C H R I S M A G G I O My Grandma Wants to Hang Her Painting in the Kitchen (But My Grandpa Just Wants to Buy a Print from the Store Instead), 2015
JA SON FULFORD
Guest Worker from Kerala on the Way to the World, Dubai, 2007 (cover)
MAGAZ I N E O F N EW WRI T I N G
I SS U E T W O â€˘ FA L L 2 0 1 5
A M E R I C A N C H O R DATA I S P U B L I S H E D T W I C E A Y E A R , I N S P R I N G A N D AU T U M N .
E D I TO R Ben Yarling
ISSN 2378-2560 (print)
F I C T I O N E D I TO R S
ISSN 2378-2579 (online)
Alison Lewis Zach Fruit
C O N TAC T
c/o Ben Yarling
P.O. Box 797 New York, NY 10163
E D I TO R S
Justin Cahill Quynh Do
American Chordata seeks to publish and promote short works of exceptional fiction, nonfiction, and
P O E T RY E D I TO R S
poetry, as well as art and photography. We have no
formal word limits or stylistic constraints, but
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A RT D I R E C TO R
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FICTION Trevor Shikaze, In the Event of a Child Fire Brian Rattiner, Debbie Leigh Connor McDonald, The Joy Ride
51 119 18 3
NONFICTION Rachel Toor, The Old Town Frank Light, Food for Work
5 1 31
P O E T RY Tomas Unger, Commonplace Tanner Pruitt, Three Poems Linda Spolidoro, Oh, Mama, Youâ€™re So Big and Fat Kate Schneider, Twelve Hannah Loeb, Three Poems D.J. Parris, The Plum Blossom Kevin Casey, The Whole of the Harvest Alex Myers, How to Be Someone Else Corey Mesler, Two Poems Sarah Hart, The Blade
1 15 25 29 111 124 126 172 177 206
A RT A N D P H OTO G R A P H Y Serena Jara, HRT : Ongoing Sarah-Louise Barbett, Cindy Lu and Kraig
J O N AT H A N C H AC Ó N
C O N T R I B U TO R S
DA N A L L E G R E T T O is a non-working artist who is nonetheless very proud of his non-accomplishments.
is a photographer based in New York City. She earned her MFA in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design and her BA in Art and Art History from Brown University. Selected grants and residencies include the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the Blue Mountain Center, and a 2016 Fulbright Fellowship to Brazil. She has exhibited internationally. SOPHIE BARBASCH
is from France and lives in Brussels. She is twenty-five years old and studied graphic design, comics, and fine art. She graduated this year and is looking for a job. SAR AH-LOUISE BARBE T T
has appeared in Grasslimb, Kentucky Review, decomP, and other publications. “ The wind considers everything—” was published this spring, and another chapbook from Red Dashboard is due out later this year. KEVIN
J O N AT H A N C H AC Ó N GR ANT CORNET T
lives in Los Angeles, California.
has a really long commute. He loves
C L AY TO N C O T T E R E L L
(b. 1983) is a Portland, Oregon
is a photographer, fiction reader and cold drinks fan currently living in Peckham, South London. S O P H I E DAV I D S O N
P O L A E S T H E R was born in Poland. The legend says she was kissed by the Pope and that event made her who she is. x CONTRIBUTORS
JA S O N F U L F O R D
of J&L Books.
is a photographer and co-publisher
is a Chicago suburbanite interested in both reacting to existing environments and creating his own. RYA N G O R E Y
S A R A H H A RT , originally
from Melbourne, Australia, is a recent graduate from the University of Virginia with a BA in Classics and English. She currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. H A R RY G O U L D H A RV E Y I V (b. 1991) is an interdisciplinary artist living and working between Rhode Island and New York City. Harvey’s work has been exhibited both within the United States and internationally. With a practice revolving around photography, archive, sculpture, and sound, Harvey’s work is experienced in a variety of environments and contexts.
wakes up in San Francisco, where he spoils his dog always and takes photographs sometimes. J A S O N H E N RY
R E B EC C A I A S I L L O ’s photographic work focuses on the bond she feels toward suburban America and the awe of beholding the overlooked. P H I L JAC K S O N is a Brooklyn-based fine art photographer. He’s working on his first photography book, tentatively titled Freedom Club. S E R E N A JA R A is an artist working in photography and video, using these mediums to examine the interplay between herself and other trans
N I C O K R I J N O (b. 1981) is a South African artist who lives and works on a farm just outside Cape Town. With a background in theater and experimental video, he switched camps to the field of visual arts around 2008. His performance-based photographic practice is realized in a variety of media, including sculpture, participatory installation, and video. J E R E M Y M . L A N G E is a photographer and filmmaker based in Durham, North Carolina.
is a photographer and visual artist born in Northwest Indiana and presently living and working in Brooklyn. His work is about picture histories, and their relationships to bodies and communities. I A N L E WA N D O W S K I
E T H A N A A RO J O N E S (b. 1985, Washington, DC) is a photographer currently living and working in in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
an architect and photographer, lives and works in Shanghai.
Before leaving Afghanistan, F R A N K L I G H T met his future wife on the head of the Bamiyan Buddha the Taliban would later blow up. He and she subsequently took up careers in the State Department’s Foreign Service, which led to his presence in the Pentagon on 9/11. In 2003 and 2004 he went on temporary assignments to Afghanistan, first in Jalalabad, then in Oruzgan. Farah was not ready for a State representative, he was told. In 2005 he returned to the Pentagon to work on Afghanistan. Now retired, he adapted “Food for Work” from a draft memoir titled Adjust to Dust: On the Backroads of Southern Afghanistan. Eight other adaptations from that draft have appeared in literary magazines. is from Connecticut. A recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she lives and teaches in Santiago, Chile. HANNAH LOEB
is a photographer living in NYC with 8.4 million of his closest friends. He’d really like to take your picture. C H R I S M AG G I O
currently lives in Los Angeles, California. He takes pictures when the scene feels as if it may make a nice photograph, but mostly to supplement his crummy memory. BR AND ON MALONE
B RU N A M A S S A D A S is a Brazilian-American painter based in Los Angeles, where she boogieboards and makes colorful portraits. C O N N O R M C D O N A L D is a writer from western New York. He is currently at work on his first novel.
Australian surviving in New York City. Freelance portrait photographer. BANJO MCL ACHL AN,
A M A N D A M E A N S is well known for her cameraless gelatin silver prints of leaves, flowers, light bulbs, and water glasses. “Her transformation of ordinary household objects into sublime Minimal art is not only evident in the bulb series, but also in the black and white prints of water glasses…Sweaty, chipped and scratched vessels monumentally fill the frame, revealing the beauty in the mundane.”—Scott Hall (“In Focus: Amanda Means.” The New York Times Magazine. Sept. 11, 2008.)
O L L I E M U R P H Y is from London and lives there. He mainly takes photos of his friends and punk shows he attends around London. A L E X M Y E R S teaches high school in New Hampshire, where he lives with his wife and two cats.
is a photographer currently living and working in NYC. His newest book, PUD 3, was just released with Dashwood Books. JA S ON NO CITO
(b. 1989) is a Brooklyn-based photographer from Omaha, Nebraska. He received his BFA in 2014 from the School of Visual Arts. PAT O ’ M A L L E Y
has had work in The Marathon Literary Review, Mackinac Magazine, Yemassee, and Tinge and has forthcoming work in The Nomadic Journal and D . J . PA R R I S
C O R E Y M E S L E R ’s new novel, Memphis Movie, is available from Counterpoint Press. Two of his poems have been chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. With his wife, he runs a bookstore in Memphis. coreymesler.wordpress.com.
The RPD Society. He lives in Aldie, Virginia with his wife and son. @jonfrum23. I G O R PJ Ö R RT , born in Madeira, Portugal in 1996, is a photographer and filmmaker based in London.
is currently living and working in Helsinki and London. E R N E ST P RO TA S I E W I C Z
Originally from Macon, Georgia, TA N N E R P RU I T T is currently a student in the poetry writing program at the University of Virginia.
B R I A N R AT T I N E R was born in Brooklyn, New York (1982). He graduated with a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2004. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and a few short novels.
prend des photos (“Paul Rousteau takes pictures”). Under this signature, falsely ingenuous, this French photographer tries to reveal the invisible. He plays with light, causing the accident, experimenting with colors, and ways of printing. PAU L RO U S T E AU
is an artist and writer currently living in France. You can find her art at katecomics.tumblr.com. K AT E S C H N E I D E R
DA N I E L S H E A is an artist and freelance photographer who lives in Queens, New York.
writes from Canada. His fiction has appeared in The Alarmist, Johnny America, Lockjaw Magazine, and elsewhere. Find him online at www.trevorshikaze.com. TREVOR
L I N DA S P O L I D O RO is a poet, melancholic, dedicated yogi, and accomplished daydreamer, sometimes referred to as a time-waster.
was born in Leningrad, USSR (today Saint Petersburg, Russia) in December of the year the Chernobyl disaster happened. As a small boy, Nikita and his father went picking mushrooms quite frequently. These memories affect his ways of working still today. Everyone knows their very own places to collect mushrooms, but you never know where youâ€™ll find your next scene. N I K I TA T E RYO S H I N
R AC H E L TO O R teaches in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University. Her next book, Misunderstood: Why the Humble Rat May Be Your Best Pet Ever, will be published in June 2016 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She lives in Spokane with her rodent-slaying dog, Helen.
is a queer Asian artist living and working in New York City. BRIAN VU
xv Â‚ CONTRIBUTORS
T O M A S U N G E R has new work forthcoming in the Threepenny Review and Poetry Ireland Review.
N OT E
The publication of a second issue is a crucial moment in the life of a magazine. Choices, both visual and editorial, start to look like rules. Anything that hasn’t changed between issue one and issue two becomes a credible precedent, a basis of expectations for what’s to come in issues three, four, infinity. Any new elements become both signals of possibility and horizon lines, their degree of “newness” suggestions of the limits of that possibility’s range. How will each issue of American Chordata be different from the last, and in what ways? In the opening note of our first issue, I said that the editors of this magazine value earnest voices, bravery, emotional detail, and clarity of expression, and that our goal is to edit and publish with a deliberate respect for the plurality of human experience. In putting together this issue I found it important to return, with renewed gravity, xvii
to the question of what these values mean in practice. I wanted to make sure this issue would be a representative example of the conceptual and formal variation that’s possible within that vision—the second of many such examples from this magazine, and what I and the other editors hoped would be a fabulously rewarding one for those who took the time to read it. What’s the best way to go about a project like that? Eve Sedgwick’s essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” from her 2000 book Touching Feeling was helpful to me in thinking about it. She talks about traditions of reading practice and literary criticism, how we’ve been trained to come at a given text from a “paranoid” position in which the goal is to discover, uncover, and expose problems and ideological issues, to read (or, in the case of a young and necessarily misstep-wary literary and arts magazine, to edit) in a way that hedges against the possibility of humiliation, of negative surprises. One big downside of that position being that by hedging against negative surprises already within our frame of reference we close ourselves off from surprises altogether, even good ones. We can get so caught up in “subversive and demystifying parody, suspicious archaeologies of the present, the detection of hidden patterns of violence and their exposure” that “an explanatory structure that a reader may see as tautological, in that it can’t help or can’t stop or can’t do anything other than prove the very same assumptions with which it began, may be experienced by the practitioner as a triumphant advance toward truth and vindication” (143, 135). That—if I skip over a lot of stuff for brevity’s sake—is where the “reparative” position offers a fruitful alternative: To read from a reparative position is to surrender the knowing, anxious, paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new; to a reparatively positioned reader, it can seem realistic and necessary to
experience surprise. . . . Hope, often a fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience, is among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organize the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates. Because the reader has room to realize that the future may be different from the present, it is also possible for her to entertain such profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did (146). So if our project is to edit with deliberate respect for the plurality of human experience, then editing from the reparative position—or at least trying not to always edit from a paranoid position—is crucial. Because it’s through that process, a conscious movement toward editing with hope instead of fear of misstep and humiliation (not only ideological or critical but also aesthetic), that we can best attempt to navigate all of this with real respect for factors that may be beyond our critical and editorial subject positions. And on a less heady note, to find and publish work that can offer something pleasurably surprising to its readers. If we read in a way that’s open to pleasurable surprises, that is. Before I quit talking about all of this I just want to quickly quote a final bit from Sedgwick, which I think lends a useful note of justification to the editorial goals of this magazine and literary magazines in general: Reparative motives, once they become explicit, are inadmissible in paranoid theory both because they are about pleasure (“merely aesthetic”) and because they are frankly ameliorative (“merely reformist”). What makes pleasure and amelioration so ‘mere’? Only the exclusiveness of paranoia’s faith in demystifying exposure (144). Right? R
In any case, if a reparative editorial practice is primarily about privileging this aesthetic pleasure, reparative writing is a much more bold gesture. Because it dares to produce something emotional. The work in this issue is daring in exactly that way, and not in only that way. Every time I read any of the works that appear in it I come away with something new I want to never allow myself to forget. You can probably tell that I’m very proud of our second issue. I am, and it’s entirely thanks to the immensely gifted writers, poets, artists, and photographers who have entrusted us with their work. This issue includes two nonfiction essays, three short stories, fifteen poems, and a whole lot of incredible art and photography. I feel safe saying that these works are fabulously rewarding, just like we hoped they’d be. It’s an honor—that phrase always sounds a little canned to me, but I really do mean it so I’m going to say it anyway—to be able to share them with you here. I hope you’ll take the time to read them. Please do. It’s worth it. The value of Adly Elewa’s contribution as our designer can’t be overstated. Thank you, Adly. Our deepest thanks, too, to the mile-long list of old friends, new friends, future friends, family members, colleagues, publications, roommates, professors, editors, reviewers, creative directors, publishers, printers, award judges, organizations, and—most importantly—readers (like you!), whose interest, generosity, and support have made this issue and the ongoing future of this young magazine possible. We love you a lot. With warmest regards, B E N YA R L I N G P.S. Please submit your work!
J A S O N H E N RY
Just Visiting 3, 2015
Tomas Unger Commonplace The man complaining over the late flight is finally silent. His voice has gone hoarse: acceptance, acceptance. The attendant can only smile at the sudden quiet a little sadly. A child has made a blanket of his father’s overcoat. And the father, where— he’s up by the wall of glass, his face pressed against it, his tie loosened. On the runways, the men in lit vests drop the sticks of light at their sides saying what was to come, it already has.
PAT O â€™ M A L L E Y
POL A ESTHER
Kill Me Only On the Dancefloor, 2009
DAN ALLEGRET TO
The Old Town
Fire Island Nightstand, 2015
and mouths find their way, lubrication for the mating call of that sexually ambivalent herd: “I can’t feel my face.” As a twenty-something I would have been embarrassed to order a Seven and Seven; it seemed a bad cultural signifier and I was concerned, then, with signifying. Now, though I cannot taste the difference between cheap liquor and more spendy brands, I will buy upscale whisky in well-formed bottles and mix it with diet Seven-Up. Into a fizzy glass I will plop four maraschino cherries, and spoon in enough juice to make it sweeter than bad pie, and pink. I am, three decades later, finally secure enough to drink something pink. Scotch and soda was what I drank then. I didn’t like the color, didn’t like the smell, didn’t like the taste, but after college when I worked in editorial at a publishing house that had, only a few years before I joined, celebrated its quincentenary, 500 years of publishing Bibles and often dull monographs by dusty scholars, I drank Scotch. Days I read manuscripts on international telecommunications
IT IS THE COCKTAIL OF SORORITY GIRLS, LIQUID LICENSE TO LET HANDS WANDER
policy and the Masonic movement in Western Massachusetts and at night I went with production assistants and copywriters and publicists to the Old Town. They ordered pitchers. I drank Scotch because I couldn’t abide the taste of beer and because Scotch seemed like a serious drink. It was important then to appear serious. I ordered it with soda because I liked the romance, liked saying scotchandsoda, liked how the bubbles tamed the bite. The Old Town was just a bar we went to, a close enough walk from the office, dark not dingy, maybe there was food and maybe the food was good; I could never afford to both eat and drink and so stuck with well Scotch because it felt more necessary. It was just the Old Town, with a long marble and mahogany bar, and high ceilings of hammered tin, which meant something to people who bought apartments in New York but were only words to me. The floor feels sticky in my memory. The narrowness made it overcrowded if you hadn’t already snagged a booth. Our jobs let us off early enough to settle in before the slick-haired arbitrageurs and traders came wearing their improbable suits. In a few years they would be aping Martin Sheen playing Gordon Gekko quoting Sun Tzu. They would not know we had published a translation of The Art of War. We might brush against them at the Dublin House on the Upper West Side after a softball game in Central Park, or at Chumley’s on a rare night downtown; maybe we’d all get postcard invites to parties at Area and the Palladium and Limelight, but we lived in a different city. They had money and youth and we had youth and moral superiority. When you’re twenty-four years old and paying more than half your salary to rent what the building calls an apartment but is really a converted hotel room no bigger than an area rug, where, when you sit on the toilet, your knees touch the door, and the kitchen is a corner by the window with a minifridge and a hot plate, and you spend
your days editing manuscripts that become books only a handful of people will ever read, you need to believe in your moral superiority. Unalienated labor, I called it, proud that my age exceeded my salary. I used possessives and plural pronouns with enthusiasm and returned the calls of “my” authors promptly, told them “we” were thrilled to be publishing their book. They would come to Manhattan from their small college towns and I would take them to Keens Chophouse, with its collection of clay pipes and its men’s club smell. They would order shad roe or calves liver with onions, and I’d say to them when the waiter came around, “What would you like?” signaling that it was I who had the expense account, that I, with too-frizzy hair and street earrings and a Coach bag and desperate shoes, was to get the check. I didn’t realize that these academic men were happy to be bought lunch. Sometimes they’d ask me to dinner. I wouldn’t say yes unless I’d already met and liked them, but often I liked them. And they liked me. I didn’t know they experienced my wanting to publish their work and wanting them as interchangeable, that my eagerness made me attractive. I was the attentive audience, the ideal reader. For many of them, that was enough. More than enough. They touched me on the arm, placed a hand on the small of my back, as we entered the restaurant. On these nights they would tell me they were paying, and they’d take me to Café des Artistes, or to the bar at the Essex House on Central Park South, which, if you looked at the sign from far enough away, seemed to read EZ-SEX House. Close your eyes, one said, and I felt his hands just above my knees where my short skirt couldn’t reach. He cupped a pair of malachite earrings he’d brought back from South Africa. For you, he said. I finished my Scotch and soda and then, before I hailed a cab, let him kiss me in a dark doorway. You’re married, I said, and he said, Yes,
Yes. And You. He said, You. They went on to college presidencies and confirmation hearings and endowed professorships, these men. Now I hear them on NPR or see them quoted in The New York Times, remember how I had served for them as a magnifying mirror, and blush at the power I once thought I had.
10 Â‚ NONFICTION
DANIEL SHE A
DANIEL SHE A
BR ANDON MALONE
Tanner Pruitt Three Poems
One Big Thing
If it is as some physicists say, we see this table as brown because that’s the only color that isn’t there, Brady tells me and I think he must be right, science is like that, because I’d heard our eyes evolved to recognize berries by their absence of poison. This table has in it every other color and shows us only what it’s missing. Here we are reading poems by a man who writes that music is the memory of what never happened. He writes it as other men write of Eurydice, Prometheus, or California. It is his one big thing. We agree, struck by the sudden absence of light and sound actually in the library. I am at least, and assume my friend is too, because he doesn’t show it. Assuming what isn’t there contains the measure of pleasure that is.
