LETTER FROM THE EDITOR I write this short note on the last day of 2018. We officially published our final piece of the fall on December 17th, so we closed the issue out right under the seasonal wire. We have some interesting projects coming in 2019 that I look forward to sharing with all of you, but for now, let’s admire the fourteen authors we published in issue thirteen. If there’s a common thread within these poems, stories, and essays, it’s that of reflection, which feels appropriate as we all wrap out another year on this planet. Sarah Priscus starts the issue off with her story, “How to Remember What It’s Like to Be a 9-Year-Old Girl,” a rumination on the past that also suggests a search for identity. This search continues in Bradley B. Onishi’s essay, “Mapping My Adjective,” Kaylie Saidin’s “Cate Lucas,” and Kathleen Wise’s “Tomatoes in August.” Pamela Taylor’s amazing poems consider the past butting against the present, while Anu Kumar spins a tale of heritage in the form of a crumbling mill tower. Every piece in this issue is superb, and I hope you take the time to read them all as you look back on 2018 and open the door to a new year of opportunity. One final note: Issue 13 is CNF editor Emily Arnason Casey’s last with A+A. Emily has been our CNF editor since issue 2, and while we’re sad to see her leave, we’re excited for her, as her first collection of essays is coming out soon! Happy New Year! XOXO BW Editorial Board Founder: Brendan Todt • Editor in Chief: Benjamin Woodard Poetry Editors: Liz Ann Young & Summar West Fiction Editors: Whitney Bryant & Cathy Ulrich Creative Nonfiction Editor: Emily Arnason Casey Assistant Editor: Kristen M. Ploetz
TABLE OF CONTENTS Sarah Priscus ƒ
How to Remember What It’s Like to Be a 9-Year-Old Girl
M.P. McCune ƒ
Bradley B. Onishi ≈
Mapping My Adjective
Elizabeth Sunflower †
Xenia Taiga ƒ
The Trampoline Sissies
Kaylie Saidin ƒ
Kathleen Wise ≈
Tomatoes in August
Sorayya Moss †
In a Stem
Jodi Andrews †
Pamela Taylor †
How to Get Emotional Distance When Voodoo is Not an Option
To Adam, From Eve
The Atlantic Ocean Recalls the Middle Passage
Christopher Valdheims ≈
Anu Kumar ƒ
The City’s Last Mill
Andrew Rihn ≈
Tyson vs. Alderson
Tyson vs. Richardson
Tyson vs. Young
I Left the Desert
Emma Rose Gowans ƒ Call for Submissions
Fiction – ƒ
CNF – ≈
Poetry – †
Issue 13, Fall 2018 Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine Sioux City, Iowa www.atlasandalice.com email@example.com
ÂŠ Atlas and Alice, All Rights Reserved
How to Remember What It’s Like to Be a 9-Year-Old Girl 1: After dinner is over and you’ve eaten all the chicken fingers and green beans that your stomach can handle, clear your plate. Retreat to your bedroom and shut the door behind you. Don’t listen to hear if Mom and Dad are arguing. Sit down on the floor, letting your legs sink into the downy texture of the carpet, and brush your hands across it. Draw patterns in the dust. Remember how Emma told you that you were too old to still play with dolls. Frown. Pick up your favourite Cabbage Patch Doll from the floor, the one with the stringy red hair and freckles on her cheeks. Her name is Daisy Brenda. Hold her softly. Press your face to her plush stomach and smell her sweet cotton. Tell her your secrets and trust that she’ll remember them. Handle her carefully. The seam in her left armpit is beginning to split. Maybe you can ask Mom to sew her together again for you. Then again, you’re scared of needles, so Daisy Brenda probably is too. Pretend to be a nurse. Grab a piece of sticky tape and attach her body back together. She’ll be nearly good as new. 2: Feel your tiny heart flutter when you think of Jacob, with the shaggy hair and soccer cleats, or Osei, with his coloured pencils and stupid jokes, or even Mrs. Greenwich, who is very pretty but sometimes yells when the class gets too loud. Wonder if you are in love. See the end half of Back to the Future. Write in your diary about how handsome you think Michael J. Fox is, even if he’s old now. Wonder how you can be in love with everyone you see. Stop wondering. Practice writing your first name with differing last names following it, depending who you love that day. Circle your initials and your crush’s initials in a heart. Smudge the graphite a little bit. Erase the smudged bit. Shut your diary and hide it underneath your day-of-the-week underwear. The corner of the book peeks out a bit. Maybe you want it to. It makes you feel grown-up to have secrets.
3: Your new bicycle has streamers on the handlebars, and even though they seem babyish, you like them. Bike quickly and turn them into a yellow, blue, and red blur of plastic. Bike so fast that you turn into a blur. Make sure the strap of your helmet is snug under your chin. Let air rush past your ears. Turn suddenly. Do not think about what is around the corner. Do not realize that you could crash into anything, even another person. When your feet begin to go numb from all the peddling, take a break. Prop the bicycle up against the fence of the good playground, the one with the spinning roundabout and metal slides. Slip off your velcro sandals and leave them neatly at the edge of the pavement. Walk towards the roundabout, feeling the hotness of the sand radiating into your feet. The ground is soft. Climb up onto the spinning structure and kick against the sand until you are rotating so fast that you think you might puke. Watch the world whirl by. It looks just as blurry as your streamers sometimes do. Realize your helmet is still on your head. Don’t take it off just yet. 4: Take your science class project up to your room to work on it in private. You say that you don’t need your parents’ help, so you complete it on your bed. The posterboard is aqua blue. Cut out pieces of paper and write information about dolphins on them. Decorate the edges with yellow and purple dots. Be meticulous. Be selective. There is no job in the world more important than this. Trace the photo of a jumping dolphin that you found in your junior encyclopedia. Follow the lines carefully and precisely. Wonder for a moment if your parents would take you to the ocean in order to complete your research. When you are done tracing, begin to carefully colour in the outline. Get halfway through the tail, then hear your sister watching Disney Channel sitcoms downstairs. Finish colouring with messy, ragged marker strokes, then run into the living room to join her. 5: When your dad offers to take you and your sister out for ice cream, jump at the chance. Jump at the chance to eat anything sugary. Bicker with your sister on the car ride over to Baskin Robbins, but don’t mean anything you say. She is two years older than you, but you’re both equally good at pretending to be mad at each other. Stop pretending to be mad once Dad parks the car. Barrel out of the backseat with your heart pounding in anticipation. Spend five whole minutes staring down at the selection of flavours. Admire the way the scoop has left abstract swirls in the ice cream tubs. Dad can order first. He gets rainbow sherbert in a waffle cone, which is funny, because he seems too grown-up to like eating things that are colourful. Your sister asks Dad to order her a single scoop of blackberry hibiscus in a cup, because she thinks it sounds mature. Order for yourself, asking for a scoop of chocolate chip cookie dough and a scoop of strawberry, all nestled into a wonderful, crackly sugar cone. Follow Dad outside to a bench. It’s hot out, and your treat melts quickly. Finish the scoop of 7
chocolate chip cookie dough first, because it is on top. Listen for too long to your sister’s stories about school and forget to keep licking the strawberry scoop. When the ice cream begins to drip onto your skinny legs, don’t move. Let it dry and leave milky pink, sweet, sticky splotches on your thighs. 6. Pretend to hate going to the mall with Mom, but still go. Stand impatiently beside her while she looks for your t-shirt size at the department store. When she asks if you like the jeans she picked out for you, say you’d like them more if they were from one of the cool, teenage stores that you read about in celebrity magazines and pass quickly on the way to Orange Julius. Your mom buys them for you anyway. Groan and complain endlessly on the drive home. Take your new clothes up to your room like Mom asks you to. Try them on a second time, in the familiar light of your bedroom. Look at yourself in the mirror and pretend to be a model. The pants aren’t so bad after all. They have a dolphin stitched on the back pocket. You hadn’t noticed. Mom did. Wear them at breakfast the next day, and don’t look at Mom’s sly, knowing smile. She knows you better than you realize. She still doesn’t know you completely. 7: Go to the library with your cousin, who is old enough to borrow books from the grown-up section, but not by much. You, however, are still of an appropriate age to select books from the kids’ section. Descend into the basement of the library, where all the Judy Blume and Goosebumps books live. Steer clear of any picture books, because you don’t want to seem like you still read those. Flip through countless options and begin to collect your favourites under your arm. Everything looks interesting. Some of the books are torn or have boogers stuck on the cover, but that makes them feel special. Listen to the librarian ask if you need any help. Ask her to recommend you a book with a magical girl in it. Watch carefully as she hands you Matilda. Drift over to a corner and sit on the floor, giving the first few chapters a chance. Finish the book in one sitting before your cousin even comes to pick you up. Include Matilda in your collection of books to check out from the library. Plan to reread it as soon as you get home. When night falls, and your parents say goodnight to you, stay up reading. Hide under the covers with a flashlight, illuminating the pages of your book and nothing else. Feel the breeze drift in from your open window. Fall asleep with the book still open, your face flat against the pages. Dream about magic worlds and adventures. The next morning, wake up, and decide to have an adventure of your own. 8: Spot a baby bird on the ground, far from its mother. It looks newly hatched because its feathers are sort of patchy. It is incredibly small. Scoop it up with the bottom of your t-shirt and put it in a bowl. Turn the bowl into a nest by ripping up pieces of paper. Try to feed it some water or berries, and wonder why it refuses to take food 8
from you. Name the bird something silly. Be gentle with it. Carry its new nest into your room and ask it if it knows how to fly. It doesn’t. Show it your toys. It chirps quietly. You are making a friend. When Mom finds out you have a bird in your room, she is not impressed. She tells you animals can carry diseases. You don’t care. She calls the bird rescue and has your new friend taken away. They leave his paper nest behind. Beg to keep him. Cry for hours. 9: Feel afraid of the dark. Worry that its creeping blackness is going to swallow you whole—that you will never find your way out once you inch into its expanse. Touch your hand to your chest, and feel your heart thumping. Feel afraid of the dark, then lace up your sparkly light-up sneakers and step into it anyways.
