Barely south review
S e p t e m b e r 2012 Old Dominion University
The students and faculty of Old Dominion University’s MFA program in Creative Writing form a lively and supportive community of writers in beautiful southeastern Virginia. The Tidewater region’s story is shaped by its history and its diversity—by its dynamic fusion of old and new. There is great complexity in any form or creative assertion of “here”, and it is in this spirit that Barely South Review embraces the opportunity to feature works from emerging as well as established writers. We are interested in great writing in its myriad forms. We seek to present many voices, especially those that defy easy regional, thematic, and stylistic categorization. Visit us online at barelysouth.com. Barely South Review has two reading periods each year: September 1 to November 30 for the April issue, and January 1 to March 31 for the September issue. We seek works of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and art. In addition, Barely South Review seeks entries for the Norton Girault Literary Prize from February 1 to roughly March 15 each year. The Norton Girault Prize is awarded in only one genre each year, on a rotating basis. See http://barelysouth.com for full guidelines, exact reading periods, and genre for the Norton Girault Prize Copyright 2012.
Front Cover: “Synastry”, Sanchari Sur, Color Photograph. Back Cover: “Unharvested”, Adrienne Wallner, Color Photograph.
Fiction Ian Couch Lucas Flatt Joshua Norman Amana Katora Tarah Gibbs Nonfiction Jerry Healey Dillon Tripp Lauren Hurston Geoff Watkinson Jodi Denny Poetry Jeff Turner Kevin Oâ€™Connor Alex McGaughan Sarah Pringle Eric Heald-Webb Administrative Staff Michael Alessi Liz Argento Andrew Squitiro
Editorial Advisory Board Luisa A. Igloria John McManus Michael Pearson Janet Peery Sheri Reynolds Tim Seibles Managing Editor Lucas Flatt Design & Typesetting Eric Heald-Webb Barely South Review logo Josephine A. Carino
Art Sanchari Sur Communion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 93 Affinity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 94 Rainbow . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 95
Emily Strauss Winter Sunset . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 97
Emily Threlkeld Callao Colorblock . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99
Merlin Flower Bend . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101 Ever . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
Kelly Nulty Forgotten Robots . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105 Forgotten Robots . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 106
Otha â€œVakseenâ€? Davis III Narcissistic Lust . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109
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Shay Belisle Stampede . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111
Fiction Whitney Ray Grown Woman Business . . . . . . . . . . . 16
Alex Miller This is Nashville . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47
Josh Peterson To See the Bear . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 62
Lis Anna Tolstoy and the Checkout Girl . . . . . . . . . 80
Frank Scozzari The Triumph . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 114
Grant Garland The Kind of People That can Replace Anything . . . 144
Allie Marini Batts Roses for Celeste . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 155
Carly Alaimo Missed Connections . . . . . . . . . . . . . 170
Rebekah Goemaat The Dead in Christ . . . . . . . . . . . . . 195
Nonfiction Abigail Higgs Notes of a Filthy Young Woman . . . . . . . . . 28
Hunter Liguore Oh, Industry . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 38
Lauren Kelly Within the Circle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58
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Joelle Renstrom A Sort of Homecoming . . . . . . . . . . . . 130
Christopher Lowe Taren . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 165
Brenda Wilson Wooley Lost . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 185
Dominique Traverse Locke Blue Ribbon . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14 The Miscarriage Circus . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Wendy Carlisle Vacation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34
Phil Tabakow Another Emerati Morning . . . . . . . . . . . 35
Virginia Shank San Antonio . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36
Rafael Miguel Montes Keratin . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43
Lindsay Miller When the Witches are in Bloom . . . . . . . . . 45
Ryder Collins if I were so much younger/if it could all be reversed . . 46
Heather Foster Mother of the Fat Girl . . . . . . . . . . . . 60
Karrie Waarala At the Corner of February . . . . . . . . . . . 61
Ruth Holzer Chloroforming the Rats . . . . . . . . . . . 74
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Radford Skudrna Little Brown Bat . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75
R. Flowers Rivera Salt . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77
Matthew Falk Aubade . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 78
Tera Vale Ragan Exiled . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 90
Leah Waller We Were Horses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 112
John Fenlon Hogan Desert Monologue . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125
William Walsh After Five O’clock at the Maple Leaf Bar . . . . . . 127
Erin Kilian October 20 2004 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 151
L.E. Sullivan The Ornithologist’s Son Circa 1983 . . . . . . . 154
Doug Ramspeck Nat Turner’s Vision . . . . . . . . . . . . . 160 Mud Sky . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 162
AJ Roberts Yom Kippur . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 164
Carrie Osborne Jiffy Jars . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 181 Supper . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 182
Kate Partridge Touchdown Jesus . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 183
Cynthia Sampson Sex . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 204
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Erum Ahmed White . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 206 Boy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 207
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If we can agree that April is cruel, then what of September? September is an oblique month, and in a way it sets the mood. It’s 83 degrees today in Norfolk, and green abounds outside this corner office, as if plant matter missed the memo. Give it time. Soon comes darker fall and death by winter, concrete growing starker in the city, day by day. Dim to charcoal in the evenings. As we hibernate, enjoy these poets, writers, and artists who re-imagine maps and spaces. Suspicious of peeling signposts, they bring us back what they’ve discovered living around the edges, little oblique memos that we might else overlook. In this issue find conflict, lost and missed connections, homegrown agonies: sex in Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula, poison in the rats, canons in the brush, ghosts in the freezer. Find missing shoes (or will you?), Tolstoy out of time, summer dying on the vine. Next time we’ll talk shop with distinguished poets, writers, photographers, and musicians. Don’t miss that one. In spring we’ll come out with more poetry, art, and prose. Let’s hope for re-awakening. Lucas Flatt, Managing Editor 28 Sept. 2012
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Dominique Traverse Locke
I donâ€™t like to brag but I grow the best death and heartache of anyone around. You might say I have a black thumb, a knack for homegrown agony. Last summer, I planted an uncle and a father in the same row, just days apart. I weeded them and showered them with a watering can I kept behind my eyes. My harvest won Best Suffering at the county fair. It even beat the jelly made from bruises.
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The Miscarriage Circus
I. He had an elephant between his legs. Thatâ€™s what he wanted the audience to believe when he entered the Big Top riding a worm underneath a gray sheet, while the other clowns squirted each other with hoses. II. When the tightrope walker took the spotlight, she was naked except for the pink tutu squeezing her waist. The pole, heavy in her hands, dictated each step. Her body in the middle of the wire, toes pointed, could sense only that there was no net, no net beneath. III. The fat man with a mustache and top hat yells Come one, come all and take a look at the unformed thing! The strange little creature with no face, no bones! The crowd races to enter the tent and gathers around a glass jar of alcohol â€“ a bean-shaped boy floats inside.
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I smelled the rot for weeks before I found the dead goat in the doghouse. He was curled up tight, like a sleeping cat, his knobby legs bent over his head. The hundred-degree summer days steamed muscle from bone, and when I reached inside the door and touched his side, a section of gray fur sloughed away. I wondered who I should tell. My mother and I had moved in with her rodeo-cowboy fiancé, Jeff, and his eighteen-year-old son, Brandon, only a month ago. Nothing felt like mine, not the square brick house, the stray cats by the creek, the barns or the roping arena or the horses. At fifteen, I moved around the farm like a shy guest, afraid to turn on the TV or get a drink of water. I crouched by the doghouse in the side of the front yard, scratching the tattoo of chigger bites along my panty line, lines of sweat running down my calves. I watched Jeff’s son Brandon, a high-school senior, come out from the barn. He’d been cleaning stalls, and his clothes looked shrink-wrapped to him. I stared at the triangle of his chest, his wide, brown shoulders. When we moved in my mother ordered me to be nice to Brandon. He suffered from learning disabilities and stuttered. He went to a speech therapist in Tulsa every Wednesday. “He’s a good kid, but nothing like you,” my mom said, patting my leg. At my old school, I was straight-A-everything, student of the month, adored by my teachers. I was also pale and skittish. Brandon smoked behind the barn at dusk and blared Pearl Jam in his lifted-up Jeep. I was desperate to impress him.
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Behind me, my mother sat in a lawn chair on the porch, painting her toenails a copper color. Jeff loped a horse in the arena, red dust billowing in his wake. I felt guilty about the goat, as if by finding the animal I was responsible for its condition. I remembered how the awkward creature would graze around the yard, allowing Jeff to avoid mowing. The goat used to stand on top of the doghouse, appearing to survey the lay of the land, and my mother would laugh. She was delicate, sensitive to animal death, and I didn’t want to tell her what I had found. I stood up and waved Brandon over to the doghouse. The scent of the decaying goat was thick, pungent and sweet. I felt light-headed with the smell, with Brandon’s presence. “Fuck me,” Brandon said when I pointed at the goat. He could usually cuss without stuttering, at least. “Why did he go in there?” I asked. “Animals like close dark spaces when they’re hurting,” he said, though he took a solid minute to get the sentence out. His observation reminded me of myself, hiding in my mother’s closet while she fought with my father over Jeff. I stood behind her hanging dresses while the shouting trembled the walls. “Jill, help me get this to the Dumpster,” Brandon said. I felt a chill of pleasure when he said my name. He instructed me to carry the doghouse from the bottom corner, as the roof was detachable. A swarm of black flies flew from the door when we lifted the structure. The doghouse was heavier than I thought, and the goat slid around unpleasantly inside. For a moment I thought I was going to be sick. I clenched my teeth until the wave of nausea passed. I did not want Brandon to think I was weak. On one, two, three, we swung the doghouse into the Dumpster where the soiled shavings from the stalls went. My shirt rode up over my white midriff and I blushed, even though Brandon didn’t seem to be looking. I wished he was. Just before we moved, I’d received my first kiss from a boy I met at the local rodeo, a tall boy, big as a linebacker, who groped me in the sticky dark of the movie theater and led my hands to his hardness. I found him terrifying, fascinating as a science project, my own desire still detached from me. After the boy went away, I would stand in the perfume section at Wal-Mart and smell men’s cologne, the musky, woodsy scent that reminded me of the boy, of his tongue in my mouth.
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Brandon was walking away, back to the barn, without a word to me. I wished he had stayed. I stared down at my pudgy hands, my nails bitten to the quick. My heart-shaped mood ring flared purple in the sun, and I couldn’t remember what the color meant. Passion, jealousy? I looked at my mother, painting her toenails in the lawn chair. She was tan and blonde, her features bone-china fragile and lovely. When we went out to dinner together, the young waiters flirted with her and overlooked me. I was beginning to wonder if my mother stole my youth from me when I slept, if she slid an IV just beneath my clear skin and sucked my prettiness into her. I barely passed for cute now, and I worried about how undesirable I would be by forty. I thought of the cheerleaders I envied at my old school, their stork-like legs in shorts. Their PTA mothers were dumpy, clad in holiday-themed outfits. I’d just learned about symbiotic relationships in science class and I thought, then, that mothers and daughters must be like parasite and host, one forever feeding off the vitality of the other. Mom maintained her glamour by staying inside the house, away from things like the goat. The outdoor world of the farm shivered with tick and mosquito life. The air was rotten with hot horse manure. Herds of feral cats multiplied in the barns and hunted alongside the creek. Half of them suffered from disease. Their fur appeared moth-eaten, their eyes crusted with yellow pus. Cats raced across the yard, hauling dead rats and shrews to cover. At night, the hoarse yowls of toms broke me from sleep. Inside the modest brick house Jeff built for his first wife, my mother painted her bedroom Evening Blush. She slip-covered the brown sofas and whitewashed the cabinets. The house became a soft blur of pinks and creams, of cut glass bowls filled with apple-cinnamon potpourri. Lace curtains screened the drought-browned front lawn from view. Mom had Jeff’s old roping magazine articles reframed with silver matting. When Jeff was nineteen, he and his brother won the team roping national championship. At forty-five years old, Jeff listened to self-help tapes by successful athletes. “You wouldn’t believe how famous Jeff is,” Mom would tell me. “People come from all over America to train with him.” At home, my own father was balding, lumpy in Dockers and rumpled pink button-downs, a family doctor in a small Oklahoma town of few people and fewer disasters. Mom often insinuated that Dad enjoyed affairs with the nurses he worked with, though he paid for every last hobby she wanted to pursue—five-hundred dollars for scrapbook supplies and classes, pottery, stained glass, then the drastic and ill-fated departure into team roping, a rodeo sport women couldn’t even practice professionally.
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The event was comprised of two partners, a heeler who roped the back legs of a moving steer and a header who roped the horns and pulled the rope taut against the horn of the saddle. Roped, the steer was bound at both ends, hovering in the middle of the arena like a strung-up marionette animal. My mother, with her smooth, delicate arms, wanted to be a header, the position that required the most brute strength. Surely Jeff knew when she signed up for the lessons he offered to hardened cowboys that she was incapable of actually roping. But she must have been a novelty for him, hard and soft and determined, belted into Wranglers, a curl of rope in her manicured hands. I wondered if Jeff ever refunded the money my father paid him for the lessons, getting a woman out of the deal as he did. I couldn’t ask my dad, hadn’t seen him in months. He had been distant and short with me since he noticed a crescent of hickey on my throat, courtesy of the linebacker boy. He didn’t argue when Mom suggested I accompany her to Jeff’s, two towns away from home. I sensed that my mother and I had recently melded together, for my father. We were now one loose, erratic woman. My mother stood up from her lawn chair and beckoned me over. She stretched, arms over her head, as I walked to her. I glanced at Jeff in the arena, finishing his ride on the horse he was breaking. The horse’s haunches were lathered in white sweat, like foamy soap suds. Jeff was watching my mother stretch, watching her T-shirt ride up to reveal a firm patch of her belly. Though Mom was not looking back at him, she seemed to wear a selfsatisfied half-smile, possess the awareness that he was eyeing her. My stomach went cold and hard, and I wondered, how does a woman draw someone to her like that, so effortlessly? I looked down at her metallic nails, the little rhinestone toe ring she wore, her shorts shorter than mine, her legs slimmer and shapelier. I felt pale and shriveled again, thought of a recent TV special I’d seen on the disease that causes children to age prematurely. “Your toes look pretty,” I told my mother. “Maybe you can paint mine like that.” She wouldn’t notice the goat, I thought. These nuances on the farm, the fecundity and decay of the outside world, were for me only. She smiled at me, reached out to tuck strands of my lank brown hair back into my ponytail. “You have your father’s feet,” she said. “Your father’s legs.” “Great,” I said with the new, cheap sarcasm I was dousing all my language in. My mother laughed. I knew she was entertained by deprecating remarks about my father. I wondered if she knew she was insulting me too. I don’t think she did. In love with Jeff, she did not seem particularly aware.
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“Help me clean the house,” she said, taking my hand, her feet dancing on the hot concrete as she led me inside. “You can do Brandon’s room.” We catered to the men now. This was new for my mother, a woman who never had dinner ready on the table when my dad came home. I think she was trying to fit in on the farm, provide a haven for men whose work was so archaically rugged. I felt my heartbeat pick up as I wheeled the vacuum into Brandon’s room. The small bedroom smelled of cheap spicy aftershave, of musky, dirty sheets. More like a little boy’s room than I had noticed before—there was a baseball mitt on his bookshelf, a half-eaten sack of sunflower seeds, a cherry sucker in the shape of a heart, probably Valentine’s candy left over from last year, maybe a token from some girl at school. There were only two books, dog-eared Hardy Boys, and I remembered my mother speaking of Brandon’s learning disabilities. I felt tenderly toward him, looking at the books. I pushed the vacuum under the bed, heard something catch and snarl in the machine. When I turned the vacuum over to investigate, there was a crinkled condom wrapper stuck in the mechanism. I peeled it out and put it in my pocket, excited by the idea that Brandon had managed to smuggle a girl into his bed, maybe at night while I was sleeping in the next room. How could he have been so quiet, I wondered. On the top of the bookshelf, in a chipped ashtray, was a stockpile of more condoms. I put one in my pocket, pressed the sharp edges of the package into my palm all through dinner. At fifteen, I did not know that holding desire so far away from your body was a dangerous thing. I woke early the next morning in Jeff’s house, in my white carved bed, in the gritty, dull August light, with the image of Brandon, his shoulders moving back as he lifted the doghouse, full in my head. My limbs were heavy with a strange, long ache that reminded me of the growing pains I used to experience as an adolescent. I went out into the dark hall. My body felt blown up and tight like a pool raft. My mother’s bedroom door was halfway open, and she was still asleep there with Jeff, both of them cocooned inside a gaudy metallic duvet. I knew Brandon would be outside, finishing morning chores before the heat settled in for the day, and I thought it was just the two of us now, awake in the world, in the grainy blue-gray right after dawn. I was wearing thin, silky pajama shorts that were a bright blue, an exotic indigo, and for once I did not mind the way my legs looked under the liquid fabric as I strode across the yard.
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I walked the dip and rise of the furrowed pastures toward the string of barns where I assumed Brandon was feeding horses. Grasshoppers clung to my shorts. The insects felt heavy and cool, their bodies loaded with dew, their claws prickling into my skin as I knocked them away. I passed the grove of stubby sumac trees just before the barns. Sumac was mildly poisonous to livestock, and Jeff was always saying he needed to saw the grove down, but my mother’s presence made him forget about farm maintenance, made him sleep in late while his son did all the feeding. I wondered what that would feel like, to be so full up with love for someone that you could hardly move, glutted on their presence, woozy as if after a Thanksgiving dinner. I felt impossibly awake. The powdery red berries on top of the sumac bushes looked like dull fire. Cicada husks clung to the branches of the sumac, and I pulled off the shells and put them on my shirt, as I used to when I was a smaller girl. Bug brooches. The old game seemed silly once I had done it, and I skimmed my hands over my T-shirt, the husks crackling and falling away. Brandon was in the first barn, by the Appaloosa’s stall, topping off the horses’ water buckets with the hose. His shirt was off, and there were intricate patterns of sweat and dirt drawn all over his back. The barn was very quiet, the horses eating and satisfied. There was only the low murmur of their chewing, an occasional pleased snort. I could hear my heart in my ears. “Can I help you with anything?” I said too loudly, my voice quavering. Brandon jumped, sloshing water from the hose onto the concrete walkway. He looked at me as if he couldn’t quite remember who I was. “Sure. You could take the other hose and fill up the rest of the buckets,” he said after a long moment. His stuttering was particularly severe, and I did not feel so ashamed at my own uncertainty. I dipped the hose into the horse buckets while Brandon went outside the barn to fill up the big watering troughs for the pasture horses. He came back quickly, a strange look on his face. “A opossum drowned in the front water tank,” he told me. “We need to get rid of it.” I followed him outside to the tank to see the animal, thinking how much death there was in this place. The opossum’s gray fur fanned out, feathery soft, in the water. He must have been trying to drink, balancing on the curved lip of the tank when he slipped, we decided. The local ponds
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were nearly dry, and drought made animals do desperate things. Brandon scooped him out with a shovel. The opossum’s nose and belly were a clean, new-born pink. I remembered directing funerals for ants as a girl. I remembered wailing hysterically when I saw a squashed baby bird on the sidewalk, his translucent head dented. Yet I was not affected by the opossum, only thrilled by Brandon’s nearness, this strange bond we seemed to be forming in the disposal of dead animals. I felt less grief for smaller lives now. Instead of burying the opossum, we walked to the back pasture, Brandon carrying the shovel in front of his body, me following close behind, like some strange religious procession. We placed the animal on a coyote trail as an offering. I picked a handful of black and yellow tickseed flowers and laid them next to the opossum. I sucked my abdomen in, squared my shoulders because I could feel Brandon watching me. I made sad comments about the opossum, what a shame it was, though I couldn’t have cared less. Brandon’s gaze was a heavy thing dragging across me. Stunned, I thought that I had somehow figured out how to make a man look at me, stumbled across the secret by accident. I never thought that he could see my attraction glancing off my skin and was only responding in kind. Brandon asked me if I’d ever had a boyfriend. I liked his stuttering now, the persistent, quick rhythm. I told him I’d had several boyfriends. He stepped in front of me and ran his hands under my shirt, over my belly, my wide hips, my pencil eraser nipples, pink and new. He was gentle, his fingertips rough. There were wasps thrumming beneath my skin. Each cell of my body felt big as the honey-comb shaped compartments in a wasp-nest. We still stood directly in front of the dead opossum, and I thought he was an odd witness. Brandon found a cicada husk still on my shirt, one I had forgotten to remove, and he laughed and pulled the insect brooch off, crushing the shell to brown powder beneath his fingers. “I used to do that too,” he said as he lowered himself onto the grass, away from the dead animal. He tugged at the hem of my shorts to pull me down with him. I liked that there was no scuffling with words or promises, just agreement, the woods so cool and surreal, removed from the rest of the farm. He gathered me into his lap and we kissed. The pine needles on the ground were sharp and damp beneath my palms. I felt desire open under me like a trap door. “We better go Jill,” Brandon said, pulling his hands off me. He was shaking a little. I didn’t want to leave. In the woods, I had managed to become whole and wanted. Women like my mother were coveted in the public world. They
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were christened beautiful, invited on formal dates by famous men. I decided I could settle for the shadowy appreciation in between, if I could have Brandon. He stood up, brushed down his jeans, and offered me a hand. I could smell him on my face and neck, taste his salt on my lips. I knew then that we would not talk about this coming together, but would continue to meet. I was thrilled to the point of dizziness and a little frightened. We walked out of the pasture, back toward the house. The fat yellow sun was just cresting the trees. That day my mother began to receive calls at the house from one of Jeff’s women, a younger rodeo girl with a shrill voice who claimed Jeff still loved her. I did not know Jeff, not really, and I wonder if my mother even did. He was too laconic, too sedate to ever really know. He was an excellent horseman, one of those men who show you the meaning of centaur. Off a horse he seemed unsure of himself, bow-legged, short, and altogether not bright. Yet he was famous enough for women to fight over him. Jeff spent the entire day locked in the bedroom with my mother. I turned on all the fans in the house for white noise, but I could still hear her shrieks of indignation every so often, Jeff’s low murmuring voice, talking her down. I stared out the picture window in the living room and watched Brandon ride in the arena. He could not ride like his father did, but he was more beautiful on the ground, I thought. He raced the Appaloosa horse down the length of the arena too long and too fast, until the animal’s sides seemed to be caving in. I wondered what he was thinking about as he rode, if he was thinking about me. I thought that he would be my step-brother in three months. Maybe we could run away before then, if I made him fall in love with me. When my mother emerged from her room to prepare supper that evening, her face was pink and swollen, and she was wearing too much lipstick. I helped her make fettuccine, salad, and margaritas for Jeff. The cramped, outdated kitchen was overheated, and she was still angry. She slammed cabinet doors, slopped boiling water out of the pasta pot. I was dolled up for Brandon’s return in a sun-dress, wearing make-up I had borrowed from my mother, my brown hair gathered in a low ponytail so the ringlets would curl against my neck. When the men came inside, smelling of sweat and dirt, my mother put a frosty margarita in my hand and told me to deliver the drink to Jeff in the living room.
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Jeff smiled and thanked me. He asked me what I had been doing today, was I liking the farm much? This was the most he had ever interacted with me. I answered him politely. He told me I looked very pretty tonight, told me I should wear dresses more often, that they made me look like a lady. I could hear water running as Brandon took a shower, and I wished that he was present to hear his father compliment me. My mother appeared abruptly in the archway that divided the living room from the kitchen. Her face was wet with tears, contorted. “Why are you talking that way to her?” she asked. “Don’t act like that now,” Jeff said, his voice low, a warning. “Don’t say nothing like that.” “Go to your room for a minute, honey,” my mother said to me. I sat on my bed, on the rose-printed sheets, and tried not to cry. Brandon would not see me at dinner, would not see how pretty I had tried to look for him. I was slightly confused by the exchange between my mother and Jeff, but I knew my mother felt, somehow, that her fiancé was flirting with me. I still don’t know if she actually saw something in Jeff’s eyes—he never touched me, never came onto me. Her rage at the other woman’s calls must have been spilling over onto everything. Yet I was pleased then to believe that I had stolen some of my mother’s glow. Brandon and I met in the woods for a week, and the time remained suspended and shadowy as limbo, a pocket of yearning and confusion. I carried those hours back to the house with me every day, worked them over and over in my thoughts like a piece of hard candy kept under my tongue. I was grounded at the farm, finally, had purpose in the world outside of perfect spelling tests, award ceremonies. When my mother drove into town to go the grocery store, I stood in the bathroom she shared with Jeff and drew lines of her creamy blush onto my cheeks, swathed liquid eyeliner under my lashes. I thought I had evolved into a dark-looking creature, witchy and beautiful. I thought maybe I had managed to shuck some of my own schoolgirl whiteness off. Brandon ignored me in the house. He flushed, glanced down, when we passed in the close hallway, on the way to our respective bedrooms. When I tried to reach under the dinner table and touch his hand, the sharp cap of his knee, he jerked back as though I were scalding him. In the end, I was the one who asked him to come to my white twin bed, to the room just across from my mother’s. I had not let him have me fully yet, and unoriginally,
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I believed that once I allowed him inside me he would know who I was. I was still enough of a suburban girl that I wanted consummation to occur in a bed, not the itchy, buzzing woods. After finding the discarded condom wrapper, I had held the image of Brandon sneaking some lanky high school girl through his window, into his room, close to me all summer. I wanted to replace whoever she was. He came to me the night before the local rodeo. We were going as a family the next day, to watch Brandon and Jeff ride in the team roping event. They were roping together for the first time. Jeff was the header, and Brandon, slighter and perhaps more agile, was the heeler. I was excited to watch Brandon ride, to feel included in the world of rodeo. That night, I turned on all the fans in the house to muffle whatever noise we might make. I curled up under the rose sheets, naked and cold, my mosquito bites itching. The room was so dark that I could not see him walk to me. Close, dark spaces, I thought, remembering the goat. Brandon slithered under the sheets, put his hands on my hips. As long as he didn’t speak the transaction was not quite real. He felt like stone on top of me. There was no give to him. He was quick, furtive, and I felt the sharp pain. I thought, that’s all then. It was like turning a door knob, efficient and final. “I have to leave before I fall asleep,” Brandon said. He got out of the bed and tucked the covers around me. I was grateful for the gesture of tenderness because suddenly I felt skinned, half-alive. “You okay?” he asked. “Fine,” I said. “I don’t think I bled any. Must have been from riding horses.” He laughed, I think, a soft whoosh of air, and was gone. I scratched a mosquito bite on my thigh until there was slick blood on my hands. I was shaking, could still feel his weight on me. Yet I believed that I had him now, that he would agree to take me away. I did not see Brandon all the next day. He was practicing out in the arena, nervous about the rodeo that evening, Jeff said. I spent the afternoon trying on outfits in the stale, refrigerated air of the house. I wanted to look like one of the bright, painted-up girls I always saw loitering by the chutes at rodeos. I settled on a red, cut-out top my mother disapproved of. At dusk, Mom and I drove over to the event. She let me drive and my hands were shaking on the wheel. Pay attention, I told myself. “You’ve got too much make-up on,” Mom said to me in the car. “I know,” I said. My face felt numb with base and blush.