Wayfarer’s Chapel II
Amanuensis, you might have said, driving home, a little hungry, to no one in particular, in your way of gathering thoughts, picking them up from the side of the road where they hang on blackberry bushes along the shoulder, like empty shopping bags discarded by someone who carried them before. For example, that the joy of a county fair, however brightly lit its spinning wheels may be, is joy despite the tents that lower in ten days and the expiration of excitement that begins when the first pigs are greased and run and the last one caught is spared the slaughter. You can’t have been the first to notice. And you may have said amanuensis because it echoed the beck and sway of the radio, or fit nicely the gap in the music forced by the stretch of static you hit a few miles past the fair in Orange. You arrive at your apartment, and key the lock without the porchlight that could have been left lit, but wasn’t. Going to bed, you play back the recordings you made of yourself in the car, some of them unintelligible, and write them down. Amanuensis, you might have said, but aren’t so sure now that there is a hand on your hand and a voice speaking softly, “Like this. No, like this.”
18 POETRY E R N E ST P ROTA S I E W I C Z
Having and Having Had
In sailing, there’s a term for the gradual wearing away of the hull where the wood meets the surface of the water. Sailing the bottom off, they call it. The boards can’t take the repeated rising above and sinking below the waterline. Submerged, they take water into them and swell, as they’re made to do. When the ship docks, they bob above the water in the harbor. What was inside of them goes out. They dry, shrink, and crack. What destroys them is the difference between the having, and the having had. For years, shipwrights have done their best to combat rot along the waterline by coating wooden hulls with rosin, pitch, and copper. Before a sailor set out, they gave him a stern warning not to extend his voyage past the point the hull could handle. These days, they rarely build with wood but for novelty or show. Still, when they do, shipbuilders keep the light on, as now and then a sailor will defy them, such is his love for the sea.
JEREMY M. LANGE
Asbestos Removal, Tiny Town, Raleigh, NC, 2015
E THAN A ARO JONE S
Dad, Nantucket, MA, 2013 GRANT CORNETT
Butter Pat, August 1, 2014 (right)
Jemima 2, 2013
Linda Spolidoro Oh Momma, You’re So Big and Fat you should keep a cushion between us, I’ve grown sharp edges—sliding into sideburns like lips that don’t belong to that face, oil slicked or petroleum jelly, or baking soda to ward off infection. Have you heard anything I’ve said? Have we met where you are? I’ve been there— ate knocked-off sandwiched cookies there, top first, then mouse fingers around the edges, a little cream-filled oasis for the patient—I’m not patient, I just like looking forward to something. If you attacked me, blood 25
lust and murder in your muggers eyes, I would accept it, recall the neighbor girl, dirty and alone— the trick we played, my sister, my brother, and I told her, bullied her to eat that rotten apple off the ground evil step-mothered her, then consoled her as she cried her blue-eyes, or gray, or maybe brown like the rot there is poison in the ground, plastic in breast milk— my mother said my skin was too thin and I’d better
It must be jelly cuz jam don’t shake like that tell me mothers, have you heard anything I’ve said? I’ve been where you are—motherless, still motherless there is poison leached into mother earth, plastic in her milk—of course my skin is thin
Jemima 1, 2013
she’d sing as I left the room, all 15, self-conscious, twisted up, ripe for the picking, years of me
thank my lucky stars and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph she’d give me something to cry about—
Kate Schneider Twelve I trace my fingers across the blank. My room is a soft white space I hope will look different every time. Light cuts the floor into white and violet triangles. Things get caught between my bed and the wall. While Iâ€™m at school, mom reaches down and pulls them out like shells. Iâ€™m twelve.
I play with my hair in the mirror and from one side I am myself and from the other side I am just blue glass, reflecting mom’s winter coat hung in the hall. I’m twelve.
I don’t write down my dreams but tell them to mom at breakfast while her spoon is turned to me
Her mind is a shell that spires in and in so that I can’t see around the turns. I’m twelve. At night I wake with a mouth like cold paper and drink from a glass that mom put there, her hands disappearing like birds over dark water.
so I can see only white of milk.
C L AY T O N C O T T E R E L L
One night I sweat so hard I know I must have thrown up warm frogs, their soft bellies patting my arms and face.
Serena Jara HRT: Ongoing â€œI began making this body of images around the time I started taking hormones, photographing mostly my friends Gogo and Ser. I loved the process of taking pictures of each other by handing the camera back and forth, especially in that early period when we felt so reliant on each other. I think we still depend on one another in the same emotional ways now. But earlier on was when we were figuring out some of the most difficult-to-access, deeply repressed parts of ourselves. I see a lot of tentative irreverence in the images of myself, as well as softness, and the playful seduction of the girls I loved and trusted most. Not everyone I photographed at this point was necessarily taking hormones or in the same early transition phase as I was. Through my closest friends, I continued to meet more girls who were down to let me take pictures of them, and in time I understood that everything I found motivation or inspiration in related back to trans women.â€? â€”Serena Jara 33
[INSERT: 6 Serena Jara photos]
SERENA JAR A
Me and Grandma, 2014
SERENA JAR A
Ser and Gogo, 2015
SERENA JAR A
Me by Me and Gogo, 2015
SERENA JAR A
SERENA JAR A SERENA JAR A
Me by Me and Ser, 2015 Gogo, 2014 (right)
SERENA JAR A
SERENA JAR A
SERENA JAR A
Gogo in #1, 2015
SERENA JAR A
Me by Me and Gogo, 2015
SERENA JAR A
PA U L R O U S T E A U
In the Event of a Child Fire
from Fleurs de Paris - Visions of Joy, Paris, 2012â€“15
PA U L R O U S T E A U
My kids have put away their binders and they’re quiet for once as I count off the seconds on the wall clock. It’s the first evaluation of the school year and the first one I’ve run on my own, as an educator. My kids are nervous. I’m nervous. The classroom is nervous. Madison K. interrupts my count: “Miss Levy?” “It’s too late, Madison K. Unless it’s an emergency.” It’s not an emergency. Just a delay tactic, which seven-year-olds think they’re masters of. But it’s too late for that now. No more bathroom breaks. No more But Miss Levy’s. If you’re not ready, it’s too late. I told you all to study, I offered to stay after, I sent your parents emails. Three. Two. One. “Okay, everyone. Begin.” The kids put their heads down. I stroll the rows. I hold my extinguisher loosely at my side, just like the safety people tell us to. Never clutch, they say. Clutching
from Eden - Visions of Joy, Paris, 2012–15
THE THING ABOUT A CLASSROOM IS, ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN.
projects fear, and that’s bad for the kids, it’s bad for their cortisol levels. Hold the extinguisher loosely at your side. “Miss Levy?” I cannot believe this. “Yes, Madison K.?” She whispers, “I have to pee.” I kneel at her desk. “You peed right before we started. You do not need to pee again.” She grins. Just testing you. But the tables have turned, Madison K. You are now the tested. They all knew this test was coming. And yet? I feel like my kids haven’t studied. A seasoned educator can probably tell this sort of thing, can probably lick a finger and hold it to the wind and sense from the dread in the room just how much studying has or has not taken place. I feel like I sense more dread than I should. I’m new at this, so maybe it’s me. But I think it’s the kids. They’re used to grade one, where the stakes are low, where the test scores don’t go on your permanent record. In grade two that changes. Stakes are raised. This is the test that begins the career. I stroll the rows, sniffing for danger. The air smells normal. I think we’re okay. But then I notice Caitlyn Moore. I’ve approached her from behind and I see she hasn’t filled in a single lozenge on her answer sheet. We’re five minutes in and her lozenges are blank. She isn’t even trying. I bet she never studied. She doesn’t understand what the questions are asking. Part of me wants to kneel at her side and feed her the answers, because her poor performance lowers my rating, she’s dragging both of us down. Part of me wants to go back in time, to send more emails, to reiterate to her parents that we are a team, that we all win or lose together. Parts of me want to do those things, and part of me, the subconscious part, the fight-or-flight part, touches the release on the extinguisher. Which I am now clutching. What happens next happens fast. I’m focused on
from Nude Studies, 2015
55 Â‚ FICTION
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the pencil in her grip, in her white-knuckled grip, even though I know the pencils are flame resistant. Everything is flame resistant. But all I can think of is summer camp and kindling, and I’m focused on the pencil. Then I hear a snap, a crackle, and Caitlyn’s hand goes up. She’s surprised, I’m surprised, I press the release and blast her with cool white foam. The fire’s out. I run through the steps in my head, the steps the safety people have drilled into all of our heads. Vocal reassurance. “It’s okay everyone, it’s okay. Just a flicker.” Is the child badly hurt? “Are you badly hurt, Caitlyn? No? Okay.” Press your alert button. Isolate the child. “Okay, everyone, I’m taking Caitlyn into the hall but the test continues. I don’t want to hear any voices. I’m very serious about this.” Caitlyn is crying as I direct her to the hall and into the nearest dousing station. She stands on the tiles in the little glass stall, beneath the showerhead, kneading her wounded hand. I hover by the “On” switch. At the slightest hint of fire, I’m ready to make it rain. She gives me a wretched look. “Do I fail now?” “No. You can retake.” I want to ask her if she studied. I want to tell her this never would have happened if she’d studied. But I remember what the safety people always say. Do not blame the child. Blame raises cortisol levels. Your job at this point is to soothe. “It’s going to be okay. Here come the safety people now.” David and Shane, they’re so quick and professional. They take Caitlyn’s hand, soothe her, apply cream. I leave them to it. Back in the classroom, heads are still down. It’s a terrible thing to say, but honestly? Having Caitlyn burn out midevaluation is a net positive for the classroom. When a student flares in a test, their score is null and void, it doesn’t factor into the average. This may sound sick, but I’m already obsessed with my first review. I want that
average up. And Caitlyn will heal. Now that she’s looking at a retake, I can lean on her parents to make sure she studies. So that’s a relief. I let the extinguisher drop loosely at my side.
It’s the last Friday of October, the last all-hands of the month. We the educators gather in the stuffy staff room, old Ikea couches and supposed-to-be-funny posters. There’s convenience store fruit and giant slimy muffins in a plastic clamshell, as usual, plus homemade vegan date squares, which Candice has brought and only Candice will eat. She joins me on a couch, her hand cupped under her chin, a date square half-devoured. I like Candice but I don’t get her. She listens to gangsta rap because, she says, she loves the beat, yet she’s nuts for crepe classroom decor and will rave about Nicholas Sparks. She’s a blue-eyed beauty but she doesn’t even try, she wears these waterproof sports clothes. Her husband is an engineer. They kayak on the weekends. She shows me pictures on her phone and tells me that I’d love it. I wouldn’t. Personally, I’m a feminine dresser. Not over the top, but always a skirt with leggings and a blouse, the way I imagine an educator should dress, the way as a girl I imagined it. Sometimes I worry I’m doing it wrong when I look around the staff room, but when I leave my place each morning, I swear, I feel grown up. I’m new to the city, where I don’t think I fit, and I skype with my mom every night. I skype with my sister most Fridays, after work. My dad’s on Facebook, where he posts about fishing, and we talk there. I Facebook like a fiend. I’ve tried to quit, but I get physically anxious if I don’t know what everyone from high school is doing with their lives, even though I left all that behind when I moved here. I told myself as I packed my little car, as I drove my little car, as I drove into the city, that I was leaving it all behind. Damn you, Facebook. I wonder if Candice would say of me, I like her
but I don’t get her. Jeannie, the principal, thanks us all for coming and thanks us all for our hard work on this week of evaluations. She talks about attendance. She talks about measles. She uses the word “pedagogical.” Jeannie says, “So, one issue I need to bring up. Unfortunately two grade fives were discovered this Wednesday playing cat’s cradle in the undercover area. So—and I really hate to do this—unfortunately it looks like we’re all going to have to have the talk again. I’m sorry people, I know you got this out of the way first week, but it really can’t be stressed enough. So there’s that.” The talk. Oh, god. Candice rolls her eyes at me and I know we’re thinking the same thing. Oh, god, the talk. 58 FICTION
I bring it up next Monday during personal growth block. “Just before we get into today’s lesson, there’s something I want to discuss with you, and it has to do with—” I chalk the words up on the board as I say them, like an educator should. “Flame space. We all know what flame space is, right? Can someone tell me?” Meng Xiao raises her hand. “Yes, Meng?” “It’s an arm’s length distance.” “That’s right, Meng, thank you. Arm’s length.” I hold out my arms. “And why do we keep that distance? Damon?” Damon Brinkwater always looks surprised that I know his name. Who, me? “Um, it’s, um, it’s because, um, it’s because that’s how far the flames shoot.” All the girls titter when Damon speaks, I guess they’re all crushed out. I guess I would have been too, but I’m not seven anymore.
“No, Damon, they don’t shoot that far, and that’s why it’s a safe distance. And so—and I really can’t stress this enough, guys—it’s important for you all to just maintain that distance between yourselves and others at all times. Okay? In fact, it’s mandatory, it’s school rules. So if someone wants to play a game with you? And they get inside your flame space? You just tell them—what do you say?” The whole class says, “You’re in my flame space.” “That’s right. And they should get out of it right away. And if someone doesn’t? It’s okay for you to come to me and report it. Does everyone understand?” The kids know the drill. They know to keep their distance. They nod their heads and mumble yes, and I’m happy we’re almost done with the talk. “Are there any questions before we move on?” Taylor Dupuis raises his hand. “Um, if one person combusts and someone else is in their flame space, does the other person, like, automatically combust too?” “No, Taylor, that’s not how spontaneous human combustion works. Like the safety people say, it’s not like germs. It doesn’t pass from one person to another person. It comes from inside an individual person.” Aliya Pirmohammed raises her hand. “Miss Levy, like, what is spontaneous human combustion?” I try to tinge my response with wonder. I feel like that’s the right approach. It’s hard for kids to hear an adult admit they don’t know something, especially an educator. But we don’t know, and there’s no way around that. I do my best Neil deGrasse Tyson. “That’s a really great question. And to be honest? The answer is that we just don’t know. It has something to do with stress, we know that, but we don’t understand how it works. When I was a kid, almost no one combusted. It just barely ever happened. Some people didn’t even
believe in it. But things have changed. Why? We don’t know. Maybe someday one of you will find the answer. What do you guys think? Can you think of a reason why people spontaneously combust?” “Is it pollution?” “Maybe, Liam.” “Is it, um, global warming?” “I guess it could be, Madison M.” Chastity Winters raises her hand. Oh, no, Chastity, please don’t. “Actually, Miss Levy, it comes from God.” Oh, no. Mayday, mayday. Chastity says, “It’s God’s will.” I try to move the conversation along. “Some people say that. There are all sorts of theories. Yes, Madison Y.?” “What’s God’s will, Miss Levy?” Okay, time to shut this down. “You know, that’s a really good question. But you know what? That’s a question to ask your parents. I think it would be inappropriate for me to talk about that in the classroom. Do you guys remember that word?” I write it on the board. “Inappropriate?” “Yes, Miss Levy.” My underarms are drenched. I guess the bolero stays on. But we’ve made it through the talk. Thank god. The school day ends, I say good-bye to my kids, I check my email and the system has sent me our first evaluation results. I open up the document. My heart sinks. How could the average be so low? Even without Caitlyn Moore, it’s way low. I don’t understand. I click on the breakdown, look at the individual stats. I see the dip, the child that’s dragged us all down. And it makes no sense. It’s Meng Xiao. No, no, that’s impossible, that is literally impossible. Meng doesn’t do
wrong answers. I go straight to the top. I take it up with Jeannie on Tuesday, in her office. “There’s no way this score is correct. Meng doesn’t do wrong answers.” “I hear what you’re saying, Gloria. But she obviously did.” “No, no, you don’t understand.” Jeannie has thick brown hair with dignified streaks of white. She’s willowy. She’s a textbook willowy woman. Always a scarf and big jangling bracelets, I don’t know how they stay on. “Gloria.” She folds her hands. “What are you trying to say? That the system made an error?” “Maybe it was the intern? That guy who puts the sheets in the reader? Or maybe the optical marker made a mistake?” “The intern is a very smart man. He has a master’s in Renaissance literature. And the optical marker can’t make mistakes. That’s why we use it.” “Could I maybe have a look?” “At the reader? Are you a registered technician?” “No, I mean at the tests. At the answer sheets themselves.” Jeannie shrugs in a way that says sure. If you think it will make a difference, sure. So I head to the optical marker room, the humming fans, the object itself, which looks like a big clunky printer. The intern is hanging around. I tell him what I’m here for. He seems reluctant to give me the tests, but at last he digs up a sealed envelope and carefully rips it open. He gives me Meng’s test sheets and her answer sheet. The test sheets have the questions, the answer sheet has rows and rows of multiple-choice lozenges. The intern tells me I’m not allowed to take the materials out of the room. Manufacturer’s rules, he says. He uses the word “embargoed.” I
sit at a table. I go through Meng’s answers. Row by row by row. Back in Jeannie’s office, I’m triumphant with my results. “It’s a simple mistake. Halfway through the evaluation, she missed a line. So for the rest of the test, her answers corresponded to the wrong questions.” My pulse is pounding. I feel like a lawyer in court. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. “You see? And I checked her answers. They were all right. She just filled them in on the wrong lines. She just made a simple mistake.” Jeannie folds her hands. “But that’s what we’re testing for. Mistakes.” “But she understood the questions. She just filled in the wrong lozenges.” “But that’s a key metric we’re looking at. The filling in of the lozenges.” “But that’s—” Jeannie cocks her eyebrow. I’ve stopped myself just in time. Do not call the system stupid. She says, “Gloria. If this is something you want to pursue, you can file an exemption request. At the moment, it’s out of my hands. The scores are in the system, so it’s out of my hands.” She shows me her hands. Indeed they are empty. “It just doesn’t seem fair.” “I hear what you’re saying. What I’m saying to you is, the scores are in. You’re welcome to file a request, if you feel the need. I can email you the forms.” She emails me the forms. I don’t fill them out, they seem so complex, instructions in tiny font. Meng’s parents email. They don’t speak great English—or maybe they don’t speak English at all, maybe they’re using a translator app. My filter keeps marking them spam. This score must be wrong, they tell me. We’d like a meeting, they tell me, but we are in Hong Kong. I don’t know why they’re in Hong Kong. They’d like me to meet with Meng’s sister,
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from Fleurs de Paris - Visions of Joy, Paris, 2012–15
her legal guardian, a girl named Suzy. I agree and we meet the next day, and Suzy looks about twelve. “How old are you?” “Nineteen.” She speaks with a faint accent, not Chinese. Maybe British? Meng has a Chinese accent. “To be honest,” I tell her, “the mistakes were technical. The filling out of the sheet.” Suzy appears stressed and unable to comprehend my meaning. I notice textbooks poking out of her backpack, acne on her cheeks, bags under her eyes and plastic kitten barrettes in her hair that she will soon grow out of. I patiently explain what’s happened and tell her I plan to file an exemption. “How long will that take?” “Truthfully, I do not know.” “Can’t you do anything right now?” “It’s out of my hands.” “How long have you been a teacher?” I’m not much older than Suzy. I tell her it’s my first classroom. I tell her I will fight for Meng, her parents shouldn’t worry. The low class average lowers my rating, so I will fight. “May I ask why your parents are in Hong Kong? Travel?” She shoulders her tiny, overstuffed backpack and says, “They live there.” Suzy leaves. It’s time to go home. Jeannie has sent me an email. I tell myself not to open it. You can open it tomorrow, it’s almost five, you have to go home. I click on open. The email is about a transfer, a new student, a new boy for my classroom. His story is sad. I read it and move the email to my Important Stuff folder. I drive my little car to my apartment.
