ABOUT Adsum is a student-run literary magazine committed to publishing artistic works created within the USC community. Submissions are chosen collaboratively, democratically, and anonymously by staff members on the basis of quality and affect. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.adsumusc.wordpress.com Facebook: www.facebook.com/AdsumUSC Published: 7.27.2017 Volume 7 Issue 1 Fonts: Titles: Gotham Paragraphs: Myanmar Text Computer Software: Adobe InDesign CC Adobe Photoshop CC
CONTENTS In Passing (p. 3) Constant L. Williams Lakeshore Dog Park for the Insane (p. 5) Celeste McAlpin-Levitt Photo by (p. 6) Neha Ingle Hand-Me-Down Girl (p. 7) Samantha Sharkoff Michael Freebyâ€™s Los Angeles - Artist Interview (p. 8) Kexin Zhang Parabellum - UWC Award Nominee (p. 12) Will Drickey Out of the Ash (p. 40) Samantha Sharkoff Malenkaya (p. 45) Celeste McAlpin-Levitt The Relatable Lorde of Glamour - Multimedia Essay (p. 47) Raphael Rosalen A Good Romantic Comedy (p. 48) Noah Kim Kisses from my Grandmother (p. 53) Samantha Sharkoff Featured Artists (p. 55) Staff Credits (p. 57)
IN PASSING Constant L. Williams we touched silently where the Seine is cleaved by cathedrals.
Her body will be the treetops, my hands the breeze. I want to feel her pressed against me like an olive against opening lips.
Some sayings simply cannot be translated into Englishâ€” La Douleur Exquise, for example.
The cheek, only second to the brain, is the greatest keeper of memory. Mine recalls her lips, the boĂŽte de nuit, the crowd swallowing her body, the world swallowing its own tongue.
Damp skin clinging to white linen. Tattooed hand. Cocaine shakes. Girl lying naked on bed.
4 Little deaths, roadside memorials, vermillion.
Rimbaud found greatness like the flagellants found God: Long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness. All poisons. Unspeakable torment.
Is it wrong that I haunted her memory like the dead?
In her absence I recede into the fringe of my natural habitat: Boulevards fat with rain, alleys bleeding wind, revisiting our visitations, imagining your body there, where it once was, devouring Paris, haunting the past, inducing primal fear in the heart of my memory.
The body leaves traces of its presence: Where it has gone, and where it is going.
LAKESHORE DOG PARK FOR THE INSANE Celeste McAlpin-Levitt You were a shotgun house. I saw straight through you. There were no corners to hide in. Your doors kicked down some long time gone. I claim to love your long shadow. It shows up those late afternoons when kids fill up the old asylum park with sucrose red mouthed howls. Lightening hit the smokestack but it got Rose Williams too. You need some hair of the dog that bit her but would much rather have a bottle in front of me. Girls dare each other to spy in your empty frames and find bologna skinned pups white gums, cold glass bones.
PHOTO BY Neha Ingle
HAND-ME-DOWN GIRL Samantha Sharkoff snared in your catâ€™s cradle, I never learned how to play. but you still trusted me with your marionette strings, even as I fumbled with matches. I was the dust that settled after you clapped your erasers together, the hand-me-down sweater you kept at the back of your drawer.
MICHAEL FREEBY’S LOS ANGELES
Kexin Zhang Michael Freeby is a model and photographer. As a model, he has been regularly featured in magazines such as Nylon, Bullett, WWD, and Vogue. His photography has appeared on numerous magazine covers worldwide and has been highlighted by USA Today, TMZ, The Oprah Winfrey Network, Perez Hilton, Just Jared, The Socialite Life, and many more. How did you get started with modeling and photography? My first modeling gig was actually supposed to be a lookbook for FBI products on their website. I was supposed “Desert” Series by Becca Batista & Jennifer Siegwart to model their sweaters and mugs. For some reason, that didn’t work out. But my first modeling gig ended up being as the face of a clothing line for Nicolas Cage and his son Weston Coppola Cage called “Full Cage.” The photoshoot actually happened on my birthday. I didn’t tell them since I was kind of embarrassed that a photoshoot for such a big thing was on my birthday. But they put eight donuts on the catering table. It was awesome! Did you learn photography by yourself? I did. My photography experience started with a fashion magazine. They
9 were doing an experiment where they had people like hair and wardrobe stylists with no previous photography experience organize their own photoshoots. Since I had no experience as a photographer and model, they were interested in seeing my perspective. That was actually my first photoshoot, and I just kept going from there. Where does your inspiration come from? I don’t necessarily look at other Actor Tab Hunter, photo by Michael Freeby photographers’ work. I come up with my own ideas. But I do like super bright 80s and 90s cartoons. I love Lisa Frank and the artwork from R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books. I love stuff like that. Who influence you most? Lisa Frank and 80s soap stars. What has been your most challenging project? I wouldn’t necessarily say “challenging,” but when I modeled for a cosmetic campaign with Sephora, they put different kinds of liquid makeup on my face. They’d drip straight out of my eyes and my mouth. It took a lot of staying still and concentrating.
10 What do you think of modern art? Yes, I think modern art is amazing. Lots of people are bringing lots of new perspectives to the field, especially with everything coming from the internet. Have you experienced sensitivity and creative blocks? I definitely get sensitive, especially if I photograph someone and they don’t like my photos (which sometimes happens, unfortunately). And I experience creative blocks, too. Every artist needs to brainstorm new ideas because that’s pretty much a never-ending thing. I do get sentimental with a lot of my shoots, but it’s part of the amazing experience. How do you deal with criticism? Do you criticize yourself a lot? I don’t criticize myself too much. I have seen a few blogs with very active comment sections, and they’ve said more nice things about my stuff than negative things. So, I’ve been pretty shocked by that. Whenever I see the negative things online, I generally find them to be pretty funny. Photo by Michael Freeby
11 Any suggestion for a new photographer? Photograph whatever you like the most. Just follow your vision. Whatever interests you the most, just go for it. What’s your next project? I’m putting together my first-ever, epic photo exhibition presented by the Museum of Digital Art in Los Angeles. It should debut in August. I also photograph an ongoing campaign that helps children fight cancer.
Will Drickey Prologue The tinny report of his Beretta pistol was indistinguishable from the grand finale of Jefferson’s Independence Day festivities. The same could be said about the pair that followed, as well as the clattering of plastic and metal dropping onto a scuffed linoleum floor. It lay there, silent, its eight hundred years of potential energy spent in a two-second fusillade. Act 1 The first firearms appeared in Eurasia in the twelfth century. Their fundamental principles were simple; a charge of black powder, placed at one end of a metal tube, is ignited. The resulting chemical reaction creates, among other things, an expanding cloud of gas that pushes with it a small metal object, not much bigger than a pebble, out of the opposite end. These principles have not changed in the centuries that followed. Left alone, black powder is inert, harmless. Until we introduce a catalyst, its capacity for harm is only theoretical. David Browning’s was a militant lineage. The men of his family had for three generations heeded the trumpets of war and―more through dumb luck and on-base assignments than any preternatural talent for violence― had returned to Jefferson unscathed. David’s father was the final soldier of the Browning bloodline, and on his return from Vietnam he bequeathed no new global conflict with which his son could prove himself. No member of his nuclear family felt this burden more than David Browning Sr, as if the resumption of pax americana was somehow his own fault. Ripples of this sentiment evidenced themselves in the growing piles of beer cans scattered around his easy chair before the television set in their den. He would often speak to his son of his pride in him, but the conversations felt performed, though for whose benefit David Jr was never quite certain. David did not know a number of things about his parents. Presumably,
13 his father found work after the war, but David only learned that it allowed him to return home at 1800 hours every day. David Sr spoke of it in monosyllables: the day was “good,” “bad,” or—if he felt wordy— “alright.” He came to life only when one referred to “the war,” as if a quarter had been inserted into an animatronic dummy. Stories about the antics of his war buddies and diatribes against the pussies in the peacetime service filled the silence at the dinner table, and, over the years, the space to fill exceeded the original content he had to work with. His audience never complained: his son because the reruns were just as thrilling as the originals, and his wife because it would require raising her voice long enough to hold forth an opinion. David never learned his mother’s maiden name. Her life prior to his conception was a void about which his parents did not speak and into which David did not probe. Their conversations were strictly functional, little more than “what’s for dinner” and “don’t forget your coat.” Outside of the kitchen she seemed out of place, wandering about the house as if she had lost her way in a fog, fumbling for her way back home. Even in the portion of the house that was “hers” —for David Sr ventured only into the kitchen to raid the fridge―the floor was irreparably scuffed from his work-booted stride—she kept to the corners, like a coatrack. When David Sr disappeared for full days with a group of men in matching polo shirts who appeared only when they crowded on the porch to pick him up, little changed in the demeanor of the household. His son filled the vacant spot in front of the TV set, and on those occasions when he wandered into the kitchen for a refill on potato chips his mother would start, slamming shut her dime-store paperback as if he had caught her with a piece of contraband. The thumps and grunts that came from the other side of his thin bedroom walls when David Sr returned were the only evidence of affection David Jr ever discovered. It sounded the same as those times when his father hit him.
