudio’s mental health were treated a bit too much like foibles or quirks, treated like their apartments and habits of dress: colorful details that added to the outline of their character instead of real issues that they struggled with and which caused them real pain.

The title After the Winter seems to imply progress, or hope. After winter comes spring and summer, the rebirth of plants and the return of the idyllic “Paris of films,” Cecilia despises when she arrives. And indeed, spoiler alert, the two characters do seem happier, or at least more settled, at the book’s end. Claudio finally realizes that he should be with Ruth, and Cecilia finally seems to find aspects of her life in Paris to enjoy: she pours herself into her work, and spends a lot of time with her friend Haydée and Haydée’s new baby.

And yet, at the story’s end, Claudio and Cecilia don’t seem to have addressed what, sadly, united them from the beginning: that their attempts at happiness always relied so heavily on other people. They became archetypes of a different kind of tragic love; not tragic because the two are kept apart by country, family, or religion, but because they believed too strongly in the myth that love by itself would fix all their problems.


robert-sorrellRobert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.

THE BELL DINGS FOR ME: On Writing with a Typewriter, a craft essay by Toby Juffre Goode

THE BELL DINGS FOR ME
On Writing with a Typewriter

A Craft Essay
by Toby Juffre Goode

I pack up my laptop and some comfortable clothes and pull away from my mile-high mountain home in Northern Arizona to drive hundreds of desert miles. I’m headed for the women’s writing retreat I attend every January in Palm Springs, California. I’m anxious. The five-hour drive facing me isn’t the problem. It’s the slump I’ve languished in for too long. I haven’t touched my memoir manuscript in months. A few essay ideas poke at me, but I ignore them. My heart isn’t in it. If not for the women I look forward to seeing and the money I paid up front to attend, I’d sit this one out.

I pass through Skull Valley and Yarnell, and keep going beyond Hope. I cross the California border into Blythe and drive on through mind-numbing miles of dry dirt, desert scrub, and sporadic crumbled foundations.

Stuff the anxiety, I tell myself. I’m tired of it. Inspiration will find me.

I arrive at the historic Casa Cody Inn and go in search of Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, author, teacher, mentor, and my friend who leads these annual retreats. Over the past year I observed this woman of many passions delve into yet another: typewriters. I’ve lost count of the prized acquisitions she posts on Instagram. Where the hell is she putting all these typewriters? Barbara lives in a tiny cottage by the sea in Southern California. Has she gone off the deep end?

I find her in her room at the Winter’s House where she has three typewriters set up and ready to fly. Barbara points out her prized Olivetti Lettera 32, a Royal Aristocrat, and a Smith Corona Classic Electra. She tilts her head and grins.

“You’re welcome to try one out while you’re here,” she says. “If you want.”

I’m rooming next-door to Barbara. During the day I hear her typing. And I love the sound.

One particular night she’s typing while I read in bed. Rhythmic and meditative, the sound soothes me. I want to fall asleep listening. I shut my light. She stops typing. I’m disappointed.

The next day Barbara mentions that she has a Smith Corona electric in the trunk of her car that I can play with. “I’m selling it on Craigslist,” she says. “I can’t keep them all.”

I humor her. I lug the portable typewriter in its case to my room. It reminds me of a bowling ball. My father’s bag and shoes waited for him by the front door every Thursday night—his bowling night with the Knights of Columbus. I’d always try, but I wasn’t strong enough to lift it.

I hoist the case up onto my desk and struggle to release the typewriter. I don’t remember my portable typewriter in college being this cumbersome. Plug it in, feed a sheet of paper through the roller thingy, and flip the switch. Oh yeah—I’d forgotten that motor sound. Do I remember how to use this thing? I consider the keys. My fingertips find home row. Like getting on a bike again. The next thing I know I’m typing. Energy flows into my fingers. I can still do this! Even though it’s been more than thirty years. Through the serial number, Barbara confirms that this typewriter was manufactured in 1964. I was only eight years old then, trying to pick up Dad’s bowling bag. Talk about a time machine.

During the four-day retreat I write on the Smith Corona instead of my laptop. I work on one of my essay ideas, but after a rough page or two I’m compelled to bang away about this infatuating typewriter experience. Hitting the keys takes effort and discernment. Too little pressure delivers a faint h; too much and a sputter of hhhhhs spit onto the paper. But once I get the touch, it’s fun. I type. I’m warming up. Thoughts sizzle.