“His brother flared to death?” My mom looks out of my laptop while I chop an avocado. “Remember, this is all highly confidential.” “Who would I tell?” “I just have to say that. Yeah, his brother flared out. He was fourteen.” “Oh, my god.” “Obviously the whole family was traumatized. But the saddest thing? For me? The kids in school made fun of him. They made fun of him for having a brother who flared. That’s why the family decided to move. New city, fresh start.” “What’s this boy’s name?” “Samson something. Sammy.” “And the other kids made fun of him? For his brother dying? I just can’t understand what’s gone wrong with the world.” “They made fun of him before the death too. Because he’s reactive, he’s easy to set off. Which makes him a target. You know how kids are. The brother was also reactive. It’s probably why he flared.” “I hope you’re not in danger, dear.” “Mom.” I move on to chopping walnuts. “That’s a terrible thing to say!” “I can’t help but think it. This boy? Samson? He sounds like a ticking time bomb.” I stop my chopping. “Well if he is? Then my job as an educator is to make sure he doesn’t go off.” “And how do you do that?” “Show him I care. I don’t know. I’m meeting the parents on Friday.” She sighs. She shakes her head. “What are you making, dear? Is it one of your salads?” I angle the screen so she can see my bowl. “Those creative salads of yours.”
Samson Gutierrez’s parents arrive early for our meeting, both of them clutching ventis. I haven’t had time to google them, but they’ve come straight from work and by their attire I can see they make good money. The quintessence of power couple–hood. They’re used to giving orders and that’s what they do. She says, “We need you to reinforce him.” He says, “Sammy’s a bright kid, ambitious.” “He was reading chapter books at the age of three.” “But he can be introverted at times.” “So we need you to reinforce him.” I’m not sure what “reinforce” means. I picture rebar. They tell me about the brother who died, the memories they’re leaving behind, the fresh new start they’re hoping to make. I tell them I understand. Then it’s Saturday, a day just for me. I wake up, do my Facebook rounds, somehow it’s afternoon. I make a salad and stream a documentary I’ve been meaning to watch forever. Then it’s bed and a book. I’m reading Frilly Jilly this week. I like to keep up with the kids. Last week it was Admiral Armpit, this week it’s Frilly Jilly. I laughed at Admiral Armpit. Frilly Jilly annoys me. I spend half of Sunday on lesson plans and marking. Then I file Meng Xiao’s exemption request. When I finally look out the window, I see that the world has changed on me. First snow of the year. We’re rolling into winter. Sammy Gutierrez is a quiet, angel-faced boy. He wears his black hair longish, tucked behind the ears. He’s deferential and polite with me, unlike the other boys. I cannot help but fall instantly in love. “I heard about his brother.” Candice is showing me skiing pictures. We’re on a couch in the staff room. “It’s so tragic. Oh—here’s the lodge. That’s our room. Oh, look— those are Gregg’s new toe shoes. What a nerd, right?”
Gregg is her husband. He does not look like a nerd. He looks like Hercules. “How did you hear about Sammy’s brother?” She shrugs. “Word gets around.” She makes her sober, concerned face. I see this face a lot. I’d believe in this face if it weren’t so easily switched on. “God, fourteen, eh? And a total flareout. It’s so rare. That kid must have been a basket case.” Which isn’t a nice thing to say, but it’s true. Most combustion is localized and treatable. You hardly ever hear of flare-out deaths. “Are you worried about Sammy?” “I’m not worried. He’s very sweet.” “But that could mean he’s repressed. Holding it in. Pressure building.” “Or maybe he’s just sweet.” Jeannie kicks off the all-hands in her usual way, praising our hard work. She talks about attendance. She says, “Unfortunately, due to measles, two district schools have closed for a week. One child is in critical condition.” Measles. It just won’t stop. We never had measles when I was a kid. And I know the culprit in our district: Damon Brinkwater’s mom, Jenn. I’ve seen her website. She’s on a crusade. Her tweets are relentless, her following grows by the day. There’s no scientific link between vaccination and spontaneous combustion, but Jenn has this chart, it makes it look like the trends are linked. And the thing about it is, if you’re a parent? And someone says you’re poisoning your child? You sit up and listen. You take action. So vaccination rates are down. Jeannie says, “It’s important, when you talk to parents, to really stress the science.” Except when you do they look at you like you’ve just denied the Holocaust. Then they send you Jenn Brinkwater’s URL, as if you don’t have it already. “So there’s that,” Jeannie says. “Moving on. I hope
you’ve all booked off the time to attend tonight’s information session.” Candice gives me a panicked look. I mouth the word, Remember? Jeannie says, “It’s not mandatory, of course, but parents will be there and I’m sure they’ll notice who shows up and who doesn’t. So there’s that.” While Jeannie goes on about goal setting, Candice frantically pokes her phone. At last she finds the relevant details. Then she’s texting—I guess to let Gregg know she won’t be home for dinner. When the meeting ends, she grabs my arm. “Have you seen this guy’s picture? The speaker tonight?” I’ve seen it, but she shoves it in my face anyway. The pink and white splotches, the cauterized grin. She says, “The guy’s a burner. And he’s supposed to be some kind of role model?” I walk quickly into the hall, trying to shake her, but I fail. She follows right behind me. “Listen to this quote—‘Self-starters burn brightest.’ Jesus! What a thing to say! When you look like that? Thanks for the motivational, Freddy Krueger.” She follows me out to the parking lot. We stand beside my car. “You’re going tonight, right?” I open my door. “I am.” “What are you doing right now?” “I brought my dinner.” “Gonna eat in your car?” I don’t answer. I get in and roll down my window. “See you in a bit!” I pull out. I drive off. I drive up a hill where it’s nice to sit, where I sometimes go on my lunch. It’s too cold to eat outside, but I park and enjoy the view. Birch and maple trees and a baseball diamond, a playground. I eat
my quinoa, my apple, my cheese, and think about that splotchy face. I did my due diligence, I checked the speaker’s website, I streamed his vision statement. I am not looking forward to this information session. And it’s not because the man’s a burner.
I return early and head for the gym, where the janitor has set up chairs. Where I mingle with as many parents as I can. Some take my picture and ask if they can post it on Facebook. I say yes, naturally. It’s evidence I came. Extracurriculars are good for your rating, they help with the rounded portrait. If you appear one-dimensional in the eyes of parents, they’ll mark you lower on their feedback forms. I scan the crowd. There’s the Gutierrezes, looking professional. There’s the Winterses, looking insane. There’s Jenn Brinkwater, talking to Coach Maloney. (He’s wearing pants, which is rare to see—it’s normally shorts all year round.) No doubt they’re discussing his star, her son, their shared project. Candice finds me. We sit together. She always finds me. We always sit together. She sees me as an ally, I guess, because we’re both firsttime educators. Sometimes I worry we look too cliquey, the new girls sticking close. Jeannie takes the stage, where they’ve set up a lectern. “Hello, hello? Can you hear me in the back?” They can hear her in the back. She intros our guest, a man with a vision, a man who has suffered setbacks and risen to challenges, a personal inspiration to Jeannie and, she hopes, to us all. “Please join me in welcoming Carter Cole!” And here he comes. I feel sorry for the guy and I know there’s nothing he can do about his deformity, but the burns are hard to look at. I focus on his eyes. He strides up to the microphone and clenches the lectern with both hands. He says, “The real world is a stressful place. We’re kidding ourselves if we pretend
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otherwise. It’s okay—have a good look. Have a stare. People do, and I’m used to it. I don’t think of my appearance as a handicap. No. I think of it as certain African tribesmen think of the ceremonial marks that were carved into their faces on the day they became men. These are battle scars, folks. And they show you one thing without a doubt—I am tough. “I’ve flared more than a dozen times. I know what you’re thinking. I know the conventional wisdom. That adults don’t flare because adults are in control of their feelings. And that’s one way of looking at it—in control. Another way might be out of touch. I’m highly attuned to my feelings. I’m not afraid of them. I’m not afraid to push myself. I’m not afraid to achieve what each of us, at the end of the day, wants to achieve. I’m not afraid to win.” A picture appears on a screen behind Cole. It’s a picture of a giant car.
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“Here’s what I drive.” The picture changes to a giant house. “Here’s where I live.” The next picture shows Cole and a beautiful woman on a fancy staircase, both dressed to the nines. No comment on what he does with that. Cole says, “I realize my lifestyle isn’t for everyone. This talk isn’t for everyone. Who I want to reach is that one percent of overachievers—those who strive for total excellence in everything they do. You know who you are. What do you and I have in common? We work hard. We play hard. We live with stress. It’s a natural condition for those who exceed. “Now here’s the question I pose to you. Do you want your children coddled and kept safe from the fire? Or do you want them to burn—with passion? Do you want them to exceed?”
He goes on. I glance at Candice, who looks half amused and half repulsed. She catches my eye and shakes her head. She isn’t taking this seriously, not yet. “Some of you may have heard of Cole Academy. If you haven’t, I’ll lay it out. What we are is a fast-track lane. A fast track to success. We’ve partnered with some of the biggest brands in finance, in technology, in many other high-paying, high-pressure industries, to develop a truly unique educational product. So much of education is wasted time because, ultimately, the top-tier professions require narrow expertise. Our goal is to locate the most promising young minds, identify their core competencies, then propel them on an accelerated path to professional success and fulfillment. No personal resources are wasted on irrelevant coursework. Our algorithms determine strengths and match users to corporate sponsors. Each user gains detailed knowledge of his or her ultimate workplace identity—and gains it fast. The sponsor guides the curriculum and guarantees a contract upon completion of the learning stream. We don’t produce graduates. We produce results. Our users work remotely, at a pace set by the bleeding edge in personalized software. No more worries about poor educator performance, herd diseases, bullying and the destructive forces of peer pressure, school shootings—the list goes on. Put simply, folks, this is the future.” Now Candice looks fully repulsed and not at all amused. I catch her eye and she mouths the words, What the fuck? “So,” Cole says, “just before the naysayers drag out their pitchforks and torches, let me be clear—this program is not for everyone. Conventional schools will continue to exist. But for the disruptors among you, we’re offering an opportunity. And we’ve partnered with this school—along with thousands of others across North America and Japan—to locate those individuals whose
learning styles are ideally suited for what we have to offer. This June, Cole Academy will run a recruitment drive in your district. The entrance exam is challenging—very challenging—but those who qualify will have the chance to step into the future I’ve just described. I hope some of you will join us then to ignite the passion that knows no bounds. Thank you.” They actually clap, these parents. Some of them actually stand. I turn to Candice and she looks gutted. I ask, “Are you okay?” “How?” “How what?” “I can’t believe I’m just hearing about this now. Why weren’t we consulted before they brought that asshole in?” “Why would anyone consult us?” She stabs at her chest with her index fingers. “We’re the educators, Glor! We’re on the frontline! Shouldn’t we have a say in what happens to our kids? Doesn’t the system want feedback from us?” I gesture at the clapping parents. “Clearly not.” She’s mad. She literally sits on her hands. “Fuck this. Let’s go for a drink.” I cannot deny I could use a drink. I nod my head yes. We sneak out before the question period. Jeannie’s by the door and she watches us leave, but the death glares we send her keep her at bay, she does not thank us for coming. We drive in our separate cars to a place Candice likes. I’m glad we’re driving separately. Candice really cranks that bass, her car keeps saying the N-word. I truly do not get her. I follow her to a strip mall, the sort of place you pass a dozen times on any urban car ride but would never actually visit. We park. “You come here a lot?” “I love this place. They serve pretzels at the bar. Who does that anymore?” Expecting the worst, I’m pleasantly surprised. The
place is quiet, pop music low in the background, a handful of solitary male drinkers and three old women at the VLTs who kind of give me a kick. They’re chattering away, having a ball, I hope when I’m old I can still have fun. We take a booth. A tired waitress asks us what we’ll have. Candice orders fries and two beers, and for a moment I’m stunned—how fast does she drink? Then I realize she’s ordered for me. Weird, but I let it slide. So far in our acquaintance I’ve avoided socializing, though Candice pushes for it often. I always find an excuse. If I’m honest, she makes me insecure. And that bothers me because a) I don’t like feeling insecure, and b) I don’t want to be someone who feels insecure around prettier women. I think I’m pretty, in my way. But the thing about Candice is, she wouldn’t need to qualify that statement. She just is pretty. If she’d lose her ponytail and stop wearing Gore-Tex, she would be devastating. At least I know how to flatter what I’ve got. I guess I can cling to that. “Here’s to the future,” she says as we cheers, and soon I’m slurrily wondering aloud why we haven’t done this before. I like Candice, I do. She’s funny and weird and a great bitching partner, especially after a few drinks. She says, “I feel like they’re trying to phase us out.” I say, “I feel like we have no agency.” We rip into Carter Cole and his evil plan, into Jeannie and her undermining ways, into parents, ratings, the system itself. She says, “Sometimes I feel like I’m not even teaching. Like I’m following a script.” “I know. I hate that.” She practically shouts: “It stifles our creativity! Our potential!” “I want to be Mr. Danforth!” I didn’t really mean to say that. Just sort of blurted it out.
The weeks come and go. The date of my first performance review comes and goes. By filing an exemption for Meng’s poor test score, I’ve apparently found a loophole: my own review is suspended pending Meng’s results, which take their time. But I’m hardly counting the minutes. There’s too much else to deal with. It’s the boys, it’s the playground, it’s the unstructured playtime. What do they fill it with,
Candice shakes her head. “I don’t know that show.” “No, no, he’s not a show. He was a real person. My tenth-grade English teacher. You know what he said to me once? When I was struggling with the material? He said to me, just do your best. He said if he saw me doing my best, he’d give me an A.” “Just do your best. Can you even imagine?” “I know. If we said that?” “We’d probably get sued.” “But it really opened my eyes. It was like, these tests? These assignments? They don’t matter in the long run. Marks are just marks. What matters is your effort, the integrity of your effort. What matters is the person you are. Are you a person who tries?” “He said all this to you?” “No, but that’s how I understood what he said. It’s amazing the impact it had. And now that I’m an educator, I want to be wise like that. Impactful like that.” “Did you get an A?” “B+.” “The bastard!” Soon after, we call it a night. Candice insists she’s okay to drive, which is so not the case, but I’m too wasted to argue. I consult with the waitress, who assures me my car won’t get towed. I call a cab. I flop into bed. And Saturday? It’s a write-off.
this unstructured time? Torture is what. Their target, of course, is Sammy Gutierrez. I’m not sure what they say to him but I see them, I watch them, a clump of boys trailing as Sammy walks away. He walks away and walks away, doing laps along the chain link. The boy-clump follows. Always at a safe distance, I note. I’d like to intervene, but I can’t prove anything, I haven’t heard anything, I can’t get close enough to eavesdrop. I’d like to take Damon Brinkwater aside. Why not man up, I’d ask him, and step into Sammy’s flame space? Make fun of him there, if you’re so big. Then one day Chastity Winters snitches: “It’s like they want him to flare. They tease him and say, Watch it guys, keep an arm’s length distance!” I’m not sure if she’s tattling out of Christian virtue or just to raise hell. Whatever the case, hell is raised. I skype with Jenn Brinkwater that same evening, at home. “It has come to my attention that Damon’s involved in bullying.” “Damon wouldn’t do that.” “But he does.” I tell her what I know. Incredibly, she piles on. “I have to say, I myself am concerned about that child—with combustion in the family and all. Are our kids safe? What if he flares?” “Combustion is not like germs, Mrs. Brinkwater. It doesn’t catch.” “Do we know that for a fact?” I circle back to the issue. “What I’d like is for you to intervene. I’ll call the other parents too but Damon is the ringleader here.” “I’m sure he’s not.” “Well, irregardless. Would you talk to him?” “What do you want me to say?” I’m shocked she’s asking me. Normally parents get bent out of shape when you tell them how to parent. But
she’s asked, so I offer. Though it’s hardly rocket science. “Tell Damon to be nice.” I’m ready to leave it there, but Jenn pivots. “Have they run tests on this child? Samson?” “What tests did you have in mind?” “Blood tests for metal content.” “Why would they test for metal content?” A shrillness enters her voice. I have evidently asked a stupid question. “They should test for mercury. Don’t you know? It’s used as a preservative in these vaccines they give. Do you know about mercury? It’s an element. When you electrify mercury gas, the result is high-wavelength electromagnetic radiation. It’s what’s inside fluorescent lamps. Mercury gas. That’s what they’re pumping into our kids.” “And what does this have to do with anything?” “Are you serious? What does it have to do with kids exploding? Hmm. Let me see.” Now we are at a crossroads. We could take one of several paths. And suddenly, I swear, it’s like Star Wars, I hear Mr. Danforth’s ghostly voice over my shoulder. Do your best, Gloria. And my best? How would that look? My best would shut Jenn Brinkwater down. I’d explain to her irrefutably why she is batshit crazy and how she in fact harms children, she herself, the righteous mom, the one-woman tweeting empire of nonsense. She in fact spreads measles. I could patiently explain this. I could scourge her every opinion until her factoids collapse in bloody shreds, then I could plant my foot on her skull and collect my praise. Or I could say, “Mrs. Brinkwater, I will talk to you concerning Damon and my work as his educator, but I will not talk to you concerning this.” “But this does concern Damon—” “I am not prepared to discuss it.” “Do you have kids, Gloria?”
“I think this meeting is over.” “What are you going to do, hang up on me?” “Goodbye,” I say, and hit end call. I know I shouldn’t, I know the parent is the customer. But customers have to have boundaries too, right? That’s part of the contract, it’s written in. If my reviewers audit this conversation, I think I’ll end up in the right. I watch her vanish. Open mouth, round eyes, gone. Blip! I lie on my couch and sigh. I feel like a coward. I want to push harder, but it’s not my job to school parents. That’s a guaranteed way to crater your rating. Besides, in Jenn Brinkwater’s mind I bet I’m just part of the conspiracy, taking cash on the side from the fire extinguisher lobby. I sit up, email the Gutierrezes, offer to skype or meet faceto-face. Mr. Gutierrez emails back. He says they know about the bullying. He says they’ve been weighing their options. He says they’re leaning heavily toward taking Sammy right out of the system. They’re leaning toward Cole Academy. “Wait, explain this loophole again?” I’ve updated Candice on all the latest drama. She’s fixated on the loophole. “So we could just file exemptions and put off our reviews forever?” Her date square crumbles as she takes a bite, and I watch her swipe the sticky hunks between the couch cushions. I peel my mandarin orange in a single curling strip. It’s flu season so the staff room is fortified with vitamin C. Jeannie must buy these mandarin orange boxes by the pallet. “Why are the results taking so long?” Candice asks. “I thought the system was efficient.” “I have no idea. Maybe a human has to look over the exemptions?” “That’s the only rational explanation.” I’m a bit miffed. She hasn’t asked how I feel about
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from Eden - Visions of Joy, Paris, 2012–15
Sammy, about the bullying, about my confrontation with Jenn. I wish she would. I’d like to talk it out. She says, “I wonder how it affects your rating. To file an exemption?” I honestly hadn’t thought of that. Oh god. I honestly hadn’t thought of that. I say, “You know what we should do? We should have another girls’ night out.” “I’d seriously love to, Glor. But not this weekend. Me and Gregg are going skiing. And actually next weekend I think we’re skiing too.” I silently obsess for the whole all-hands. I drive home, make a salad, skype with my sister. I tell her everything. She seems distracted. My nephew keeps bugging her. “Can we talk another time? Matthew was up late last night and he just won’t settle down. Yes, honey, you can have a yogurt!” “Okay, Sara. Another time.” The sun’s down, but it’s only seven. Too early for bed? I have that stack of graphic novels I need to get through, the ones the boys keep quoting. But the graphic novels don’t appeal. Where are all my adult books? I dig around and find one I’ve been meaning to read forever. It won an award. I settle in. I struggle through the first five pages and fall asleep with the lights on. So my brilliant intervention stopped the bullying all right. But instead of the playground harmony I’d pictured, now Sammy’s just alone. The other kids have hypercorrected their behavior, they avoid him like ebola. And he makes no effort, he doesn’t join in. I want to help him. I don’t know how. “And what’s this school for burn victims?” “It’s not for burn victims, Mom. It’s run by one.” I angle the screen so there’s less glare. I’m chopping cherry
tomatoes. “Sammy’s parents want to transfer him because he’s getting bullied again.” “And he won’t get bullied in the burn victim school?” “It’s not a burn victim school. Are you even listening? It’s called Cole Academy, and no, he won’t get bullied. You learn from home.” “From home?” “Or wherever. There’s no actual school to attend. It’s all online.” “Online? What is this world coming to?” “It’s not the end of the world, Mom. It’s just a different model. But I feel like it’s the wrong direction for Sammy. He’s isolated enough as it is.” “It might be good to keep him apart.” I stop chopping. “How can you say that? Why would it be good?” “All I’m saying is, he’s a fire risk.” “Honestly? I just don’t understand this attitude. What if I were a fire risk? Would you lock me in an asbestos room?” “Of course not, dear.” “Well, there you go.” Chop, chop, chop. “I care about this kid, Mom. He needs someone to reach out to him. I feel like that’s my duty, as an adult in his life. I just don’t know if it’s my place.” “What do you mean, your place?” “My place as an education provider. Reaching out isn’t really in the job description. It’s all targets and metrics.” “Are these computer things? These terms?” “Everything’s a computer thing.” Chop, chop, chop. “I just want to do my best. But I feel like the system won’t let me.” “What else are you there for? What else can you do?” On Monday an official letter appears in my cubby hole. It’s from the optical marker people. I tear it open and read it right there, standing in the office. They won’t
change Meng’s score. At lunch I drive Candice up the hill, to my spot above the baseball diamond, and read her the relevant section: Unless the student has indicated at the time of evaluation that a line has been accidentally skipped the answers are considered incorrect.