14 They never talked about how his parents met, but then again David Jr never asked. * * * How Margaret Lewis’ parents ended up in Jefferson, they never said. Gregory and Harriet Lewis didn’t sound like the other adults that lived on their rotting cul-de-sac: their words had clear boundaries, didn’t flow into one another like a stream around stones. They didn’t mingle with their neighbors at block parties, packing away canned beer and boxed wine, watching the kids shriek their way up the street and back down again. Margaret would ride back and forth past the big picture window in the front of their house on her bicycle, pink streamers flailing from the handlebars, just in case her parents came to watch. When she came back inside, they would not have looked up from their books, nestled on the couches in the front room. Margaret often asked her mother to tell her the story of how they met. It was romantic. When Harriet finished, the “and we’ve been together ever since” hanging in the air like an aerosol cleaner, Margaret pictured telling her version of the story to her own daughter. She didn’t think about how her parents didn’t really go out anymore. In truth, their marriage was like a lightning bolt: it followed the path of least resistance. Neither of them particularly enjoyed their jobs―Gregory at the county clerk’s office, Harriet at the high school― but biding time until retirement seemed easier than midlife crises. Harriet threw herself into the school system, ingratiating herself with the administration, ascending the union pecking order. She went out for drinks with her fellow teachers every Friday, leaving Gregory to babysit Margaret. They checked out videotapes from the library and watched them in the kitchen over bowls of popcorn, alternating between his and her selections until Harriet returned. They made small talk at the dinner table because they had run out of things to say to each other years ago. Sometimes they would argue, but their daughter
15 usually fled from earshot before they could really get going. They went through the motions more for Margaretâ€™s benefit than their own. From her earliest days Margaret had played doctor with her stuffed animals, even performing a few unauthorized, unanesthetized surgeries with a pair of safety scissors before her parents intervened. Moving forward, she stuck to less invasive procedures, swapping out her incision tools for a turkey thermometer and old shirts for gauze. Gregory and Harriet were just relieved they didnâ€™t have to keep replacing toys. * * * They first saw each other weeks before they met. David had joined an intramural football team: he savored the martial rigor of practice and playmaking, enjoyed the authority he felt when referred to by his surname. That he was too slight of frame to ever truly excel failed to bother him, though his friends avoided the issue nonetheless. Margaret spent much of her time in and around the libraries on campus, and often took her borrowed books with her to find quiet, pretty nooks in which to read them. This, along with her pretty blue eyes and the way her jeans hugged the curves of her hips, was apparently irresistible to those students who slowly encroached around her during lectures. On her way home from class, she was in the process of rebuffing one of the more forward of her admirers when she for a moment caught Davidâ€™s gaze. He made eye contact as she walked past the muddy, torn-up turf on which he scrimmaged, and felt a curious twinge of envy for the man gesticulating beside her. They briefly smiled at each other, and then David turned to receive a pass and took off down the field. Margaret thought he looked cute, a bit like a terrier romping with a pack of bulldogs. They both found their thoughts returning to that moment, and when they encountered one another at a party later in the semester,
16 David waited for a lull in their conversation to inquire after the man he had seen her with, sure to feign nonchalance so as not to appear too interested. She was intrigued by his stories about the war, told secondhand but uncredited, as well as his unassuming masculinity; he was impressed by her ambition and the way she touched his arm when she laughed at something he’d said. Act 2 For the gun to be made portable, something needed to be done about the ignition process. Original designs required lighting a fuse by hand—it was serviceable for the bulky, team-operated siege weapons for which gunpowder was first used, but took far too much preparation to ever be effective when used in anger. In the thirteenth century, enterprising individuals innovated on the simple design of tube, ball, powder: they added a trigger. Through the use of levers, a sparking apparatus could be prepared long in advance and applied to the charge with a simple push of a button. The process takes no more than one one-hundredth of a second. It leaves behind an acrid smell, an unpleasant popping sound, and a corpse. The condom in David Browning’s faux-leather wallet had been there for three months, nestled between an unused movie theater gift card and a few pennies that he had forgotten about. As he walked, head down, hands jammed into the front pockets of his boot-cut jeans, each step jostled his wallet by millimeters at a time. David’s thoughts were on other things. He was, after all, on his way to meet Margaret at her single-bedroom apartment. He had high hopes for the evening. Margaret, on the other hand, lacked David’s singular focus. She bounced from bedroom to kitchen to bathroom, starting and stopping various menial tasks she neither wanted to do or particularly
17 needed to have done. Hers was a peculiar feeling of malaise; there was something of importance left incomplete. Though what exactly it was escaped her, the suspicion—no, the knowledge—gnawed at her from just beneath the surface. David took the stairs to apartment 342 two at a time, slowing down to a less desperate pace when he had to share the stairwell. With every stride, the denim of his jeans rubbed against his wallet which in turn flexed against his rubber, the minute grooves of neglected pennies abrading both sides. Given years, they could have worn away the thick siding of leather substitute, but they were not as implacable as the tides: they would be remembered, removed, and forgotten again later that evening. He couldn’t help but swagger a bit as he paced to her front door and gave it three staccato raps. By the time David knocked on her door, a determined, heavy sound, Margaret had almost forgotten that he was coming. No, that wasn’t quite right. After all, preparing for his arrival had been the primary cause of half her frantic housekeeping, their relationship being too young to survive his seeing the sort of squalor she and her roommate allowed to fester around them. Or so she thought, anyway; the mess in her room was no worse than that in David’s, and he might have been relieved at the prospects of ending the sham of cleaning his own apartment just to impress her. Margaret considered rushing to the door to let him in, envisioned herself tripping over a chair and greeting him with a broken nose and a smile, and elected to walk to the door instead. On the way through the kitchen, she pushed in a seat that stuck out dangerously from the table, and switched on her stereo. Her hand on the doorknob, Margaret couldn’t help but smile as she watched David through the peephole. It was cute, the way he got flustered when she kept him waiting. At times, and only momentarily, she had considered making an experiment of it; letting him stew for
18 various intervals, perhaps making some graphs from the data. She waited for him to knock a second time, and, grinning, flung open the door before he could finish. David felt a bit stupid for ever worrying. After a few pleasantries, Margaret stepped inside and David followed. “What is this music?” he said, as if incredulous that anyone would stoop to playing anything so blatantly romantic. Margaret tripped across the room to her stereo and turned the volume up. “Not enough banjo for you?” she asked, turning on her heels and beckoning to him with an outstretched arm. David scoffed, not quite sure himself if he was nettled by the joke. As he sidled up to her, he couldn’t help but mimic the sly smirk on Margaret’s lips. It faded when she pressed against him, her chin slipping easily into the groove between his neck and collarbone, and he realized her intentions. “Not a chance,” he said, he soft hair tickling his clean-shaven cheek. “I’m not dancing.” “You will tonight,” she replied, laughing and twirling away in a parody of a ballroom move, seizing his hand to stop her momentum. “There’s no weaseling your way out of it this time.” She paced to her bedroom and returned with a bottle of the cheapest red wine that she had been able to find. “Are you sure you can’t be convinced?” Even through his affected sigh, David could not hide the upturned corners of his mouth. After they made their way through the bottle, David pulling most of the weight, they ended up pressed together in her living room, eyes closed, her breath warming his ear. As they swayed, the friction of fabric against metal against plastic completed the work David had begun when he had first slipped the condom into his wallet. There was no solitary moment of failure, no cornerstone that groaned and broke with a great crash; the