Reminders Most of the living ignore the sheer volume of those who preceded them the way city dwellers never look up at the skyscrapers surrounding them, because it would make them feel small by comparison. But she feels the weight of the dead everywhere. She started haunting them by accident when she was a young girl. She didn’t realize reciting one of Yeats’ poems pulled him back to earth, or that Chopin felt her fingers walking over his grave every time she played a nocturne. But even once she knew, she couldn’t stop. She follows the trail of the dead wherever she finds it: the little bits and pieces of themselves they left behind. Pressed flowers in a family Bible. Photos at flea markets with inscriptions on the back. Notes written in an old book. Their graves. As soon as she enters the cemetery, the silence rushes up to greet her. It lifts her up and sets her back down gently, like an ocean wave. Her feet barely make a sound on the grass and the dirt paths. The tombstones she passes lean forward or to the side, stretching themselves after sitting still too long. She almost never meets anyone there. The cemetery closed to new burials decades ago, the graves abandoned when families moved away or died out. She worries about the dead. She thinks they must have a hard time holding onto memories of life. She has no desire to call them back to life, she just wants to remind them it exists. Sometimes, she peels an orange. Other times, she leaves them notes: “You were a beloved father.” “You were a dear wife.” She writes the messages on scraps of paper and wraps them tightly around sticks. She ties them on with bits of thread and leaves them on the graves, fluffing the
grass around them so they won’t stand out. She doesn’t want anyone else to find them and read them—they are personal. She never visits her own dead; they haven’t had time to forget life. She’s afraid they’ll crawl inside her to fill the empty spaces they left behind. But sometimes she can’t help it, she haunts even them. She goes to a Chinese restaurant and orders her mother’s favorite dish. The steam rises from the plate, a ghost messenger carrying a scent, dematerializing as the food cools, untouched. She cracks open the fortune cookie. “You are extremely loved. Don’t worry.”
BRADLEY B. ONISHI
Mapping My Adjective Sometimes being Japanese American feels like an aspiration. If I work hard enough, maybe it’s something I’ll cross off my bucket list. Kind of like qualifying for the Boston Marathon or hiking the Grand Canyon. Perhaps my incessant reading about Internment and immigration and Hawaiian plantations since I left California four years ago comes down to this: an attempt to be JA via books and graphs, like a kid who’s never swam in the ocean learning to surf from a YouTube video. If I learn the history, visit the sites, acquire enough of the words—I too can be JA! My father is a second-generation Japanese American born and raised on Maui. My mother is a blonde with blue eyes. Until I was ten or eleven, I was too. Though now I’m a brunette with hazel eyes (when learning of my identity strangers often say: “I thought you were something“), in my head I’m still the white one trying somehow to convince the world he’s something. My brothers and I are what family from Hawaii calls hapa (half) haole (white). In my case: more haole than anything else. This task—privilege—weighs on me as I plan my three days in what Californians call the Bay (the bay surrounded by San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose) sitting at the desk in my Oakland hotel room, mapping out an itinerary of significant Japanese and other Asian American sites in Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco. California is my home state (I grew up near L.A.), but I’ve lived near Albany, New York for the last two years, with stops in D.C. and Memphis before that. My father and his generation have never planned this kind of program. They may have made pilgrimages to internment camp sites like Manzanar or Poston, but they don’t need to wheel around the Bay or L.A. like a tourist on a food tour of Portland. They already know these places and memories are real. They experienced them through their parents’ bodies. They visited them through their elders’ collective trauma, passed 12
down by a cruel form of osmosis—via hushed dinnertime conversations about Pearl Harbor and aunties telling stories of “Camp” as if it were a summer getaway so as not to upset the little ones. Like many from his generation, Dad spoke Japanese with his oba-chan at home. His first words were not in English. His first memories are in Japanese. Even beyond the shape of his eyes and the complexion of his skin, there’s no questioning his JA bona fides. Unlike him, my JA-ness is dangling from my identity, like I’m holding on to a person about to fall from a skyscraper—one hand on the building steadying myself, the other locked on the other’s, unwilling to let my sidekick fall to their demise. It makes sense to me why Viet Thanh Nguyen, Maxine Hong Kingston, and others say we should drop the hyphen from Asian-American. When it’s constructed that way, it seems like they are two sides of a coin, as if the person is balancing a livedexperience of being Asian and one of being American. They are two nouns linked by a tenuous bridge. When it’s written without the hyphen—Asian American, or in my case, Japanese American—the first word describes the second. Japanese is an adjective describing me as an American. I am clearly not Japanese. I have never been to Japan. Other than a few words I picked from Dad, I don’t speak the language of our heritage. I don’t deserve a hyphen. Some of my ancestors may have wanted their hyphen. To them, it could have been a link to the place where they were born and formed rather than a grammatical signifier of otherness. The hyphen wouldn’t have prevented them from being Japanese American. They could hold a hybrid national identity while describing themselves as a certain part of the American experiment. The two are not mutually exclusive. It’s not clear exactly when the hyphen became a derogatory symbol rather than a connector. What’s beyond doubt is the fact that whatever else they were, the ancestors I’m tracing now were Japanese Americans. Their histories are rooted in the memories of Camp, cat calls about slanted eyes, the ringing of “Jap” and “Nip” in their ears at school and work, and in fighting in a war for the country of their citizenship against the country of their heritage while their families were imprisoned. Most of them were people who belonged here and nowhere else in terms of birth and nationality, but were treated as if they did not. Their identities were bifurcated. At home they were Mitsuo, Hideo, and Sakai. At school, Michael, Stan, and Thelma. These were peculiarly American experiences. My three-day tour is an attempt to make a map of them, or at least some of them. To find them in places and stories that have been covered over or forgotten, by me and others. Yet, as I sit at this laminate desk, seagulls from Jack London Square squawking through the open window, wafts of salty air making me feel at home, I can’t help but wonder: Isn’t what I have—what I am—what some of them may have wanted? My life is the result of the assimilation of the prefix “Japanese” into the root “American.” A 13
man named “Onishi” with no hint of a hyphen. There’s a chance I’m chasing them into the past just as they chased me into the future. I don’t know how to resolve the paradox of gaining an “American” life at the potential cost of what feels like my most important descriptor. The wins and losses that have resulted in my existence seem beyond my ability to measure or control. But I do know that after living away from my family and these communities it feels like the adjective Japanese is fading from my American noun. The loss of the descriptor is threatening the map of who they—we—I—are. So here I am. Here I go. July 2: 10:09 am: Walking through Oakland Chinatown, it’s refreshing to see Asian faces, even if they see a white one in return. Asian faces are a rarity in upstate New York. Watching them whiz past me on the sidewalk or congregate at outdoor fruit stands feels like soaking up the sun on the first real day of summer. 10:16 am: I’m scared to go to the community with roots to the earliest back to the 19th century. I don’t have JA? What if they are frightened by unexpectedly? I walk away.
office at the Buddhist Church of Oakland, a Japanese migrants. The story of this place goes an appointment. What if they don’t believe I’m a random white man popping into the office
11:32 am: I’m eating a taco-truck lunch across the street from the site of the old Tanforan Race Track, where 8,000 Japanese Americans were herded and held after FDR signed Executive Order 9066 in February of 1942. EO 9066 gave the military permission to remove civilians from designated military zones. It was a thinly veiled means of sending the Japanese (regardless of whether or not they had a hyphen) to camps. While the camps were built, they slept in horse stalls and manure beds at Tanforan for months. I’m here to see the commemorative plaque in “honor” of these events. It might be hard to find since the track has been razed and a gargantuan mall put in its place. The carne asada burrito I’m eating across the street from the mall feels as much part of my childhood as the ramen I plan to eat later. Growing up in southern California, many of my friends were children of Mexican migrants. My first girlfriends taught me the Spanish I hear most of the people around me speaking. Construction workers. Cooks. Retail employees from the mall. A few of us share a bench near the curb. Some guys stand nearby eating tacos off the back of their truck. 14
During the previous weeks the Trump administration has separated families at the southern border, ushering in a horrific new chapter into American white supremacy and echoing the cruelty of Executive Order 9066. Most Japanese Americans have forgotten that their ancestors’ American story most likely began in fields as itinerant seasonal workers up and down the West Coast or on a plantation in Hawaii owned by a white business titan. Most Americans have forgotten that the “nonthreatening” East Asians across the street used to be considered “bad immigrants.” After Pearl Harbor, whether or not you had a hyphen didn’t matter. Every Japanese American was sent to Camp. All of that history has been razed in the cultural consciousness in order to erect the model minority myth. 12:05 pm: Watching Japan in the World Cup at a brewery at Tanforan Mall. Japanese Americans next to me at the bar. All of us rooting for the team representing the country of our heritage. When Japan loses in the last minute I share an eye roll and sigh, a moment of solidarity, with a woman next to me. Does she know I’m JA or is she just commiserating with the guy next to her? 12:18 pm: The Tanforan memorial plaque is right outside the BJs Brewery where I watched the match. It’s nearly anonymous. A speck of metal lost under the lights of the shops, plastic food court tabletops, signs for happy hour specials. Maybe, I think, the wounds of the past have healed to the point where JAs can sit inside a brewery at Tanforan and cheer for Japan without them or anyone else considering the ironies of history. Or maybe history has been erased through the wiles of capitalism and white supremacy. Who needs it when we have craft beer and Dick’s Sporting Goods, $19.99 manicures, and iPhone Xs? 12:25 pm: A Japanese American (and Japanese-American?) man and a white man. Retirees. Sitting in Barnes and Noble talking about what happened 70 years ago. I can’t hear the details. 2:04 pm: I arrive at Japantown San Jose, thirty or so miles south of Tanforan. There are only three historical Japantowns left in the United States: L.A., San Francisco, and San Jose. This one’s quainter than the other two. Quiet streets populated by mom and pop shops. Like an “all American” small town but with streets lined with sushi restaurants, Japanese grocers, and signs for the summer obon festival. It feels like a living center more than a familial albatross. The other two sometimes have the aura of someone caring for the body and possessions of an aging parent—not wanting to let them go, but not knowing how long they can maintain them.