“That’s it?” She slurps her smoothie. “They took all this time to come up with that?” I shake my head. “My first performance review. And I bombed.” “Don’t worry, Glor. You can still recover. There’s two more reviews to go.” “I better knock it out of the park in March.” “You will.” I’d better, if I hope to see my contract renewed. The thought of my contract turns my stomach, I can’t eat my quinoa. Candice pulls out her phone and shows me pictures of the new puppy that has somehow materialized in her life, and I have questions I don’t ask. When will you find time to walk it? Where will you store it when you go skiing? I don’t ask these questions because I know how easily Candice will dismiss them, and I can’t bear her ease. These are the types of questions that inhibit me from living. I need answers. “He’s adorable, Can.” If she can call me Glor, I can call her Can. “Gregg just loves him. You should see them together. Here, here’s some video . . . .” And it’s while watching the puppy lick Gregg’s cheeks, while watching Gregg fall on his back and roll around on the kitchen floor, while watching the puppy sleep in a shaft of sunlight as Candice coos in the background, it’s while watching these things that I start to cry. “Gloria? What’s up?”
“Oh, it’s just everything. I don’t know. Nothing.” “Can I help?” “No, you’re helping. It’s good to have someone to talk to.” “Yeah.” She switches on her sober, concerned face. “Maybe it’s none of my business, but can I ask a question?” I sniffle a yes. “Are you . . . seeing someone? Like do you date? Do you even have any friends in town? You never talk about them. Sorry if that’s a weird question but it’s something I’ve wondered about.” I gaze down on the snowy fields. How would I meet someone? How would I make new friends? “I’m just so busy all the time.” I wipe my nose with my knuckle. “I guess I’m waiting for summer.” “Well, don’t wait too long. Life is happening now.” Candice finds some new footage. “God, check out those paws, eh? He is going to be a monster.” The Gutierrezes ask to skype. I reach them after dinner. He says, “It’s not just the bullying. We think Cole Academy delivers tangibles that the legacy system doesn’t.” She says, “Though we are concerned about the bullying.” “We really think Cole’s model is the future.” “Do the kids mention Sammy’s brother? We’re concerned most of all about that.” “It’s the guaranteed outcome that really appeals to us. Which is ultimately more useful in the real world—a contract, or a diploma? Unless you work at a framing shop, it’s the first one.” I wish Mr. Gutierrez hadn’t mentioned contracts. I email the Xiaos. They write back with poorly translated disappointment. They want to know if I did all I could. They want to know if I explored every option. I think I did. I thought I did. Did I? Why did Candice ask if I’m
seeing someone? Am I giving off lonesome vibes? Stop. I’ve got to stop thinking like that. It’s going to be okay. Summer will come and the school year will end and I will have a life for a brief, lovely time. Right now I’ve got to focus on getting my rating up. I know how to do that: core curriculum, extracurriculars, fostering dialogue with parents and students. In the blink of an eye, it’s March. The fire department inspects every extinguisher in the school, of which there are hundreds. The extinguishers check out. I run my second evaluation, and my kids just shine. We pull off a near-perfect score. Soccer tryouts begin, buds open on poplar branches, a robin outside my apartment window sings all night to a streetlamp. And I feel a new confidence. My second review goes well. My rating is still suffering from the first evaluation but I can pull this thing off. I will get that contract renewed, I will. I meet with Meng’s sister, Suzy. She asks about Cole Academy. I tell her I don’t think it’s right for Meng, that Meng’s doing fine where she is, but Suzy tells me their parents want her to try recruitment out. So that’s Sammy and Meng, two from my class. And because of the way the partnership works, I will supervise their qualification exam. “I feel like a whore,” I whisper to Candice at our next all-hands. She laughs at this, my principled objection. “A paycheck’s a paycheck. If you really feel that bad about taking Cole’s money, you could donate it to my weekend fund. It’s a worthy cause.” Jeannie claps her hands and thanks us all for coming. “So, we’ve got the first soccer game of the season this Saturday. We’re up against Central, so it’s an important game emotionally for the kids and the parents—if you remember, Central whupped us last year. So I hope some of you can make it out. It will mean a lot to show your support.”
Candice swears under her breath, then she’s on her phone, canceling her rock-climbing plans. The meeting ends and I nab a muffin. Jeannie bought bran. She never buys bran. It’s always blueberry, with those awful spreading purple wounds. In the parking lot, I notice a solitary boy huddled on the upper field. It’s Sammy. I cross the field and join him, and find that he’s crying. “Sammy? What’s wrong? Why are you still here?” “My dad was supposed to pick me up. I’m supposed to go to swimming lessons. I’m going to be late.” “Do you want me to text him?” “Yes, please.” I shoot off a text. “I didn’t know you swim. Do you like swimming?” He looks me full in the face and says, “No, I hate it.” Sammy doesn’t normally make a lot of eye contact. I want to reach out and—what? Pat his shoulder? No, I want to hug him. But of course I can’t. Besides the flame danger, there’s the sexual harassment angle. So I sit at an arm’s length and ask him if he wants a muffin. “What kind is it?” “Bran.” “No, thank you.” “If it were blueberry, would you say yes?” “Maybe.” “I just hate those little gooey blobs.” “I like them.” “Next time I get blueberry, I will pick out the blobs and save them for you.” He smiles. “I don’t like them on their own.” “I will roll them into a ball. A giant blob ball. And I will save it for you and give it to you to eat over summer vacation.” Mr. Gutierrez texts. A meeting ran late, he’s on his way. Part of me wants to offer to drive Sammy myself, and part of me—and I hate to admit this—part of me
pictures him flaring on my seat. The hassle that would cause. Insurance and whatnot. I want to lose the part of me that would even think such a thing. “Your dad’s on his way. Do you want me to wait with you?” “It’s okay. Thank you, Miss Levy.” I leave him alone. How could anyone call Sammy reactive? The language is written right into his file, but I’ve only ever known him to be patient and polite. I think that the system may have blurred him with his brother, that his brother’s black marks have marked Sammy too. Which so isn’t fair. I go home and skype with my sister, eat a salad. I curl up in bed with a stack of graphic novels that I don’t want to read. The robin outside my window— is he broken? Is that why he sings to the lamp? He must know that a lamp can’t love him. Then again, who am I to say? Maybe my robin has found the secret of life. I fall asleep. They play soccer early. On Saturdays. An inhuman practice. I drag myself out of bed and pull myself together and force myself to look convincingly awake as I say hello to the parents in the bleachers. Hello, hello, hello! The parents video everything. This movie we’re making, we, as a species, this epic pan of everything: who will edit it down? Posterity does not need my sleepy performed enthusiasm. Candice finds me. She looks hungover, and I soon learn that she is. We climb to the peewee nosebleed section and try to turn invisible. “Oh, god,” she moans, “I don’t want to be here. I wake up this morning—first thing I see? Denver ate the bath mat.” Denver is her puppy, the sentence has logic, yet I prefer to enjoy it as a purely surreal construction. From
our perch we psychoanalyze the parents, note the balding patches and the weight gain and the weight loss. We amuse ourselves by putting words in mouths. Candice is particularly good at this, because she is savage. I point out Jenn Brinkwater and confess I would like to strangle her. Candice is gleefully taken aback. “Gloria! You quiet little psychopath!” We note the proximity between Jenn and Coach Maloney. There is touching, we note. Candice says, “Look at where her hand is! On his arm like that? Do you think he’s boned her? With his fluorescent shorts around his ankles? Like this, check this, Glor—uhn-uhn-uhn! Crazy Jenn, you so crazy!” I’m laughing my head off and I hope to god no one videos us. Candice is being highly inappropriate. We settle down as the game starts. As the game draws out, into infinity. The kids are pretty useless players at this age. They sure are fast, though. I didn’t realize they could move that fast. I’m a little unnerved, watching them dart around. Our side scores a goal at last. Candice and I aren’t paying attention when it happens, but the parents go wild and we catch on. There is celebration. Jenn Brinkwater leaps up and down in a way I can only describe as maximally undignified. Right away, Central scores a goal. And for the next, I don’t know, I want to say ten hours, no one scores anything. We go into overtime. “How long can this keep going?” “First soccer game, Gloria?” “Yes. And quite possibly my last.” A whistle blows. “What just happened?” “Oh, sweet, penalty kicks. This’ll end it.” Damon Brinkwater is given a ball and stands with a clear shot on Central’s net. The Central goalie looks terrified. Coach Maloney barks encouraging words that sound like threats while Jenn Brinkwater hollers validation at
her son, her neck tendons visible all the way up here. “Nail it, Damon! You can do this! Believe!” The referee says something to the faced-off players, and Jenn Brinkwater falls silent. She leans close to Coach Maloney, who also falls silent. She grips his arm. Candice and I scoot out to the edges of our seats. The referee blows his whistle. Damon Brinkwater takes a deep breath. He kicks. Wow. The ball flies straight up and spins backwards, over his head, it’s like it defies physics. We watch it arc and bounce and roll down the field, back towards the halfway line. Candice clutches my arm. I clutch her arm. The ball slows and finally stops. The Central parents are quiet, though the impulse should be to cheer. Damon stands alone before the goalposts, arms limp, eyes blank. I am sure that every adult is thinking the same thing. I see some of them reach for their extinguishers. And that’s when Jenn Brinkwater blows. It’s a full-on flareout, a flash, a ball of flame, and she’s gone. Just incinerated. Damon sees it happen. Horror bolts across his face and then his shoulder lights up. Two more parents flash, though not fully. Six players light up, too, one after the other, they run in circles and bat at their flaming uniforms. Parents rush onto the field, brandishing extinguishers. I’m in shock, but Candice hauls me to my feet and we hop together down the bleachers to where Coach Maloney lies in a patch of seared grass, his legs blown off by the explosion. There’s no blood, the fire burned the veins shut. We kneel next to him and tell him to breathe. The kids are blasted with foam and quickly put out, embraced, their panicked faces stroked and soothed and buried in fleece bosoms. In the spot where Jenn Brinkwater stood there is only ash and a single pink running shoe, a single foot burned off at the ankle, which I stare at in disbelief.
After the incident, rules change. The safety people rework their spiel. It turns out combustion is like germs, it can catch, they speak of domino effects. Everything is newly unpredictable. All education staff must carry extinguishers at all times—even though the hallways and school perimeter are lined with them—and we are no longer discouraged from clutching. I try not to clutch. I try not to project fear. I am afraid. It’s June, the year’s nearly over. I run our final evaluation, pacing the rows, clutching my extinguisher, sniffing for the faintest hint of smoke. I picture the whole classroom going up, me in the middle, curling in flames. We don’t go up. Our score is less than stellar but we pull through, we do it together. The kids have studied, I have educated, the parents have held back iPad privileges until objectives were met. My third review goes well enough. My rating is sent to my agency. I’ll have to wait till July to hear back, but I think I’ll teach again. My kids pool for a present, an Amazon gift card. I love my kids. But I keep a distance as I thank them, my extinguisher within reach. “Glor! Hey, Glor!” It’s a quarter after three. Candice grabs me in the hall. “Hey, how’s it going?” I am on edge. “I don’t have a lot of time, Can. I gotta get to Meng’s exam.” “That’s today?” “In like five minutes.” Candice stares, smiling expectantly. “What’s up?” In my ear: “Can you keep a secret?” With great apprehension, I nod. “We’re pregnant.” “We are? You are?” She cups her nonexistent belly and grins with shut lips. I say, “Do you really think you’re ready?” Her grin shrinks. “What do you mean by that?”
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Pregnant Belly, 2015
What do I mean by that? “Sorry, Can, my brain is in like ten zillion places at once. I am super happy for you.” Why am I walking away so fast? “I really gotta start this thing exactly on time. The Academy—they’re like Nazis about details. You should see the nondisclosure agreement I had to sign!” I’m waving as I round a corner. “Let’s go for drinks real soon—or—I guess you can’t—but—text me!” Is Candice insane? Having a baby? I fly through a door, sprint for the portable where we’re holding Meng’s exam. The school wants the children tested separately, a different room for every child, because of flare contagion concerns. Today it’s Meng, tomorrow it’s Sammy. I’ll get paid double what I would have earned testing them together. This is the world that Candice is bringing another bundle of kindling into. Between the portables, I stumble upon a beastly scene. A boy pummels a boy who has fallen to his knees in the gravel. They have not shed their backpacks, which jump and swing on their shoulders with every move. The boy on the ground flails at the small fists that come down on his neck, on his scalp, on his ears. Other boys stand at a safe distance and taunt. “Sammy!” He hears me, stops punching. He turns to me and I have not seen this face before, this snarling face. I don’t recognize it. A sad gape follows, he suddenly looks as surprised as I am. He backs away from where Damon Brinkwater crouches in a daze, face rough with emotion, cheeks ruddy from struggle. The other boys scatter. “Sammy, what is this? I’m so disappointed!” “They won’t stop making fun of me!” He sounds desperate, nearly wild. “They say they want me to burn!” I do not have time for this. “Damon, is that true?” Damon hasn’t moved from his spot, like a wounded mouse, in a trance. Then a horrible thin wail flies from
his open mouth, and it builds, and he starts to bawl. He’s been hair-trigger since his mom flared. I feel for him, I do, and I’ve wanted to help, but his loss is enormous, I’m not trained for grief. I take a step back. I’m clutching my extinguisher and I don’t know where to aim it. At Sammy? At Damon? Should I turn it on myself ? “Boys. I have to run an exam in about one minute. I have to go. But this is very serious. We are going to discuss this. Don’t think you can act out just because tomorrow’s the last day. Do you understand?” They watch me with dark expressions as I back away. Meng’s already in the portable, alone at a desk. She looks stressed. I fumble with my briefcase and find the sheets, the official Cole Academy papers. I count down the seconds. Meng begins. I take a seat a few desks away, behind her, as my instructions specify. My ears are ringing. I place my extinguisher on the desktop, in a position I judge best for access and deployment. Did I handle the situation outside properly? No, no, I panicked. I rushed. I left the boys alone instead of attempting a mediation. If Candice has this baby, it’s the end of her career. Is that the plan? How much does Gregg make? Oh, god, Meng, why have you stopped writing? Don’t tell me you don’t know the answer. You always know the answer. Don’t stress out, don’t flare. Please don’t flare on my watch. I can’t take it. I spend the exam in a state of rattled vigilance. You could stick a plug in me and draw current. At last Meng puts down her pencil. I accept her papers with one hand, clutch my extinguisher with the other, dismiss her in a trembling soprano. She leaves me alone in the portable and all I can think is, this is not my best. I head home for the day. I expect to hear from Damon’s dad, but I get no call. Maybe Sammy left no bruises. These kids aren’t that powerful, after all. I start to text Candice an apology, but then I’m not sure what to apologize for, so I delete. Maybe tomorrow I can just act like
nothing happened. Like I didn’t weird out. Maybe her brain’s fuzzy from hormones, maybe she won’t remember. I stay up half the night, just lying awake in bed. This is my last sleep as a first-time educator, next year I will be experienced. Assuming they renew my contract. When I do sleep, I dream of chasing Meng through a night market somewhere in Asia. She keeps slipping out from under food carts, turning into alleys. I’m very concerned. What’s she doing here alone at his hour? My phone alarm goes off. I get up, check for texts. My mom remembered it’s the last day of school, she’s sent me a corny quote about seedlings and sunshine. I picture sunflowers bursting into flames. I shower, I dress. I wear my favorite skirt and the blouse I don’t normally wear to work because it seems overly fancy, but I love it, this lovely flattering neckline. Why am I putting on lipstick? Take off the lipstick. Well, maybe a touch. In my little car, I go over what I’m going to say to Damon and Sammy. Poor Sammy. Last day of school, and he has to take an exam. I hope he’s ready. I hope he studied. But secretly I hope he bombs. That way he’ll stay in our system, and I’ll see him again in the fall. I find Candice by our cubbies. Jeannie has left each of us a corny card, birds spreading wings. I confess I am touched. Candice is giddy. I guess my weirdness didn’t offend her. Or maybe she expects weirdness from me, shrugs it off. Next year maybe I’ll learn from her how to shrug things off. We hug and part ways. I head to my class. Damon and Sammy are in the cloakroom, hanging up their backpacks. “Boys? Can we talk about yesterday?” Damon says, “It’s okay, Miss Levy. We already talked. I apologized to Sammy for making fun. I never thought of things from his, um, from like his perspective before.” It’s so mature, I feel like crying. Can I take credit? I taught them about putting yourself in another’s shoes, not part of the curriculum, just mentioned in passing. Did
they pick it up? Did they learn? If only this could factor into my rating. “I’m very pleased to hear that, Damon. It’s very mature of you.” Sammy shoots me a glance and an ambiguous half smile. Maybe they’re just faking me out, just playing nice to avoid consequences, I can’t tell. But it’s the last day of school. I am feeling magnanimous. They are off the hook for two months. My kids and I arrange the desks in a big circle and I talk about summertime volunteer opportunities, as the script requires me to, but I phone that part in. “Most of all, I hope you guys have lots of fun this summer. Go swimming! Catch fireflies! Yes, Madison Y.?” “Miss Levy, like, what are fireflies?” “They’re. . . .” I could fake this. I mean, they’re bugs, obviously. Maybe a kind of moth? The kids won’t know the difference. “To be honest, I’m not one-hundred-percent sure what they are or how they work. Maybe you can find out over the summer, and then you can teach me.” What a great note to end on, all tinged with wonder. The bell rings. My kids pour out of the classroom, and I feel happy and sad and fulfilled and relieved. I loosen my grip on my extinguisher. One child remains. Together we walk to a portable. Sammy is silent all the way. I let us in, open a window, tell him to pick a desk. “Sammy? How are you feeling? Are you ready?” He blinks hard, his mouth pulls, his brave face breaks open in sobs. I stand back helplessly and touch the extinguisher’s release. “Sammy? What’s wrong? Didn’t you study?” “I hate this! I don’t want to do a test!” I approach warily, keeping a safe distance. “I’m sorry. I know. It must seem so unfair, a test on the last day of school. But let’s just get this over with and then you can go and do whatever you want.”