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“And that shirt,” she said. “You’re turning into a little harlot!” Yet her voice was light, half-teasing. “You wear things like this,” I told her. “Jeff seems to like it just fine.” My mother put her hand on the back of my neck, caressing me. Her fake nails felt hard and cold against my skin. “My baby,” she said. “Sometimes I wish you were still little enough to tuck back inside me. I wish I could save you from all this grown-woman business.” I don’t want to be saved, I thought. We parked out in a dirt lot beside the broken down little arena and walked to the middle of the grandstands. As I high-stepped up the bleachers, I felt pangs of soreness from Brandon the night before, and I liked the raw feeling, the way it made me think of him. We waited for Brandon and Jeff to ride, and I did not pay attention to the other events. I watched the way moths clustered around the arena lights, forming enormous halos of insects. My chest felt tight—the air was hazy with red dirt and cigarettes and smoke from the turkey legs being roasted at the concession stand. My mother was fidgeting on her length of the dented aluminum bleacher. I think we were both waiting for the men to come find us, to welcome of into the fold of this dusty place. Restless, I told my mother I was going to the concession stand. Instead I snaked back behind the Porta-Potties, trailers, and tied up horses, toward the chutes, looking for Brandon. I found him sitting on a gate, next to a girl with starchy, white-blonde hair. They were partially eclipsed by the announcer’s box, and Brandon had his wide hand on the small of the girl’s back. He leaned in and whispered something to her and she laughed, a harsh, cracking sound like dishes breaking. I thought my body was not big enough to hold in the pain I felt. I continued to walk toward him. I passed the light poles surrounding the arena and saw toads clustering around them. I had been going to rodeos since I was a very young girl, a family activity my mother always urged, though we were never horse people. I realized my mother had been searching for a cowboy a long time before Jeff, that she had been canvassing the scene for years. I used to stand around by the big light poles and pick up the toads, I thought. They were heavy and oddly warm in my hands, and I was thrilled by them,
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so funny and easy to catch. I watched the way the white moths moved into the toads’ mouths like snow falling. I wished I could sit down and hold the toads again. I don’t recall what I said to Brandon when I arrived in front of him. Only that I was trying on phrases of indignation I’d heard my mother and women on television use against men who had wronged them. Brandon’s face went white, sweaty, and he jumped down from the rungs of the fence, catching my gesturing hands in his. “She’s the daughter of the woman Dad’s marrying,” he said to the girl, who was only a spot of white-blonde hair in my fuzzy vision. “Go find your mom,” he said to me, swiveling my body back in the direction of the bleachers. “She has a crush on me,” he said to the girl, in a lowered voice. I felt I had left my body, my stomach full of shards of glass. I thought that I was never meant for this world—not like the women who were clustering next to Brandon, and probably, just down the fence, around Jeff. I was supposed to be in a clean suburban house, watching a large television, my homework already finished. I was supposed to have a boyfriend who would bring me corsages before school dances, who would take my virginity on a nice leather couch in his parents’ den. I was not brave enough, not rough enough for this place, and neither was my mother. I knew then that Jeff was cheating on her, that she allowed him this in return for safe passage into a grainy realm of adventure. I turned and walked away from the arena. I would not see Brandon again, and I could still feel him between my legs, could still feel the faint shock of pleasure there. I walked through the lights, away from the farm, back toward my school and my father’s house. I walked through the curtain of insects, and I felt hundreds of moths careening against me, crazed and drunk on light.
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Notes of a Filthy Young Woman
Before Cindy, there were at least a hundred women. Maybe more. There was Giselle, who sat by me in a linguistics course and confessed to me her academic frustration in windy little Germanic whispers: “Gott, if da prof mentionz morphemes vun mare time, I’ll phonetically fomit!” She smelled like a well-kept duplex of college women who shared designer lotions and bowls of Chex Mix on a Sunday night—wild, domestically organized, and melon-ish. I looked forward to her mid-class utterances—her chin an inch away from my shoulder bone, my knees like irregular verbs shifting to accommodate the present tense of my groin muscles. There was Pamela, a coworker of mine at Pizza King. She loved to tell me the messy sex details of her failing marriage. Late at night, once the dinner rush had died and all there was left for us to do was smoke and ignore the collage of pizza crusts, pepperonis and sausage crumbles on the floor, Pamela would divulge, even act out, her marital tribulations. I’ve never looked at breadsticks the same. Pamela found me comforting. To be honest, I was honored. In her grease-stained baseball cap, her platinum-streaked hair burgeoning in loops from the back; the way her thick eyeliner was etched around her eyes like a preschooler’s first bout with coloring ovals; my goodness, I found her sexy. There were plenty of women: public transportation riders who’d smile at me across the bus-aisle; janitors, secretaries, lawyers, pedicurists, fellow
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students. There were ladies dumping high-grade octane into the orifices of their minivans, their offspring making blowfish-faces on the side windows as their mothers, shifting stance, proffered wishful gazes in my passing direction. These gazes, in retrospect, probably expressed envy toward my childless, carefree young-adulthood. Or maybe these looks meant nothing. But to me, they equaled lust. Restrained lasciviousness. All in one look. All in my imagination. Then, one evening, “Cindy from Philadelphia” sent me a Myspace message telling me I was a cutie. A cutie! I remember rereading the short message— Hey! I think you’re a cutie!—ten times, at least. Maybe twenty-six. Never was I so excited to be labeled as something descriptively equivalent to a tutu-clad pug or a fantastically fat infant. A cutie, for God’s sake! What intrigued me most was that Cindy saw me first; had liked what she saw (in a Myspace photo) and responded. Kablam! Not with a passing smile. Not with a sway or a blink. Not standing in front of a Chrysler Town and Country or setting a can of Pabst in front of me, bending needlessly too forward; but with three words—You’re a cutie! I was enamored. Over the next few months, Cindy and I spoke regularly on the phone. During that time, I moved from my chilly mouse-ridden house in central Indiana to a remote island off the coast of west Florida. Cindy was a speech pathologist. We spoke a lot about linguistics on the phone. After all, I’d just barely passed the course (Thanks a lot, Giselle!) and, being a writer, I felt very much like a lingual nincompoop. “It’s all descriptive,” Cindy told me one night. “To me, at least. I’m not sure how you didn’t get this, but if you’d paid attention, you’d have learned that linguistics has a lot to do with how you speak in regard to where you come from.” I loved it when Cindy scolded me like a teacher. I asked what had prompted her to contact me on Myspace. After a slight pause, Cindy said, “Well, you were there. I didn’t have to make eye contact with you. That was nice. Does that seem odd?”
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I didn’t answer. I had just come from a long line of imagined relationships. What could I say? Of course, I didn’t find it odd that Cindy flirted with me online. It’s much easier to disclose one’s feeling to a computer screen than to someone who might, for example, frown or, hands splayed, slowly back away. Every day, I invented steamy scenarios around the activities of my mundane life (involving everyday, mundane women) so that I wouldn’t have to deal with such disappointment face-to-face. Right away I told myself I’d never tell Cindy certain things: For example, I would never admit that I used to scour gay bars—all two of them in Muncie, Indiana—trying to climb in bed with any woman who noticed a stain on my V-neck; that I’d settle, eventually, for some gal who claimed to enjoy Jane’s Addiction, for example. Someone who also liked dancing. And blinking. And oxygen. Then the two of us would stumble out of the bar, secretly rehearsing the other’s first name, toward my house. Once through my bedroom door, I never ceased being amazed by the awkward moment—this happened several times—when the woman who loved blinking just as much as I did wound up staring, her mouth agape in some frozen-horror gasp, while I excavated a shoebox out from a drawer. No, I would never tell Cindy that, more than a few times. I’d also asked ladies who were guests at my house, mid-top-drawer-scavenge: “Do you prefer battery-operated or not?” only to twist around to find no one there. If they didn’t flat-out scamper away, they always asked to sleep in another room. “Alone, please. I need to catch my breath.” I thought these incidents had something to do with my looks at first, the way my jelly-rolls caught the light in my bedroom, transforming them into wide monster grins across the front of my t-shirt. But I learned soon enough that, really, it was the state of my bedroom—old mail shoved into the slats of venetian blinds, a tree/plant in the corner that had sprouted, or more like burst, from an old Reebok; dust and dirt and ash and bloodstains. A habitat fit for forensics. Still, I kept talking, wanting to talk, with Cindy because she had found me first. We’d already had tons of conversations over the phone and she hadn’t even seen me in person yet, let alone my new Floridian bedroom/unintentional greenhouse. I decided I’d try to be a cleaner person. So I cleaned my house—drove out the Palmetto bugs and washed the linoleum floors by
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hand and with a Tide stain stick. Also, with my toothbrush and some balsamic vinegar because Cindy had told me vinegar is a good, environmentally-sound cleaning aid. I was hopeful about Cindy and I, sure, but not until I was certain it was love—real love—would I willingly admit certain things about my life. I figured it best to keep my mouth shut about the fact that I was a filthy, lousy housekeeper and a dirty-minded dyke. I had no lascivious looks from Cindy with which to make an assumption. When she flirted on the phone, I thought I could hear how she felt—she’d coo sometimes, or do that weird “W talk,” asking if I was “awwight.” I wasn’t sure where we were going, the two of us. It was all vewwy new to me. “I love you,” Cindy said one night. She was laughing at a joke I’d made over the phone about how nasty the fish in Florida were. I was trying to work into the conversation my inability to clean by making the gulf coast seem like a hotbed of bacteria tides, trying to downplay the trash strand that was my own bedroom. Mid-chortle, she blurted, “I love you.” Then it got silent. She asked, “Do you think that’s odd?” I wanted to say that I’d always figured True Love and Convenient Compatibility to be not much different from the other. True Love is the long scenic, troublesome route between points A and B whereas Convenient Compatibility is the interstate bypass. But without my own basis of comparison, I decided to keep mum. After all, I’d watched so many lesbian and gay (and straight) young friends crash and burn in relationships based on singular common interests. I always figured that I wasn’t the “settling” type. Hell, I’d witnessed my best friend put up with her partner’s six twitching, nearbald, incontinent “rescue” cats out of love. Her face bloated, not from comfort weight, but from Prednisone, my best friend would talk to me over the phone and have to stop, mid-nosebleed, to tilt her head back. “Gotta make sacrifices,” she’d say. Sniff, sniff. “For love. You’ll understand someday.” My best friend’s selflessness was rewarded one morning by her partner taking off, silently, for no good reason whatsoever. With nary a “Goodbye” or even a valid excuse, such as “Take care, I’m off to marry a calico” or “I’m leaving you for that hot chick who works for Animal Control,” my best friend’s partner disappeared.
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Yes, I definitely was not the “settling” type. I didn’t like what I saw when friends of mine settled. It was messy and bloody. Ruthless. To me, they were all being sacrificial lambs to the gods of Deception, Lust, Impulsivity, the ASPCA, and/or Cesar Millan. I couldn’t bring myself to tell Cindy all this—my theories about True Love, my whacked-out imagination—because I was honestly interested in what we might become; who I might become as someone’s significant other. A calmer person? Someone whose libido relaxed once it realized it was getting laid on a regular basis? I was curious.
One night, while we were chatting on the phone, I told Cindy, on an impulse, about Pamela and Giselle; about how I regularly mistook kind expressions from strange women as looks of late-night carnal covetousness. It all just came out of me, the whole ugly, hypersexual truth. Then I blurted, “Do you think that’s odd?” “Yes,” she replied. “Extremely.” We were silent. Her instantaneous response—“Extremely!”—shocked me; hurt even. Still, I felt a bit of relief. “I’ve never told anyone about Giselle and Pamela and all the janitors, truck drivers, soccer moms, and tollbooth operators before,” I said. “So thanks.” More silence. I kept talking: “It hadn’t occurred to me to talk about my furtive, hyper-sexed imagination. Well, that’s not true. It did occur to me. But I always figured it was just there; something to keep quiet about, but too authoritative to inwardly deny.” “Go on,” Cindy whispered. I told her that, years ago, it had been hard for me to admit I was gay in Midwestern, corn-fed Indiana. When I finally did, I left a letter in an embossed pink envelope in my parent’s master bathroom that read: Something Special from your Darling Little Girl. Then I took off for three days. But my big fat uber-desirous imagination? Well, that was something I couldn’t fathom admitting possession of. Like an Everclear album or beige granny panties.
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“It’s odd, that’s for sure,” Cindy said carefully, “but not that weird. I mean, there are weirder things...in the world.” I froze. “What do you mean?” Cindy said, “Well, you just have some crooked sense of self, you know? Actually, it’s a positive thing. But you are a borderline megalomaniac.” I paused, thought for a moment. “Really? That’s all?” I asked. “I mean, I’d like to know about my own megalomania.” In my mind, all the women before Cindy—the security guards, the elementary-school crossing guards; the podiatrists, Italian translators and lunch ladies; the soccer moms and fellow bus-riders; the tollbooth operators and geriatric orthodontists—they all, in my mind, all at once, glared at me. Stop fucking thinking about yourself, they all said. And be a good girl to her. So, in a deep, faux-sultry voice I changed the subject: “What are you wearing, baby?” Cindy told me, in explicit, sensual detail, what she had on: a Polo shirt, Dickie’s work pants and camouflage knee-high socks. While she spoke, images danced in my head: A sexy woman operating a forklift; a babe in pastels shouting “Fore!” on the ninth hole; the mid-bush pearly whites of a hot Army vixen-sniper. With all this in my mind, I fell backward onto my trash-ridden floor and grinned.
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When she came home from Italy, she made his coffee on top of the stove in a small, shiny pot sheâ€™d brought back. He never asked her how sheâ€™d learned to do it that way.
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another emirati morning
I awoke and combed my chest hairs, a form of bead counting, musing on my wreck— but that was too close to Eliot— and instead l found scribbled numbers from the night before. In Dubai nothing means anything. That’s its beauty. The sun shines, feet move, taxis roll, and the ATMs await their suitors like a chorus line of gleaming slots giddy from a night’s cheap champagne. These old images have to resurface because there’s nothing new under this sun, where the fixed race always favors the swiftest, and the silver fleets meet the sea’s swell under the pink lash of polished marble.
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The cab driver looked a bit walrus, big handlebar mustache, big water eyes in his thick pink face. He chatted like a hairdresser, though, best place to get a pastry, a steak, Mexican food. We thought, all right, this guy’s all right, until we sped toward the Alamo, backlit walls in stony silence, rounding a corner that kittied to an old west building, like a brothel in a movie, sign strung on a big banner that read Alamo Allies, and he said he didn’t care what people did, but he would speak his mind, by God, and he gave the gays rides on weekends he said, which was fine except, excuse his language, but how else to say it, he couldn’t stand a woman with a penis. A woman with a penis! We’re allies in his back seat but we squirm and don’t say anything,
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though Iâ€™m feverishly flipping through the stock images of drag queens, RuPaul and all her racers and wondering which one managed to fool this guy, got him to open the treasure chest and find the family jewels.
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Rust and steel. Coffee-ground colored dirt covered with moss, long ago piled up to meet the roof of the factory, as if an ancient Jamaican god placed a holy book face down and open upon the earth. The land, a part of the roof, the roof an extension of the land and its people; a casual glance would discount it as a geometrical marvel rather than a hill. Itâ€™s surrounded on one side by water and a dock, the other by native trees, vines, and an ambitious road, one leading toward the community of a sculpted people, who long ago worked the factory on the edge of Ocho Rios. The road, worn, paved asphalt with one white line. The driverâ€™s mantra is: the left side is the right side, the right side is suicide, but without speed limits even the left side of the road could be perilous. The countryside banks the cerulean water. From sand to jungle, to road, to hills, to mountain all in one glance. Coconut trees, light brown arms reaching to heaven, are rendered useless, cut at the top to stop the blight from spreading, and yet, itâ€™s apparent with miles of coconut cemeteries it has also halted the industry. From coconuts to sugar, or sugar to coconuts, neither feeds the worker, nor does the worker labor for its yield, its ambrosia. Remnants of sugar fields, grazed occasionally with cattle, leads to scorched, hell-like terrain and scenery. From producers of coconuts and then sugar, the working people fell slave to the factory, and yet the factory is another forgotten tomb, like a
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pyramid it keeps its shape, hiding within it the mystery of the people who worked it. At the top of Chukka Mountain one might feel like a god. Here lies the community of Chester 2,000 feet above sea level. Houses vary in size. Some are mansions, where one might wonder how many people reside inside. One mansion in particular looks like a temple on Mount Olympus, inserted into the side of the mountain like a Lego. Other houses are bits of wood and cement tied together with straw. Others are merely wood planks with windows and doors cut out for light like a paper snowflake. There are no boundaries, no rules as to where a house might be placed. Had Dorothy’s house fallen here instead of Oz, it wouldn’t have looked out of place. Electric cables run up the mountain like clotheslines, crisscrossing and unsightly. The road, if one can call it that, is wide enough for two cows to be led. Broken fragments of tar and asphalt, mixed with sand and gravel, make for a slippery concoction when wet from rain, especially at the edges, which falter straight down into an abyss, or someone’s backyard. Clearly, the suicidal are the only ones who might brave a car ride here. Others, the sane, walk. Nestled away from the road on a half-acre of land, where a soccer goal is net-less, abandoned, sits the school house. The building looks more like a mural, painted with the faces of heroes and pride, those distinguished by their desire for freedom. The black and green flag is almost faded on the blue and white wall, shared by a black bird with a majestic tail. Ornate holes create a weave and pattern for air, like air holes on a pet carrier. They do not look like windows, but are barred just the same, and young Jamaican boys whisper dirty remarks through the tiny slits to get the attention of women passing by. In the courtyard, children’s voices cajole visitors nearer to the classroom doors, like prisoners wishing to be freed. Both boys and girls are dressed in green uniforms that match the painted walls. A black plastic drum rests in the baking sun and provides water to the school, while a rooster leaves his hens aside, braving the grassy and muddy terrain separating the four schoolrooms. On one wall, painted black to resemble a blackboard, though it is only a nailed up plank of wood, is the bulletin board. Here the month of December and corresponding events and days are sketched out, although it is midJanuary. December 1, World AIDS Day, is written in yellow chalk. December 11-15, Internal Assessment, written in red. The dates for Culture Day
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(yellow) and End of Term (green) have faded. At a child’s eye level beneath the board on white paper is a poem, one that hopes to inspire courage in the young who will need to grow up and continue the future for the people. Midway, down the mountain, where the road goes up, down, and back again like a rubber hose, is a red structure, not quite as large as a barn, though it looks like one. Here jarred foods and Red Stripe can be purchased. Behind it is a mound of dirt and gravel, as if someone started a project and never finished it, a pattern consistent with many of the houses along the way. Near the bottom, beneath the mango trees, young girls play in the road. One with pigtails and a lavender top waves to those who pass, not old enough for school; most likely she is waiting for an older sibling to return home with stories about her school day. Two boys, ten and five, play chess with plastic pieces bigger than the youngest’s hands, while a radio cranks out tunes heard across lawns. A mother yells at her child from inside a house. She yells louder and louder, until the child comes. The walls are thin. There are no boundaries here. Two infant goats frolic in the tall grasses. A Rastafarian saunters by with a two foot machete. A glass jar of milk sours in the sun. The scene is reminiscent of the poem My Mountain Home written by one of Jamaica’s heroes, Claude McKay, in the early twentieth century. De mango tree in yellow bloom, De pretty Akee seed, De mammee where de John-to-Whits come To have their daily feed Show you de place where I was born, Of which I am so proud, ‘Mongst de banana fied an’ corn, On a lone mountain road … A rich man might see poverty. A conscious one might see the damaging effects of the rich man. Those who come looking for workers won’t find them at home, nor at school, nor in the sugar field, nor the coconut hives, nor the factory. Where have they all gone? Along the water, a twenty-minute drive from Chukka Mountain is a rocky cove. Visitors led here often marvel at the dreamy blue water. They’re guided to a precipice in a single line and one by one they jump from the rocks into the water, a few feet below, where they will swim in circles until it is
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their turn again. They are filled with bravery and daring, pretending to be heroes, partaking in this cleansing, a kind of baptism. The visitors to this cove hardly notice the rocks underfoot. Cavernous and sucked tan from the salt. Within each hole and crevasse lives a shell. Within the shell, a life, a barnacle of a kind. They live anywhere they can stick securely to, like a piece of dead wood or on a shoot of grass, but they are far, far from the water, which is needed for their survival. One might ask how they can survive. But no one does. No one notices. Instead, the visitors retreat from the sun under the mango trees, stocked with little green anoles, and drink a native punch with rum further climaxing the sacred ritual. In 1777 the people of Ocho Rios defended its shores from seafaring invaders. A group of small, black canons discarded and hidden in the brush are the only remaining witnesses to this event. Likewise, empty fields, crippled trees, and an empty aluminum factory are the remnants of a prospering culture. As the world changed, its products were destroyed or replaced, leaving behind an economically poor tract of land. Where have all the workers gone? Those that served in foreign wars line up along Main Street behind Mallard’s Beach; the maimed beg for provisions. One thin frame of a man rests on his left wooden leg and right wire spring. He is one of many who are grotesque and hard to look at, but he and the others wait throughout the day with their remaining hands outstretched in supplication; they wait for their employers, the visitors, to place a wage into their palm or cup for time served, while they cry with respected anguish, “We are your heroes, Jamaica. We are the heroes and the brave.” While the remnants of industry collect dust on the shelf of yesteryear, a new pariah has come and manifested. Three shopping centers—Suni’s Plaza, the Taj Mahal, and Island Village—all boast the greatest deals for travelers. Jewels, watches, and duty free emeralds from Columbia, Zambia, and Brazil. Duty free liquor. Jablum and Blue Mountain coffee. Tortunga cake. For a small fee, a young girl will roll a fresh cigar. Each visitor is a purchaser of Ocho Rios’ future. Along Main Street, one hundred yards from the Hard Rock Café, is a brown shack and bar with open shopping and music, where the locals drink beer and wear shimmering beads like they’re celebrating Mardi Gras. As visitors pass, the locals hold out their wares like beggars, but really they’re the new merchants. They practice a new tradition passed on to them in order to feed their families. Their lips boast the quality of the handmade jewelry and necklaces displayed across their tired arms. Roasting in the air like a
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slaughtered pig, ripe ganja promises liberation. Sellers whisper in hushed voices. They are sellers of the new industry, the industry of a good time to forget one’s worries. Yah mon, there are no worries in this community. As long as there are visitors, there will be buyers. The people will survive. Back at the dock, customs officials clad in tan safari gear survey visitors leaving the homeland’s shores. Locals start at five dollars (US) for a drive into town, a quarter mile away. Two opposing shacks sell last minute alcohol, and another, inside a building on the right, sells T-shirts and ashtrays. Overseeing the operation is a historic remnant. The factory. Its large arched widows-peak looks like a colonial church spire.One can almost hear the bell ring, and the voices from inside singing, “out of many, one people.” A rusted Mack truck is abandoned and blends in with the tan, steel factory walls. Above it, a long conveyor belt is silent and still. If you ask one of the drivers what the boarded up building is behind him, he will tell you aluminum was made there. His response is evidence the factory closed down within his lifetime or his father’s. Perhaps he was a boy at the time, waking up one day to be a man with no place to work his hands but on a dock selling car rides for a dollar. De early days pass quickly ‘long, Soon I became a man, An’ one day found myself among Strange folks in a strange lan.’ My little joys, my wholesome min’, Dey bullied out o’me, And made me daily mourn an’ pine, An’ wish dat I was free … Money is exchanged. New visitors replace the old and taxis disappear. They’ll be led into the community to marvel at the sights, strewn like gold nuggets. Never once will they stop to consider the people, the barnacles, the decrepit industry they replace.
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Rafael Miguel Montes
She treats her hair as if it were Pele’s. With each pass of the comb, each hour-long shampoo, each day of leave-in conditioner equal parts mythmaking and reverence. It is the white shame growing out of her, that fierce Galician kink that solid proof of her grandmama’s blackness. It’s resistant to avocado, mayonnaise, relaxers slatherings of backwoods lye. Even at the base, even at its most Hawaiian, the spiral creeps out—the corkscrew threat. During one particularly sadistic haircut, she bought extensions from a man on tv. Ten hours and five Tylenols later, she swung it all Jan Brady in front of me. After a week, it smelled like a carpet. We still have some strange Indian woman’s hair in a box at the back of the closet.
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She’s tried placenta, urea, collagen, tourmaline, novenas, and Wicca. This month’s choice is keratin— 500 bucks worth of pulverized clams. She comes home with her stylist’s commandments. No water. No humidity. No exercise. No shampoo. No dew. No sweat. No heat. No sudden movements. The hair will know. I’m fanning her now in this icebox of a room. She’s lying perfectly still concentrating herself dry. I watch every spidery strand tensiled on the white molar of a pillow. Check for the beginning of a curl. We’re both praying we don’t make it angry.
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When the Witches are in Bloom
There is a time in every young womanâ€™s life when she believes in black magic. When she knows certain spells without looking them up in any book. She lies awake in bed undergoing transmutation. Exploring the cauldron of her concave hips. Beware. During this time, do not allow her to go into the desert. Dangers include: fire, injury, seduction, death. The risk of mistaking her belly for an oasis. Her effect on the landscape will be devastating. Her fingernails are sharp enough to scar stones. She knows how to bring blood to the surface. How to find water before the moon rises.
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if i were so much younger/if it could all be reversed
if i were a sociologist i would burn my notes & pierce my labia. if i were a biologist i would explode the Bunsen burner or mitochondria my heart. if i were a professor i would tweed suit leather patch your mouth. if i were a trucker i would shower in a prepaid stall. i would eat the frozen pizzas piping hot; i would say, you haven’t lived much, have you? if i were a cardiologist i would play dubstep & smoke reefer. you thought i’d say, make you move & measure your heart rate, didn’t you? you haven’t lived much. i have lived longer, sometimes too much & sometimes not enough. if i were a phlebotomist i would have to look that shit up. i would have to cartograph your veins; i would hold your arm close close. i would needle and draw. i would inhabit & study. i would chemistry. i would proton i would puncture the worlds inside of worlds inside of worlds
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THIS IS NASHVILLE
1 Trish always sang the best words. I sprawled out on the carpet, looked up at her on the couch as she fingered her guitar. I imagined her words were physical things, and I could catch them as they fell from her lips. I would keep them, squirrel them away somewhere secret. A lock of hair, wavy and blond, divided her elfin face into hemispheres as she bobbed her head to the beat. Inwardly I pretended she’d written the song for me. It was becoming a hobby, these lies of mine. They were the kind of lies worth telling. This much is true: I fucked Trish once, a few years ago. Another truth: she considered the whole episode a mistake. I was her friend, nothing more. I tried not to dwell on my failures with her. I didn’t overanalyze my love, or obsession or whatever it was. I’d lived with it for so many years it no longer needed a name. It is what it is, I told myself. I didn’t need some stupid word. From up high on the couch, Trish sang with a country lilt. It’s what the city demanded of her. But she could bend the words to pop or rock or anything else. She had a talent for giving people what they wanted. And she told the most beautiful lies.
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I watched her mouth, a perfect pink oval. Every word amplified my longing. I loved her. It hurt so much to love her.
2 Trish left in the morning, went out early to practice with the band or hang out with friends or whatever. It was none of my business. She was entitled to a life of her own. Anyway I had my own problems. I needed a job. I’d graduated from college in the spring, and as summer gave way to fall I’d blown through my savings. I perfected my resume on my laptop computer. I churned out stacks of them and mailed them to every newspaper and magazine in the city, hoping to land a job in my field—as a reporter or editorial assistant or something, anything. I needed a paycheck, but I also wanted a job with a little glamour to it. Something that would impress Trish. I wanted so much to deserve her. A mug of coffee cooled on the kitchen table. I stared out the window at gainfully employed people commuting to work on Wedgewood. I tried not to hate them.
3 That night I went out to watch Trish’s band play downtown at The Stage. For at least a week I’d seen her face staring at me from flyers posted all over the city. Old guys with beards tapped their boots on the wooden floor. Young dudes in tight T-shirts whistled and stared at Trish’s tits. Everybody loved her. Maybe she had a future in music after all. Maybe it wasn’t the pipe dream we’d always thought it was. Which would be great. Just fantastic, really. Except her relative success only served to amplify my failures. Every day I moved a little further from deserving her. I bought a longneck at the bar. I remember this part clearly because it cost me eight bucks. And then I turned and sort of weaved my way through the
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crowd toward the stage, careful not to bump anyone or spill my beer on account of the eight bucks. Trish stood in the spotlight, wailing on her guitar, creating a sound that transported me to another world, one where I didn’t have to worry about finding a job because I’d always have a home with her. Trish sang of dreams coming true, of innocence rewarded, of love that lasts for all time. It was complete bullshit and the crowd ate it up. And then she started in on the solo, only for some reason it wasn’t a solo, and Trent sang along with her, and they shared a microphone, and their lips were close enough to kiss, and as they exhausted the final note they stared deeply, longingly into each other’s eyes, and I saw everything I needed to see. I couldn’t look at her without imagining Trent ramming her with his diseased cock. So I left the club. I would’ve dumped the beer on the sidewalk except it was the last one I’d be able to afford in the foreseeable future. I nursed it while leaning against a brick wall outside. Up above I saw the tops of skyscrapers from a few blocks away. They gleamed like something out of a sci-fi movie. I couldn’t imagine working in one of them, couldn’t imagine stepping inside and casually punching a number in the elevator. It would be like entering another world. I sipped my beer and knew it would never happen for me. The streets were packed with tourists looking for a good time. Policemen on horseback patrolled the crowd. Custom cars with neon undercarriages and spinning rims prowled the avenues. Streetlights painted everything yellow. The air felt good, the temperature mild. I stood outside for a while before returning to the club. After the show Trish bought me another eight-dollar beer. She invited me to come along with the band to the Mercy Lounge for more drinks, but I declined, made up some lie about being exhausted. If I saw Trent I probably would have stabbed him. I waited until after she left before walking home because I couldn’t afford a cab. The streets downtown were packed, but the crowds thinned out long before I got to our apartment. I walked blocks and blocks, and when I arrived what I wanted more than anything else was to fall into a beer-induced coma. Instead I powered up my laptop and polished my resume.