After walking by the San Jose Buddhist church, whose story traces nearly as far back as the one in Oakland, I imagine living here. Learning Japanese. Raising kids who go to Japanese school on Saturdays. Who dance at obon and speak as much Japanese as English at home. I imagine the time when it was a place of refuge. Where Japanese knew they would be served without frowns or jokes. Where they could find rice instead of potatoes, sake instead of beer, sashimi instead of hamburgers. Later I’m reminded of a passage in The Tale of Osato, a novel by Shōson Nagahara about the migration and hardship of the Japanese picture-bride Osato from Japan to 1920s S.F. and L.A. In this passage, Osato enters San Francisco Japantown for the first time: As Osato looked at each passerby, she felt a deep sense of nostalgia. Even in this far-off land, the happiness, the nostalgia of meeting one’s countrymen . . . It was the first time since she arrived America that she had experienced such feelings. For some of my ancestors, Japantown was a bridge whence they came, a geographical hyphen. A place in the new world recalling the old one. A place they were both strangers and not. At home doubly and not at all. For me, it’s a trail to their experiences and bodies. To our story. To the place that formed the adjective I bear; the one meant to describe me; the one I feel like I can’t live up to. Just as Osato and countless other Japanese-Americans turned Japan into an idealized homeland, I imagine San Jose Japantown as an unscathed origin, a place that could envelope my half identity into a soothing embrace and make it whole. Their nostalgia was for Japan. Mine is for Japanese America. 2:16 pm: I walk into a store called Nikkei Creations and buy a shirt that says hapa on the front. 2:20 pm: At the Japanese grocer I linger, looking at snacks we ate as kids, things I’d forgotten: rice balls and Pocky sticks and nori crackers. I don’t feel at home. I feel like a white guy gawking at exotic foodstuffs. The workers giving me side-eye don’t know I’m reminiscing about when my oba-chan used to give me these snacks, that there’s a lump in my throat just from seeing them. In my mind they see a white dude creeping around the store. 5:07 pm: I arrive at my cousin’s in a different part of San Jose. His mother is Japanese American, my father’s cousin. His dad is a white American. We grew up visiting each other—he would make the trip south for a few days and then I’d come here to San Jose. We were never hapa cousins. Or JA cousins. We were always just cousins, three 16
months apart in age, interested in typical things: sports, video games, eventually girls. He now has three kids. As soon as he, his parents, and his young family sit down, the memories from those summers return. We reminisce about baseball games and karate tournaments. I don’t feel half, part, not enough, or insufficient. I feel understood. Home. No need for qualifiers or explanations or hedging. We trade barbs about the Giants and the Dodgers. I yap about being hapa and Japantown and anything I can think of. July 3: 11:02 am: I arrive at San Francisco Japantown. This nihonmachi has been largely sequestered into two adjacent buildings, the East and West malls (Is someone trolling us?), that form the “Japantown Center.” Inside are dozens of Japanese restaurants, grocers, and other vendors. It’s denoted by a looming pagoda tower, which I can never decide is emblematic or offensive. The four blocks or so surrounding the Center maintain a Japanese aesthetic. The national headquarters of the Japanese American Citizens League and the Benkyodo diner, where mochi is still made by hand, are within a block of the pagoda tower. All in all, however, Japantown San Francisco is much smaller than its Los Angeles counterpart. I always assumed it was because, like in many places on the West Coast, it had been taken over by other groups while the JA community was interned. But the sign near Soko Hardware says it was largely due to redevelopment. The City needed the area for a new highway and other improvement projects. After the Japanese returned from Camp the City decided to take by eminent domain most of the one place they felt at home. 11:12 am: At a Hawaii-inspired store I buy a 12 oz. can of Hawaiian Sun juice and a box of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. More staples from childhood I haven’t consumed in years. I buy them intuitively. They are in a bag with receipt before I realize what I’m doing. 11:17 am: I stop into the Japanese American Historical Society. Board members from the SF chapter are welcoming visitors from L.A. They are conversing about pilgrimages to Tule Lake, one of the northern California internment camps. I linger at the edge leafing through pamphlets. They think I’m a random white dude. I want to ask about the Military Intelligence Service Museum that just opened at the Presidio. The MIS was an outfit of Japanese American translators and codebreakers who joined battalions in the Pacific theatre and other places during World War II. The MIS started out in a warehouse near the Golden Gate Bridge. In order to expand, and for the “safety” of 17
everyone involved, the headquarters was moved to Minnesota. My grandfather trained there and was then stationed near D.C. I want to explain all of this and ask if there’s any way to see the museum on days like today when it’s closed to the public. Too nervous, I walk out. 12:20 pm: In the East Mall, I order an iced coffee at a Japanese-owned creperie and take a seat. I’m waiting for my table at Marufuku, a buzzing new ramen place my cousin recommended. An Italian family walks in. The father orders two crepes in broken English. They are an anomaly in a sea of East Asian faces. 12:24 pm: Still at the creperie. This already feels like a perfect day in Japantown, as if I’m on a spa retreat injecting minerals and vitamins into my skin, clearing my pores, leaving the dull alienation of the world behind for a few hours. Spaces I’d foreclosed and forgotten are opening inside of me. 1:28 pm: From Japantown, a mile-walk to the Asian Art Museum near the Civic Center. I tour the “Divine Bodies” exhibit. Though I’m a religion professor and familiar with some of the traditions represented, it does nothing for me. Next is the “Personal Tour through Hell” exhibit, which is a series of images related to a white dude’s experience after being proclaimed dead for a few minutes. They are eerily similar to the Robin Williams movie What Dreams May Come, a borderline embarrassing mélange of Dante’s Inferno and Buddhist notions of the transmigration of souls. I leave the museum after an hour. Walking out, I wonder: “Why did I go to the Asian Art museum? Guilt? Aspiration?” On the walk back to Japantown through the Civic Center buildings I see the Earl Warren building kitty corner from the museum. I think: “Asshole.” Earl Warren is a California icon. Governor of the state and then a Supreme Court Justice. Liberals often venerate him as the leader of a court that oversaw desegregation and the outlaw of prayer in schools. His name dots fairgrounds and government buildings from San Diego to Sacramento. He was also a major proponent of Japanese Internment, a leader who used his platform to create the hysteria and racism that led to mayors and newspapers throughout California to call for the removal of all persons with Japanese heritage. Why is his name attached to the building that stands just feet from the nation’s premiere Asian art museum? Who’s trolling us?
10:07 pm: I finish the night at a dive bar in Berkeley. Alone. Writing on my phone in a corner seat near the door. A charmingly grimy crowd swirls around me in a neon haze. Typical Berkeley: black, white, Asian, Latin. White college kids. Old black dudes. Flannel and mustache hipsters tending bar. $5 shots and PBR. An Asian American guy is carried out because he’s swinging at the bouncer. I’m reminded of all the times in grad school I felt small and powerless in bars like this. Back then I often wished I were really white: masculine, tall, angular cheekbones, a jutting jaw. Then I would be attractive. Virile. Could look down the bar and wink at a blonde woman. July 4: 7:06 pm: I am spending the evening with friends. All white. We barbeque at one of their parent’s houses in the Oakland hills. No strangers ask me where I’m from. No one asks me where I’m really from. No one commits any of the other social transgressions Asian Americans and other people of color detest. Part of me wishes they would have. Maybe I would have earned a JA merit badge, or a story to tell the next time I commiserate with other Asian Americans. 11:04 pm: I read about Therese Patrice Okoumou. While we were watching the kids play, sipping cold beer, eating sausage from the barbeque, Okoumou scaled the Statue of Liberty to protest the separation of migrant children from their families. During the four-hour standoff she refused to come down until all the children are returned. Okoumou is a Congolese immigrant, the news report says. Someone snapped an iconic photo of her, shared endlessly on Twitter, sitting at the foot of Lady Liberty, this country’s emblem of freedom—the harbinger of its grand, if always unfulfilled, promises of equality, justice, and democracy. Looking at the picture, I think: She may consider herself African-American or Congolese-American. She may still want her hyphen—I don’t know. But there’s no doubt she’s African American, and this image may be the most American thing I’ve ever seen. I want to cry but I’m too tired. July 6 10:49 pm: Albany, NY. I am thinking of a rant I give in my religion and politics course. It seems I’m ready to understand it for myself. It goes something like this. The 2016 election proved that reducing life to binaries and making people choose one side or the other is a way to power because it takes phenomena like ambiguity and uncertainty out of the equation. Reduction is a way to draw a straight 19
line of who “we” are, and thus who is not “us”. It’s a map. But a false one. It tries to erase the sedimentation and crisscrossed stories and unspeakable violence that make up this country’s history and identity. It makes this country and everyone in it into something they’re not and have never been. It’s an attempt to erase the fact that the U.S.A. was founded in such a way that every American identity demands description. July 7 12:04 am: Saratoga Springs, NY. My tour didn’t make me JA like my elders. I’ll never have lived in Japantown or on Maui. Never danced at obon or gone to Japanese school. But I have a map in my memory. I’ve had a map on my body. It’s been hazed over by lazy categorizations, unclear phenotypes, distance from home. By my own self-doubt and imposter syndrome. It’s complex and layered. Painful and wondrous. A road to the adjective (one of them, anyways) that describes how I’m part of this place. American, all of it.
samia cynthia a hush assigned a body a fastening of density to moonlight the moth lands furry and graceless surprise is cool on the skin as midnight this moth a brush of air beneath a moon against a dense screen of cloud a moony night light hush cast across the cloud this night and this moth and me three bodies fast and graceful I never saw her I never saw her I never saw her pinned to a card under glass In Philadelphia in 1861, the cynthia moth was introduced into North America for the purpose of manufacturing silk, but the industry never developed, and the moth, after thriving in the wild, became extinct. Frank, Kenneth D. Ecology of Center City, Philadelphia. Fitler Square Press, 2015, p. 45. 21
The Trampoline Sissies The Trampoline Sissies like to go braless and wear short skirts. They live in a neighborhood where all the houses’ exteriors look alike. Just before dusk they go outside to their backyards and jump on their trampolines. One forearm is squashed-flat over their boobies and their left hand is tightly pressed between their crotches to keep their modesty. The old ladies walking their Shih Tzus see their heads bobbing over the wooden fences and yell, “Go to Target and buy yourself a bra!” The Trampoline Sissies bounce higher and higher, ignoring their children’s grumbling tummies. In midair they cram gummy bears, Milky Way bars, and Hershey’s Kisses into their mouths. When their lips are stained licorice red and their chins are dyed a sticky sweet orange-yellow hue, they collapse and throw up. At five o’clock their husbands’ cars pull up in the drive way. They get up and jump all over again watching their husbands, from one window to the next, roam through the house. They suck in their stomachs and hold their breasts tighter, waiting for what comes next. On cue their husbands push the curtains away, slide the backdoor open and say, “Honey for frick’s sake it’s late and the kids are hungry.” They glare at their husbands thinking of ways to kill them. They could leave the kids locked up in the hot car or use a crossbow, but they don’t have a crossbow and the car belongs to their husbands. The Trampoline Sissies (ladies, women, mothers, teenagers, girls, toddlers) stop jumping and use the garden hose to wash the vomit off. They scrub away their wild lustful longings until they are a woman, wife, mother, and holy clean. In the kitchen they talk with a voice they’ve learned in church and ask, “What would you like to eat, sweetie?” Their husbands mutter something from the living room (the TV’s blaring), their children cling to them (pulling their limbs here and there). They can’t hear their husbands, they don’t feel their children. They open the cupboards and pick a can (any can). Open it, dump it, nuke it. Like chickens the family comes to the dinner table (clucking and squawking). 22
The Trampoline Sissies sneak off to the side and head to the room no one uses; there they fall into a trance watching reality TV until the house becomes eerily quiet, then their consciences ticks ticks ticks them awake to check on their children, their husbands, the kitchenâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s stove, but their eyelids heavy with sleep overtakes and for the time being they forget and forgive everything.