19 prophylactic had been weakening from the very beginning in silence, until at last its failure came without a whimper. The process took three months in all. It left behind a missed period, a week of confusion, and a failed test. Act 3 Early firearms were unreliable against targets further than a stone’s throw away. This was because they were smoothbore, a neologism for any gun with an unblemished metal cylinder for a barrel. After the powder charge ignited, the bullet would bounce erratically about the barrel, leaving the end at slightly varying angles. Such unpredictability was unacceptable: men and nations needed a tool that provided the same result with every use. Legions of tinkerers determined that objects traveled through the air in much straighter lines when they are first set to spinning. By carving spiraled grooves into the barrel, the little lead marble could be twisted by the channeled gas, becoming effectively lethal from exponentially farther. We use the same principle to throw footballs. David pulled the squad car into his driveway, listening to the quiet crackle of silence from dispatch. The sun had finally settled behind their garage, reprieving him from its hateful gaze as it silhouetted his twenty-year obligation to Wells Fargo, LLC. A pudgy monolith against the reddening sky, it nonetheless loomed over him. David blinked a few times and leaned back against his headrest. His head hurt from squinting. One of these days he’d have to find himself a pair of sunglasses that were harder to lose. He ran his fingers through his close-cropped hair, the plain gold band he wore cold against his scalp. His keys jingled in his pocket as he sauntered to the front door, a petty facsimile of the spurs he had sometimes dreamt of wearing. At least the tin star was real. On the other side of the door, Margaret rushed about the kitchen, washing up after another slapdash dinner alone. She heard David’s heavy stride on the linoleum over the running faucet and turned in time to catch him sitting down to the plate of cold leftovers waiting for him on the
20 kitchen table. “Did you do something with my keys?” Margaret asked, pacing to her faded rucksack. “Nope.” David barely slowed his pace to respond, the monosyllable almost lost in the sound of chewing. A sigh from Margaret. “Can I borrow yours, then?” David looked up long enough to gesture in the general direction of the foyer with his fork. Margaret hurried to the next room, and her frantic rummaging gave her husband pause before he went back to eating. He turned to face her, despite the load-bearing wall standing between them. “Aren’t you going to be late for class?” The front door slammed in response. David finished his dinner and then went upstairs to check if Margaret had remembered to put Sally to bed. His plates stood alone on the barren table, stately ruins in a red desert. Margaret shivered in the driver’s seat. The air conditioning had been stuck ever since David had broken the switch a month ago, and she hadn’t been to a mechanic since then. She had rehearsed the scene in her head a dozen times, and each time it ended with the man quoting an exorbitant figure and her retreating in a billowing cloud of exhaust and shame. Before she had started the engine, she had been sure to close the vents, but it was barely a half-measure. Her brow furrowed as she peered for signs in the dying dusk, deepening by microns the lines in her skin she would bury in thickening layers of foundation. Only three semesters to go. They argued on her return. Each posited a thesis no less grounded in truth than their opponent’s, based on cherry-picked observations and self-serving attitudes. He was selfish; she was unsupportive. By way of support both sides brought to bear only a fraction of their full potential for devastation: they were still
21 bracketing each other’s insecurities, firing blindly into the night, and even so hoping to miss, for proximity was still more important to the belligerents than victory. Then Sally began to cry, and like well-oiled machinery the pair went through the motions their child had been conditioning them into from birth. Margaret cradled the baby in her arms, sometimes, and only momentarily, wondering how easy it would be to muffle it with her hand, just this once. David heated up the baby formula in the kitchen, juggling the pros and cons of grabbing a beer from the fridge while he was at it. They acted in silence, and when Sally finally went back to sleep, the argument didn’t seem worth disturbing the newfound quiet. Another armistice signed, the combatants went to bed, the smell of cheap lager on David’s breath heralding the peace. Act 4 The rifles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were worthy prototypes, but they were rough, uncouth, and lacked the efficient elegance of designs to come. The musket still bore the genetic markers of the generation of weaponry of which it was the progeny. Projectiles were simply downsized cannonballs, which were in turn hardly more than the chipped-down stones of trebuchets. Operators needed to pack black powder, enshroud each dimesized metal ball in cloth, and force it down the tube. The British army, finest in the world, defeated by amateurs who cared most about how quickly they congregated before any fighting began and scattered once it was over, could load and fire a musket four times in one minute. Industries worked tirelessly to correct this error in martial syntax. After all, those fourteen seconds loading were fourteen seconds not spent killing. It was only the machined precision of the nineteenth century that brought a solution: factories could churn out
22 a simple device—nothing more than a bullet and a charge of powder consolidated into a brass casing—by the hundreds of thousands. Preparation under duress gave way to quiet readiness. Margaret raked the front yard while David grilled in the back. Between them, Sally dragged a stool around the kitchen so she could reach the things with which she set the table. Nearly audible above the scrape of particle board against linoleum were her attempts at whistling, producing instead a thin, high-pitched whisper. She liked this ritual, took solace in its unchanging order. First the plates: one, two, three; each number punctuated by the minute clatter of ceramic against a twin. Then silverware, always forks, knives, and spoons, even when they were just eating hot dogs and needed none of them. The cool stainless steel handles always felt comfortable in her palm, especially when Mom made casserole and the oven turned the kitchen as hot as the inside of Dad’s cop car on a sunny day. And last, the cups: just two, one for each long side of the table. Dad never needed one, because his drink came out of a can from the fridge. She had been sitting at the table, hands neatly folded in her lap, for fourteen minutes by the time her parents filed into the kitchen from opposite sides of the house, like grade-schoolers upset by the end of recess. The two of them performed an awkward dance around the cramped kitchen, David setting the plate of singed hot dogs gingerly on the table while Margaret ducked behind him to wash up at the sink. The sat down in silence—they had done so ever since Sally could speak. What did they have to say? Anything of interest David saw during his shift usually ended up on a gurney in front of Margaret before the end of hers. She compensated with a forceful performance at interest in Sally’s school day. Sally was always more than happy to oblige. “Today we learned about history,” she said, her words muffled somewhat by processed meat and enriched flour. “We said the Pledge