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4 Sometime after 3 a.m. Trish came home, smiling and happy and singing and drunk. She asked—no, commanded—me to have a beer with her. Without waiting for an answer she opened the fridge and pulled out two Yazoo pale ales. I saved my resume and shut my laptop. Seeing her like this reminded me of the night she fucked me sophomore year. This was long before she’d become a semi-successful country singer and I had failed at life. Back then we were just students—me at the big public university south of town and her at Belmont with all the rich bastards. Back then I deserved her, or I believed I did. But even after our night together she didn’t want a relationship. She told me she didn’t regret what happened between us, not exactly, but she didn’t want to repeat it. For the rest of that year I dedicated myself to making her mine. I was relentless. Eventually our roommates intervened. So I stopped pestering on her, pretended we were just friends. Sometimes I wondered if she missed the attention. Trish fumbled with the bottle opener. I took it from her. Little puffs of fog escaped after I popped off the caps. “I want to feel like this forever,” she said after her first swig. “Like what?” “Like I’m flying. Like I can do no wrong. Like my life will only get better and happier.” “Right,” I said after a while. “That’s how I feel too.” We drank. She sang, swaying and bobbing her perfect head. It wasn’t long before her eyelids drooped. I led her by her the hand—tiny, perfectly formed, with fingernails that had never been chewed—to her room, leaving her unfinished beer on the table. I maneuvered her into bed, and she rolled over to make room for me. I climbed in beside her. She sang. I worked up the nerve to put my arm around her. Before dropping off to sleep I whispered, “I want to feel like this forever.”
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5 I got out of bed in the morning before Trish woke. I opened my laptop and e-mailed my resume to every podunk newspaper within fifty miles of the city. These were places I’d be embarrassed to work for, but I was beyond desperate. Trish got up around noon. She investigated the cupboard before offering to buy me some pancakes at IHOP. And after breakfast we drove to Centennial Park. It was a weekday, but I was unemployed and Trish didn’t have band practice. We were free people. On the way to the park we stopped at the Mapco Express on West End for a loaf of bread for the ducks. I noticed a help-wanted sign in the window. The store looked kind of skanky, but it didn’t seem like the kind of place where people got murdered. Me and Trish walked around the duck pond at the park, throwing bits of bread to the birds. They went crazy, fighting, honking, flapping for every scrap. Me and Trish walked side by side. I pointed at the weirdest ducks and she laughed. Everybody who saw us probably thought she was my girlfriend. We bummed around the park all afternoon. At sunset we sat on the big stone steps of the Parthenon. It was built eighty years ago to look like the one in Athens. The one in Nashville wasn’t the real thing. It was just another beautiful lie. Trish told me a talent scout from a record company would be at one of her shows. This wouldn’t be for another month. “You’ll come, won’t you?” she said. “I need you to clap the loudest.” “Like I’ve got anything better to do.” Trish laughed and punched my shoulder. “I bet you’ve got a secret life,” she said. “I bet you’re a spy for the CIA. I bet every time I turn around you’re assassinating somebody.”
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From where we sat on the steps I could see all the way across West End. I saw the neon lights at P.F. Chang’s. I wanted to eat there but couldn’t afford it. “I’m just a guy without a job. A guy who can’t catch a break. That’s all I am.” “Things will get better,” she said, smiling the smile that was making her famous. The setting sun turned the sky to magma. I hoped she’d lie to me forever.
6 Travis was my manager at the Mapco Express. I put in an application once my bank account and self-esteem bottomed out. Travis hired me. He told me he didn’t see too many college graduates at the Mapco Express. Travis wore his mullet spiked. Tattoos of skulls and dice and naked women danced the hoochie-coochie down his arms. His unbuttoned work polo framed a manly tuft of chest hair. “People come to the gas station for a lot of reasons,” Travis said to me on my first day. “But mostly they come for gas. Also for beer and cigarettes.” Travis was a wise man. I followed him around the store. He showed me how to rotate the hotdogs, break down the slushy machine and mop up vomit. And he took me on a tour of the beer cooler. The beer cooler was important. It was dark and cavernous, and it was the source of the store’s greatest profits. Also it was haunted. Travis told me all about the Colonel, the Confederate ghost who haunted it. I asked Travis why a Confederate ghost would haunt a gas station beer cooler. “Because that’s where the beer is,” Travis said. Travis told me the Colonel’s story, how he’d ridden home after peace was signed at Appomattox. He rode fast, anticipating the nights he’d spend with his young wife who he’d left alone at the plantation. But when he arrived he walked in on his wife making the sex with a Union deserter. A goddamned Union deserter. This did not sit well with the Colonel. He shot them both
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where he found them, in his marriage bed. Then he pressed the pistol to his temple and blew out his brains. “The Colonel did not deal well with disappointment,” Travis said. Travis used to play in a rock band. Travis played drums. His band did shows all over Nashville, at the Exit/In and the Cannery. But then his bandmates knocked up their respective girlfriends, so they found real jobs because they couldn’t raise their families on Ramen Noodles and peanut butter sandwiches. “I was going to be the next Eddie Van Halen,” Travis said, reaching his hand out to the sky. By now my shift had ended. Travis lent me a cigarette, and we smoked behind the store. “Life,” he said. “Life is full of shit.” Travis was an OK boss.
7 After two weeks I picked up my first paycheck. It wasn’t much, but it paid for a night out with Trish. We headed downtown, shared the sidewalks with the tourists and local kids looking to get wasted. We ate steaks at Demos. We took a walk by the river. It smelled like trash but looked beautiful beneath the stars. We drank beer at Paradise Park and fancy vodka cocktails at McFadden’s. She took me dancing at the Wildhorse Saloon. I danced terribly but Trish was too drunk to notice. Later we watched some girl take the stage at a club in Printers’ Ally. “You’re much better than her,” I said. She told me I was full of shit. She smiled. Trish wanted to be the best at everything, still believed such a thing was possible. Neon lights painted the sidewalks red and blue. Some guy came up to us at a crosswalk, told me he needed money for a ticket out of town. I was drunk. I lied and told him I was broke. Me and Trish crossed before the light changed because no one was coming anyway.
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At a small table on the sidewalk, a black woman thumbed a deck of tarot cards. Trish paid fifteen dollars for her fortune. The cards said someday she’d be famous, a big star like Reba McEntire or Taylor Swift. The lady asked me if I wanted my fortune told. I said no, even after Trish offered to pay. My future was the last thing I wanted to know. The night had been good and I didn’t want to ruin it.
8 I had to work at the Mapco Express on the night Trish played for the talent scout. Travis told me my shift was non-negotiable. Part of me was bummed that I couldn’t be there for her, and the rest of me was just goddamned peachy. I was sure she’d perform admirably, impress the socks off everybody. Trish had the words, and the words would make her famous. As I labored through the early-morning hours to stock the display cooler with beer, I’d had just about enough of Trish’s success. It’s not that I wasn’t happy for her. It’s just that I was losing touch with the part of me that could feel good for other people. Every day I spent working the cash register for the drug addicts, con artists and Vanderbilt snobs who frequented the store was like taking a chainsaw to my sense of empathy. I could see the future. Years from now Trish would pass me on the street, recognize me—barely—as a relic from another lifetime. We would make awkward conversation for approximately one minute. We would not be quite sure how to act. She would walk away and out of my life forever and for good. I lifted a six-pack of Rolling Rock and loaded it into its assigned row in the display cooler. As I withdrew my hand I scraped a finger against the jagged edges of a bottle cap. I cussed and sucked blood from the wound. I stood alone in the dark cooler. At the very edge of my vision I thought I caught a glimpse of the Colonel, staring at me from the corner with his pale, dead eyes. I looked again but there was nothing. It had probably been just a patch of light or a fog of condensation from the air conditioner. I had a lot of beer to stock before daylight. I got back to work and tried not to bleed all over the inventory.
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This was my life. Stocking beer. Selling cigarettes. Making change for a dollar. I’d never expected to end up like this. Every day I sank further into a pile of shit, up to my knees, my cock, my neck. I couldn’t breathe anymore because my whole life had turned to shit. “Goddamn it,” I said, alone in the cold. “Just God fucking damn it.” Somewhere beyond time and space, I’m certain the Colonel nodded in gentile agreement.
9 I had the next night off of work. Trish took me out to Jackson’s in Hillsboro Village. The Village is probably the best place in Nashville. It’s got the Bellcourt Theater, where I once watched Casablanca at midnight, and Boscos restaurant where they brew their own beer, and Book Man Book Woman, a used bookstore that is probably too good for Nashville, a town that does not celebrate the written word. Trish took me out to share the good news. The talent scout loved the show. A record deal was imminent—as in the company would pay them to cut the tracks. As in it would be sold in actual stores. As in Trish was about to see a payday like never before. “This is it,” she said. “This is what I’ve worked for. Worked my ass off.” Trish slung back her head, swallowed a shot of tequila. A warm breeze blew ripples through her hair. I caught her green eyes and hoped she’d never look away. “This is my chance,” she said. “You deserve it.” “Nobody deserves nothing,” she said. The sky was clear and the streets were packed. It was Friday. Everybody wanted to get as drunk as me and Trish.
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“Deserving’s just a word,” she said, slurring her speech a little. “Just something humans made up to make sense out of the fucking chaos. A word to force meaning from meaninglessness.” “Nobody deserves shit,” I said. I looked across the street. I saw the bankers in their sharp suits, college kids out on dates, women with Prada handbags and a black man crouched in an alley, begging for change. “Charles-fucking-Barkley drives a fleet of Hummers, and special-ed teachers eat goddamned peanut butter,” she said. “Nobody deserves nothing. This world we live in, it is what it is, you know? There’s nothing else. And deserving is just a word. Like honor or justice. They don’t mean anything. They’re just words.” “What about love?” Trish laughed. Our waiter came over. He looked like a punk rock musician. We ordered Jack and Cokes. “Love is tricky,” she said, running a slender finger around the rim of an empty shot glass. “It’s a nice idea, and it’s easy enough to sing about. I mean everyone wants to believe they’ll find it, that they’ll matter to someone, that they won’t die alone. Fuck. It sounds good to me. It’s the kind of thing I want to believe in.” That’s when I took Trish’s hand. It felt so small in mine, her bones fragile, hollow like a bird’s. “I love you,” I said. “I always have. I love you everyday. I love you right now.” Trish looked down at the table, at the ground beneath it strewn with discarded plastic forks and used napkins. “Please don’t start that again.” Trish suffered beautifully. Somehow I tore my eyes off her. I looked back across the street at the homeless man. His plaid shirt was dirty and thin, like he’d been wearing it all season. “No one will ever feel what I feel for you,” I said.
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Trish just kept staring at the ground. The black man reached out his hand to a passing woman. She wore a nice yellow dress and her hair done up like she was on her way to meet someone. The black man had a face like tight leather stretched across bone. “I’m sorry,” Trish said. “I’m so sorry.” As the woman passed she turned to the black man. She gave him a piteous smile and nothing more. I was hardly surprised. This is no town for beggars. There is no empathy here, nor deserving, nor love. This is Nashville. It is what it is.
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Within the Circle
Huddled around a bonfire, we all came together on those cool summer nights. Only the inner circle became illuminated by the flames; faces shined against the orange glow as the rest of the world faded into the night. Though still in the heart of suburbia, the world seemed so far away, as if nothing existed outside of the fireâ€™s light. It was difficult to travel even a few steps away into the darkness. Instead, we remained tethered to our beacon of light, taking in the cracking sound of burning logs instead of the ominous, unidentifiable noise of the woods and the dense plumes of white smoke instead of the crisp night air. As a teenager, the freedom of nighttime was only trumped by sharing that freedom with friends. Though sometimes still in sight of a familiar street light, it was the fire that beckoned us and we circled around it, tightly woven and growing together like vines. By depriving our vision, our eyes were forced to adjust to the dim light and each face began to look foreign, intriguing. Seated close in deep conversation, unpredictable shadows bounced across our eyes revealing truths, lies, and shared insecurities that lay hidden, protected, in the light of day. Those evenings were full of possibility. In the fireâ€™s glow, your best friend could quickly merge into an unrecognizable enemy, and love connections burned rapidly like logs on the fire before dying into embers, yet the darkness always appeared to corral us in. When arriving, the anticipation became unbearable as one searched around the crowd for a familiar face and
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choose her seat with caution and excitement. However, when leaving, one was always torn between the now familiar, comfortable night gathering and the world that waited beyond. When younger, our departure was usually precipitated by necessity, a curfew. As we grew older, some of us simply preferred to return home.
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Mother of the Fat Girl
You taught me to swim the June I was nine, the warm summer moon, round and pale. Keep them closed, stay straight as a canoe, floating. Crickets in the yard hummed, bats grazed the sky. Your hands beneath me, not touching but ready. You are a marshmallow, light as foam. And I was.
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At the Corner of February
False hopes buzz: motorcycle grinds past, bee shakes off sleep. A father rakes last yearâ€™s flattened leaves, claws the earth like he can free the moment his marriage pivoted, his move to the guest room inevitable. His young daughter asks if she can help. Of course he answers, the lie acidic. His longing drowns out bee and motorcycle, hints at the winter that still lies in wait. Of course. Of course.
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To See the bear
By noon, David had a severe drunk on, so Brooke took her sons out for pizza. The gas gauge was well below E by the time she pulled into the Casey’s gravel parking lot. Her boys were six and four, and before the car came to a stop, Jeffrey, the elder, had the back door open and was leaning out of it. “Pizza, pizza, pizza,” he said. Curt, the younger, had his palm against the passenger window. His hands were always greasy. Faint fingerprints streaked the glass. He pointed at a sign that read Piccadilly Circus Pizza. There was a smiling lion on that sign. Brooke scolded Jeffrey for opening the door before the car came to a complete stop. His apology was sincere, but while giving it, he was unable to quell his pizza-excitement, his leg bouncing up and down. She helped Curt out of the car and led her sons, hand-in-hand, into the store. It was nearly one, and the store was empty, except for the cashier, an obese woman with a wide smile and crooked teeth. Her hair was gray and pulled back into a bun. “Afternoon,” she said, waving at the children. They smiled and returned exaggerated waves. Brooke was glad to see that the store’s only table, two red benches sandwiching a yellow dining surface, was unoccupied. Farmers would often spend all day in the store talking, smoking cigarettes and drink-
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ing coffee. But the weather was nice and it was late spring; the farmers were most likely out in their fields. Jeffrey broke free from his mother’s hand and ran to the glass case where several pre-cooked slices of pizzas rotated under a heat lamp. “There is only one slice of pepperoni,” Jeffrey said. “I call it.” Brooke shook her head. “It’s Curt’s turn to choose first. You got first pick last week.” “But I get two slices cause I’m bigger right?” Jeffrey asked. “Yeah. Two slices.” “I can make more pepperoni if you want some,” the lady behind the counter said. “But it will take about a half hour.” “Do you both want pepperoni?” The boys nodded, and Brooke agreed to wait. The three of them sat at the table. Brooke went to the glove box of her car and came back with a deck of Sesame Street cards. They played Go Fish. Curt won three games in a row, so Jeffrey accused him of cheating and threw cards at him. Curt cried. It had been Brooke that was cheating in order to swing the games in Curt’s favor. She was trying to teach Jeffrey how to lose. He didn’t have a lot of friends, because she didn’t have a lot friends. Jeffrey won almost every game against Curt. Brooke thought it was time that Jeffrey learned how to lose a game of cards. “Jeffrey, pick the cards up and apologize.” He did, but he was no longer interested in playing Go Fish. Instead, he grabbed a clean ashtray and spun it. The pizza was done. Jeffrey had two slices of pepperoni, and Curt decided he wanted cheese now. While they were eating, a couple of farmers came in and bought cigarettes. One of the farmers, a man in grease-covered overalls, probably in his late sixties, looked Brooke up and down. She caught him staring. He tipped his hat before he left, packing his smokes against his hand.
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Brooke tried to get a look at herself in the window. She wasn’t fat. In no way could she be considered skinny, but her figure wasn’t bad, especially after two kids. Her blonde hair was twisted back in a pony tail. A few of her hairs were errant. She tucked those hairs into her twisty. Brooke’s face was not yet lined with wrinkles, at least none that she could see in a window in the afternoon. And her eyes were large in a pleasing way and her lips, full and alluring. Maybe she could still leave David for somebody better. She watched the farmers pull away from the gas station. Jeffrey scarfed down his pizza so fast that his throat hurt. He poured Mr. Pibb after, but it just gave him the hiccups. “Eat your food slower.” Jeff nodded. Curt finished his meal. “OK,” she said. “Let’s get ice cream, and then go to the park.” The boys scampered over to a small freezer. Curt picked out an ice cream sandwich and Jeffrey grabbed a Bomb Pop. Brooke took all this to the counter. “Give me ten in gas,” she said. A man came in. He was shortish with close-cropped black hair, a small belly and cowboy boots. He walked right up to Brooke. He smiled. It was the good kind of smile. His teeth were large and unthreatening like those of a horse. “Them your boys?” asked the man. Brooke straightened her shirt. “Yes,” she said. “Good kids,” she said. “I got a bear,” the man said. He let that fact hang there for a few seconds. “Your boys want to see it?” His breath smelled over-mouthwashed, and he wore a strong, not unpleasant cologne that bore a resemblance to pine needles. There was a safe sterility to his smell, unlike David who smelled like wet farm dirt and cheap rum. Brooke looked at her children. They were pouring pop into their bottle lids and drinking it in small measured shots. Curt was making a mess. A small puddle formed on the table in front of him.
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“I have emus and a fox, too. I’m close by, just up that road.” The man pointed to a gravel lane that headed west towards the river. “My name is Anthony.” He held his hand out. Brooke took it and told him her name. His grip was firm and pleasant. Anthony rubbed his thumb over hers and flashed his toothy grin. He was polite but forward. Brooke liked that. “I just saw you and your kids and thought you’d all like to see my bear. I’m going to have my own animal sanctuary one day if the county would just get on board.” “I don’t know,” Brooke said. “Is their daddy around?” Anthony asked. “Their daddy left. It’s just us three. We’re a unit. Take one. Take all.” “That so,” said Anthony. He rubbed his chin and smiled at the woman behind the counter. “Vouch for me, Penny.” He let go of Brooke’s hand. “His bear won’t bite, but Tony here might nibble at ya,” The woman said. She chuckled once at her joke. “Nah. I’m just funning. Anthony goes to my church. He plays the Casio. A regular maestro.” “All right,” said Brooke. “It sounds like a deal then. Let me get gas.” “That’s great,” said Anthony. “I need to pick up some supplies myself. I’ll meet you outside and you can follow me back to my place.” Brooke called to her boys. They were playing with the toy guns. “Guess what, guys? I have a surprise for you.” “Candy?” Curt asked. “We’re going to see a bear.” “Will it bite us?” Curt asked. “No. A friend of Mommy’s has a bear at his house. It won’t bite you.” “A bear lives in his house?” Curt asked.
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“No,” she said. “The bear lives outdoors, I think, like grandpa’s dog. C’mon let’s get into the car.” They went and Brooke buckled the children in. When the gas was pumped, she climbed into the cab and waited for Anthony. She saw him through the windows. He was paying for groceries. “Is David going to come with us?” Jeffrey asked. “No. Honey. David’s not coming. Let’s not talk about David today, all right?” “I don’t want David to come,” Jeffrey said. Anthony exited the store, two heavy sacks nestled firmly in his arms. He placed the sacks into the bed of his pick-up and waved at Brooke. She waved back. He pulled his truck around so it was in front of Brooke’s car. She followed him out of the parking lot. They drove for a few miles until they came to a house surrounded by a line of trees and miles of cornfield. There in the center of the front yard tied to an oak was the bear. It was lying down. To the side of the house was a wall of chicken wire held in place by high wooden posts. A large coop could be seen behind the wire, but no emus. Curt pressed his face against the glass. “I’m scared,” he said. “Honey, the bear is on a chain.” Anthony popped out of his truck and walked over to Brooke’s car. Jeffrey unbuckled himself and slipped out of the vehicle. Curt stayed put. “Before I show you guys around, I want to make it clear that these are wild animals. Although they may appear domesticated, they are extremely dangerous.” Anthony pulled the tucked-in shirt out of his pants. There was mess of scar on his side that roughly resembled the state of Florida. “I used to let Old Fuzz,” Anthony pointed at the bear, “that’s his name, live in the house with me, like a common pet. One day, something happened. It might have been a noise from the TV. It could have been an off-scent or mating frustrations, but Old Fuzz decided to remind me he was wild and he put a mauling on me. So keep your distance.” Jeffrey ran towards the bear, stopping a yard or two from the worn-out and grassless circle of ground on which the bear spent its life. It was a brown
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bear, a roly-poly fuzz ball, the size of an oil drum. The bear lifted its head and looked at the boy. Its tongue lolled from its jaw. The bear shut its eyes and put its head back down in the dust. Curt, trembling, exited the car but wouldn’t let go of the door handle. Brooke was coaxing him to see the bear. He walked over to Jeffrey and grabbed his sleeve. Brooke’s cell phone rang. It was David. “Could you show the boys around?” she asked Anthony. “I have to take this.” He gave her a thumbs up. Brooke put the phone to her ear. “Where the fuck are you?” David asked. His words were slow and over pronounced. He was drunk. “Out with the kids.” “When are you getting home?” “Later.” “You out with Dale Talbot again? Tanner told me he saw you at the bar with him.” Brooke covered the phone with her hands and went back into the car. She had passed an evening with Dale Talbot, a farm laborer with thick biceps, a round mushroom of a nose and a square jaw. He flirted mercilessly, but it soon became obvious that he was only interested in the one thing. Say what you want about David, but at least he helped with groceries and car payments. If he was sober, he was sweet and calm, a little cold sometimes, standoffish, but generally good-hearted. And maybe he really did love Brooke and her boys. He had a drinking problem. It was just a drinking problem. “What are you talking about? I’m not out with anybody.” “You fucking cocksucker, out sucking cock.” “Stop being so mean.”
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“You like it mean.” Brooke hung up the phone. She wanted to cry but didn’t. Most times it wasn’t this bad. It had been worse, too. Anthony held a can of kippers and doled them out one at a time to her sons. They threw these fish towards the bear, and it lazily shambled over to each one, nosing them into the dust before gobbling them down. Curt tossed another fish at Old Fuzz, and the bear snapped its jaws and caught it in mid-air. The boys went wild laughing and clapping. This prompted Jeffrey to toss another kipper at the bear’s snout. The fish hit the bear in the eye and it growled and rolled over on its back and shook its butt. The two boys sprinted away. Anthony laughed. Behind the bear and the man and the boys was the white two-story farmhouse. The paint was peeling a bit, and piles of junk had accumulated on the mud porch. The screen door was missing a bottom screen and one of the attic windows was boarded up, but the place was in overall decent condition. It was a large house with room for many people. “Feeding the bear,” Anthony said. Brooke was standing beside him now. “You live alone?” she asked him. “Ever since my parents died.” “How many bedrooms?” “Four about, but I keep geckos in one. Why?” “Curious is all. It’s a nice house, a big house. Can I have a tour?” “I imagine the kids would want to see the emus first.” Brooke considered the bear. It was a dusty old thing that reminded her of a worn-out sofa, and it had the eyes of a frightened dog. Its thick musk hung in the air, a smell like a sweaty undershirt. She did not like it but reasoned that Anthony probably made some money showing it to tourists or to classes of schoolchildren on field trips. The boys were out of kippers, and they were now prowling the tall grasses near the side of the house for grasshoppers to throw at the indifferent bear.
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“OK, kids. Stop that. Let’s go see Anthony’s emus, all right?” Curt and Jeffrey bounced over to their mother, and Anthony led them around the side of the house. A fence had been erected out of chicken wire and wooden poles that looked old and weather-beaten. At the back of the fence was a makeshift coop. It had been cobbled together out of particle board and more shabby poles. The roof had been shingled haphazardly over blue tarp that fluttered in the wind. There were no emus visible. “I’ll flush’em out,” Anthony said. He walked around the to the back of the coop and made a whooping noise. A few seconds later, two gangling emus ambled out of the coop. They were ugly porridge-colored birds with big silly eyes. The plumage on their backs looked like gray and white bales of hay. Anthony returned with a bucket of wheat. He set it in front of the boys. “They’ll eat wheat, but they really like insects. If you want to find some grasshoppers or crickets, they’d appreciate it more than Old Fuzz. Whatever you do, don’t stick your fingers in the cage. They bite and they kick. Those feet are sharp. That’s how they fend off predators.” The boys lobbed handful after handful of wheat through the octagonal holes of the chicken wire. The emus pecked sluggishly at the feed. “Emus live best in pairs, and it‘s the male’s job to look after the eggs once they’re laid. I‘ve named this pair Larry and Hannah.” “I like that,” said Brooke. “The males with the eggs.” The boys scampered off into the tall grasses once more. Grasshoppers leapt away from the boys in droves. Jeffrey caught one and flung it towards the emus, but it bounced off the chicken wire and had to be recaptured. Curt trapped it and dropped it through the wire. The emus rushed madly towards the insect, both of their fuzzy gray skulls competing for the bug. “Don’t put your fingers next to the fence, kids,” Anthony said. “Do you have a bathroom?” Brooke asked. She wanted to see the inside of the house. “It’s just in that door, down the hall on the right,” David said. He pointed at a door that had water damage at the bottom.
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Inside, Brooke was met with the dank, fetid odor of the beastly menagerie that dwelled there. The room was illuminated by no more than a few red incandescent lights coming from a wall of fish tanks. She heard the chittering of animals as they scurried about their hutches. Her eyes adjusted to the dimness, and Brooke crept down the hall. The walls were lousy with moisture. A bird squawked from somewhere deep in the house, and shivers rippled throughout her spine, arms and fingers. She turned on the hallway light. A single hutch sat in the room opposite the bathroom. A fox was in that hutch. It had its back to Brooke but stood on all fours and twisted around to face her. There was a half-dead rat in its mouth. The rat legs seemed to be twitching. The rodent emitted a faint squeak, like a child’s toy. The fox hunched down and went back to its meal. Brooke splashed washed on her face in the dim bathroom. She pushed matted hair away from her forehead. Her eyes were red and puffy and she felt like crying but did not. She took three deep breaths and left the house. Anthony was on his knees. Both of his hands were on Jeffrey’s waist. The boy’s shirt had a smear of blood across it. “What did you do?” Brooke pulled her son away from Anthony and held Jeffrey against her chest. “The boy put his finger in the cage, and Larry bit him. I told him not to stick his finger in the cage.” Brooke, gripping Jeffrey, looked him over. His hand trickled blood, and his lower lip porched outward. “Kiss it, mommy,” Jeffrey said, and she did. Brooke stood up and scanned the area. “Where’s Curt?” Brooke hoisted Jeffrey over her shoulder and hurried towards the front. Curt stroked the bear’s head, and the bear nuzzled Curt’s face. Its tongue lapped at the boy’s cheeks, and Curt giggled. The bear made wet sniffing noises as its snout probed Curt’s armpit. There was about a foot of slack on the chain. “Get away from there, Curt,” Brooke said. “He likes me,” Curt said. He kissed the bear on its moist nose.
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Anthony sneaked past the bear and picked up the chain. He pulled it until there was no slack and began tugging the bear away from Curt. Brooke set Jeffrey down. The bear reared up on its hind legs. It let loose a complaintive roar; its front paws waving wildly in the air. Brooke drew Curt into her arms. Anthony tugged with force and the bear sat on its butt like a human. It gave a small growl. “Get in the car now,” she told Curt. The boy cried and ambled toward the vehicle. “You too, Jeffrey.” He did. Anthony set down the rope and moved towards Brooke, giving the bear a large berth. “My son could have been killed,” Brooke said. “Look, lady. I’m not a babysitter, all right?” “You’re right about that. No kids could live in that mess of yours.” “Well, shit. Who said anything about having kids in my house?” Anthony put one hand on his hip and rubbed just underneath the brim of his hat with the other. “You ought to have kids or a roommate or a wife in a house that big. Doesn’t seem right to have a house that big all to yourself.” Brooke crossed her arms across her chest. “I have my animals,” said Anthony. “You live in a zoo.” “I do what I like.” Anthony kicked up some dirt, walked a few steps and patted Old Fuzz on the head. “Incidentally, this bear has never hurt anyone. I got that scar in a skiing accident.” “You’re mixed up.” “Excuse me,” he said and went inside.