Cate Lucas Cate Lucas stopped coming to class in junior year of high school and everyone wondered what happened to her. We went to a small school, and of course, people talked. She sat next to me in math during the second semester of my sophomore year. I let her borrow my pencils and we made jokes about geometry. She had a raspy voice and big doe eyes and smelled like cigarettes and wasn’t very good at doing trig functions and was sometimes more than ten minutes late, but our teacher always looked the other way. A rumor went around that she had already lost her virginity. We wrote each other notes in pencil on the glossed-over finish of the wooden desks. I thought she was beautiful. When Cate was gone for more than a week, people in class talked about how she had moved to Australia to become a singer for a record label. Cate was quite good at singing, objectively good enough to be a professional, but I had never weighed in on the topic. I didn’t talk much in class—I never had. I didn’t like to look people in the eye. I just liked to write on my desk, and I liked for her to read it. In freshman year, Cate and I took physical education together. We had to swim laps for a month and nobody was any good at it except for me. I was showcased in front of the class: look at this freestyle, see how her hands cup the water and push it back? That’s what you all need to do. Each time this happened, I felt the weight of twenty eyes staring at me through the surface of the water. I dove deep, as if I could hide from them. When I surfaced, Cate’s large, tired eyes met mine. They always looked like they were apologizing.
I knew that Cate was good at singing because I once heard her in the shower after swimming. Usually, the rest of the girls and I would quickly rinse off in the hot water before changing into our clothes and rushing to our next period. We would slam our lockers and scramble the codes and frantically comb our wet hair and reapply mascara and run down the halls like it mattered, like being late to fourth period in freshman year of high school mattered, like having long eyelashes mattered, like our Target brand wet swimsuits getting stolen mattered. But Cate would take her time, as if she had no class afterwards. As if there was nowhere she would rather be but the locker room. One day, I decided not to go to my next class. It was the first and last time I’d ever skipped, and I felt like it was ethical. I was tired of history class. All we did was talk about dead people. It was just Cate and I for those forty-five minutes in the locker room after we swam the sidestroke. We combed our hair and talked about mindless things—the boys in our class, the songs on the radio. In a casual discussion, she told me that her father hit her when she was a kid and that he wasn’t allowed around her or her mother. I knew plenty of other teenage girls who discussed their trauma with this cavalier tone, and so I wasn’t too phased. Then Cate confessed to me that she had a boyfriend who was older, even older than twenty. I remember the strange feeling in my lower abdomen I got when she told me this. I remember lying in bed that night and thinking about her boyfriend who was older than twenty, wondering what they talked about together, what they did together. It felt like a hundred worms wiggling in my stomach. Cate took off all her clothes when she showered. None of the other girls in gym class did this, but I guess it was just us, after all. I had never seen another girl naked, and I tried not to stare. Her skin was not smooth like mine. She had freckles and bruised knees and bumps from shaving and scabbed forearms. She looked older, was older, maybe. Once she started singing Amy Winehouse, I realized that I was a child in comparison to her. She had experienced things I hadn’t yet, and some things I never would. She didn’t need to tell me this; nobody ever did. It was just something I always knew. When Cate was gone from school for more than two weeks, we were reading Genesis in religion class. As dawn was breaking on Sodom, angels urged Lot and his family to flee and not look back. But Lot’s wife did look back, and she became a pillar of salt, alone in the desert. The rest of the family ran on, and there she stood for eternity. “What was her name?” I asked.
The reverend stopped talking. I had interrupted him. He looked irritated, and I regretted speaking up. I was never sure when the right time to speak was. I’m still not sure. “What was that?” “I—“ it was too late now. People looked at me, but I had to know. “I was wondering if she had a name.” The reverend looked at me for a second that felt like a lifetime. Then he said, “No. She didn’t.” And then we moved on to the city burning. Sodom up in flames. Later that day, I was pulled out of my next class. I panicked at first and thought I would be in trouble for asking about Lot’s wife, but when I stepped into the hallway, there were two police officers. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I had also heard the stories about the San Francisco Police Department slamming the heads of prostitutes onto the pavement until they died from brain bleeding and then covering it up, so I approached them tentatively. “Was Cate Lucas one of your friends?” asked an officer, and when he did, my eyes welled up with tears no matter how much I willed them to stop. The other one handed me a tissue, but the snot was already running. I don’t know why I cried, and I couldn’t have told anyone what happened if they asked, but something in me knew. I knew what happened to girls like Cate Lucas. I had always known and always will know, and perhaps women are born knowing. I told the cops she and I sat together in geometry and swam together in gym. That I heard she was in Australia. They shook their heads when I said that. “We believe Cate has been a victim of sex trafficking,” said the one who had given me the tissue. “She’s been missing for two weeks. Did she ever talk to you about an older guy in her life? Illegal substances?” I told them about her boyfriend who was more than twenty. “But that was two years ago,” I assured them. They nodded and didn’t need anything else from me. When I was going back to class, one put his hand on my shoulder. I wanted to say, please don’t touch me, but I didn’t have the nerve. He didn’t pat my back or anything. He just put his hand on my shoulder, cupped it briefly, and then squeezed. “Keep an eye out,” he said. I did. I spent the rest of high school looking for her, and even some afterwards, even now. I thought I’d hear her singing in the showers of the locker room, but it was just the faucet echoing off the walls. I thought I’d smell her when I walked home, but it was just the neighbors smoking cigarettes.
When I told my father, he shook his head and said, “That’s a shame she went down a bad path. She seemed like such a nice girl.” Then he said, “Can you water the tomatoes tonight, before you forget?” My mother wasn’t there for me to tell her. People stopped saying the name Cate Lucas. At school, there was never a memorial or a candlelight vigil, because she wasn’t dead—even though people acted like she was. Life started to move on without her. I started asking questions in class. I started thinking about what it meant to be a pillar of salt. There was once, when I myself was older than twenty, that I thought I saw her in a vintage clothing store on Haight Street. I recognized her big doe eyes, still apologizing. She was buying a velvet dress and a pair of overalls, and, as she took out a little coin purse, I was staring. Her eyes met mine and I swear she smiled a little. But she was gone before I could talk to her. Maybe it wasn’t Cate Lucas, maybe it was just a trick of the light. When she left the store, when she was gone for more than ten years, more than a lifetime, I started looking at everyone else as I passed them on the street. Wondering who was missing from somewhere, who had been taken. And who had been the taker. I started looking women in the eyes when I walked by them. Some of them looked back. .
Tomatoes in August Blessed is the child raised within the kingdom of a sprawling backyard. Privileged, she whose limbs grow strong with running through wild woods. Proud and mighty, she whose palms are calloused from climbing trees, shins studded with scars from the feral battlefield. Her imagination is fatted on natural spoils. Sometimes you will find her, little fairy queen, perched in the V shaped throne of a dogwood tree, surveying her land from great heights. Other times she lays low, hidden beneath the heavily draped, yellow arms of a forsythia tree. Wherever she is, she will never be found until she decides it is time. Dusk falls, the fireflies wake, and her stomach begins to rumble just as her mother calls for her to come to dinner, followed by the inevitable slam of the screen door. Of course I took it for granted. How could I not? I couldn’t know there were children raised on concrete, in city parks with chain link fences, indoor recess and playdates, indoor everything. How could I have known how truly lucky I was. How spoiled by the nature of my youth. The backyard of my childhood was rambling and rich. I’ll take you there, if you don’t mind getting lost in a memory. Take my hand and follow me, this way. See the sign nailed to that walnut tree? The paint has faded on the weather beaten wood, but you can still make out the childlike cursive lettering: Primrose Path. Follow me, carefully. Watch your step for roots. Down a little ways and we’ve come to my courtyard, a clearing of moss-covered benches and stone ruins. Baths once filled with water and brightly colored fish now heaped with dirt and fool’s gold. Little graves. And here is the old chicken coop, now littered with cigarettes and scraps from a fire some bum must have made with pages torn from old paperbacks and comics. And here is the pen for Winnie, our mean old chow, broken furniture scattered about, honeysuckle branches dangling in our path. Now turn around and you’re looking across acres of 28
woods, a gentle slope downhill. It’s August so it’s fertile now, but wait until the first snow and it will beg for a sled ride. Do you see the neon sign at the bottom? That’s the Coca-Cola plant, miles away. No, it couldn’t be miles, but it seemed like it at the time. From here to there is an entire animal kingdom: rabbit holes, wasps’ nests, cicadas, depending on the year. Everything is blanketed in poison ivy, wild strawberries, and onion grass. Mulberry branches hang heavy with purple fruit, staining the earth below. Endless opportunities for curiosity, tears and tummy aches. And, of course, there was my father’s vegetable garden. Three tiers of soil separated by carefully placed stones, like an English country garden. He was an engineer, my father, but also an artist. So there was recklessness, and there was method. He chose sensible crops to feed a family but sprinkled the seeds and bone meal like Pollack, strung the wiring in jagged rows like a Smithson earthwork installation. A child himself when his own father died, it must have been Golden, his cousin, who taught him how to garden. We would visit Golden and Grace, his wife, every summer on our road trip down to Stumpy Point, a tiny town on the sound side of the Outer Banks. Grace would wave to us from behind the screen door as we pulled into the drive, as if she’d been standing there all morning waiting for us, Bright Angel, her cockatiel perched loyally on her shoulder. She’d usher us in quickly. Don’t let the yellow flies in! They’ll eat us all! We would sit and sip lemonade and eat shortbread cookies from the blue tin. As soon as I could, I would sneak out back through the plum orchards and find Golden, working in his shed. He would smile his deep and crinkly smile, an old man now but striking and handsome with deep, knowing eyes. I remember the dirt under his fingernails and the hand with four fingers. I couldn’t take my eyes off that smooth stump of skin where his index finger had been before the accident (something to do with dynamite on a boat). The men and women of Stumpy Point were weathered and wise, salt of the earth, salt of the sea. I better understood the strength of my father by watching Golden. My father’s father died when he was a boy. While his friends played baseball, he worked on a shrimp boat to put food on the table for his mother and little brother. In spite of the odds, he finished high school and left home for Virginia Tech, writing letters to his mother every week, sending money when he could. From there, he landed an engineering job at Procter & Gamble, way up North in the big city of Cincinnati. Always the investor, he bought a house in Kennedy Heights, rounded up a few good men, and had a regular bachelor pad, complete with silhouetted pin-up girls blowing bubbles on the bathroom walls. Every room was painted in the proper 70’s rainbow: pea green, browns, oranges, and yellows. Four hippie bachelors shared the chores, cooking strange dinners of rabbit stew and lentils, drinking cheap beer, smoking whatever they had when they had it, I imagine.