23 of Allegiance and then Missus Fencil told us about the Boston Teabag and the Declaration of Independence and the shot heard around the world and how Washington beat up the British.” David stifled a chuckle too late to deflect Margaret’s glare, contenting himself with hiding his smile behind a tilted-up can of beer. “You mean the Boston Tea Party, honey,” Margaret said, wiping a stray bit of ketchup from Sally’s lip with a paper napkin. “And don’t talk with your mouth full. It’s unattractive.” “Let’s let her get a little bit older ‘fore we start worrying about that,” David chimed in, unflinching in the harsh light of her gaze. He leaned in toward Sally conspiratorially: parody of the good cop. “She’s right, though. We get ten calls a day about little girls not swallowing their food and choking to death!” The last three words were combined with a two-pronged tickle assault, sending crumbs and squeals skittering into Margaret’s lap. She let the jab lie and brushed the collateral damage from David’s barrage on Sally from her skirt; Margaret refused to fight in the kitchen, not in front of Sally: both sides knew the proper marital syntax, but every once in a while he’d needle her, just a little, from under the protective canopy of their daughter’s affection. She’d bet money that he’d say he wasn’t even aware he did it—something about his biology made him take cheap shots from behind cover. Sally’s laughter intruded on her thoughts, and she tugged up each corner of her mouth in response. The active effort didn’t last long—the way her daughter’s eyes lit up, even under duress, was enough to turn the smile genuine. And then the phone rang and Sally ran to answer it, leaving her parents to avoid eye contact at the dinner table. When she returned, phone in hand, cord trailing behind like a forgotten umbilical, they reassumed normalcy with a start, as if jolted from fitful sleep. Forced smiles and hunched postures greeted Sally as she rounded the corner. “Dolly wants to have a sleepover tonight and her mom can pick me up can I go please please please?” The words spilled from her lips
24 uninterrupted by punctuation or breathing. Margaret and David looked at each other for what seemed to be the first time that night, neither wanting Sally to go, neither willing to let the other capitalize on a refusal to gain a few inches in the tug-of-war they played with their daughter’s esteem. The house felt empty without the barely muffled sounds of her stockinged feet pattering across their shag carpet. Whenever she left, Margaret and David retreated to their respective entrenchments in the kitchen and the den, occasionally launching halfhearted salvoes of pointed looks and barbed comments. Usually she ended up watching whichever western David played on their VCR, leaning on the kitchen counter, her forgotten paperback slowly closing itself and losing her place again. Seconds had passed, but to Sally it felt like forever. She knew what silence meant—her parents needed a long time form the word no. ”Puh-leeease,” she threw in, for good measure. She started bouncing up and down, as if trying to trick her parents into thinking she was tall enough to make her own plans. Her mom cracked first, shooting up from her chair and taking the phone. “Alright,” she said, covering the mouthpiece. “But don’t forget to take your toothbrush this time. Dolly’s is full of germs.” Sally dashed away while Margaret negotiated over the phone: Dolores’ mother needed to pick Sally up, but Margaret would drive her back the next morning. Breakfast must be served over there— pancakes or waffles but no eggs because Sally wouldn’t eat them. David had transitioned from his beer to a cup of coffee from the pot he had brewed that morning, scowling at its sharp, bitter taste and at his rippling reflection in its too-strong darkness. He stared until he heard a car horn, Sally’s sprinting footsteps, and the slam of the front door. After, nothing. The house was silent. He looked up and Margaret still sat at the table with him, flipping back and forth through the novel she had been reading for the last four months. After a few
25 moments accompanied only by the fluttering of paper and the clocklike thumping of their broken ice maker, David stood and tossed the dregs of his coffee into the sink, idly tousling his wife’s hair with his free hand, then plodded to the bathroom. Sally’s toothbrush, nearly remembered, welcomed him as he splashed cold water on his face and spat. * * * David and Margaret had spent the past six years suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, of which each was sure to remind the other when guards were down. Sitting alone in his squad car hidden behind the dilapidated billboard on Lee Boulevard, David saw promotion after promotion pass him by just like the drunken farmhands on their way to the liquor store down the road. He arrived bleary-eyed to each morning briefing and blinked slowly at the lieutenant as he read out assignments. Every day it was the same. Every day he was the last out of the room, shambling to the prowler fleet. He was too young to be washed up; his fellow officers neither understood him nor showed any real interest in understanding him. They steered clear, as if passing by a shipwreck in the night. David was almost grateful—he didn’t need any searchlights stabbing in, scanning for the source of distress or survivors. He paid his union dues, covered the mortgage and groceries, changed his own oil. What business was it of theirs the occasional vinegar stink of his uniform? Margaret’s stint of upward mobility, though steep, was brief. She had graduated with middling acclaim and found work checking temperatures and injecting some semblance of feeling into “the doctor will be right with you” at Jefferson Hospital. Among the anonymous mass of toothpaste-green scrubs pacing through labyrinths of whitewashed, soft-lit corridors, failure was the only real way to stand out. Margaret saw a few of those, ostracized as if by premonition by the mother hens long before they made some
26 mistake that cost them their careers. They all looked down on the private-practice nurses, whispered about whom each had slept with to get such-and-such a job with Doctor So-and-so. When one of her colleagues, whose posture shouted seniority as much as her resume, made bitter jokes at the private nurses’ unhearing expense, Margaret laughed along with the rest of them, but she was never sure what was so disreputable about the GP gigs—they paid almost double for the same type of work she was doing already—but then again she hadn’t ingratiated herself with the matrons quite enough to earn the cushier assignments outside of the ER. Head down: that was the way of doing things around here, even when the resident whose gaze lingered when she walked past him in the halls started appearing during more of her shifts, even as some of the others started falling silent when she stepped into the break room. There was enough spectacle going on in the ambulance bays and the soap operas all the receptionists watched: Margaret didn’t want to become yet another one, not with a college fund to save for. And when Dr. Ferdinand offered to buy her a drink after they got off work, she accepted. What choice did she have? Compared even to the most senior mother hens, the residents sat at the administration’s right hand. She could live with gossip—she had suffered enough of it getting here, Lord knew—but she needed no enemies among the lesser gods walking these halls. At first, it was a boon. David was relieved to find his wife silent about the cloud of evaporated Jameson that seemed to follow him, or the fact that even with daylight saving time, the sun was rapidly approaching its nadir by the time he set foot in the foyer: so relieved that he did not question why—or realize that—Margaret still wore the same clothes as yesterday, or wonder what she hoped to find by staring at the cup of coffee in her hands like Narcissus in a nightmare. Both took sick days, concurrent without coordination. Side by side, they changed clothes in silence, lest conversation force her to share
27 what she remembered from last night and he the fact that he could not. Margaret made breakfast, and David chased his bacon with a handful of advil. “Let’s do something today,” she said, cleaning off the skillet, to the back window over the sink. David winced. They took her station wagon, Margaret driving, with David sprawled in the back seat, his face buried in the crook of his arm. A gentle-voiced singer lamented softly over the radio, barely louder than the crackle of interference as they drove farther outside the station’s range. They couldn’t make out what it was she had lost, but then again it didn’t matter. Then Margaret peeled off onto a side road, little more than a dirt path, and any signs of life vanished into the growing cloud of dust that billowed from under their wheels. The cloudless sky seemed to hang low above them, buttressed by towering cornstalks. They swayed in a slow breeze, their whispering audible over the pop and crunch of bald tires over gravel. Eventually, Margaret stopped. It was impossible to tell where; their car rested in the slight valley between a pair of rolling hills, anonymous waves in an endless ocean of farmland. They stepped from the sedan—hand in hand they waded into the surf. It was not long before the stalks swallowed up all traces of the path behind them. She kissed him there, pressed together by the looming green—his coarse mustache abrasive against her upper lip—for what felt like the first time in months. They did not speak, but he clutched at her as if she were a piece of driftwood in the eye of a hurricane. They drove home in silence. When Sally returned from school, Margaret had been asleep in David’s lap for the better part of two hours. David, idly twisting her hair in the fingers on his right hand, watched M*A*S*H reruns, nursing a fresh can of beer in his left.