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Brooke waited near the front door for nearly a minute. He had left. She thought about knocking, but there wasn’t anything to say if he answered. He was a gross man who lived in a house full of animal shit. He was content this way. She went back to her car. “He was nice,” Jeffrey said. “He wasn’t.” “The bear licked me,” Curt told Jeffrey. “I got bit by an emu,” Jeffrey said. Brooke drove herself and her sons home. They took the back roads, the long way. She hadn’t smoked in nearly a month. There were some cigarettes in the glove box. She helped herself to a few, although both her sons told her that smoking was bad. They pulled into her driveway. David’s truck was there. Brookes clothes were heaped on the lawn. She owned the house, not him. “You boys play outside.” “Why are your clothes outside, Mommy? Did the dryer break again?” “I don’t know,” said Brooke. She picked up an armload of her clothes and went into the house. There were no lights on and all the curtains were drawn. Faint traces of daylight found their way in underneath the shades. Brooke dropped the clothes on the floor and flicked the light switch. Nothing happened. Her eyes hadn’t quite adjusted to the dim light, but she felt her way over to the nearest lamp. It didn’t turn on either. David must have shut everything off at the fuse box. It was one of his favorite tricks. She made her way to the back of the trailer, and it was there that she could hear him breathing. Faint rhythmic breaths emanated from the bed. The fuse box was in the walk-in closet. There was almost no light. She had bought blackout curtains after Jeffrey was born, so she could sleep whenever he slept.
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Brooke edged towards the closet. She knocked something off her desk. It clattered against her wooden chair. The breathing changed, and she could hear movement. Brooke was still close to the door. Something passed the by the razor-thin strip of light near edge of the window. The breathing was louder and closer. The whole room seemed to be filled with it, like the inside of a bellows. She tried to quiet her own breath and sunk low against the wall. She could run if she had to, or she could call out to David and hope for peace. If only she could see Davidâ€™s face, she would know if it was safe or not. But she could not see anything. There was only his breathing and the darkness.
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chLoroForming The Rats
First sight of you on the rat lab night shift: slinging out cage filth along with fistfuls of sickened experimental subjects. They squealed against your passionless intent. Into trash cans they went, followed by drops from the lethal green bottle. How you slammed the metal lids shut against those frantic scratching sounds: the struggle for another fair moment. In silence after disposal, you groped for the light switch.
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little Brown Bat
It must have sneaked, squeaking from the attic or piping down the chimney, into the corner of our living room and eyes, hearing echoed heartbeats like a midnight signal for refuge. Must have sensed warm-blooded laughter before winging its way toward my girlfriend and I— the alto of its song too exquisite to notice, this companied chorus ringing through the air as we switch on overhead lights and shriek at its fluttered pandemonium. Of course, she flies upstairs, pulse coursing, entrusting me with the hunter function of my manhood, so, naturally, I protect fingers with mittens and practice swinging a towel. Stalking its hanging shadow, I scarcely breathe before the menaced prey. The bundle dangles. Closer still, claws grasp the wall in anticipation, thumbs spurred, fingers folded into a narrow fist. Its lofty-eared mask peers from a brown pelt. Then, in an instant, I know Roethke’s note that mice with wings can wear a human face—
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like a younger me, it wants to be sheltered in blankets and carried through the world. Under the milk of the moon, I bring the wrapped bat into the deepest wood though it seems gladly transfixed in my arms. At first, when I let go, it holds on, dawdles near awhile, apprehensive to splay its wings and soar into the unknown.
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R. Flowers Rivera
In a trice, I am made whole: here you are, a brigand lying in wait, circumspect amid a brown study, waiting to be fulfilled. A moment later, you step forward and close your mouth upon mine, scoop out my breath like a wedge of sweet summer melon, orchestrating a din within the confines of my chest. Like madness, you speak in tongues of rosehips and bright burgundy apples, of a delicate core of flesh and seeds, of a malleable thorn among nettlesâ€” Images shared between your mouth and mind in an uncertain moment of clarity. Flushed, you hone your lithe curve upon me as if I am the fine grit of shingleâ€” cloven to the last, moist remnant of the sea.
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every sunrise is a warning i refuse to heed. today will be briefer than yesterday. lately iâ€™m learning to begin at the end, to work backwards. iâ€™m learning to walk again.
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i talk to trees; they listen, they know what itâ€™s like to drop everything, to stand naked as winter comes.
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Tolstoy & the Checkout Girl
Tonya was the only thing that made him smile. The purple and blue streaks in her hair reflected morning sun perfectly. She was the checkout girl at the Sav-A-Lot. He shuffled through her line in his heavy woolen pants. Tonya snapped and popped her gum. Watermelon. Sour apple. Sweet wild cherry. An intoxicating fragrance to be sure. Tonya blew a bubble, then asked, “Will that be all?” Tolstoy dropped his eyes to the cracked floor. “Da.” He glanced up fast enough to see her cock her head to one side, her ponytail slapping her shoulder. She was watermelon today. “You’re going to die of heat exhaustion if you don’t ditch that getup.” Tolstoy looked down at his trousers. He’d learn to adjust. To what he wasn’t sure. Or for how long. “$22.36,” Tonya popped, pulling her head back in place. Pink and blue glitter sparkled on her eyelids. He wanted to dust his body with those pink and blue flecks. He pulled money from his pocket, handing it to Tonya to count. American currency made no sense. He counted by Rubles.
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Her fingernails were bright orange, tips painted white. She counted his money, handed back change and whispered, “Be careful out there. The world is mean to freaks.” Then she turned to the person behind him in line and asked, “Did you find everything you need today?” I found you, Tolstoy thought. He stepped through the strange sliding doors into a wall of heat that consumed the rest of his thoughts. He flopped down on the cool, tile floor under the humming contraption that blew cold air day and night. He peeled off layers of clothes one by one, like an onion. It made him cry.
In the evening he awoke to the whoosh of America, this strange land. Horns, people bustling about on the sidewalk below his room. Down the hall a man sang horribly off-key. Tolstoy rose from the cool floor and picked up the map the police had given him when they found him in the bus station. He smoothed the map across the empty table. A star marked the city of Delray Beach, Florida. From there his finger trailed over the world, across the Atlantic and Europe to Russia, where it stopped and tapped Moscow, before sliding south to his hometown. Such a long way to travel with no recollection. He was so young, yet remembered being an old man, like time fleeting backwards.
Tolstoy stared at the blank, plaster walls. He stood up and found a pen in a drawer. With precision he wrote a single word on the white wall. Astapovo. He stepped back and read the word over and over until he began to repeat it aloud. When a creamy orange sunset glowed in his windows he pulled a can of sardines out of his grocery bag and arranged the little fishes on crackers. They stared up at him. Rays of sunlight stretched low across the horizon in pink golds. He looked at the surface of the lake. Blades of grass jutted from the shore. Wind. Sky. Grass. All so different from where he’d come from. He was so displaced. He couldn’t remember why he’d left. How he’d gotten here. He pulled a thick bag of kopeks from his pocket, wondering what they could buy. They were so old and big. He turned one over in his hand, and decided to give it to Tonya as a gift. Tonya of the green eyes, blue smock, bare arms, rings on every finger, even her thumb, especially her thumb, where a silver
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genie wrapped around her finger stared down into a crystal ball. He wanted to touch her hand, lay his finger on the tiny crystal ball, and gaze at their future together. He sat down on the small sofa and conjured images of fields rolling past Russian summers.
In the morning he awoke to the sound of geese. He made coffee and set out in the blazing sun to buy ice cream. The heat was everywhere. Like the cold in Russia. A life spent in extremes. At 7:32 AM the electric doors of the Sav-A-Lot swooshed open. The cool air enveloped him. The smell of all things unfamiliar brought a smile to his face. There was no explaining this America.
In the checkout line he asked Tonya what she was doing. “What do you mean?” “Here. You are always here. Why?” “Because I work here. Don’t you have a job?” He looked down at his worn boots. “No.” “Well I am here everyday from 7-3PM, slaving my ass off to go to Cosmetology School.” “Where you study the cosmos?” “Makeup and hair, baby.” He was relieved to be the only one standing in line. A crowd of old men clustered together at a checkout near the door. Tonya was close to the thing she called video rental, out of sight, a precious moment. “Well,” she popped her sour apple gum, so green it glowed, “like beauty school, you know?” Like the places his sisters and aunts had gone when he was little. To have their hair made pretty and fingernails glazed cherry red.
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“Cause I think I’d be real good at it. What do you think?” He nodded. “Da.” She eyed his unkempt beard, his hair growing down past his shoulders. “I could practice on you.” He needed help. This America seemed so much more modern than his Russia. He’d been on his morning walk, watching the birds in the sky. He’d sat down in the train station to rest, because it was cold and he’d been up so late writing. Then he’d woken up here One long dream. He imagined. Except the heat made it real. Still it must be a dream. Never before had he seen stores with row upon row of food stacked to the ceiling. Lamps glowed, all night. Electricity, his lord of the land said. This electricity surged in his mind alongside Tonya, who snapped her fingers in his face. “Are you alright?” Tolstoy blinked, “Da.” “Well you look like you left your body.” To illustrate how alright he was, he backed away from the check out counter and fell over sideways. The woman in line behind him dropped her broccoli and screamed. Tonya ran around the counter. “Someone get the manager. We’ve got a customer down.” The manager had a mustache that bobbed up and down on his top lip like a hairy, fat caterpillar. He wrapped his arm gently around Tolstoy’s shoulder
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and led him to a small, square room with a concrete floor. The plain room made him yearn for the gilded light fixtures of home, the silk wall coverings, the sounds of his sister playing violin. He sat at a metal table. The manager opened a can of soda. “Drink this. It could be your blood sugar. My wife faints all of the time.” Then, “And take off that god awfully hot shirt.” Tolstoy unbuttoned his favorite shirt. The charcoal gray wool with silver buttons. The one Oleg made for him. His white chest glowed beneath the buzzing lights. Dark patches of hair like furry islands. The manager opened a locker from a row against the far wall and pulled out a shirt that looked like the one Tonya wore, but bigger. He handed it to him. The fabric was cheap, scratchy, but felt cool against his skin. He was grateful. The manager put coins in a machine and another soda can tumbled to the bottom. He handed it to Tolstoy, told him to wait, sit quietly, he’d come back later. He was drinking his soda, watching the clock on the wall above a shelf full of items he had no names for, when Tonya walked in. His English, while sufficient in many ways, was not as good as his French or Russian. Although he’d been having trouble remembering both lately. It could be the heat or dementia. Both were beyond his control at the moment. Tonya set a bag on the table. “I bought us food to make lunch. I’m going to take you back to my place and keep an eye on you. You’re always buying cookies and ice cream and wearing enough clothes to get you through an Arctic winter. No wonder you passed out.” “Okay,” he said. “Okay, what?” “You can take me.”
Cool air blew on his face from the little openings in Tonya’s strange automobile that rolled on wheels with no horse to pull it. He closed his eyes. Tonya of the sweet wild cherry.
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“Listen,” she said, looking over at him. “I’ll take you back to my place. You’re still really pale. If you don’t get your color back, Wayne said to take you to the ER. I don’t think you should be alone.” No, not ever again, he thought. Not since I found you. Like gypsies we will cross the Siberian plains in summer. Her home was small apartment with a concrete patio. He watched her toss her keys and purse on a table. “We’ll start lunch, then play beauty parlor.” He was hungry. Still a little dizzy. In the small kitchen she set the food on a table and handed him a bag of potatoes and a knife. “Peel these,” she instructed. Tolstoy pulled a dusty potato from the bag. The weight of it in his palm jerked him back to childhood. The potato endured the long, harsh Russian winter. The potato and man. The potato sustained winter after winter in the dark, heavy nights of his boyhood. Now, here he was with the weight of his past in his palm and the dazzling brightness of his future. There were no wells in this place, no buckets. Just a pipe where water ran smooth into a sink, over his hands, cool. As the potatoes boiled on the stove, Tonya tilted his head forward into the sink. One of her hands pressed lightly into his back, the other on his neck. He wanted to shrink in her palm so that she could hold every inch of him. The water was loud and hot and relaxing. She shampooed his hair. The scent of fresh blossoms exploded in the warm, rising air. She massaged his scalp and a deep longing crept into him. He wanted to fall asleep with the feeling of her massaging his temples. He felt a deep urge to know her, possess her. The water rushed past his ears, lulling him into a sense of isolation but he was not fooled. She was right there. She rinsed, wrapped a towel around his head, led him into the living room, where she motioned to a chair. On the table was an open case. Scissors, and metal devices he had no names for. She bit her bottom lip, tilting his chin this way and that, staring at his hair, his beard. So close she was. Close enough to see the fine hairs of her eyebrows, the freckles on her chest along the curve of her breast, the shape of her eyes outlined in dark blue makeup, the amber flecks in her green eyes. The way her bare shoulders looked like rising moons falling. He imagined himself as a gyroscope, spinning in the palm of her hand.
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“Okay, you’re pretty scraggly.” She stepped back. “I’m going to cut your hair, then your beard, and then I’ll give you a nice shave. Any objections?” Tolstoy shook his head. Oleg was in charge of such things back home. Oleg who pressed his clothes and packed his trunks and trimmed his hair. Oleg who brought him breakfast and picked up his letters from the post. Oleg who must have arranged this trip. Then for a long time the only sound was the snip snip snip of the scissors trimming away the parts of him that had grown wild. Tonya’s fingers brushed against his cheek. So much of him was falling to the floor. He thought she’d snip and snip until he disappeared. Until all of the pieces of him were on the floor. Until he fell to pieces because her hand against his skin brought an unbearable tremble. She was still wearing her nametag. The one that spelled her name and had a heart drawn on the side. He thought of the potato. If he could just explain to her the absolute silence of a long, winter night. If he could explain how by spring you knew everyone’s mood by the sound of their footsteps. How the cold claimed everything on the other side of the window so you warmed your fingers on a candle and wrote passages deep into the night. He pointed to candle on the table. “Would you light it?” he asked. “Are you trying to set the mood?” He looked down at the floor, pieces of him scattered. She whacked him softly on the shoulder, “I’m just kidding.” And he thought, you are not a kid but said nothing. The light danced wildly next to Tonya as she cut his hair. It would grow back. Time would pass. He knew these things. Her skin was a soft, peach glow. Shadows flickered. All of his life he’d known these flickering images. He’d imagined they were his mother and father watching over him. Friendly ghosts. Friendly, featureless, paper cut outs of a child. The shadows of her fingers snip snip snipped against the walls. Then came the hot towels. The utter bliss of hot towels, fingers against his temples again. The pressure that massaged away how he’d stumbled through this part of his life, the one so unfamiliar it had no name. Her bracelets clanked
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softly next to his ear. He listened. Her big emerald green eyes watched. He heard the swish of the blade in water, the familiar tap tap. Then Tonya pulled the blade at a careful angle against his cheek and the mask that concealed him was striped away. “So do you always sport this big, hairy look?” He could not remember. “I do not know.” “So where are you from?” she asked. “A town south of Moscow.” She readjusted his head gently. “Hold still,” she said and he did. Then, “God, what’s it like over there. The farthest I’ve ever been was summers on Long Island.” Tolstoy blinked. “So, what brings you to sunny Florida?” she popped. “I’m not sure.” “What do you mean?” He shrugged. She readjusted him. “Like you can’t remember? Like amnesia?” “Da.” “That is freaking cool,” she said, excited and snip snip snipped faster. “Did you hit your head or something? What’s the last thing you remember?” “I remember being on my morning walk, looking down at the tiny ants, wondering if I was too tall for this world.” “Interesting,” she said. The swish swish swish and the tap tap tap.
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Within minutes he felt the cool air on his face and cheeks, unburdened. The beauty of a moment alone with a woman, clear and light, like the fields of his childhood where he ran. Fields of tall grass, trailing open hands across the soft tips. The warmth of late spring meeting summer, the thaw, gently sweet, a rolling creek. Tatiana’s hand in his. Pulling him forward. Come, Tatiana yelled, come. “Shit,” Tonya said. He turned. “What?” She set the bowl of hot towels down. “I forgot to clock out. Crap. It drives Wayne crazy when I do that and it screws up his payroll.” She looked at the clock. “I have to run down and clock out. I’ll be right back.” The door slammed behind her. The flames sputtered. He stood and walked to the kitchen. In the fading, summer light insects hummed and chirped in a loud buzz outside. The frozen land of his past held no such songs. Here the earth and sky merged into a wash of apricot and pink. Tangerines on the counter ripened, the air fragrant. He laid his hands on the sink of this unfamiliar world and looked out the window where a reflection greeted him. A tall, darkly handsome man with a strong jaw and broad shoulders. The kind of man he would tip his hat to at a party. The light shimmered and he imagined a place like this in the world for himself. When Tonya returned he’d take her hand and beg her to become a gypsy with him, to toss the blue and purple streaks of her hair into the wind and ride. With him. Across a tundra glowing with moist, warm light. A bracelet sat on the counter. The kind with charms and feathers. He picked it up. Very slowly he closed his eyes, squeezing it tight.
The train station at Astapovo was quiet, nearly deserted. Tolstoy opened his eyes. Rows upon rows of empty benches unfolded before him. He looked down at his hands, limp in his lap. Then to his feet propped on his old trunk. His old, black boots were scuffed, the toes and heels like smooth stones emerging from darkness. Now he understood. He’d fallen asleep, drifted away. So weary. His hands were wrinkled, deep lines written in his skin by the years of life. He longed for the smooth hands that touched Tonya’s face. So old he was upon waking from his dream. A dream of the future. A dream, nevertheless. Never one to sigh, he allowed the exhalation of breath. How old was he? Seventy? Eighty? Ninety? He couldn’t remember anymore.
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A deep silence enveloped him. Heâ€™d told no one it was his time to go but Oleg must have known. Winter bristled through the cracks. A chill rushed past his face but he was warm. Tonya with the purple and blue streaks in her hair, the wild watermelon breath. Tonya. Heâ€™d known her once. Somewhere. In a dream. Yet, so real. More real than right now which dimmed more every second, graying around the edges so that the rows of empty benches receded, disappearing into nothingness. The whistle of the last train rolled into the distance. His eyelids were heavy, pulled to another dream. Green fields of spring. He wondered what would become of the serfs without him, Oleg, and the others. A roar of butterfly wings rushed in and he listened, feeling the lift as the sound of laughter returned to take him home.
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Exiled “Rusové přišli.” / “The Russians have come.”
Tera Vale Ragan
In the early morning his uncle woke him he said his uncle woke him sing to pack his bag his bag was a suitcase he said a suitcase of all the words that couldn’t fit in his mouth only his suitcase and the clothes on his back American khaki he said a foreigner’s cloth on his back the torch was in front the torch was attached he said to the front of the buckboard the buckboard his uncle used in the fields the buckboard was led by one horse he said one horse followed the dog followed over the hill he said over the hill to where the trains were to where the Russians he said the Russians had stopped all the trains stopped the trains and took him he said they took his bag they took him to the train toilet and locked him inside he said they searched his bag for hours searched his words for hours he said and the train had traveled for hours he said they brought his bag back empty except for a shirt hanging out of it a shirt like a tongue brought it back emptied of all his words he said the train was filled with foreigners and no one knew why he said the train was soon full but the town signs were changed the town signs for the train he said they stopped the train they unlocked the door they pushed him out he said pushed him out with their guns guns to his back they told him get on the bus they said get on the bus and he thought he could run he said he might have run but their guns he said and he thought he had more time there could be more time so he got on the bus he said all got on the bus all silent on the bus he said thinking it was their last thinking it was a cliff he said a cliff and a gunshot to the head Jesus Christ he said Jesus he’d forgotten forgotten how to pray and the bus had stopped he said the bus stopped and they were forced he said forced out and unloaded across the border they crossed into Vienna he said and no one knew why 90 | B S R
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Photography is not my main medium of expression. Writing is. Yet I have found that it is photographs which express what I am unable to find words for. In photography, I try to capture the randomness in the mundane, the unexpected in the predictable, theÂ carpe vitamÂ in the commonplace. Some of my clicks have a voyeuristic quality, since I have found that being a single brown woman, there are certain lines one cannot cross. I trespass those lines anyway, but from a distance. These photographs are from a series set in Varanasi, India, and were taken on the ghats (or, the riverbanks) earlier this year. They were taken in the afternoon, a time most popular for siestas in India. I have tried to capture a side of Varanasi that is not immediately visible to touristsâ€™ eyes.
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I am an accidental photographer, a lucky amateur. I only switched to digital photography two years ago, and I’m still using my Canon PowerShot G12 on auto mode. I have no formal training at all, but I’ve spent my life studying my father’s top-class amateur landscape photography, influenced by Ansel Adams. I guess I have some idea of framing and composing. This photo was achieved by being at the right place and time, and waiting for the moment to happen. I didn’t want the people, but there they were and the sun was setting. I snapped, as did others standing near me. I was just lucky.
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Winter Sunset Photograph, Canon Powershot G12
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When I was four years old, my father handed me his camera and told me to look through the viewfinder. As a child with both a bad memory and a fear of forgetting, that moment opened a whole new world to me. In the twentysomething years that have followed, my relationship with photography has changed many times. Currently, my camera is my travel companion, capturing still moments in the rush of suitcases, taxi cabs, and language barriers. Putting a lens between you and your subject changes the nature of your perspective. Because Iâ€™m interested in remembering things as they are, I tend to eschew flash for natural light, and rarely use digital manipulation.Â
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Callao Colorblock Photograph
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A painting arrives in different ways. An idea transformed or a sudden reflex to the mix of colours. However, when doing commissioned worksâ€”not manyâ€”the personality of the person behind gets into the paintings too. Lot of it a mystery, which I am happy not to decipher.
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Bend oil on canvas
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My artwork involves miniatures and this series was no exception. I often find unique little figures at thrift stores, flea markets or antique shops. The age and original creators of the figures is often unknown, I believe this figure was handmade but a very long time ago. As subtle change in the world can cause terrible effects that echo throughout every being, living and inanimate. Though undefined and seemingly lifeless, we are left with an insight into animation and solitude of the forgotten devices we will cast aside through the actions of the struggling robot.
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Forgotten Robots Photograph
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Forgotten Robots Photograph
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Otha “Vakseen” Davis III
As a creative mind, the arts have played a major role in my life from a young age. I grew up overweight, so I wasn’t always the most confident. I never really had a voice until I grew older. Art and creativity tend to play the role of my therapist and help me maintain sanity in this crazy world. The paint brush is my weapon of choice these days as I create mixed media paintings using acrylics or oil with water color. It’s never been my intention, but red, black and white always seem to be a common denominator in my pieces. I didn’t even realize this until a friend brought it to my attention. I’ve always loved the dramatic contrast and power that black and white images create. At the same time, red is so sensitive, intense, and automatically demands your attention. The combination of these three elements allow me to create so much depth and emotion. I’m invigorated by relationships, feelings and emotions. I’ve always felt they were God’s greatest creation, so my work tends to evolve around women and their natural allure. I want my work to captivate the viewer’s senses.
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Narcissistic Lust Oil, Acrylic, and Watercolor on Canvas
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This piece was inspired by my desire to capture movement in nature. I wanted to grab that moment of peak intensity and freeze it in time while also keeping it alive and humming with energy. The horses charging to the front of the frameâ€“manes flying and hooves kicking up clouds of dustâ€“evokes feeling of awe and terror.
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Stampede Oil on Canvas
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When We Were Horses
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we wanted to be horses we broke the windows we tore off our ironed uniforms no time to clock out we took the world bare back seeds and meat, without salt or soft edges we trampled rocks where the leaves went yellow, we pressed our feet into the earth until they were hooves we drank the river and ate the apples until we forgot where we parked the car until we knew how to cut a knew path next to the pavement because it was ours it was all ours we brushed our hair with the wild until we grew manes until roots tangled over our minds we talked in cries, nays, grunts and moans we understood each other for the first time we looked and looked until our eyes turned outward until no collars choked the mountains the skirts of the sunsets blew up and blushed no wistful glances at the future everything right beside us we ran and ran until are legs grew thick our strength dense, we were a south wind, we were a tide pulling the city in a rattling carriage
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Mowambi was breathing hard, panting like a wild animal, his leathery face wincing in the hot African sun. He had been hit cleanly through the side, the wound causing a great numbness in his abdomen. His left leg lay limp like a dead thing, the life in it taken by the bullet. But the maumivu, the pain that it made, wasn’t bad. Except when he tried to move or when he breathed too deeply. He concentrated on his breathing, short and fast, short and fast, never too deep. Mr. Rick - on the other hand - was dead. He lay, face-up on the rocks ten feet below Mowambi, where he’d been hit. The tsetse flies had already gathered around his eyes, scavenging on the moisture there. Together, he and Mr. Rick had made a gallant rush up the dry wash, under the weight of heavy packs, laboring like horses, dodging bullets that ricocheted and wheezed past them. They had been close to the top, very close, nearly three-quarters of the way up the stone gulch to where it steepened abruptly, almost into a cliff. Then, Bam! Bam! Two shots and they were down—dropped like two gazelles on the Serengeti. Mowambi lay now, back propped against a stone, trying desperately to hold back the blood which oozed from his side. His head was fuzzy and light; his breathing still fast and labored. The air was hot and dry and parched his throat with each breath he took. His life light, that which gave vision to his eyes, had momentarily gone out, but was back now, and his heart was
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pounding fiercely. He looked over at Rick Johnson, a big man, Mr. Rick, young and tall and strong. The bullet had hit him squarely in the back and came out his chest. Mowambi had seen many bullet wounds in game animals in his long life of fifty-eight years; many bullet wounds in animals, but not as many in men. He could see now how this one had taken Mr. Rick down so quickly. Over five-hundred meters and right through the big man’s heart. They shoot very well, he thought. These white men from Zambia. “Mr. Rick,” Mowambi spoke aloud. “They got you good!” He shook his head, sadly. He squinted up at the sun, the sweat running down the sides of his face. It was mid-afternoon, hot, and there was no shade, except for one old thorn tree, scraggly as the thin gray hairs on Mowambi’s chin. And Mowambi wore only a green army tunic and big Bermuda shorts, so his slender arms and lean black legs lay heavily exposed to the heat of the sun. “Now they come to kill me!” he said, resting his head back against the stone and staring up into the blue, Zimbabwe sky. He pulled himself higher on the stone, dragging his dead leg, and he looked down the wash. He could see them coming up: four, no five, of them. The three bushmen from the Kalahari and the two white men from Zambia. Their white safari hats were shining in the sunlight as they came out from under a group of huge, thick-trunked baobab trees at the bottom of the wash. All that practice, he thought. Shooting down elephants. It has made them good shots. Now they come to kill me and won’t have to shoot well. So this is how it ends? He began to laugh about it, but the laughter made the pain rise in his side. They could use their hands now, or a rock, he scoffed. Then a grisly thought entered his mind, that they would not kill him at all, but would leave him to die in the sun. He had seen, many times, the carcass of an animal out on the Savannah, left to die beneath a blazing sun, left alone to ward off buzzards and hyenas, left until it could fight no more and was savagely eaten alive. He understood how all things are connected; how all that rises from the earth goes back to the earth, but this did not comfort him. Death in the Savannah could be hard and brutal. Not a good way to end a long and joyous life. It was a frightful thought, and it made his heart
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hollow. Living long made dying okay. But slow dying, in a way that humiliates, was not good. But they would have to kill him, he thought. After all he and Mr. Rick had done! They had no choice but to kill him! He smiled broadly. “We done good, Mr. Rick,” he said. Ah, yes, we did them good! He began to laugh out loud, a high-pitched, happy laugh. In his mind he saw the two Jeeps explode, going up beautifully, spitting huge bellows of black smoke into the sky. And then the plane. Yes, the plane! Mr. Rick was right. Just one bottle of gasoline and one match did it. And the Coca-Cola was so good! They enjoyed drinking the Coca-Cola thinking of the gasoline with which they would fill the empty bottles afterward. This was a huge setback for them, the white men from Zambia. Mr. Rick said it would be. No longer could they so easily shoot elephants from the sky. No longer can they take the last rhinos from the Savannah. “Sorry you cannot laugh with me, Mr. Rick,” he said. “It was a very funny thing we did.” He looked at the packs, the packs that had ruined them, one still slung partially on Mr. Rick’s arm, the other beside him on the ground where he had fallen. They were filled with ammunition, hundreds and hundreds of rounds, ammunition for automatic rifles. Mr. Rick had insisted on taking them. After blowing up the Jeeps and the plane, with the bushmen breathing down their necks, he insisted on taking them. It would be a tremendous setback, he said. The hunters could not replace them. Each two or three rounds represented an elephant’s life. Now the two packs lay there, heavily on his mind, easy pickings for the white men from Zambia who came up the wash. He surveyed the area around him. He and Mr. Rick had made it to the point where the two washes merged. He had picked this spot, this saddle near the top of the two washes, from far away. He had remembered it because the two washes were like crossroads and he had looked up at them when they first started up the wash, using them as a bearing to know when they neared the top. Above him was the rock-strewn ridge that they would never make. Before him was a vast view of the African countryside. From high on the stone face,
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he overlooked a deep valley, almost a canyon which swooped down from the mountains and opened into a large sea of rolling hills of grass. Beyond that were the flatlands, and further out, along the western horizon, a dusty yellow haze, fading into the sky, marked the end of the Savannah. The near end of the canyon was thick with bamboo forests, out of which the hunters now ascended, following a game trail steeply up the gully. Between him and Mr. Rick’s body, there was nothing but the rocks and stone slabs that made up the slope, the two packs, and the scraggly old thorn tree. Near his foot he saw a stick from the thorn tree. A nice, round stick--the length of his arm. He reached for it with his one good leg, pawing at it with his heel until he could draw it in. Then he reached down with his good right arm, stopping for the pain to subside, then reaching again, stretching and clenching it in his hand. It is a good stick, he thought. It will be useful. A noise sounded behind him. He looked up and saw a large yellow hornbill perched on the stone just above his head. The bird watched him, turning its head, showing its big, curved, yellow beak. It had small yellow eyes that pulsated and zoomed in and out. The bird peered at him, long and lustfully. “So, you have come for dinner, my friend?” said Mowambi. “Leave now. I do not die yet.” Mowambi waved at it with the stick and the bird flew up and over the small rise in the saddle between the two washes, and down into the steep gorge beyond. Mowambi looked down at the packs. All that weight in those packs, he thought, that weight that slowed us down, that kept us from getting away free. That’s a shame, Mr. Rick. Too bad the hunters will end up getting the bullets back. It is mbaya sana, very, very bad. But we got their plane. They will not be killing elephants from the sky for a while. No, sir. We did good, Mr. Rick. He looked at Rick Johnson again, thinking of the young American. A crazy man, he thought, here in Zimbabwe, so far away from his home, here to save elephants from the culling, the poaching, and the trophy hunters. It was not his fight, they were not his elephants, nor his home, nor land, but here he was, leading the charge, organizing the others, doing what he could to thwart the hunters. Here he was, dead because of 150 pounds of bullets that would go back into the hands of those who will use them to kill.