Then he met my mother. Or, as the Carolina cousins referred to her, “that Yankee woman.” Both were taking night classes for fun: Russian for him, the poetry and prose of T.S. Eliot for her. Brown haired and doe-eyed, the spitting image of young Natalie Wood. She hated to cook, but loved to talk and as opposites attract—my father was silent but a master in the kitchen—he courted her, quietly, respectably, as any good southern boy would. Perhaps she recited poetry to him. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, to be sure. In the rooms the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Naturally, it was she who suggested they get married. It made enough sense to him and like that he kicked the bachelors out and repainted the walls (the pin-up bubble girls survived: they had character) and like that, the house became a home, flowing with the laughter and tears of three little girls. My father’s daily life revolved around four women, long hours in the lab testing new soaps and detergents, and frequent business trips to India, Japan, and the Philippines. On weekday mornings, he would wake early to sit in silence and read while he sipped his black coffee. He savored those quiet, pre-dawn hours: the calm before the storm. Soon enough, three little girls would yawn awake, scramble for cereal, yell for a missing sock or help putting on boots, or cry about some minor tragedy, always running late to school. In the evenings, after work, after a simple family dinner (stir fry, maybe, or rice and beans), a beer (Busch, in a can), he would wander out back to the garden. Twilight, his evening meditation. He needed to check on the crops for solace, if nothing else, to touch the leaves of the spinach and lettuce, inspect the beans and squash. All his other children. And the tomatoes, of course. His favorites. Not that he had favorites. In the summer, I would watch him. I remember how those long days filled me with anxious melancholy, even as a child. Each day was an epic journey from sun up to sun down, with little definition but the placement of the sun in the sky and meal times. I longed to be doing something purposeful. I craved structure and tasks and couldn’t wait to be old enough to get a job in a restaurant or a nursing home or something where I could make myself useful. My mother told me not to be too eager, I would have my whole life to work day jobs. Enjoy childhood while you can, she would urge me. But I was restless and since television was not allowed, I took to climbing trees and watching people from far above. Silently. I would watch my father hunched over his tomatoes, bowl in hand, gathering the sweetest ones, the ones that would fall right off into the palm of his hand. He was almost religious in his methods, as if blessing each seed planted and each tomato plucked. Gently. Whispering a quiet prayer with each turn of the wrist. I watched with a mixture of respect and impatience. He would show me. Gently, Kate. When they’re ready, they’ll just fall right into your hand. Never tug. The sweetest ones will fall right off. I wanted to grow flowers. They’re prettier, I told him. Pretty useless, he would answer. And helpless. Pretty and helpless. That’s the worst way to be, Kate. Don’t ever envy the 30
flowers. Squirrels come along and bite their heads off and they can’t do anything about it. But I ignored him and made my own corner plot, nestled against the side of the house. Tulips, daisies, irises, even a bleeding heart. He was right about the squirrels. The tulips were their main target. They beheaded them like some sort of sick joke, not even bothering to eat the blooms, just leaving them lying there on the ground. A statement. Because they could. One year I even tried strawberries. Surprisingly, they blossomed and bore fruit. Five whole strawberries. Just enough to slice up on a bowl of vanilla ice cream. That was enough. With that, I understood the satisfaction that came from harvesting after the toil, the waiting, the care. Store bought spinach doesn’t hold a candle to the meaty, just-picked leaves folded into a salad before they’ve begun to wilt, tossed with a little oil and vinegar. And the vine ripened cherry tomatoes, still warm from the sun when the juice squirts onto your tongue. On hot nights in August, we ate on the screened-in porch, looking out over the garden as fireflies began to their nightly routines. He would lead us in prayer, a simple prayer: Dear heavenly Father, thank you for this food and bless it for our use, Amen. Little did I know just how blessed I was. How lucky. It was another August, a few years later, when my father asked me to walk with him to his garden. We lived in a different house then, another suburb, with Victorian houses and broad streets. The yard was less wild but just as large, with plenty of room for a garden. That summer, my father spent his days on the back patio, his recliner pulled up beside the picnic table he had built just a year earlier, protected by the shade of a giant umbrella that was too heavy to lower, so it stayed up, rain or shine, mildewed and rusted. That August, he wore a heavy robe in spite of the heat. That August, he was deep into chemo and radiation, his freckly, Irish skin burned from the chemicals rather than the summer sun. I was sixteen and gangly and working on my tan, sprawled, cat-like, across the back steps in cut-offs and a bikini top, hair slicked back with Sun-In, a boom box beside me, playing Nirvana. What is that crap? he asked. Smells Like Teen Spirit, I answered, not even bothering to open my eyes. Smells like what? Silence. Oh, never mind. He sighed heavily and closed his eyes. Hours passed. Then out of nowhere, he asked if I’d walk with him to check on the tomatoes. Sure. I sighed and stretched and peeled myself from the steps. I helped my giant father rise to his feet, slipped my arm through his and we walked slowly down the driveway. It might have taken hours. I was impatient. I had things to do, things that seemed so important at the time. I had to get my daily run in before the sun set. If I didn’t run, the world might end. At the very least, my thighs would begin to touch and I couldn’t have that. I would have to run in the dark. That would be okay, too. But still, my skin itched and I slouched with teenage angst. I needed to run. I needed to get away. So 31
when he tugged against me, his pace quickening ever so slightly when he saw his tomatoes in the near distance, I let him go, unlocking my arm from his. I let him take a few steps forward without me. I knew he wanted to, even if just to prove to me that he could. In one heavy moment, a suspended moment that might have been years in guilt, I turned my head towards a sudden peal of laughter from the neighbor’s yard. A turn of the head and a snapping of twigs and a low groan from below. My father had fallen and there he sat in the grass, whispering to himself, mumbling. What? A prayer? A curse? The sun beat upon his thighs, naked, exposed, white flesh. A sight never intended for a daughter. His bathrobe fell open, undone, his eyes searching for answers, like an infant, the whole world confusing and cruel. I fell to my knees, reaching for him. He pushed me away and lowered his eyes, muttering. I could not recognize this voice, low and guttural. A groaning giant felled at my feet. The same man who had swung me over his shoulders for years now lay crumbled under his own useless limbs. I reached for him again. He pushed me away. Again. I stood and waited. Silently, I begged for patience. He struggled, rocking his body forward and back for momentum. Then nothing. Defeat. Stillness. Then another try. Beads of sweat on his brow, his muscles clenched. Stillness again, his eyes lowered, avoiding my own. I stared at my father, a proud man defeated, the August sun devouring his skin. I did not stare with compassion, or pity. I was annoyed. I was impatient. I had more important things to do than stare in contempt at my father’s pale thighs. This is what I was thinking when his eyes rose to meet mine and I saw his plea for help. A man defeated. My eyes lowered then, as I lifted him, as he allowed me to lift him, no longer pushing me away. A stubborn man too tired to fight anymore, asking for salvation but not ready for it, not at all. A fire burned in the muscles of my back as I lifted a man twice my size. Gently. Gently. His weight released against me and we took one step. Then another. Baby steps, my arm slipped through his, like a mother and child. Silence. What was he thinking? I wonder now. Was he thinking, like I was, that this was just another frustrating day, one of many, that would fade with time. We would forget this ever happened, it simply wouldn’t matter, once he was healthy again and back to work. Once he was back to testing the latest stain remover on Mom’s blouses, telling me to hurry up and get a move on! when I was running late for a soccer game. Once he was back in his garden planting next year’s seedlings or gathering cherry tomatoes in a bowl, popping a few in his mouth as he walked along, not needing me or anyone for balance. Once I was back in school, worried about impressing some boy, worried about my acne, my outfit, my grades, my calories. Once he was just Dad again. Or did he know something I didn’t. Did he know this was the last August? The last of the tomatoes. Our last walk in the garden. His garden. His daughter. His last. And had I known, would I have done things differently? Would I have held each moment in the 32
palm of my hand with the tenderness it deserved? Like a single cherry tomato, warmed in the August sun? Gently.
In a Stem We’ve been flower and stamen. …..and I’m stricken, ………………………forever.
There was Mao, and me, and how___ …..we’ve blown in the wind,
and with our kin, I’m stuck, it’s him.
Converge Inspired by There and Back by Skye Gilkerson It’s all swirled inward like a snail shell, debris from the Kármán line. Broken pieces of teacups, a lone handle, half the cup laid on its cracked edge; plate shards lined up in a row, pastel pink and blue bottoms exposed. Bits placed gingerly side by side like homesteads. A horse kick would scatter; granite, quartz, slate, and basalt rocks through the spiral, some smooth skipping stones stacked like cake tiers; mirror fragments moon the light on the ceiling, blind. All of this braided with rusty keys, screws, a green painted door hinge; like the horizon, seagull feathers bow at the edge of the curve. Pennies, puzzle pieces, the skull of an owl, old apple headphones lay in a sunray venus like a clam. Small dead branches rest side by side like the tibia and fibula. A baby bottle nipple, part of a pipe, matchbox, half a brick, acorn, pinecone, clothespin, pencil: all of it leading to an intact clamshell; these sharp and shattered 35
pieces lead to Aphrodite newborn. The oceanâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s tongue licked these jagged edges; she mothered her litter, until it was packed into paper towels and flown stateside, piece by forgotten piece arranged neighbors on the wood floor.