“But what if I fail? What if I fail?” “Did you study?” “I don’t get the questions!” I let the extinguisher drop loosely at my side. But my guts are twisting up. I feel certain I smell smoke. Out of desperation, I decide to take a risk, to try something that could really crater my rating. At this point? Who cares. It’s the last day of school. “Sammy? You know what?” He looks at me, all tears and snot. Breaking my heart. “It’s just a test. You know? It’s just marks on paper. The important thing is that you try. That’s all that really matters in life. That you do your best. What else can you do but your best?” It sounds cornier than I’d hoped, but I guess the last day of school brings out the corny in us all. He dries his tears with his T-shirt sleeve. “But what if I fail?” “Is that the worst thing in the whole world?” “My dad will hate me.” “I’m sure he won’t.” I hear Mr. Gutierrez when Sammy says, “This is the most important test of my life.” It seems my sage words didn’t take. Maybe I wasn’t convincing. Maybe because in fact I know that trying your best won’t fill in the right lozenges, and that the optical marker can’t read effort or integrity or anything but fully shaded HB. Yet I stand by what I said. So I guess the thing to do is to show my own work. Do my best. How would that look? “Actually,” I say, “there will be more important tests.” Then I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing as I place the extinguisher on the educator’s desk, as I leave it there, out of reach. As I walk right over to Sammy, hand him the Cole Academy papers, kneel in his flame space, and say, “You’ll see.” Then I’m really not sure what I’m doing as I pull
around the desk behind his, push the chair backs against one another, and sit, my back to his back, in open violation of many standards and all my training. The safety people would lose it. “I’m just going to sit here until you’re done. Okay?” I turn. He peeks over his shoulder. He nods his head yes. “Okay, get ready. Do you want me to count down?” “Yes, please,” he whispers. “Okay. Here we go.” He whispers a thank you. An unfamiliar calm overtakes me, and I think it might be contagious. He picks up his pencil. I watch the second hand on the clock. “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. Begin.” 96 FICTION
PA U L R O U S T E A U
from Fleurs de Paris - Visions of Joy, Paris, 2012–15
Sarah-Louise Barbett Cindy Lu and Kraig A series of drawings from Louisville
SAR AH-LOUISE BARBET T
SAR AH-LOUISE BARBET T
Cindy Lu and Kraig, Rencontre, 2014
SAR AH-LOUISE BARBET T
Cindy Lu and Kraig, Coussin, 2014 N I K I T A T E R Y O S H I N Untitled 3
SAR AH-LOUISE BARBET T
Cindy Lu and Kraig, Couette, 2014
SAR AH-LOUISE BARBET T
Cindy Lu and Kraig, La Sieste, 2014
SAR AH-LOUISE BARBET T
Cindy Lu and Kraig, Canapé, 2014
Above Ground Pool, 2010
Hannah Loeb Three Poems
The Visible Gate Swim season is almost over. The sarcenet shard of my drag suit, it and you, held me back before. Now, in taper, I cut through water like a knife drawer that’s rigged to catch an inch before it slams, then closes as if drugged or in a dream––that knows its limit, reaches it, and switches to its new speed. I switch to mine, am faster, start to win, take lead. 112 POETRY
In the off-season they take down the flags over outside pools. For my backstroke, I have to learn to estimate and, harder, not to slow as I anticipate the phantom wall about to shove my longest finger back inside itself like a leaf table or an umbrella handle. It doesn’t happen. I keep good count, though sometimes when I turn the wall is closer than I guessed it to have been. That wall: remember? The first time I touched myself, I didn’t. It was the pool, the jet of water, that I straddled, and the thing that touched me was speed. Fasterness, overlapping its own stroke, struck me and I scratched at it
blindly in the visible cement edge of the pool, pretending to examine it for ants.
Now I’ll show you: between two electric yard enclosures, for which the blinky collars no longer need be worn, a visible gate. The flags which marked the perimeter got blown around in the storm, so it floats in the yard mud like the maybe-bow-maybebelly-maybe-stern of an enemy submarine in Battleship. Remember? You are blind, in the game, and can only think how big the thing must be you’ve begun to describe, or have narrowly failed to begin to describe and thereby to win and to sink.
A son would weaken me. I’d pant after him along the ramps of the outdoor museum, see him lean on the railings, half-reading labels, his miraculous shoulders making way for his weight, and I’d be weaker than I was. What’s so great about a boy? He carries a crowbar, he steps into the cold shower, he’s in one house or another, one year or another, a bed is a bed to a boy, a girl could enter, his birth certificate is in a folder in the basement, his childhood terrier is old, vague, arthritic. She’ll die. A boy wants to fly a plane: why? He cries out for vehicles—duckboat, johnboat, Oldsmobile, sportscar—to keep gray her yard grass, I guess. What art would he make? What start make last? I’d be so weak, I’d forget art, except Klimt, my impressionists, easy stuff. Getting along is all I’d do, and gossiping. A mother is a cotton thing, a match for the actual me—her manners lean, her smile like a bent debit card.
House and Car, 2012
In every auditorium from here to California, like dawn the house lights rise, as a morning or a new year would, upon the company. Time to clear the stage is found even during the performance: in the second act the girls wear their real hair, so I drop their braided wigs in the proper box, which Marcel takes to the parking lot well before bows. The giant lion head gets dismantled in the wings. Rapt crowd . . . we tiptoe around them as if they were a napping one: let the sleeping thing stay. Conjugate the keeping verb for whomever–– Exeunt. Manet Titania, asleep. Last night in my dream Marcel reached between my legs for the next prop. I woke warm, abandoned. Standing in the green room I blinked and clutched the sticky leaves of hyacinth and hare-bell and carnation. Everyone else was at dinner–– Exeunt. Manent the lovers. Manet’s what’s moaned about in old age: you wake
to be the only overlap between two scenes. In March, Marcel comes down the stairs of the rehab place and I take him to lunch. He shivers in the fleece I lend him. In Swedish, he says, manet means nettlefish. It makes him remember the tide, at least the way of the tide in the play, which like a veil of sleep draws across the beached margin of the sea and moves Titania to keep that Indian boy: his mother exits without him, after laughing after sails.
117 Â‚ POETRY
BANJO MCL ACHL AN
Sugarcoated Car, 2015
Brian Rattiner Debbie Leigh
She was riding her bike one day and was hit by a car. The driver of the car was drunk and Debbie was killed. She was seventeen and my mom was twenty. I never heard much about her, only knew I must always wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. When I was little I never rode one because I didn’t want to wear a helmet. Now I ride and I always wear one. There were few pictures of her. There was one I remember of my parents standing with her on a cross-country trip. My mother and father showed us slides sometimes and there was the one picture with Debbie. My mom and dad were hippies. They all were. The pictures were beautiful because of the old film and the way it captured light. They stood on a mountain somewhere. I don’t know a single fact about her. I think she played an instrument. My middle name is Leigh like hers, spelled the same way like a girl’s name. So she will be remembered through me in a way, but I should know more about her. I only know she was killed riding her bicycle at seventeen. She was pretty. I guess it’s not surprising how little you learn of a family member who died so young. They were all very close. R
MY MOTHER HAD A SISTER NAMED DEBBIE LEIGH.
Yesterday I got drunk with Jonny in my living room in Brooklyn. Debbie was from Brooklyn, like my mom and dad and grandmother and all of us. We got drunk on whiskey on my living room couch listening to old records. I hadn’t seen Jonny for a while. We smoked pot, and Jonny never smoked pot because it got him anxious, but last night we were both feeling free, very free and happy and we smoked pot. We switched from Indian to French to American records. Jonny studied music and he brought over the Indian one. He had been waiting to hear it for almost a year. Most of the records I have on the shelf are my dad’s from the seventies. He had a good collection. Then there was the box of 45’s. Those were my mom’s. The box they were in was so old it fell apart last year and I nearly threw it out. Instead I took the records out, taped it around the edges with packing tape, and put the records back in it. I remember listening to the 45 of “Do Wah Diddy,” and “Under the Boardwalk,” when we all lived off Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, in my living room, which led out to the terrace where I sat sometimes with my grandfather Martin who we called Motts. His wife is named June and I think this will be the name of my child someday. June is still with us. June Bunin. I took out the box of 45’s to show Jonny. We played one on the player that looked homemade and it sounded to us like demons. I thought it would be a Bar Mitzvah tape. Then we went through them all and I saw something surprising, and I had to stop to get a hold of what it was I had seen. I hadn’t thought of Debbie in a long time, or of the actual fact of her death or of her life. Some of the records said Bunin and some of them said LB. Those were my mother’s initials, LB, before she met my father and got married and changed her last name to what mine is. It was strange seeing that, her old initials. Then I picked
up the Beatles 45 of “Yesterday” and on it were the initials LB in black marker and over the L was a D, scribbled on top of it in blue pen, and it hit me hard what that meant. I imagined the two sisters had a dispute over whose record it was, and Debbie wrote her initial over my mom’s. It was her handwriting, my mother’s dead sister’s handwriting, Debbie Leigh’s, and it was written lightheartedly with the blue pen over the black marker when she was still alive and traced over a few times to be just as thick as the marker was. I sat there quietly looking at it, and then I told Jonny I had something to tell him, that I had seen something I did not expect to. I told him then about my mom’s sister Debbie. Then Jonny took the record in his hand and softly moved his finger over the initials to feel the indents the marks had made and he said that was the kind of thing you wanted to feel and I understood what he meant by that.
D.J. Parris The Plum Blossom
The reason she’s wary around other dogs, together never sure. Taker picture from b’low, square baby blue patch, 777 so high it’s small. 200+ motivated apes 5 miles on the other side uva bigass pink pom pom.
Purple Light by iPhone, 2013
Ume, white/pink “flower,” whose nucleotides spell it but the names.
Kevin Casey The Whole of the Harvest
of the frost-sweetened fruit. And when they’ve decided the season has grown old enough, and the winter should be let to sweep across the valley, branches sway and break in the darkness, and the apples are eaten where they hang, and where they fall, and the whole of the harvest is devoured in a single night, and the fall is over. Staggering back to the hills, bellowing in their moon-grayed fur, they retch up all they’ve eaten, and die into their steaming dens, the orchard left shivering in a dreamless sleep.
N I K I TA T E RYO S H I N
Each fall, you’ll see their tracks that part aside the fading grass around the apple boles— the bears come to the orchard, down from the hills, cold night after night, to test the ripeness
RYA N G O R E Y
College House, 2015
RYA N G O R E Y
Nivea on Park Bench, 2014
AMANDA ME ANS
Food for Work Water Glass 1, 2011
These are uncertain times for Farah’s director of provincial development. For years he’s done next to nothing. But then he had next to nothing for a budget. Change comes hard, and that’s what we represent. He clears his throat again before introducing our team to the governor, just back from Kabul. The governor speaks better English than Baqi or anybody else we’ve met in the province. And certainly nobody dresses like him—pressed gray suit, dress shirt, jeweled, broad-band ring on index finger, no tie, no belt, no socks, leather sandals. It tells you he wasn’t born to money. Not urban money, anyway. Big fish in a small pond, he is not used to foreigners. But having been briefed by the minister without portfolio, he wants to help. The stakes are high, for the rains have failed, and when the water table falls below collection points, irrigation ditches go dry. Rather than dig deeper, the farmers are saying it’s God’s will.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, 1971 BAQI CLEARS HIS THROAT.
AMANDA ME ANS
Water Glass 12, 2004
Well, not everyone has been so accepting; violence is on the upswing. Afghan against Afghan in most cases, but five Westerners have been murdered this year. Lest blame shift toward the government, the minister together with the UN Development Program announced “Food for Work.” The US and other donors will supply wheat, a staple (along with mutton and rice) of the local diet. Underemployed farmers will work for it, so as not to become dependent on the dole. Given corruption and other inefficiencies, the payout would never reach the intended recipients without foreigners at the end of the pipeline. Those foreigners need no special expertise. They only have to be, and behave like, disinterested outsiders. Just the job for the Peace Corps, for people like me. I tell the governor about the projects we’ve surveyed. Our team consists of one German and three American volunteers plus three Afghan engineers. A week into it, we’re ready to go “live.” Begin immediately, he says. He’ll sign the paperwork later. The people can’t wait. A school well and the municipal karez head the list, karezzes being underground irrigation canals common to this part of Afghanistan. We’ll round up the workers, let them choose their foremen. That should require about half our team. Baqi can take them in his pickup. A politician more than an administrator, the governor assures us he’ll be there for the opening ceremonies. I note we couldn’t have done it without Baqi. Flattery makes him stand taller. His hair’s been brushed. Excellent, the governor says. By then we’ve reverted to Pashto. The people are hungry, he adds. How much are we paying them? Baqi and our team have been going back and forth on this. If you pay too much, he cautioned, nobody will work on anything else. He turns to Al, who faces straight ahead, placid and silent. Al is Peace Corps staff, here only to observe. It’s on me to speak. Based on advanced age
(twenty-seven) and time in country (one year), I’ve been designated team leader. UNDP recommended one seer, I report. Seven kilos. That’s for a day’s work. Ooh. The governor chews that over. In Shebergan they pay two and a half kilos, he says. Shebergan lies a day’s drive to the north. The going rate in Farah is half a seer. People are hungry, I remind him. One seer, the math is easy. He thinks about that. Okay, he concedes. One seer. Can we do it? Assuming the wheat arrives, I say. Other assumptions are best left unsaid. A concept is one thing, a shovel another. End of the day, it comes down to people. On its way, he confirms. Nimruz has wheat but no program like ours. Can we start one there? That’s for the minister to say. The governor there—it’s just south of us—is this one’s friend. He stopped to see him on the way here. Apparently our governor promised we’d go to that province next. And, oh—he smiles a sharp smile and clasps his hands together—he’s heard we’re interested in Gulistan and Purchaman, up in the highlands of eastern Farah. I was going to mention that. The team discussed it, and not for the first time, at breakfast. I say we could go as early as today. He nods, saying check with him if we want to go farther than Gulistan. Shouldn’t we? I ask. Purchaman lies beyond Gulistan. Wait until you’ve seen Gulistan. That might be enough. He laughs from deep in his throat. Don’t promise more than you can deliver, he warns with no sense of irony. And don’t let the khans trick you into doing things just for themselves. He ought to know, he admits. He’s a khan himself. A feudal lord. But from the eastern part of the country.
One more thing, he adds. Never drive after dark. Bandits? From Iran, he elaborates in English. Not Farah. Farah people no thief. Trick, yes. Thief, no.
Baqi stays in town with the other half of the team while two Afghan engineers, fellow volunteer Charlie, and I, along with a functionary from the development office, pile into Al’s Travelall van, Al at the wheel. He drove up from Kandahar because this is a pilot project with
Farah is one of four provinces in the initial phase. The Peace Corps is providing twelve volunteers in all, the Germans two, and the ministry of provincial development thirty “engineers,” most of them recent high school graduates. We foreigners trained for ten days, emphasis on math, surveying, teambuilding, and cultural/political sensitivities. Emergency response, lives in the balance— we were stoked, our Afghan counterparts not so much. They showed little interest in going out (or back) to the sticks. For two months only, they were assured; home for the Eid al-Fitr holiday. New hires, they’re at the bottom of the pecking order. Even in their youth they have the cynical air of those accustomed to broken promises. Nobody we knew had ever been to Farah. A two-day drive from Kabul, it was a blank space on the map between Kandahar and Herat. Afghan staff vaguely recalled two volunteers in the provincial capital several years earlier. Communist demonstrators drove them out. The same thing happened more recently to a representative of the World Food Programme. Kabulese who knew Farah at all called it the Red Province. The Peace Corps never went back. The minister gave us a pep talk. Farah should rejoin the fold.
high-level interest. His chatty side comes out when we’re by ourselves, when he holds forth on topics that can range, as they do today, from Persian poetry to Mullah Nasruddin, subject of many an Afghan folktale. A mullah is the Islamic equivalent of a village priest. In some tales Nasruddin is a fool. In others he’s clever. Afghans like it both ways. What strikes me as a contradiction seems as normal as night and day to them. And to Al, for that matter. His banter makes the long, rough ride bearable for our engineers. The development functionary watches closely as those two revel in the give and take. He didn’t know foreigners could be so much fun. We didn’t recognize him at first. He’s a quiet, dusty guy Baqi failed to introduce at the office. We should have insisted. Named Amin, he probably does all the work. It takes both spares to get us the seventy clicks to the paved highway between Herat and Kandahar. Ghulam, the older and more serious of the engineers, and Amin pitch in on the tire changing, as do Charlie and I, though clearly Al has done this many times on his own. The younger engineer, Mahdud, squats in the shade of the Travelall, cracking jokes that elicit strained smiles from Al and Ghulam. Fingers crossed, we cruise the 125 kilometers down the paved road to Delaram, where we refresh ourselves at a teahouse while a repair shop patches the tires. It gives us a chance to ogle two tourist girls off a bus making a rest stop at the teahouse next to ours. WTs, the Peace Corps calls them. World travelers. That’s a pejorative, and we’ve been told to keep our distance. They eye us back in a way that implies they’re open to alternatives. I tease Charlie about it, and Mahdud joins in. Charlie—gangly, trusting, a year out of college, and new to Afghanistan—practically blushes. His curly blond locks, sideburns down to the jaw, probably caught
their attention. Like me and like no one else in Farah, he wears glasses. They aren’t Peace Corps issue; there’s a flare to them, a gold-like plate on the earpieces that flashes in the sun. And he’s tall, you can tell even when he’s sitting. Al’s tall, too, but he’s broad at the beam and naturally tonsured. A man who dangles his prayer beads over the table isn’t going to attract just anybody. He doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t have to. We all know that talking to them would burst the bubble. Peace Corps volunteers— PCVs, we call ourselves—don’t have much standing among WTs. We’re straight. That’s their pejorative. Hips sway and jewelry jangles as the WTs sashay onto the bus. Every male in a hundred yards, and I see no other females, is taking it in. Two Jesus lookalikes get on behind. They must have been over by the shops. Hashish, laissez-faire, low cost of living, and an exotic locale have marked Afghanistan for the hippie trail. Fifty dollars will buy a bus ticket from London to Kabul. Another twenty-five will get you to Kathmandu, the ultimate in peace, love, and harmony. This is not one of those buses, however. The other passengers are Afghan. Finally I spot a few local women, their faces pressed to the back window. No bathroom break for them. Leaving a cloud of exhaust in its wake, the bus pulls onto the road for Kandahar. Our tires are still getting patched, so we have a second round of lukewarm Fantas. A Coca-Cola bottling plant opened, to great excitement, in Kabul this summer. Tea is cheaper and a time-honored tradition, but those who can afford it spring for brand-name effervescence, a connection to the world outside. Al can’t be much older than me though he looks it, not only because of his bald spot and middle-aged spread. I mean he gives the impression he understands how he— and we—fit into the scheme of things. He spoke Hungarian at home as a kid, in college he majored in German, and before Afghanistan he’d been an Arabic-speaking
AMANDA ME ANS MEANS
Water Glass 9, s A M A N D A Water Glass 10, 2004 (right)
volunteer and then Peace Corps staff in Libya. He admits he should be checking on the other volunteers he’s responsible for, but it’s not every day he goes on an expedition like this. His other volunteers are teaching school or have been at their jobs for more than a year. He claims they’re better off without him. More independent. This trip gives him an opportunity to talk to Afghans outside their shops and offices. He drops puns in Pashto as well as Dari, the country’s other main language, and even our counterparts defer to him on etymology. Now, while we retrieve our tires, they want to talk about WTs. Because travelers tend to linger in Kabul, Mahdud’s home town, he’s looking for pickup lines. He says, with a laugh to show he’s joking, he’ll start by saying I love you. Better to say you’re rich, I advise. No, Charlie says, tell them you have a farm. Really? Mahdud asks. Say you grow your own.