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Mowambi was thirsty now, very thirsty, and he tried to think of something pleasant. He thought of the water flowing in the small stream down below in the bamboo forest. He thought of the Kariba, the endless Kariba, and the cold, clean water that flowed from it. He thought of the life it brought. He thought of what it would be like to have a cool drink of water! “Nipatie kinywaji baridi, tafadhali,” he said – please bring me a cold drink! But his mind kept switching back to Mr. Rick, his presence here, and why he should die in Zimbabwe, in vain, high on this rocky gulch overlooking the Savannah. And for Mowambi, it was wapi – the worst way to die. When you do not finish what you start out to do. It was the worst way. Those bullets, Mowambi thought, they really ruined us. Mowambi had not known all that had taken place, until Rick Johnson told him. Sure he knew the value of ivory, pound for pound more valuable than gold, but he did not know that the culling had been authorized by the government and the ivory was being used to finance rebel armies in the North. It was bigger, even bigger than Rick Johnson had known. But for Mowambi, what he had always known was enough. The killing was bad. He worked hard to help the foreigners fight against the killing. What he saw in Rick Johnson’s eyes and what he felt in his own heart was enough for him. It was all that Mowambi needed. The elephants were friends of the people and friends of the land. And they had always been friends to Mowambi. From the time he was a small child in his father’s village to now as an old man, they had been a part of his life, part of the Savannah. From birth to death they all walked together on the Savannah. The elephants widened the water holes and brought life to many. ‘Tangu kuzaliwa hata kufa,’ was the saying. He knew how elephants cried. Even more so than humans, they sensed death and felt death. They were not thoughtless beasts. He remembered the time he saw an elephant cow crying for her lost child. He had watched her from a thicket and had returned three days later to find her there, still mourning. He had heard elephants laughing, under the sunlight, herds wallowing in mud holes, laughing and squirting showers of water on one another. He had watched young elephants rumble on the Savannah, tripping over their trunks, fumbling with the use of that strange appendage. And he had laughed hard, so hard that he thought his belly would crack. He had seen an elephant reach out and touch another, fallen from a bullet, and many others carrying and fondling the bones of their fallen friends. He had heard stories told of young elephants, orphaned after their parents
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were shot, having horrible nightmares for months on end, as any human child would. He had heard their trumpeting cries across the desert, felt the sorrow of their low, subsonic rumbles, and saw them kick up clouds of dust against a setting African sun. Elephants had brought him amusement and sadness, compassion and joy. They had brought great laughter to his long life, and he owed them for that. They belonged here. But the hunters could not see the elephant’s soul. Their eyes were blinded by greed. For them, the prize was ivory—white gold. And the herds were diminished, as was all the world. At first, they took out the big bulls. When the bulls were no more, they took the females, often leaving the young elephants motherless. Mowambi’s heart ached for the small, clumsy babies left to die on their own. His head was hot and clammy now. His mind was fading in and out, almost into unconsciousness. And, in the heat and clutter of his fever, he had a vision. A big elephant came to him, crashing through the forest, its huge ears flapping, ivory tusks swinging from side to side. It stormed toward him, crushing down branches, pounding the earth with each step, shaking the ground so hard it rattled him. Then it stopped and stared in his eyes, its huge head swaying from side to side. In an instant, as quickly as the elephant had come, it turned and charged off into the forest. Mowambi was startled awake by a noise. The bird again, the big, yellow hornbill. This time, it was perched on a rock below him. It was blazing hot and the thin shadow of the thorn tree was fully behind him now. He looked down the wash and saw the men closer, laboring up, their rifles slung confidently on their shoulders. “You want to eat me now, don’t you?” Mowambi said to the bird. “Uende! Go away again. I do not die yet.” He picked up a small stone with his good arm, and tossed it at the bird. Pain rose sharply in his side. The stone bounced off a rock near the bird, and the bird flew off again, as he did last time, over the saddle and down, laughing mockingly as it vanished over the rise. “Where do you go, bird?” Mowambi asked. He stretched his neck, trying to look over the small rise in the saddle. He could not see far beyond the curvature of the rock, only the sheer wall on the other side.
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He grabbed a stone and tossed it over the saddle, not far enough to drop into the steep hole beyond. He threw a second stone and the pain in his side roared so intensely that he almost blacked out. This time, though, Mowambi heard the rock tumble, bounce, echo, bounce again, and then splash. He threw another, and again there was a bounce, an echo, a bounce again, and a splash. And Mowambi began to laugh loud--his high-pitched, joyous laugh. It would be the perfect plan, he thought. The perfect place. At first, he went for the pack closest to him. It was scarcely an arm’s length away, but it was on his bad side, the side that had been killed by the bullet, and although he could move his left arm, it was almost numb, and his left leg was lifeless. He felt his left thigh with his slender fingers. Nothing. Through all his years, it had been a good leg. He had traveled many miles on it, across the Savannah, in the desert, through the mountains. “Wake up, leg,” he said. “No time to sleep.” But it was usingizi – dead--the worst kind of sleep. His only choice was to twist across his body and reach for the pack with his right. He was reluctant to try it; the pain might cause him to pass out. Yet the men were coming up and he knew he had to move quickly. So he reached for it, at first stretching slowly, testing the pain, pacing himself through it. Then he made himself fall over on his side in the direction of the pack. His slender left shoulder hit the rocky ground and he clenched the pack-strap in his good hand, gripping it tightly, and dragged it toward him. He took a second, resting his face in the good earth. It is truly not bad, he thought. When I stop, the pain goes away. He pulled himself up and rolled the pack over his dead leg, the full weight of it, nearly seventy pounds, coming against it. He was glad it was asleep now. The bullet must have completely smashed the big nerve. Over his good leg next and down to the rocky ground. Then he began to push and roll it up the small grade of the saddle. He turned sideways and pushed with his right leg. He dragged himself along the rock to get closer, always pacing himself, sweating and gritting his teeth through the pain. He took the stick and pushed the pack as high as he could so that it reached the peak of the small rise.
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The pack was long and cylinder-shaped. Mowambi knew it would roll easily once it started down. He inched himself forward. Smiling, then wincing with pain, then smiling again, tasting victory. He reached out and placed the stick against the bag, holding it there as he readied himself. Then he pushed hard, extending his arm fully. The pack tumbled, began to roll, and fell through the open air. There was a huge splash and Mowambi smiled widely. He thought of an old East African saying: Kusika si kusna – hearing is not seeing. But what he heard was mzuri sana – very, very good. The splash was loud and wonderful, as good as seeing. It must be deep, he thought. It has to be very deep! “Do you see, Mr. Rick?” he said aloud. Hurrying now for the other pack, he dragged himself across the stone, pulling with his one good arm, pushing with his one good leg, laughing hard against the pain. His bad arm had no feeling, but he folded the numb hand around the stick and dragged it, looking back frequently to see if the stick was still there. He laughed at the thought of himself crawling across the ground like a worm. Stretching out, then inching forward—just like a worm! A worm that would defeat the hunters! He had walked great distances in his time. Now he could barely make ten feet to where Mr. Rick and the other pack lay. He was glad he had watched worms and understood their movement. No time to laugh, worm, he thought. Time to work! Stretching out, he extended himself completely and reached for the pack with the stick. For a moment, everything went black. Then he came to. He looked down-canyon, but was too low to see the hunters. “I must hurry,” he told himself. “They are close.” Then he stretched for the pack again. The strap, still on Rick Johnson’s arm, had a nice loop in it that stood out. He tried to snag it with the end of the stick. “Come on, stick. Come on, fimbo. Take it.” He jabbed and poked, finally catching it. Then he pulled on it with his good arm. He reached up with his numb arm as well, holding the stick with both
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hands now, and pulled back hard. The pack slid from Mr. Rick’s limp arm and began to come away, pulling the dead man’s arm with it. “Don’t worry, friend! I come join you soon,” Mowambi said, softly. He yanked on the stick again, this time with all his strength, and the pack came loose from Rick Johnson’s shoulder. He drew it in close enough to where he could grab it into his chest. It was the greatest chore, inching the pack back uphill. Every time he stopped to rest, the thought of the wonderful splash it would make gave him strength to go on. When he reached the saddle and pushed the pack down the other side, he held his breath until he heard the deep splash—then he let his head fall back and laughed high and fast. Finally, limp and exhausted, he lay back against the flat rock, resting his head on the earth, his one good arm outstretched above him. After a few moments, he let gravity roll him back down to his original position, pulling himself against the stone, and waited. It was not long before he heard the hunters approaching and could see their white safari hats topping the rocks below him. “Habari! Karibu!” Mowambi said in the nicest form of welcome. The men came in slowly, cautiously, circling around Mowambi and around the body of Rick Johnson. Two of them pointed their rifles at Mowambi. One of the bushmen poked at the corpse with the barrel of his gun. “Wafu,” he said. “Dead.” Then they looked at the wound in Mowambi’s side. “It’s not bad,” Mowambi lied. “Sijambo! I’m fine.” One white man, the mzungu, had curly red hair, narrow eyes, and a pug nose. He turned to the bushmen and spoke in Swahili. “Kutafuta wao! Kuta wao! Look for them! Find the ammunition!” The bushmen immediately began searching the area, behind the rocks and in crevices, up higher in the wash, too, where it steepened. One bushman backtracked down the wash from where they had come.
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The other white man, thinner and taller, with a big black mustache, looked at Mowambi. “Where are they?” he asked. “The bullets, the popoo! Ramia!” Mowambi smiled at him, showing him his missing teeth. He laughed at him, with his high, ridiculous laugh, until the pain from his wound made him stop. “How do you kill now, with no bullets? How do you kill? No more elephants. No more buri. No more pembe,” Mowambi said, using the Swahili words for tusks and ivory. One bushman was now halfway down the wash. The pig-faced white man yelled to him in Swahili. The bushman looked up, raised both hands in the air, and shook his head. The other white man walked to the top of the saddle where another of the bushmen stood looking down the steep cliff at the water below. When the white man saw the water, he turned back and looked at Mowambi. “Too bad,” Mowambi said. “Too bad no more ivory.” He was laughing, laughing and choking on the blood that erupted in his mouth. “Kufisha,” said one of the bushmen. “Kill him.” The man with the mustache picked up a rock and tossed it into the pool of water. It splashed so loud they all could hear it. Then he walked back down beside the other white man and stood before Mowambi. “Black bastard,” the black-mustached one spoke. “Bastards.” He kicked at Mowambi. Mowambi was ready. He wanted to force them to end it now. His side was hurting badly. Also, he didn’t want to be left for the hyenas. It would be the white man with the narrow eyes of a wild pig, he thought. The ngizi. The pig-faced one stepped forward now, his rifle barrel low to the ground. Then he raised the barrel to Mowambi’s face. Mowambi laughed again, high and silly. His mind went into a dream-like state and he saw the large elephant in his vision, charging through the forest. He saw the young elephants
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playing in the mud holes. He saw Mr. Rick, behind a pair of dark sunglasses, laughing and smiling. He saw the packs, full of bullets at the bottom of the pool, soaked and wrecked. Then he saw a white flash and he saw no more.
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John Fenlon Hogan
Before the rocket launches I can already tell I’ll get a faint taste of tail feathers just before beneath rock bottom. For the first time, this may be the last time—I mean, I’ll get an ambulance ride then be stabilized but whatever brain contusions result will be nonoperable because of (what was it the ACME agent called it?) a preexisting condition. This unchecked urge, this whycan’t-I-settle-for-the-common-grackle? What you don’t see on TV: that I’m a divorcee, that my little wiles roam about this desert of allegory knowing no more of me than the alimony by which they are raised. This is not
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a confession, but an obsession with which I now end. T-minus common sense. T-minus my dignity and dinner plans. T-minus this foolâ€™s errand I am sent upon. As I touch the match to wick I know that there is a fate worse than the frying pan, that desire is to die trying, and that there is a sound at the heart of all sound, which is the sound of Death rubbing it in once more. Beep! Beep!
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after five oâ€™clock at the maple leaf bar
Tonight, lonesome people are everywhere sitting in bars, nursing their loneliness with a house whiskey or a Dixie Lager, looking down the long wooden wedge toward other unnamed people, heads slumped as the bartender dries a shot glass with a white towel. Maybe something in the next conversation with a stranger will change their life. Today, Pamela Anderson is boycotting Kentucky Fried Chicken because KFC is cruel to chickens, and so I must be cruel too, and obviously a horrible person, because I love KFC and deep-fried lightly battered breasts. Normally, I would give her a pass on things of such inconsequence as KFC because I like breasts. But what am I to do? I cannot win in this situation because I love KFC. And, I also love womenâ€™s breasts.
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But Pam has fired off the cardinal sin for any potential relationship with me, a dating faux pas—I really desire breasts, but Pam’s breasts are fake, they say, and that’s why I’m siding with the Colonel. His are real and juicy and spicy, too. But as I sit at the bar tonight in the soft blue light looking at a woman a mile away, at the bar’s end— who, if the lights were dimmer could be Pamela Anderson— I’m wondering, if I were a better man would she dig my mood? Would she slink her legs up over my leg and straddle me like a sultry jazz singer in a smoky juke joint, a voice raspy as a whisky-coated whisper? It all goes back to the first caveman’s, “UGH!” which meant, “What am I going to do with my desire for women?” Then the secret was out about our lust for breasts, to massage them, caress them in the front seat of a Buick, grope them in a dizzying passion, suckle them like a long kiss, or wet a finger and circle the areola in route to proclaiming the depths of our love. As I glance down the long row of bar sitters, I wonder—how can anyone be concerned about KFC when what we are all trying to fill is a hunger deeper than any of us can probably imagine, a bottomless pit no original recipe can handle? Yes, I love KFC, and I love breasts, as well as having a shot of Tequila, occasionally, with a stranger in a juke joint pick-up bar
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on the seedy side of town with Dick Daleâ€™s surfing guitar licks crashing over my body like a ten-foot wave.
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A Sort of Homecoming “We know what no other animal knows, that we must die.” ~ Don DeLillo, White Noise
Friday June 2, 2006, 12:34 PM Pacific Standard Time. I’m taking my lunch break on the Cecil Green lawn at the University of British Columbia, where I currently work and have just finished graduate school. It’s a perfect day— seventy-five degrees and sunny, the ocean lapping gently in the background, flowers flanking the lawn. The smell of cut grass. Last night, my dad was admitted into the hospital with what his doctor thought was pneumonia. He’d been uncharacteristically sick with a cold for weeks—he’d even opted out of three consecutive Sunday golf outings, which was unheard of—and antibiotics weren’t working. His being in the hospital was disconcerting, but no one seemed particularly worried. These things happened. They’d be doing a chest x-ray this morning, just to be sure. Mom was supposed to call me to let me know everything was okay. I check my watch again. It’s 3:37 in Michigan. The ring echoes in my ear and then cuts to the answering machine when I try Mom and Dad’s house the second time. Like a horse that senses a coming storm, this disquiet has me wanting to fidget and stomp. I call my mom’s cell. She picks up but doesn’t say hello. In a strange, strangled voice she says, “It’s not pneumonia.” This is the moment that divides my life into before and after.
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*** The next morning, unable to think about anything except getting there, I fly to Kalamazoo, feeling as though untold horrible things could be happening while I am unreachable on an airplane, but that they somehow can’t if I’m there. 24 hours ago I debated whether to put milk in my coffee; 22 hours ago I installed new file management software on my computer at work; 20 hours ago I was thinking about trying a new Mexican restaurant for dinner, about margaritas with extra salt. Now, I’m thinking about the man who recently died on a Greyhound bus after his seatmate, a perfect stranger, sawed his head off. I’m contemplating plane crashes, the awareness of imminent death. The stretch and suspension of that moment before gravity and reality take hold. Once when I was biking down Second Avenue in New York a van door swung open and I had just enough time to realize that I was going to hit it. But that’s pretty small stuff; I still bike in rush hour traffic. This is more like driving a car off a cliff, that misleading airborne instant before the fall. Successful crash landings are interesting. All those people barreling toward the termination of all future moments, their sudden acquaintance with fear and mortality and finality. And then, against whatever odds, they survive, their own deaths now something they know and have seen up close, their relationship with themselves and the world changed. I think about whether successful crash landings are due to skill or luck, or some perfect combination of both. Whether we have what it takes to get to the ground alive. *** I go straight to the hospital, where CT scans confirm stage four cancer that originated in the colon and spread to the liver and lungs. The oncologist’s best guess is that the initial tumor started growing in Dad’s colon six or seven years ago, shortly after his last colonoscopy. This news not only has significant and terrifying implications for the future, but it also changes the past. When Dad visited me while I lived in New York, when we saw plays on Broadway and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and sat for six hours at the Belgian beer bar, he had cancer. All of these memories, milestones, and celebrations, these moments with no discernible darkness, were in fact
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hiding a fatal truth growing inside his body. I feel robbed in retrospect by the privilege of ignorance. When I first walk into Dad’s hospital room and see him lying there sprouting IVs, oxygen tubes in his nose, pulse ox meter on his finger, feet sticking out over the end of the bed, I am struck immediately by a sense of déjà vu. As I rush to hug him, the movement is accompanied by a sense of practice, as though this is a scene I’ve played in before. Perhaps it’s because this is the stuff of the saddest stories, the images we see and fear will one day resemble a moment in our lives. I stop myself from indulging the memory that haunts the edges of my mind and, tucked into Dad’s hollowed chest, I try to orient myself toward the future, toward what we need to do for the rest of today, for tomorrow, for the rest of Dad’s life. “This is a good excuse to get you home for a visit, eh?” he says. A Detroit Tigers game plays on mute in the background, and every now and then he glances toward it to check the score. He says we shouldn’t panic just yet, and we oblige, at least on the surface. We wait to fall apart. The oncologist wants to start Dad on chemotherapy immediately and is checking on some clinical trials. The surgeon will be in soon for a consult. Things are bad, but it’s unclear what that means, whether things can get less bad. Maddening as it is, the ambiguity prevents us from collapsing. The world tips wildly, poised to spin off its axis like a deranged top. But it hasn’t happened yet. Uncertainty means that not all hope is lost, and we hold onto hope in everything—the way we watch television and get invested in stolen bases, the way we meet the eyes of the doctors and nurses, the purposeful way our bodies move toward attainable goals and reasonable ambitions, the grip of our shoes on the waxy linoleum of the hospital floor. The house is changed; it’s strange not to hear his footsteps, not to see his head, the soft grey hair sticking out over the back of the recliner in the living room. No snores thundering through the wall at night. I check the freezer for ice cream. When I grab for a spoon, the phonebook and pens and Postits are in the drawer where the silverware used to be and all the utensils are in the drawer under the phone. That the spoons aren’t where they’re supposed to be throws me, at once a clear and ominous metaphor. I walk around the house in my socks, quiet, as though someone sick is sleeping. My old bedroom is now Dad’s office. His laptop is open on the desk. Stacks of legal pads with notes written in red felt pen in his scratchingsloping hand. Textbooks, political paraphernalia, family photos. The ticket stubs from when we saw Tori Amos at Radio City Music Hall together, his
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mementos overlapping with mine. I’d rather he be the one to inhabit this space. I walk into my parents’ bedroom. The last time Dad was in here, no one knew he had cancer. On the shelf above his bed, I see the copy of Don DeLillo’s White Noise that I bought him a couple years ago. For birthdays and Christmas, Dad always asked me to give him books and music that I particularly liked—this is how Dad developed a liking for both Tori Amos and trance music. He said he appreciated DeLillo’s writing, but didn’t know quite what to make of my being so wild about a book about death. Now I feel a cramp in my side, a sharp guilt pang for having put into his life a book fixated on both the abstractions and the actualities of death. I grab the book from the shelf roughly, as though it has introduced a toxic element into my dad’s life. As I thumb through it, I decide to read it again— it’s been seven or eight years, and I’m curious whether I’ll still love this book and whether it has anything to teach me that would have been lost on me before. In the beginning of White Noise, Jack Gladney and his wife Babette, and even their three teenage kids, are keenly aware of their mortality, if only in a fairly abstract way. It’s as though they all sense that death hovers everywhere, including around them, but it hasn’t yet landed. Babette lives in such terror of that moment that she goes to extremes to obtain an experimental and dangerous psycho-pharmaceutical drug designed to dull the fear. But nothing can, because nothing can prevent death. This idea is reinforced in the book when the spilling of an incredibly poisonous chemical triggers a “toxic event,” a huge dark cloud that floats around and gives chase, full of rain and wind that kills. As they evacuate town, Jack fills up the car with gas, exposing himself directly to the toxins for about two minutes. Later, in the shelter, a doctor tells Jack that the exposure will kill him in roughly 30 years. Even though 30 years is a relatively long time, the doctor pulls death out of the ether and pins it on Jack, guaranteeing that Jack’s awareness of his mortality will sharpen into something deadly and insidious—an active watching of the clock and listening for the bomb that ticks inside him. The morning of the toxic event, Jack had woken up believing that he’d built a safe home with a wonderful and comforting wife who takes him to her breasts each night, a house packed with kids so intelligent and curious and fierce that they cannot possibly be mortal. We all know that death is out there somewhere, but like most of us, Jack believes that death is busy at-
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tending to more pressing matters elsewhere. Once Jack learns that death is watching him, and not from afar, it infiltrates his safe spaces. I wonder how Dad felt when he got diagnosed, the moment he realized that despite clean and healthy living, he was going to die much sooner than later. The moment he realized that death was in his house, his bedroom, in him, that it had been for years. I wonder whether it would be better to get hit by a bus or to die suddenly in a freak accident than to realize that death had bypassed the best home alarm system, family, and lifestyle and had invaded a body that was supposed to belong to its owner. In White Noise, déjà vu is a side effect of exposure to the toxic chemical, a side effect of exposure to death. I think about my déjà vu in the hospital room, about one particular side effect of the moment that changed everything. Mine wasn’t a reaction to a chemical. For my graduate thesis, I wrote a novel in which one of the protagonists was a girl roughly my age; naturally, we had quite a bit in common. When, at a turning point in the book, I needed something devastating to happen to her, I asked myself what would be the most devastating thing that could happen to me. So the character’s dad has an aneurysm during a welcome home party for her and she spends the next two weeks watching him die. I cried as I wrote those scenes—I imagined holding my dad’s hand as he lay comatose in a hospital bed. What I would say, how I would lean over him, trying to find his breath, wondering if the passing over was at hand or if he was already gone. I projected into my novel the most devastating thing I could imagine, and then it happened. Even though I keep telling myself it’s a coincidence, I don’t want to touch the book ever again—it’s tainted, a talisman of death. Logically this makes no sense—the tumor started growing in Dad’s colon long before the book was a glint in my eye. Yet I can’t seem to still the sense that my writing provided another pathway for death to reach my dad. And I can’t stop wondering what it means—what the past two years of my life mean—if the only significant and cultivated aspect of my life that I can bring with me from Vancouver is now as good as dead. Even though Dad’s diagnosis has changed everything for me and for the rest of my family, it appears that the world at large hasn’t changed, unlike in White Noise, unlike after 9/11. At the time, 9/11 made me think of White Noise, with its aftermath of smoggy clouds and debris and chemicals floating in the air. Unlike with 9/11, Dad’s diagnosis alienates me from the rest of the world and from almost everyone I know because this is a private
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tragedy; it requires explanation. Even then, some people don’t get it. One of my friends says something like, “I know what you’re going through. The same thing happened to us last year when my grandfather died.” And I want to say no, this isn’t the same. Your grandfather was 85. His death, while certainly sad, is natural—old people die. Grandfathers die. It’s not the same as a healthy 63-year-old man being besieged by cancer. Even the friends who weep with me can hang up the phone, disconnect from this, and go on with their lives. They must breathe sighs of relief—I’ll admit I’ve done it before—that this isn’t happening to them. Of course, this happens to almost everyone sooner or later. I’m not the only person whose father has gotten sick; people have lost fathers at far younger ages and in more horrible ways. There are people against whom far greater injustices have been done—the sick kids I see haunting the hospital hallways remind me of that every day. I know my anger is disproportionate, that I’m avoiding people I like and perhaps need. My life has suddenly diverged from most of the other lives I know, and the thought of trying to explain all of this makes me want to throw up. The greatest comfort for Jack and Babette is spending time with their fouryear-old son, Wilder, because “he doesn’t know he’s going to die. He doesn’t know death at all.” Wilder becomes like Buddha, both lucky and enlightened. “You cherish this simpleton blessing of his, this exemption from harm. You want to get close to him, touch him, look at him, breathe him in. How lucky he is. A cloud of unknowing, an omnipotent little person. The child is everything, the adult nothing.” The closest thing I have to Wilder is my cat, Zola, whose rusty purr is one of the only things that hasn’t changed, that still offers comfort. But at this moment, she’s back in Vancouver, unaware of death, unaware of everything except perhaps, in fleeting moments here and there, my absence. I find myself wanting to be Wilder’s age again, a little ball of wonder. When I would go to sleep before eight pm, when all I ate was macaroni and cheese, when Dad made me a “world’s greatest muckraker” button after I jumped in his pile of leaves. *** After conferencing with the hospitalist, generalist, internist, and surgeon, the oncologist tells us that Dad is terminal. There is a treatment protocol, including a clinical trial, that could extend Dad’s life, but he will never not have cancer. Then they say he has six months to two years left, which shakes us down to our bones. A few weeks later, we’d give anything for six months.