How to Get Emotional Distance When Voodoo is Not an Option March in circles until his words dizzy and fall out of your ears. Heap those sighs and secrets into a glass jar and leave them out in the sun. The bright light will purify any microbes left behind. Let your inner child gather your tears in buckets. Wait three months for them to harden, then sprinkle the salt rocks after the first snow. If you live in a warm climate, move. You have to retrain the amygdala not to respond every time you pass by that place where he first cupped your face in his calloused hands. Try counting backwards from one thousand, but not in your mother tongue. If none of this works, ask an Aquarian. Theyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ll tell you how to forget.
To Adam, From Eve We walked Eden as if our bodies were equal They were holy They could be used for pain We did not know I wonâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t apologize for wearing these leaves and twigs Now we approach each other with wonder Now you engage my mind Trust me The blood from our line will build the beauty of our physiques from this dirt raise edifices in homage to our flesh erect steeples like our hands stretched toward the One
The Atlantic Ocean Recalls the Middle Passage At first, I did nothing. I tried to ignore the choir of moans echoing from the underbelly of dark ships and the clash of iron shackles rumbling through my depths until the birds mimicked the sounds of human despair in their morning calls. Then I did what only an ocean could doâ&#x20AC;&#x201D; raised my back in twenty foot waves to topple cargo into my mouth, sent blue sharks to swarm the ones thrown overboard. Some needed to be lured from their misery. So I lay still, let the sky reflect off my back like the peace promised by their deities. There are only so many bodies you can swallow before you think of yourself as a monster. Two million and I havenâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t stopped counting.
The Cathedral Where, dear God, Will you sojourn after we all die? You have no father, nor dear mother, Not your own dear brothers. â&#x20AC;&#x201C; Traditional Latvian verse I was the child of exiles. Born on the streets, and now I was back. Back where? Back here. Back here at the edge of a field bordered by near nothing. Moments before this I walked where the church had stood, now just the shell remaining. The insides scooped out, the courtyard surrounded by sconces where once some priest had erected twelve stations of the cross. They were now empty alcoves quiet above a brook. And now I stood here at a grassy field, bordered by near nothing. I felt the wind blow through my woolen coat and I watched the budding branches twitch against the sky, whose clouds hung like bulging canopy. I felt like the clouds wanted to lower and surround us for some reason, but I was not afraid. We drove here. Taking a few hours to get to this tiny town from the capital of a small nation perched above the rest of Europe. I had arrived from LA the night before. The GPS we used had been old. Maybe from 2003-04, by a company called Manta. It spoke Russian, but since it could not seem to connect to the Internet or to any useful database, it spouted nonsense. Useless confusion and gibberish. Our driver shut it into the glove box and he and my new distant relative from Russia, Grigor, unfurled a paper map in the front seat, while I sat with his wife, Anastasia, in the back of the car. From time to time, we would pull over and ask a random person if they knew how to get to the next town as we moved closer to our destination. At one point an old man even got in, holding a flip phone and shouting in Russian the directions to the next crossroad. 40
§ I met Grigor and Anastasia on the Internet. We had been searching for each other, unaware that we would find one another. All of us were looking for any relatives that might have made it through the twentieth century. We came from our own directions, not knowing what each pursuit would turn up. They searched from the Russian city of Saratov, me from Los Angeles. Until about a year ago we didn’t know each other. But we all suspected that we had more flesh and blood somewhere out there in the void. I am related to Grigor, but the truth is that we do not look the same. He is 70, with a masculine gray mustache, outdoorsman’s features, a sweater and a blazer. He looks largely what you would expect an older Russian man in good physical shape would look like. I am half his age, wearing New Balances and I look more like my African-American father than I do to our common ancestors who we were seeking here in a place that had once been captive by the Soviet Union. Here on the border of Latvia and Lithuania. In my life, I always had questions. And most of them had been answered by shreds. Shreds rendered into digital reproductions that were ephemeral, but that I sought to collect because I wanted to find out the bigger story. I knew that there had to be one. Now those ephemeral threads had spun themselves into an actual place. And here I was, inside a part of the story. It all began to coalesce here. I saw your hands pouring tea into delicate china. You placed the cups on a sturdy table made of blond wood. I watched as steam curled off of them. I think it was cold outside, but you had made it warm here. I could only see your arms, ensconced in a white blouse that billowed out. You invited me to take a drink with you so that you could tell me something. Earlier in the day, before we got to this field where I was now standing, Grigor and Anastasia took me to a graveyard outside of a church in the nearby village of Alkiškiai. They had emailed me photos of the graveyard a year earlier, so seeing it as a real place gave a sense of deja vu. The church stood crisply white, blocky and Lutheran; the graveyard spread down a hill peopled by tall birch. Grigor and Anastasia had discovered the graveyard maybe a few months before they had found me. They had found the resting place of those ancestors and they restored it. The grave was of my great-great grandfather, who was the biological connection between myself and Grigor. There too, was my great-grandmother, whose name Emilija Migla translated to the poetic “Emily Mist” in English, alongside two of her sons. There were photographs inlaid into the new marble of the graves, showing old world European women and men. Missing though, was my grandmother, Irena Migla, or, “Irene Mist”. She did not come to rest here; her fate lay elsewhere. 41
As I took a moment to look at their pictures on the tombstones, I felt the sadness at the top of my cheeks. I was here, but who was I to them? Who were they to me? Did it matter that I even come here? The moment hurt because my relationship to these people—who were now gone for decades—felt largely academic. That, yes, I was technically of the same blood and flesh, but at some point the connection pulled apart. I am haunted because this moment feels like dreams. Like the veil that separates life from death also billows out and separates me from these places of flesh, blood and stone. It feels like even though the moment was happening right now, it should not have. That it only came about by random and wild chance. We used blue and white sponges to wipe the graves of the ancestors and then used a small broom to sweep the dust from the marble. Then we laid candles in those red votives and put flowers nearby. We asked the driver to take pictures of the three of us together, standing alongside the tombs of the deceased. Walking out, we passed another grave whose stone had been partially caved in. A small, stout tree grew from the center, perhaps nourished by whatever minerals had collected in the bones of someone else’s great-great grandmother and were now being released back to the soil. A slender cross made out of ratty sticks had dropped across the crumbled stone. The cross looked like it had been rained on many times, and like it too would meld into the soil to share its minerals. Grigor walked near me, and shook his head, saying something in Russian which I took as a lament for the fact the person who lay in this grave had no one to care for their memory. We left the graveyard and stood just beyond a low stone wall eating hard cheese and black bread and drinking hot, strong tea. Vapors began to descend as rain, but the mood was quiet and none seemed disturbed by it. I saw them proceed down the road in a line. I don’t know how I had got here, but there I was observing them as they paraded down a dirt path between fields of rye. Very early morning and I wasn’t sure if they had gotten up with the sun, or had stayed up all night and were just now closing. All women, dressed in similar fashion. White blouses, red skirts embroidered with intricate patterns. Jewelry of gold and bronze. Some of the younger women carried poles with wooden symbols at the top. These were not crosses, but a variety of lines, zig zags, suns, and other signs whose meaning I did not yet know. Somewhere out there was the sound of one low drum that beat a slow rhythm. Boom. The resonance fades. Boom. Another sound fades. Through each, I could feel the essence of our tribe come back to me. These women had carried it, and they wanted me to know it and remember them. Growing up, I knew nothing of the ancestors we visited and I felt now as if I had no right to. I had always felt unmoored and now I still did, especially finding myself near 42
the other side of world. These were the places where one half of my family came from. I am the first one of them to come here in probably seventy years. I didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t know if I should feel some molecular or genetic connection to the ground on which I stood. When I had been born, it was the Summer of Sam in New York City. Extreme humidity and killings made it a crazy summer. My mother had been homeless when I was born in Greenwich Villageâ&#x20AC;&#x201D;our first address was the Chardon Street House. It was only later that I learned that my mother had passed through that place and other places, at one point passing through the infamous Bellevue. Police officers separated me from my mother when I was five years old. I ended up in foster homes and she disappeared. Once she had written me a letter from France, saying that she was being pursued and had to flee back to Europe from America. I became lost and my grandparents died. My uncle was committed to a psychiatric ward in Florida, and then died. I was the last one. Thatâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s how it was when ten years ago I started to look for answers. Maybe I sought these answers because I was to be a father myself. What had happened here that my whole family had disappeared and seemed shrouded in secrecy? I have devoted a good part of my life to seeking these answers, traveling to places where I might find traces. It was hard to communicate with Grigor and Anastasia, even though both were warm. They felt very open towards me, and had treated me like family the moment they had met me. Now and again, Anastasia would lightly take hold of my upper arm, almost to reassure herself that I really existed or for some sort of support. Both stood close to me when we talked and since they only spoke Russian and I only spoke English, our conversation mainly consisted of running what we wanted to say through some machine translation algorithm and then showing the phone to each other. Rough translation, but we started to get one another. From time to time Anastasia would say something to me in Russian, hoping that I would understand through force of will. The funny thing is that when I say we found each other on the Internet, we actually connected through a website that I had once used to connect with the memory of my deceased grandfather, who had been an artist but also something of a hermit. I met him only once as a very young child. His friend had made a site as a tribute to him. That friend had known my grandfather for decades, so he told me some stories about my family. The story is weird, so I will try to sum it up: something happened to my grandfather during World War II or after. Then the family had been taken as slave labor by Nazis and been forced to work in camps. Then they became refugees in Europe and came to America. They fell to America in pieces. My mother and grandmother landed in the USA, my grandfather ending up in Montreal, Canada. When my 43