28 Act 5 Despite the tireless efforts of global empires, the gun still did not live up to its potential. Every innovation only brought further to light the fallibility of those men who used them. A rifled shot, no matter how aerodynamically perfect, could miss. It would be frivolous not to account for this. No great leap in technology heralded the solution. A child could have conceived it: a box, and within it, a spring. Rather than lie jumbled in a pouch or hang from a bandolier, shells could be forced into that spring-loaded metal container, called a magazine, and attached just before the trigger. A man squeezed that trigger, and before his target finished dying he could pull back a strip of metal— the bolt—a few inches, letting a solitary spring push out the spent shell with a ready replacement. Soldiers of the British Empire rehearsed the “mad minute,” to aim and fire thirty times in sixty seconds. There was no time to examine consequences, not when it was so easy to move on. It could not last. Lies, even of omission, are unsustainable, and when theirs failed, the shantytown built on them collapsed as well. The tremors showed long before any lasting damage could be done: Margaret’s Thursday dinner with Dr. Ferdinand became a fixture of her weekly schedule, and it was difficult to pretend it was just for job security when she began to look forward to it in the days leading up. David wasn’t in much of a position to ask questions about her absence, given that he spent many of those nights working his way through the six-packs that ate up steadily more of his paycheck. Most of the time, he barely noticed she was gone, and when he did, all he felt was relief—relief that he wouldn’t suffer under the weight of her gaze as she judged him silently from the other room. It was Sally who blew the lid off the case, the only real investigation of David’s career. Her eighth birthday had been the week before, the party hosted
29 by one of Margaret’s fellow nurses, whose daughter just so happened, through serendipity and implacably scheduled playdates, to be friends with Sally. Margaret couldn’t reschedule her shift that day—she was not entirely convinced that it was not the spiteful doing of one of the mother hens, human-catalyzed cosmic retribution for her trysts with Dr. Ferdinand. For all she knew, David wasn’t even aware that his daughter’s birthday was today; he had certainly spent enough of last night knocking back whiskey to forget about shopping for the gift. On the ride over, Sally’s gaze was drawn to it, the oversized, ostentatiously wrapped box in the back seat of the sedan. When they arrived, she barely waited for Margaret to say goodbye—they had already run through why her mother wouldn’t be attending three times in the last two days, going through each call and response by rote—before she seized it and clutched it as close to her chest as its bloated box would permit. Her eyes for a moment lingered on the long-stemmed rose, crushed like autumn leaves for a Thanksgiving table setting, that lay beneath it. It had been a gift from last night, a romantic, charming, idiotic gesture that had made Margaret too angry to remember to get rid of it. Sally noticed the flower. Margaret noticed her notice. For an instant Margaret could see the wave crest, and then it was upon her, the panic pulling her deep underwater, squeezing the breath from her lungs and the sensation from her limbs. Her life flashed before her eyes; it was not the past but each interwoven possible future that flitted in and out of sight, as if she were not witnessing a prophecy but creating fully realized worlds out of the endless ocean of her anxiety. Sally would tell David and he would take Sally away. Dr. Ferdinand would report her to human resources and she’d be jobless and homeless, trying to track down parents who hadn’t spoken to her since the wedding. Already the chaperones at the party inside could tell something was wrong by how long they had been parked and were already calling the police,
30 the minister, the mayor, her husband. And then she surfaced and she was back in the car, her daughter bouncing up and down with impatience even though the clock on the car stereo showed that not even a minute had passed. “It’s a present from me and your father,” Margaret said, smiling beatifically. “Go ahead, take it!” She hoped her forced enthusiasm would spread to the flower through osmosis, but the last word as it passed her lips left a vinegar aftertaste. But Sally’s ambivalence about the flower, especially next to the intrigue of the flamboyantly papered box beside it, formed a dismal carapace which no amount of parental grimacing could pierce. She reached for the rose only because her mother said to. Her fingertip brushed against the thorn that would hours later nick her clammy palm, drawing both blood and the attention of a nearby chaperone, who would through either showmanship or overzealotry wrap the whole hand in gauze to stem the droplet or two. Sally would wave the bandaged hand at her father like a hard-won trophy when he picked her up, words spilling about her newfound excitement for the gift. David knew better than to contradict her; his daughter had a gleam in her eye that he could not remember the last time he had seen. If she thought he had any part in putting it there, he didn’t have the heart to correct her. But he knew better. He had gone with Margaret to buy Sally’s real birthday present, a dollhouse he had needed to remind Sally to take with them to the car, that she had tossed into the trunk as if she had forgotten about it as soon as it no longer weighed down her hand. They had never talked about buying a rose. He drove Sally home mostly in silence, offering monosyllabic responses to her high-pitched monologue about the party from which he had been absent. He had wanted to explain to her why he hadn’t been there to see her celebrate another year gone by, another year that had slipped away from them and now that it was gone had left only its residue on
31 his fingers, as if it had been a fitful dream from which he had awoken only to find he could not remember most of it and what little he could was tied together by sleep-logic which withers and dies under the soft glare of the morning sun. He had wanted to say that he couldn’t have taken the day off because he was already in enough shit with the lieutenant as it was but that would force Sally to ask him why and he’d have to tell her it was because he had already missed two shifts this month because he was too hung over to stumble outside to his prowler let alone suffer the chewing-out from the duty sergeant and even now was two beers into a six-pack nestled in the trunk between his pump-action and the kevlar vest. He would have let loose a torrent of misery upon her—because she was too young to know that he shouldn’t—even if it meant that she might be torn away at the roots and carried to the sea, because he had been filling himself with it every day from cheap cans and a dented flask and now it was too late to shunt the waters to an emergency reservoir—that was full, too—and it had nothing to do but surge over his shoddy dam and there wasn’t time to warn anyone anymore. But now he didn’t have to. Because now he knew, for all her scoffing and scowling and sighing, that Margaret was down in the mud with him, and he would find her wallowing and make her know that he knew. Propelled by an alloy of shame and fear, Margaret had driven off before Sally had reached her friend’s porch. She felt the weight of the other nurses’ stares when she changed into her scrubs in the locker room, but when she looked up none of them seemed to be watching. Walking the halls, she felt harried, like a rabbit in a warren whose exits are guarded by impatient dogs. Margaret needed to end things with Dr. Ferdinand: they hadn’t been as discreet as they should have. She couldn’t be sure the stifled snickers at the nurse’s station weren’t directed at her. David knew better than to confront her now, not without proof. If
32 you showed your cards to the suspect before you had the royal flush, they’d deny, hide, and make sure you never found any dirt on them again. That’s the way it always went in Columbo, anyway. Dinner that night was no more silent than it had always been. David searched her face between forkfuls of casserole, taking note of every tic as if it were a full confession in code. Margaret took her husband’s silence about Sally’s bandaged hand as another sign of how lucky she had been to have avoided discovery for this long. Sally asked to be excused, her food mostly untouched. It wasn’t long before David caught a lead. Margaret laid low, kept to her schedule, but couldn’t end things with Dr. Ferdinand at the hospital, not without risking a scene. So she waited until Thursday, July third, until their dinner, to say something. That morning, she stuck the note on the fridge about taking a late shift, like she did every week, and made sure the leftovers from last night were front and center: she didn’t need anyone calling for her at the hospital because they couldn’t find dinner, not tonight. Every creak of the settling foundation, every rattle of the rusting pipes sent another tremor through her hands, another heavy thud from her heart. David left his speed trap early, not bothering to clear it with dispatch. The duty sergeant would chew him out for it tomorrow, not that it mattered. He drove straight to the hospital and parked across from the entrance. His change of clothes sat in a duffel bag in the passenger seat, untouched. It seemed more appropriate to stay in his uniform. He ran his fingers through his receding hairline, wedding band cold against his flushed forehead. And he waited. He couldn’t tell how long it was until she left. David hadn’t looked at his watch, at the radio, even the sun passing by his window. He had barely blinked. Margaret exited the building alone and got into her own car. David wasn’t fooled. Of course she’d be too clever to just hitch a ride with her boyfriend, there would be too many witnesses.