During the four-day retreat I write on the Smith Corona instead of my laptop. I work on one of my essay ideas, but after a rough page or two I’m compelled to bang away about this infatuating typewriter experience. Hitting the keys takes effort and discernment. Too little pressure delivers a faint h; too much and a sputter of hhhhhs spit onto the paper. But once I get the touch, it’s fun. I type. I’m warming up. Thoughts sizzle.

By day two I’m more than smitten. I peer into Smith Corona’s open heart where metal typebars wait to slap letters on the platen (the roller thingy has an official term, I learn), the way piano keys send hammers flying upward to strike strings. A musical staccato sings out: you’re writing! Inspiration has come—in the form of a Smith Corona Coronet electric typewriter.

“I want to buy it,” I tell Barbara.

I wonder about who played on these cream-colored, black-lettered keys before I came along. Did their fingers peck their way, or dance with abandon over the keyboard? Maybe they explored reams of poetry, or stalked stories that were going nowhere yet eventually arrived. I imagine letters of friendship, apology, or long-overdue explanations of love lost. Were pages pulled from the typewriter, crumpled in a ball, and thrown across the room? Or sealed into an envelope and mailed far away? Both actions more gratifying than the lifeless computer functions delete and send.

I study the blue-gray metal housing and once-creamy-white, now-yellowed keys. I’m the new proud owner with a zillion questions. You’d think I was taking home a newborn baby. How do I change the ribbon? What size ribbons do I need, and where can I possibly buy them? What paper do I use? Should I clean the metal levers? If it breaks, do typewriter repair shops still exist?

In college I wrote essays and term papers on my typewriter. Nothing about it seemed complicated and I never worried that I might break the machine. Now the same simple functions bewilder me and I’m afraid I’ll damage it. I study the blue-gray metal housing and once-creamy-white, now-yellowed keys. I’m the new proud owner with a zillion questions. You’d think I was taking home a newborn baby. How do I change the ribbon? What size ribbons do I need, and where can I possibly buy them? What paper do I use? Should I clean the metal levers? If it breaks, do typewriter repair shops still exist?

I’m bringing this vintage baby home. I’m excited. The five-hour drive back is a breeze. That night I don’t mention my new typewriter to my husband. I park Smith Corona on the desk in my office and wait for his reaction.

“Is that a typewriter I’ve been hearing?” Phil says a few mornings later. There’s a twinge of amusement in his half smile. He thinks it’s cool, I can tell. He’s not a writer, but I bet the typewriter evokes memories for him too.

Now an integral tool in my writing practice, Smith Corona welcomes me, idea-filled or empty. Of course you’re going to write, it says to me. Why else would you sit here? So, I act as if. I slap keys. Words splay across the paper, add up to sentences, and run into paragraphs. Prompts and free writes still help me, but my typewriter gets me moving out of my own way. Blank whiteness begs for more—good or bad makes no difference.

When I write on my laptop, I revise—to a fault. The trained copyeditor/proofreader in me wants every sentence perfect. Tempted by the online thesaurus, and cut and paste functions, I’m seduced into premature editing. I wander the Internet in the name of research, or more likely in a search for those boots I’m coveting. My creative flow is choked like a gutter full of leaves.

But my Smith Corona sentences read perfectly imperfect, as they should at this point in the process. The snap-snap of the keys scores my mantra: write freely, write freely. My inner critic quiets.

I type away. The bell dings and cheers me on: another line! I may not have a page worth saving. But I love the physical effort required, and I’m proud of the wadded up white paper balls collecting by my feet. They validate that I showed up. I’m in the chair, thrashing in a pool of possibility. I hate my writer self a little less.

A painter layers color with brush strokes. A weaver threads weft through warp on her loom. Artists explore and create with their tools. On my Smith Corona I compose with jazz hands and a cacophony of sounds to silence the controlling, demeaning, perfection-demanding voice in my head. I type through it. Critics be damned, I say. The bell dings for me and I keep writing for the love of it.


Toby Juffre Goode lives in Northern Arizona where she writes creative nonfiction and memoir. Her advertising writing career has taken her from the NBC affiliate in Boston to Playgirl Magazine to the Walt Disney Company in Southern California. She owns one manual and two electric typewriters, and counting.

 

 

 

Featured image by Nirzar Pangarkar on Unsplash
Author photo by William Sulit

 

BOOT LANGUAGE, a memoir by Vanya Erickson, reviewed by Elizabeth Mosier

BOOT LANGUAGE
by Vanya Erickson
She Writes Press, 179 pages

reviewed by Elizabeth Mosier

The paradox in writing a postmodern memoir is that the author must somehow convince readers she’s telling the truth—typically by admitting to subjectivity and fallible memory, and by interrogating her version of events.