grandfather got to Montreal, he became obsessed with seeking a geometric formula that explained and underpinned human experience. He was determined that there was an underlying order to the world and if we could find it we could end things like war. He looked for this to the exclusion of most else. That quest led him to produce over 600 pieces of art which can best be described as hypermodern symbolic mandalas. Each one was based on the same geometric formula, but each could be decoded to a different meaning, based on whatever philosopher my grandfather was reading at the time. And he had a systematic approach to what he read. This art was why I had now traveled here to Latvia and why Grigor and Anastasia had too; the next day we would see those works displayed in Latvia’s national art museum. Since Grigor’s family is related to my grandmother, he was able to find my name by seeing her name listed as my grandfather’s first wife in his biography. Our visit to the graveyard and now to this field was a side trip to pay respect to those who came before and who we were learning to love and remember. And I knew that outside of their immediate family, I was the only living relative that Grigor and Anastasia had. Their experience had mirrored mine, in certain ways. I felt my soul lift when you spoke to me even though I could not understand your words. I could not touch your face or your hands, but I knew that you were there and always had been there. I saw that you were happy and you looked at the tragedy in your life as some bad joke. You had been sad at my own suffering, but you also knew that one day I too would see things as you saw them now. The night before our journey, I met Grigor and Anastasia in the lobby of my hotel, when I was still wacked out from jet lag. It had taken about 20 hours to get to Latvia from LA, and all I had wanted to do was sleep when they got there, but they were excited to meet me. It was hard for me to get to their level of enthusiasm that easily. My mind was still pretty churned over from the flight and ten-hour time difference. That first night they sat on either side of me and we showed each other pictures of our lives on our phones. They showed me pictures of dogs, hunts, the Volga River, and their grown sons. I showed pictures of my wife, my children, our house. We learned to use machine translation to write out notes to one another on our phones. Talking to them, I learned that Anastasia was a doctor, Grigor an operator of a metal company. Anastasia wore a primary blue overcoat and has blond hair despite being in her sixties. Both strong and in good shape. They told me that they are fans of the industrial band Rammstein. § 44
So as I stood there with them at the edge of the field, I could feel the vapors that descended on this place begin to coalesce into a light rain that showed up as dark spots on my coat. We had all left the car and some dogs barked at us from a nearby barn. The trees were still mostly leafless. The sky was low and gray. I walked out into the grass of the field. The grass was long and tough, interspersed with tiny blue flowers that opened now that winter had left. The dirt was soft underfoot. As I got out there I saw that under the grass there were lines where the dirt was slightly higher than the flat ground. I traced those lines and began to make out a shape. A square. Or a rectangle. I realized it was the outline of a place where a building had once stood. Maybe decades ago. That building was gone. Earlier in the day, Grigor showed me his phone where he had translated: “Вся деревня была сожжена в 1944 году” to “The whole village burned in 1944.” I knew half of the population of this village had once been Jewish. And I also knew there were no longer Jewish people here. I knew that even those who were not Jewish had fled during the war, including my family, and that if WWII had a center, we were now standing close to it. The cold and brutal Eastern front, where the magnitude of bloodshed had been shrouded from the West by the Iron Curtain. I knew tanks had come this way. That hungry Russian boys with rifles had come this way. I knew houses had been blown to bits, history be damned. Future be damned. It was the end of the world. Next to the graveyard we visited earlier was another a graveyard, down the hill. Lines of stone crosses. Each represented some German boy whose mind had been infected by primitive, half-baked theories about race and fatherland. For that they got churned and their flesh stayed here under foreign dirt. It was only now that I saw what lay in the dirt. A small dress for a small girl, black and embroidered with flowers. It would have been for a festival. Even though the remains of the house had collapsed around it, it remained clean. It stared back at me like a dark beacon and I realized. I realized and understood that you would come here as a child, to learn traditions from your mother and grandmother. You would make boats from leaves and sail them in the brook that I had seen. You had not ever come back here, but I did. There was so much that you wanted to explain to me, but you never could. As I entered the square that just barely made itself visible through the grass and soil, I realized I was at the center of the void. There would be no answers here. That whatever revelations we hope for sometimes come up naught. We are not entitled to answers. We are not entitled to closure and we must live with it. I felt Grigor come and stand next to me. His presence consoled me; somewhere in both of our bodies, we felt echoes of the same terrors. He started typing on his 45
phone in Russian and then he showed it to me: Эмилия и Ирена домой. The phone’s English translation: “Emilija and Irena home.” He looked me in the eye to make sure that I understood. I understood. This was the place where my grandmother had been born, and where, as a young woman she fled from. She would never come back. None of them would ever come back. Only me, and Grigor, and Anastasia. We would be the ones to stand within this void and push back the darkness only a little.
The City’s Last Mill The city’s last cotton mill was aging rapidly. Already its roof was spliced in half, windows in empty sheds stood bare with an old man’s toothless grin. Rubble gathered in new places every time the demolition team pulled down buildings that no longer fitted into plan. On other days, mongrels and rag pickers played on the rubble heap. Only the factory’s spire stood tall, a faithful watchman ever on guard. Except for the wizened gooseberry creeper that had painstakingly inched its way to the very top, the spire talked to no one. For years it had stood by wearing its fine hat of gooseberry leaves, watching the advancing tide of desolation. One day, the demolition men turned up again. They stood around the spire, making earnest notes on dog-eared pads. Later that night, the creeper warned its spire friend, “It’s your turn, I fear.” And the next day, trucks ferried in shovel-wielding, pickaxe-armed workers. Now the creeper trembled and the spire in turn reassured, “Stay calm, they cannot harm us.” The spire didn’t really understand, but standing tall and still, in all weather, in every situation, was all it had ever done. So from somewhere it found a small spiral of smoke and whiffed in reply. The workers, paid hourly rates, wasted not a moment. They formed a quick circle and stood, ready to strike at a given signal. Thunk. A thin white scratch appeared on the old spire wall, and the creeper felt the spire’s wince. The creeper gritted its teeth and held tight. Thuck. then Whack. A pause from the men to wipe the sweat away, and then again: Thaad. Thunk. Whack. The rag pickers collected, the mongrels moaned in sadness, and the sun paused overhead. It saw the spire’s resistance, heard the creeper’s whispers of encouragement, “Hold on, friend.” A little while later, the sun saw too how the creeper bent lower to croon, “There now, they have stopped for lunch.” The spire, already marked by deep dents, fine 48
scratches, was glad of the short respite. The sun too waited, and when the workers returned, it turned on the full wrath of its heat. In minutes, the sweat ran in profuse streams down bare backs, yet the workers cursed and went on till they could bear no more. “Oh heaven, it’s too much, this heat…” The furious contractor sent in two bulldozers next. The spire quailed, the creeper shivered on seeing them appear. And in the space of one night, the mill gathered even more scars. The rubble had spread all over; long toppled bricks, fine glass shards, old rusted pipes, and wires twisted out of shape covered every inch of barren ground. The dozers advanced, wheels shrieking, grinders bared and watering at the sight of so much to be broken down. But the more they gulped in, the more appeared left over. The drivers swore, reversed, advanced again and again, but soon the wheels stumbled and stalled on the rubble, unable to advance. The din pushed itself into the minds of people, some still not frozen into apathy. They removed the cotton from their ears and decided, “Something has to be done.” Letters appeared in influential city newspapers. A historic mill, a precious heritage is in danger of losing its life. Is the heritage committee sleeping? A reader filed a litigation chastising authorities for endangering a heritage site. Another litigation alleged the municipality was subverting laws to favor builders. And in air-conditioned television studios, activists and experts threatened to expose the builder lobbies, “They are intent on setting up high-rises. Do they know the strain on the city’s infrastructure?” “Nonsense,” cried the builders, but the judges also refused to listen. The laws are being flouted, the government should stop the city’s breakdown, it ruled. The government meekly complied; after all, elections were near. The creeper broke the news to the spire quietly, because it had already been through so much. The sun too was gentle the next day. By noon, it had retreated behind dark clouds, and the rains came down, turning the creeper a brilliant shade of green, its tears painting the old gray walls, wiping every scratch mark away.
Tyson vs. Alderson Jul 11, 1985 Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, Atlantic City, New Jersey, U.S. Avoid the why, begin with the how. Description before motivation. As messy as storytelling. Joyce Carol Oates will go on to call him a savior, of sorts, legendary before there is a legend to define him, while a D.C. newspaper, lamenting Mike Tyson’s purchase of a local house, will dismiss him in stark and cruel language: Crazy or tortured, it doesn’t much matter. Alderson, a small cut blooming above his right eye, leans into the clinch, slowing Mike Tyson down, delaying the inevitable end, shortcoming. Years later, Mike Tyson will tell Matt Lauer: If I’m drinking, I think about suicide.
Tyson vs. Richardson Nov 13, 1985 Ramada Hotel, Houston, Texas, U.S. Correlation, this fight. The right and the left. The first and the last. Tyson is a little icebox, announces the sportscaster, rather than a refrigerator. As if metaphor could explain these brute poetics, as if these small fires could singe our wrists. The sportscaster again: Mike Tyson’s neck is approximately the same size of actress Shelley Duvall’s waist. As if this revelation could wash, as if these deluge waters could cover this world. Imagine what flashed behind Richardson’s eyes when he fell: an apocalypse, a striking disclosure. As the architects said: a building under assembly is a ruin in reverse. 50
Tyson vs. Young Dec 27, 1985 Coliseum, Latham, New York, U.S. Define: a trajectory without an impact. Resonant phantasms, delirious with inchoate clues. A fight won and lost, lost and found. I expect them to be hungry, but Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;m hungrier, Mike Tyson says, in celebration and distress. His own aggression defined as elusive: an impact without a trajectory. (The vice, the versa.) The way we bend, the gravity, the words. The need for poetry to overcome barbarity. Elusive trajectories: the roadmap of the ring where there is no road. The squared circle a halo, a haven. An end without end: infinite definition. A window into this good night, this satisfied kingdom.
