Guest Editor Lee Martin Editor Kelly Grey Carlisle Managing Editor Nipuni Gomes Designer Ileana Sherry Assistant Editors Julia Camp Karina Duran Jennifer Jussel Maria Teresa Kamel Alexsandra Rojas All staff participates in the reading and selection of work and production of the magazine. 1966 is published with the support of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas and its English Department. http://new.trinity.edu Founding Editors: Mallory Conder, Paul Cuclis, Michael Garatoni, Spenser Stevens, and Matthew Stieb.
The copyrights of all text and images contained in this magazine belong to their respective authors ; except as noted, © 2016. Diary of a Coma from THE UNSPEAKABLE: AND OTHER SUBJECTS OF DISCUSSION by Meghan Daum. Copyright © 2014 by Megham Daum. Used/Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. In the Despoiled and Radiant Now by Lia Purpura originally appeared in November/December 2014 issue of Orion. Copyright © 2014. Image credits: Front cover, back cover, and right, pages 3-4, 19, 61, Celeste Macias. Amani Canada: pages 51-52. Asmara Lehrmann: pages 81-82, 85. Sonja Livingston: page 35. Subrat Mahapatra: pages 41-42, 67. Bill Roorbach: pages 23-24, 29, 34.
Volume 4 Issue 2 Winter 2016 Special Issue edited by Lee Martin
Meghan Daum Diary of a Coma
Aimee Nezhukumatathil Upon Meeting a Whale Shark in Captivity
Bill Roorbach House Mates
Sonja Livingston Spools of White Thread
Jackie Hedeman Mistaken 41 Kristen Iversen A Good Snake Story
Matthew Gavin Frank On Naming Bones, or, How to Ship a Mosquito
Dennis Covington The Part That Was Left Out
Lia Purpura In the Despoiled and Radiant Now 81 A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Diary of a Coma
October 27, 2010 4:04 p.m. General: This is an ill-appearing Caucasian woman. Type of Consultation: Infectious Disease Physical Examination: Vital signs: Currently she is afebrile at 36.6 C, pulse 103, respiratory rate 18, and blood pressure 90/60. She is awake and oriented but is a little addled at times and has difficulty finding words. Acute viral hepatitis is a possibility. Acute hepatitis A is a possibility as is an Epstein-Barr virus (mononucleosis syndrome). An enteroviral process such as aseptic meningoencephalitis is another consideration and the patient herself has also raised the possibility of West Nile virus infection. It would be unusual for Herpes meningoencephalitis to be present with rash transaminitis, and thrombocytopenia. Primary hiv infection can present in this manner although it seems less likely here. An atypical condition such as murine typhus— especially given her history of prior fleabites—and leptospirosis is to be considered. I doubt this is a bacterial process, but meningococcemia remains on the differential.
First I lost my words. At least that’s the first thing I remember when I think about this story, insofar as I can think about it, which I try to avoid doing despite the permanent residence it’s now taken up in my brain. To experience aphasia is to feel your mind breaking off into pieces, to hear sentences crumbling into useless particles. It is to be so stunned by the fragility of human cognitive function that whatever came before seems almost irrelevant. But of course it’s completely relevant. In the fall of 2010, I was staying at a friend’s place in Brooklyn when I got hit with flu symptoms that felt like a truck had driven through the apartment and parked on my head. One minute I felt reasonably okay, if a little sniffly; the next minute I was shivering almost too violently to hold a cup of tea. Still, I assumed it was the flu, as did a doctor friend and the various pharmacists I consulted when I could drag myself out to the drugstore. After three days of trying to keep the fever down with aspirin I flew home to Los Angeles, vomiting once on the plane and becoming so sweaty and overheated that I had to dig through my bag in the overhead compartment to find a T-shirt, a task that depleted so much energy it was another half hour before I could make it to the lavatory to change clothes. The following morning I went to an urgent-care clinic, where I was put on an iv for hydration and told to come back the next day if I wasn’t better. The next day, I could barely walk. My husband took me back to the clinic. In
the waiting room, he noticed that the whites of my eyes were yellow. He filled out my registration form because I was too weak to hold a pen. Then he had to leave. He had an interview with a crucial source for a newspaper article he was writing. He’d been trying to set it up for months; there was no rescheduling it. “Just try to avoid going to the hospital,” he said. “People get sick in hospitals.” I was put in an exam room, where I lay on a table getting saline from an iv bag. An hour or more passed. Every so often I pried myself up and took a step across the room, where a Dixie cup sat on the counter. I’d turn on the faucet and fill it with water, knocking it back in one gulp. Then I’d collapse back onto the exam table. This sequence of movements felt equivalent to lifting a car off the ground. But I was thirsty in a way I did not know it was possible to be thirsty. It was as if all the moisture in my body was evaporating. My head was throbbing. My urine was the color of tea. When my mother was dying, “urine the color of tea” was one of the things the hospice workers told me to look out for as a sign of “imminent passing.” But I didn’t think I was dying. What I was thinking was that the clinic doctor had said I might have hepatitis but that maybe that wasn’t the worst thing in the world because, after all, Pamela Anderson has it and she’s basically walking around like a normal person. After a few hours on the saline drip, a nurse came into the room and told me I was being admitted to the hospital down the street. I said I didn’t care where I went as long as I didn’t have to get up. An ambulance took me from the urgent-care clinic to the hospital, a trip of approximately two blocks for which my insurance company would later be billed $860 (and for which it would decline to pay). Though I could already feel myself shrinking back from the world, I tried hard to appear normal, joking around with the paramedics until suddenly I couldn’t remember exactly where they said we were going. In the emergency room, I met with an intake nurse who sat by my gurney and took note of every personal item I had with me. Purse, wallet, phone, keys— also my clothes, which had somehow been removed from my body and swapped for a hospital gown, though, like a drunk girl taken home and put to bed by kindly friends after a party, I didn’t notice it happening. There was much about the situation that was like being very, very drunk. Far drunker than I’d actually ever been, though I seemed to be following some hardwired personal protocol for saving face, as if I’d been in this predicament before and knew the drill. It took every ounce of concentration to appear coherent. I didn’t want to look stupid. “What is your religious affiliation, if any?” the nurse asked. “What are my choices?” I tried to say this in a tone that suggested I was being funny, making an ironic little joke. The truth was that I needed some prompting. A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
“Adventist, Baptist, Buddhist, Catholic, Christian, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalian, Hindu, Jewish, Lutheran, Mormon, Muslim, Presbyterian—” “Presbyterian,” I said. That wasn’t true but for some reason I said it anyway. As a teenager, I’d sung in a Presbyterian church choir. My mother had been raised Presbyterian but we did not belong to the church. Later I would see Presbyterian on my chart and think it must be someone else’s chart. And then I got to the part that always seems like the beginning. The part that somehow remains in the present tense even as the whole incident recedes further into the past. October 27, 2010 4:04 p.m.
“How many fingers am I holding up?” the doctor asks. I can answer that. That one’s easy. Still, there are things that I know and things that I don’t. What I know is that I’ve never felt sicker in my life. Moreover, I’ve never felt this kind of sickness. It’s as if my life is draining out of me and pooling at my feet. What I don’t know is the degree to which that is indeed an accurate impression. Technically, I am dying. I don’t know that a normal platelet count is between 150,000 and 400,000 per microliter and that mine has dropped to 15,000 per microliter. I don’t know that my liver and kidneys are seriously compromised and that my bun, or blood urea nitrogen level, is 35 milligrams per deciliter, far above the normal range of 6 to 20 milligrams per deciliter. I don’t know that the doctor is at this moment writing things in my chart such as “scleral icterus,” which means that the whites of my eyes are yellow (which I knew earlier but forgot). Now the doctor is touching my feet and looking at my toes. My toenails are painted a light greenish blue. “Would you call that cerulean?” he asks. “I guess you could say that!” I say, too loudly and at too high a pitch. I can’t modulate my voice. The harder I try to sound normal, the weirder I sound. I tell him that I was recently bitten repeatedly in my sleep by a mosquito that was trapped in a New York City apartment I was staying in and still have several welts on my back. I suggest that maybe I have West Nile virus. The doctor examines my back, peering at the welts like a jeweler peering through a loupe. “Amazing that you managed to get mosquito bites in New York City in October,” he says. People are always saying this kind of thing to me. I try to explain to the doctor that I’m constantly getting bitten by bugs. It’s just something about my body chemistry, not a big deal. I mentioned West Nile more for the purposes of making conversation than out of genuine concern. As a child living in Texas, and even later in New Jersey, I was chronically pocked with mosquito bites that
leave scars even now. Once in a motel room in Galveston, a spider bit my eyelid and it was swollen shut for days. These days when I hike in the Sierras, even at high altitudes, I’ve been known to be singled out by swarms of blackflies so smitten with me that my traveling companions ask if I’m wearing perfume. More recently, a few weeks before the New York trip, I woke up with fleabites all over my ankles, a casualty of letting the dog sleep on the bed. It’s not the bites, I tell the doctor. It’s hepatitis. I have what Pamela Anderson has. But I barely have enough energy to pry my lips apart to speak. The doctor has a rumpled, intellectual air about him, like he could be a graduate student in English. He has a hospital id and stethoscope around his neck but he is not wearing a lab coat, just a plaid shirt and jeans. He has told me he is an infectious-disease specialist. He is not old but not young. He is maybe in his late forties. I think to myself that he is just the right time for a doctor. What I mean is “just the right age” but “age” does not come to me. Words are floating past me but I cannot grab them. They are slimy fish. They are concepts with letters attached, but the letters are out of order and fading away as if on a screen. I don’t want to let on, though. I don’t want to embarrass myself in front of the doctor. Cerulean. I think of color strips from the paint store. I had a cerulean wall once, in a living room somewhere. I painted it myself and it contrasted beautifully with the white wainscoting. This house was a lifetime ago, though it’s possible I still live there. The doctor says he’ll order tests and come back later. Recommendations: 1. Blood cultures will be obtained. 2. Cbc, cmt, pt, ptt, chest x-ray, and right upper quadrant ultrasound will be ordered. 3. The patient will be placed on empiric doxycycline and Rocephin. 4. Hepatitis serology, a Mono spot test, and Epstein-Barr virus panel will be ordered. 5. West Nile virus IgM and IgG will be ordered. 6. Weil-Felix antibodies will be obtained. 7. Rickettsial typhi IgM and IgG will be obtained. 8. Hiv pcr testing will be ordered. 9. Leptospira antibody will be ordered. 10. As part of comprehensive workup, a lumbar puncture might be helpful, but in this patient the platelet count is currently too low to safely permit this.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
October 27, 2010 10:00 p.m. I am both asleep and not asleep. You know that state where you’re not dreaming but, rather, circling semiconsciously around an idea? It’s like your mind has been assigned a theme that splits off into a dozen variations as you lie there stuck in hypnagogia. This is the state I am in. The theme I’m working with concerns a friend who is somehow in trouble. I wasn’t aware of it before but suddenly I am seized with the knowledge that she is in a very bad way and I have left her to her own devices long enough and now need to tell someone. I’ve been trying to sleep but the more I lie here, the more I think about her situation and the more it seems like something very bad will happen if I don’t get her help now. Also, I am so thirsty that I want to convert my body into a sponge and dunk myself into a vat of water and never come up. “Hello?” I call. This isn’t really the word I mean. “Hello? Hello?” My husband is here. I think it’s maybe the middle of the night, but I’m not sure. I need to tell him about my friend. I had dinner with her when I was in New York last week, right before the fever came on. She is recently married but I am worried for her, though I can’t put my finger on why. Like me, she is a freelance writer. I’m not sure if my concern has to do with her career or her personal life. It feels like it’s probably both. The word that comes out is shackles. Except my words are slurred. It sounds more like “shales” or “shells.” “Sara is in shackles,” I say again and again. The slimy fish have turned into oysters in my mouth. They are multiplying. My tongue has shut off its communication receptors and is flopping around in my mouth with the oysters. My husband says he doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I’m making faces and waving my hands around as if we’re playing charades. “What is going on with you?” my husband says. “Do you know where you are right now?”
My husband is talking to someone in the background. Time has gone by. Maybe minutes. Maybe an hour. “You have to understand, this is not normal,” I hear him say. “She uses words for a living. Something is very wrong here.” What I know in real life but have forgotten now is that my husband writes about science and medicine. He almost went to medical school himself. But he went to Africa instead and reported on the Rwandan genocide. Our one-year wedding anniversary was two days ago. “I think we should call your dad,” my husband says. “Really? What for?” I ask.
October 28, 2010 3:00 a.m. Dr. Plaid Shirt is back, though he’s wearing a different shirt now. I don’t know it but it’s the middle of the night and my husband has insisted that the doctor be called at home and ordered to come in. The doctor covers up his id and asks, “Who am I?” “Steve,” I say. This is not how he introduced himself earlier but this is what I have to work with. It comes out as “Shteve.” “Fair enough,” he says. “What kind of doctor am I?” I’ve totally got this. What’s more, it’s going to impress the hell out of him. “Epidemiologist,” I say. Again with a lisp. I am under the misimpression that an epidemiologist and an infectious-disease specialist are the same thing. What I mean is that even in my normal, nonconfused state I believe this to be true. “Okay,” the doctor says. He’s writing a lot of stuff down. I am worried that he’s getting a bad impression of me. He maybe leaves or doesn’t leave. Probably he leaves. Suddenly my toes hurt. Or maybe it’s not sudden. Maybe more time has gone by. In any case they hurt a lot. Like they’re being frozen off my feet. I still have the nail polish on. I’m kicking my feet and yelling. I’m trying to warm my toes with my hands, except my arm is attached to an iv. “We have to remove the polish,” I hear someone say. My husband and a nurse are removing the polish. The cerulean is rubbing off onto acetone-soaked cotton balls. The scene fades for me right here, maybe because they give me something to calm me down or maybe because I stop remembering due to natural causes, like falling asleep or passing out. In the ensuing hours, I am transferred to another floor so I can be watched more carefully. I do not know this, though. I am getting closer and closer to not knowing anything at all. October 28, 2010 Patient transferred to Direct Observation Unit at 5:20 a.m. 9:00 a.m. 10
Type of Consultation: Neurology Reason for Consultation: Altered Mental Status 40-year-old female patient was admitted yesterday to the hospital. Her husband as well as a friend are at her bedside and inate that yesterday they began to notice she was having deterioration in her speech. In fact, A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
she was telling them “I know what I want to say” but having difficulty getting the words out. She states that she is in the hospital, however she cannot name the hospital. She cannot name the president. She is unable to state the date. She is quite confused. Impression: Aphasia with increased deep tendon reflexes in right lower extremity, suspicious for central nervous system lesion, rule out ischemic event such as septic emboli versus encephalitis. October 28, 2010 2:00 p.m.
I don’t know where I am in time or space but I know my husband’s close friend is here. She is the woman who married us a year ago. She got certified on the Internet and officiated at our ceremony in Central Park, where we stood under a chuppah even though I am Presbyterian. Now she is saying that the person at the hospital reception desk told her that only family members were allowed in but she that said she was my “clergy person” so they let her in. She is saying she’ll go to our house later and feed the dog and bring him to another friend who will watch him for a few days. She asks if there’s anything I need her to do in the house. I picture the house. It’s not really ours but a place we’re renting while we look for a real house to buy. It’s a little shabby and the yard is overgrown and layered with several seasons of leaves, but we rented it because the landlady allowed dogs. I think about what our friend might do for me in the house and I see a stack of laundry on the dryer. Not a stack but a pile. Some socks probably fell on the floor. I need her to pick the socks up and put them back in the pile. Or maybe in the drawer. The socks need to go from the pile to the drawer, though maybe not back to the pile. Maybe the pile can be skipped. I try to explain this. The laundry is floating in front of me. Shirt sleeves blowing in the breeze like in a laundry commercial. Underwear folded neatly. Maybe what I want her to do is take stuff out of the dryer. Or actually out of the washer. That’s what it is. I want her to take most of the stuff that’s in the washer and put in the dryer. Except there are a few things that need to be hung up to dry. One of those things starts with a letter in the alphabet. “You know the thing I mean,” I say. Not only is my speech slurred by now but my voice has melted into a flaccid monotone. I sound like a hobbit in a smial. I sound exactly like my mother sounded when she was dying. My husband’s friend is smiling and nodding as if everything is fine and casual. I don’t notice that her face is contorted in fear. “I understand,” she says. “I’ll take care of it.”
October 28, 2010 6:00 p.m. Patient moved to icu after signs of deterioration. Propofol sedation. Currently, decreased reflexes. Presence of nuchal (neck) rigidity. Meningioencephalitis, clearly worse than this a.m., discussed at length with husband and brother. Despite dic/thrombocytopenia I feel potential benefit from lumbar puncture outweighs risks given the clinical deterioration and despite abx and acoclyovir. Patient to be intubated for airway protection/safety and l/p will hopefully be done later if platelets/coagulants can be improved. Patient’s husband understands risks/benefits. Informed consent was obtained for l/p and blood/blood product transfusions. Patient will receive right and left wrist restraints due to agitation/combative behavior. What I will learn later is that I have been placed in what is essentially a medically induced coma. I will learn that I was thrashing around so much that they had to tie me to the bed with wrist restraints. Then, for sedation and “control of stress responses,” they placed me under propofol, the drug Michael Jackson used when he wanted to take naps and that eventually killed him. I am breathing on a ventilator for “airway protection” and I have a feeding tube. The mri has shown that I have meningoencephalitis, a swelling of the brain and the lining around the brain due to infection. They think the infecton is viral, for instance, some kind of massive herpes infection, but the insect bites also raise the possibility that I have West Nile or Rickettsia typhi, better known as murine typhus, which is caused by fleas not just biting you but then also defecating on your skin and spreading bacteria through your bloodstream when you scratch. But the brain infection is not even the main event at this moment. The most pressing issue is that sepsis in my bloodstream has given me something called disseminated intravascular coagulation, or dic. This means that clots have formed throughout my small vessels and blocked blood flow. The clotting is using up my platelets and creating a risk of massive internal bleeding or external bleeding through the nose or mouth or from under the skin. Dic is a life-threatening condition. Also, my liver and kidneys are now failing. To complicate things further, I need to undergo a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, in order to extract central nervous system fluids that will hopefully provide some better clues as to what is wrong with me. But it’s dangerous to do a spinal tap on a patient whose platelet count is as low as mine. At first, the doctors decide to delay the lumbar puncture until I receive more platelet transfusions. But when my neck begins to stiffen and my blood-work numbers worsen they confer around midnight and decide they have no choice. My husband is shown a consent form A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
saying he understands that the procedure carries the risk of spontaneous internal bleeding that could lead to permanent paralysis or death. It is explained to him that given how sick I am there’s a chance of these outcomes happening anyway. On the other hand, it’s also possible that testing the central nervous system fluids will yield no information. My husband, who has never so much as borrowed my credit card and forged my signature, must make the final decision whether or not to proceed. By now, my brother, who lives in town, is at the hospital and my father is on a plane from New York. My husband signs the form. A transport team comes and wheels me away. Fifteen minutes later they bring me back. My husband and brother ask how it went and are told it didn’t go at all. The doctors decided the procedure was too risky after all. Because it’s the middle of the night they do not have access to the imaging equipment that could potentially minimize any complications. They will wait until morning. My husband starts to wonder if I’d be better off at a larger hospital, like ucla or Cedars-Sinai. Despite the hour, he starts calling anyone he can think of who might have a connection to a blood or brain specialist in Los Angeles. He gets someone on the phone who listens to his story and tells him it probably doesn’t make a difference at this point. I’m better off staying where I am. October 29, 2010 8:02 a.m. Patient intubated and sedated. Febrile overnight, presence of nuchal rigidity. Highest temp 102.4F. Tachycardiac. On ventilator. Impressions: Uncertain if she still has pre-renal azotemia due to sepsis. Most likely intrinsic renal disease, consider small vessel occlusive disease, catastrophic antiphosiphoid syndrome seems possible but unlikely. Plan: Perform lumbar puncture with fluoroscopy. Continue hemodynamic monitoring and neuro checks every 2 hours. 13
Medications: Ampicillin, Vancomycin, Ceftriaxone, Acyclovir. Notes: This is a complicated and challenging case. Likely with mosquito bite encephalopathy (West Nile Virus vs. St. Louis, Eastern Equine, Japanese) complicated by sepsis and dic.