33 She passed right by his cruiser, but David didn’t bother to hide his face. There were police cars parked outside the hospital all the time: you still had to arrest the meth-heads after they blew up their own houses. He was just another bit of scenery, unnoticed, barely even perceived. For a moment he was tempted to scan the entrance again, to see if he could ID the fucker she was sleeping with. But that would mean losing focus on the suspect, and that was unacceptable. Not when he was this close. He tailed her, keeping his distance. Just like on TV. The sun had fully set by the time Margaret pulled into the strip mall parking lot, the jaundiced light from the streetlamps above a poor facsimile. David saw her get out of the car, haloed by the incandescent bulbs. He parked a block down and watched her watch traffic. She looked nervous, anxious even. He relished it. And then another car entered the lot and she relaxed; it looked like the strings of a somnolent puppeteer had been cut. David didn’t wait to look at them kiss, to watch them walk arm in arm into the dingy Chinese restaurant. Sally was sitting on their stoop when he returned, reading in the dim light spilling through the window in the front door. David unlocked the house and let her in. They did not speak. No, that wasn’t true—Sally spoke and David heard only noise. He went to the living room and dropped into his easy chair in the dark, and after a while the noises from the kitchen receded to the far corner of the house. Time passed around him, the clock invisible but the still-broken ice maker ticking away nonetheless. At 11, he stalked to their bedroom, stripped out of his uniform, and returned to his seat. Half an hour later he grabbed a beer from the fridge. And another. By the time Margaret returned he had built a pyramid out of the empty cans and slumped, semi-conscious, from the recliner. At the sound of the door whisper closed and his wife’s keys softly jingle on
34 the table, he shot up. She could smell the liquor on his breath from half a room away. He stood before her in the foyer, silent, swaying slightly. “David?” Margaret took a step back, the name spilling from her lips halfway between a question and an apology. He did not speak. No sound came from David other than a slight ripple of fabric as his fist connected with Margaret’s stomach. After she sank to her knees, she couldn’t really tell if he said anything over the pounding of her heart in her ears. It wasn’t long before she found herself in the fetal position on their welcome mat, barely moving except to curl tighter with each successive impact. She had seen no anger in his eyes, only a grim determination. It was impossible to tell how long it went on. At some point, she didn’t know when, she lost consciousness: she could tell because when she awoke, he was gone, the sun was up, and the house was just as quiet as it had been before. The hall was suffused with a grey pallor, as if it were not curtains blocking the windows, but rolling banks of fog. Act 6 As they functioned in the late 19th century, the gun was woefully inefficient. After the byproducts of black powder ignition shoved out their burden, their purpose achieved, they simply vanished into the air. All that unused energy, squandered on a flash of light and a puff of smoke. In an era in which ninety-five percent of the electricity that powered light bulbs ended up as heat, men set to work harnessing the shameless waste of the energy of recoil. They discovered that some of the gas could be redirected, with nothing more than a curved tube, to push back the bolt and load a new bullet from the magazine below. Progress had sped to rates unimaginable even to those alive fifty years prior. It had taken a century to devise the trigger. The gap between the magazine and the gas-powered bolt was a matter of
35 months. The process had become automatic. Our input was reduced to putting it into motion, and forcing it to a grinding halt. David was running on empty. He hadnâ€™t slept. The events of last night came to the forefront of his thoughts sporadically, unbidden, as he drove aimlessly, waiting for dawn. He could barely keep his eyes open, but to stop would be to give up the distraction, to acknowledge that he had no idea what to do or where to go. Sunrise brought with it little more than a weak glow and a near-collision with a passing trucker. His heart pounded in his chest and his head hurt from the sudden rush of adrenalin; he needed to pull over before something worse happened. Sally shifted in her sleep as David turned off the car and rested his head on the steering wheel. Just a few minutes of rest couldnâ€™t hurt, could it? But without the menial labor to drape gauzy veils (the kind they used to keep mosquitoes off the dying in the hospitals of Ho Chi Minh) over his mind, he had no choice but to think. About why the skin on the knuckles of his right hand was split, even now leeching red stains into his undershirt. About how if Sally hadnâ€™t stepped into the hall, silhouetted by the lights from her bedroom like one or all of the horsemen of the apocalypse, he might never have stopped. About the sting of her tears rolling over the cuts on the hand he had clamped over her mouth so he could carry her to the patrol car without waking the neighbors. About how he had pushed her into the back seat like as he had so many custody violators and drunk drivers and wife beaters because she had struggled against his grip from the moment he touched her to the moment he almost slammed the car door on her fingers. About waiting for Sally to tire herself out rattling the mesh barrier between the front seat and the enclosure while he tried to command, then cajole, then finally threaten her to be quiet. About what the hell he was even supposed to do now.
36 A few cars slowed as they passed, but David barely noticed them. They never quite came to a stop, either: a police car, even one housing a man of unquiet desperation, was never any of their business, not around these parts. The police radio had been switched off since yesterday. For all he knew was an APB out for him by now. His daughter stirred a bit in the back seat. A breeze outside set the oaks, which had already been old when he was born, to swaying, their leaves chittering about a subject of which he had no conception. Maybe if he sat tight and waited, an idea might come to him. Margaret was busy doing the same. It hurt to breathe, but as far as she could tell, nothing was broke that wouldnâ€™t fix itself. She had cleaned what cuts she could see in the bathroom mirror, and on the way out almost hurt herself more tripping over Davidâ€™s discarded uniform. From the floor, she stared at the holster lying on their moth-eaten coverlet. Her focus drained away to a point; she felt only the coarse shag carpet against her palms, heard only the pulse of her bloodstream, saw only the matte plastic grip of Davidâ€™s pistol. Shadows in the room shortened then lengthened as she sat motionless, not thinking, barely even breathing. She had the day off, it being a holiday, so at least nobody at work could gossip about her absence. Margaret almost laughed at the idea, but it caught in her throat and choked her until she doubled over from the combined force of dull mirth and sharper aches. The sun was setting, casting its weak red beams through the blinds of their bedroom; bars of shadow crept across the floor and up the wall against which she leaned. It was only when the glare began to hurt her eyes that she stood, gingerly, and took the gun from its resting place, like an artefact unearthed from ancient ruins. It felt comfortable in her hand, reassuringly solid in her loose grip. She took the holster and belt and tried them on in front of the mirror, slung low on her waist like they did in all those westerns that she caught
37 snippets of on her way to switch off the TV after David passed out on the sofa. She liked how it looked, until her gaze travelled far enough upward to glimpse the bruises on her arms and neck, the dried blood in her hair. Then it just felt like another costume she had to turn away every October because nobody had remembered to buy candy. She left the holster where it had lain on the bed and went to the kitchen, Beretta in hand. The day had passed, and now that it was over David could barely remember how he had spent it. As if it had been a dream, or a none-too-interesting story told by a distant relative a long time ago, he recalled eating breakfast (or was it lunch?) at some diner chain or another, sitting in a booth across from Sally, the rhythmic clinking of silverware the closest approximate to conversation they had. Her red-rimmed eyes wandered from her plate of hash browns, across the counterâ€”flitting from waitress to somnolent ceiling fan to the days-old cherry pie quietly hardening in its display caseâ€”anywhere but to meet his own desperate gaze. Everything else came back only as the dim play of shadows in a thick fog. He sat in his car, watching silhouettes of passing traffic emerge from the setting sun, running through the same questions he had that morning. He could find no answers, not in the distant pain in his knuckles, not in the silent itch on the back of his neck from Sally staring, not in the numbness he felt seeping through his thoughts, his limbs. But an answer came nonetheless, not through any epiphany but the massed crushing weight of the lack thereof. What else was there to do but drive, and where else to go but home? He had traveled this route countless times; this felt no different. Anonymous houses flashed by, each inhabited by another family he had never bothered to notice. Once or twice he stopped at a light and his apathetic blinders dropped just long enough to make sure his lane was clearâ€”the rest was only a grey blur, unforgotten because it had
38 never been remembered in the first place. At the very least the drive did a little to smooth his frayed nerves. It was mindless work, and its complacency absorbed him, pushed back his worries. He pulled into his driveway with hands that would have been steady even had they not been braced against the steering wheel, and waited, savoring the silence in the prowler. There was no hurry. He was beyond plans now—he felt as if his body below the neck had without his notice sunk beneath the earth, and thought, idly, what a burden it had been all this time. Sally watched him go with cold curiosity, before fiddling with a patent-letter wallet she had found in the footwell. Margaret had tried to distract herself with housekeeping, but the gun on the table pulled her into an ever-shallower orbit. It had called her away from tidying up Sally’s room, changing the sheets as if something from last night had soaked into the linen. As she circled closer and closer, Margaret found herself between spring and neap tides. This was a matter for the police. He was the police. She should leave and go somewhere safe. There was nowhere to go. Margaret abhorred violence. David had her daughter. She pulled out a chair in the kitchen and dropped into it. A pair of equal burdens weighed down her shoulders, set her hunched over the cracked varnish on the particle-board table, the gun not a presence but an absence—its dull black plastic trapped the light, its motionlessness seemed to erase even sound, its unassuming potential converged over its event horizon all Margaret’s hopes. The first: David would return. Not with any malicious intent (though the shooting pain in her ribs as she shifted, twitched, breathed, refused to let her discard fully the thought) but because he, like she, had nothing else. This home was his castle, his uniform his crown, the pistol sitting before
39 her the only legacy he could lay claim to. He could not leave all this behind, just as Margaret could not suffer his continued regency over her child. This was the second burden. Sally’s future had shrunk to a binary: with David, or without him. Other concerns were incidental, merely the choice of stitches across a stump once the diseased limb had been excised. Her thoughts were interrupted by knocking at the door, a timid, questioning sound. Braced against the comforting weight of his pistol, Margaret’s hands stopped shaking for the first time that day, a symptom she noted with clinical detachment as David stepped across the threshold. He saw her, and had she looked closely she might have read something in his bloodshot, widening eyes. They did not speak. Epilogue Black powder existed long before the gun. Alchemists in China mixed together sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter as early as the ninth century. For three hundred years, we launched it into the air, and watched it scatter vibrant embers across the night sky.