EMMA ROSE GOWANS
I Left the Desert I’m calling mi padre on the old blue landline. I read a conspiracy theory once that our private conversations are secretly recorded as soon as we begin a call. That’s how the FBI tracks landlines—how everything you say on a landline is fair game because that’s how landlines work and how the FBI works, but we’re alright, because we don’t talk about border crossings or drug deals. We talk about what mi padre sees working the graveyard shift at the gas station back home in Luestra, the deep western intersection of earth and sky—the failed best kept secret now with a population made up primarily of ghosts from the Alamo who have wandered from their mission in San Antonio into this vast desert of nowhere. He once told me about a woman who appeared suddenly at the gas station without any car in sight. She wore golden hoop earrings and a lily-white headscarf that shone on her midnight-dark skin, and she offered to reveal mi padre’s fortune in exchange for a bottle of beer and a pack of bubblegum. This woman, mystical wanderer of the empty highways and sand dunes at two in the morning, read mi padre’s hands like a tragic poem, la poesía, whispering and incanting like the sojourning Alamo ghosts. She spent many minutes wandering the canyon-deep creases of his working hands before telling him that his soul would only ever be sanctified through unconquerable pain. “Are you sanctified yet?” I ask him every time we speak, tonight included. We speak in Spanish—because mi padre prefers it, but also because my dorm roommate is trying to learn the language and it helps her to listen to our conversations. After we have spoken for nearly an hour, Izara falls asleep—face down on our small foldout table. She isn’t inherently mystic, but she wears big hoop earrings that remind me of the faraway fortune teller. Or maybe that woman wasn’t even a fortune teller—maybe 52
she was just desperate to get something for nothing and lucky enough to con a simple man into giving it to her. Supervivencia del más apto. In a way, she had all the fortune in the desert. “Not yet, but I’ll let you know when my shift ends.” He laughs, and I can see his sun-weathered face in my mind, scratched like old leather, grinning celestial. “Ask him how many hours since he’s had a customer.” Izara raises her head to rest in her hands. “Izzy wants to know when the last customer was.” “Uh, let me check.” His voice shifts away from his phone, and I know that he is leaning towards the analog clock above the door with black hands thinner than spiderwebs. I place the old phone between us so that she can hear his staticky response: “Four hours and fifty-three minutes ago. This place is dead empty tonight. I should probably go restock the beer cooler. I don’t really understand how it always gets empty so quickly with so few customers, I think the ghosts must be taking it.” Izara starts to giggle, but I glare at her knowingly, so she stuffs her mouth with her fingers, biting her knuckles with her teeth—whiter than the fortune teller’s headscarf. My father, supernatural in his own right, believes deeply in the spirits of Luestra. Izara, a level-headed Massachusetts girl, has never met the Bible belt apparitions who haunt the small towns—begging with cardboard signs that say GOD SAVE TEXAS and slowing down the fast food drive-thru lines. Though the ghosts cannot eat, the spirit soldiers still crave the hamburgers and milkshakes. They stare at the faded neon signs as they drive by in their astral pickup trucks. I used to work the evening shift at a chain restaurant during the summers, and we all knew that when the pasty-skinned boys drove up in the old red Chevrolet, we were being haunted. They never bought anything, but they liked to hang around, sometimes until closing time, talking to the girls behind the counter. My best friend back then, Alice, who seemed to be in love with every man she ever met, swore that she would charm one of the ghosts into kissing her. She disappeared one night just before the end of her shift. I didn’t know what to do, so I picked up her purse to take it to her house the next morning before school. Her mom let me up into her room, where I found her asleep on top of her sheets—mouth full of some unidentifiable substance. “Wake up, Alice.” I pulled at her shoulders, turning her over so that she could choke the grit out of her mouth. I realized, then, that her mouth was full of spit-damp sand, which splattered over her stained mauve carpet. “What happened?” “I kissed a ghost.” Her voice was distant and raw, but she looked somehow changed. “I kissed him and he disappeared and then I woke up here, in bed.” I eventually learned from Ximena Abril, the ancient widow who lived across the street from the house I grew up in, that Luestra apparitions are made of the desert 53
sand itself. Ximena, condemned as insane by nearly everyone, claimed that there were secret messages in the positioning of the stars that only she could decipher. She knew a whole lot about ghosts because she was nearly a ghost herself. The midsummer sky told her one night that the spirits rose from the dunes themselves. I visited her every week or so until I finally left Luestra. She often spoke in tongues of madness, but occasionally she would utter wisdom that made me wonder if she was the only sane person in the town. When I visited Ximena, all she ever talked about was the ghosts. In retrospect, all anyone ever did in Luestra was talk about ghosts—the beings that shared our town and our desert and our sky. Like Alice, everyone was sort of in love with them, or at least, the idea of them, in one way or another. I think that I left because I never felt that way—I never really cared about them. It was as though no one else realized that there were ghosts in every city and town, and though Luestra shared a special connection with the dead, our ghosts were only a tiny fraction of the millions of spirits in the world. Sometimes, I wonder if back in Luestra they consider me insane like Ximena because I left. I’m not as interested in small town ghosts, but I like the idea of being compared to her—of walking the fine line between madness and wisdom, fully understood by no one. “Well, goodnight, I guess,” mi padre chuckles. “The coolers won’t restock themselves.” “I love you,” I reply, but I am speaking to a phone line now dead like the Alamo ghosts. I turn to Izara, whose dark eyes are strained red with exhaustion. She takes a sip out of the neon energy drink can beside her. “What do you think that woman meant when she said that your dad would only be sanctified through pain?” she says suddenly. “It’s such a weird statement—why would she even think to say something like that?” “Maybe she’s a real witch,” I smile. “Anything is possible in Luestra.” Izara’s wild eyebrows furrow. “Why did you ever leave, Jazmín? If it’s as magical as you say, why would you forfeit all that for this place?” “I like college, and I like Washington, DC. I like it a whole lot here.” I wave off her remarks. “Plus I grew up in Luestra, so the insanity was all pretty normal to me.” “I don’t really see how that could ever be normal.” Izara frowns. Izara is right—Luestra isn’t normal, and I didn’t leave it because I found it so. The Luestra that I was born into was a tenuous equilibrium of supernatural phenomena and hollow remnants of la patria, the darkest place on earth. I have seen boys invoke saints in supermarket parking lots before they bust in with stolen guns and rob the owners bone dry. I have seen women’s faces plastered on telephone poles because they have gone missing, caught up in the unforgiving mouths of the dunes and the desert that does not set its prisoners free. 54
When the sojourning mystic told my father that he would only be sanctified through pain, I believe she was reading the fortune of the entire town in the cracks of his hands. Her prediction: Luestra, owned by spectral soldiers, would always be ruled by its history of suffering. In this history, I would have been sanctified every time my professor handed me back an essay that I had written stained red with correction. I would have been sanctified when the white boy who sat next to me in English class told me that I didn’t belong here. I would have even been sanctified when Izara stepped on my toes in the student kitchen. But I am no longer a part of Luestra, and sanctification is my father’s fortune—the town’s fortune. To get to this big city college, I crawled through possessed deserts and the secret messages of the night sky—not to be sanctified, but to get away. I know the story of my father and the story of the ghosts, but Luestra is not my story. Like windswept sand, I have carried my mystic memories far away with me. I tell myself that I will build my own story where I do not need sanctification to survive. Here, in this new city, I will find my own ghosts.
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CONTRIBUTOR NOTES ______________________________________________ Jodi Andrews has a chapbook The Shadow of Death, available from Finishing Line Press. She lives in South Dakota with her husband, and she teaches English at South Dakota State University. Emma Rose Gowans, a fifteen-year-old second-generation Costa Rican-American, aspires to use her writing to connect diverse groups of people through emotional experiences and share her heritage. She is a two-time graduate of the South Carolina Governor’s School For the Arts and Humanities summer programs, and is previously unpublished. In her free time, she enjoys playing tennis, studying, participating in various extracurricular academic activities, and all things fashion! She can be contacted on her Instagram: @emmarosegowans. Anu Kumar is a graduate of the MFA Program in Writing (fiction) from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Quarterly Review, Numéro Cinq, Aerogram and other places. Her novel, The Language of Longing, is due February 2019 from Speaking Tiger Books, India. M. P. McCune lives and writes in New York City. Her flash fiction and creative nonfiction pieces have appeared in We’ll Never Have Paris, Gravel, Former Cactus and The Ginger Collect. She frequents Twitter @MPMcCune2. Sorayya Moss studied literature and philosophy in France, currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has been featured in Big Scream magazine. Bradley B. Onishi, PhD is Associate Professor of Religion at Skidmore College. His creative work has appeared at the American Book Review, HuffPost, and Religion Dispatches. He is author of The Sacrality of the Secular, published by Columbia University Press in 2018. Sarah Priscus lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, where she studies English and Theatre at the University of Ottawa. She has previously been published in Every Day Fiction. Her hobbies include working on a novel and telling people that she “is working on a novel”. She can be found on Twitter at @sarahpriscus. 57
Andrew Rihn is a writer of essays, poems, and scholarly articles. He is the author of several chapbooks, including America Plops and Fizzes (sunnyoutside press) and The Rust Belt MRI (Pudding House). Along with his wife, the writer Donora A. Rihn, he coauthored the chapbooks The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: An Election Cycle (Moria Books/ Locofo Chaps) and The Day of Small Things (Really Serious Literature). Together, they live in Portage Lakes, OH with their two rescue dogs. Kaylie Saidin grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and now lives in New Orleans. She is an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel. Her work has won the 2018 Dawson Gaillard Award for Fiction and has been nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. You can read more of her in Jellyfish Review, Every Pigeon, Porridge Magazine, and others at kayliesaidin.weebly.com. Elizabeth Sunflower is a poet, teacher, wife, mother, and rock collector living in Philadelphia.
Xenia Taiga lives in southern China with a cockatiel, a turtle and an Englishman. http://xeniataiga.com/ Pamela Taylor is a data guru by day and a poet by night. She has a doctorate in social psychology from UCLA, a MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is a Cave Canem Fellow. When she is not working or writing, she’s dancing Argentine tango in the Boston area. Pamela’s first chapbook of poetry, My Mother’s Child, was published by Hyacinth Girl Press in June 2015. Christopher Valdheims is a writer based in Los Angeles. Kathleen Wise is a writer, performer, and visual artist. She has worked in theaters all across the country as well as in many independent films, TV, and web series. Her directorial film debut, Sanctuary, premiered at the Montana Film Festival 2017, and her feature screenplay A Round Tuit was short listed for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Kathleen earned her MFA from NYU Graduate Acting, and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College, where she spent a year abroad studying dance in Paris and West African dance and art in Senegal. She continually seeks opportunities for collaboration with artists, in multi-disciplinary work and as both a performer and creator. Kathleen is Brooklyn-based, in theory, currently living on the road from one gig to the next,
traveling abroad whenever possible. She is also a painter, singer, and cellist. To view her work, please visit kathleenwise.squarespace.com and follow @kafaweenwise.
Image Credits: Cover Photo: Benjamin Woodard. Page 47: Valentin MĂźller (via Unsplash)