But that’s not the strategy Vanya Erickson employs in her post-WWII coming-of-age story, Boot Language. With vivid detail and some implausibly long passages of remembered dialogue, she presents herself as the sole reliable narrator of her life in California, where she was raised by an abusive, alcoholic father and a mother who failed to protect her (but did “soften Dad’s blows” with inherited money). If Erickson asks readers to trust her story without evident corroboration, it may be because she’s had to learn to trust herself to discern the truth, in order to steer safely through her parents’ contradictory behavior and conflicting beliefs.

Mom was compassionate, musically talented, and although independently wealthy, searching for some deeper meaning to life other than social standing. A staunch supporter of the underdog, the arts, and liberal politics, she found her way to Christian Science not long after she married my father. Dad was of humbler stock, stoic and charming in his Naval dress-whites when they first met. But years later he returned war-worn, a staunch atheist. When Mom converted to Christian Science, the sparks flew.

This incendiary debate begins in the author’s infancy, as her mother prays over new baby Vanya to heal severe bleeding from her umbilical knot. For Erickson, this harrowing event has the power of an origin story, casting her parents in the conflict that will drive family life for decades. Recounting how her mother’s helper fortuitously interceded in the crisis, calling the grandfather who rushed the listless baby to the hospital, she writes,

Had my mother healed me? Or had the blood transfusion? It all depended on who was telling the story. But no matter the truth, I knew I was lucky. My earliest memory is of being four years old, lying on a blanket in the backyard of my home in Saratoga, California, looking up at the lush Santa Cruz Mountains and marveling that I was alive.

Signaling perspective with lines like these, Erickson both banks the reader’s trust in her sincere intentions, and reassures us she’s survived her mother’s faith and her father’s cruelty, which she goes on to relate in scene after scene. Rather than replicate her trauma through a fragmented narrative, she employs a more traditional psychotherapeutic plot for her story, one that progresses from confusion to clarity. But in the process, her tendency to casually reference significant events has an interesting effect of suggesting hidden wounds beneath visible scars. “Walt was in Canada, avoiding the draft, and Don had left for Vietnam. I was struck by the emptiness their absence created,” she writes, startling me with this abrupt reminder of the tumultuous times and these shadow siblings, neither of whom bear her scrutiny for long. Whether this is a stylistic tic or a deliberate strategy, this tendency conveys trauma that feels authentic, like surfacing evidence of a long-running, private rumination to which we are only partially privy.

Vanya Erickson

Erickson comes to understand her complicated parents in terms of the California terrain: her opera-loving mother craves the city culture of nearby San Francisco, while her father seeks—and sabotages with his drinking—a big-sky life of ranching at the family’s summer home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. She makes meaningful use of the physical landscape not only to characterize her parents in opposition, but also to convey the emotional effects of her father’s abuse. In an especially revealing scene, Erickson’s father tries to teach her to graft fruit trees. He’s inspired by a family trip to horticulturist Axel Erlandson’s “Tree Circus” in Santa Cruz; she recalls the trees they saw there as “contorted into some manner of madness, forced to grow at disturbing angles and curves.” Back on the ranch, he hands her a knife and then mocks her as she hesitates before the damaged mother tree, now a mere trunk with amputated stubs. When she says, “I can’t do it,” she invites his rage—but begins to free herself from her father’s designs.

If Erickson asks readers to trust her story without evident corroboration, it may be because she’s had to learn to trust herself to discern the truth, in order to steer safely through her parents’ contradictory behavior and conflicting beliefs.

Such details from the natural landscape are fascinating, and one could read Erickson’s debut memoir just for a glimpse of ranching life most of us only know from watching television westerns. But Erickson’s real subject is the inner landscape of her parents’ failing marriage and her father’s long decline. The story gains momentum when he bottoms out and Erickson reflects, “I didn’t kid myself that this was the last time I’d have to confront my drunken father, or shield myself from the terror of his words, but tonight I felt an opening of something new. I had faced him, spoken the truth, and survived.” Still, a shadow of love and longing hangs over her memory of this time and place as she laments “that good Dad” that might have been. Artfully rendered yet devoid of artifice, Erickson’s heartfelt, emotionally honest book is like a letter to that father, whom she sought but never knew.


Elizabeth-MosierElizabeth Mosier logged 1,000 volunteer hours processing colonial-era artifacts at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park Archeology Laboratory to write Excavating Memory: Archaeology and Home (forthcoming from New Rivers Press in 2019). A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, her nonfiction has been selected as notable in Best American Essays and appears widely in journals and newspapers including Cleaver, Creative Nonfiction, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She writes the “Intersections” column for the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin.