OUT OF THE ASH Samantah Sharkoff Perhaps every tear that rips out of my eye will be a drop of you I can no longer hold,
and perhaps little by little I will empty myself of you, and perhaps someday I will have room for another. Until then, I will keep nooks in my heart filled with fragments of you, from the mole on your nose to the way you bounced your knee, carrying them with me until I forget them in the pockets of blue jeans I no longer wear, and I white out the way you smiled at me, because he smiles at me in the same way you used to.
41 I wish I never saw your eyes,
those hazel but sometimes blue drops of rum, because it has taken years to forget how they pierced straight through to my lungs. And your fingertips cannot be expunged from their place on my back, nor your elbow erased from my knee; they are there, embroidered in ink, a reminder of the connection we had. And at night I still hear the soft hum of your voice, calling my name, just speaking to me, because there is nothing I love more than the drip, drip, drip of your song, your laugh, your sigh.
42 The tiny details of you stick to me like grains of sand stick between my toes, under my nails, and in my ears, stick to me like cancer, eating me away with those wrinkles of yours, those souvenirs of age that deepen the reach of your smile, making it impossible for me to scrub at the skin between my toes or at the tissue beneath my nails, because maybe I like the grit because it reminds me of you, and the way you spat your sunflower seeds, making a mess of yourself and meâ€“ because even with those black seeds on your lips, your teeth, your tongue, I couldnâ€™t help but see the lightness in your eyes. All I ever wanted was to be a part of your lightness. But I am the black shell of a sunflower seed
III. And so the white coals of your memory will dance upon my skin, searing anyone who tries to retrace your steps. So he, too, will turn to ash, and so will the next man, and the next man after that, and so will any man who tries to come after you and take the spot of the missing puzzle piece, to fill the void carved straight through my skin and bone. He will try to squeeze and shove his way into that spot, insisting that he can fit, that I am the only one for him. Because maybe I am his missing piece, but he is not mine. Others will be like clay, and try to mold your shape. My organs know the difference.
44 They will try to recreate the missing tissue with their 3-D printers and skin grafts, but my body will reject it again and again and again, until the only option is to rebuild myself imperfectly, and let the scar tissue grow over the void you left me.
Celeste McAlpin-Levitt My love, I searched long and hard for the box I keep you in. I wanted it to be roomy, but still fit under my twin bed. Air holes were of course of a primary concern. Then, would there be carpeting to keep your feet warm in winter, or wood floors for easy cleaning? Lighthearted yellow walls or a calming blue? There was the question of accommodating a small fortune in doll house furniture, sourced from antique stores up and down the coast. Armchairs. Dining table. Tiny bookshelves. I understand you would have liked windows, but other than dust bunnies and my crumpled tights, forgotten lipsticks, there wouldn’t be much of a view. Ideally I’d have set you on the windowsill, but what if the sun heated the box up, the rain got in? What if someone saw you? You know I couldn’t explain.
[ ] I’m so sorry. Yes, you say you’re tired of hearing it. That I couldn’t have known what would happen when we first met and I fell madly, hopelessly. Your saucer eyes, fastidious hands. The fine lacework of your veins. Those delicate bones. But there is no use denying. I should have realized that I would be too much. Excessive. I took up space until there was no air. Rooms grew tight, claustrophobic with my laughing, sobbing, loving. Loud. Bright.
46 So you began to shrink. It was hard to tell when it started. Used to be, when you wore those red soled heels I was only an inch taller. Perfect for dancing. I would swing you and your skirt would flare up to my eyes. Then your shoulders tightened. Coats no longer fit, shirts became dresses. Glasses fell off the tip of your nose. You had to keep my ring on a chain round your neck. It seemed you were swimming in everything. I could no longer explain to the tailor. Time moved like molasses and I began cooking for one and a quarter. [ ] Now we’ve got the box. You seemed to take it as a given when I showed up with it after work last Monday. The world isn’t safe for you anymore. The little creatures I’d never deigned to notice, spiders and mice, lurk in every corner. And you keep shrinking. I stopped saying it would stop many weeks ago. I barely eat, though I beg you to. You lick drops of milk off my pinky. Pipettes of PediaSure. I can no longer decipher your squeaking voice and miniature cursive. I miss when I could still feel your butterfly kisses. Before bed, I whisper “Good night, I love you.” I listen for the three raps on the box ceiling that have so far always come in kind, and suppress a shiver at the thought that tonight there may finally be silence.
THE RELATABLE LORDE OF GLAMOUR
Raphael Rosalen A multimedia essay contrasting celebrity status with countercultural values, using singer-songwriter Lorde as a key example. In what he describes as “A cultural contradiction of rejecting and accepting popular culture,” Rosalen discusses the power of song lyrics to convey multiple facets of manufactured identity. “I’m little, but I’m coming for the crown”. The line from the chorus of Lorde’s song “Still Sane” perfectly sums up the trajectory of the singer’s stardom. She came from the suburbs of New Zeland, from the little, and definitely won the crown for queen of the postmodern teenager experience... Read the essay in its entirety: http://scalar.usc.edu/works/trlog/ introduction?path=index
A GOOD ROMANTIC COMEDY
Noah Kim I look over at my old black box of a radio-clock. The red dots flash as the seconds waste methodically away. It reads 4:53 A.M. It is Christmas-time in Wisconsin, and a thick layer of snow crusts the ground. It had been there since I had returned home for break. Over a few weeks, it had melted a little, but then it had frozen again so that if you were to walk down the sidewalk, there would be a distinct crunching noise: dry because it is so cold, but wet because it is, in fact, snow. The radio-clock is broken. When I try shutting it off, the box jolts and spits out harsh, frightened squeals, like a child who doesn’t want his mother to leave after putting him to bed. I try clearing my mind. I count to ten, drawing in a breath with the rising of my stomach and releasing it all in a full bodied awareness I had been taught by my philosophy teacher. I also think of floating along in a cerulean pool, or is it an ocean? Or perhaps a jade-tinted lake up north. But are there fish in the lake? If it’s an ocean are there sharks? I lose track of my breathing and now my pounding heart outdoes the din of the broken radio-clock as my mind plays with the memory of the time I went to Maui with my family for spring break and the waves weren’t waves at all, they were castle walls that were collapsing in on me and pinning me down into the sand below with such force I find abrasions on my skin after I surface a minute later, only to be swallowed again by the sea so I open my eyes and look over to the
49 radio-clock and I see the red dots blink. I start over with one, two . . . three . . . This time I’m not floating. This time, I’m with Mary Kate. She gets my heart pounding, but not in a life-threatening way. My sheets are not suffocating; they are 800-thread count clouds delicately cradling my dozing body. My alarm blares and I open my eyes after what seems like a mere minute to see the light streaming in from my window whose blinds I purposefully left open so it would be easier for me to wake up. It wasn’t any easier. I look over at the radio-clock. I see the red dots flashing but I can’t quite make out the time. I go back to daydreaming about Mary Kate. I hadn’t seen her for a few years. She went down south for college to praise God and be an art student. The University of Dallas has an undergraduate student population of 1,400. Their Whiteness is blinding, their Catholicism deafening. These are the kind of kids that preach acceptance and shun you if you’re gay, the kind of kids whose minds have been so thoroughly bound by dogma that curiosity is squashed and other ideas fall on unhearing ears. They mean well, but that’s not a good enough excuse anymore. It shouldn’t ever have been. On a typical day, I wear light-wash faded denim with a healthy number of rips. The bottoms are rolled haphazardly, indicative of the 10 seconds I took before grabbing my squeaky skateboard and speedwalking out the door. One beat up Vans flashes in the Los Angeles sunlight and pounds the ground, the other is planted firmly on the board. My light flannel flaps unbuttoned in the 9 A.M. air, revealing a plain white t-shirt underneath.