As a child I often harbored the thought that I wasn’t actually living my life but instead subsisting in a vegetative state. In this state, the events I experienced as reality were merely hallucinations that scrolled through my consciousness while I was strapped to a bed somewhere, saliva dribbling down my chin as my body matured and then grew old over loose bands of atrophied muscles. In other words, I imagined myself as I am at this very moment, a swollen, waxy encasement of failed and failing organ systems, the subject of whispered conversations among family members in the hallways and an occasion for frozen lasagnas left for my husband on the porch steps. I imagined myself as both the author of my life and a total nonparticipant in it. In the future, which is to say after I emerge from this coma and leave this hospital and return to my life, I will still occasionally indulge this scenario, though what I’ll wonder is whether I actually ever got out of this bed. I’ll wonder if it’s possible that I never recovered from the ordeal of late October 2010 but instead slipped from a medically induced coma into a real coma and remained there for years. From there, the life I would have lived will reside solely in my mind. All that’s happened since then—all the meals and holidays and arguments in the car, all the boxes packed and unpacked, all the people and pets buried and cremated, all the revolutions of the warming earth around the unblinking sun—will be nothing more than vivid, interminable dreams. Meanwhile, my family will endure a living hell in which there is no legal avenue for removing my feeding tube or otherwise hastening my death. Weeks from now, my husband will tell me that the outcome he feared most was that I would wake up and be severely impaired. He feared that I wouldn’t be the same person. He will tell me that when the doctors told him there was a chance I’d need years of cognitive rehabilitation and, even then, there were no guarantees, he thought that as much as he didn’t want me to die that if the worst-case scenario came true it was perhaps better if I did. I will find this all very disturbing but also be in complete agreement. The worst-case scenario would not have been dying. It would have been remaining partially alive. This period of grim prognosis lasts approximately forty-eight hours. During this time, a friend is charged with the task of getting regular updates from my husband and e‑mailing those updates to all of my other friends. The names of these friends have been culled largely from the address book on my cell phone, which contains not just close associates but also people I haven’t spoken with in years or, in some cases, people I barely know but whose contact information happens to be in my phone. The result is that everyone from my best friend to my college roommate to a Pilates trainer I worked with exactly once is receiving e‑mails about my platelet count. Some are replying. Some are sending flowers and food and calling my husband incessantly. Some are showing up at the hospital even though they can’t enter the intensive care unit and forcing my husband to come out and deal with them. Some are preparing themselves for news that I have died. Some are thinking it can’t possibly be as serious as these updates are suggesting. Some are praying, even some you wouldn’t expect it from. A dear friend who’s a conservative evangelical Christian has got her husband and her kids and her Bible A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
study group and most of her church begging Jesus to heal me. But there are others, too. Secularists in Brooklyn apartments and Florida condos and midcentury-modern houses in hip Los Angeles neighborhoods are holding their heads in their hands and murmuring. They say they’re praying for me but chances are they’re really praying for themselves. They’re praying that whatever is happening to me never happens to them or anyone they share a bed with or tuck into bed at night. Which is exactly what I’d be praying for in their situation. Some are concocting strange fantasies about caring for me. One will admit later that she imagined feeding me with a spoon and rubbing my back while teaching me how to say “cat” and “dog.” My best friend, who for years has joked about someday writing a memoir called “Dead Meghan” so as to join the esteemed ranks of female writers spilling the secrets of writer best friends who die prematurely, tries to cheer up my husband by saying she hasn’t started the book yet. “I’m optimistic for her recovery,” she says. “Otherwise I’d be on page ten by now.” My husband thinks this is funny. Apparently, he actually laughs. I have married the right man. I have married a man who has followed every step of my clinical course and engaged with medical personnel on a sometimes excruciatingly detailed level and yet still laughed at this joke. Also, I have a best friend who is capable of uncommon humor and deep humanity. In the past I have forgotten this from time to time but when I wake up I will know it more than I’ve ever known it. When I wake up I will tell myself I’ll never forget it again, though of course I will. October 30, 2010 6:00 a.m. Patient still intubated/sedated. Cfs consistent with a viral process or partially bacterial process (probably less likely). Neck supple again, the nuchal rigidity of last p.m. is much better, scattered purpura on dorsal of hands, feet warmer and better perfused.
A few months from now I will visit my evangelist Christian friend and her husband will pull me aside and tell me how great it is to see me and how worried they were when I was sick. “You had a lot of people praying for you,” he’ll say. “I know,” I’ll say. “And I really appreciate it.” “I mean, a lot of people,” he’ll say. “Yes. It was great. Really nice.” “I’m just wondering,” he’ll say, “if it’s changed the way you think about things. If you’ve given any more thought to faith and the power of prayer.”
I will be caught so off guard that I’ll say something not only insufficient but ridiculously out of character. I will say that a lot of people were praying who didn’t necessarily do so regularly and that there must have been a lot of “healing energy” going on. I will feel like a total ingrate. To these friends, my failure to become a follower of Jesus—to even show a sliver of interest in Jesus—in the wake of my miraculous survival must be the ultimate slap in the face. It’s as if I commissioned them for a job and then refused to pay even when they delivered excellent service ahead of schedule. Other people will ask me what it’s like to nearly die. Is there a light? Did I feel the presence of divine or otherworldly love? Did I make a conscious decision to “fight back and live?” I won’t know what to say to that, either. The only thing I’ll be able to say is that it was like nothing. In this particular situation at least, dying would have been like falling off a log. Actually, it wouldn’t even have been that dramatic. It would have been like flipping a light switch when your eyes are already closed. It would have merely been a matter of going from unconsciousness to nonexistence. For years afterward, that will be the thing that scares me most: that I could have just as easily slipped that way as this. “If anyone asks, tell them dying is hard,” my mother said to me in her last weeks. For me, at least in late October 2010, dying would have been a piece of cake. October 31, 2010 9:02 a.m. Attempted to wake patient up, sedation at minimum, patient moves around but does not follow commands. 11:00 a.m. Off propofol since 9 a.m. Patient moving extremities but not responding to verbal stimulation. Later I will find out the neurologist is yelling, “Wake up!” directly in front of my face and I am not responding. This is of particular concern because meningoencephalitis can cause deafness. My husband will tell me that they’re getting out my iPod and putting the buds in my ears and blasting Joni Mitchell (as if Joni is the kind of artist you can “blast”) and still not getting a reaction. I will find this both highly disturbing and strangely mortifying. November 1, 2010 4:30 a.m. Patient agitated, eyes open, not fully conscious. Patient appears to have made positive progress, fever reducing. A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
9:01 a.m. Awake, follows commands. 11:20 a.m. Follows commands, sort of oriented, knows name. When asked what year it is states “2011.” Knows she’s in hospital but cannot name which one. When prompted “Huntington” she says “gardens/beach.”
It’s morning. Last night they took my toenail polish off and now I’m waking up. At least that’s the situation as far as I’m concerned. They’re telling me that four days have passed, but this doesn’t compute even slightly. The last four days don’t exist for me, though they will haunt my husband for the rest of his life. I see my father standing over my bed and think he must have just arrived on an early flight. Someone is asking me what year it is and I am saying it’s 2011 and not 2010. The hospital is called Huntington but there is also a Huntington Botanical Gardens and more relevant to me, a Huntington Beach, where dogs can run off-leash and where I’ve taken my dog and watched him roll in the sand in pure canine ecstasy. So when they say “Huntington” I say “Beach.” In a few days my husband will bring in a photo of the dog and put it near my bed where I can see it at all times. Five days from now, when I’m still in the hospital but no longer in the icu, the test from the central nervous system fluid will come back positive for murine typhus. This will mean that my infection is bacterial rather than viral. It will mean that it wasn’t the mosquito that made me sick (or herpes or Japanese spotted fever or leptospirosis or hiv or any of the other candidates) but, rather, the flea feces that I embedded in myself when I scratched my feet. The fleas are living on rats and opposums in the overgrown yard of the rental house and they got on the dog and then on me. This will be reported to the county health department and someday I’ll even record a “survivor’s testimony” video for a flea-bornetyphus symposium at the Mosquito and Vector Control Association of California’s annual meeting. In the meantime, the doctors will remain mystified by how I managed to get so sick from something that usually just gives people flu symptoms for a few days and then goes away. Moreover, they will be shocked at how quickly I got better. It will be as if grave illness were a deep swimming hole I plunged down to the bottom of and then shot back out of at the last possible second. They will tell me I scared them. A patient care coordinator who read my chart when I was in the icu will come into my room and tell me that it’s quite literally a miracle that I’ve recovered. The neurologist will also use the word miracle. This will give me chills. Neurologists shouldn’t use words like miracle. Only evangelical Christians should. And even then they should choose their audiences wisely.
November 1, 2010 9:30 a.m. Clinically dramatically better, dic is resolving. Remove d/c foley catheter, transfer out of icu to medical surgical floor. My husband is holding my hand. His face is down in my face. “You were so sick,” he says. “But you’re going to be okay.” I am relieved by this, though I have no idea just how relieved I should be. I try to speak but it’s like my facial muscles are buried under wet cement. I open my eyes and close them. Time passes. I tell myself that if I’m lucky enough to wake all the way up I will become a better person. Even in this state of unprecedented grogginess, even though I am not really awake yet but gliding toward consciousness on a slowly melting, invisible ice floe, I have the idea that this is the kind of thing I’m supposed to be saying to myself. I feel some mandate to take an inventory of all the meaningless crap I was caught up in before I got sick—the real estate market, the vagaries of my career, the merciless judgments I’m capable of casting upon everyone and everything in my wake—and realize how silly and shortsighted I was. Except even on the ice floe, I know this is a fantasy. As I inch toward the shore, I am collecting the pieces of myself that were swept away with the tide but are floating back to me now. I am reclaiming my words. I am locating the letters of the alphabet and arranging them so that they correspond with the ideas in my head. I am coming back to myself. And I am no wiser or more evolved than I was before. There is no epiphany or revelation or aha moment or big click. There is no redemption. There is no great lesson learned. There is only the unknowable and the unspeakable. There is only the unlikely if ever-present possibility that life is just a string of stories inside a coma. And in this story, I am not a better person. I am the same person. This is a story with a happy ending. Or at least something close enough.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Upon Meeting a Whale Shark in Captivity
When the dive-master yelled, “Flaaat!”, my legs seized with terror and my body tried to morph into the shape any body would take when confronted with a giant whale shark gliding directly towards your head: a pancake. Actually, since I was floating on the surface of the water of the 6-million gallon “Ocean Voyager” tank at the Georgia Aquarium, and since my ears were submerged when I was face down, the command sounded more like “aaabbattttttt!” Just minutes before, us guest snorkelers were instructed over and over again: “If you hear me shout, ‘Flat,’ that means you’ve got a whale shark swimming directly under you. Flatten your body so your belly doesn’t skim her back.” I could hardly believe a fish, longer and wider than a school bus (and weighing more than a fully loaded one at that!), was swimming directly toward my head. I thought for sure I would be swallowed whole inside her open mouth. An accident, of course—whale sharks only eat plankton and bits of shrimp, and their throats are the size of a quarter—but what an accident to tell my toddler and husband back home in New York. What a dumb legacy to leave them in this way! I could just picture it—my son would be forever haunted by his mother being the first known casualty of being accidentally gummed to bits by a gentle whale shark. But as the giant fish moved closer to my head—at the last possible moment before I thought she would crash into me—the whale shark sank just low enough to not touch me at all, though her dorsal fins almost brushed up against the belly of my wetsuit. If I wanted to, I could reach my hand down and pet her spotted back when the dive-master wasn’t looking, but I was too terrified to do anything but float—lift my belly and curve my back as far up as it would let me as I tried to get out of the shark’s way. It was as if she were toying with me—wanting to give me a little fright, just enough to let me know exactly who was queen of this tank. This particular whale shark repeated her close encounter drive-bys with me several more times during the entire length of my snorkel session, even though there were five other snorkelers plus two dive-masters in the tank besides me. Each time she passed me, I saw her giant eyeball look right at my mask, curious as a spaniel. Very rare to happen at all, let alone to the same person, said the dive-master. By the time I climbed the metal ladder out of the Ocean Voyager tank, I could barely walk on the concrete deck. I had tensed up all the muscles in my arms and legs for the last half an hour and suddenly, even the fairly lightweight snorkel system seemed as heavy as carrying a bag of mulch. Around my neck. In the locker room, I was the last one to change back into my street clothes. When I was sure all the other snorkelers had already left the room and were probably all lined up to collect their souvenir photo, I sat down on a wooden bench. Still wearing my half-unzipped wetsuit, I wept with my face in my hands. In my mother’s homeland of the Philippines, whale sharks have a prominent place in folklore in the warm seas of Donsol. One of my favorite fairy tales about the whale shark describes the origin of the species, starting from a greedy teen named Kablay who lived long ago, when animals grew much smaller in the ocean. The story goes that A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
everyone in a tiny barangay of Donsol knew where Kablay kept his coins. One of his eyes always pointed left towards the starfruit grove, and the other was always fixed on his coins in the tin cookie box under his bed. Every night, after his dinner of bangus fish and jelly seaweeds, they heard him pry open the cave-mouth lid of the cookie box. He stacked the coins into a small silver city, then crashed them just to hear the noise. Just to see the light disperse into a hundred pieces on his bedroom floor. Sometimes, lizards mistook it for a flash of moth-wing and crashed into a pile of coins themselves, their whippy tails scattering silver along the floorboards. All night, lizards peered out from behind curtains and shook their head from side to side, as if to say, “No-no. No-no.” Each night, these small crashes became familiar and expected as a sort of metallic lullaby in the otherwise quiet province, save for the occasional bark of a stray blue dog. When the Great Typhoon hit and it was clear the dams would not hold, all the villagers fled to the hills of Donsol. No time to collect photos, rambuntan fruit, or rosary. Everyone left the province except Kablay. He sat on the floor in his house and hugged his cookie tin to his chest. The no-no lizards had long since scattered. The waters rushed through the province and swept everything out to sea: tender, young chico trees and whole bamboo stands where you could buy a sweet fizzy drink poured into a plastic bag with a straw. Even the hapless chickens and stray dogs with their mouths wide open whirled away into the ocean. But Kablay held tight to his coins and his coins held him. He held them so tight, they pressed into his body and left a white spot. And another. And another and another spot until his whole back was dotted white. Kablay’s mouth became a small cave and the bubbles that popped from it were silver. Sometimes you can still see Kablay and his wide eyes still searching for a small ship, a scrap of moonlight. Every April he comes back to see if he left any more coins behind. Kablay’s money is always with him, pressed into his dark, leathery skin. And because he loved his coins so much and did not want to part with them, his legs shrank into fins until he turned into a whale shark. The spots on his back look like a whole city of light, where everyone is always awake and trying to remember the simple sweet memory of soil.
Even though I spent almost a year studying them, I was never prepared for the sheer size of a whale shark. I wasn’t prepared to have a giant hammerhead (notorious for sudden attacks on humans) also swimming with me in the tank, watching us snorkelers with her otherworldly eyeballs spaced so far apart on her wide head. I wasn’t prepared for scores of other dangers: blacktip reef, spotted wobbegong, zebra, and sand tiger sharks. All recently fed just before we entered the tank, according to our dive master, So no need to worry. Of course I worried. Looking back at that one and only snorkeling session with a whale shark, I realize I simply was never prepared to submit myself so completely to Nature. Or rather, man’s interpretation and preservation of Nature by adding 1.8 million pounds of sea salt in a giant tank of water so that all these creatures could live and swim together. For science.