STRANGE WEATHER IN TOKYO, a novel by Hiromi Kawakami, reviewed by August Thompson

STRANGE WEATHER IN TOKYO
by Hiromi Kawakami
translated by Allison Markin Powell
Counterpoint Press, 176 pages

reviewed by August Thompson

When you are lonely—truly lonely, not alone by choice in the search for liberty— the bloom of your energy and language changes completely. Your fellow lonely become the only people alive that are fluent in you.

In this state, you see the lonely everywhere. On the subway, you meet with longing, desperate eyes. In the station, you open the exit door and they say thank you with such sincerity it feels like an embrace. You reconnect with the periphery characters from your old lives. Coworkers, friends long removed from your orbit, abandoned lovers, and, in the case of Hiromi Kawakami’s sweetheart novel Strange Weather in Tokyo, former teachers and the alumni of your high school.

The language of the lonely is often based in deficit. To be lonely is to be flung from the kinds of bonds society values most: coupledom, friendship, family. Loneliness suggests difference and, in the more dire cases, loss.

For Tsukiko and her former high school Japanese teacher, who she calls Sensei, loneliness is based in melancholy. Sensei is a beautiful weirdo, a straight-laced and classic man who collects serving teapots, finds thrill in mushroom hunting and may or may not have a magic briefcase. He’s older, and a widower. His life, like Tsukiko’s, is hunched by hurt. He has lost too much and is unable to grow close to anyone for fear of losing more.

Hiromi Kawakami

Tsukiko suffers from a tuneless depression. She doesn’t understand love and ruined her one youthful chance at conventional happiness through awkwardness and inaction. Since then, she’s existed in a kind of rudderless mute, detached from intimacy. She has normalized loneliness and convinced herself that she is happy, or close to happy, despite the profound ache and regret that turns the banal into the tragic—after reflecting on the time she suffered through her great love’s wedding to another woman, she breaks down in the midst of eating an apple. “I had a craving for an apple so I took one from the basket,” she observes. “I tried to peel it in the way my mother did. Partway round, the skin broke off. I suddenly burst into tears, which took me by surprise. I was cutting an apple, not chopping onions—why should there be tears? I kept crying in between bites of the apple. The crisp sound of my chewing alternated with the plink, plink of my tears as they fell into the stainless steel sink. Standing there, I busied myself with eating and crying.” It takes a certain breed of loneliness, and a special author, to turn an apple into a tragedy.

The motor of Strange Weather is the slow love that builds between Tsukiko and Sensei. At a neighborhood bar, they run into each other after decades of absence. Maybe at another time they would have exchanged pleasantries and moved along. But they are both living in the same kind of underwater blue. They chat and find that their language is the same. They start to build an intimacy without schedule, running into each other at the bar, sharing meals and drinks, telling simple stories, laughing at their inconsistencies.

Relaying the plot of Strange Weather is like relaying the happenings of a gorgeous, lazy summer. You experience so much that feels magic and special, but when you detail it to a friend it sounds minute. There was the food you ate, long talks you had, weather and walks you enjoyed. So vibrant and honey-yellow in the moment, so devoid of juice in retelling.

This makes Strange Weather sound boring, which is misleading. Beyond two sequences that dip into the spiritual and the otherworldly, Strange Weather focuses on the pleasantness of finding someone who speaks as you speak, feels as you feel, and the fear and the anxiety of losing that person because humans, above all else, are most skilled at inflicting hurt on each other. There’s little gunpowder to the story, but that isn’t its aim. Its aim is to explore the joy and pain that surround sorrow, which it does with perfect tenderness.

Despite their quirks and oddities, the main characters are very much real people. The goal of all fiction is to infuse even the most fantastic characters with realism, but when I say real people here I mean they are average people. They are lovely and terrible, kind until they’re not, funny in idiosyncratic ways, ashamed of who they are and who they should be, and in constant stages of emotional flux.

They lack the vocabulary to speak how they feel. They quarrel to the point of separation over baseball. They get mired in social expectation—their difference in age should make romance impossible. They are choked by how abstract so much of feeling is, how cheap talk is, in the face of love.

Although they live on the outer rim of one of the biggest cities in the world, Tokyo, Tsukiko and Sensei live like actual people do. There’s none of the excess or the pandemonium of nightlife. Their delights are based on contentment: to go to the same bar, to eat the freshest food, to argue about customs, to drink sake until you feel silly. These gentle rituals, after all, are the foundation of all great loves.

At first, the writing seems almost rigid, but the purpose of the style soon reveals itself, perhaps the result of Kawakami’s long collaboration with the translator Powell. There are no petals on the prose, yet there are still moments of blossom.