50 She on the other hand, is more than content in a knee-length denim button down dress. The kind of denim your dad used to wear in the 80’s. The kind that is fashionable again now amongst chainsmokers and angsty New York teens, but only if it’s actually your dad’s from the 80’s. Hers is not. Her unruly curls are tucked neatly in a bun and held back with a Midwestern lace headband. Her feet are daintily covered with walnut ballet flats. With neatly tied fake bows. I smell of Acqua di Gio, she of shea and cocoa butter lotion; I sport a small red REI backpack, she back-packs an old Jansport; I’m fascinated by Hip-Hop culture, she likes Jane Austen. Not a lot about us is compatible. And yet, I cannot let her go. Nothing makes sense. Not in that romantic comedy way where the tough guy falls for the sweet and innocent girl who catches him making out with another girl so she leaves him, but after a strangely extensive rainy period he finds her again to tell her that he’s tired of meaningless hook-ups and sports even and nothing makes sense when he’s not with her and it finally stops raining when they kiss again. Nothing makes sense because I remain suspended in time by my Egyptian cotton clouds, because I remain dreaming. I can get over the physical things, things like her clothes and her accessories. Style, I believe, is a deeply personal choice that is to be respected on all accounts, but I shouldn’t be able to reconcile how she lives her life. I place such a high importance on acceptance and productive discussion that her constant “if everyone just read the Bible” should disgust me. And it does.
51 But only in a way that bad art can. You look at van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and the swirls create galaxies of emotion and memory inside your brain. You look objectively at the painting your best friend attempted in fifth grade and you just see this mess of poorly mixed, cheap acrylics that are so heavily layered they seem to be a physical representation of the vomit you up-chucked at your first college party, but you pause in reflection and slight admiration. It’s art after all, and at least your friend tried his hand at it. That’s more than you can say for yourself. In this same vein, I watched her live her life with pain and love and nostalgia and remorse and hope and happiness all at once. Perhaps I think we are star-crossed lovers. I think we are two separate swirls that Van Gogh put in the same picture for a reason, the movement just egging us on to become one, to become one brilliantly but haphazardly connected galaxy of emotion and memory whose contents radiate on into forever. . . It was forever ago that I last saw her. I remember sending her off to Dallas. She has 10 siblings—her family doesn’t believe in birth control—so I saw her for all of 5 minutes on her last day at home in early August. I hugged her. I wished then and I still wish now that it could have lasted longer, but she wasn’t a huge hugger, so when she started to loosen her hold, I reluctantly un-pressed my body from hers. She chuckled dismissively, almost flippantly, like she so often did in an attempt to escape feeling and all I could think about was how perfectly my lips would fit in the delicate dimples of her smile. I rationalize: she wouldn’t have wanted it. I daresay she would have hated it. It would have mightily complicated our decidedly— mutually agreed upon and continually reinforced—platonic relationship. It seems, however, I could not hold up my end of the bargain in that respect. Here I am, three years after we had parted
52 ways still thinking about how perfectly my lips . . . I look to my broken black radio-clock that reads 8:30 AM. I wrap my fleece robe around my goosebumped skin, and I stumble downstairs. Still rubbing the dryness from my eyes, I step out onto the porch. I bend to pick up the Journal Sentinel. When I rise, I am surprised to see snow-flakes around me. The tired had blunted my highly perceptive senses, so I neglected to notice the noise-dampening effect the mid-winter powder had on my old neighborhood. I raise my hand to wipe a few flakes from my eyelashes. When I lower my hand again and open my eyes, I see her. She chuckles in the way she so often does in an attempt to escape feeling and all I can think about is how perfectly my lips . . .
KISSES FROM MY GRANDMOTHER Samantha Sharkoff I remember my yiayia in the taste of lemons, and how we’d eat the pulp on warm, orange nights. When I saw my yiayia, I saw granite – cool green like her kitchen counter, polished smooth by loss. I saw hands that washed neighbors’ underwear for nickels, hands that scrubbed toilets and floors for loose pennies and dimes. I saw eyes which remembered the grenade of his palm, eyes which still mourn the choice between children, saving the daughter to distance the son.
54 When I smelled my yiayia, I smelled the walnut tree she climbed and pruned for kernels, I remember how she’d catch tzitzikia with her bare hands and cup them in mine, their wings humming against the walls of my skin, a secret between us which could only be felt. but the older I grew, yiayia mou, I could see that you’re not granite. I see it in the thick grounds at the bottom of my afternoon kafe. I feel it in your immediate reaction to my call, arms full of groceries and avgolemono when I’m ill. I hear it in the soft lavender of your nighttime ring – the tv hums. “I feel so lonely,” you admit. red roses line the walkway to your door, but to me they all look blue. So I kneel to the blue and leave a kiss. filia, yiayia mou, den eisai moni sou. 
Translated from Greek: kisses, my grandmother, you are not alone.
Constant L. Williams A junior studying Creative Writing at USC. A Los Angeles-born poet, he spent his freshman year in Paris, where he was involved in the city’s expat literary circles. He has been featured as a guest reader by Windward School, Expressions L.A. and The Pondwater Society. His poetry has appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, Words Dance, Paris/Atlantic, FishFood, and others.
Web: constant-williams.squarespace.com Celeste McAlpin-Levitt A recent USC graduate with a B.A. in Comparative Literature and Political Science. She was fiction editor for Semantics magazine and has previously had poetry and prose published in Icarus, The Attic, and Palaver magazines. Neha Ingle A graduate student studying electrical engineering. Neha writes:
“Art is the only way to run away without leaving home” (Twyla Tharp). This insightful quote resonates with my idea of art and how significant its role has been in fueling my creative drive. Ever since I was a kid, I have had the opportunity to exercise my creativity through different art forms like classical dancing, writing, drawing, painting, crafts, and nature photography. Having the chance to share it with people makes this journey even more beautiful. Samantha Sharkoff A rising senior majoring in Economics, Mathematics, and English with a minor in Russian. Samantha has been writing fiction since she was six and writing poetry since she was eight.
56 Kexin Zhang A recent USC graduate with a Master’s in Communication Management. A fashion geek and art lover, she shares her lifestyle on her blog.
Web: sweetconnie.net Will Drickey An English major who graduated in 2017. He was born in Chicago, couldn’t have left it fast enough, and still doesn’t have too firm of a grasp on what a “fun fact” means. Raphael Rosalen A multimedia artist and Cinema and Media Studies undergraduate at USC. Raphael is interested in studying new media, celebrity and popular culture, and feminism theory. He is currently working on independent research on authenticity and gender fluidity on YouTube and finalizing a multimedia EP that analyzes postmodern youth lifestyle, human-technology dynamics, and consumerism. Noah Kim A 19-year-old Los Angeles transplant from Brookfield, Wisconsin. He found his stride as a Narrative Studies major after writing a research paper on Hip-Hop culture and its unparalleled storytelling potential. Noah drinks his coffee black, eats his eggs over-easy, and wears his flannels unbuttoned. His creative space is his bed; his happy place is his backyard (in Wisconsin). Special Thanks to Michael Freeby for his creative contributions.
ADSUM STAFF Co-Editors-in-Chief Emily Chinn Amy Hutto Jake D. Tokosh Editorial Staff Sarah Berry Constance Chan Kelly Ching Katherine Cowdrey Madeleine Dile Will Drickey Gabrielle Gerbus Celeste McAlpin-Levitt Emma Olson Johanna Ramm Connie Zhang Cover Photo courtesy of Becca Batista & Jennifer Siegwart
Disclaimer: All rights reserved. All creative works included in this publication are the sole property of their original authors and may not be reproduced without permission. Adsum is an officially recognized student organization at the University of Southern California.
This long-awaited issue of Adsum rises from the desert dust. Featuring a special interview with a unique LA artist and an award-nominated wo...
Published on Jul 25, 2017
This long-awaited issue of Adsum rises from the desert dust. Featuring a special interview with a unique LA artist and an award-nominated wo...