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That night I go to my brother’s house to devise a game plan. In a few days Dad will leave the hospital. He’ll have six hours of chemotherapy every Wednesday, and every Friday he’ll get an immune-boosting shot. Then there’s the regimen of pills, some of which are supposed to mitigate the side effects of the treatment. We know that Dad returning home means everything about life at home will change, too. He’ll need oxygen tanks, special food, new clothes. Someone has to do all the things my dad used to do around the house. As though we can manage this, my brother and I make a spreadsheet. At some point during our strategizing, the phone rings. It’s a friend of my brother’s who, in the process of moving, is about to get rid of his cat carrier. My brother says, “We already have a cat carrier, thanks,” and in that moment we look at each other and I mouth, “I’ll take it.” This is the first time I’ve said out loud that I’m moving back. A couple days later, I head back to Vancouver to wrap everything up. Leaving Kalamazoo, even if only for a couple of weeks, is excruciating—what will happen when I’m not here? Among other things, my dad will return home to reoccupy the space he’s lived in for the last 27 years, except this time, he’ll already be a ghost. The house in which I grew up will never look or feel like it did when I was a child, when, like Wilder, I lived in the before, blissfully innocent of the after. *** Vancouver too has changed. When I left, it was my home. I had a new Masters degree, a novel I was planning to send to agents, a boyfriend, an apartment, friends, and a job I actually liked. Now, that life is a faint shadow. I give notice at work and wrap up projects, explain to my landlord why I have to break my lease, give to friends or put on Craig’s List almost everything I own. Strangers parade through my apartment, examining my furniture, bouncing on the couch, trying out my appliances, stacking up my books and clothes. Strangers will incorporate my things into their lives— soon someone will ride my bike around town, someone will water my plants and grow them on a south-facing windowsill. Someone will cook with my pots and pans and then eat around my kitchen table. My boyfriend and I know that this is the end of us, given that it’s unlikely we’ll live in the same city, or country, anytime soon; he’s not legal to work in the States and neither of us wants an indefinite long-distance relationship. This is yet another aftershock; they seem to reach everywhere, growing legs,
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radiating, shifting pieces of my life that I thought were solid. Under the circumstances, I have no regrets about moving back, but I can’t forget that in the before world, this is something I would never have considered doing. I feel as if I’ve been shoved backwards, away from the places and things I saw on the horizon; I won’t be passing Go for a long time. Three weeks later, I ride through Vancouver on the way to the airport knowing it will be a while before I see the city again, that this may be the last time I ride in Eric’s car. My cat wails in the back seat, pressing her forehead against the door of the cat carrier. I feel as though I’m leaving an iteration of myself behind—one that I’m only now realizing was incredibly fortunate. After the toxic cloud dissipates, Jack and Babette realize that things can’t go back to the way they were before the cloud, that their lives have become meaningless rituals, pathetic recreations. Jack becomes prone to nostalgia for his old life, for the time before his acute awareness of his incipient death. Suddenly, the world of yesterday, even with its gamma rays and microwaves and x-rays, its indefatigable white noise, the hum of a life force greater than those who invented it, feels idyllic and, in retrospect, woefully underappreciated. Jack struggles to connect the world he used to inhabit with the new one; even when the changes are as difficult to detect as the chemical in Jack’s system, they are there nonetheless, growing like a tumor. Before Dad got sick, visiting Kalamazoo and the icons of my childhood was gratifying and indulgent—it stoked my appreciation for the people and places that shaped me. Now it feels as though I’ve gone back to my childhood home only to find it full of crumbling plaster and frayed wires; yet my only option is to stay there, trapped between desperate nostalgia and the rapidly darkening future. *** The first thing I notice when I get back is the oxygen hub in the kitchen, a futuristic unit that looks like a squatting spaceship, humming as it recycles oxygen and dispenses it through a tube. The tube is like a leash—Dad is always at the other end, inhaling deeply through his nose. Once or twice the dog trips over the tube and yanks it, leaving Dad surprised and gasping. He’s pale and tired and fades into the afternoons. When I put my arms around him, my fingers touch across his back. I can feel his ribs under my armpits, shuddering with breath. The bathroom teems with special mouthwash, pill bottles, basins, the smell of the sick. As I get ready for bed on my first night back, I see the history
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of myself in the mirror. How many times I’ve stood here studying my own face, wetting down the cowlicks in my bangs, poking at my skin, peering up my nose, checking to see if my ears stick out, undulating my hips, practicing come hither looks, trying to see if my eyes and face really show what I’m thinking and feeling. When something big happened in my life, I’d always check the mirror to see if I looked any different, trying to determine whether my mom would be able to tell. Feature for feature, the face I see in the mirror is mine; it matches up to the one in the photos that hang in the hallway outside, but it feels as though someone else is wearing it. I tilt my head, smile, frown, and bare my teeth with the curious sensation that I know this face, but I can’t remember how or from where, like maybe I borrowed it a while ago from someplace that now escapes my mind. No one else seems to be able to tell. I look like I’ve always looked, maybe a little thinner; we’re all thinner. To everyone else, despite being unmistakably devastated, I seem to be the same sturdy person I’ve always been. That someone is walking around wearing my face is a piece of information that I carry quietly and dutifully, like a pebble in a shoe. On my third day back Dad walks into my room as I’m sitting at the desk, typing on his laptop. “I’ve kind of taken your room over,” he says apologetically. “It’s fine,” I say. “I’m glad you hang out in here.” I swivel the chair. We both look around at the walls, at the combination of my relics and his, the overlapping of stories. “Did I interrupt?” he asks. “Were you writing?” “No,” I say. “Just checking email.” He sits on the edge of the bed, looping the oxygen cord around his wrist, careful not to catch it on anything. “So, what’s the status of your book?” I sigh. “I don’t know.” He breathes deeply, in through his nose and out his mouth. He doesn’t say anything, waits. “Want to hear something strange?” I ask.
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He smiles. “Sure.” I tell him about the book, about the protagonist’s dead dad. He listens, hands resting on his knees, oxygen cord dangling between them. Every so often he nods slightly, as though to affirm that he’s still with me. “Yeah,” he says after I finish, “that’s pretty strange. But the bottom line is that your book doesn’t have anything to do with me being sick. I think you should keep working on it. And don’t do anything foolish, like having the character’s dad live.” I laugh, a burst of relief. “I’ll keep that in mind. So you’re not freaked out or upset by it?” As I say it, I realize that Dad hasn’t freaked out about anything yet. “Nah,” he says. “I don’t think I could ever be upset by anything you write.” I look at the cork board above the desk, where he has put up some of my poems with thumbtacks. “Could you be upset by something I decide not to write?” He shakes his head. “Nope. You’re the writer. You know what to do.” I swallow the lump in my throat and blink to clear the tears from my eyes. I’ve never felt so far from knowing what to do. “I’m glad you’re home,” he says. “I’m glad you’re home too.” “I know this isn’t what you had in mind.” He states this evenly, a fact. I shrug. “It’s not what any of us had in mind. But that’s okay. I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” “As happy as I am to have you home, we both know this isn’t where you belong,” he says. “When all is said and done, I hope you know you don’t have to stay here.” “As soon as the coast is clear, I’m out of here,” I say. “I’m thinking Paris.” He chuckles. “Good. Let me know when I can visit.”
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I nod. We both know there will be no Paris. We fall into silence, glancing again around the room. 20 years after we spent most afternoons playing card games on the floor, our lives have crashed back together and once again we inhabit this space together. We’ve both left and come back to the place where so many things began, and where, both of us realize as we sit together in the silence of late afternoon, so many will end. On afternoons that feel normal, when Dad is napping or watching television and Mom is cleaning or rearranging more drawers, I take a break from job and apartment hunting and drive Dad’s van around Kalamazoo, making wrong turns and doubling back, wasting time and gas, lost and then found and then lost again. I pass by the diner on Stadium Drive and remember drinking bottomless cups of sludgy coffee and laughing until curfew. I drive by Sweetwater’s Donut Mill where I spent my first gainfully employed summer serving up coffee and over 30 kinds of donuts. I drive down Gull Road toward Richmond, out past the farms, toward my ex-boyfriend’s house. For a minute I think he’s there playing kickball with the dog in the front yard, waiting for me. But that was twelve years ago. The passage of time stuns me, leaves me feeling guilty and invisible and utterly misplaced. As I speed down the road in a futile attempt to outrun time and death, it seems that my attempts to right myself will only make things worse, like a lost hiker who unwittingly goes deeper and deeper into the woods. *** Visiting landmarks of my teenage years brings me one day to Vicksburg, where I drive around looking for a reservation off U Avenue. I used to go there with a kid I’d met at the donut mill who had a fondness for the grounds because it was legal to hunt in some areas; we’d hear rifle shots echo in the background every now and then he’d crash suddenly to the ground as if under fire, grinning. It’s a beautiful day, so I decide to walk around the reservation and try to enjoy it. Maybe I’m not paying attention to where I’m going, or maybe the layout of the reservation has changed; within fifteen minutes I’m picking through brambles, thinking that I’m looping back toward the car, but then encountering a marshy stretch I’ve never seen before. My feet slide into the ground and my laces come untied, pulled loose by the thick muck. The harder I try to move, the worse it is, and twice I sink up to my calves. I grab at branches to pull myself back up; the branches are full of thorns. I talk to
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myself, first in my mind and then out loud: I hate this, I hate this, I hate this. I hate this beautiful trip to the beautiful woods. Something snaps. I become furious. Fuck, fuck, fuck, says my voice. Just get me to my car and let me go home, I scream inside my head to no one, to the world. I want to hose off my feet, throw my shoes in the washing machine, put peroxide on my arms. But I can’t get through the woods, can’t find the trail I’ve somehow lost. I’m tempted to stop and have a proper tantrum, but my desperation to get back to the car propels me through thick patches of bush and bramble. Sweat coats my entire body, stinging my eyes and dripping down my face, but I don’t wipe it away, don’t wipe away anything. Leaves and twigs poke through my tank top, vines curl and snag at my waist, gnats stick to the sweat on my chest. Spider webs and dirt and burrs press against me as if to say, this is the world growing thick in front of your face, sharp and feisty as hell. Even if you get through this part, soon enough you’ll find yourself with a face full of thorns again. Eventually the sound of traffic seeps into the edges of my consciousness and I follow it to the road, which leads me to my car. As I settle into the driver’s seat, I get a look at myself in the mirror. My face, neck, shoulders, and arms are blazing and puffy, lined with dirt and dried blood. The scratches stand bright and angry against my sad, pale skin. The face in the mirror is nearly unrecognizable in its defiance of injury, the hard-set eyes and clenched jaw, nostrils flaring. For a minute I’m shocked blank of all thought. Careful to avoid looking at myself in the rearview mirror, I turn the key in the ignition and disappear into traffic. On the way home, I see the tall and gleaming sign of the new supermarket. Impulsively, I turn into the parking lot. I pick the sticks out of my hair and dump what’s left in my water bottle over my shoes to rinse off some of the muck. I wipe my muddy feet at the door and stroll purposefully into the store. The supermarket is a recurring location in White Noise. All those people pushing carts, contemplating, trying to right the squeaky wheel that keeps veering left, buying things they think will keep them alive. All those people I think are nothing like me until we shuffle together under the bright white lights, cheekbones sinking, chests caving. “The men consult lists, the women do not. There is a sense of wandering now, an aimless and haunted mood, sweet-tempered people taken to the edge. They scrutinize the small print on packages, wary of a second level of
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betrayal. The men scan for stamped dates, the women for ingredients. Many have trouble making out the words. Smeared print, ghost images. In the altered shelves, the ambient roar, in the plain and heartless fact of their decline, they try to work their way through confusion. But in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.” My shoes squelch and seep water as I wander aimlessly down the aisles looking for foods that are gentle and bland, neither too hot nor too cold. There’s a Starbucks in the store. Seedless watermelons are on sale. I press honeydew between my hands, pretending I know how to test its ripeness. Lobsters scrabble around a big tank, their eyes bulging like pinheads. The choices of rice overwhelm me—I pick the kind in the plastic container, the one that could survive a fall. A trail of wet and muddy footprints marks my zigzag trail across the store. Other shoppers watch me—I can feel their glances flitting around me like flies. It occurs to me that I might see someone I know, but I can’t find the energy to care. I take both instant and stovetop Jell-O, chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. I buy some Ensure, Ginger Ale, soft dinner rolls, Saltines. If someone looked into my cart they would think I had a sick child at home. I stand in front of the Shiraz, shifting my weight from one foot to another. I drift toward the Malbecs and Cabernets. As I scan the labels, I taste the tannins on my tongue and my stomach turns. I do something I haven’t done since I got violently sick off cheap white wine during my study abroad in Ireland almost ten years ago—I slide past the Rieslings and play with the neck of a bottle of Pinot Gris. With sudden force, the surprise Dad would feel if he could see me right now asserts itself—he knows I don’t like white wine. This seals it; I put the bottle in my cart. I drink white now. Things have changed. I pay with a credit card, a challenge for the slow cashier. My feet ooze mud onto the floor as I fish my wallet back out of my pocket to get my card for her to run through again, and then a third time. The transaction completes and I shamble out, paper sacks clutched to my chest, leaving footprints all the way to the car.
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*** I lie sleepless in my old bed, peering through the dark at the outlines of Dad’s things on the desk. How many nights have I lain here, sleepless over a feverish crush or anxious about a test, my eyes sweeping the room, resting in corners, searching for dark spots on the walls that might be spiders? How many nights I’ve either been lulled to sleep or yanked from it by snoring from the other side of the wall. Tonight the only noise I hear is the whirring of the oxygen machine, dutifully recycling and dispensing air. In my head, the word “Dad” echoes over and over, a syllable on an endless loop. A feeling of panic rises in my chest, a frantic rush that, after its initial shock, registers as familiar. I shut my eyes and remember lying in bed, always a light sleeper, waking to the sound of Dad’s soft footsteps at four in the morning in anticipation of an early tee time. I must have been seven or eight the first time, and then it became a ritual that continued all through high school, usually on Sunday mornings. Rigid, blankets pulled up to my chin as though any movement might give away my trespass into consciousness, I’d listen as he walked down the hall, flicked a lightswitch and closed the bathroom door. I’d hear a flush, running water, the scrub of a toothbrush. A few minutes later, the refrigerator opened, a glass of orange juice clinked softly on the counter. My heart pounded as he shook his keys into his pocket and pulled a jacket from the closet. When he opened the front door, I’d be seized by the nearly combustible urge to burst out the front door after him and fling myself around one of his sturdy legs. Maybe I wanted to stop him from driving off. Or maybe I just wanted him to know that while the rest of the world was still sleeping, I was up too. That he wouldn’t have to meet the rising dawn alone.
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The Kind Of People That Can Replace Anything
This little girl knocks on his door, almost once a week, sometimes twice. She wants money to mow the yard. She pushes her mower to the stoop and he comes to the door to hear her talk. She says the same thing every time. He could say it to her first now, if he felt like being that way. “’scuse me sir, five dollars and I’ll mow yer yard on this hot summa day,” she says. He usually tells her something like “I was planning to do it myself today,” or “Well, it doesn’t need it yet.” When he says things like this, she just turns around and pushes her mower to the next house. Today was different for no real reason. Maybe it was her lucky day. Or maybe it was just finally hot enough to matter to him. But for whatever reason, he agreed to her service. Her reaction was similar to before. She just turned and went to her mower. He watched her prime the engine and pull the cord. It impressed him. The mower came to life on the third pull. The little girl was well practiced. He went back inside and watched the girl from the living room. His wife asked what he was looking at. “That girl with the mower,” he said. “I gave her a chance today.” The wife looked where he was looking and sighed.
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“You aren’t getting lazy on me, are you, Buck?” she said. She called him this when she was being playful. “I just couldn’t remember why I always say no,” he said. “Five dollars isn’t unreasonable.” “A little girl being out in this heat is unreasonable,” the wife said. She went into the kitchen and started painting her nails. The man sat down on the sofa and started reading the paper. He read the paper every single day, from front page to back. It was a habit. Today he read about the school system and how they were cutting funding for music programs. He also read about that killing up north, the one where that seventeen year old boy killed his brother’s girlfriend outside on the street. Also, there had been a large earthquake somewhere in South America. The man read news like this every day. It was part of the habit. “Did you already give that girl five dollars?” the wife said, taking a break to let the first coat dry. She waved her hands around to speed up the process. “No, I will go out there when she gets close to being finished,” he said. He looked at the clock. It had only been ten minutes “What if she doesn’t do a good job?” the wife said. “You know, you like it done a certain way.” “We didn’t agree on anything specific,” he said. “I’m not going to be too picky.” The wife came in to the living room and looked at herself in the mirror. “It’s only five dollars, dear.” “We could use that five dollars when we go out tonight,” she said. “Should I wear my hair up or down?” She asked him this at every occasion. He always said down. He liked what it did to the shape of her face. They were going to a bar tonight, around seven, to meet another couple for drinks. The two men had worked together for nearly twenty years. “I wonder why that little girl goes door to door like that,” the man said. The wife had gone back into the kitchen and didn’t hear him. She was painting her nails again. “I am wearing the red dress,” she said. It had been about forty-five minutes now, since the girl started mowing the yard. The man stood at the backdoor window. The yard wasn’t big, about twenty yards from the back of the house, so he could see the little girl’s face as she pushed the mower across it. She didn’t look like he expected her to. He had imagined her to be scowling while she mowed, like she was upset with her situation. But instead she just looked like someone riding a bike. Like someone just trying to get from point A to B. He remembered being young, when his father would make him mow the yard every Saturday morning in the summer. Part of that charac-
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ter he always talked about building. But the money his father gave him in return was worth it. The man wondered if he had that old ball glove he had saved for, maybe somewhere in a box. The yard looked good. The little girl was well practiced. “It’s hotter than hell out there,” the wife said. She was ironing the wrinkles out of her red dress. Her nails were now bright red too. “Can you remember a day like this?” “It’s always hot in the summer,” he said. She always exaggerated things. “This is just another day.” “I don’t think so,” she said. “Today it’s just an awful heat, worse than yesterday.” “Once it passes a certain point, it doesn’t matter,” the man said. “We’ve been at that point for a week straight.” “I don’t know,” she said. “Today just seems worse.” When the little girl finished she knocked on the front door. The man’s wife was in the bathroom applying make-up to her face. The little girl’s face was dirty and covered in sweat. “Sir, I’m done mowin’ yer yard,” she said. She held her hand out for her money. The man reached into his back pocket for his wallet. His head tilted down while he did this, and he noticed something, about the little girl, for the first time. He noticed she was only wearing one shoe. On her left foot. Her right foot was bare. He counted five small toes, mud between every one. He stopped and stared at the bare foot. “Sir, I got more yards to get today, sir,” the girl said. He looked up from her feet. She just stood there holding out her hand expecting the money. The man thought about it for a moment. Whether the girl had been wearing two shoes when she arrived. He hadn’t looked at her feet. There was no reason to. He didn’t believe she had mowed his entire yard wearing only one shoe. The man didn’t believe he had let her do this. He pulled out a crisp five dollar bill and handed it to her. She took it, and left the man standing on the stoop by himself. He watched her walk away, her bare foot first, then the one with the shoe, then the bare foot again. Each step was the same, like the bare foot was used to the harsh surface of a sidewalk. His wife eventually came to the door and asked him why he was standing alone on the stoop. He couldn’t even tell her why. He just couldn’t explain it in the way he should. “She only had one shoe?” the wife said. “Who mows a yard like that?” She had finished applying her make-up. The
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man liked when she wore the make-up. It always made her look younger. Like when they had first met. “Did she have two shoes when you told her to mow the yard?” “I didn’t tell her to do anything,” the man said. Suddenly that mattered a lot to him. “But I don’t know if she had two shoes.” “Seems like something a person would notice,” the wife said. “You didn’t notice she only had one shoe on?” The man didn’t like how his wife seemed to be blaming him for this. He had only tried to do a nice thing. He told her he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He went and took a shower while she shopped around on the internet. She bought a new pair of high heels. The man and his wife were already a drink in when the other couple arrived at the bar. The women sat beside each other and immediately began chatting about prime time television. The men spoke of work at first, this always seemed unavoidable. The man bought his friend an expensive beer, and another for himself. The women drank vodka cranberries. The man’s wife looked beautiful in her red dress. Everybody made sure to tell her so. A band was playing at the bar that night. It was generic rock music, mostly covers of songs that were popular when they all were young. A few couples at the bar got up and danced around. The man decided he wasn’t drunk enough to dance. His wife was too involved with her friend’s stories anyway. The women weren’t even listening to the music. They were leaning in real close, talking loudly into each other’s ears. The man’s friend tapped him on the shoulder and pointed at the door. They got up and walked outside. The women didn’t turn their heads at all until the men were out the door. The man’s friend lit a cigarette and took a very long drag off of it. The man remembered reading about the smoking bans in the paper sometime last year. He had thought of his friend. Now they had to go outside whenever it was time for a cigarette. This didn’t bother the man, but even with the sun down, it was still hot out. The man could feel sweat under his arms. “She looks great tonight, bud,” the man’s friend said. “She ought to,” the man said. “She spends all my money.” The men laughed at this. “At least it’s for the best cause,” the man’s friend said. He flicked his cigarette at the brick wall. It ricocheted onto the ground, the end still glowing orange. The man rubbed it out with his shoe. The parking lot was filled with cigarette butts and broken bottles, and he thought of the little girl. He thought about her bare foot. He imagined callouses, white and hard, and the scraping noise they would make against the pavement. When they got back to their table the band had stopped playing. The women were at the bar try-
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ing to get the bartender’s attention. The men sat down and the friend took out his phone to check his email. The man thought about the dirt between the little girl’s toes. He thought about the clean spaces between his own. He thought about his thirty dollar argyle socks. When the women returned to the table, the man thought that he and his wife must be sharing a mind tonight because she said, “You should tell them about that little girl today.” She was drinking another vodka cranberry, red like her dress and nails. “It was the most bizarre thing,” she said. “Why would I bring that up?” the man said. “Oh, go on, tell them,” his wife said. “It’s a funny thing, isn’t it?” She laughed. The friend and his wife said they wanted to hear about the little girl. “It wasn’t funny at all, dear,” the man said. He started by telling them about the little girl and how she came to the door, and how she always comes to the door. He told them about her mower, and how she pulled the cord. “Tell them about her shoes,” his wife said. She always interrupted his stories. Especially after some vodka cranberries. He was going to tell them about the shoes, but he was building suspense. It was how he told stories. His wife wasn’t patient with things. “Well she only had one shoe on,” he said. “I mean, after she finished mowing.” “He didn’t look at her shoes beforehand,” said the wife. The man ignored her and kept telling his side of the story. “She must have lost a shoe while mowing our yard,” he said. “I would have noticed a missing shoe.” “What kind of a girl mows the grass without shoes,” the friend’s wife said. “What kind of person wears one shoe,” the friend said. Everyone but the man laughed at this. The man was having a hard time finding humor in it. He was the only one who had seen the little girl sweating on the doorstep. He had seen the mud between her toes. “Buck, here, forked over five dollars,” his wife said. She said it like five dollars meant something to her. “You could’ve bought me another beer with that,” his friend said. “Next time mow your own damn yard!” He slapped the man on the back. The man and his wife were drunk when they got home. She was singing one of the songs
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the band had played that night. She sang it in the car and all the way to the front door. The man couldn’t remember ever liking the song, and he still didn’t, even being drunk. He collapsed onto the couch while she stumbled into the kitchen. She took a bottle of champagne from the refrigerator and came to sit beside him. She drank directly from the bottle and passed it to him. “This was for a special occasion,” he said. “You know I wanted to drink this for something special.” “We can get more anytime we want, Buck,” she said. Her mouth curled into a grin and her eyes were droopy, making her look half-asleep. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess we’re the kind of people that can replace things easily.” He put the bottle to his mouth but didn’t drink. He felt the champagne bubble against his lips. He had been saving this bottle for a special night. Tonight was like a usual night. Except he was thinking about that little girl and her shoe. His wife took the bottle back from him and had another sip or two. She put the bottle down on the coffee table and laid her head down in his lap. He put his hand over her face playfully. She let him do this, and she laughed a little. They were quiet for a few minutes and she started to drift off to sleep. The man didn’t want her to sleep uncomfortably, so he guided her to their bedroom and helped her out of her dress and into bed. She would probably sleep straight through until the morning. The man put his pajamas on and sat down on the bed beside his wife. He didn’t feel tired. He knew if he lay down at that moment, his mind would race and he would drive himself crazy. He put his slippers on and went back into the living room. He went to the window and peered out into the back yard, like he was expecting to see the little girl out there, pushing her mower around. In the kitchen he found a flashlight on top of the refrigerator. He walked out into the yard, sweeping the light back and forth, scouring it. He was searching for a shoe. The little girl must have lost it while she was mowing. She would probably be back for it in the morning. He would have it waiting by the front door for her. She would be thankful, and he would be happy to help. She had, after all, done a good job on the yard. But after ten minutes, the man gave up. It became obvious that he wasn’t going to find the shoe. The yard suddenly seemed infinitely bigger. His flashlight only allowed him to see small sections of grass at a time. The hope that the girl had been wearing two shoes when she arrived was shrinking. The man no longer felt good about giving the girl the opportunity to mow his yard. The five dollar bill he gave her was insignificant. He could have given her more. Perhaps he had an old pair of shoes he could have given to
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her. He bought new shoes at least three times a year. And he had a different pair for almost every occasion. He even had one for mowing the yard. That would be the right thing to do. He would look for an old pair in his closet tomorrow morning. It then struck the man that he had seen this girl at least twenty times before today. She came to his doorstep at least once a week. But he wasn’t certain that today had been the first day that she only had one shoe on. What about every other day? How could he be so blind? The man sat down on the ground, right there, in the middle of his own yard. Grass clippings clung to his pants and got inside of his slippers. It was humid and his feet were sweating. He lay on his back and got grass in his hair. He stared up at the sky. The stars seemed so far away, and he thought of other places in the world. Other places weren’t that far away, he thought, compared to the stars. The little girl might be one house over. He could see the moon, but it was too far away to touch. The man reached for it. He was drunk, but it wasn’t like that. He was thinking clearly for the first time that night. The little girl must have a house. She must have a family. The man thought about her family, and what they must be like. They let their daughter mow lawns with one shoe. What kind of people did that? He would like to hear somebody explain it. He wanted to speak to the little girl’s parents. They couldn’t possibly live with themselves, if their daughter had only one shoe. The man had no children, but he knew the responsibilities of a parent. Shoes seemed simple enough. “For God sake, Buck,” his wife said. “What the hell are you doing in the yard?” She was standing at the back door. She turned the porch light on making the stars fade away. He could still see them, but he had to squint. “Come back to bed.” The man sat up and faced the house. Grass fell from his hair down the back of his shirt. He could make out the silhouette of his wife, but he couldn’t see her features. He couldn’t see her red fingernails, or her made-up face. He thought about himself and his wife. What kind of people they were. What kind of people they had become. They were the kind of people that can replace anything.
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October 20, 2004
I. The Scene on Landsdowne Street When crushed to you, I am one exuberant limb who has won, like everyone else. I throw objects and light small fires. And I press my forehead to the ground. If I am not facing Mecca, I am at least carried by the sweep of your feet. I am wearing my skirt, like you asked, and my sweatshirt, like I like. And Iâ€™m not afraid, when the fireworks get so close to my ears. Flank to flank to flank. Three bartenders with cigarettes the guy you bought season tickets from a thousand townies a man holding a hubcap like a Roman shield.
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But I see vulnerabilities, girders collapsing grenadiers chemical munitions. You climbing to the top of me, to get out of the cloud of gas. Very little is going right. But a girl is leaned up against open air, waiting for her car. II. The Fatal Shot The less-lethal weapon: On the market, this is cute. Here, take one to the chest. Not like that though – like you are getting me near me closer than that even. This is closer than the manufacturer likes. But, as less lethal, it won’t matter. There is lethal and that means dead. There is non-lethal and that means non-dead. There is less-lethal and that means less-dead. When it hits you, you will feel a shudder, a burn, not unlike first love. When it hits Miss Snelgrove, her eye will perforate. We have other ones: “Spray and pray” “Stinger handballs” “The Bean Bag system.” These are all good. Teach them to say all of these.
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When it hits Miss Snelgrove, it will find a vein, and burst it. Not that itâ€™s supposed to. III. Findings 1) The Commission sought to understand. 2) It now understands. 3) The Commission thanks the Commissioner. 4) It thanks Homicide. 5) It thanks interested persons. 6) It thanks a number of attorneys, pro bono, and all attendant assistants. 7) It thanks itself for its tremendous public service. 8) The Commission must remember someone it would have liked to have known. 9) Now is not the time to single people out. 10) The Commission thanks Superior Officers for warning of â€œcelebratory rioting.â€? 11) The Commission thanks the following: a) those who stopped throwing objects b) those who stopped disrobing c) those who stopped climbing girders d) those who stopped physically assaulting 12) The Commission must not forget policies, training, protocol, kinetics, physics, projectiles, aim, force, penetration, precision, zeroing, control, escalation, sparklers, eyes, hubcaps, skirts, bottlenecks, Red Sox Nation. 13) The Commission has included a map (and the autopsy) for perusal.
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The Ornithologist’s Son circa 1983
L. E. Sullivan
Rain dripped through hidden pores along rachises of feathers or as roads eager to be followed
in the dusk, when I saw him flowing in the sky’s golden veil, stretched along the taut, damp membrane of life,
so I did, followed those soft paths, the smolder of red, luminous ebullience
silken clouds folded upon that mysterious boy’s skin like the hidden remnants of stars,
in the coils of the double helix— bringing the hush: the slowing down below. With that boy awaiting the approach of night, peeling, kneading crust, pulling away
I recall my thighs pierced on a damp porch thrust away to do a child’s work, shucking hard embryos of pecans, ablaze with
bashful glances as stripped as any fruit I allowed the droplets to soak me. Back then, I wasn’t dirty—
lemon juice stinging sly eyes I told him my fingertips burned. it was then he tasted me, licked at
the clouds on my skin, craved the moist, black soil, needing to become darker than any raindrop
the metamorphosis of sweetness needing to become cracked open the reverse of a set of wings
and so I did, I cracked myself open
I cracked myself on his outstretched palms.