Gentle is perhaps word the word that best sums up the writing in Strange Weather in Tokyo and the book itself. It’s no easy thing to be gentle, and a grave difficulty to make gentleness interesting. But Kawakami, the Tokyo-born author of seven novels and recipient of several literary awards, accomplishes this through consistency: her writing rarely wavers into the sentimental, and, in Allison Markin Powell’s translation, keeps the same kind of gorgeous bluntness sentence after sentence. The cumulative effect is a kind of swoon:

We soon switched to saké. I picked up the bottle of hot sake and filled Sensei’s cup. I felt a sudden rush of warmth in my body and felt the tears well up once again. But I didn’t cry. It’s always better to drink than to cry.

What is most amazing about the writing is the subtle way that Kawakami delivers gut punches like this by avoiding the prosaic. At first, the writing seems almost rigid, but the purpose of the style soon reveals itself, perhaps the result of Kawakami’s long collaboration with the translator Powell. There are no petals on the prose, yet there are still moments of blossom.

Like the writing, Tsukiko and Sensei’s stilted courting of each other is based in placid consistency, the inability to escape past pains, and the held breath of restraint. It’s refreshing to see love spring from something other than charisma. So many of our stories are about the excellent falling for the fabulous. This one is for the strange, the eccentric, the pained. How great a relief to read about people that are as damaged and afraid as you are, as the people all around you. How satisfying to watch them find love.

And so the truest accomplishment of Strange Weather in Tokyo, this funny little book about the ways isolation leaves us heart-scuffed, is that it achieves fiction’s noblest goal: in painting vividly the feelings of loneliness, it makes the reader feel less alone.


August Thompson has worked as an editor and writer since graduating from NYU in 2013.  When he’s not working on fiction or watching the Boston Celtics, you can usually find him at the movies.

DAVID BOWIE AND THE SPACE MOTORBIKE by Eleanor Levine

DAVID BOWIE AND THE SPACE MOTORBIKE
by Eleanor Levine

Last night David Bowie sent a motorbike rocket, the first of its kind, into space, with a man having anal sex with a woman.

It has long been every female’s dream for a gay man to have sex with them.

The XY chromosome was an actress from Staten Island, which is where the ship—the motorbike space machine—eventually landed.

The actress and “the humper” both lived in David Bowie’s house, which is in Staten Island.

We congregated at Mr. Bowie’s mansion after the launch.

Some people mistook DB for David Lynch, but it was clearly Mr. Bowie.

The launched female, an actress Bowie met on an elementary school bus, had a crush on me.

It had long been her fantasy to do me.

She trailed me, one of her spectators, along the boardwalk in Staten Island.

I simply wanted to hang out on the boardwalk with my friend Ralph, who I’ve known since fifth grade.

However, this thespian traipsed after us until we stopped at a place that sold cherry cheesecake.

It was at that moment, when the cheesecake and cherries entered my mouth, with a black plastic fork, that she invited me to her apartment in Mr. Bowie’s house.

My friend Ralph agreed to follow us because most people who grew up in the 1970s—except me—have a deep fascination with Mr. Bowie.

I always wanted to smoke joints with girls and listen to LPs, but I was stuck with whatever music my brother had while I read Wuthering Heights. So it was me, Heathcliff, and Boston—the group.

I didn’t know a “Mr. Bowie” until, at the age of forty-nine, my girlfriend, who I knew in high school, told me she listened religiously to him.

Mr. Bowie is also enchanted with his fans, and places their postcards near the coal burning stove in his Staten Island residence.

He, like Mr. Warhol, wants to know other quirky people.

It is, however, a challenge for Mr. Bowie to become acquaintances with those, like me, who are not fervently devoted to him.

I accompanied the Staten Island starlet, soon thereafter, to her lodgings in the Bowie household.

She wished to nurse me like an infant.

I did not understand her concupiscence.

I had never met this chick, but there I was, in her bed, getting ready to let her kiss me, until she took out cocaine.

She offered me the white stuff.

I declined.

Mr. Bowie came out to see what the fuss was about.

He saw my friend Ralph, who is blonde and skinny.

He immediately took Ralph to the Bowie bedroom. Though David is known to be mostly straight, he will dabble with a hot guy like Ralph who meets his needs for the evening.

Upon seeing the cocaine, I told the young lady, whom everyone knew on the elementary school bus, that I didn’t want to have any physical contact with her whatsoever, because I have been sober for 27 years, and didn’t need the nasal machinations of cocaine to embarrass me in front of thousands of AA members, some of whom were at the David Bowie post-launch party, and might not wish me the best sobriety.