For entertainment. For spectacle. Perhaps for a little of all three. I had fulfilled a life dream to swim with a whale shark, and I couldn’t shake the guilt and dread I felt long after. My son could have been motherless. My husband, a widower. And I certainly felt sorry for the sharks. I was able to leave the aquarium and fly home from Atlanta to my family. I knew that even though they give thousands upon thousands of visitors a little glimpse of wonder and awe to see them behind a giant pane of glass, whale sharks belong in the wild where they could do more than trace a slow curve around the same planted coral and faux sea-cliff. I had brought back a whale shark hand puppet for my son. When my family arrived at the airport to pick me up from my trip, I sat with my son in the backseat because I needed to see his sweet pink cheeks again. I reached into my backpack and gave him the present I promised. He promptly slipped it over his tiny fist, which he unclenched to make the shark puppet mouth open/close-open/close-open/close. He giggled in his car seat as my husband drove us all home. It was as if I had never left them at all. Almost a decade later, I’ve since swum in seas where the whale sharks have recently appeared in search of plankton-rich waters, but I have yet to actually see one again. Mama, mama, my son calls out as he hoists his hand-puppet over my shoulder, I am a whale shark and I need a snack, please. He crawls into my lap and talks with the puppet for a bit before he makes the puppet turn back to me and ask, I’m looking for my shark family. Have you seen them? The whale shark connected to my giggly son contracts, then expands—its furry, pink mouth opens broadly and remains open— waiting for an answer that still swims in that giant aquarium tank where so many of the beautiful and mighty sharks I once encountered in those dark, man-made coves have died and have since been replaced and replaced and replaced.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Last year Juliet and I bought a new house in poor condition, and I made a creative project of it, writing very little, playing little music, barely drawing except for kitchen layouts, nor painting except for window sashes, not even getting into the garden much but spending my days as a carpenter or plumber or tile man or electrician or designer, whatever was needed, and harking back to my days in New York City, late seventies, early eighties, when I did all that to fund writing, music, and other general mayhem. All grown up, Juliet and I have mostly lived in western Maine these last twenty-five years, spending months abroad and in other states for work, it’s true, but always calling the Maine woods home. We took on this second house because we’d long wanted to place one foot back nearer civilization, which around here is Portland (the original Portland), pop. 66,881 as of 2015. We also felt called to the ocean, but who can afford that? Our compromise was this place, 5.5 miles south of the city over the Casco Bay Bridge, a mile or two or three from several great beaches, and on the Spurwink River, a contained but still vast tidal saltmarsh, the house perched high enough that storm surge won’t wash through the first floor come disaster, though we’re in the face of the wind. And the wind smells of salt. The ocean is a canoe ride away, one mile, a paddle I’ve taken often these last many months, fighting the tide or ripping along with it, great fun, always challenging: the monthly spring tides, when sun and moon pull in tandem, are so high that the river becomes a windy bay, so low that it becomes a sandbar, even a beach. I fired an early contractor because though he was creative and very smart, he just didn’t see his role in containing costs. Every proposal from him was dreamy—beautiful lighting reconfigurations, elegant flooring solutions, plumbing from heaven, an extremely high-end photovoltaic energy system (“Tesla ready,” the salesmen for all that fancy equipment announced. “I’m more, like, Subaru,” I countered). The collective estimates were more than triple our budget and didn’t yet include the renovations I’d originally asked about: kitchen, bedrooms, family room. All that to get to the moment that that dear contractor cranked open one of the many windows to the vista over the grasses, and a blizzard of dried organic material burst into the kitchen breeze. “Carpenter ants,” he declared. I asked at the hardware store for ideas for controlling ants without chemical insecticides (the answer is diatomaceous earth, btw). The clerk was a very gentle older guy (older than I, I mean, which in the workforce is saying something). He didn’t think for a millisecond before he had the answer: “Just spray the shit out of ’em with Roundup.” “Isn’t Roundup a herbicide?” “That shit’ll kill anything. And you said no pesticide. It’s all I had one time and I wiped out a hornet’s nest with it, believe me, like a whole gallon.” Sounds like an off-label use, the kind the Chemical Council likes to say (evaluating potential environmental degradation) is rare. We laughed about that. Anyway, I have a lot of experience with carpenter ants from our other house, the scruffy one up in
Farmington, and this fibrous evidence was not from carpenter ants. I do not spray the shit out of anything, ever (nor even own a microwave, having removed the antediluvian, unshielded one from this place—you could feel your brain cells cooking, I swear) but prefer to live in concert with the great world, even if it means I’m sometimes very slightly the worse off. You can do battle without chemical weapons (as you can cook food fast with just regular fire). You can care about collateral damage, even if it’s only the potential for your own rare tumors. The dried material, however, wasn’t sawdust or an inoperable malignancy but what looked like micro-hay. I wasn’t going to fire the contractor for being wrong about his insects, but still wanted to prove my case. So, a week later, I plucked at the material, got myself a handful—it had been stuffed into the runnels atop the storm sashes, that is, stuffed into the hollow formed by the runnels (which are delicate gutters) and the very tight, very contemporary window frames (again not like Farmington, where the nineteenth-century windows allow actual wind in the living room, occasional snowdrifts). More investigation proved that the material had also been compacted into the tubular sash guides on the interior window, packed in tight, like sleeping bags into stuff sacks, and not by willowy Girl Scouts but more like Dykes on Bikes (my younger sisters’ pals, big on camping, thus the metaphor). Among the seeming detritus were bits of insect exoskeleton, antlike, I had to admit, and scraps of wings, also some kind of cocoon material, which I dismissed as moth work, a separate issue. The contractor and I agreed to disagree, as they say, and left the discussion there, as there were old kitchen cabinets to demo, carefully, carefully—I meant to re-use them, reconfigured. (The contractor, by the way, said that would be impossible. He was wrong. I fired him about then, an amicable parting that included a nice fat check for consultation. And took over the work myself, construction being my first vocation.) Here at the new place during breaks from the work, I like wading the Spurwink River at low tide and riding in my old canoe upstream and under the little bridge into the next town, cliff swallows in its rusty I-beams (I almost typed iBeams, but Apple doesn’t make them). The river above the bridge breaks into dozens of serpentine channels, claims a few hundred acres, appears from various roadside vantage points as a flat, waving field of spartina, also known as cordgrass, or broomgrass, good canoeing at high tides, a brisk ride out as the water falls. Below the bridge, the river has one very clear main channel, deep at high tide (and tides here are voluminous, nine to eleven feet the normal mean, much more after rain or in front of sea storms). The channel has high peat banks, the peat forming a giant sponge, miles of squishy marshland. But standing in the mostly hard sand of the riverbed you can examine everything crawling or wading or growing in the marsh at eye level. Spartina, goosefoot, saltmarsh goldenrod, saltmarsh aster, wild celery, a very few other salt-tolerant plants. Crabs, clams, sand eels, mummichogs, periwinkles (called wrinkles here), striped bass in schools. Crickets, mosquitoes, deer ticks, dragonflies. Egrets, seagulls, cormorants, kingfishers, eagles, A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
ospreys, terns, northern harriers, herons galore, the odd bobolink, and crows, lots of crows, and on and on. Foxes, deer, coyotes (the evening chorus), moles, raccoons, and skunks, of course—there’s always a skunk. And people, a sparse summer flotilla in kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, inner tubes, even swimming. Turds too, from what I hear, but that was all cleaned up in the 1970s with an ambitious sewer project. Clamming, however, is still discouraged, as the remaining septic systems aren’t perfect, especially after great rainfall. One sunny morning this past summer, examining a spilled marble bag of wrinkles left high and dry (but seemingly unfazed), I happened to spy a smallish wasp working very hard in the spartina, the ubiquitous salt-tolerant grass. I thought it seemed an odd spot for a wasp, but I assumed the little beauty was hunting for insects. I suppressed my usual flight response (I am a recovering spheksophobic), and merely examined the creature, examined her from no more than a foot away, the bank being about my height right there. She had a long waist like a tiny black cable connecting thorax and the teardrop abdomen. I recalled reading that solitary wasps (not meaning alone in the moment but alone as a lifestyle) are not aggressive. Her wings, I noted, were not laid back on her body like most wasps I’ve watched, but rested outstretched. I pressed closer and the thing visibly tensed, but then kept working, doing whatever she was doing— perhaps eating the grass, anyway clearly nibbling on it. Gradually I realized she was cutting the grass blade, a little like one of those silent-movie dolts sitting on a branch while sawing it. Grass blades are alternately soft and hard, leaf material wedded to stem material, and this was a tough leaf. I tried cutting a succession of samples cleanly with a fingernail, found I was more likely to tear the leaf than cut it clean. Same with my teeth. The wasp didn’t pause even once, but worked till the leaf was almost severed, nice straight cut, still standing on it. When the blade finally began to break through, she started up her wings, which had only been twitching. With a last emphatic bite the blade tip broke off, but the wasp had good hold of it and took it airborne without losing a millimeter of altitude. She flew then, very low to the ground. Her speed was strong with the wind at her back, but with the grass blade dangling she was quite visible to me and slow and a touch unstable and I was able to scramble up the bank, spot her, and then follow her fifty or sixty feet in the general direction of the house, about nine hundred feet away, before I lost her. 27
A couple of days later, all sweated from skim-coating old sheetrock, I cranked open one of the newly cleaned windows and was surprised to see more fibrous material at the top of the frame where I thought I’d brushed it out. With my fingers, I worked the material out of the runnel at the top of the frame, let it fall to the patio a story below, got it all out, shut the window, a vague unease, some unknown animal despoiling my new property (buyer’s remorse is a temporary condition but makes every tiny flaw seem a knife to the heart)! But definitely not carpenter ants. Later on the patio, reading raptly at sunset, I looked away from Elena Ferrante (no concern, by the way, for
who she might really be), saw the tufts I’d thrown down, picked up a big one, examined it idly (dried bits of grass and grass stem, a couple or three inches long at the most, mostly much shorter), suddenly startled to notice the stuff was intermixed with what I thought were small katydids, that unmistakable and beautiful palest spring green, long jumping legs, prodigious antennae. Perhaps a dozen katydids packed into the matrix of dried grasses, bizarre. They were alive, too, but seemed torpid. So had I discovered a katydid nest? Do katydids even nest? No, they were like grasshoppers, right? Laying their eggs on the stems of plants. Eating oak leaves, stuff like that. Katydids I’d known from childhood (and later including the giant species of Central America). But I dutifully yanked out my phone and Googled the situation. Nothing. Really nothing. But I didn’t need the Internet to know that Katydids don’t nest. There are unknown numbers of species of wasp worldwide, well over 100,000 documented, probably that many undocumented, and so I like to collect sightings and occasionally even individuals, not in jars, but as drawings in my notebooks, bad photos in my phone. What if I spot one no one else has known? My top favorite has been the stingless and colorful Ichneumon wasp with its four-inch long ovipositor, a Swiss Army Knife of a thing, capable of drilling holes in bark in search of prey. Prey being insects. The Ichneumons don’t sting. I’ve caught them in my hands, looked at them as long as I wanted, let them go to kill again. I’ve found steel-blue cricket hunters (another favorite), and of course all sorts of burrowing wasps, various spider hunters, fly-catchers (bless their hearts—they dig underground traps!), bee-killers, mud daubers, wood borers, grasshopper-grabbers, caterpillar kidnappers, umbrella builders, miners, and yes, katydid killers, but those were huge, not this wasp. I’d gotten to know them all just by taking a minute to look at each, to follow each about her business rather than flee in terror, my former stance. And then to read up. While I wasn’t building my house, I mean. An August morning and I’m standing at the window glassing a grebe, nothing rare, but unusual this past summer, anyway. Solo, it dove methodically, seemed to be coming up with something—too far away to determine what, probably sand eels. And a slight shadow distracted me just outside the tall window, a twitch—a stalk of Timothy grass, slowly growing shorter. And then the wasp herself, hovering only inches in front of me, landing on the window, hovering, landing, very busily and even aggressively picking at the recalcitrant end of the stalk till a piece broke off, then flying up and out of sight with that fragment. I ran outside with my (state-of-the-art, Swarovski, 8.5 x 42) binocs in hand, found the wasp at work stuffing my window crack with the grass stalk, a difficult chore, apparently, with several changes of position till she backed into the hole, dragging the grass millimeter by millimeter after her. Shortly she reappeared, reconnoitered a few seconds, wiping fly-like at her head A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
with a front set of legs (I do this after a tough task, too), then leapt to flight against the stiff ocean breeze, proceeding slowly enough that I was able to follow with the binoculars even while walking a slow forty or fifty feet across my mown lawn till I lost the insect just at the border of the unmown former hayfield, which falls gently a couple hundred yards to the marsh zone, where the plants shift to salt-tolerant species. But the wasp’s direction was clear. I walked slowly, looking for my wasp, not really a needle in a haystack, as needles don’t fly, the motion being key, even in the wind: dark, busy creature against a generally light background, not impossible. Just at the edge of the low spartina I found a wasp. I couldn’t say it was the same insect, though that didn’t seem impossible, either. Had the population of grass-carrying wasps been dense, all my windows or at least more of them would be packed with grasses. Then again, I hadn’t checked all my windows. That, I would have to do. But whichever insect had started repacking the test window had gotten quite far in one week.
But what is time to a wasp? Time to a wasp is a single summer and early autumn, then a long sleep, and with luck, part of a late spring. But that’s a lifetime, and a lifetime is long to us all. And certainly any task can seem to take forever. I sat down to observe. In Wasp Studies Afield, published in 1919—a nice Dover edition of which I’ve owned since my mother gave it to me in the year it came out, 1970—Phil Rau and Nellie Rau describe Chlorion (Isodontia) auripes, as they call it (now just Isodontia auripes, the brown-legged grass-carrying wasp—compare to Isodontia Mexicana. Mine, I was sure, is auripes, with a kind of brown wash to the wings and legs, the body and especially the abdomen shiny black), having discovered it carrying grass stems to old bee holes in their barn near St. Louis, Missouri: “It was such an unusual sight that we ran to observe it, but, without warning, the wasp quickly flew out the door and escaped.” A few days later their children came running and shouting that the wasp was back, and their old-fashioned observational science resumed. (It’s a lovely book, full of unapologetic, if acknowledged, anthropomorphisms—their wasps are often joyful, sometimes manic, always determined. I aspire to continue this science, not so much to discover anything new, but to rediscover, and spread the word.) But I didn’t remember this short passage in the book, and only when I returned to those pages and the chapter on hunters of large orthoptera did I know what I was observing: the grass-carrying wasp, well named. The grass-carrying wasp! In further study, I learned that what I’d been thinking of as katydids were in fact tree crickets, and that the wasp hunted these insects to feed its young, packing hollows as found in reeds and bee tunnels and window frames with grass to make nests. The wasp builds her nest bird-style, supplies it with tree crickets she’s stung torpid (this I’d like to see), lays her eggs on the chest of one or more crickets, seals a chamber with stuffed grass, makes as many more chambers as the cavity will hold, then carries on, living herself on plant nectar and the pleasures of hunting for the life of her progeny and through them the species, not the first vegan parent to have meat-eating children. In a lifetime of bug love I had somehow never heard of tree crickets, never seen one. And I thought I knew crickets. They were little black things. But now I read all I could—and discovered that the long, unbroken chirring we were hearing at night, and all night—the non-cicada one—was produced by crickets of palest green, the males rubbing two sticks together: their legs. The more familiar rhythmic cricketing (which was also leg music) was the sound of field crickets, thousands of which seemed to inhabit the grown-over old hayfields, at least in August, when a walk along the paths I’d mowed above the marsh was crossed with constant explosive leaps like bottle rockets, startling. And then there were house crickets, insistently solo behind the bookcase. Some sources said I’d find tree crickets on goldenrod, some said shrubs and trees, some said grasses, some said fruit trees and raspberry canes. Some said location was going to be species and geography specific. From my torpid examples I had a clear A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
search image, kept it at the front of my mind as I looked high and low, picturing the translucent, delicately cross-hatched wings folded over the mighty legs, the antennae long as the body, the large compound eyes, couldn’t find a single animal. My wasp, meanwhile, stayed hard at work, presumably delivering crickets—they accumulated daily, now in the next window too—though I didn’t see her carrying one. Watching the windows with one eye while reading about her habits I often caught her bringing spartina fragments and stems, but for a month I never saw her with prey. Till finally in sunset light on a warm evening in August I saw her arrive without grass. I got to my feet in some excitement (the joys of old men!). She was having trouble landing, so I got several close views, just a double pane of glass between us. She rested for four minutes and twenty-one seconds on the windowsill. (I timed this because Phil and Nellie Rau timed things, and because there must be some use for the stopwatch on my iPhone, else why have it?) And then I spied it: grasped in her mandibles and steadied by her central set of legs (for all of those seconds without any change in grip or position), sure enough: a green insect, still twitching. My wasp finally got clearance from the tower and flew upward and to the corner of the window frame, landed there and walked easily with her burden to the entrance at the corner of the sash, where she and her prey disappeared. In the failing light I waited, and finally after five minutes and twenty-one seconds she reemerged. She dropped to the sill and cleaned herself for thirty-one seconds, then took off and into the calm evening, not flying downhill and south toward the former hayfield, where I’d been searching for tree crickets, but east over the deck and toward the mixed stand of trees and shrubs standing between my house and the hidden home of our neighbor. In the morning, I searched for two loosely timed hours in those trees, uncovering all sorts of spiders and caterpillars and ants and flies and beetles, but no tree crickets. I’d be a poor Isodontia. It was cloudy, with rain beginning to spit in the wind, so no actual auripes were out but probably resting safely under leaves—they don’t shelter in their nests, which are primarily nurseries. I retreated to the woodshed and considered. What if I were a grass-carrying wasp? Where would I look? Well, I’d rely on instinct, unsung instinct, for as a solitary I’d have had no one to teach me, and no experience but the doing. My own instinct, a kind of revelation, was that the crickets would be higher up in the trees, so I retrieved my very narrow, very tall, A-shaped antique apple ladder (I found this decades back in an abandoned apple orchard) and propped it up in the same trees, climbed higher and continued my search, found a few wasps— none of them grass-carrying, but various solitaries (ichneumon and a potter, then several unknown to me, which would lead to more reading fun with the Raus and various field guides) resting out of the rain, unfazed by my presence. I didn’t judge them, lazy bastards, but noted my lack of fear, which has come through knowledge. As the rain came in earnest, I resumed my dry search on the Internet, looking for cricket-hunting advice, and thinking of the Biological Sciences Library at Columbia University, where back in the day, and not truly that long ago, I used to spend hours looking for stuff I could call up now on my phone in minutes. Finally on the terrific Iowa State University Bug Page, I found this: “A great source for ‘everything you ever
wanted to know about tree crickets’ is an article written in May 1915 by Bentley B. Fulton in a Technical Bulletin for the New York Agricultural Experiment Station.” (Note that much of the observational science available these days is by contemporary amateurs or by scientists 100 years ago, when field studies were the sexiest path of knowledge. Bentley B. Fulton’s dozens of notes refer to the similar studies of contemporaries. Any paper about bugs now—specialized stuff about the molecular makeup of excretions, for example—contains references to the work of the field scientists of yore.) And so to the library. And it was true. Mr. Fulton had handed me everything I wanted to know. I went to my nesting window and cracked it open, found a few crickets to inspect. And then I took the opportunity to check all my windows, 45 in all, and found grass-carrying wasp nests in seventeen. All with the same species of tree cricket stored in great numbers. So my solitary wasp was not alone. (Later I’d run from window to window and unequivocally find four individuals at work—certainly there were more, and certainly my windows are not their only nesting sites. How would you design a census? More questions, which only raise further questions yet, always the path of the naturalist, lists of web pages, stacks of books.) I put off carrying my own bundles of grass to build my own house, got out my pencils and drawing pad and drew tree crickets instead, not from life but from torpid sub-death, their color still strong. Drawing even inexpertly is the best way to pay detailed attention, I’ve found. Then I searched every bug guide I could find, those details in mind, and decided at great length that what I had drawn were four-spotted tree crickets, Oecanthus quadripunctatus. Though it’s possible there are more species represented in the grass-carrying wasp’s pantry. The living crickets of my world were silent in the rain that night, but on subsequent nights, using a guitar tuner, I was able to confirm Bentley B. Fulton’s observation that “On an ordinary summer evening, the tone is about the third D# above middle C.” And the next night after a change of weather proved the next phrase: “… but on cool nights the pitch may drop a half-note lower.” Mr. Fulton said that these crickets were to be found on goldenrod and other tall and pithy-stemmed weeds on overgrown fields, or in bushes. But in that I felt he was wrong. Because I’d searched those plants like a starving wasp. Perhaps in our situation the field crickets were so numerous that the tree crickets actually took to…trees. But I still couldn’t find any. During that week I used the binocular method to track my wasp a mere 50 feet from the host window and into our large crabapple tree. Mr. Fulton mentions apple trees in connection to other species (which makes me wonder, of course, if I’ve just gotten the id wrong). But up on the apple ladder at dusk, sure enough: the D# started to come loud and clear from all around me, going silent every time I closed in on a specific instance. My wasp had found her food in the light of sunny days, likely jumped her victims as they rested on twigs, and so I tried again the next noon when I saw her back at my window, again delivering prey. Again I chased her into the apple tree, where I promptly lost her. But got the orchard ladder out and inspected branches, then A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
twigs, then individual leaves another untimed hour: nothing. Plus there is a prevalent lichen the same pale green, making the visual hunt a pure frustration, too. I have yet to find a four-spotted tree cricket anywhere but in the nest of a grass-carrying wasp. I put the ladder away, took a few breaths of the good ecosystem air, made my way inside, sat on the one chair Iâ€™d yet acquired, pulled out the next wasp book, more to learn. Then, after a pleasant hour and fifteen minutes, unmeasured seconds, I put it all away, got back to work building my own nest.