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Roses for Celeste
Allie Marini Batts
“Your coffee is cold. All you’ve done is stir it.” We have reached a stalemate, you and I. I can’t drink the coffee you’ve made me, morning after morning. All I do is play with it. You keep making me coffee, throwing out cup after refreshed cup, pot upon pot. You take the same care every morning, using filtered water, grinding fresh beans, even taking down the French press we’ve somehow acquired but never used, to tempt me. I try, spooning in sugar, cream, and stirring….forever, it feels like, stirring, just stirring. Today is the first day you’ve called me on it. In fact, today is the first day you’ve said anything. You’ve left that part up to me, and I’ve dropped the ball. Silence has been the unwanted guest in our kitchen; you’ve been making her coffee that she doesn’t drink. Maybe it’s just that there was nothing left to say. We could have another baby. We could get a divorce, or a dog. We could have affairs. We struck a compromise instead; we’ve just not been speaking. We have coffee instead. There is no blame in coffee. There is no grief in coffee. The phone doesn’t ring for coffee. Coffee gives you a handle to grip when you read the death notice of everything that you’ve cherished. Words only dress things up, cover things. Without the words, our life hasn’t lost much of anything. We gain things in our quiet. We tend it, as carefully as we used to tend to the rosebushes. When the flash freeze swept in, killing our roses, we pruned back the silence instead, let it grow, let its little buds turn into flowers. We set a place for her at dinner. Silence sits there.
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Celeste snuck out in the middle of the night. She was going to catch a bus to New York City. She never made it to the station. Our family was stoic at the funeral, not crying, being strong, they said, for me. I felt weak in my grief, all of them there, dry eyed. The funeral home, full of Dalberg daisies, day lilies, pansies, moonbeams and mums, yellow, her favorite everywhere. And at my request, the only daffodils and yellow roses were from us. Her favorites. Mommy and Daddy’s last gift, and she wouldn’t ever even know that we remembered. But we did. After those arrangements were made, it was quiet. Our life, our dialogue, the rosebushes-- all dead, with Celeste. We forgot, in our grief, that all the life we created together needed tending to. The first time we visited there wasn’t even one rose that we could bring. When I stir cold coffee, I’m stirring up the memories, times when there were words in the house, and a daughter, too. Rooms of the house were fuller then, brighter, louder. There were the chords of a guitar, clumsy in her younger years, growing more skilled over time. There was her voice, small and unsure, growing sweeter, louder, confident. There was a Joni Mitchell record, Blue, which was scratched and skipped during “This Flight Tonight”—“I saw a fallin’ star burn up…..” It was warm that year, that last year. The roses started to come in during April. By November they were gone, and so was she. She’d begged us to plant miniature roses under her window. “Mommy, they smell like raspberries.” I put it off—one more bush to tend. “Maybe next year, Celeste.” How was I supposed to know that it was the last year? Every mother thinks her child is perfect and special and secretly blessed by God and greatness. I am no exception. She was a scatter of freckles, hair that was every color and no color, big brown eyes. She kept her fingernails short, so they didn’t click against the frets when she played. She had perfect pitch, picked up guitar early, learned quickly. She could pick up just about any instrument, and, after plunking around for a bit, learn her way around it. She could play back songs after hearing them only once or twice. Her voice was strange and unique, on key and stretching over several octaves. Her voice was going to take her places. “One day I’m leaving Ramblewood. I’ll go to New York, or maybe San Francisco. I’ll play on street corners to make money until I have enough to make my demo. I’m going to meet Brenda Kahn and Jeff Buckley and I’m going to play in coffee houses on open mike night.” Her heart was as big and unconcerned with details as her dream. How was I supposed to know she was saving money in secret, planning her great escape from suburbia? At the funeral, every mourner asked me that
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with their silence. How could you let this happen? I answered you, them, everyone, with a silence of my own making. How was I supposed to know? It was June then, not quite hot yet, school was out. As we slept one hallway and a bedroom away from her, she packed up her suitcase and snuck out the window. When they released it from evidence, and we finally got to see what she’d packed, it was almost funny, the things a seventeen year old thinks are necessary. Who knows, maybe if she’d gotten to New York, they’d have come in handy—she packed only sandals, but she also took three pairs of socks. Toothpaste, but she’d forgotten her toothbrush. She left the CD version of Blue but took the record with a scratch. She took her journal, crammed with poems, songs, the foreign language of treble and bass clefs, and random funny quotes from her friends. She packed a washcloth and a bar of soap. There was also her bus ticket, a round-trip from Ramblewood to New York City, leaving at 1:25 a.m. There was a guide to hostels, a map of the city, and a subway schedule from the transit authority. We never knew she was gone until she was gone. Any call that comes in between midnight and 7 a.m. is bad news. The phone rang at 3:28. At 4:12 they folded back the sheet and we identified her. We sat there until well past sunrise, filling out forms, drinking the most bitter coffee proffered by well-meaning hands, hearing details I wish they’d not bothered to tell. I don’t blame the police, it’s not their fault. Bus stations are transient. No one knows who’s coming or going, and everyone is a stranger. How do you track a travelling stranger? You don’t. You can’t. She sits in a folder, case open and unsolved. That’s how we stopped speaking, you and I. We shut the door to her room, left it alone, and pretended our house had one bedroom instead of two. We stopped caring about the roses, they held on until August before dying of heatstroke and thirst. All I could hear was my own voice: “Maybe next year, Celeste.” School started without her. We said nothing. It was a compromise—if we didn’t speak, the name Celeste wouldn’t come up. If her name doesn’t come up, we don’t have to grieve over her, or worse, figure out what comes next. We could have another baby. We could have affairs. We could get a dog, or a divorce. Or we could just shut up. This is how it has been for almost a year. It’s been quiet, this house. The only words have been perfunctory, and never in the morning, never during coffee. When you measured out the coffee this morning, put the water on to boil, set up our cups, I didn’t know that you planned to break your promise of quiet. I didn’t guess you were going to break old wounds into fresh blood. “Your coffee is cold. All you’ve done is stir it.”
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“So throw out the coffee and make tea.” And that is how we began again. With two sentences, a little noise came back into the house, and a little bit of Celeste came back, too. I remembered how her perfect pitch came from your side of the family. I remembered how you never thought I let this happen. I remembered that you’re as lost as I am about what comes next, and that we’ll never figure it out unless we start talking. We have to clean her room sometime. There are things to keep and things to give away. Hiding her pictures doesn’t make it hurt less. Pretending like she was never alive makes it worse. She was beautiful, she was our daughter, and she existed. I am watching you pour the cold coffee down the drain. You’ve not been drinking yours, either, you’ve been following my lead, and making the coffee faithfully, just to have a task to tend to, to be necessary, to let me know that you’re still there. Just as carefully, you put on the tea kettle and get down bags of Earl Grey. We have been remiss, you and I. It is early spring, time to plant. Time to start talking. Time to decide whether or not to have another baby, have an affair, get a dog or a divorce. “I think we should go plant something, today. We could stop and buy roses on the way.” “I’ve been thinking it’s about time to get back into the garden.” The teakettle whistles, and you pour my cup first, like you always have. We talk quietly, planning the day, dusting off our voices and relearning our way around words like us and we. We opened up her room and took Blue. We are living the day we’ve been avoiding for almost a year. It’s a long drive to where we laid her to rest. We stop for lunch and switch off driving. I found her journal—I think about donating her songs, both finished and unfinished, to the music school. I wonder if we could find someone to finish the unfinished ones and record them for us, to translate the strange language of music she’d written. Quietly but not silently anymore, we make plans for a future that includes her as much as it could include her. We make plans for a future including an us. This is a different kind of deal we’re striking today. One that includes words, remembering, cleaning and planting. She’s laid next to my mother, a family plot, where one day you and I will be if we stay decide to stay married, or maybe we’ll end up there even if we don’t, because we’ve already paid for the plots. It doesn’t matter, not yet, not today. There are weeds, a lot of them, because we’ve been neglectful. Always practical, you’ve remembered gloves, and tools. We work together
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to make her headstone presentable; the work of parents who have remembered how to talk, and weed, and destroy the careful architecture of ants. Today we are talking; today we are making plans for tomorrow. Today we are visiting the headstone of our daughter and remembering her. We have brought roses today, yellow ones that she would have liked. We make plans to visit the nursery tomorrow. We decide on vegetables, practical plants, and the small roses that she had wanted last spring. I promised. We make plans to clean. We make plans. Tonight we are tired. Tomorrow there will be tea, again. Tomorrow we will talk more. We may not figure out whether or not to have another baby. It’ll be a while before we decide on a dog or a divorce, but we will decide, eventually. Tomorrow we will plant again, see how long we can keep the plants alive this time; that will tell us a lot. Tonight, I’ve taken out her senior year portrait, hung it in the living room. If we keep talking, and planning, and tending to them, by June we will have little roses that smell like raspberries, and zucchini, pole beans, maybe a puppy. Maybe the roses will come in early, if it’s warm, and we keep them watered. We can only try, and as long as you put the kettle on in the morning, I’ll promise back what you’re promising.
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Nat Turnerâ€™s Visions
Or say the crows today had the faces of angels torn from the spheres, a milk snake digesting a field mouse, the bulge of the body becoming a lifeâ€™s self swallowing, the way we are only a parchment of skin left curling by the cistern, and always the sword devouring flesh, drops of red scattered on the corn, something elusive in the way the clouds drift past each time you look up, the ruins of the sky as far
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out of reach as a father, a mother, a wife, though even the hovering mosquitoes know to lift themselves as best they can, and the sweat pouring out of the flesh the way a river washes across the skin of land, cleansing nothing but burrowing into the earth like a spirit, as though the years are a durable stain, loam that is something to be dragged against the will and deposited, some fence rail pounded against a human head.
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I Here are the dead hands that were left by her mud daubers. She is wife to it: the empty crypts they leave in winter, the abandoned husks clinging to the rotting porch wood. And then the long hours with her children, the ghost life: her husband as the weight of a body in a bed. A rolling over in the darkness. And so the winter jays: the sound of them calling in the woods. You are wife to the trees and the weight of the clouds bearing down. Wife to a pallet of stars. II And above those trees at night, the sky. The dead black of the oxbow lake reflecting the dead black where the clouds are low-slung and heavy. A sky as pregnant as his wife. Sky of mud, he thinks, as though the earth is formed from alluvial clouds. He plants soybeans and corn in fields that often flood, where geese and ducks float beyond the barn, great hordes of them above the ruined crops. And then the deepest waters in the swales. Where the neighborâ€™s horse drowned, the great bloated body waiting congealed in mud after the waters seeped away. Imagining his own child swimming someday in the shallows, fishing
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with him amid the dense reeds. Lifting from the depths the fat catfish with their fleshy fins and barbels. III Something is settling to the earth. It isnâ€™t rain. Perhaps it is dusk that is falling or swelling, growing thick as the muck through which the alligator snapping turtle lifts to the surface of the lake. Look: even its carapace is stained green. Life as the deep blue fruit of the tupelos, drooping like testicles. And here is a wild turkey holding still beneath a sweetgum tree. The turkey believes it is stone, is statuary. Nothing moves. If only it would rain. But still the lake shrinks and crusts like an infection. Slow as the catfish swimming through the dense waters. Slow as clouds. Poor stone turkey. Night is gathering, and the bullfrogs are crying out that this is a birth. An infant who pours into this world like heavy rain.
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Among my catalogue of sins I number taking pleasure in the day of atonement, relishing the fast and its climax, the sundown binge. We are reform, we write our own rules, toss back two aspirin to fend off the vise of no caffeine and no food. Parents thrill to see their adult children in shul, scrubbed and pressed shoulder to tallis-wrapped shoulder, singing our litany of woes to high ceilings. The Volvo we came in scarcely contained us. Our reward for fasting is breaking fast, blanketing bagels thickly in cream cheese. The lusted-after coffee. The luxury of lox, pink as dusk. And donâ€™t we all seem clean, from above? Cared-for, kempt, well-loved?
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The truth of the matter – my own secret shame – was that I thought Taren was pretty. She was petite, with straight blonde hair and small, pert features, what I would later hear described as elfin, though in seventh grade, I didn’t know of that descriptor. Still, that year when we were twelve, none of my friends seemed to notice her beauty. Instead, they paid attention to the beret she wore, to the text-books she studied religiously, to the thick novels – Huxley, Heinlein, Rand – she read and to the small science projects she did in her free time. In reality, Taren was not so different from us, but seventh grade is all about extremes. Yes, we were in Academic and Performance Arts Complex classes, separated from the rest of the school. Yes, we were reading Shakespeare in Mrs. Yoder’s class and dissecting sheep eyes in Mrs. Powell’s class and studying maps of Asia in Mrs. Williams’s class. But there was a difference between those of us gifted enough to be in those classes and the ones who relished the additional work, who rolled their eyes when we talked about basketball or smoking or sex. My friends – seven or eight of them, all just a hair this side of short or skinny or ugly, all just a bit too sharp to be released into the wilds of regular middle school – talked of little else. We watched Sportscenter like addicts, played NBA Jam non-stop, bought print-off internet porn from Jason. We were all smart, though we tried desperately not to be. In the hallways between classes, we swapped crude
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jokes, eyeballed freshly growing breasts, talked trash about who would outplay who in gym that day. Taren was of another sort. One of the elite few destined to move on to bigger and better things, and happy to show it. The beret she wore – tiny like she was – served as a stamp. This one was different. She will not be a housewife. She will not get knocked up in tenth grade. She will not drink too much Wild Turkey at the Sandpit senior year, will not wonder if she consented to the things that happened. She will be Ivy League, will be scholarship, will be nothing but honor roll. Her only friend – Diana, daughter of hippies who wore bell-bottoms and peace symbol necklaces – talked with her in whispers about the things they would do over the weekend, about the movies they would watch that none of us had heard of. When we saw them walking the halls, their chests still flat, their clothing retro at a point when retro was not a positive, we snickered, made rude comments, assured ourselves that they were the different ones. They were the freaks, the weird kids, the gifted.
For the few of us in the advanced classes who fancied ourselves normal, gym class was a chance to bustle and knock with the regular kids, the ones who were still working through the rigmarole of grammar review rather than spending time with literature. We ran laps, played basketball, slapped hands, did sit-ups until our stomachs ached. We worked at being normal so hard the sweat stained our gym clothes, left our mothers wondering if the school’s A/C was out again. We talked endless, eternal shit as well. It didn’t matter if you threw up bricks all day long. If you somehow landed a nice jump shot, if you got a steal or blocked a shot or got away with a hastily-swung elbow, it was incumbent upon you to belittle those on the receiving end of your good fortune. Some – those like me – didn’t even need success to join in. I never took a shot during basketball games, always passed the ball to Graham or John or Adrian. I told each of them that I was the John Stockton to their Karl Malone. I told them that it was a team game, that I’d rather get a bunch of assists and win than take selfish shots and lose. I told them these things, but a deep and abiding shame wormed into me each day as we played the games. I did not want to be John Stockton. The player I most wanted to imitate was John Starks, of the on-fire three-point shooting, the thrown elbows, the Reggie Miller head-butt. I wanted to take every shot I could. I wanted to steal the ball away in a smooth swipe, scramble to the basket
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faster than any of the defenders, and I wanted to pound my chest, boast and brag when I did these things. But I wasn’t strong and I wasn’t fast and my only shot was a head-on bank that required me to be completely open and standing still. Still, even as I talked up my teammates, told them of their prowess, I put into practice the lessons I learned from watching the Knicks. “Ya’ll ain’t got shit on us.” “Willie, you’re too fucking slow.” “Why don’t ya’ll go play with the girls.” My slams were not witty or hard-edged, but what I lacked in creativity, I made up for with consistency. Any event in the game elicited a line from me. It didn’t matter if we were down by twenty, if one of my teammates got one in, I was there with a taunt for the other team. I laced my phrases with as many expletives as I could, knowing on some rudimentary level that there in the gym, where I was physically outgunned, a willingness to go to taboo extremes was my only defense and my only hope to achieve what all my friends were striving to attain: normality in the eyes of the girls who lazed about in the stands or jogged the edges of the gym. Only two APAC boys had done this, Blake and Will. Blake managed it by being good looking and a strong athlete. Will did it by being good looking and funny. I was not strong or fast or skilled, but I knew how to be crude and cruel, and in those days, that was all you needed to register as funny. It was Will’s idea for me to ask Taren out. “It’ll be great,” he said before Mrs. Powell’s Biology class. “She’ll get all excited.” “I’m not asking her out,” I said, my heart stutter-stepping. “She’s a freak.” “I know.” He gave a Beavis-laugh, his trademark, a staccato rat-a-tat of heheheh giggles that the acceptable girls – Jennifer, Jessica, Stephanie – deemed worthy of a return giggle. “Do it.” So I did it. We walked into the classroom, and Taren was there already, perpetually early. I sat down in the desk next to her, pulled out a piece of paper, scribbled a handful of lines, three boxes. Normally, during class I snuck little peeks over at her, watched her small brown eyes scan lines of text, reading along with Mrs. Powell. “Taren,” I said. She looked up at me, and I handed her the sheet of paper. She stared at it for a long time, didn’t check any of the boxes, not even the one marked “MAYBE.” When he couldn’t bear it any longer, Will laughed, the put-on chuckle that he’d perfected. “He’s just messing with you,” he said. “Chris doesn’t like you.”
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When she looked to me for confirmation, all I could do was nod. I wonder sometimes, what would have happened if Will had not laughed, if he’d waited a bit longer, waited for her to make up her mind, waited for her to check the big “YES” box. I imagine the feel of her hand, as she passes back the note, telling me that she likes me too. It’s more likely that she would have put a mark in the other box, would have shot me down, ruined the joke, made me the butt of a yearlong punch-line. I can hear Will laughing between words, “Chris,” hehheheh “can’t even” heheheh “get Taren.” But instead, I looked at her, told her I didn’t like her. I waited for the laughter of everyone around me, waited for the pats on the back, but other than Will’s rasping, I was met with the stone silence of a joke deflated.
A few weeks later, I passed another note, a real note, to Christina, a Pentecostal girl who wore long denim dresses, and she checked the “YES” box, likely out of boredom. She was not in APAC, was normal, so we only saw one another in one class and in the hallways. We spent a few weeks walking around hand-in-hand, calling each other surreptitiously at night, both of us hiding everything from our families, though I doubt there was much need for this. When we broke up – a mutual, “You want to stop going out?” “Sure.” – I bad-mouthed her to my friends, saying how I didn’t really like her that much anyway. I told Will that she was weird, that I thought it was strange to only wear denim skirts, that her hair was too long. For five dollars, I bought a naked picture of Pamela Anderson printed from Jason’s computer in black ink. Every night in the bathroom, I masturbated to it furiously, imagining the faces of Taren and Christina and all the other girls I knew superimposed on the impossibly curved body. After, back in my room, the guilt of the action set in, I promised God that I’d stop, promised him that this time would be the last time. I told him that I would no longer curse or tell dirty jokes or stare at Jennifer’s breasts as she jogged the perimeter of the gym. But I did not stop. I talked shit, bought more pictures, stared at Jennifer and Stephanie and the others. I sneered at Taren in the hallways, made jokes about how fucking weird she was, laughed at her beret, at the way she sat alone in the stands during gym, her head hunched low over a book. When an air ball bounced harmlessly to the ground, I hollered obscenities. My eyes constantly jumped to where she sat a few rows up from us. When no one was paying attention, I let myself stare at her, longing for the day when I could sit there in the stands with her, when I too could open a book
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in public. I wanted this â€“ to be with her there â€“ but there was a part of me too that wanted her to be on the court with me, sweating and bumping through the racket of adolescence.
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craigslist > personals > missed connections please flag with care: [?] Please report suspected exploitation of minors to the appropriate authorities Ginger god - w4m - 24 (Pet Planet) Date: 2011-04-19, 1:40PM EDT Ginger god in Pet Planet with the Affenpinscher hooked to your swollen, tatted arm, will I ever see you again? You walked in with the bell and stood for a moment next to the Arizona poster with the coyote howling against a pink sky and desert (which we know makes no sense to hang in a pet store, but we all like it, even Dwayne admits he likes the color scheme) and I froze, ignoring Amber Mathis (Pet Planet Paws member for three years), who, before you arrived, had planted herself and her new sapphire beta fish in front of my counter for twenty minutes fighting for a discount on a chipped fishbowl. And I could faintly hear Amber chirping chipped rim, price check, discount but really couldn’t respond, couldn’t croak out some words for her because I was looking at you, your face, copper whiskers, great jaw, kindseeming eyes. You looked smart, handy, like you could hammer together a vanity from some scrap wood and tell me about green energy while I laid
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all over your workshop with my chin in my hand, listening. I thought all of this when I saw you headed, no, charging towards the shelf of small dog beds like your Affenpinscher was demanding immediate comfort or she’d gnaw your hand off. Later, I asked Dwayne in the other lane if he thought you were gay (the lapdog, the obscene muscles) and he said he’d say so if it wasn’t for those heeeedeeeus Crocs, you were wearing but it’s still definitely possible. Dwayne says the Affenpinscher probably belongs to your girlfriend and that I shouldn’t post anything on here because she’s most likely Asian and a fox and skinnier than me and practices jujitsu and is great at math (I added that) and I totally don’t have a chance. Dwayne also says the Craigslist personals are for desperate, trashy freaks who just want to get plowed or have anal sex or have someone pee on them in a bathtub. I’ve never done this before, and I definitely don’t want you to pee on me, I’m just very shy around people and I thought this seemed like a non-confrontational, notso-sure way of reaching you, but sure enough so if you were to read this and recognize me and yourself and the scenario then I could ascribe our meeting later (at a small dinner party with our closest friends or at our wedding) to something like destiny, kismet, a shot in the dark. A chance encounter. Meant to be. It could be a story for our kids! It could be like this: Kids! Mommy took a chance on the World Wide Web after she saw Daddy walk into Pet Planet and Daddy read online and found Mommy and now look! You’re all here! Even though Daddy was wearing Crocs, oh, when Mommy saw Daddy for the first time she simply could not speak, kids, your Daddy was a real stud. He stomped through those doors swaddling his Affenpinscher on a mission, looking like Conan O’Brien made a Crocwearing, pierced, tattooed son with a rock star Highlander and that’s when Mommy, her hands clutching a fish bowl bar code, felt as if she was watching Daddy in slow motion over the register, no, from inside the fish bowl in slow motion on the counter, breathing hot, wet circles of love-dew on the glass, okay, licking the curvy, fishy glass. It was purely physical attraction for Mommy, at first, until she found out how much they had in common, of course! Over coffee. No, drinks. Coffee, then drinks, then Daddy said Wanna see my place? And oh, kids it was beautiful, a sweet little spot in the not-so-super-expensive-but-still-pricy-yet-trendy part of town where you can drink cheap beer and live around the homeless even if you have a decent salary and a car. And Mommy definitely had thrown back one too many when they twirled into Daddy’s studio apartment and boldly iterated how glad she was that Daddy replied to her silly, stupid post on the world wide web and before she could go on, Daddy took Mommy in his arms like two inked-up cobras and kissed her and ravished her and had mad-crazy,
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Croccy intercourse with her, all the while his little Affenpinsher slept silently, wrapped in the cottony comfort of her new doggy bed. Anyway, are you gay, I suppose, is my first question? Since I am interested in you and a woman, not even the kind of woman a gay man would want to be seen out with at long intervals. I don’t know the names of designers or have a definitive “look” about me, but I am very intelligent and not unattractive, just normal. I recently graduated with an art education degree from the community college on Abernathy, you know the one. Or maybe you don’t. You look like you could, like maybe you dated multiple girls from my art classes, the ones with severe haircuts streaked with angry oranges and greens (I wear mine back, my hair, it’s blond and I don’t have a lot, but it’s not cut angularly or defiantly shaven on one side, still Dwayne begs me to do something with that mop), maybe you used to wait outside the school to pick them up on your gurgling hog, no, you would drive a scooter, you were wearing scooterish pants; tight, oily, rolled up to the knees. Anyway, so now school is over for me and I’m waiting for my diploma delivery, and when I get it I suppose I’ll go get trashed with Dwayne at Felix’s or Donovan’s or Joe’s where I’ll be the only woman, or maybe not the only woman, but I will be alone because that’s what Dwayne does, takes me out and leaves me on a cold bar stool while he leans all over his cute boyfriends in their teeny pastel shorts shouting at me to take pictures, delete pictures, retake pictures. Usually, when he’s drunk enough he’ll point at me and start shrieking from the middle of the bar turned dance floor, Laaauraaaa, I’m waaaaaaasssties popping his shoulders up and down, signaling for me to join him dancing. And I do, because at that point I’m drunk too, and we’ll just kind of bop back and forth to Annie Lennox, staring at each other, making kissy faces and then I’ll puke on his shirt and he’ll shove me into a cab and I’ll wake up on the welcome mat of whatever ex-boyfriend’s house I directed the driver to. Didn’t mean to digress, I’ll celebrate, yes, but I’m worried too, since I’m full time now. At Pet Planet. You probably have a great job at some alternative weekly magazine, or you’re a tattoo artist/urban planner/metal worker/ scooter repairman. But yes, full time. Pet Planet. Although, I am pretty comfortable here, the owner Julie gives me great discounts on Kongs for strong chewers and kibble for my English bull dog, Jennifer, and it has only been Dwayne and me and Julie, for the past four years and we’ve become somewhat of a little family, like sometimes when we’re not so busy Dwayne will play dress up with the large dog sweaters and sing our favorite show tunes into an elk bone while Julie and I pillow fight with cat beds. Stuff like that and like I said, it is so cushy and I do get by here, but the other day, seeing you inspired a desire in me I’d never felt before, something electric and kind of awful. You are the brand new club with the mile high cover
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and the hour long wait that turns people like me away after we’ve stood the entire hour in the cold, bleeding from our discount plastic stilettos chewing at our ankles, and we’re praying for a warm flash of light from the door, a lick of a drink we’ll pay too much for, just to know what it’s like to be inside. You are a myth, an endangered species, an enigma, a tiger or a unicorn or Anna Wintour (sorry, Dwayne just forced me to watch the September Issue on Netflix). I’d probably donate money monthly to a preservation just to help maintain you, and they’d send me photographs of you smiling, playing guitar for a circle of clapping children in a foreign country, a copy of your thumbprint, a bumper sticker, a thank you for your contribution letter designed to look like you wrote it that someone else instead, your Asian girlfriend maybe, wrote and John Hancocked while you both sat naked, laughing, sealing envelopes addressed to desperate twenty-somethings all around the globe. Most importantly, I guess, in that moment when I saw you, I thought about what I wanted for myself, or what I should want, and if I even knew, if I’d let myself have it. Before you left Pet Planet you checked out with Dwayne (he rolled his eyes at you, then at me!) and scanned your doggy bed (model XQF4, The Princess Pouch, for smaller breeds) and I could have killed him for not making you a Pet Planet Paws member so I could have learned your name and your dog’s name and your address and telephone number. Then it was the back of your very red head, the stretch of your shirt across your deltoids, your torso flanked by the Princess Pouch and the farewell shimmer in the black eyes of your Affenpinscher, and you were gone with the finite tinkle of our doorbells, leaving me stuck, sliding around an empty fish bowl, patting the glass for a price check and a way out. My name is Laura, by the way, if you ever do read this and decide to respond. I’ll continue to post until you do or even until you don’t. This feels kind of nice, sorting things out.