Mahdud strokes his longish hair while he ponders that. Endowed with the air of a favorite son, he’s not poor. Recently shined shoes and a sheepskin jacket bought with money his father gave him as a going-away present confirm it. Both also confirm he is not rich. Rich men, or their sons, don’t come to a place like this on a job like this. I wouldn’t call him middle-class, either, with all that implies. I’d say he’s a young man who would like to be, once he discovers how, on the make.
Delaram is in Nimruz province, but a road out the back leads to eastern Farah. We get off the pavement there, hoping the tires hold up. Proceeding cautiously, it takes us three hours to cover the sixty kilometers—nearly all of them uphill—to Gulistan. The uneven terrain hints of some prehistoric, or prospective, upheaval, and the scattered plants that texture it emit the dull sheen of pressed flowers, the ground so hard-baked and untrodden it keeps the dust down. The lowlands were sandier, shiftier, better adjusted. A trickle, the first surface water we’ve seen in the province, flows in a streambed the road follows for the final leg of our journey. There’s enough water in that stretch to nurture livelier flora and even a few houses. A girl trit-trots out from one with a jug on her shoulders. Seeing us, she slows down to watch. She remains in that position, diminishing into the horizon. Grows her own, Mahdud quips. The highlands have crept up on us. They’re more rounded, less jagged, than the ridges near Farah town. A hint of green illuminated by the late afternoon sun mixes with gray on the upper slopes. More houses, and then Gulistan town appears. Hills rise behind its one street, pinching the view. There’s a teahouse and a few shops, most of them closed. The acting district chief steps into the street. Unlike
the other men in sight, he wears Western slacks and the sport coat expected of government officials. He’s young, not much older than Al. He’d been watching a shop that sells cigarettes, candles, salt, soap, and sundries, doing it for his brother who went home—he gestures toward the other end of town—for dinner. Anyway, he knew we were coming and invites us into the district reception hall. He leaves the shop untended, confident that no one he knows—and we’re the only strangers— would take advantage. We enter a room the size of the governor’s office but without the furniture. We take turns going to a stone outhouse in the back and then sloshing our hands in a rivulet down from the street. The water is clearer and cooler but not necessarily cleaner than that which we drew from our well in Farah town. In a redundant but appreciated courtesy, a servant brings an ewer, basin, fresh bar of soap, and hand towel into the room. He pours; we wash. Like us, he leaves his shoes at the door. He returns with bread direct from the oven and then goes for the rest of the meal, which he sets on a plastic mat in front of cushions that line the walls. We sit cross-legged, Afghan style. The stew is made from fat-tailed mutton like that which we had every day in the lowlands, though this version contains more onion and less potato than we’re used to. Between mouthfuls we describe the program to our host, who’s already eaten and so takes only tea. The district chief went to see the governor, he says. He doesn’t know how we missed him. He bids us goodnight, and we sleep where we ate. I keep my legs warm under my sleeping bag while I write in the journal our country director asked me to keep for “lessons learned.” Knowing there’ll be no time for that, I do it for myself, for the discipline. Not until I flick off the flashlight do I realize the lantern that the servant brought after dinner has gone out. Although the district office has a generator and a lightbulb hangs from the ceiling, they’re
conserving fuel in case the governor visits. He came once, his inaugural tour. The entire crew is asleep. It can’t be that late but I’m not sure. I left my watch and other nonessential gear in Kabul. I needed it last year when I taught English in a village outside of Jalalabad. The school had no electricity, so we synchronized with Kabul Radio. In Farah farmers go by the sun, moon, and stars. That works because it rarely clouds over. Ghulam, Mahdud, and Amin wear watches, as do Al and Baqi. But when will Charlie and I get another chance to live without a timepiece? There’s no escaping it: the counterculture extends even to us straights, even to Gulistan. 144 NONFICTION
Used to be, American kids followed in their parents’ footsteps. Only headstrong or desperate youths set off in the opposite direction. Nowadays it’s the majority. Last winter my father wrote to see if I was interested in taking over the coal, feed, and lumber yard that had been in the family since the Civil War. My grandfather was getting old, and they had an offer for the land. I knew that’d be coming, eventually. I just didn’t expect it so soon, and from so far away. They worked five days a week, half day on Saturday. Because Grandpa couldn’t run things by himself anymore, my father hadn’t taken a vacation in eight years. The day my draft notice arrived he told me I was making more than he ever did. I was a junior accountant, one week out of college, and he hoped I’d do the smart thing, the safe thing, with the Reserves or the Guard. Sell, I wrote back. He’d seen the signs. He just wanted to make sure. This summer the new owners tore everything down. They’re replacing it with a self-service gas station. My grandfather retired to his rose garden, and my father
Sunday We divide into two groups so we can cover more ground. Charlie, Mahdud, Amin, and a few elders go down the valley. Ghulam, Al, the acting district chief, hangers-on, and I head upstream to survey potential projects. The main type we can support is re-covering creek-bed karezzes the locals call chalks. We will try to give the same amount of work and of course pay the same rate to each village. They want it done with mortar and cement. No can do, we tell them. Transport is expensive, and cement is one and done. Local materials would be all theirs, and they could replicate the process. Each of our two groups finds itself at a meal prepared by a separate village. In one sense our hosts can’t afford it. In another they can’t afford not to try and build a bond. We’re creatures of our cultures, and theirs requires them to welcome strangers. Midafternoon our two groups run into each other in
found work at an insurance company. Neither has much regard for the Peace Corps because they associate it with Kennedy. They have the same problem with Vietnam. They’re old-fashioned conservatives who oppose all foreign entanglements. I go for a good-night pee behind the outhouse. It is early, I can tell, because lanterns and candles flicker in the street. The elevation gain has brought us a half mile closer to the stars. It makes them appear sharper, their twinkle crisper. A subtle but pervasive glow emanates from the ground itself. No need for flashlights. Like the ridgeline above, they narrow the vision. The farther I get from town, the clearer I think I think. It was the same in Vietnam. As an auditor there, I checked on others. Advised them, really. This beats that. We’re the instigators here.
the street. Charlie, with support from Amin and Mahdud, has kept on message. He may seem callow but he’s solid, seemingly impervious to pressure. Mahdud does better when his colleagues from Kabul aren’t around to impress. I suspect Amin helps with that. Amin may be a nebbish— he sure looks the part—but he knows a lot, and he doesn’t seem to be gaming us the way his boss Baqi usually is. We go over our assessments with the acting district chief. We like that he doesn’t try to push us into pet projects or big ones beyond our competence. He lets us use the district phone to call the governor. The governor wants to talk with him first. Bali bali, the acting district chief keeps saying. Yes, yes. Maybe he can’t speak freely because we’re standing right next to him. Or maybe that’s what you say to the governor no matter what you’re going to do, or not do. I get on the line to describe the projects. In the morning we’ll look at a few more. The governor says he told the chief to go ahead with anything that meets our approval. He’s champing at the bit. This is prelim, I explain. Baqi needs to sign off. Baqi works for me! the Governor practically shouts. I put a few inches between the phone and my ear. What he doesn’t say is Baqi also reports to the minister in Kabul. And what’s his name—the governor pauses—works for Baqi. Amin, I say. Is he giving you problems? No, no. But the farmers have to choose their foreman. The foreman has to agree to the specs. The chief will follow up. The governor snorts. He’s been great, I attest. In the meantime we’ll return to Farah town, double-check the math, complete the forms, set priorities, coordinate the teams, arrange for wheat deliveries, and then send a couple of guys here to
Monday After finishing on-site inspections and devising an overall plan for Gulistan valley, we load the van, follow the road past where we hiked the day before, and take a fork that leads north up the ridge to Purchaman. Gulistan the town and then the valley recede from view. We keep climbing. Far above, from what appears to be the crest, a solitary figure stands in our path, legs spread, arms folded, watching us. Wrapped in a cape blacker than anything we’ve seen in this province, the man looms like a prophet
get the earth moving. Might take a few days. The governor tells me to head back after tomorrow’s lunch. See him that evening. I remind him we haven’t gone to Purchaman. There’s a pause. Governor? It’s on the other side of the mountain! he exclaims, his voice made both rougher and smoother by the connection. How would you get the wheat there? Isn’t there a road? Not much of one, he says. We got this far. It’s your decision. Aren’t they hungry, too? They don’t use karezzes, he answers. Chalks, I guess. Another snort. Asked what they do use, he says there’s a schoolhouse in need of repair, a new roof or something, and they’ll probably show us wells they haven’t maintained. The parliamentary representative from the area—the Wakil— keeps asking for roads. And guess who owns the only private vehicle in the district? The governor chuckles. That’s our little secret.
here to urge our repentance. A white turban adds to the effect. He’s huge, with a salt-and-pepper beard the size and shape of a wreath. The glimmer in his eyes brightens, as though reflecting the sun on his face, with our approach. He doesn’t need to squint because he’s looking down at us coming up. Finally, as we rise to his level, he shades his eyes with his hand. Behind him a second man is bent under the hood of a Russian jeep. They’re not on the ridgetop, as I thought from lower down. Higher crests have come into view. The man in black flaps his hand for us to stop, as if we could pass this spectacle by. And so we meet the Wakil. He was traveling to Gulistan when his jeep failed. On the downhill side. That makes him laugh. He swats at the dust on his cape, the little there is of it. The road here is green with grass and gray with rock. This is not the Farah of the lowlands, where no one would consider such a get-up. Good God, the cape is wool. Unfastened, like something Dracula or a bullfighter might affect, it accentuates girth and gesture. Under it he wears salwar kameez, the combo long-sleeve tunic and baggy trousers common to the area, his a silky white that matches the turban on top. Saying he has responsibilities as a host—no American has ever come this way before—the Wakil insists on accompanying us. His rollicking voice picks up the merriment in his face, the crinkling around his eyes. Although the acting district chief told us the phone to Purchaman was out, and we’ve seen no transmission line, the Wakil acts as if he’d been waiting for us. You can’t be surprised, Al notes, if you have no expectations. For a man like the Wakil, something always comes along. He ensconces himself on the middle bench, forcing the rest of us to squeeze together. With that cape and what’s under it, he takes the place of two. He breathes heavily and is already telling Al which way to go. For all his joviality we foreigners have taken an instant dislike to
the man. Speaking only when spoken to, Al rubs the back of his neck with one hand while keeping the other on the wheel. Charlie—half smile, eyes cocked—goes silent. The word wakil can mean lawyer, and the man is so much better off than the people we’ve been sent to help. We’re not the only ones to get our noses out of joint. His oblivious, imperious manner has Mahdud and Ghulam muttering to each other. Only Amin seems unperturbed, but then he has no one to confide in, and he’s not one to show his hand. It’s the Wakil, not Amin, who mentions they’ve met—last year in the Governor’s office. He leaves his driver with the busted jeep. No wonder it broke down. Switchbacks are for sissies: this road heads straight up. It is barely differentiated from the mountain. With the new rider’s extra weight, our Travelall suffers vapor lock many times over. On several occasions we have to get out and walk. Roads help everybody, the Wakil declares as he strains to keep up. Truckers. Taxi drivers. Us. Look at yourselves, he says between huffs and puffs, his hands propped on his knees. Don’t be tired. Russians. Russians? He smiles, lifting his eyebrows. The exercise has turned his complexion ruddy. Farmers, he adds. Traders. Police. With a real road maybe even the governor might visit! That gets him laughing. You and he friends? I ask as we wait for Al to bring up the Travelall. That keeps the Wakil laughing. Covering all bases, he quizzes Ghulam, Mahdud, and Amin about Food for Work and how they got into it. Meanwhile Charlie has been asking our counterparts about rural engineering. They teach, he learns, and it gets Ghulam and Mahdud out of their funk. We go for hours without sign of people, houses, or vehicles. The sun to our
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rear balances the cool, almost subalpine, air. Each high point we approach leads to speculation that Purchaman lurks just over the ridge. That too makes the Wakil laugh. He knows the barren saddles that lie between. At last Purchaman reveals itself, low and with barely enough cohesion to qualify as a town. Row upon row of slate-colored mountains rise behind it to the east. They get higher as they get farther. Is that snow? I ask. It could be haze. Or clouds. Yes, Mahdud affirms. Bamiyan mountains have snow all year. Appropriate to the conversation, he’s donned his new jacket. Posteen is the word for it; in Kabul tourist shops sell them. He tugs the fleece-trimmed collar tight around his neck. In Bamiyan men may actually wear posteens without preening. Oruzgan, Ghulam counters. No snow. Mahdud says he’s been to Bamiyan. He should know. Amin mentions a mountain in Farah has snow. He saw it on the drive here. Had he known of our interest, he would have pointed it out. We were busy with the carburetor then. Mahdud asks if I know the Dari word for snow. I say the Pashto. Dari, he insists. Every volunteer knows it: barf, which is also the brand name for the country’s detergent. We have a box at the house. He says it. He laughs and then translates the English into Dari for the Afghans. Their smiles suggest they’re embarrassed for him. We spend the night in the district capital, again all in one room as arranged by the Wakil, who sleeps elsewhere. The District Chief checks in before dinner. Not so dapper as his counterpart in Gulistan, he wears the same dun-colored salwar kameez as nearly everyone else. On
him they could pass for pajamas. He has no projects in mind; he recommends asking the villagers. I don’t think he takes us seriously. He speaks in Dari, which Mahdud and Ghulam prefer. Al says it’s closer to the modern Farsi spoken in Iran than to the Dari you hear in Kabul. He translates for Charlie and me. We dip bread into sautéed vegetables—eggplant and squash—unavailable in the lowlands. Ghulam nods a grudging approval. He, Amin, and Mahdud are anxious to return. They don’t want to get between the Wakil and the governor. Amin, a small man in his thirties, his short hair and beard already turning gray, has the look of a guy who isn’t going to get anywhere in this world except through longevity. Baqi sent him to get out of going himself. I remind him he’s the director’s field representative. We need his buy-in. He thinks about that. It’s better than a flat-out no. Tuesday Ghulam and Mahdud are first to rise. The blankets they slept under drape across their shoulders, and a steelblue sleeveless sweater under Ghulam’s sport coat lends color to his wardrobe. Mahdud’s elbows press into his posteen for warmth while he and Ghulam rub their hands together like cowpokes around a campfire. Seeing me peek out of my sleeping bag, Mahdud booms good morning in Pashto. The sun streams through the window, capturing cream-colored motes in its rays. I pull on a sweater that had been my father’s until the moths got to it. My trousers are old dress greens, my boots government issued for the jungle but just as good in the desert. Charlie goes out in a light jacket and comes back patting his arms. His cheeks are rosy. Having sweltered on Farah’s plains, he’s
Steep and rugged, the road is too much for the van. We have to abandon it near the top of a pass. Just as well, Al remarks. We’re running low on fuel. As on yesterday’s route, grass grows among the rocks. These higher elevations must get more rain, or dew. The descent is gradual, parallel to the ridgeline and with a view of Lerband all the way down. The village at the bottom strikes us as very beautiful. The Wakil’s eyes beam to see us take it in. Willows and poplars line a streambed. Above it,
disappointed. He thought there’d be frost. You can see your breath, I console him. Even inside. Now we know why the Wakil wears a cape. A servant carries in warm bread and hot tea that ease us through the chill. The district chief slips out of his sandals and comes in. After the greetings, most of them in Dari, he asks a question I don’t understand. He asks again. Pashto! Mahmud interjects. He (meaning me) doesn’t know Dari. The chief smiles. We told him that last night. In Pashto he asks if we’ll do wells. Yes, indeed. Schools? Anything to get the wheat out. He addresses me as Enjunyair Sayib: Mr. Engineer. No, no, I explain. That’s our counterparts. They’re comfortable with the title. They earned it in school. Ghulam describes the program more fully than we did over dinner, Mahdud commenting from time to time, and Amin fills in from his department’s perspective. They do it in both Dari and Pashto. The chief ’s eyes glaze over. Enter the Wakil, cape and all. You think this place is poor, he says, having figured how to work us, you ought to see the next valley—Lerband. He’ll show us. The district chief wags his head, meaning he’ll stay, thank you.
houses separated by mulberry trees form a checkerboard. The buildings are not so bunched as in Gulistan or even Purchaman. We don’t see a single shop. Our arrival draws residents into the one street, which bends and dips with the lay of the land. In order of proximity to us, boys, girls, men, and a few women stare. They’ve never seen the like. Tsangaye, I say, Pashto for how are you? Charlie says it, too. Staire mashay, I persist. Don’t be tired. Boys titter to hear such an accent. I say it again. A man repeats it back to me like you’re supposed to. He’s a farmer, brown-bearded and gaunt with gaps in his teeth. Barefoot. Heck, they’re all farmers or shepherds, most of them clothed in gray—a pale gray, like the rocks at our feet. The boys’ outfits are darker, like wet stone, probably because they’re newer. The girls and women get red, green, and black. No washed-out colors for them. The man and I shake hands. Everything good? How’s the health? The family? So on and so on. We keep shaking. Other men step forward. We’re all shaking hands. I even hear Ghulam and Mahdud talking Pashto. Like Charlie and me, they can get by if they have to. Then they burst out laughing—they’ve discovered the farmers’ first language is Dari. Remember the roads, the Wakil implores. He’s afraid we’re turning into tourists. Remember how you had to walk here. Representative doesn’t really capture his status. Educated in Herat and then Kabul, he’s a khan-and-ahalf. Lerband happens to be his home village, a fact he failed to mention until we set foot in it. Elders greet him, holding his hand in theirs. One drops to his knees to kiss it. He takes credit for bringing aid-givers from America and engineers from Kabul. Lord of the manor, he invites us to dinner and then goes off to alert the womenfolk.