Spools of White Thread:
An Exploration in Ten Passages
I. Sometime in September the ocean becomes a river and thirty-six girls slip through its mouth into the belly of the New World. They sail like bits of milkweed silk into the gulf. Gulls and gannets circle overhead. The sight of water is broken by spells of marshes and sandy coves and stands of faraway pines. They float. Yes, it’s clear the girls float, though they are, in fact, contained on a boat and must crane their necks for their first look at New France. Mon Dieu, they say as they point to a stretch of land and tug at the inside of their cheeks with a tooth. Maybe not all thirty-six are frightened. Maybe one is so giddy she chants the name of the river—Le Saint-Laurent, Le Saint-Laurent—as if Saint Lawrence were her protector. But Lawrence is patron to Rome, not Paris, though he’s said to intercede on behalf of the poor, so maybe he belongs to them after all. The sound of water slaps against the hull as she wonders about saints and patronage and whether it’s possible they’re still poor, even with new dresses and pieces of silver jangling in their pockets. II. Jacques Cartier sailed up and down the east coast of Canada in 1535 scattering saints’ names like breadcrumbs wherever he stopped. He entered the great gulf on August tenth—the feast day of Saint Lawrence. Had he arrived a day or two later, the river might be called Clare or Bernard. Can thirty-six girls gliding into a river understand this? The way fate so haphazardly imparts its decrees? It’s likely they do not let themselves think. They know only that it was Cartier’s job to plant crosses into new soil for France, as it is theirs to retrace his steps and make Canada into a beating heart. III.
The 100 girls sent over by the king this year have only just arrived… He will send another 200 next year, and even more in the years following… —Mother Marie de l’Incarnation, Ursuline Order of New France, 1665
IV. Like staring into an open grave, the leaving of France for an outpost of trappers, soldiers, and priests. Acre upon acre of nothing but trees. Most come from northern cities, pulled from poorhouses and convents and confinement hospitals. The brutality and isolation of the wilderness might confound them, but they’ll be used to the feel of cold, at least, and the loamy scent of earth. The girls are promised new lives. They are told of men scouring the river for a hint of their ship, colonists counting the days until they arrive. Into each girl’s hand, two pieces of silver. Into each hope chest:
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1 pair of shoe ribbons 1 bonnet 1 taffeta handkerchief 1 comb 1 pair of stockings 1 pair of gloves 1 pair of scissors 2 knives 1,000 pins 4 braids of lace. 100 sewing needles 1 spool of white thread V. There’s nowhere to hide on a boat. The sun will always find you. The pull of sea is constant. Even when others pretend to be far away, they are near. Months of moving in small circles. Day upon day without mooring. It cannot be otherwise. Journey. Migration. Voyage. Call it what you will, a passage amounts to upheaval punctuated by bouts of hunger and salted skin. On a boat, there’s only heat and squeeze and breath. Words heard before they are spoken. No sliver of shadow, no corner or crack to fall into. Marthe talks to her mother, though the woman was buried ten years before in Rouen. Elisabeth-Agnes rubs her belly as if she might knead away the pulsing seed. Suzanne heeds no one’s warnings and stays too often with the men below deck. Henriette and Louise stand like statues whispering gibberish into each other’s ears. Florimonde makes predictions about the one who will choose her: He will be tall. His house will already be built. He will have tender hands. Noelle says the names of birds as they pass. Marie forgets where she is in the morning and calls out for her younger sister. Isabelle looks to the sea and does not speak. The one called Esperance reminds herself that her name means hope, but, when the sky goes black, the memory of Our Lady at SaintSuplice returns to her, and the sound of crying puts her to sleep.
VI. They press together as they pass Île aux Coudres, an island Cartier named not for a saint but for the hazelnuts growing wild. They call out when whales are spotted, or porpoises, and puffins. The seals look like babies to some of the girls, but then some have babies on their minds—those who left France in a state of shame or those persuaded out of their dresses along the way. Weeks pass like years on a ship—who can be blamed for accepting whatever small swell of pleasure offers itself? So one or two stomachs grow while most shrink and a few girls lean with sickness into the sea and arrive in dresses that no longer fit. They are to be paid by the child anyway so perhaps they are wise to get a head start.
VII. At Île d’Orléans, the scent of wild grapes. Hills yellow with leaves. Red coves and fruit trees. The girls repeat what they’ve heard. Here the fish are so plentiful, they jump into your hands. Ducks drop like manna from the sky. The soil makes squash as big as a child. The river has tides here. To the east, the water is salt. To the west, it is fresh. After three months at sea, their ship skirts the coastline, watching smoke rise from crude houses and licking their lips at a whiff of roasting goose—an aroma knitted together by imagination and longing—though it’s possible someone’s preparing a feast just over the rise because no one has a nose like a girl set adrift. So close now. The girls become like the river itself. Half salt. Half silt. In this moment, they are French, but, when the boat stops, they belong to Canada. Today they are girls, tomorrow they are wives. One moment, a child at her mother’s breast; the next, cargo on a boat. VIII. They stop at the north shore of the St. Lawrence, setting down at Ville de Québec before moving on to Trois-Rivieres and Ville-Marie. To this day, they say the women are prettier in Québec City because the men there got first pick. Stockpile of girls. Supplies for the New World. Filles du Roi, they come to be called. Daughters of the King. Because Louis XIV pays one hundred livres for their passage and provides dowries of chickens and pigs, an ox, a cow, and two barrels of salted meat. Rumors abound regarding their origins. Some imagine them from fine families, ladies stepping off gangways, all delicate ankles and noses held high in the air. Others claim they are fast and loose. In truth, most are orphans. A few are pregnant. King’s Daughters. Something like cruelty, such a name. They are, in fact, the lowest of the low. Girls who can afford to step onto ships and leave their lives like old skins at the dock. The sort of girls King Louis will hardly miss. IX.
All inhabitants having 10 living children, born of a lawful marriage, not priests, monks, or nuns, will be paid a pension of 300 livres a year; and for those having 12 (children), 400 livres more; furthermore, all boys who marry at the age of 20 years or less and to girls of 16 years and less, will be paid 20 pounds each on their wedding day. —Jean Talon, Intendant of New France, 1669
X. Marguerite arrives with a son named for the river: Laurent. Madeleine arrives with a daughter and Lucrece arrives with baby Louise. Francoise gives birth to a baby named for herself that spring and marries the following year. But most arrive without babies and are paraded before the men in good shape. A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
The first arrive in 1663. Thirty-six girls between the ages of 12 and 25. Nearly a hundred more cross the Atlantic in 1665 and again in 1667. Eighty arrive in 1668. One hundred and fifty in 1669. Even larger shipments in 1670 and 1671. A flotilla of girls. In September 1673, a final shipment arrives. In the decade between 1663 and 1673, more than eight-hundred French girls are supplied to Canada by the crown. The King’s Daughters fill the farms around the St. Lawrence like rivers with fish. In ten years, the colony’s population will more than double. Their children will grow and marry and have their own dozen children. Even when payments of silver stop, the sound of babies and building and baptisms will fill the air. Until their grandchildren number the hundreds; their great-grandchildren, the thousands, and the King’s Daughters become mothers to most of the millions with French-Canadian blood. But first, it is high summer and a pack of girls stands shivering on a dock. Girls named Noelle and Marguerite and Esperance, surrounded by the screech of gulls. Girls who must push their gazes forward and suffer three long months of blue. Some will not survive. A few turn back at the dock, preferring the misery of the familiar to the throbbing emptiness of the open sea. But most step onto ships and bear the crossing. Most marry and give birth to a new child every year until they no longer can. Most help to till and plant and pick alongside their husbands, while learning to nurse and cook and clean. Most fall headlong into the needle of New France and make themselves into spools of thread—stitching together new worlds with the fabric of their bodies.
He is complimenting me on my shoes. What he actually says is, “Nice Chucks,” and thankfully I know that he is referring to the sneakers I’m wearing, not my breasts. I could imagine not knowing, and the embarrassment of misunderstanding and calling the teacher, or the guard, and having to explain, word by aching word while he looks on, what I thought he meant. I could cause a real mess. I have that power. He is a prisoner, and this is a prison. At the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility, I surrender myself at the door, passing through the metal detector and double gates with only a visitor’s badge, a locker key, and my bright yellow Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program t-shirt to identify me. It is clear that I am a volunteer. I am the only one walking the halls at a brisk clip, eyes cast down, lips pressed into an inoffensive smile. Guards stand watch at intervals, but sometimes I am alone in long corridors with twenty inmates, all of them taking note of me, all of them silent. I can’t help the clench of my stomach, or the idiotic grin I shoot their way. These men give me a wide berth, however. I am more trouble than I’m worth. The man who likes my shoes is the leader of the Bloods in the prison. I learn this the week after a facility lockdown is lifted, and we are allowed to resume tutoring at Garden State. Ms. Thomas, the teacher I work with, explains what happened. “It was a riot between the Bloods and the Latin Kings. Our numbers’ll be down. A bunch of guys are in solitary right now.” “Like who?” I ask. These are the quiet minutes between my arrival and Movement, the time of transition when the hallways are clogged with prisoners on their way to report to their next task. Soon, twenty-five men will begin to squeeze into this classroom. More will pass by the door on their way to their own classrooms. Some will whistle at me as they pass. All of them, even the ones who have seen me a dozen times, will stare. “I’ll tell you what,” says Ms. Thomas, “there’s one that will be here that should be in solitary. He’s risen too high to pin anything on. Just sits back in his cell and gives orders. You’ve been helping him with math.” He has short dreadlocks and kind eyes. When he enters the classroom, one of a dramatically depleted number of students, I can detect no difference in him. I would never have known if I hadn’t been told.
I start volunteering as an academic tutor in prison because I read an article on a college-based tutoring program. The New York Times has excerpted inmate essays, and I click through the sidebar in tears. The next day I find Princeton’s analogous program and, not for the last time in my life, I make a blind commitment because something I read inspired me. Inspiration drives my quickest shifts, my quiet moments. I was raised by a mother who insisted that we attend church on a regular basis because the repetitive ritual of the mass provided “a good time to think.” I have stopped going to church—the townie mass unfolds under uninspiring 50s architecture and under the eyes of the zealous
campus Catholics I feel like a fraud—and I miss the room for personal revelation more than I miss an arbitrated faith I only half believe. I have stopped going to church, but I ride to Garden State in a van driven by Frenel, a Haitian who listens to Christian radio and keeps a much-dog-eared and annotated Bible balanced beside the gearshift. Frenel believes we are doing God’s work. I can’t be sure about that, but I like Frenel and at least I’m pretty sure we aren’t doing any harm. When I start volunteering in prison, I am midway through an acclaimed 90s television series, the Tom Fontana-helmed Homicide: Life on the Street, based on the David Simon book that would later spawn The Wire. Months later, finished with Homicide and jonesing for more sepia-toned, gritty television, I briefly consider starting in on Fontana’s follow-up project Oz, the first hour-long drama to premiere on hbo. Oz was critically acclaimed in its day and maintains its groundbreaking reputation. Oz is also set entirely in a men’s prison and is known for its scenes of graphic altercations and rape. I ultimately decide to put off watching it. I don’t want to scare myself by imagining what might or might not be going on in the rest of the prison, past the invisible boundaries surrounding me. My parents ask, and I describe the experience of volunteering in prison as addictive. It is the most daring thing I’ve done. This, I think, is living on the edge. I don’t experience a flicker of remorse at the time, but years later, this attitude troubles me. Stepping out of my comfort zone entails stepping into another’s reality. My daring is another’s day-to-day. I am borrowing danger. Five years after I volunteer at Garden State, I press play on episode one of Oz. It is more or less immediately clear that I made the right decision to put off this viewing. Two episodes in, and the eminently corruptible Tobias Beecher has landed in jail for vehicular manslaughter and finds himself under the thumb of the sadistic neo-Nazi Vern Schillinger who maneuvers Beecher into bunking with him, burns a swastika onto Beecher’s buttocks, refers to him as “my livestock,” and, it is strongly implied, rapes him. “You belong to me,” Schillinger says, after Beecher mentions an upcoming conjugal visit with Mrs. Beecher. “I make all your decisions, right? So ask me. Come over here and ask me if you can fuck your wife.” I have been volunteering long enough to learn some names, and I am faced with a dilemma. A friend of mine who also volunteers at Garden State has been assigned to the art classroom, where conversation is free and personal information—a currency unrecognized in my classroom—is legal tender. “You didn’t tell them anything about you, did you?” I ask, because we’re not supposed to. The Petey Greene Program and Garden State are both very clear on this front. “No,” she says, “but they keep telling me things. I know practically everything they did to get in there.” Most of them tell her, anyway. The rest she looks up. New Jersey, like most states, keeps a searchable inmate database online. All you need is a name—first or last—and A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
it becomes very easy to learn what you already knew—race, height, eye color—and the things you didn’t—date of birth, length of sentence, crime. My friend is fascinated. “This guy’s a rapist!” she exclaims, her eyes fixed on the screen. “He’s the ta for the class and he’s a rapist!” “Maybe he’s got a degree,” I say. “He’s a rapist!” she says again. She sighs. “I liked him. He was nice.” He was still a rapist when you thought he was nice, I want to point out. Instead I say nothing. She glances at me. “I wonder what your guys did.” I want to know, because I am incurably curious, especially when it comes to people I’ve met and know only in passing. But I have to consider the possibility that something worse than “leader of the Bloods in the prison” is waiting for me a few keystrokes away, and I’m not sure I can face the possibility of having to lock eyes with, and correct the math of, a rapist. A known rapist. A rapist known to me. “That’s okay,” I say, and that, too, was a privilege.
The violent Vern Schillinger is a heavyweight among the wasp prisoners of Oz, and Tobias Beecher is particularly vulnerable to him in a prison sharply divided along racial, national, sexual, and religious lines. In Oz’s first few episodes, I am introduced to the Wiseguys (mafia-affiliated Italian inmates), the Homeboys (Black street gang members), the Muslims (led by a Black nationalist who considers himself a political prisoner), and the Aryan Brotherhood (Schillinger and his cronies). Remaining groups include a pair of Irish brothers, a Latino gang, “the gays,” and “the bikers.” At this juncture, it is irresponsible to continue without acknowledging that race is part of my story, too. When I say, “I am alone in long corridors with twenty inmates,” I am not only writing about one woman and twenty men. I am writing about one white woman and twenty non-white men. I am writing about one woman who can leave and twenty men who have to stay. I am writing about one woman who knows nothing and twenty men who know the score. Power and powerlessness intersect in my walk through the halls, and in my seat in the classroom. Throw on a hearty helping of middle class background and professor’s kid naïveté and you have the recipe for my prison experience. I thought volunteering sounded fun. I thought it sounded inspirational. I thought these things because I read an article in The New York Times. The truth is that there are women on Oz too, just as there are naïve do-gooders. Watching Oz, if I recognize anything about my time volunteering in prison, it is the way the male inmates treat the female prison guard, the female doctor, the female shrink. These women are novelties, so they are accorded respect and attention. They are also potential sexual conquests, and in one way or another, they are all actively pursued and their difference used against them. They, like me, can walk away. They, like me, hold some of the power. They, like me, are outnumbered.
When it comes to Oz and sexual encounters behind bars, “the gays” occupy a dangerous and tenuous position as both valued commodity and abused minority. Homophobia is rampant in the prison and is vividly described and viscerally portrayed thanks to hbo’s fcc-immune obscenity standards. While heterosexual prisoners are equally sought out for (often nonconsensual) sex, “the gays” are, in addition, frequently attacked on the basis of perceived (and often imagined) come-ons. This disparity is reflected in reality. Over the 2008 calendar year, the U.S. Department of Justice recorded a rate of 1.3% of heterosexual inmates who reported an assault by another inmate, contrasting with 11.2% of non-heterosexual inmates reporting such an attack. In the first few episodes of Oz, there is a smothering, a shooting, a shanking, and a man burned alive. Despite this homicidal catalogue, easily the most shocking is the easy, casual way in which Schillinger makes Beecher his sexual plaything, with Beecher powerless to resist or even report. Witnessing these scenes, I am moved for the first time since leaving Garden State to look up the statistics on sexual assault within the facility, which houses minimum, medium, and maximum security prisoners alike. The 2014 Prison Rape Elimination Act (prea) Audit of the facility details five allegations of sexual assault and/or harassment over the yearlong reporting period, “of which three were determined to be unfounded, one was unsubstantiated and one was founded.” Both the unsubstantiated and founded cases took place not at the prison, but at a halfway house under the administrative responsibility of Garden State. I am not sure what I expected, but these numbers seem low, and I wonder whether this is a case of media coloring my biases—prison rape on film, let alone on Oz, is rampant and largely unchecked—or simply a case of underreporting. The New Jersey Department of Corrections (njdoc) puts a slightly rosier spin on these already low rates: “In 2012, nine (9) instances of alleged sexual abuse were documented with only one (1) substantiated case,” and, “In 2013, a total of 23 instances of alleged sexual abuse were documented with only one (1) substantiated case,” and finally, “In 2014, forty-five (45) instances of alleged sexual abuse were documented with zero (0) substantiated cases. Overall, the rate of sexual victimization reported by the njdoc inmate population is well below the national average. Nationally, four percent (4%) of the prison population reported sexual victimization. In New Jersey, less one percent (1%) of the population reported incidents.” The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics supports this 4% nationwide statistic. From 2008-2009, “An estimated 4.4% of prison inmates and 3.1% of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by another inmate or facility staff.” Of the staff assaults, “Most victims of staff sexual misconduct were males; most perpetrators were females.” Most fascinating of all is the bjs breakdown of the characteristics of those especially prone to assault: Rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization in prisons and jails were significantly higher among inmates who were white or multi-racial comA Journal of Creative Nonfiction
pared to blacks, inmates with a college degree or more (compared to those who had not completed high school), a sexual orientation other than heterosexual compared to heterosexual, and who had experienced a sexual victimization before coming to the facility compared to those who had not. The point of racial comparison may initially read as misleading, since a disproportionate number of non-white men and women are incarcerated in the United States. Without question, more people of color are assaulted behind bars than white people. However, it is significant, above all significant for Tobias Beecher, that those most at risk of sexual assault are those outside the prison norm.