She was coked up so it didn’t matter.

I went into the living room, where Mr. Bowie keeps his collection of postcards from fans.

He was curious about me because I was incurious about him.

We nodded.

I agreed with him that Ralph was a hottie.

Then he inquired about my talents, which I refused to divulge.

He seemed fairly dejected by his inability to consume me.

He insisted I let him know who I was.

I adamantly refused because I knew this would make me more enticing.

DB meandered around the house. He said nothing.

It was okay. Ralph and I held hands and returned to the boardwalk in Staten Island, and though the trains were delayed, we eventually caught one to Union Square and read the morning newspaper, where they declared Mr. Bowie’s launch a success.


Eleanor Levine’s writing has appeared in more than 60 publications, including Fiction, Evergreen Review, Litro, Artemis, The Toronto Quarterly, decomP magazinE, The Denver Quarterly, The Atticus Review, The Missing Slate, SRPR, Wigleaf, The Breakwater Review, and Bull (Men’s Fiction); forthcoming work in Faultline Journal of Arts and Letters, Switchback, and Willard & Maple. Levine’s poetry collection, Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria, was published by Unsolicited Press (Portland, OR). Eleanor received her MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, in 2007.

Image credit: Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

PLURISY by Joseph Harms

PLURISY
by Joseph Harms

Maybe you got a kid, maybe you got a pretty wife
But the only thing that I got’s been bothering me my whole life
……………….Bruce Springsteen

How come the night is long?……………….
……………….Leonard Cohen

Light Years: plurisy, renewed nostalgia for each moment
as it goes, the dream returning as it’s escaping. / His wife’s
demonic pain, his fuckall, to have failed separately
too long too much together, by the minutes ganged, contemned,

the plausive vale unseen discalled and hated. / Snow takes hours
(ensouled idea) in inhuming lawnstrewn xmaslights
until the mind no longer trusts its sight and they are felt
more so (as wolves howl obbligatos impossible to

kyoteyips)…chrysoprasing sawplaying undulations
midnighting northern cusp. / Lightyears: we are the light between
that never hits a thing, the tortoise found in dreams, the map
recalled on shell, the tremulosity, the space between two hells.


A finalist for the 2015 National Poetry Series Award for his sonnet sequence Bel (Expat Press), Joseph Harms is the author of the novels Baal and Cant, as well as the forthcoming Evil Trilogy (Expat Press).  His work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Boulevard, The Alaskan Quarterly Review, The North American Review, The International Poetry Review, The Opiate and Bayou Magazine.

 

 

 

Image credit: Aperture Vintage on Unsplash

 

 

 

TAKING THE BAIT by Ben Morris

TAKING THE BAIT
by Ben Morris

When we couldn’t dance around it any longer, we set mousetraps and started imagining our two toddlers, Henry and Suzanna, losing their fingers one by one: limp pinkies crinkled like sun-wilt, severed rings, scattered middles, dirty orphaned pointers curling into themselves as if for protection.

“Little dead thumbs,” I said to myself.

“I’d put one in your drink,” Jay said, handing me a glass of foaming red. “Like one of those gag cubes with the flies in them. Nobody has a sense of humor anymore. And I don’t know that they would get completely snapped off. Broken for sure. Trip to the hospital, insurance, etc.”

“What’s this one?” I said, holding the drink up to the light. Every night I struggled to hide the disappointment from my voice. A mixologist phase with his cashier income made no sense at all. But Jay’s sister gave him a cocktail book for his birthday two months back and he insisted on working through it, buying bitters and vermouth by the gallons. He’d always been practical about this kind of stuff. But when we moved to North Dakota to be closer to his family, something changed. “It’s called the Bloody Devil,” Jay said with a smirk. “Complete with my own twist of Tabasco and salt.”

“Yummy,” I said, licking my lips. In that moment, the alcohol burning between lips and gums, I felt my hatred for him become genuine. I took another drink and looked out over the line of baited traps, our crude infantry of wood and metal, dollops of generic peanut butter fat on plastic squares of cheese, rectangular golden bars readied to snap. I felt uneasy just looking at them. “Why didn’t we use glue traps?” I asked. “My parents have had luck with those.”

“They don’t kill,” Jay said. “Somebody would have to march them outside and brain them against the garbage can.”

“Brain,” I echoed. “Braindead thumbs.” I broke a piece of ice between my teeth and thought a tooth cracked with it. “I guess I don’t know what they did with them,” I said.

“No thank you,” he said.