That leaves us with the villagers. Their focus is the soil, and you might think they’d ask for more than forty meters of “chalk” to cover in a dry ravine. Then you realize our unexpected, incomprehensible visit can’t overcome a lifetime of making do. Initiative, if any, must come from the Wakil. Villages are like people. Each has its own personality. The next one over wants a karez. They saw our procession filing down the pass and sent elders to investigate. Not as close to the Wakil’s heart as Lerband, they try harder. When he comes out to see how things are going, Al expresses concern about time. He has meetings in Herat, and the Peace Corps director will want an update. Al knows we can’t just eat and run. We have to look at some projects. The Wakil understands. He arranges for horses and tells the women we’ll be dining early. He says he’d go with us but doesn’t want to get in our way. The horses are blanketed but unsaddled. Thankfully, because the trail is narrow and rocky, they also happen to be docile. Although we Americans would find walking easier, it would be rude to decline the offer. Besides, we’ll probably never get to work on horseback again. The villagers want to clear out a collapsed karez with dynamite, but we don’t do dynamite. We remind them the more man-days they put in, the more wheat they’ll earn. They don’t say yes or no. They’re wondering if it’s negotiable. You’d think they’d jump at the chance. Only the Wakil, resting at his homestead, carries excess poundage. Even he is far from obese. Nobody is starving that we can see. These are poor people who have cinched their waist cords a knot tighter. But when they’re hungry, Al reminds us, they’re more susceptible to disease. They’ve started to eat their seed grain as well as the sheep, their principal store of wealth. The price of mutton has fallen. The animals are leaner. There’s a push to sell before they lose more weight
and the price falls further. The farmers appear to lack energy, Al says, because they’re conserving it, hunkering down. They have no experience with foreigners, and the little they’ve had with their government was not fruitful. They’re wary of tricks, of Mullah Nasruddin in disguise. At dinner the Wakil is unhappy to hear we looked at karezzes instead of roads. He knew he shouldn’t have left us. We’re in too much of a hurry, he counsels. Spreading ourselves too thin. But not such a hurry that we miss a meal. This one is the best yet: pilau with raisins and carrot slivers atop a communal mound of rice, a fist-sized hunk of mutton underneath. We dig in, as always with right hand only, and supplement it with bread and a sauce made from dried buttermilk chunks soaked in water of dubious quality. No tea is served, only water in glasses. Al partakes. He’s been partaking all along. Don’t drink the water, the Peace Corps doctor stressed in training. Lay off the strawberries. Lettuce, too. I adhered to his advice in Jalalabad and still I got sick. Repeatedly. Al shrugs. Up to us, he says. Charlie and I look at each other. Until now, we relied on tea. Or you can use your iodine, Al adds. That’s in the medical kits back at our house. The Wakil notices our hesitation. Deep well, he assures us. His, not the village’s. Charlie and I go for it. We finish with melon sliced into cubes the color of lime sherbet and every bit as sweet. We ride the horses to the pass as the sun sets over the ridge and a chill transforms the air. This time the Wakil goes with us, cozy in his cape. Ghulam unpacks his blanket and sweater while Charlie, Mahdud, and I put on our jackets. Both Amin and Al get by with sport coats. We must be living right because the Travelall is where
we left it, rested and of a piece. Starts right up. Al puts it in neutral whenever he can. Darkness overtakes us as we descend into Purchaman. Two Russians in town are as surprised to see us as we are to see them. Haggard and hard, they have the spent, smudged faces of miners emerging from a shaft. Prospecting, the Wakil informs us. Someday we’ll all be rich. He laughs. Coal? I guess. Mercury, he thinks. Al knows the word. They have a permit from the Ministry of Mines. They nod greetings but don’t respond to English, Dari, Pashto, or smiles. Unshaven, they are as gray and dirty as the farmers. Good bet we are too. Because the religious leaders just recently permitted mirrors, the only kind in circulation are rearviews on vehicles, and Afghan drivers adjust the angle to reflect themselves. The fascination with their own visages makes travel an even greater adventure than it already is. It seems every adult male for miles has come to see the Americans. We brief the district chief, and then the Wakil, in a voice too low for eavesdropping, does it from his perspective. He starts chortling. His belly quivers. The chief chortles, too. Dinner is served in the great room. I don’t know how they determine who gets to eat, but it’s done without argument. Those who make the cut have more gray and less white to their beards than we’ve seen on our interlocutors in the lowlands. Did the old guys stay home? Or do they just look younger? Or don’t live as long? Whatever, right hands make fast work of a slowcooked meal, then our hosts rise to do the atan, the national dance. With their strong encouragement we foreigners join in. Everybody goes round in a rhythmic circle. Bob and weave, twist and turn, it’s an Afghan hokey-pokey, hands down when in, high when out.
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Twirling and clapping is permitted. Go get ’em, Al! Even Charlie lets loose. You can hoot. You can holler. You can make eye contact. You can fix off in space. Just when I think it doesn’t get much better than this, for Afghans as well as Americans—Russians, too—that this is the definitive Peace Corps moment, the recruiting poster we all signed up for, the Wakil loudly asks me to teach the people of Purchaman my country’s national dance. Ah, I confess, we don’t really have one. Ah, the men around him respond, you just don’t want to teach us. What about our Soviet friends? I parry. Maybe they have a national dance. The Wakil looks one way, I another. Sorawi! a man calls out the word for Soviet. Sorawi! Our northern neighbors have slipped out. Charlie shakes his head to say he can’t help. Al watches from the back, taking mental notes. His sly smile makes me think he put the Wakil up to this. Maybe it’s a secret, someone pipes up. The superpowers don’t want to share. Okay, I announce as that notion gains currency, everybody get in line. Behind me. I teach them the bunny hop. Hands on hips, step to the left. Do it again. Step to the right. So nice we’re gonna do it twice. Hands on hips of the man in front of you, take one hop back. Three hops forward. Bali, bali. In a barely lit room reeking of sweat, grease, mutton, tobacco, dust, and kerosene, these grizzled mountain men take to it with a verve I never would have imagined. On the hop hop hop the whole room quakes. It’s the boys’ night out. They’re doing something nobody else in this country has ever done. Or even heard about. No mullahs present, and anyway Mohammed never banned the bunny
hop. Ghulam, Mahdud, and Amin find themselves in the mix—it’s inescapable—but, like the men of the office they are or will become, hold something back. Caught poking their heads in the door, the Russians have to join in too. Part of them revels in it, and part of them looks as if, even here, Big Brother might be watching. Don’t worry, Al says later as our team beds down in the great room; my lips are sealed. Wednesday
The servant arrives with bread and tea. The chief follows, asking about our plans. Finally the Wakil rolls in. No tea, thanks. He’s had his. With a shake of the shoulders and an exuberant sigh he carves a space for himself between Ghulam and the chief. Hop hop hop, he says with a wink. Nobody picks up on it. Instead, we cycle through the greetings. All business. He looks us each in the eye. No roads? he asks. I nod. That brings a chuckle. He knew it. So he’s been talking to the chief, who’s been talking to the people, and they’d be most appreciative if we could help with karezzes. This time he’ll serve as our escort. No horses this time. It’ll be on foot. The chief tags along, and as we make our way up the valley I realize I underestimated him. The farmers who approach us talk to the Wakil—he’s hard to avoid—but they also seek out their district chief. I reckon they see him as more likely to follow up, and in his deference to their wishes he’s a democrat by default. Maybe the Wakil is, too, by extension. The karezzes turn out to be more ambitious than he indicated. We thought he was talking rehab. The farmers want new ones, from sources way off in the hills. We’re determined to start small, especially this far from home.
Our entourage grows with each stop, as the citizenry would rather join our traveling show than hang back with the same boring, bleating sheep and unyielding, unforgiving soil. Many of them don’t even own the fields they tend. The village headman does. Or somebody in Gulistan, Delaram, Kandahar, wherever. At my insistence we press on to the village where the school has fallen into disrepair. It needs a new roof, the Wakil states as we enter the outskirts. He’s looking around for it as are we, only he’s pretending he isn’t. That could explain his lack of enthusiasm. And doors, the headman takes over. Glass for the windows, he adds. The snow stays all winter. I ask if there’s a teacher. Yes. How many? Two. Sometimes three. Boys only? Yes. Grades one to five. I turn to the villagers. Is it a priority? I ask. The men nod perfunctorily. They look to the Wakil, the chief, and their headman for clues while trying to make sense of our presence. They doubt this will come to anything. How many have sons in school? I ask, daughters being out of the question. Most raise their hands. It’s tentative, though. Are they there now? More hesitation. I call their bluff: Let’s go see. They smile at each other. Mahdud shakes his head no. It’s a long walk, the Wakil interjects, reasserting his primacy. His face above the beard glows like Old St. Nick’s, and sweat glistens on his forehead. Earlier he handed his cape to the chief, who passed it to his factotum to carry.
AMANDA ME ANS
Water Glass 11, 2004
For a village school? The Wakil points up the valley. The governor wanted it there. Your friend. The last governor. The teachers went to Herat, a villager says. Farah, the headman corrects. He means the provincial capital. To get their salary, the chief explains. We take a pass on the school. What the villagers really need is wells. It’s a rare family that hasn’t lost at least one child to disease. One beat-down farmer lost all four of his to what sounds like dysentery. They drink from the same ditch they wash in. Comes from the hills, he says. Good water. There’s a plea to his voice. He wants affirmation. I ask if he’d like a well. He shrugs. Wells are seen as a convenience, not a necessity, a help for the women more than the men. The idea would generate greater interest if we supplied drills, pumps, concrete, and dynamite in part because it makes the work easier and in part, I think, because materials provide an opportunity for pilferage. It may also be a boys-with-their-toys thing. Wells are risky, the Wakil explains. You may or may not strike water. A new well can rob from an existing one. Without equipment to go deep, the water may or may not be clean. It may or may not last through the dry season. People won’t use it if another source is closer. Irrigation benefits only the landowners. They’re already rich. Like me, he adds, laughing. And you too. He slaps the headman on the shoulder. Someday you’ll be as rich as me. The headman frowns at such talk in front of the villagers. His expression, indeed, his whole bearing, recalls the farmer in American Gothic. Al checks his watch. We have to be going. No meal? the headman asks. He finds good and bad in that but mostly finds it hard to believe.
We’ll be back, I promise. Speaking of hard to believe. Despite downcast faces, slumped shoulders, limp grips, and affectless voices, everybody shakes hands and says the right things because it’s what you do and you never know. I know one thing. We’re going to try. Farmers along the path move toward us and then pause. Our determined strides make clear we’re not stopping. The Wakil waves as he passes. Salaam aleikum. Waleikum salaam, they reply. Staire mashay, they add if they’re Pashtun. He dabs his brow with the tail of his turban, though the pace is not so brisk he can’t talk. Roads offer the surest return and the broadest benefit, he argues. Build a road and the vehicles will come. Fertilizer in, crops out. Maybe even the education department will send the salaries! That gets him laughing again. Gravity pulls us along. He asks if I know Baqi. Do you? His smile says yes and maybe even favorably. He slows down to get in step with Al. Those two have hit it off. I should appreciate being left by myself and in front like this. I think best when walking, in silence and outdoors. But the peasants’ scrutiny reminds me that for them this is no walk in the park. They’re looking for relevance. On the way up Al talked me into the trickle-down approach. The most we can do is avert starvation and help improve the infrastructure. When and if that happens, social pressure will spread benefits to the poor. We cannot work directly with the peasantry. They defer to the headman, and headmen rarely let us out of their sight. Malik is the word even foreigners use to capture their status. Maliks are deputized villagers who, like the district chief, can be called to account. The Wakil, in contrast, reports to no official, as near as
we can tell. Sure, he knows people in high places. And his landholdings allow him to live large by local standards. As case in point, he’s made the pilgrimage to Mecca, thereby earning the honorific haji sayib, which adds to the homage that comes from being the parliamentary representative. Obligations come with that status, however. They seem to take up more time than money. Never, in those few moments I’ve found myself alone with the sharecropping majority, have I been able to elicit any suppressed yearning for land reform. They will have to make their own revolution, for we outsiders can do nothing without the government’s connivance. Europe might have been like this 800 years ago. Mr. Light, are you sad? That’s Ghulam. He and Mahdud hustle to catch up. Afghans believe solitude leads to despair. Not anymore, I say with a smile. I start to add we’re together even when we’re apart and then I realize the opposite also holds true. Neither of them wants us taking on projects here in the back of beyond. Ghulam sees the need but won’t stand up to Mahdud. I ask if they’ve taken good notes. Everything! Ghulam exclaims. He and Mahdud show me the results. Ghulam has more writing, in a neat Dari script, while Mahdud relies more on sketches. Very good, Mahdud says in English. Anybody can use it. You two are the experts, I say. They shake their heads and tell me in school they studied roads, bridges, wells, and irrigation canals but nothing about karezzes. They’d never seen one before Farah. The Wakil is right, Ghulam adds. Purchaman needs a road. Want to be in charge of it? I ask. You’re in charge, Ghulam snaps. We’ll talk later, in private. Some of it’s me, team leader
who talks too much at decision time. And some of it’s the system. The one he bought into, the only one available, is riddled with workarounds. Mahdud smiles the smile of the unbeholden. At least Amin has been helpful, always ready to explain our program to the locals. I don’t think he’s worked outside of the office before. Yet he and the district chief seem to know each other. All four hands are clasped in goodbye when we get to the Travelall, and both officials are more animated than I’ve seen them. I ask Amin about it as we board: they were classmates at the province’s only secondary school, in Farah town. The van strains on the climb from Purchaman. No vapor lock, but Al worries we’ll run out of gas. And, knock on wood, no flat tires since Delaram. We’re going too slow for that. A last, wistful look at the mountains to our rear prompts me to ask Amin about Farah’s own snowy mountain. It lies ahead but is obscured by clouds, the first we’ve seen since Kabul. They’re dry clouds formed, it would seem, from dust off the flatlands that stretch deep into Iran. With no pollution or moisture to sustain them, the sun burns through. He explains the snow was in prior years. The little that fell this winter didn’t last. Volunteers aren’t allowed to drive. Only staff. Al drives on, coasting all the way, while his passengers drift into daydreams and naps. The Wakil’s jeep and driver are no longer where he left them, but he is unconcerned and of course finds them again in Gulistan. We get there on fumes, buy what little gas they will sell us, and siphon it into the tank. There we hear the Governor has been transferred. We’re also told UNDP has descended on Farah town. They want us to return today, but it’s getting dark, and we remember the now-departed governor’s warning about bandits. We’ll leave at dawn, too early to meet the district chief. He’s due back tomorrow or the day after, or he might stay to greet the new governor, the acting
chief isn’t sure. He knew we’d be coming—the Purchaman chief got through on the phone. Chicken tonight, the first we’ve had in Farah. Proof, Ghulam says, his eyes on mine, the lowlands need us more. I waggle the leg bone I’ve been gnawing. Truth is, I’m loving this more than I should. Later
Charlie was eager to get out on his own, Amin was also starting to like the separation though he had no say in it, and Mahdud surprised everyone by volunteering to go back. With help from the Wakil and the district chiefs, they completed all that we surveyed and then some, the task made easier because the villagers were grateful and isolation spared them from invidious comparisons. UNDP brought revised forms, ice cream in a cooler, and two beers apiece for us Westerners. They then left for Herat, as did Al. The next day, at our first wheat distribution, a riot erupted because some claimants had the same name, they wouldn’t line up, not every claimant’s coupons matched the stubs we gave the granary manager, and he couldn’t read our writing in any event. Students unfurled red banners demanding work, wheat, and bread. Men carrying shovels gathered behind. They marched, they chanted, and in the midst of all that Baqi assaulted the acting governor, a weightlifter who could have squashed Baqi like a bug but who was politic enough to let me hold him back. Baqi was summoned to Kabul. Once the new governor arrived and we revamped procedures, everybody wanted in, even after we lowered the pay rate. By then influence peddlers were promising friends, family, and men of means a position at the head of the queue. Our landlord tried to evict us. Accusations were made, pressures brought to bear, and our town team was stoned when it limited the number of diggers on a
AMANDA ME ANS
Water Glass 1, 2004
ditch. Their engineer quit. Ghulam quit. I got so sick I stopped eating for a week going on two. The town doctors said it was malaria. The minister without portfolio and the UNDP’s country director helicoptered in, unannounced, to check on progress. I asked for a medevac. Thin to begin with, I was down to skin and bones. Al returned the day after that. He said the whites of my eyes were orange, like a pumpkin. My urine was as opaque as Fanta. Hepatitis, he diagnosed, and he drove me to Kabul. As Eid al-Fitr approached, the minister recalled the teams for redeployment. The program was expanding into nine more provinces. To keep up with demand the Peace Corps brought in a new wave of volunteers who were redirected to other countries when Pakistan impounded the wheat. Another group arrived after the Paks relented. The US aid agency got involved, and Peace Corps Washington replaced our country director. The wheat would be given gratis, no labor required. Food for Work was rebranded Operation Help. Conditions got worse, far worse, before they got better. The drought ended, sort of, and after a while the program did, too. As for me, I lay low through New Year’s and then led an all-Afghan team into a province at the other end of the country. Before going I heard the rains had returned to Farah, with a vengeance. The river rose from its oncedry bed and flooded the capital. The locals blamed it on us. We had upset the natural order of things.
I A N L E WA N D OW S K I I A N L E WA N D OW S K I
Portrait of Derrick Miller Handley, 2015 Portrait of James Bartolacci, 2015
Alex Myers How to Be Someone Else
You should probably go to the thrift store. That’s where you’ll find clothes that hold the imprint of another body.
That means these jeans were worn by someone real. And now you can buy them, push your legs inside them. You can button them over your hips and run your hands down their thighs, the softness created by another life. You can take them out and walk them to the bar. You can shove your hands in their pockets or hook your thumbs in the belt loops while you wait, the evening passing by, the beer glass sweating on the wood, leaving its own mark. And you, untouched.
There, on the back pocket of a pair of jeans, a ghost outline of a wallet. Or, if you’re lucky, which you usually aren’t, the circular stamp of a tobacco tin.
S O P H I E DAV I D S O N
Plates at the Groundnut Dinner, 2015
JA SON NO CITO
Ahmani’s Jeans, 2014
H A R RY G O U L D H A RV E Y I V
(Untitled) Blue Bulb, 2013
Corey Mesler Two Poems
Stoppard by the Woods on a Snowy Evening
179 Â‚ POETRY
I G O R PJ Ă– R R T
No one owns the woods. The playwright lifts his pen and the cattle are lowing, then high again. There is a house in the village. Sometimes we go there for snogging and orts. The playwright turns and the constant white is anathema to him. Miles from here a woman waits. She may be his wife. She may be the law. When the night comes on, a delicate ink, he turns toward whatever is next. He thinks I am what is queer.
Your Body How it doesn’t carry you around. How remarkably durable it is, carrying you around. How it doesn’t stay. How it is here forever.
How it is gone. How it is here forever.
Bloody Lips, 2013
POL A ESTHER
How I adore it, with its curves and declivities, its shallow places, its grace, its heat and humidity. How I turn for it in the dark, and it is gone.
The Joy Ride
BRUNA MA SS ADA S
she said, as though it was the being dumb that brought a child closer to God. Really he was neither. Although his name did have something preacherly about it, he stopped attending service with the aunt he had been given to as soon as he was old enough to be left home alone, which as it happened was around the time he could have begun to make sense out of whatever it was being said there. So he never had the chance to get close to God in the first place. But he was not dumb either: only watchful, insular, even forlorn in a way a child has no right to be, and if he did not utter his first words until he had passed eight years, it was not for lack of intellect or lack of words, but for lack of any reason to utter them at all. Not dumb, just closer to God, she said, when actually she believed the converse. But dutifully she said it anyway for a few years before she finally grew so embarrassed at saying it to whoever might try talking to him when the hour was up and people turned to their pewmates and started talking that one week she decided to leave him at
Regina Says “I Love You Too”, 2015
NOT DUMB, JUST CLOSER TO GOD,
home. Later, he would remember how she did not even look at him when he stood at the door with his boots already laced and his jacket already buttoned and told him, “You’re staying here today. I’ll be back in an hour and that’s that,” in a voice as colorless as dust. Naturally he said nothing, and she left. For some time he sat wondering on the couch in his boots and jacket. Outside it was cold and the ground was ice and the sky was that infinite hard winter blue. So he pulled himself up and brought his wonder there for a while. It took only three hours of wandering the neighborhood and the earth that one Sunday to introduce him to solitude and soon the solitude became not only fact but fate. And from then on fifty Sundays a year elapsed in the same way—the holy godless silence following her departure in the morning, the wandering and wonder, the wordless return—and the two masses at Christmas and Easter she couldn’t bring herself to keep him from were so obscure and unfamiliar that throughout them he only daydreamed of walking around alone. Consequently he got nothing out of them and never came to know anything of what they all were calling God besides that single capitalized name: nothing of the myths and stories and legacies or famed transgressions or codes of conduct or spiritual elucidation, could not have told an Amish from a Baptist from a Jew although they all passed by his eyes now and then, and hardly even noticed or knew enough to question the little wooden figurine nailed to a cross above their stove. And yet for fifty Sundays a year he, a child, took to the earth like some old prophet, wandering, wildly alone, saying nothing because he could or would say nothing, communing with inhuman things far more earnestly and even devoutly than was probably good for a human boy who had not yet learned to order and rationalize the chaos of his own sensations, let alone express them in words.