My friend who works in the art class is Chinese-American. She is constantly having to field questions about Chinese language and China and what her family eats. The teachers in the education wing are all women, and they are all either black or white. My friend sticks out even more than I do. She is small and slight and has luminous skin and waist-length hair. She may be the only Asian person in the building. She is beautiful and she is never afraid. “But that hallway walk,” I say. “What do you really think is going to happen?” she says. “If anything happened to us it would cause such a shitstorm that whoever did it would be in prison for life and Garden State would get trashed in the media.” She is right, and I realize that I’m not afraid of anything actually happening. What I am afraid of are the looks themselves, and what they mean. I am afraid of the knowledge that these looks correspond to looks and thoughts on the outside, among the law-abiding, among men I know. “I hate it,” I say. I do. I don’t hate volunteering, and I don’t hate the men I help, but I hate the way I feel when I sit alone in the classroom, waiting for our class to file in while Ms. Thomas makes copies two doors down. The men start coming in and each one shoots me a sidelong glance. “Good morning,” I say, and they say, “Morning,” like they have a full bite of cake in their mouths and more cake in front of them. Our ta comes in. He says good morning like a normal person. I wonder whether he is a rapist. He starts sharpening pencils. More men pass by the door on their way to other classrooms. Some of them call out, “What’s good, shorty?” The ta makes for the door. “Show her some respect,” he calls back. They laugh at him and keep walking. I wonder whether thanking him will acknowledge how uncomfortable I was, thus revealing my weakness and vulnerability. “Don’t show weakness,” the volunteer handbook advised, as if I were working with bears or mountain lions instead of adult humans. I decide on an appropriately world-weary tone of voice with which to thank him. By the time I’m ready, he’s gone, back to pencil-sharpening, and there are more men outside the door.
Ms. Thomas has her students’ respect. She rarely needs to raise her voice. I never find out whether the class is minimum or medium security, but it almost doesn’t matter. These are either tough dudes or they think they are, and it comes down to the same thing. They could walk all over us. One of them calls Ms. Thomas “sister” one day, in tones of respect. She shuts him down. “I’m not your sister,” she says, “I’m your teacher.” I would allow it. I would cling to it. This is why she needs to be in charge and I need to leave as soon as possible. The inmates like math best because they can see how it’s useful. The rigidity of numbers is a comfort. When they answer a question correctly, they know they are absolutely right. Ms. Thomas asks them what they want to do when they get out. “Mechanic.” “Janitor.” “Construction worker.” The man who likes my shoes leans back in his chair, “Entrepreneur.” He savors the word. Entrepreneeeeuuuuuur. “I hear that’s what landed you in here,” says Ms. Thomas. There is a chorus of ooooohs. He keeps smiling. In February, the class reads Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. By coincidence, I am reading the same book in my American Literature seminar. We finished Moby Dick, and now we are being rewarded with something shorter, breezier. “This is one of the most important books you will ever read,” said Ms. Thomas. They take turns reading aloud. They stumble over 19th century phrasing and vocabulary, but they are hooked. They are not my classmates, one of whom turned to the other as we took our mid-class break and muttered, “The Civil War? Again?” A couple weeks into Narrative, one of the inmates raises his hand. “Mr. Davis,” says Ms. Thomas. “Yeah,” says Mr. Davis. “So, I would’ve been an indoor slave, right?” We can hear the crackle of a guard radio somewhere in the hallway. “What do you mean?” says Ms. Thomas. “’Cause, look,” he lays his arm down beside his neighbor’s, “I’m light and shit. He would’ve been outside, and I would’ve been inside.” I try to imagine what one of my teachers would have said, faced with this situation. I wrack my brain. I can’t think of a single thing. “It’s possible, yes,” said Ms. Thomas. Mr. Davis nods. He’s got it now. “And you would’ve been outside with him.” Has he gone too far? It’s hard to say. The hush suggests he has. There are no ooooohs, but Ms. Thomas says nothing beyond, “Back to page 60.” I am glad we stop before we get to where I would have been. Hold my arm up next to anyone and the only reasonable answer is sitting, probably. Watching. A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Angela Davis, who as early as 1997 was speaking against the racial imbalance in prisons across the country, may have coined Prison Industrial Complex as a term. In a 1998 article in The Atlantic, Eric Schlosser defines the prison industrial complex as “a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need.” Schlosser goes on to condemn the conditions within prisons as far from rehabilitative. They are, in his eyes, seats of corruption. “The lesson being taught in most American prisons—where violence, extortion, and rape have long been routine—is that the strong will always rule the weak.” Recidivism rates support Schlosser’s argument, even many years later. A report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics tracked 404,638 former inmates released in 2005. Of those inmates, approximately half were rearrested by the end of their first year of freedom, two-thirds were rearrested within three years of their release, and within five years three-fourths had been rearrested. A 2013 report by The Sentencing Project to the United Nations estimates that “if current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino males—compared to one of every seventeen white males.” All of this is fuel for the prison industrial complex.
In 2011, Cornel West is still teaching at Princeton. He has a lot to say about the prison industrial complex. I take African American Studies with him and 100 other students in the fall of my senior year, and in the spring, I ride with him to the prison. In a gym full of sweating inmates, staff, and volunteers, Cornel West challenges my students to be more than a statistic. The education programs they avail themselves of—classes like Ms. Thomas’s—are wonderful, but they are not salvation. “How many of you would take a bullet for your mama to save her life?” he asks. Almost everyone’s hand goes up. “Good,” says Dr. West. “Show yourself the same love.” Many of the words of wisdom he shares with the prisoners that spring are recycled from class, but the mama thing is new to me. By the end of his speech, a number of inmates are in tears. Dr. West rides back to campus with me and a handful of other volunteers. Frenel drives, as always. We talk about The Temptations, and Dr. West calls me “Sister Jackie.” It’s a thing he does, and I believe his love message is genuine, but I can’t help but think of the inmate who called Ms. Thomas “sister,” and how it seemed like some kind of benediction. This “sister” lands glancingly. It slides off me. I am used to contemplative rides back and forth from Garden State. I wake at 6:00 and meet Frenel and the other volunteers under street lamps at 6:30. We are quiet at first, blinking ourselves awake. I watch the wooded roads and affluent Princeton homes give way to highway and ranch houses. We start to chat over Frenel’s soft Chrisitian rock or rhythmic pastors. Frenel has a daughter who plays basketball and is about to start looking at colleges. He asks me what I think got me into Princeton. I say that I’ve always liked to read.
On my last day at Garden State, a week before I graduate, Frenel and I ride back mostly in silence. The other girl who volunteers on Thursday mornings is sick in bed, and so we are alone. The journey between Garden State and this cradle where I have spent the past four years has always taken time; today the distance is vast, the return is a return from tourism. I feel as though I have lost something, and also that I have gotten away with something. I feel as though I have done something wrong. Frenel drops me outside my dorm. He has never done this before. He parks the van and he hands me his Bible. “Psalm, 37:3-4,” he says. Even before I stopped going to church, even when I attended Sunday School and studied the Bible in the years leading up to my confirmation, I have always shied away from public displays of Christianity. I fear, particularly, being quizzed for chapter-andverse, which strikes me as the province of a particular type of rigid adherent, someone dying to assert himself as the real deal, the flawless, superior believer. I fumble with the Bible, and Frenel takes it back from me and opens it to Psalms. Then he hands it back. He has me read the lines aloud. “Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will dwell in the land, and enjoy security. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” The trees outside are a loud green, and the sun is warm. As I finish my reading my voice cracks. I have tears in my eyes. I mutter my thanks. I say something about the words being beautiful. I hand back the Bible. Frenel takes my hand. “For the rest of your life,” he says, “don’t let anything intimidate you.” I wipe my face. He squeezes my hand. “We stop making mistakes when we die.”
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
A Good Snake Story
Everyone should have a good snake story. This is mine. The story begins with a jaguar. It was my sister’s idea. She wanted to travel someplace wild and untouched, a place where there were no people, no houses, no cars. Just jungle, wild animals, and a chance to see jaguars in their natural habitat. A true and authentic adventure. This sounded good to me, being post-divorce, post-graduate school, post happy-ever-after, post-post-post everything. There was nothing much on the horizon for a newly minted PhD in English. I had just turned in the manuscript for my first book—to a small publisher no one had ever heard of, for a book probably no one would ever read—and I hadn’t slept in weeks. Belize, Jeanne said, has the only jaguar preserve in the world. One hundred and fifty square miles of jaguars. Well, I said, I could use an adventure. With no small amount of trepidation and guilt, I arranged for my two boys to stay with my ex, who had yet to carve out a steady parenting schedule amidst his dating roster. The boys anticipated a few days of uninterrupted video games and pepperoni pizza, extra cheese. Jeanne and I booked a flight to Belize and figured we would somehow make our way from there to the Cockscomb Basin Forest Reserve, not far from the coastal town of Dangriga, where we could hike into the jungle and find a jaguar. As a final thought, we decided to bring our boyfriends. I was still new to the idea of a boyfriend. I hated the word. I married when both my husband and I were barely old enough to drink champagne at the wedding. We had dated only a few months and the marriage was a fast, desperate move based on lust, insecurity, and a mutual desire to find some kind of stronghold in an unsteady world. I had to get away from my father; he had to get away from his mother. Love would save us, we knew for sure. Love wasn’t enough. Now, years later, I felt too old, too tired, and too mature to have a boyfriend. Sixteen-year-old girls had boyfriends. So the boyfriend and I referred to each other as friends, although the term wasn’t quite right. My friend was sweet and kind and oddly anonymous; he had never liked his first name, so he went by an initial instead. No nickname, just an initial, which was confusing when it came to making restaurant reservations. But he insisted. It seemed to fit the ambiguous nature of our relationship. For this story I’ve changed his initial to “T,” to further preserve his anonymity. Everything else in this story is true, inasmuch as any good snake story is a true story. But this story is about a jaguar. I bought a camera for the event, a small, inexpensive point-and-shoot that fit my budget and I could hang by a carabiner from my belt. I envisioned the jaguar I would photograph—sleek and fierce with gilded eyes and ochre skin splattered with black rosettes, crouched against an emerald thicket. I learned that each jaguar has a unique pattern of rosettes; no two skin patterns are alike. My jaguar would be unlike any other jaguar in the world. Literature is filled with lions and tigers, but Jaguar makes its presence known in art. Fantastic, god-like images of jaguars are found in ruins all along Mexico’s Yucatan
Peninsula, some dating back to the ninth century. Jaguars move easily between the physical and the metaphysical. They are mystical shape-shifters, muscled as prizefighters, and lithe as Siamese cats. Mayan legend tells the story of mythical Jaguar leaping across the sky each day from east to west, plunging into darkness as the sun sets. If Jaguar is victorious in fighting the gods of the underworld—and Jaguar always is—the sun rises again the next morning. Female jaguars are unusual in the animal world as they seek and choose a male and then bring him back to the den to mate. He usually doesn’t hang around. She has one to four cubs, and then does everything on her own to raise them, from protecting and nursing them to teaching them how to hunt. Jaguar is a relentless hunter, regardless of time and place. In the trees, on the ground, in the water, Jaguar hunts both day and night. She has the best three-dimensional vision of any carnivore in the world. Across South and Central American cultures, the word for jaguar means “animal that kills in a single leap,” and she kills swiftly, pouncing from behind to plunge her teeth into the base of her victim’s neck, piercing and crushing the skull with teeth strong as iron. Her appetite ranges from fish and wild pigs to monkeys, cattle, and deer. Jaguar has no natural predators, only humans with guns. I was naïve back then, in a cheerful, rose-colored glasses kind of way that made me think I could conquer anything. The oldest of three daughters, I listened well to my mother and her post-1950s advice. Find and marry the right man, find and buy the right house in the right kind of neighborhood. A career is nice but family comes first, and the woman’s role is to look after her husband and hold the family together. Be nice. Keep smiling. Trust that a man will take care of you—this, despite the fact that her own marriage had been disastrous. But she believed I could get it right in ways she hadn’t. Every high school boyfriend, every date or introduction, was a prospective husband. And when I did marry—not long after high school, while I was working my way through college—she was thrilled. I knew from the start it was wrong. “But a commitment is a commitment,” my mother said. “You have made your bed, and now you must lie in it.” I did. “Things will get better,” she predicted, but they did not. Not even with the new house, not even with the new babies. My desire to go to graduate school made it worse. But this essay is not about my mother, and my circumstances were not her fault. She loved me. I loved her. I wanted to follow all the rules. I stayed upbeat right up to the moment I was stuffing my toddlers’ clothes into plastic garbage bags while a friend waited in the driveway with a few pieces of furniture loaded in the back. I was too scared to think. I didn’t know if I had the emotional and financial resources to raise two kids. The love I felt for my boys was greater than anything I’d ever experienced, yet here I was, putting us all at risk. I wasn’t sure if I was saving or ruining our lives. I felt like I was driving on a mountain road in a blinding snowstorm, the headlights nothing but blurred ovals against the unrelenting snow, the road and sky merged into a thick white blockade. The road was steep on both sides. I needed to find a jaguar. A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
The four of us met at the Denver airport, suburban refugees dressed in shorts and flipflops. A full day of flying brought us to Belize City, where the airport was small and friendly; the air warm, clammy, and oddly comforting. We sped through the city by cab, eager to get past the crowded, darkening streets to our modest hotel at the edge of town. The hotel clerk telephoned a local Mayan guide who agreed to take us into the jaguar preserve the next day. That night, T asked me if I felt we were prepared. He had expressed strong reservations about the trip, right from the start. People disappeared in the jungle, he said. People got kidnapped on dusty back roads. We shouldn’t drink the water. We might get sick from the food or from diseases we don’t know about. There are spiders and bugs and strange plants in the jungle. I looked at him skeptically. Yes, I said. Of course we’re prepared.