Jay mixed more drinks and we moved around the house, laying traps down tenderly as if they were living, sleeping things. Two behind the washer and dryer, two behind the bookcase, one behind the chest full of blankets in the living room, and three upstairs in bathroom cabinets secured with plastic childproof levers.

Feeling satisfied we collapsed on the couch. Jay put on Gremlins and we started to screw around. I moved over him slowly. He nibbled my chin and started to muffle questions into my neck that I couldn’t understand.

“Mhmm,” I answered.

Movement in the corner of the room caught my eye. I continued to rock on Jay and watched a long gray mouse crawl down the side of the blanket chest. Then it stopped and tested the air. Its sticky paws splayed against the wood. Beneath me, Jay sucked air between his teeth, his eyes fluttered. “Holy Christ,” he whispered. “Nice.”

When the mouse reached the floor it seemed to scan the area before bursting forward a few inches, its nose spasming. Jay’s eyes were shut tight. And when I softly pinched a nostril, he smiled.

I reversed myself on top of him and he moved his hands up my sides, over my breasts. More unintelligible questions into my neck. I watched the mouse’s body liquefy and slip beneath the blanket chest. Gone. I waited for the snap. Waited. Waited. The TV showed a gremlin spinning in a blender.

Suddenly we heard Suzanna upstairs screaming from her bed.

“Fuck,” Jay said, adjusting himself away. “Don’t go anywhere.” And he staggered up the stairs to her room. I sat and stared at the blanket chest, waited for Jay to start shouting. I imagined Suzanna’s tiny pink palms without fingers, waving side to side like horrible bald flowers. Saw them reaching out for Jay.

But I heard nothing. And so I crept over to the chest and saw the peanut butter sitting undisturbed on the cheese. I went up to Henry’s room and stood over him. Waited. I stopped the sound of my own breathing to hear his, to watch his chest rise and fall like it was supposed to. I wanted to wake him and kiss all his fingers, count his toes with my lips. Instead I sat in the rocking chair and watched the crack of hallway light beneath his door. I waited for a flash of movement. I waited for Jay, or something else, to squirm into the room and gnaw at our skins.


Ben Morris recently earned his PhD in English from the University of North Dakota. He has had fiction or poetry appear in Lake Effect, drafthorse, Digging Through the Fat, North Dakota Quarterly, and others. He is currently a full-time English lecturer at Appalachian State University. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his partner and two children.

Image credit: Pixabay

THE REST by Kimberly Grabowski Strayer

THE REST
by Kimberly Grabowski Strayer

I slept with a kitchen knife
in my bedside table as a little girl,
I don’t think even my mother knows.
She loved all the shows
about murder. I would tell her I was scared
but she wouldn’t turn them off—
if you’re scared, leave the room.

The first few shots of each episode: victim
who will not live out the next sixty seconds.
A perpetrator with artfully hidden face.
And screaming, always, screaming
even in sudden attacks. I heard
once that the word scream is too powerful
to use in a poem, or too distinctly female,
hysteric, blotting out the rest—

here, we begin. After this, a shot
of the team of criminal profilers,
walking in to the office, discussing how to whip up
the perfect plate of pasta, al dente, of course,
to remind us they have ordinary lives
outside of this television screen, just like we do.
And all the while, a murderer on the loose.

They will solve this case in a cool
forty-three minutes, always right
before the next victim dies. I think stall, just stall.
Pain is like a distant galaxy because the inside
of another person is a distant galaxy. It’s impossible
to talk about, and so we talk about it all the time.
I just want to feel good for a moment,
it’s all fake but there are Good guys fighting
Bad guys and the good ones always pull through.

Sometimes students learn to conduct pelvic exams
on unknowing, anesthetized patients
before gynecological surgeries. Sometimes I think:
it would feel better if I didn’t know. The show
is not about pain but poison and attempted antidote.
And you are not safer if you don’t watch. Not a scale
but an emptiness. Without weight or spectrum.

My mother reads the detective novel I lend her,
In The Woods, and she says do we ever find out
what happened to his childhood friends? His blood-soaked
shoes? No, no, the crux here is that some things remain
unexplained forever. This, she cannot abide.

On the show, every killer has some
sort of signature. We all have this compulsion
to show the world who we are. Missing
from this genre: what makes a body
not human anymore. Instead, only: what makes a human
a body. The problem of it. Safety is not what we want,
but some alternative to being alive. It’s a fictional show about
fiction. The way telling a story can help us find the unknown
suspect. As usual, the stories end before they’re over.