His boot tracks lasted in the snow. They arced across the fields and through the thin woods, over the yards and the swamps of ice, and turned back after some distance toward his aunt’s house again. Sometimes the snow went up to his knees. It would melt on his legs and climb his decaying jeans and when he went back to the house, his aunt would scold him for getting so soaked “like a stray dog,” she said once, which he didn’t really understand. So he would remove them and dry himself and settle by the window and look out of it at the empty pastures across from the houses down the street and stop thinking and imagining altogether. He was only watching with the same mute oblivion contained in that panorama of field and trees that no word would ever uncover or clarify because it was as irreconcilable as him: as obscure and unbending and eternal, and no less unknowable than that admixture of supreme indifference and indivisibility of purpose which had impelled him to start walking in the first place. Later he would hear and learn and even use the one word that perhaps came closest without thinking it had ever applied to himself. But until then his afternoons were consumed by the creekbank squatting, the picking at the mud: tossing the twigs and branches into the miniature current and watching them catch on the rocks, listening to the birds he could not see or identify or name, kicking the snow around in boots that had never dried in all the days since it had first fallen and sometimes putting it to his lips and tasting the woods and the leaves that had spilled their color and flavor onto it from that time when they had not yet frozen and the snow was still wet and melted a little as it heaped; highstepping through high dead grass across that white field by the gas station pumps and the interstate and somehow over the sound of the cars hearing the snap and rustle of those stalks still upright which would refuse to fall until spring came and
redampened them and delivered an odor of rain with the tangled shoots that would pull at his heels like a multitude of tiny arms resisting; seeing the breath rise from the enormous snorting pet horses in the filthy white pastures, watching deer in the clearings, walking behind them until they ran off and compounded the mirage of muck and mist and tree bark, laying belly down atop the frozen earthworks of new subdivisions and smelling the cow dung mulch even through the snow, watching the housewives pass the windows as he crept through their gardensâ€”and he, Bentley Francis Jones, a child of eight years neither dumb nor close to God, who did not speak and later, the grown man who did only rarely and reluctantly, never even thought it might be love that made him walk. 188 Â‚ FICTION
II It was years later when the teacher arranged for him to have a friend, whom he ignored and would forget entirely almost as soon as the first words had left his tongue. Bentley could smell summer coming just like everyone else, and everyone else in the classroom had given up on learning or teaching anything with the time they had left, and he alone was not restless. And that only baffled the teacher more. For one hundred fifty days she had watched as Bentley outlasted the third grade, and in one hundred fifty days he had not only never spoken, but had never even smiled or cried like the others did sometimes. He came in wearing boots and when he sat down he would not move again until he was compelled to by herâ€”always sitting perfectly still with the gaze of a man decades older and fixed irremediably in his ways, always with the same stubborn, biding, and almost humbled bemusement; she could not imagine at what. So she was baffled in the
beginning, and that bafflement had evolved into disregard for a while as she lost control of the rest of the children and could not afford to think about him anymore, and finally when the year was lost it had turned back into bafflement again, even alarm. Or maybe it was only a kind of bitter resolve to teach something in the end to the one child among them who did not look like he would fight back. She did not pity him, because he was not dumb, and nothing he could have said out loud would have changed her mind. He did the simple work, and sometimes he did it well. It was not even the silence that bothered her. But one day when recess was called and she sat in the teachers’ lounge and between the complaint swapping and mouthfuls of sandwich watched him from the window wandering the farthest limits of school property along the chain-link fence with his hands locked behind his back, his head bowed in what she had no reason to doubt was careful thought or at least sincere feeling, floating up the hill like an old speck of dust and so aloof from the insane energy of the playground that he seemed composed of a material fundamentally different somehow from the rest of them, including her, then she thought, “That’s the one I could have changed. I could have taught him to be a child.” With two weeks left until summer, she called the aunt, a woman she only recognized from two perfunctory parent meetings earlier in the school year during which she had said almost nothing. They met in the classroom, the aunt shaking the offered hand furtively, bracingly, before looking around and saying “Which one’s his?” and folding herself into his tiny desk to try to listen. It only took a moment for her eyes to grow foggy, as if from the breath she were holding back furiously inside her head. She licked her thumb and rubbed out a pencil mark as she waited for the teacher to finish her pondering and
BRUNA MA SS ADA S
Sandy Waves to Her Neighbor, 2015 (left)
Sarah Says “Just the ‘Fax,’ Please”, 2015 (right)
conjecturing and diagnosis of the boy’s silence. “Alright, a playdate,” the aunt said in the end. “But don’t you think I know him better than that?” Joshua was not actually in Bentley’s class. He and Bentley had never so much as met in the hallways, although even if they had neither would have dared to make contact with the other because Bentley wanted no friends anyway, while Joshua did want them but was too weepy and insecure to win them himself. But the teacher got his mother’s number, and with only five days left before the long summer in which, despite this one strange little victory, she would give up on teaching forever and go back to waiting tables, she gave it to Bentley’s aunt and never spoke to any of them again. The heat had almost spent itself out already by the time the aunt picked up the phone, and Joshua made his first and only visit on a waning afternoon at the beginning of August. It was arranged that he would stay for dinner. He clung to his mother’s leg as she talked in the doorway with the aunt, and Bentley held himself upright by the wall and watched all of them with a look almost
Steph Says “ Totally…”, 2015 (left) Jennine Nods, 2015 (right)
B RU N A M ASS A DA S
of disgust such that could only have belonged to a grown man who for twenty years had come to know and hate the human race. He was already wearing his boots. It took some effort to pry Joshua away from his mother, but when they did and the mother had gone the aunt went straight inside and shut the door on them both. So Bentley started walking and Joshua followed, first through the yards of their neighbors and then to the road by the pasture with the pet horses and along the railroad tracks and then following the creek, Joshua a step or two behind with his head hung watching his footsteps and not struggling to keep up and not talking at first and even walking in lockstep with Bentley so that Bentley would forget he was there at all: walking together into the slant of the sun under the interstate and into a cornfield, even occupying the same shadow for a while: all three, shadow and boy and boy, equally silent and unbending and serene. Bentley did not then and would never understand nor even remember, but when they slipped between the rows of corn Joshua began to talk. Bentley still led him by a step but the corn was so tall and so close and so tender already
in August that the words came to him softly and clearly as though they were lying together under a vast bedsheet. At first Joshua asked questions. Where are we? and What is this? and Who are you anyway? Bentley said nothing. Then Joshua talked about his mother, his teacher, his pets. He talked about the summer, the school year, his birthday, about nothing at all: babbling with the same shimmering and breathless incessancy of the departing summer heat, a meaningless convection of syllables rousing nothing between the two of them but the boy’s own lips and barely distinguishable from the shushing of the cornstalks. He talked as they went into the thick of the field, invisible to everything on earth but themselves and the thick green shoots, and Bentley stopped, which caused Joshua to stop too: the corn not swaying or bending because the wind could not touch it this deep, and the scent of the dirt from which it sprang rich and vivid in their nostrils. Then, the loud sputter whinny of a pet horse in another field, and a long silence. But then he got it out of him. Because just when the silence had settled Joshua started up talking again. And he would have kept going had Bentley’s tiny dust-chalked rocklike hand not waved him away like a foul momentary odor, with that full-grown certitude and unconditioned disdain that no boy is born with except by miracle. “Hush,” Bentley said. “He can’t hear you.” III The day those eight years of silence and solitude and scorn and the years after that of hopeless curiosity and numbness finally conspired against him, Bentley Francis Jones was nearing forty on the porch of a gas station, only one sip into a coffee he would never finish, when to his bewilderment he recognized the trotting of hooves and jangling of reins and rolling of iron coming from the
direction of the service road that passed under I-81 and met its end in the parking lot of this gas station, whose concrete porch he had been in the habit of occupying for an afternoon every few days or so in the twenty years since he had aged into enough of a man to appease his nature with sitting on gas station porches rather than walking. He listened closely. There, unmistakably, was the constant rising throb and fall of metal and leather and flesh that he would probably not have recognized at all were it not for a dray ride he had taken one Christmas thirty years ago after he had begun talking, when he cashed a ten-dollar check he had gotten as an early present from his aunt and treated himself alone to a trip down Main Street with an old man who also didn’t talk. He could not see the horse or the buggy yet, but it was August now and like a hot wire the fat air conducted and communicated every shudder that was put to it and had commingled in equal portions the interstate traffic with squealing birds with the jet engines with the rattling ice machine a few feet from his chair, and still the noise of the horse rose above it all, suspended fabulously overhead like an immense weight groaning, ready to drop. “The hell?” Bentley said aloud. Whereupon a tremendous black horse appeared, pulling a buggy behind him. The horse had a black mane and a black hide and black mud-caked hooves, and the only spot of color on it was the yellowish white of the one eye still left in its head. The buggy was painted black and the slack black leather web by which the two were connected was twisted and feeble and did not really look up to the task of fixing the one to the other. A pair of knuckled hands obtruded from the front window and held the reins but Bentley could not yet see the body they belonged to. He watched the horse approach for what seemed like a while, as serene and black and slow as night falling, and when it had crossed the empty parking lot it pulled into the space beside his car, and the horse stomped its front
B RU N A M ASS A DA S
Julia Calls for Help, 2015
hoof on the asphalt, and just like that all the clattering jangling ceased and the relative silence around Bentley fell again as though the horse itself had anticipated and enabled it. Bentley watched. By now it had been forty years almost since he first crawled then walked up and down the howevermany acres of American soil that fell within his capacity to keep crawling or walking, thirty-two since he had heard his own voice, and twenty since he had generated enough pity or exasperation from the school board to collect the high school diploma he would need to land a lifetime position with the Department of Works doing odd jobs around town. He had lived here all his life, keeping to himself as a rule, and although he had learned to talk and even joke a little he was as aloof from laughing breathing talking people as he had ever been. So he was not really surprised to see the costumed figure step out of the buggy one long leg at a time, looking remarkably like the horse whose ass he gave a little congratulatory pat to: coming to about the same height and clad in black from muddy boots to wool suit to felt hat, as old and weatherworn and probably as blind although his head still contained both black eyes, even wearing the same shaggy black mane although on his chin instead of the back of his neck—no more or less surprised than he felt when any human man or woman did anything outside of what he could expect himself to do, which since he had broken the silence thirty-two years ago did not go much beyond sitting and watching and walking now and then. He was thinking of the horse. But he tried a joke on the man. “You off to a funeral?” “Beg pardon?” the man said. Mo the gas station cashier had come to the door and pushed it open a crack and peered out with bloodshot eyes, and the tiny bell he had strung up on the doorframe tinkled quietly and stopped. After a moment Bentley
repeated, “You going to a funeral,” and then he wasn’t sure anymore he was even making a joke. The bell tinkled again and when he turned to look Mo had gone back into the store. The man took two steps forward and tied the reins around one of the posts of the porch. “Funeral? None that I know of, thank God.” He petted the horse and dropped his arms to his sides and faced Bentley directly. Then with nothing in his voice he added, “Unless, God forbid, you’re referring to yours or mine.” “No,” Bentley said quickly. The man snorted good-humoredly. “Well good. Today’s not the weather for a funeral, is it?” He looked upward after a moment. “We have been blessed today,” he said. Bentley could not think of anything to say, and after a moment the man went inside. So Bentley was left alone with the horse, and he watched him closely. And he found he couldn’t take his eyes away from him. And when the bell tied to the doorframe stopped tinkling it was silent again too, and as if all at once the horse had delivered a simple perfect analogy of all the Sundays of the old days filled with loveless longing and watching and silence, he was watching again with that simple silent wonder as the broad leather flank inflated with a breath of air. He stood and almost fell back into his chair. It had been too long since he had moved, he thought, as if his forty years of longing and watching and silence had been transmuted into one long walk from his aunt’s front yard to the porch of this gas station where he had sat down before even having the chance to age into the human man he had never asked to age into anyway and now he was that wandering child again with the weak exhausted atrophied limbs who had been sitting there since he could remember. The horse himself looked to be near death. “Hey you,” he said.
197 Â‚ FICTION
Bentley swayed as he walked toward him. He could see the flies swarming his ass, and how he tried to flick them away with his tail, and when one would land on his tremendous haunch the black flesh around it would twitch and ripple like liquid, and because the flies were black as the horse it looked like they were particles of him that had come loose and were orbiting around him as though his great encumbered mass was irresistible even to them. And as he approached, Bentley could see the black eye watching him as if he were a fly too that the horse would have to blink off, but which did not blink even as Bentley got close and almost touched it with his own eyeball and waved away the gnats crawling into it and still did not see his own reflection because the eye was so black and so remote, and felt the breath still not as hot or moist as the dayâ€™s air on his neck from the nostrils so wide and deep he imagined he could see down them straight to the heart of the animal, although he could not really. He saw sympathy, hunger, companionship if not love yet in that look, and he had already forgotten about the man who had delivered the horse to him, and when he lifted a hand to touch the flank he found he had forgotten how to do that too: his fingertips outstretched and themselves twitching toward the twitching and rippling flesh could only come within an inch or two, which was almost close enough to feel heat rising off it but not close enough to elicit anything more from the horse than the same dull stare. But then the horse blinked just once, holding the thick black eyelid closed long enough so that for a moment until he opened it again the whole head appeared as dark and formless and remote as the empty space between constellations or an unintelligible half-forgotten dream, and still so close to the horse and still staring uncomprehending Bentley Francis Jones drew his outstretched almost levitating hand along the taut strip of black leather that bound the horse to the porch of the gas station and untied it.
Amy Gossiping, 2015
B RU N A M ASS A DA S
And it was that simple. They took a ride together. And until they neared the end of it Bentley said almost nothing, as though every shabby offbeat hooffall were bringing him incrementally closer from some kind of infancy to that whispered anticlimax thirty-two years prior when in a cornfield he had first published his own thoughts aloud, to that rubicon of manhood that like his coffee, he had never sought, and which only a minute or two of watching the tremendous horse with the same childish devout wonder had made him forget he’d ever reached at all, let alone believe he’d crossed. They were moving toward the fields of his childhood, if it could be called childhood and if that earth could be called fields— because childhoods and fields both come to ends which at that time he could not have perceived and did not believe, just as a person does not perceive the end of the ocean at a beach, only one infinitesimal and meaningless boundary of a body illimitable, prodigious, strange—and it did not even take a quarter mile of those hooffalls to return him to them, the same fields on the other side of the gas station pumps, plodding at more or less the same pace as he would have wandered them himself. But he was not thinking of that. The reins were wrapped around his hands but he was not steering either. He was only watching, like he had always done: watching the broad black flank shudder with the shock of each independent hooffall and thinking neither of the old cornfield they were halfway by with the already ragged nubs of cornstalks reaped already, nor the occasional cars passing with the people craning to get a look at him as they would have done if this really were Amish country, nor the Amish man himself they had left together in the gas station. He was not thinking at all. He was only exalted, stupefied, conversant again in silence and as enthralled to the heat and the horsebreath and the gentle cradling of the buggy as a whip is to the palm that cradles it.
200 Â‚ FICTION
So the afternoon elapsed on the grit-dusted county road his now-dead aunt used to take when she wanted to go anywhere far because it ended with the same gas station and the interstate which they were putting behind them now at the same constant rate. Since they had set out the horse had not lagged or slowed or resisted, and only ever seemed to struggle when one of the buggy wheels would roll onto the shoulder and he would have to pull it gently back, like an old cantor adjusting the hymn that a parish had brought gradually off pitch, which happened from time to time because he had only one eye. But mostly their ride was quiet, unbending, serene, Bentley would have said if he had known the word or ever was forced to use it in description, the horse bowing his black head again and again in seeming assent and bringing them forward under the sun which cast behind them a featureless and perfect imprint of a sad shabby horse with a buggy at its back, driven by itself. But Bentley didnâ€™t look anywhere beyond the shuddering flank of the horse bringing the iron-shod hooves down on the asphalt with the same unhurried gavel-like repeating: he was too mesmerized and stupefied to even see again that same stretch of country that for eight years had provided for his speechlessness, too close to the horse himself to see the dirty white ranch houses and caving red barns and ditches filled with beer bottles and plastic cups discarded by the sons of boys he did not care to know thirty years ago any more than he cared to know or talk to now, to see the fallen roofs, the windows open, the tire tracks, the brush piles that one by one through the summer would be set on fire and send up pillars of smoke that back then he had watched and breathed from the tree lines with tears in his eyes, too dumbfounded by the horse to see the sun sagging toward evening drawing longer and longer shadows, to see the same tree lines beginning their silhouettes in the sky, to see the half dozen or so cars that
had gathered behind them when the road got narrow and started bending a little at last and made it difficult to pass, to see the red and blue light blinking on that same flank. He heard the siren before he heard his own voice, although by the time he started having to talk over it he had already been talking to the horse for a few moments with the level insistence of someone reading his own mind, who only then, seeing that the end was coming, understood the substance and urgency of what he was saying. All at once the tailpipe fumes from the procession of cars that he had not even noticed he was leading over a back road at three miles per hour stifled the horsesweat and the horseshit, and that siren stifled not only his own voice, which he had not even heard, but the jangling of the reins and the hooves and the iron and then to even remember the horse he had not only to say but to hear himself say it. “You and I are moving together now. And you are maybe thirty or forty and it has been a long time since they should have put you to pasture. And look how they’ve been working you like you’re something other than flesh and blood. Maybe you are after all. But they can’t know that. I know it. I know it.” The siren was so loud now he almost had to yell. “Maybe you have only ever known that harness too.” He unwrapped the reins from around his wrists and crumpled them up and cast them out the front so they fell alongside the horse and dragged on the ground. “I’m telling you I know. Just the same as you know me.” Now he was whispering, certain the horse would hear him. Then he breathed, chanting almost over the sweating mountainous leather flesh the color of burned dirt. “I love you, I love you, I love you.” He was silent when the gas station came into view again, gold and red and the four pumps shining, but he did not believe his love any less, because he did not quite believe he had been betrayed by anything other than
time itself, which had never had anything to do with the horse. Mo was watching with his bloodshot eyes from the window and the Amish driver was standing on the porch with his arms at his sides looking as if the whole time he had been asleep. And Bentley didn’t see them. He saw nothing, even when the horse stopped, although the sky now was the obscene awestriking red that proves to children God lives there, and even the cornfield was heaving and hushing like a vast sheet, like it used to do when he walked the earth a doomed little ghost, and it was that time when the deer started coming out and the people would go into their houses to have supper, and those creeks that had not been diverted or dried up were still after howevermany years lapping their banks with the old godly debauchery that used to make him tremble in his boots. He was facedown on the asphalt with a knee in the small of his back, his eyes closed as if he were actually seeing it, and there was a silence settling as the handcuffs clicked under the breath of the trooper repeating “Your name. What is your name,” again and again and again as though it mattered at all. And then, a glimpse of that simple righteous certitude and childish scorn that no grown man preserves except by madness. “Name,” Bentley said . “He don’t have one.”
BRIAN 204 FICTION
Does It Make A Difference If It’s Real?, 2015
N I K I TA T E RYO S H I N
St. Petersburg, 2011
206 Â‚ FICTION
Sarah Hart The Blade for Simon
I ask how, and my mother says his breath caught him by the neck and held him there, and I ask how, and she says when he was a baby his face was always in deep bloom like a plum. And I tell her I have tried very hard
to imagine him
as a willow, perhaps, anything long and kind with lean branches, greeting the earth and knowing it with each movement despite its abundance. But where is the romance in that? There is a shade only the night can bring that sculpts his face into my mind all at once, and the permanence of the sculptorâ€™s blade feels right and honest to me. Iâ€™d like to show her this instead, because I think he would have liked to see himself this wayâ€” still and unconquered, tell her to have thought of him as a right and honest blade and to rest with that now is enough.
Burning Cars at Skatopia, Rutland, OH, 2005
American Chordata: Magazine of New Writing. Issue Two, Fall 2015. ISSN 2378-2579 (online). FEATURING Essays by Frank Light and Rachel To...
Published on Dec 4, 2015
American Chordata: Magazine of New Writing. Issue Two, Fall 2015. ISSN 2378-2579 (online). FEATURING Essays by Frank Light and Rachel To...