That morning I wore my favorite purple shorts and a t-shirt over my bathing suit, as the guide had promised we would stop on our hike for lunch and a swim at a lagoon with a waterfall. I wore light canvas walking shoes—the only shoes that would fit in my carry-on—and white ankle socks. I thought my dime-store sunglasses were pretty hip for an aspiring English teacher. In my backpack, I carried mosquito spray, sunscreen, a warm soda, and some kind of mystery meat tucked between two slices of bread from the hotel kitchen. T wore a black, sleeveless, tank top. It was going to be hot, he explained, but he’d also been going to the gym and he wanted us—that is, my sister and me—to notice his biceps, which we dutifully noted. He was a high school chemistry teacher and he was working against type. T was also conscious of the fact that he was slightly older than the rest of us, and he wore a pair of neon pink running shorts as evidence of his youth. “You’re going to wear those?” I asked. They seemed frivolous for a man concerned with proper preparation. “Yes,” he said. “I’m getting into the spirit of things.” The guide met us in the lobby and led us to a white, unmarked van. "The drive is easy," he said. "We'll hike through the preserve, and then pass through a Mayan village, where my family is from." He was a sturdy, dark-haired man with strong Mayan features, wearing a full-sleeve shirt, and long cotton pants that hung over the tops of his leather boots. He stood no more than five foot two. “I feel like a giraffe,” I whispered to my sister, and she nodded. We were both accustomed to being the tallest women in the room and never wearing heels on a date. The guide waved his hand in the air to indicate all four of us were to sit, thigh to thigh, on the broad back seat of the van. “No tourists up front,” he announced, and placed a bag of bottled water on the passenger seat for emphasis. “To prevent kidnapping?” T whispered. My sister and I squeezed in between the boyfriends. “No seatbelts,” T added darkly. For two hours we bounced along a dirt road as smooth as a washboard, the axle flying high each time we hit a bump. “You have to go fast to make the ride smoother,” our guide assured us, shouting above the noise, and things did seem a little easier when we were airborne. There were no bathroom stops. Hot, claustrophobic, and suppress-
ing a slight sense of panic, we eventually reached our destination—a small parking lot and a simple sign next to a wire fence that couldn’t hold a terrier. My bladder felt as if it had spent two hours in a martini shaker. We tumbled out of the van and I slunk off to pee in the thick forest, my sister standing guard. “Oh my god,” I breathed in relief. “This moment may be the highlight of the trip.” “Let’s go!” the guide yelled. “This is just like boot camp,” my sister muttered, taking her turn. “Don’t let anything bite my butt.” She hiked up her shorts and whispered plans for the next day, perhaps to hire a small skiff to take us to a nearby deserted island for snorkeling. The boyfriends were opposed. We gathered at the trail. “Follow me single file,” the guide advised sternly. “Don’t stray from the path.” T glanced at me and raised his eyebrows. Already he was filled with the virtue of one who has been proven correct. “You pull up the rear,” the guide instructed T. “Those shorts make you easy to spot.” We began our trek along a trail cut through dense undergrowth that eventually led to a high canopy of soaring trees and thick, massive vines. The trees and vines clung together so thickly they blocked the sunlight. At least a dozen different species of brightly colored birds chirped in the trees, flitting from branch to leafy branch. Long-armed howler monkeys swung above us, barking and chattering like children in a schoolyard. We fell into military step, walking slow and trance-like in the heat. The humid air settled into beads along my arms and chest and my t-shirt was soaked. I felt as if I had just stepped out of a hot shower, fully clothed. I thought about how lovely it might feel to wear no clothes at all. Our guide carried a walking stick and was immensely cheerful. Every once in awhile he reached out and whacked the plant growth on either side of the trail, sending bugs and lizards flying. He told us to be very quiet. “Jaguars don’t like noise,” he said. I began to suspect we might not see a jaguar. Two hours passed. We met another set of hikers, two older American men with cameras and machetes wearing tall, thick leather boots that reached past their knees. My sister and I stepped aside to let them pass. “You girls aren’t wearing boots?” one of them remarked. “Why would we wear boots?” I asked. “It’s too hot for boots.” “Snakes!” our guide chirped. “Some people like to worry about snakes. But there are no worries if we stay on the trail.” I avoided the withering look T shot me from the back of the line. We trudged on. It occurred to me that if we did disappear in the jungle, it was possible that no one would find us or even know we were gone. No phones, no cell phones, no smoke signals. We were hours away from any town. My sister and I had not mentioned this part of the trip to our mother. Who would raise my children if I didn’t return? What would my sons remember of their mother? Perhaps all they’d remember would be all those late nights of studying for a graduate degree their father said was worthless. I shook my head, literally, like a dog after a bath. What I will bring my children, I told myself, is a grand story. And someday they will have grand stories of their own. A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
We stopped to catch our breath. I watched an ant, the size of my thumb, march over my toe. A blue Morpho butterfly, as ethereal as the playful imp that graces a bottle of absinthe, danced through the air. The guide pointed to an orange-billed toucan looking down from a branch, and then directed our eyes to some auspicious-looking paw prints next to the trail. “Jaguar?” my sister asked. “Yes,” the guide intoned. “Not long ago, I think. You can see prints everywhere around here.” He waved his arm in a broad circle at the imprints in the dirt. “But they’re hard to spot. Jaguars can be shy and solitary, and here in the Amazon basin they’re often darker, sometimes black, although even the black ones have marks. They like to hang around rivers and lakes, so we might see one at the lagoon. Maybe. But maybe not.” The boyfriends grumbled. We soldiered on. By the time we reached the lagoon it was long past midday—long after my feet hurt and my arms were covered with mosquito bites, and long after the moment I had quietly but fully accepted the idea that the lagoon was a mirage, a joke, or perhaps just the guide’s way of tormenting us. But then we rounded a turn and the lagoon materialized, breathtaking and real, a dark pool surrounded by a steep bank of vines. A column of crystalline water tumbled from a wall of wet stone, and a cloud of mist hovered over the pond. It looked like a fantasy photo from a travel brochure. “Here we are!” our guide announced. T looked relieved. We set our backpacks on the ground and peeled off our clothes as if we’d never seen water in our entire lives. I waded in, my toes sinking deep into the mud, and then submerged myself completely. The water was cool and delicious, washing away sweat, bug spray, and dust from the trail. I felt reborn. “Stand under the waterfall!” my sister called. “I’ll take your picture.” The boyfriends stood knee-deep in the water, watching. “I’m ready for lunch,” T said, not the only one to be low on energy. My sister’s boyfriend nodded. “Let’s eat,” the guide said. “Picture first,” I said. I stood under the stream of water, the wall of rock against my back, the water splashing over my head. Jeanne laughed. “Don’t move,” she said, and raised the camera. Abruptly, I saw a flash of brown, a long tree branch falling swiftly from the rock above. Nearly six feet long, it was as thick as my ankle. For a split second, it passed so close I could almost touch it, and I saw an intricate, diamond-like pattern of tan and black on the bark. Or was it a vine? I had never seen a branch so beautiful. But the branch didn’t just fall; suddenly it surged into life and arced and then bowed low and smooth into the water, aiming directly for T’s pink shorts. “Get out!” the guide yelled. He splashed and leapt to the bank. “Snake!” he shouted. “Bad snake!” T’s face froze in a look of disbelief, and then in tandem, the boyfriends scrambled in opposite directions. “Kris!” my sister yelled. I saw the branch turn back toward me, moving at lightning speed. The rock was slippery, the mud deep—I was trapped with nowhere to turn. I thought fleetingly, again, of my children. For a split second, the guide paused on the slippery bank. Then he dug in his heels, considered his aim, and lobbed his walking
stick like a long spear into the water. Immediately, the branch raised its head and changed course. It nudged the walking stick, examining its prey, and then turned and slithered up the bank, disappearing in the vines. I was too stunned to move. The entire event took less than five seconds. We all stood motionless. “It’s okay now!” the guide yelled, cheery once again. “That,” he said, with no small degree of satisfaction, “was a fer-de-lance. A viper. The ultimate pit viper, as a matter of fact.” He took my arm and helped me up out of the water. “You, my friend, could be dead by now. We would have carried you out, of course, but there is no place to go near here. No doctors. No clinics. There is no antivenom. You would be dead in ten minutes.” “How would we have carried her out?” T asked. He was taller than the guide, but shorter than me. “And how far is the hospital, anyway?” “We’ll have a good story in the bar tonight,” the guide said. “That’s all that matters now.” That night we joked at the bar. We had fresh beers and tapas, and felt agreeably exhausted from the day. The bartender came over. “Are you the two girls who had a run-in with the fer-de-lance?” he asked. That was the second time I’d heard the word, but I didn’t recognize it. “What does that mean exactly?” I asked. He just laughed and bought me a beer. Then someone bought another round and the evening ended pleasantly enough. Fer-de-lance, it turns out, is French for “spearhead” or, more literally, “iron of the lance.” The fer-de-lance is a beautiful viper with large, expressionless eyes; a broad, flat head; and a long, muscled body. Her back is laced with dark triangles, lightly edged, a cryptic jigsaw that allows the viper to blend invisibly into the jungle environment. She moves swiftly on land and in water, and can reverse direction suddenly. A fer-de-lance is unpredictable and strikes quickly when threatened. Nine out of ten bites result in a potentially lethal dose of venom. A bite leads to a critical chain of events throughout the body, particularly in the cardiovascular system, as the red blood cells break down. Victims almost immediately experience extreme pain, internal bleeding, oozing from the mouth and gums, chills, fever, nausea, confusion, blackout, and paralysis. Almost every organ of the body is affected. The site of the bite continues to swell and blister for days, and limb necrosis is common. It’s difficult to reverse the process. With antivenom treatment, some victims survive, but recovery is painful and can take weeks or months. Workers on local coffee and banana farms know that a bite from a fer-de-lance almost always means swift death or massive tissue damage, even with treatment. I’d seen the Hollywood version of how to treat snakebite. A handsome cowboy A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
appears and makes an incision with his hunting knife, just above the bite, and feverishly sucks the venom from the wound. He sucks and spits, sucks and spits, and then applies a tourniquet. The victim is saved. A shot of whiskey is in order. This, of course, is nonsense. Snake venom is neurotoxic or hemotoxic. You need antivenom. There is no other cure. From nature’s practical perspective, the primary purpose of viper venom is predatory. As soon as the bite occurs, the victim is incapacitated—confused, bleeding, and in pain—the victim can’t think or move and is easier to track. Bodily effort causes the venom to move more quickly through the victim’s system, and the venom literally begins to predigest tissue so the snake can more easily break the food into smaller pieces and digest efficiently. Nature is thrifty and thorough. The snake only injects part of its venom with each bite, so it can still damage the victim after the first strike. A dead snake, even one with a severed head, can bite and release venom through reflexes for up to an hour and a half after death. Of about 3,000 snake species in the world, only about 15 percent are dangerous to humans. We happened to find the most dangerous one.
The next day, with the help of the bartender, we hired a small skiff to take us out to a nearly deserted island with a tiny two-bedroom hut where we could stay for a nominal fee. He suggested we hire a local cook to come along: someone who could buy food, rum, and prepare meals for a day or two. Wanda was a tall, elegant woman in a light cotton dress, bright orange, with a wide smile. She met us at the boat with a basket of fruit and vegetables from the farmers market balanced on her head, a jug of Belizean rum in her bag. For an hour the skiff rocked and danced across choppy water that was, as T said, predictable. We reached the beach and climbed out. “I’ll be back in three days, more or less!” the driver waved as he sped off. The island was just as perfect, and just as deserted, as the surreal lagoon we had found in the jaguar preserve. That night we dined on fresh fish and colorful vegetables the likes of which I’d never tasted before, all fueled by a somnolent elixir of Belizean rum and fresh mango juice. We fell into our beds and slept deeply. I woke in the middle of the night—a dark, moonless night still heavy with humidity. I’d had far too much to drink, and once again I had to pee but there was nowhere to go. Was there an outhouse? I thought so, but I got lost in the beach house, in the maze of small rooms and passageways and darkness so black I couldn’t see an inch in front of my face. I pressed my palms along the damp walls and finally stumbled out onto the beach. I crouched in the brush to wet the sand, and then walked out to the water’s edge. The sand, the water, the hut—all was dark and soundless except for the whisper of the waves. I looked up to the stars, as brilliant as streetlamps. The universe was impassive. I was entirely alone. The memory of that solitary moment is with me even now, in ways both comforting and terrifying.
My boys would grow up to be teenagers and adolescents and then young men: brilliant and loving and full of fun. I would finish my degree, and I would write a book, and then another. I would love again, and I would make mistakes again. But I didn’t know that then. What I did know was the deep feeling of calm and certainty that came over me in that still night, the feeling that whatever happened, we would be okay. What remains of that trip is only a photograph or two. Despite the new camera hanging from my belt, I took few photographs, as if each moment was so entrancing I couldn’t spare a second. But there is the photograph that Jeanne took, of me on the rock just before the snake’s leap. And there is a photograph of the two of us on the island, our faces dark with sun, glasses of Belizean rum raised in a toast, arms looped around each other’s shoulders.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
On Naming Bones, or, How to Ship a Mosquito
Matthew Gavin Frank
Decorating the beach sand of Port Nolloth, South Africa—pigeon bones. Breast bones and leg bones, sternums and skulls. There’s a rib with the barbs of some sunbleached feather wrapped around it, angling into the ocean wind like the bristles of some post-apocalyptic toothbrush—the most pathetic distress signal I’ve ever seen. There’s a three-quarters decomposed head, beak open wide, as if gasping, or praying, or trying to put together some feeble incantation against death. If I squint, it looks to be made of ash, and if I squint further, it can be mere hieroglyph—the testament to a horror ancient and not current, a documentary on the Vesuvius eruption, safely framed by the sort of television screen we nickname after the pale yellow component of our blood. The bones are hard to look at, they’re so white. The sun is hard too. At the end of the beach, behind a chain-link fence and scribbles of razor wire, forklifts hoist pallets wrapped in blue plastic, back up, and beep. We are walking the beach slowly, taking careful inventory of the detritus of old bird slaughter, out of, perhaps, fear. Though strangely accessible to the eye (one can peer straight through a chain-link fence), this key marine diamond-mining De Beers outpost retains something of the impregnable fortress, if only in its narrative reputation. Perhaps the corporation felt that, in setting up shop in an impoverished coastal town—which seems, to Louisa and me at the moment, to bear the qualities of a pirate-y end-of-the-Earth-hood—they needed not ratchet up the visible security to their usual levels. Who but the birds are within earshot of De Beers’ whispered secrets? De Beers recently issued a series of memos banning the keeping of trained pigeons as pets in Port Nolloth, as the birds, with the aid of tiny bags cinched to their feet, have been used to smuggle rough diamonds out of the mines. The birds are being rounded up, some clandestine cleanup crew packing their bullet-ridden bodies into black trash bags. The injured ones are left alive, heaving against the sagging plastic, beaks desperately open to the air, their necks twisted, blood in their feathers, dying of asphyxiation before bleeding out. This is the law at the road’s end. To sleep here, Louisa and I found the McDougall’s Bay Caravan Park, the horrible mattress, the mosquitoes who wanted to further drain us. This is where we struggled against jetlag, listening to the pigeons roosting in the eaves, the ocean whispering outside as if telling us to keep it down, even though we weren’t talking. We ran our fingers along each other’s bellies, and I felt the parenthetical marks on Louisa’s—like scars, but not scars—reading them as if Braille, as if foolishly expecting this action to inspire any kind of growth, a twist in our story, a fresh plot beyond consolation. The Port Nolloth De Beers hub is as haphazard as an Indiana railyard, equipment parts that once belonged inside boats and tractors and trucks scattered willy-nilly and rusting in the sea air. This is its surface story. Still, it is part of what the company refers to as a “corporate citizen.” I can’t help but wonder which part. Something of the undercarriage, surely. This place, as did so many other rural villages on the continent, once saw the influx of intrepid diamond evaluators from De Beers’ headquarters, who, A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
having left the comfort of their air-conditioned London offices, jet-lagged and suffering from intestinal duress, were charged to navigate remote jungles and coastlines with nervous hearts and attaché cases filled with cash. Here, as elsewhere, they were charged with negotiating—via a nearly impenetrable and ever-morphing system of bribery— with intricate rings of smugglers, thieves, and local middlemen, most of whom distrusted any official operating for the so-called “legitimate” cartel. Many of these De Beers officials disappeared in the process, their bodies unrecovered. “Animal” means “having breath,” which means there’s no such thing as a dead animal. The carcass is something new, a birth of sorts. There’s something foreboding about the sea air here, as if our inevitable demise is out there riding the tide, and, once it breaks onto the shore, all that will remain of us is some hiccupping spark of dna drowning in the tabula rasa. Who, then, will affix said spark to the foot of some new-order pigeon, as time capsule, as Voyager Golden record, as We were here, We were here, We were here? Walking the sand, I hold my breath and squint, and hold onto my wife’s hand ex abundanti cautela. “Ulna,” Louisa says, and, at first, I think we’re doing this again—playing this game, making this silly list of potential baby names for a potential baby. I’m about to express my impatience with this, tell her that I can’t, after five miscarriages, do this again. Then, she says, “Femur,” and I know. Louisa knows the bones more intimately than I do. She names them. All of these pigeon parts, littering all of this beach, like peroxide twists of chain link fence—the bits De Beers discarded, snapped off to make the ends sharper. Tour-guiding, she holds my hand with her left, points to the sand with her right, and lists, “hyoid, atlas, ilium, scapula, patella, pubis, phalanges…” They all look like the shards of some toy tea set in hell. Specialized and stylized saucers, and spoons and parts of spoons—the tongue, the lip, the collar, the neck. We see our bodies in teaspoons, and teaspoons as metaphors for pigeon skeletons. The sand cuts our feet. The bones follow suit. “Thoracic vertebra,” Louisa says.
When Louisa was a student of human anatomy in Phoenix, Arizona, she used to study for tests in the bathroom, having drawn on the mirror, in dry erase marker, diagrams of our systems—circulatory, digestive… I would learn so much about the ways in which we take things in, use them before discarding them, every time I brushed my teeth, my hair. Folks in Phoenix used to joke that an advantage of the intense heat was that there were no mosquitoes… except one: The Lone Mosquito of Phoenix, Arizona (lmpa— yes: it was discussed so often, it became a local cultural legend and, thereby, an abbreviation). Across the city’s bars and lunch counters and supper tables, the story of the lmpa spread—false sightings discredited, photo evidence dismissed as dust on the lens. This was the summer of 2005, when Phoenix iced its 120-degree cake with a pair of simultaneously operating serial killers: the Baseline Killer (so named for his prowling of Baseline Road), who escalated his criminal activity from robbing at gunpoint a Little
Caesar’s pizzeria to murder, and the Serial Sniper (or Serial Shooter—who later turned out to be two men, or shooters), who began killing dogs and horses before graduating to human pedestrians…The entire city was gripped in this fist of fear, communing with the Summer of Sam, this cult of anxiety about setting foot outdoors. We lived in the Scene One apartment complex on the corner of University Dr. and Hardy— a complex that was known, a handful of months before we moved in, as one of the primary crystal meth dens in the Phoenix metro area. The parking lot that fronted our place saw many drug-related shootings, stabbings, beatings, rapes, overdoses, and explosions. Our landlords, straitjacketed in sunburns so tenured they no longer burned, assured us that, months before we moved in, the complex was “cleanedout”—arrests were made, property was seized and fumigated, drapes and carpets were ripped out and up, replaced with fresh, un-poisonous fabric. Regardless, the place, as testified by the red-painted street-curbs fronting it, bore the heaviness of blood-spill, the stench of death. While we lived there, it was not uncommon for a cop to knock us awake in the middle of the night with the official, side-fist-pounding Open Up! sort of knock, telling us that a car in the lot had been broken into or someone had been stabbed behind the dumpster, and had we seen anything? Within the temperature-controlled ambit of our perpetually a/c’d apartment, hydrochlorofluorocarbons dripped from the walls like malarial perspiration. Through the walls, always, we could hear Charlie’s arrhythmic engagement with his djembe drum—Charlie, the ex-heroin addict who claimed to survive only on the local pigeons and the Sonoran tiger salamanders who languished in the parking lot’s short-lived rain puddles during monsoon season. In the mythologies of the Blackfoot tribe, the Scottish Highlands, and ancient Egypt, the pigeon is a shape-shifter which communes with the mosquito. At various intervals, each becomes the other, to better fly, or better hunt, to better cry, or to better suck the blood from men and horses. I swear I saw the lmpa that murderous summer of 2005. Louisa was out of the apartment, shopping for grapefruit or school supplies, or tequila. I worried for her safety. It was on our bathroom mirror, the lone mosquito. The bathroom fan was turned on, and I swear I could see the breeze animating the mosquito’s legs, wings, bristles. I froze. There was no time to get the camera. It did not bite me. It did not morph into a pigeon. I wondered how long the lone mosquito journeyed to get here—the Scene One apartment complex with its red painted curbs; if, like the mythological pigeon, it was a body-hopper, a single-spirit endlessly reincarnated over time, as the Old Norse and Old German religions believed, as the Druids of old Gaul believed, as did the twitchiest of the Welsh bards; reincarnated over and over again to carry messages between worlds, the land of the living and the land of the dead—these messages revised by the intellectual pigeons-cum-mosquitoes themselves, these messages girdled for the respective eras, the strings connecting the tin can telephones of our ancestors and our descendants. According to Hindu myth, once the pigeon has carried all of its messages A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
to all who need to receive them, it will die another death, shed its avian form, and be reborn as a rose. I did not think of flowers or parts of flowers, of the way petals fold into themselves to evoke the most delicate parts of our bodies as I watched the lmpa, air-stirred, bounce, so slightly, on its legs on that bathroom mirror, suckling in vain from my wife’s grease-marker rendition of the very strange ventricles of the human heart.