In dental school, my mother rode her bike
to and from her apartment with boxes of bones
strapped to the back. She didn’t have much money
so the bones she had were rented. A friend of hers lent her
an extra skull he didn’t need anymore, eventually told her
she could keep it. When I was a kid, no one believed me
when I said the skull was real.

Think of the movies where the science-lab skeleton
was somehow reanimated to wreak havoc.
As if whatever brings us to life inhabits each
individual element of the structure as well as the whole.
My mother never knew who the skull belonged to,
nothing about the story. Mostly, I couldn’t believe
noses weren’t made of bone, other parts that seemed
so solid backed by hollow opening.

In one episode, a mother seeks revenge
upon the man who murdered her daughter—he tries to save
himself by leading her to the place where the girl was
buried. That’s just a skull, she says, that’s not my baby.
She shines a light on the bones. Where’s the rest of my baby.


Kimberly Grabowski Strayer is a poet and horsewoman from Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she received her B.A. in English Writing from Kalamazoo College. She holds an MFA in poetry from The University of Pittsburgh. Her poems have appeared in Superstition Review, Midwestern Gothic, Pretty Owl Poetry, Crab Fat Magazine, and others. Her chapbook, Afterward, is available from Dancing Girl Press.

 

 

 

Image credit: Ajeet Mestry on Unsplash

TWO FLASH PIECES by Abbigail Yost

TWO FLASH PIECES
by Abbigail Yost

Recurring

One is waking up in a bedroom that you do not recognize. The scent of coffee makes your head ache, but you cannot recall what it tastes like. And you don’t understand because you thought you liked coffee, but now you are not so sure. You feel panic as it fills your fingertips and clogs your throat. The patchwork quilt stifles you, makes threats against you. The newspaper tells victims to put up a fight, but whose house is this, and what if they do not react well to strangers who thrash around in twin beds that creak?

Two is acting like a civilized citizen. You forgive the patchwork quilt for its transgressions, set aside grievances. You sit up straight and place woven palms in your lap, resting on top of cut crimson cloth. Mother says that manners matter. That this is how we determine the good girls from the bad. You are a good girl, you tell yourself.

Three is hands. You realize that your hands look like freeze-dried fruit. Skin, drained of nutrition, puckered with folds, littered with channels of indigo and purple that bisect and bulge. Your head aches because these are not your hands, and the scent of something bitter looms in the air. You cannot put your finger on it, but you know what it would taste like if it hit your tongue.

Four is the swinging door as a man enters the bedroom. You freeze, contemplate pleading your case, that you will give him whatever he wants as long as he lets you go. His face has seen sun, and his eyes do not appear overly menacing, but mother says you can never tell. She also warns never to talk to strangers, but you know that this is a unique circumstance, and she will understand. You introduce yourself, stick out your withered hand as a token of peace. You inquire about his name. He holds back tears, but you don’t know why.

One is telling him that it’s a funny story, because you woke up in a bedroom that you do not recognize with a headache because it’s been days since you’ve drunk a cup of coffee.

How to Break a Heart

Ghost upon the slightest hint of commitment. Turn off your read receipts. Pretend he doesn’t exist. Don’t respond to his nine texts, even if the fourth one makes you question your strategy. Persevere. Endure. Fight the feeling. Three weeks and a couple of hours in his car mean nothing. Reject logic. Rationalize. Overcompensate. Smile like you won the lottery. Call yourself cold-blooded. Lie and tell your friends that you enjoy it. That it makes you feel empowered or something. Check his Twitter for subliminal repercussions. Delete his number out of spite. Compose subtweets that are subliminal, cutting. File the drafts with the others. Repress. Repress. Repress calloused hands circling your forearm. Date distraction. Watch (500) Days of Summer. Watch Bridget Jones’s Diary. Watch a season of Gossip Girl without moving from the spot in your bed that dips. Read Dostoyevsky to cancel out eleven hours of intellectual void. Understand about one-third of it. Question your maturity, stability, resiliency. Eat a pint of Neapolitan as consolation. Convince yourself that you deserve it. That it would’ve ended badly. That he would’ve been clingy. That he would’ve been detached. That he would’ve chewed with his mouth open or verbally abused his mother. That he would’ve been lactose intolerant. That he would’ve been deaf to the word “no.” Convince yourself that he would’ve done the same.


Abbigail Yost is a full-time student, part-time library page, and all-time perfectionist in most things unnecessary. Her literary crushes include the likes of Holden Caulfield and Henry Winter, two clashing personas that actively influence the subject matter and tone of her stories. She writes to bridge gaps, feign wisdom until wise, advocate for the unconventional, and normalize the lives of in-betweeners like her.