The average mosquito weighs 2.5 milligrams, or 0.000088 ounces, or 1/137,000 of a pigeon. 137,000 mosquitos, carefully swarming, shaped into a dove by the updrafts, can carry the weight of our messages, our smuggled diamonds. A single pigeon, carefully dissected into 137,000 equal-sized pieces, can be a swarm of lazing mosquitoes. Of course, when filled with our blood, the largest species of mosquito can weigh in at ten milligrams. At that moment, before digestion asserts itself, the mosquito is mostly us— our blood-borne secrets and genetic schematics coming undone in its foregut. This is not the same as being carried. More people keep pigeons than they do mosquitoes, though the Walter Reed Biosystematics Unit (mission: “To conduct systematic research on medically important arthropods in support of epidemiological studies and disease control strategies of importance to the military, and to maintain the U.S. mosquito collection and perform collection management activities—maintenance and protection of specimens, handling of transactions including loans, and progress toward improvement of the collection”) collects, rears, and ships mosquitoes. On collection: “Where immatures are located in clumps of vegetation, one collecting technique is to sink the dipper almost to the rim next to the clump being sampled and allow the water to flow through the vegetation into the dipper. In this way water is drawn through the grass, carrying the immatures with it into the dipper. If possible, it is better to use a rectangular enamel pan for larval collections. It is much more efficient than a dipper.” On rearing: “Immatures are reared to the fourth instar in 500 or 1000 ml plastic cups. Black wax pencils are satisfactory for marking these containers with the collection number and other notations. Tops may be used if you have fear of contamination, however cups are best left open. Finely ground animal chow (e.g. guinea pig chow) or fish food (e.g. Tetra-Min) are used to feed larvae.” On shipping: “Place larvae in a watertight plastic bag and seal. Whirl-pak bags are excellent for this purpose. [When shipping adults,] shipment of gravid females is most desirable. Place the specimens in a small container (e.g., a pint or quart cylindrical ice cream container) that has its open end covered with fine mesh netting or screen. Next place a wad of moist cotton and a few water-soaked raisins (soaked 1-2 hours in warm water) on top of the netting. Finally, place a lid over the top of the container, securing the moist cotton and raisins between the netting and the top. Package for shipping as usual.” On collections and the collective: If tonnage is the collection of tons, is mes-
sage the collection of our messes? A bunch of listless, hematophagic bugs knocking their heads against the sides of Solo cups with rodent kibble dusting their mouthparts, dreaming of their kind in the sky—free mosquitos, and vampire finches, and hood mockingbirds, and oxpeckers? Bedbugs? Leeches? The madrilenial butterfly that feeds on human blood that has been multiply photographed sucking blood from socks, from cut elbows and ankles, its wings so orange and pretty? When fed human blood—however inadvertently— pigeons are said to go mad. Perhaps the tumbler pigeons, who inexplicably tumbled (often to their doom) long before our blood cocktail ever existed, predicted said madness, and began, prematurely—like the mosquito larvae sealed into Whirl-pak bags—to show signs of something we don’t yet recognize as panic. Who gets to control what here? Which the progenitor and which the offspring? Are we the descendants of birds who are the descendants of mosquitoes who are the descendants of the universal temperature and density responsible for the Bang, and other big things? Are we all (merely, or not-so-merely) the descendants of heat and weight? Does message beget messiah? Messiah, message—a singular myth yielding plural myths? If messiah, then The Great Mess-Maker, and if message, then the accumulation of our collective sloppy prayers, our failed pleas, our most wayward and misguided desires, shoved skyward toward the imaginary thing we’re compelled (by long-hoarded myths) to believe will save us all, borne by, or born of, the pigeon. From Latin, through Old French and Middle English, a mess is a portion of pulpy food so unappetizing it is fit only for an animal; a group of people who, in revolting, animalistic fashion, feed from the same dish. In the mid-16th century, the term was applied to a bunch of military officers dining together, whose descendants would use mosquitoes to strategize on disease control. Though “messiah” derives from the Hebrew word for anointed, it still contains the mess and its multitudes. At the intersection of “anointed” and “icky mush communally-eaten” are our gods. These are the stories we tell of ourselves. These are the messages we will leave behind, uncarried. At the intersection of prayer and desire: holy fuck, and pigeons and mosquitoes, and water-bloated raisins, and bad oatmeal, and all manipulation for a militaristic sort of good. Louisa squeezes my hand, but, since the mist has come in off the ocean, I can’t see her squeeze my hand. I’ve never been good at these things— at deciding what they really are. In this mist, I have trouble distinguishing between the sounds of birds and the sounds of bugs. I’m not sure if I’m stepping on diamonds or bones. At her belly, I can’t tell if that’s a sob, or a kick. At my neck, I can’t tell if that’s the wind, or her breath.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
The Part That Was Left Out
Sometimes the good part is not even in the story. Sometimes the good part is what has been left out. —Redneck Riviera One of the last trips my father made before he died was to our local bank so that he could deed me title to two and a half acres of worthless Florida scrubland he had purchased thirty years before in a land scam called River Ranch Acres. Other than a good name and a moral education, that land was all Dad left me when he died. It was more than enough. He’d loved me all my life, and I’d loved him beyond words, so I considered those two and a half acres a veritable treasure. The problem was that Dad had found out, before he died, that the forty-four thousand-acre project in the center of Florida had never been intended for development. And when the parent company, Gulf American, went bankrupt, all the land was taken over by a band of hog hunters. They were called the Hunt Club, and they posted armed guards at the gate to keep Dad and other legitimate landowners from accessing their property. The very idea made Dad's blood boil. So he joined another organization, the River Ranch Land Owners Association, which sent out regular newsletters filled with photos of the shacks, trailers, and even second homes that members of the Hunt Club had erected on this land that was not their own. So I knew from the start that, in order to claim the land Dad had left me, it would take more than research in the conventional sense. In addition to exploring the history of the land scam and pouring over topo, geological and plat maps, legal documents, court records, and aerial photographs, I’d have to do the kind of research that reporters often have to resort to when writing about a nefarious, brutal organization. I’d have to employ the age-old technique of research called submersion. I’d have to join the Hunt Club. I bought a Jeep Cherokee with 219,000 miles on it and persuaded my nephew Craig to ride with me the first time I went to River Ranch. Craig was the perfect choice—a 6-foot-2 inch former closed-head-injury patient who dipped snuff; spoke in brief, ironic understatement; and always had his brows knit as though he were considering grave and tragic consequences for anyone who looked at him or me in the wrong way. The gatehouse of the Hunt Club was occupied by an elderly couple who looked like they’d been way too long in the sun. They were stocky and narrow-eyed. The man was snapping beans when we arrived. He had thick, callused hands, a shock of white hair, and a revolver strapped to his waist. His wife had just set a pot of water on the stove to boil. I pulled out my notarized transfer of deed and most recent tax payment receipt (we’d already seen one woman turned away because she didn’t have that tax receipt). The gatekeeper stood up and stared at these documents as though he were trying to read hieroglyphs. “All right,” he finally said, “but you can’t camp anywhere in there, A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
and you better be out before nightfall. You don’t want a thirty-aught-six going through you.” I paid him the fifty-dollar membership fee, for which I got a Hunt Club identification card. Then he raised the gate, and Craig and I drove into a kind of squalor I’d rarely seen before: a landscape of beat-up tin shacks with dog runs and outhouses, junked appliances, and behemoth swamp buggies. An oily sheen floated on water in the potholes, and the air was foul with the smell of diesel and spent cordite. The camps we passed had names like “Camp Run-a-Muck,” “Hawg Heaven,” and “Leisure Village at Armadillo Bay.” I’d brought a folded-up topo map on which I’d used a pencil, protractor, and legal description to get an approximate sense of my land’s location. We pressed on in the general direction of where I thought it might be until the mud got too deep, and then, on the way back to our motel at dusk, Craig repeated the gatekeeper’s line about a thirty-aught-six going through us and said, “That was a funny way to put it.” Now that I’d joined the Hunt Club, I figured the next form of subterfuge would be to bring my family to the club’s Fourth of July pig roast. I’m not sure what the girls thought of that, but I’d promised to take them to Sea World afterward, so they didn’t raise much of a fuss. In fact, I think they enjoyed the masquerade aspect of the enterprise. As we stood in line waiting to get our food and drinks, I reminded them that we needed to act like rednecks. My older daughter, Ashley, said: “But we are rednecks, Dad.” “I know, but we’re Alabama rednecks. These are Florida rednecks.” “What’s the difference?” asked my younger daughter, Laura. “Just keep your eyes and ears open.” It didn’t take long. A woman in line ahead of us had filled her ice chest with beer and soft drinks. When she closed the lid, her daughter, maybe four years old, hopped aboard it, and the mother slapped the girl’s thigh and said, “Get your stink butt off my cooler!” “I see what you mean,” Laura said.
Some months later, I went back to Florida to attend a meeting of the Hunt Club, for which I wore a dirty ball cap and a flannel shirt opened to reveal a faded Florida Marlins t-shirt. This would be a raucous affair, during which the president of the Hunt Club, Pete Edwards, cursed the name of Dick Powell, president of the opposing Land Owners Association and author of those newsletters about the Hunt Club’s thievery that had gotten my father all worked up. A couple of the members shouted they had guns and could take care of Powell, and occasionally I hollered along with my fellow members. But I didn’t hide the fact I was taking notes, and the next day I visited Dick Powell in his office at New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Powell had been fighting the Hunt Club for nearly fifteen years and had received
numerous death threats from Hunt Club members. They’d sent him packages of human excrement through the mail. “And it’s not just me,” he said. “When the vice-president of a Fortune 500 outfit tried to visit his company’s property, they threatened to kill his children.” Powell said he was the only member of the Land Owners Association who’d had his property surveyed, so he got a permit to put in a driveway to it along a section line. Then, accompanied by a Florida highway patrolman, he bulldozed a road right through the Hunt Club’s fence. Overnight, the Hunt Club repaired the fence with telephone poles set in concrete, and they were waiting for Powell and the highway patrolman the next morning. The Club had brought a sheriff’s deputy. A fist fight ensued, and when the highway patrolman called his superiors and asked for reinforcements, they said that nothing could be done because there were “political considerations.” (The Hunt Club’s attorney was president of the Florida Bar Association and a close friend of the governor.) After talking to Powell, I figured that what I needed more than anything now was a survey to pinpoint the exact location of my property, so after being turned down by several surveyors—“too dangerous,” they said—I happened to find, in records at the Polk County Courthouse, the name of the man who had originally surveyed the entire forty-four thousand-acre project for Gulf American in the 1950s. His name was Bill Read, and he was still alive. When I called, he invited me to his home and unrolled a huge plat map of the project on the kitchen table. “These lots don’t exist on the ground,” Mr. Read said. “I just laid a grid right on top of the map. I never surveyed the lots, never surveyed anything smaller than a 640acre section. It was a conspiracy from the start.” I asked him what he meant, and he told me about a secret meeting that had been held between the Polk County commissioners and representatives of Gulf American at a local restaurant. The representatives promised the county commissioners they would never have to maintain roads or sewer lines into the project because there would never be any. So the commissioners agreed to approve the project and thus began collecting property taxes from thousands of people like my father, who’d bought land that would not only never be developed, but would never even have roads. Then, after a long explanation about property lines and access points, Mr. Read surprised me with the news that the Hunt Club didn’t actually own any of the land at River Ranch. All they did was control the only unlocked gate to it. I don’t remember his exact words, but the meaning was clear: Armed men from the Hunt Club were controlling a gate that wasn’t theirs, in order to keep land they didn’t own from being used by the actual landowners, so that the Hunt Club could charge everybody else thousands of dollars to use a gate that wasn’t even a legal access point to the land in the first place. I considered all he was saying, and then I asked if he might be willing to survey my 2 ½ acres. “Sure,” he said. “That bunch of rednecks doesn’t scare me.” And he ofA Journal of Creative Nonfiction
fered to do it for a very reasonable price. But as I was leaving, he reminded me to be careful when I was out there. “They won’t touch me. They know who I am. But it’d be different for you.” I asked him what I should do. “If it was me,” he said, leaning close, “I’d cut the fence.” By now I was storing my Jeep in a lot in Tampa with a bunch of other decrepit vehicles. I’d bought a little solar panel to keep the battery charged. Then I’d take a cheap flight from Birmingham to Tampa whenever I needed to, and then drive the Jeep from there to River Ranch. I also bought a gps, which I used to help me get to the land until Mr. Read actually surveyed it, and a cb radio in case of emergencies. I even camped a few nights in a tent on the land. I also got to know the people who manned the gatehouse. They were generally a suspicious and taciturn lot, and there was a high turnover rate. My favorite occupant of the gatehouse was an older woman named Peanut. She was the one who told me the leadership of the Hunt Club was upset with me because I’d pitched my tent in the hunting area instead of the camping area. When I asked who had decided which was which, she said it was probably just a gentleman’s agreement. “Well, I’ve been camping on my own land,” I said. “That may be,” she replied, “but the leaders of the Hunt Club say they can’t guarantee your safety if you continue to do it.” “Oh, come on, Peanut. Nobody’s going to do anything to me out there.” She stared at me as though she could see directly into my future. “I like you, Mr. Covington,” she said. “I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
And for a long time, nothing did. I went back to Alabama. But when Mr. Read called to tell me he’d finally surveyed the property, I headed once again to Florida only to find that his survey stakes had been pulled out of the ground and that swamp buggies had rolled over a pitiable dog wire fence I’d erected. That’s when the idea of a cabin came into play. I figured nobody would dare touch that, and I chose a plan from a book called Tiny Houses. This cabin had a floor and wooden frame held together by nuts and bolts, and the walls, which were made of sturdy canvas with zippered windows and doors, were secured to 4x4s, so the two friends who helped me set it up in Birmingham were able to disassemble it and load it into a pickup I’d recently bought. One of the friends, sculptor Jim Neel, flew to Tampa, retrieved my Jeep from a storage unit and met me at River Ranch. We sneaked all the materials past the guards at the Hunt Club gatehouse and erected the cabin on my property two days before the start of general gun season. All the while, Hunt Club members in ratty old vehicles or swamp buggies would pass by shouting “Stupid sons of bitches!” or “Assholes! Shitheads!” or “Don’t you know you can’t do that?!” And soon we were visited by a delegation of three men from the Hunt Club. They were armed with high-powered rifles, and the apparent leader told us we couldn’t camp there.
I asked if he had a camp. “Sure.” “Whose land is yours on?” I said. He glanced at the other two. “I have no idea.” “Well I know whose land my camp is on,” I said. “Whose?” “Mine.” “He’s had it surveyed,” one of the other men whispered to him. At first, the leader seemed stunned, but then he asked me the usual questions about my deed and whether it had been recorded in the county courthouse and whether I’d paid my taxes on it. After I’d answered yes to all these, he said, “Well, just so long as you know the rules. You can’t put a camp up in the hunting area, only in the camping area.” I repeated that I was putting up my camp on my own land. The man pondered that fact a little while longer and then changed the subject entirely before motioning to the other men that it was time for them to go. Jim and I considered sleeping in the cabin that night, but I told him this wasn’t his fight, so we spent that night on the road to Tampa, and I drove him to the airport so he could make his flight back to Birmingham on time. The next night, the night before hunting season opened, I stayed awake in the cabin back at River Ranch with a machete in my hand—a rather poor defense, to be sure. And just before sunrise, hundreds of trucks and swamp buggies rolled by with armed men shouting the usual epithets while I puttered around outside my cabin and heated Beenie Weenies on a camp stove. Then I finished painting the corner posts of the cabin orange. I also tied an orange flag to the roof of the cabin, and I put on an orange deer hunter’s cap. “There’s always one asshole in the bunch!” one of the men shouted. “He ain’t been shot yet?” yelled another. That night I sat at my desk in the cabin and wrote by the lamp of a Coleman battery-operated lantern. At one point, the sound of close gunshots caused me to go outside, where I saw a group of disheveled men drinking beer around a campfire and shooting into the palmetto, apparently at nothing at all. I waited until the men had moved on to another location, and then I decided to spend the rest of that night at a motel. When I returned to my camp at sunrise, I found two bullet holes through the canvas walls. One bullet had shattered my lantern and sent debris puncturing the other walls. When I left to report the incident, Peanut said, “Well, at least I’ve got a cb handle for you now.” “What’s that?” “Buckshot,” she said.
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The sheriff’s deputy sent to write up the crime report met me in the parking lot of the Kissimmee River Restaurant, but he didn’t go to the property itself, and he didn’t offer much hope. “It’d be different if you’d been in the cabin at the time, but shooting into an unoccupied dwelling is just a misdemeanor. It’s not worth investigating unless something else happens. I hope it doesn’t. We know what this is about, though. Those bullets didn’t get there by accident. They were meant to intimidate you.” So I raided my piggy bank to purchase two parcels of land on either side of mine for $1800 in back taxes, just so the Hunt Club would know they hadn’t scared me off. And then I bought a gun. It was a Rossi .357 magnum, and I started to relish using it for target practice right as the swamp buggies of the men who’d called me “dickhead” passed by. They didn’t shout insults at me anymore, but they did start leaving presents in my absence— the guts from a hog carcass strung across my fence or a box of human shit on the doorstep of my cabin, just something for me to remember them by. And it didn’t surprise me, when I next went to River Ranch, to discover that the Hunt Club had hit me again, this time smashing the windshield and the rear windows of my Jeep, ripping the walls of the cabin with knives, and stealing just about everything from both, including my cots, chairs, writing desk, and that solar panel I’d used to keep my Jeep battery charged. In the center of the cabin floor, they’d left another calling card, a dead armadillo lying on its back. That afternoon I happened to see Pete Edwards, president of the Hunt Club, just inside the gate. He was dressed fit to kill in his pressed jeans, plaid shirt, western boots, and Stetson. “Mr. Pete,” I said. “You’re just the man I wanted to see.” He smiled and shook my hand as though he hadn’t yet made my acquaintance. I told him my camp had been shot up a second time. “I don’t know why they’d tear your camp all to hell.” I told him I thought he did know why. “Well, the rules are you can’t camp in the hunting area.” I told him I’d been threatened by members of the Hunt Club before the shootings. “Sure, they take offense when somebody like you comes in,” he whispered. “They think, ‘He wants to steal my property.’” I reminded him that the cabin and Jeep were on my property to begin with. “I want you to come out and see my camp,” I said. “I’ve done seen it,” Pete answered, and he gave the bill of his Stetson a tug to let me know our conversation was over. The sheriff’s deputy who filed the crime report about the second incident was red-faced and barrel-chested, a former member of the Hunt Club who’d become irked by the illogic of it all. “It’s the same thing been going on out here for thirty-something years,” he said.
He added two felonies to the report: burglary and grand theft, and although there weren’t any suspects yet, he said he figured it was the Mirees. I was already familiar with them. “Are they still living in that old school bus?” he said. I nodded, and he said, “They’re just lowlife scum bums. They ought to be shot. That’s the problem these days. You’ve got these scum bags that you can’t kill.” And then he added, “At least those boys know how to wear their underwear right.” I made the mistake of asking him what he meant. “Oh, you know. Yellow to the front and brown to the back.” Then he laughed a thick, phlegm-coated laugh. I asked if he was going to take a look at my cabin. “No, we’re not going out there today,” he said. “Of course, if somebody gets killed, we’ll have to.” Membership in the Hunt Club had gained me what I’d needed—access to the land while I waited for it to be surveyed, and a window of opportunity during which Jim and I could erect the canvas house. But from that moment on, my cover was blown. As Dick Powell told me in a late-night phone conversation, I was a “double agent now.” He expected reprisals once they discovered he and I were in cahoots. “They’re gonna kill you,” he said at the time. “I’m numero uno on their list. “You’re numero two.” Powell’s personal war with Pete Edwards had meanwhile reached a critical point. After fifteen years of acrimonious litigation, it had all come down to this: whether one man had the right to access his land along a deeded easement. The future of River Ranch hung in the balance, and both sides seemed ready in case events took another bad turn. Dick Powell had obtained a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Otherwise, he sounded optimistic. “The Hunt Club is going to go ape-shit,” he said. “As simple as this suit is, it’s the crux. They can be mean and violent and spit on you, but when they lose the ability to fence the access points, they’re finished.” I’d come too far to wait for the wheels of justice to roll on, though. And when I went back to the plat maps at the county courthouse, I discovered a remarkable thing. One of the additional lots I’d bought next to Dad’s land touched a section line. This meant it could be accessed by the public. I remembered my surveyor’s advice. He said he would just cut the wire. So the only thing I’d have to do was cut the barbed wire fence on property owned by a squinty-eyed old bastard who’d made and lost his fortune in whorehouses. Then I could just walk straight down the section line to my property. I’d have to do it at night, though, when he was asleep, and that’s what I did, three nights in a row. I dressed all in black, and took a shotgun, my revolver, a strong flashlight with red plastic taped to the lens, my gps and compass, and a backpack with food and water. If any members of the Hunt Club got in my way, I was prepared to shoot them. Or at least this is what I thought. Fortunately for all involved, I decided to cease and desist. I’d seen a wreck on the A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
highway one night, a horse that had just been killed by a truck. The scene was horrendous, and I’d had to stanch the truck driver’s bleeding. He was a black man who was worried about his wife back home. I wouldn’t be cutting any more fences after that. I decided to just go back to Birmingham and wait on the courts. But then an fbi agent and four policemen, two of them undercover, showed up at my door in Birmingham one afternoon. The fbi agent asked if I was Dennis Covington and if I owned a 1984 Jeep Cherokee. I answered yes to both questions, and added that my Jeep was, or had been, on my land in central Florida. The fbi guy said that agents from the bureau’s office in central Florida had come across my Jeep and cabin. Everything had been shot up. “It looked like a war zone down there. They said it was like Beirut,” he said. “We just stopped by to make sure you were alive.” I told him it was the third time my place had been shot up. “What are these people so mad about?” I told him it was a land dispute, and I could sense his loss of interest. When the men left, I heard a “Wow!” from behind me. It was my older daughter, Ashley. “I can’t wait to tell Mom when she gets home that the fbi came to interview you!”
This time the Polk County sheriff’s department thought it was important enough to send an investigator with me to the scene of the crime. “How’d the fbi get involved in this?” he said. I told him I didn’t know, and then my cb crackled. “Buckshot. Come in, Buckshot. This is Gate One. Do you read me?” I told Peanut I read her. “Buckshot, are you all right? I see you got the Law riding with you.” “I’m about the same as before.” “Be careful, son,” she said. “Ten-four, Gate One. Over and out.” My camp was a hard thing for me to look at. The Jeep had been stripped and gutted of everything that could be removed or burnt away. The remaining carcass was riddled with bullet holes and had been crushed like an accordion, bent upon itself by some terrible force. “They must have driven a swamp buggy into it,” the investigator said. And I didn’t think it possible for the cabin to look worse than it had the previous time, but it did. More bullet holes. More fancy knife work, and in the place where the dead armadillo had been, someone had placed my orange hunting cap. The investigator nodded slowly when he noticed that detail and then he said, “It looks like a pretty open and shut case to me. These people would like to see you dead.” I figured I could have told him that.
So I’d come to the end of a certain part of my journey. Nobody was going to be arrested for destroying my camp, and there was no way I could bring my family down to River Ranch for a fun-filled wilderness vacation. But was this really the inheritance Dad intended to leave me? Maybe wrestling that Florida land from the bad guys wasn’t what Dad had in mind after all. The dream he’d carried to his grave must have been more important than those 2 and ½ acres—dangerous, but in a different way. Here I was, coming up on Dad’s age when he bought his piece of River Ranch, but I still didn’t know why he had left it so explicitly to me. Unless it had something to do with Chance, and Dad couldn’t have known about Chance. Chance was the name of a woman I met while I was trying to claim my inheritance. She was a student of mine, and although she was much younger than I was, we had children about the same age. During class breaks, we talked about girls’ softball. Our daughters played in different leagues, but both Chance and I were coaches. So we had plenty of stories to swap about our daughters’ heroisms on the field: the close games in which their hits had driven in the winning runs; the bruised and broken fingers they suffered fielding flies and grounders; and the dramas of their long, courageous steals toward home. On an impulse during one of these class breaks, I asked Chance to ride with me to a nearby Federal Express office. I had a magazine deadline to beat, and I wanted company. It was nearly dark, an early spring, toward the end of the academic quarter. I had just bought my River Ranch-bound Jeep. We rode in silence for a few blocks, and then I asked her whether she was happy or not. She looked startled. Or perhaps it was only the impression her eyes gave. They were wide, dark, and slightly asymmetrical. “Of course I’m happy,” she said. “I love my husband. I love my children. What about you?” “No,” I said. “I’m not happy. I love my wife and children, too, but I’m not happy.” “Well, maybe things will get better for you,” she said. “Happy is better than sad, you know.” A few weeks later, after class, we had a story conference at a coffee shop in my neighborhood. Chance was wearing a ball cap, T-shirt, and jeans. “Good coffee,” she said. “Good is better than bad,” I replied. Chance grinned back. We were in cahoots of some sort. We found ourselves talking about things other than stories—our families, for instance; our pasts. Chance was sitting in a window seat, her legs crossed Indian-style. When her hands weren’t holding her cup, they rested in her lap, her thin elbows turned out slightly, like a dancer’s. She was watching the street outside. “I know you,” I said. “I don’t mean literally. But I know who you are.” A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
“What do you mean?” “That grin of yours, that self-deprecating tilt of your head.” I told her I had known girls like her when I was growing up in East Lake—tough girls who dealt boys fits and didn’t mind an occasional fist-fight or two. There was one family in particular, the Kilgores, who had three girls who went to our church. I fell for each of them, in descending order, according to age. “Did any of them return the favor?” Chance asked. “No.” “Smart girls,” she said. I told her I was in my second marriage. The first had ended after five years. Vicki and I had been married eighteen. The tone with which I delivered that information must have hung in the air a moment too long. A silence without relief. “You didn’t really want to talk about my story tonight, did you?” Chance said. I shrugged. I admitted I was lonely. “Loneliness,” she said, “is a state of mind.” I told her I’d remember that. “I’d better run,” she said. “Brad will wonder where I am.” “Brad?” “That would be my husband,” she said. I walked her to her car, and when we got there I told her I thought she was adorable. Chance had already dialed a number on her cell phone. “Hi, the kiddos home?” she said. “No, I’m running a little late. Conference with my professor. Yes, I’m leaving right now. I love you, too.” She pushed in the antenna, and sat down on the edge of the curb. I sat beside her. “Now why did you say that?” she asked. “The adorable part?” She nodded. I told her I thought it was best to get the issue out in the open, to acknowledge it so it wouldn’t affect our relationship in class. Chance touched the bill of her ball cap and stared across the street at the coffee shop we’d just left. “I don’t buy that,” she said. Then she stood up, made her way to the driver’s side of her car, and got in. “Thanks for the feedback on my story,” she said before she pulled out of her parking space. I watched as she climbed the hill toward the funeral home, where she turned left and disappeared from sight. The next week, Chance wasn’t in class. I panicked. It was unlike her. She did show up after our first break. A minor emergency with her children, she explained to the other students. But she avoided eye contact with me, and I tried to look her way only when she made a comment about a story under discussion; even then I had to force myself to
pay attention to the actual words. And that’s the way it went until the very last night of class. When I dismissed the students, Chance was one of the first out the door. I tried to catch her before she left the building entirely, and at the sound of her name, she turned and resolutely walked back toward me. I didn’t know how to defuse what I read as defiance in her eyes. “What is it?” she asked. “I’ve been worried about what I said the night we had coffee together.” She nodded. “It’s worried me, too.” “I’m sorry,” I said. “I was way out of line.” “You didn’t mean it?” “I meant it, but that’s not the point.” “I have to admit it shocked me,” she said. “I really thought you wanted to talk about my story.” I told her that was my intention, but that I had spoken afterward without thinking. “I hope you’ll accept my apology.” “I do,” she said, and paused. “But what if it were reciprocal?” I must have looked confused. “What if I felt something, too?” “Did you? Do you?” “Yes. That’s why I was in a hurry to leave tonight. I didn’t want to have to deal with it.” “Well, I won’t keep you.” But neither of us moved. “I won’t keep you,” I repeated. “Unless you’d like to have coffee again.” “I’d like that.” We closed up the coffee shop that night and sat on the curb again to talk. What we talked about this time was love. I told her I missed the sharpness of it, the danger of it, the edge. She admitted to being an adrenaline junkie, too, but she wasn’t sure what that had to do with love. She’d married so young. And there had been no major attractions to anyone else. No affairs. “And that’s the way it’s going to stay,” she said. I nodded in agreement. I told her it was her virtue that had first attracted me, to which she smiled ironically. “You’ve had kind of a checkered career,” she said. “A long time ago.” “So I’ve gathered from class. We’re different in that way.” I heard a scolding coming. “So we’ll be friends?” I said. “What, Brad and me bringing the kiddos over to meet Vicki and your girls? I don’t think so.” “What will we be then?” “We aren’t a we,” she reminded me. “Then why are we sitting on a curb of the busiest street in my neighborhood? The coffee shop closed an hour ago.” A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
“I don’t know what we’re doing here,” she said. “But it can’t go any further than
“Okay.” And I offered her a promise. “I don’t believe in promises,” she said. I told her I did. That’s why I never made them. This would be a first. “What about your marriage vows?” “We got married in the seventies.” And when that didn’t register, I said, “We promised to stay together only for the duration of our desire to stay together. We ended with an Apache prayer.” “I see,” she said. “So what’s your promise?” I told her I would be in her life only to the extent that she wanted me to be. Chance thought about that a minute. “All right,” she said. “But there’s a line that can’t be crossed. If you cross it, I won’t even give you a warning. I’ll just turn and walk away, and that’ll be it. Understood?” She didn’t say what the line was. She just got up and headed for her car. She was already taking out her cell phone for the apologetic call home. “Can I call you sometime?” I asked. Chance stopped in mid-stride and looked at me with those wondrous eyes, the corners of her mouth tucked into the ironic grin that would become for me a talisman. “Of course.”
That was how our relationship began, and for a long time, we crossed no lines at all. We touched foreheads once. I suppose that’s a line we crossed. I took her hand in both of mine. Her fingers were delicate, but strong. She wore a ring with a large stone on it, and I remember not liking the way the ring felt. Her husband’s family had money, not a good thing for a couple that young, I thought. But what did I know about youth or money? By this time in my life, these were things I only read about in books. Our relationship lasted four years and is part of this story only because, in my imagination at least, Chance became a silent co-conspirator in my attempt to claim my inheritance. Midway through, I got sidetracked by another book project, a joint memoir with Vicki about our tumultuous marriage. The tumult was supposed to be in the past. But after we had signed the contract and spent the first half of the advance, we discovered we were headed in opposite directions from one another, and with other people, no less. After we’d made our mutual confessions, our editor told us we just couldn’t turn this book into stories about me and Chance and Vicki and her fbi agent. So I never said in the marriage book what I thought would be obvious to the reader: I loved Chance from the beginning. Fiercely is too mild a word. I loved Chance despite the delight she took in poking fun at me, and despite her relentlessly ironic retorts. When I’d call to see how her day had gone, I’d find out she was “just peachy” or “fine, fine, fine.” When satisfied with herself, she would say, “I am grinning like the Cheshire cat.” When angry, she would say, “I’m numb.”
There came a time when I was afraid I might die, and I told her so. “Don’t expect any sympathy from me,” she replied cheerily. I loved her in spite of that, because behind those sharp comebacks and the feigned nonchalance, Chance was the most principled woman I’d ever met. She was also the most inquisitive, self-reliant, brave, funny, tender, and generous. At the height of it all, I thought she was the one true love of my life; my resting place; my sweet, sweet heart. So I called her from Florida on the night my nephew Craig and I first positioned the Jeep there. She and I talked until dawn. Every trip I made after that became part of our private colloquy. She knew what I was doing, and she gave me the impression she understood why. She said she worried about my safety, but not much. And gradually the project began to provide opportunities to spend little pieces of time together. There was an interview in West Palm Beach that I never intended to conduct; a side trip to the Panhandle, during which we took coffee and doughnuts to the beach to watch the sun rise. Chance found a piece of coral that had washed up during the night. I took it home, left it in the bed of my truck, through the snows of an Idaho winter, the heat of the desert sun, and returned it to her a year later, whitened and brittle, with a message taped around it: “Love never fails.” There was a hearing in Tallahassee that I’d missed because I hadn’t adjusted my watch to Eastern Standard Time. You can lose yourself in Florida if you try, you know. I believe Dad would not have judged me too harshly for that. I think he, too, might have lost himself in Florida, if he had lived long enough. If he’d had world enough, and time. If he’d had Chance. I couldn’t quite imagine us living in that shot-up canvas cabin in the middle of a contested palmetto field, but I could see us in Sarasota someday, near the art museum, or up at Lakeland, in one of those bungalows across the water from the college Frank Lloyd Wright had designed: the campus with all the orange trees. I told Chance there would be oranges in her future, and whenever the opportunity arose, we slowly ate an orange together, section by section, her hand to my mouth, my hand to hers. I have not eaten an orange in that way since.
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In the Despoiled and Radiant Now
A group of us had gathered on the porch for a drink at the end of the day—late August, Vermont, sun bright-but-downshifting, leaves green-but-red-tingeing—when a moose wandered into the meadow behind the house. She stood chest deep in tall grasses, so dark she shone like a black, still lake. Our friends said they’d never seen a moose in that spot, or so close. Just an hour earlier, I was walking the mowed edge of the meadow, woods on one side, milkweed on the other; with my arms outstretched I could almost touch both. I was, as I walked – and there isn’t a why to be had in this story—conjuring moose. Entering moose-space. Considering it a moose-like day, and why wouldn’t a moose want to step out of the woods—not to see me but just because. Because if I were a moose, I’d want exactly, full and straight on, summer turningbut-held, light dipping-but-sharp, the air sweet, the greens thick—then the moment cracked open, stretched wide, went deep, and it was moose all around. As I walked, my own measure was moose-hipbone-high; each hummock I stepped on was spanned by a hoof, each branch overhanging muzzled out of the way. A musky, rich, rooty scent rose, and a changed air, light, and hunger— catkins so tender I wanted a mouthful— drew powerfully forth. I don’t know why it wasn’t a deer, hawk, or fox moment; I have no experience at all with moose-presence. But that’s what came. And then—there she was. Golden in spots where sun touched her back. Wetnosed, mouth full, and quivering at flies, before a porch full of noisy observers. I don’t mean to centralize myself in this story—just that it seems I had been in a state to sense moose, and was given to register ease, ripeness, desire in the way this particular other would, too. When the moose turned after maybe ten minutes of chewing and watching, and shuffled back to the woods in her heavy, mild way, everyone on the porch applauded. But I kept what happened earlier to myself. Telling about it would’ve been footnote, would’ve made others feel obligated to respond to a groovy synchonicity. That such a moment marked me as the site-of wasn’t a point I wanted to make. What it did mean, though, is such instances are to be trusted, and so too can other winged moments be held and believed. Like yesterday’s fast certainty that the street I live on, walk and drive daily, was suffocating, that the ground below the street was capped, and all the arterials, rivulets, former creek beds, all the would-be nest sites, spots where seeds might have rooted and greened, while not dead, were only partly alive. The chart I consulted on how roads are made, the multiple layers for weight-bearing and drainage, the fixed order and variety of materials poured and packed in confirmed it: no simple, cartoonish peeling away, no rolling up of asphalt like a rug was possible. And that moment, suddenly seeing the road—no, hearing its straining, a shallow in-suck, an ache like the hum of muscle restrained—that was an unbidden grief on a otherwise beautiful fall afternoon. A body’s desire for sun-on-flank/the land’s stoppered breath in search of release. An unseen moose making itself felt/stifled land registering in the chest—quiet, strange, fragile, and easily overrun—such moments arrive unexpectedly, trailing their shine, flagging their ruin. And while knowing them can’t be easily spoken, Here comes calling, and Now is the briefest, rogue impression caught hold of. A taste in air of blood, musk,
and hunger. An abrupt understanding of the word sclerotic. These moments are my latest proof: there exist ways of listening a listener hardly understands, the presence of ease and the presence of ruin, a lit stillness, a packed grief, right here, right now. Whiffs caught or barest scrims parted, unfurled and flashing in a field of sunlight, knotted, contained in a very small spaceâ€”in the despoiled and radiant now, these alight and come for, and once known, like any great love, like any great loss, are impossible to unknow.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Lee Martin, Guest Editor Lee Martin is the author of the novels, The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; River of Heaven; Quakertown; Break the Skin; and Late One Night. He has also published three memoirs, From Our House, Turning Bones, and Such a Life. His first book was the short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. He is the co-editor of Passing the Word: Writers on Their Mentors. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared, or are forthcoming, in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Glimmer Train, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Essays. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he is a College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of English and a past winner of the Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.
Dennis Covington is the author of two novels and four nonfiction books, including Salvation on Sand Mountain, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Georgia Review, Esquire, Vogue, the Oxford American, and other periodicals. It has also been widely anthologized in this country and translated into nine languages abroad. His newest book is Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World (Little, Brown, 2016). Meghan Daum is an opinion columnist covering cultural and political topics for the Los Angeles Times and also writes the Egos column in The New York Times Book Review. She is the author of four books, most recently The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion, which won the 2015 pen Center usa Award for creative nonfiction, and is also the editor of the New York Times best-seller Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and The Atlantic, among other publications, and she has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the nea.
Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo; the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and two chapbooks. He teaches at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction/Hybrids Editor of Passages North. He persevered through this past winter via the occasional one-handed cartwheel in his mind. Jackie Hedeman is a former grant writer and current grad student. Her work has appeared online in Watershed Review, The Manifest-Station, and The Offing, and on stage with Available Light Theatre. Jackie is the Reviews & Interviews Editor for The Journal, the literary journal of The Ohio State University, and is a contributing editor at Partisan. Find her on Twitter @JackieHedeman Kristen Iversen is the author of several books including the award-winning Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (Crown), chosen by universities across the country for their Common Read programs. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, Reader’s Digest, Fourth Genre, and many other publications. She currently teaches at the University of Cincinnati, where she heads the PhD program in literary nonfiction. Kristen has two sons and loves traveling and fixing up historic houses. Sonja Livingston’s most recent book, Ladies Night at the Dreamland, combines history, memory, and imagination to explore the lives of women from America’s recent and distant past. She’s the author of the recent essay collection, Queen of the Fall, and the memoir, Ghostbread, winner of the awp Award in Nonfiction. Her writing has been widely anthologized and honored with a New York Arts Fellowship, an Iowa Review Award, the Susan Atefat Essay Prize, and grants from Vermont Studio Center and The Deming Fund for Women. Sonja teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Virginia Commonwealth University. Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of three books of poetry, most recently, Lucky Fish. Her collection of illustrated nature essays is forthcoming from Milkweed. She is the Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi’s MFA program. Lia Purpura is the author of eight collections of essays, poems, and translations, most recently a collection of poems, It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Penguin.) Her awards include Guggenheim, nea, and Fulbright Fellowships. Her essay collection On Looking was finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her work appears in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Orion, The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, md and is Writer-in-Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Bill Roorbach’s next book is The Girl of the Lake, a collection of stories coming from Algonquin in July, 2017. Also from Algonquin are The Remedy for Love, a finalist for the 2015 Kirkus Prize, and the bestselling Life Among Giants, which won a Maine Literary Award in 2012. An earlier collection, Big Bend, won the Flannery O’Connor and O. Henry prizes in 2000. His memoir in nature, Temple Stream, just released in a new paperback edition by Down East Books, won the Maine Literary Award in nonfiction 2005. He’s just been named a 2018 Civitella Ranieri Foundation fellow. Bill lives in Farmington and Scarborough, Maine, with his wife, Juliet Karelsen, who is a visual artist, and their daughter, Elysia Roorbach, an aspiring ballerina and full-time teen.
A Journal of Creative Nonfiction
Special Issue Edited by Lee Martin!