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craigslist > personals > missed connections please flag with care: [?] Please report suspected exploitation of minors to the appropriate authorities Ginger God cont’d. - w4m - 24 (my house) Date: 2011-04-30, 3:00PM EDT There is a Petsmart opening down the street in one of those flashy strip malls that look like Disney World, jammed with superstores that put shops like us out business. Dwayne, Julie and I just heard about it today on the news. Julie started crying and Dwayne began to mumble about getting that job in fashion he’s always wanted and saying the word boutique a lot around Julie which made her cry even harder, so I unplugged the OPEN sign and helped Julie crawl inside the bunny barn (this might seem strange to you, but she always overreacts in unexpected situations and then retreats to the areas of the store housing the soft animals, like the time her husband now ex-husband came in to deliver her divorce papers while she was opening packages of dog shampoo and she sank a box cutter into his knee. We found her later weeping next to the cage of robo dwarf hamsters). Dwayne sat Indian style by the automatic doors, picking apart the yellow pages, underlining the names and numbers of department stores and hissing them quietly Ssssakksss, Bloomingdalessss, and my eyes fell on the Arizona poster with the howling coyote and I realized I had never been to the Southwest, and if I wanted to go, now would be the perfect time to leave this dying Pet Planet and jet. And who ever thinks about Arizona? Jennifer could chase lizards through the desert and I could paint the horizon while you brought me coffee on our patio facing the towers of black cacti and rock faces and petrified things. Speaking of you, I haven’t seen you since that day, but don’t think I haven’t thought about you because I have, I think about you constantly. Ever since you landed on Pet Planet you’ve had me dreaming of jungles, deserts, exploring them with you. On my morning walks with Jennifer I normally let her pull me to a square of grass down the block where she’ll act exhausted and snort and roll until she passes out. This ritual is good for neither of us, but I’ve allowed it to happen for the last five years because it’s easy and it makes Jennifer happy even though it’s a complete waste of time if either of us are trying to become hard bodies, but since I saw you and imagined how you are, what our life could be like together, I thought, if you saw me walking Jennifer, where would I want you to see me? Certainly
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not lying in some lawn she prefers to collapse on a block away from my apartment. So Jennifer and I have been varying our morning route; tramping through foliage, patches of forest off the main road, tip toeing down to a little park with a stud earring diamond of a pond with a sign that says PLEASE BE KIND TO OUR NEIGHBORHOOD GOOSE and I let Jennifer chase the neighborhood goose around the circumference of the pond until the goose tries to beat Jennifer away with its wings and I have to intervene. While Jennifer grunts through the goose’s cornmeal and laps up pond water, I stand on this stone bridge that arches over some rubbery lily pads. I stand right in the middle and imagine you coming around the corner, your Affenpinscher strutting in front of you on a long leash, we make eye contact, you and I, and I act surprised and you smile and say things quietly to the Affenpinscher, whatever you’d normally say C’mon, girl or Go potty. In the fantasy, you’re always wearing the same clothes with the Crocs, your tattoos exposed just enough for me to see tiny spears of color blinking from under the sleeve of your shirt. You let the little princess off her leash to find an area to squat or sniff, but she ends up running over to Jennifer and humping her big white back and I descend from my rocky perch to handle the situation, because as a dog owner you are obligated to at least feign caring if your dog is humping or being humped, just like you have to pretend to care if your dog shits in the middle of your neighbor’s prickly front yard or next to the driver’s side of their Chevy or in the street during morning traffic, and we’ll both laugh as I ramble through my dog shit monologue because in my fantasy I’m funny and confident and articulate, and also an angel with animals as I peel your Affenpinscher off Jennifer’s dorsal region. You join me on the bridge and produce a bag of sandwich bread and we stuff the goose with torn slices, talking for hours. Your voice is heavy and interested and we instantly trust each other. I imagine I have loads of things to tell you about my hopes and dreams and plans, but that’s where the fantasy ends because I get caught up in the specifics; what would I have to tell you about other than dog shit and my job? My childhood, I suppose, college, but that wouldn’t interest you, really. So in my head I tell you this, the truth, so you aren’t surprised later: What you see is exactly what is there, with me. I inspire no curiosity in others, no fascination. You wouldn’t wonder about me, you wouldn’t think about me naked or who I’m fucking, if I’d fuck you. To me, other people are glossy colored snapshots, lives splayed out like a fan of pictures with the opening of a wallet, the shape of a tattoo, the swish of a skirt. Many lives, I feel matter much more, are much more interesting, significant than my own. And oh, how I want to be significant in some way, I want to be something other than a mechanism for marking up ferret feed, something other than a pair of soul-swallowing binoculars; zooming in, ingesting other lives.
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I’m full of them, the lives, practically bursting. Sometimes I stand for hours in front of my bedroom mirror and spasm, mouthing overheard conversations, making someone else’s faces. I tick with their mannerisms, pose like they would for a picture, laugh like they do at a joke and when I’m done I’m satisfied and spent, and I look at Jennifer and she’s spent too, asleep in a puddle of her own slobber. craigslist > personals > missed connections please flag with care: [?] Please report suspected exploitation of minors to the appropriate authorities Dear Jason - w4m - 24 (Pet Planet) Date: 2011-05-02, 10:30PM EDT Jason Reed, I didn’t see you come in today. When Dwayne told me you’d left already, I was in the storeroom stocking hummingbird feeders and he said he only remembered you because he still couldn’t fathom why such a fox would wear those awful shoes. I asked him if you were wearing the Crocs again and he said no, it was those horrendous khaki colored toe shoes that nouveau hippies wear to exercise and climb shit. This time he managed to make you a Pet Planet Paws member and read me all of your personal information saved to his register PC, which I immediately committed to memory and forced Dwayne to search for your Facebook profile from his phone. Unfortunately, there are over 300 Jason Reeds in the city, but since the store has been so slow, we had enough time to pluck you out of the heap of Jasons only to discover you have your profile set to private, but it is you in that ring box of a photo on top of a snowy mountain somewhere freezing in a ski jacket, your red hair fighting its way out of a wooly tousle cap. Dwayne said eeeewww and pointed to your jacket, but I thought you looked absolutely beautiful standing there smiling on that mountaintop like a pioneer and sang your name in my head for the rest of the day. And maybe when Dwayne was emptying my trash bin at the end of the night he found the stack of comment cards I tinseled with cursive Laura Reed, Laura Jason Reed, Mrs. Jason Reed over and over in spirals, but what is even more exciting than learning your name, and the name of your Affenpinscher (Sully) is learning your address; you live less than a mile away from my apartment.
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craigslist > personals > missed connections please flag with care: [?] Please report suspected exploitation of minors to the appropriate authorities Dear Jason - w4m - 24 (Spruce St.) Date: 2011-05-11, 8:40AM EDT Dear Jason, On my recent walks with Jennifer I’ve been thinking a lot about Arizona and how I’d like to live there and how I think you’d like it there too. Pet Planet’s shutting down, we think so anyway. We haven’t heard from Julie in over a week and she won’t answer any of our phone calls or respond to our emails (in a moment of desperation we even called the city zoo and asked the employees to check the barn for a woman nestled up against any sheep, but they hung up on us). Dwayne thinks she ran back to her ex-husband and that we should burn down the store, but I thought that would be cruel with the animals inside and all. I wish I could build an ark and file in each of the animals, even the snakes, and hitch it to your scooter and when we arrived in Arizona we could set the animals free in the desert (although, I’m sure some of them wouldn’t survive because of the harsh climate) but we could go on living there in our home that you built because I was right, that is what you do, you build things; houses, coffee tables, benches, we could have loads of benches around the house and listen to the coyotes and watch Sully and Jennifer wrestle in the dirt and laugh. You could sell your furniture off Route 66 and I could paint landscapes, not well, but pictures nice enough to nail over a bed in a road motel somewhere. I could paint something for us, a portrait, you, me and the dogs among the cacti, a 21st Century American Gothic; you with your hammer and me with my paintbrush goofily grinning in front of our wacky desert hut. I really am salivating for that cotton candy sky. And when Jennifer howls at night, I pretend it’s a coyote and draw my sheets tighter around my shoulders, dreaming of you holding my hand across two arm chairs facing a comb of plateaus. The sun is setting orange and you’re smiling at me like you were on that mountaintop, except this time in the sherbet light of the desert. So, how do you feel about Yuma?
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*I might have walked Jennifer by your house this morning…nice woodshop around the back. From what I could see through the windows, you’re quite the minimalist (no wall hangings, pictures) just a few tables and chairs matted with sawdust, a bowl for your keys on a desk near the door. I would have looked longer if it wasn’t for Sully who came snipping down the staircase. Some other time, I guess. (I let Jennifer pee in your bushes. I didn’t think you’d mind). craigslist > personals > missed connections please flag with care: [?] Please report suspected exploitation of minors to the appropriate authorities Dear Jason - w4m - 24 (Spruce St.) Date: 2011-05-21, 11:30 AM EDT It didn’t happen quite how I predicted. Yesterday morning there was a FedExy sort of knock at my door and a cardboard tube left leaning against the frame. Yes, it was my degree, bigger than I’d expected, so big in fact, I could wrap it around my entire body like a beach towel (which I did, and held it like that until I had to leave for work). Framing it would be pointless (I knew I’d never have an office to hang it in) so I kept it in its tube form and brought it with me to the store, trumpeting through its length special delivery, I’m a genius! when I spotted Dwayne halfheartedly drizzling fish food into an aquarium full of guppies and we made plans to kick off the celebration at Felix’s. I brought my diploma there too, just so I’d look like I had some reason to be drinking heavily whenever Dwayne abandoned me and I’d have to sit alone. But he didn’t this time. We started off with shots of Fernet and by our fourth or fifth head toss I called it Fetner and demanded the bartender check the label. Dwayne decided it was time to relocate and dragged me and my diploma to Mulligans, a new nightclub spangled with shirtless men where we continued to shoot shots of Fetner/Fernet and writhe with all the flesh. Right around the time Dwayne tried to use my diploma tube as a pole things start to get foggy, or maybe that was the fog machine, but I do recall trying to funnel a drink through my diploma tube into my mouth, at which point, I’m sure, Dwayne must have called me a cab and left me to my own devices communicating with the driver. Which is why I woke up in your woodshed, curled like a baby on the surface of your table saw. I was dreaming about Julie, that I’d found her in the
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petting zoo where we knew she’d be, sleeping surrounded by lambs with their gummy limbs and yellow chicks and rabbits breathing softly. When I unlatched the barn gate she pressed her finger to her lips for a shhhh but instead it was the shrieking of your saw starting in my ear that woke me up. You were trying to work, I know, and my dense, unconscious body sprawled over your workspace must have been a shock for you (as it was for me) and quite an obstacle to maneuver around to slice whatever you were slicing. And I know I rolled off of the table and onto the floor, spilling into a lake of black vomit, Didn’t mean to disturb you, you said, sounding very agitated, as if every time I slopped around in the inky puddle I’d splashed some in your mouth. But it was you, Jason, you speaking to me, Laura, covered in my own peppermint puke, wood shavings stuck to my face, I told you I feel awful and wished I was still in the dream barn with Julie and the lambs. When I looked up at you and your tattoos (which I could see clearly then were birds and flowers), you had stopped the saw and I thought that if this were one of my fantasies this would be the moment where you’d say let’s put this behind us and pick me up in the drawn on nest of your arms and stick me in front of a hearth somewhere and feed me herbal tea. We would laugh about all of this next to the fire and you’d think it was cute, that I was cute and strange and silly. But when I saw your face in the brown shade of the woodshed, your perfect stony, unsmiling face, I knew this was not the mountaintop or the desert, there would be no fireplace or tea or sweet whispers, and that this whole situation was undeniably not cute. You returned to your table saw and I attempted twice to stand and on the third crack at it somewhat succeeded, realizing I had acquired a limp while I slunk through my vomit to the door of the woodshed. I’LL LET MYSELF OUT! I screamed over the saw. You pointed at your ear and shook your head, signing that you couldn’t hear me, but I shut the door on you my Ginger God, my Jason Reed. The morning sun was punishing, bright and burning my eyes, so I closed them, and stood for a moment listening to laughs of early rising tree birds. And I cried there outside your shed, not actual tears (I was so dehydrated from the drinking and vomiting), but I was gulping air, heaving, when the door to the shed squeaked open and I turned to face you standing tall in the threshold, extending your lovely arm. Your face was softer than before, a flicker of amusement crossing your mouth. I think this is yours, you said and handed me a balled up piece of paper, its faint crumpling sounded like a car accident in the painful silence of the lawn. You nodded once and patted my shoulder (somewhat paternally, I felt) and spoke at last Congratulations, hopefully that’ll take you places.
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You disappeared behind the door and I had no choice but to the brave the mile back to my apartment purseless, spotted with bruises and marked with a mystery hobble, yes, it was a long walk through your wet Bermuda grass up to your driveway and as Sully yipped at me in the window near the front door, I shuffled quickly into the street and started home. I pulled apart the ball of paper you’d given me; half of my degree, pitiful, splattered in something red, blotting my name, I think I slept on it too, maybe used it as a cushion for my face on the table saw. I crushed it back and buried it in one of your neighbors’ garbage bins, walking towards the grey sky up ahead. It looked like a storm was coming, and I thought about that ark of mine. Maybe we could all pile in, not you, but Dwayne, Julie, Jennifer, me and all the animals in the store, hitch it to the back of some powerful engine and off we’d soar for the west. Dwayne could burn Pet Planet to the ground for all we cared because we’d be blasting off! Out of here! Headed for some place new and hot and magical, where the sky is the color of candy and there’s room enough for everyone. Yes, I thought, relieved and kind of sore, there’s always Arizona.
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The first night you left me, the iron air of your brotherâ€™s kitchen came from the bubbling pot of deer. We saved the doeâ€™s fat to render tallow, seven pints that season. Alone, you took a chair into the yard and lack of light. I stayed in stuffing organs with organs, bloodsick, not yet your wife.
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The catfish of the South Canadian choked on hot mouthfuls of wind. We did not watch them die, we drove home, where you would perch atop an overturned bucket, break their heads off one-by-one, pull with pliers olivine skin from pink pearls of meat, in long ribbons for the head jar. Later, after youâ€™d dredged their bodies in cornmeal and oil, youâ€™d build me a palace from their feathery bones.
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I. When my friend Bryan tells me that he has been exercised, I hear that he has been made to join a gym and press push-ups with the foot of a stocky trainer on his back. No, he said. He said he has had an exorcism, which did not succeed in making him straight. I say that I was not aware they were still available. He says they are, in Cleveland. II. We have been reading about the sixty-foot statue called Touchdown Jesus facing I-70, which we have seen with its arms forked upward, probably praying not to be hit by a low-flying plane or lightning. It has been struck by lightning, all sixty feet of steel and Styrofoam blazing. Bryan believes this is “a cosmic fuck you” to the Bengals’ season. III. I imagine fourteen-year-old Bryan entering a priest’s dark office, Bryan’s head spinning on a putty neck. I observe his current neck—
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unscarred, fairly regular. I know this is not the ritual. This is: let the priest pronounce the exorcism in a commanding voice. When the afflicted experiences a disturbance in his body, trace the sign of the cross over that place. IV. I imagine his parents outside, casually flipping through Parenting as though they are in a pediatrician’s office, or perhaps wringing their hands, fidgeting with rings. Perhaps praying, as my parents would. For instance, in the 5th grade I had surgery. Before I was wheeled away, they said, “We’ll pray for you.” And it occurred to me that they were not in control. When I woke up, my father was supposed to hold my hand, but he couldn’t because the IV lifting a ridge beneath my skin made him nauseous. Always— every booster shot, every prick— he disappeared behind a doorframe or a cardboard rack of Advil. So he was not there when I woke and vomited into a bucket. I prayed a little for myself. V. Here is the end of the story: there was no exorcism. The priest took Bryan into the office and offered him tea. He recited some prayers and made a few banging noises. He asked Bryan how his freshman year was going. He gave him back, all one. He said, come back when you have a demon.
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Brenda Wilson Wooley
I watched countless sinners rush down the aisles of Mississippi Baptist Church down in Kentucky when I was a child, crying, praying, begging for forgiveness, and shouting hallelujah after accepting the gift of salvation. I loved the excitement and tears of joy, the exuberance of the choir as they burst into song, everyone hugging each other, shaking hands and praising the Lord. The sinners had dropped their heavy burdens. They were no longer lost; they had been found. They were headed for heaven instead of hell. They were saved. For a long time, getting saved was something everyone else did as I watched first from my grandmotherâ€™s lap and then from the pew next to her, my feet dangling just above the floor. As I grew older, I sat with friends on the back pew, whispering, giggling and writing notes during the long and boring sermons. That all changed the summer I turned twelve. It was the first night of revival services and I was eagerly anticipating the excitement and feelings of impending danger, the kinds of feelings I always had when a summer storm moved in. But when Brother Stair began pounding his fist on the pulpit and shaking his finger at the congregation that night, a dark feeling of dread nudged at me.
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“If y’all turn your backs on the Lord,” he screamed, “You ain’t nothin’ but a low-down, rotten sinner!” He stopped and gazed around the congregation. “And you ain’t saved, you’re goin’ to hell and that’s all there is to it!” As the choir began to sing, there was a rustling sound near the back of the church, and my friend and classmate jumped up. “I’m lost,” Nancy cried as she ran down the aisle, “I’m lost!” Deacons from all over the church rushed forward as Brother Stair led her to the mourners’ bench. They had just dropped to their knees when Nancy jumped to her feet. “I see the Lord Jesus!” she yelled, “He’s here with me right now!” She hurled her body back and forth, sobbing. “I’m saved!” Church members rushed from all directions, shouting and praising the Lord, hugging Nancy and pumping her hand. The church pianist, back ramrod straight, head bent in deep concentration, pounded out the introductory notes of “There is a Fountain,” and everyone burst into song. “What a happy, happy night this is,” Nancy’s mother shouted as everyone was leaving the church, “What a happy, happy night!” As Maw Maw steered the Chevrolet around the curves of the gravel road on our way home, Brother Stair’s sermon echoed in my ears. Although it was a hot summer night, I was shivering, thoughts of hell racing through my mind. Someday I would be there, and it wouldn’t be cold down there; it would be a lava-hot lake of fire and brimstone where I would burn forever and ever. All I could think of was my lost soul and what would happen in the hereafter. I prayed when I was in school, during recess, on the school bus, in my bedroom at night. I even prayed when I was playing with my brothers and sisters. I woke each morning with thoughts of hell on my mind, how hot it would be. If grease splattered on me as I watched Mother frying chicken, I tried not to flinch. Since I would be spending eternity in the lake of fire, I had to become accustomed to the heat. The next day Maw Maw stopped by with news that Mr. Jim Sullivan had suddenly passed away. A farmer whom I had known all my life, Mr. Jim Sullivan was a thin little man who wore bib overalls all the time. And he never went to church with his wife.
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“He was not saved,” Maw Maw said in a low voice, “Sally is having a fit; Dr. Smith had to give her a sedative. They say she said, ‘How will I live with myself now? I should’ve tried harder to lead him to the Lord!’” I wondered if poor Mr. Jim Sullivan had tried to get saved and, like me, couldn’t. He was a nice little man; always smiling and helping people. He didn’t seem at all like a person headed for hell. “That don’t make no difference,” Nancy said. She carried her Bible everywhere now, and there was a burning light in her eyes that hadn’t been there before. “You can do good things all day and all night, but if you ain’t been born again, all the good works in the world ain’t gonna get you to heaven!” All of the kids my age got saved during the first week of the revival; that is, everyone except my friend, Laura Ann, and me. Since she and I were the only ones who hadn’t gone forward, we sat together for moral support each night. When the invitation was given and the choir began singing, “Just As I Am,” Laura Ann and I sat like soldiers at attention, looking straight ahead, pretending we were just like all the saved people, singing right along with them as though we didn’t have a care in the world and weren’t headed straight for the fiery pits of hell. But I knew everyone at church knew I was lost; I stood out like a sore thumb. Even our Sunday School teacher looked directly at me when she spoke about being saved. All you have to do is believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” Miss Ola Ashworth said, “And, like the Bible says, ‘Ye shall be saved.’ Just give yourself over to the Lord.” I tried to give myself to the Lord, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I also tried to figure out what I had done to warrant such punishment in the hereafter. I had never done anything really awful, with the exception of sneaking several packs of Juicy Fruit gum from my father’s bedroom drawer when he was trying to quit smoking. I had gotten a paddling for that. Would I burn forever for a few sticks of gum? “One sin’s as bad as another,” Nancy spewed, “You better get right with God, Brenda. Now!” I spent most of my time that week searching the Bible for answers to my dilemma. But more often than not I ended up in Revelations where I read about the Beast, the end of time and, worst of all, Judgment Day. One verse was particularly disturbing, Revelations 20:15: “And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.”
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That meant me. On Thursday night, Laura Ann was very quiet. She had nothing to say, and she didn’t answer when I asked her a question. After the first stanza of “Just As I Am,” Brother Stair raised his hand, silencing the choir. “I want everybody to bow their heads, and with every head bowed and every eye closed, I’m gonna ask everybody that realizes they’re lost and without hope to raise their hand.” I looked at Laura Ann, preparing to snicker as we usually did, but she didn’t look at me. She wasn’t looking at anyone. She just sat up straight and raised her hand. “I now ask that the choir softly hum the next stanza of “Just As I Am,” and I would like that young girl who raised her hand to come forward and accept the gift of salvation.” Embarrassed for her, I squeezed my eyes shut and wondered what she would do. “Do not hesitate,” Brother Stair called in a loud, quavering voice, “Tomorrow may be too late; an hour from now may be too late. So do it now, my friend. Do it now!” He motioned the choir to continue as he bowed his head and closed his eyes, lips moving in silent prayer. He pulled a large white handkerchief from his back pocket, coughed and spat into it and rubbed it back and forth across his mouth before returning it to his pocket. As the choir hummed on, the scent of talcum powder drifted through the air and Miss Ola Ashworth appeared at Laura Ann’s side. Tears streamed down her tiny, wrinkled cheeks as she bent her blue-gray head close to Laura Ann’s. I couldn’t hear what Miss Ola Ashworth said, but Laura Ann raised her head and nodded, and then she allowed herself be led out of the pew and down the aisle. Laura Ann was saved that night. In a flurry of hugs and tears, her parents joined her up front. The choir sang “There is a Fountain” with great gusto as the church members filed past to shake her hand. Mr. Red Adams hugged her and shouted, “Praise the Lord!” A host of elderly men near the front of the church yelled in unison, “Amen, Brother Red; amen!”
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On our way home that night, Maw Maw went on and on about how wonderful it was that Laura Ann had gotten saved. Suddenly, she turned to me. “Brenda, you’ve reached the age of understanding. Don’t you feel like you ought to be saved?” I didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t want to upset her by telling her I couldn’t get saved, so I pretended to be asleep. After Maw Maw dropped me off at home, I told Mother Laura Ann had been saved. She lowered the book she was reading. “She’s a little young to be joining the church. Sometimes I think the people in the church rush things.” I took a deep breath. “Maw Maw asked me if I needed to get saved.” “You’re too young to be worrying about things like that.” “She said I’ve reached the age of understanding.” “If you don’t want to go to the revival, you don’t have to.” I didn’t tell her I had no choice. I was lost, and I had to keep going and trying to get saved. If I died suddenly, like Mr. Jim Sullivan, it would be too late. Friday night was the last night of the revival, and the church was filled to capacity. Brother Stair’s sermon focused on the husband of a member of his former church. “Everybody loved Joe Dale Dobbs,” he said, “Joe Dale seemed to be a nice sort of fellow. He never mistreated his wife or his girls. Mrs. Dobbs was a kind, godly woman and a very faithful church member, but Joe Dale Dobbs never would come to church with her. Mrs. Dobbs prayed and prayed for her husband’s lost soul, and she tried her dead-level best to get him to give up his wicked ways.” He hesitated, dropping his head and gripping the sides of the pulpit. Then he looked up. “Because, my friends, Joe Dale Dobbs was a drunkard! He went to the saloons and beer joints every payday and dranked liquor!” He pulled his handkerchief from his back pocket and blew his nose, wiping it until it was beet red. “One night,” he said, stuffing the handkerchief back
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into his pocket, “Mrs. Dobbs finally talked him into coming to the revival. How she did it, I don’t know. But she did. I preached a sermon on John 3:16 that night, and when I gave the invitation I felt sure he would come forward. But he didn’t.” He choked back a sob, face as red as a beet. “Friends, that very night, Joe Dale Dobbs and his family was a-goin’ home, and a great big trailer truck veered across the center line, hit their car, and Joe Dale Dobbs was killed!” His fist hit the pulpit and the whole congregation jumped. Several dozing church members sat straight up, startled looks in their eyes. A couple of babies started crying, and he waited until their mothers had taken them outside before continuing. “That was Joe Dale Dobbs’ last chance, friends, his last chance, and now it’s too late! Now, lost sinner! Now is the day of salvation! Don’t join Joe Dale Dobbs in that fiery pit; don’t let your heart get hardened! Jesus is a-waitin’, His arms are open wide, so come on to Him, sinners, come on now!” As he stopped to blow his nose again, I suddenly became aware of other sounds: a baby fussing, someone clearing his throat, night bugs thumping against the screens of the open windows. And the ear-splitting chant of the Katydids’ warning: “going-to-hell; going-to-hell; going-to-hell.” “I beg you, lost sinner!” Brother screamed, beating his fist on the pulpit, “Don’t take that chance of being throwed in that lake of fire where you’ll burn for eternity! That means forever, friends, and there won’t be no turning back!” As the choir began singing “Just As I Am,” a huge lump formed in my throat. I stood on numbed legs with the rest of the congregation and tried to sing. But I was unable to make a sound. I saw Maw Maw across the church looking at me with concern, and pulled by some unknown force, I stepped out of the pew. Everything was surreal; I was there, but I wasn’t there. Outside my body, standing off to the side, I watched myself move slowly down the aisle. I was jerked back to reality when Brother Stair grabbed my hand. I didn’t know what to say, and I stood staring at him for a second or two before croaking, “I’m lost.”
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As he led me to the mourners’ bench, there were bumps and rustling sounds as deacons and other men of the church came forward and knelt around me in a semi-circle. “Father,” Billy Joe Davis began, “This young girl has came, admitting she is lost and without hope. Please, Father, give her relief.” Mr. Bill Gorham took over, “Our heavenly father, we bow in thy presence and ask that you save this young girl. She has come to you, asking for forgiveness for her sins.” Brother Stair was kneeling, eyes closed, lips moving in silent prayer, and then he rose to his feet. “Young lady,” he said, “Has that heavy burden been lifted?” “No,” I mumbled, quickly bowing my head. He returned to his knees and resumed praying. “Oh Lord Jesus,” Mr. Red Adams pleaded, “Take this burden from this girl’s little shoulders!” Deep sobs wracked his body and his florid face became even redder than usual. I felt guilty for causing Mr. Red Adams such anguish. I didn’t feel the urge to cry; I didn’t feel the urge to do anything at all. My senses were numb, my mind somewhere else, and all voices seemed to be coming from far, far away. Suddenly, Miss Ola Ashworth materialized, the scent of talcum powder surrounding her. She draped one thin little arm around my shoulders and placed her hand on my sweaty ones. “Just pray and give yourself over to the Lord,” she said, “And pretty soon you’ll feel that burden roll away.” Only then did I realize I had not even been praying for my own soul! When all of the church members were crying and praying for me! I stared at the backs of Miss Ola’s blue-veined hands and tried my best to pray. But my mind was an empty vacuum, unable to comprehend anything except the heavy scent of talcum powder. “Just ask the Lord to save you, and that burden will just roll clear away,” Miss Ola said, “You’ll feel happiness like you never felt before.”
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I took a deep breath. “Please-save-me-Jesus, please-save-me-Jesus,” I whispered, “Please-save-me, please-save-me, please, please…” The men continued praying, their voices fading in and out like the faulty reception of the Grand Ole Opry show, which we listened to every Saturday night on the radio at home. As their voices receded, the Katydids’ chants became louder: “Going-to-hell; going-to-hell; going-to-hell.” Brother Stair backed away, rolled up his sleeves, and blew his nose. “Oh Lord Jesus, we beseech you to save this little girl who has come forward tonight,” his voice breaking as he mopped his brow with the handkerchief, “She is laden with sin and her burden is heavy.” “Brenda, are you saved?” Maw Maw whispered. I shook my head as Nancy moved in. Her Bible was open and she pointed to a verse. “See that?” she said. I tried to read, but the words kept running together. “‘Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,’” she read, “If you do that, then you’ll be headed straight to heaven.” She was interrupted by Brother Stair. “Young lady, have you accepted Christ in your heart?” I looked at the praying people. All was quiet as they paused, some still on their knees, waiting for my answer. “You’ll feel so lighthearted and happy that your heart will sing with joy. Just believe in Jesus.” I did believe in Jesus, but I didn’t feel happy, so there was no way I could be saved. I looked up at Brother Stair and shook my head. “Lord, help this little girl,” Mr. Willie King began, tears rolling down his cheeks, “Soften her heart and take that burden away.” It was so hot that my legs were sticking to the mourners’ bench. Most of the men had rolled up their shirt sleeves, exposing rings of perspiration stains under their arms. But they kept praying. I heard fresh voices as more men joined us, and when I opened my eyes all I saw was a sea of bowed heads in various colors. I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to laugh. But I knew
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if I did, they would think I was laughing at them and maybe the Lord Jesus himself. I put one hand over my mouth and held my nose with the other as a giggle began in the pit of my stomach and worked its way upward. My ears began popping and I let out a loud snort. The women swooped in, patting my shoulders, taking my sweaty hands in theirs, murmuring words of encouragement. Miss Pearl Terry handed me a handkerchief. I rubbed it back and forth across my nose and handed it to her, and then I slid back in my seat, took a deep breath, and clasped my wet hands. “Please-save-me; please-save-me; please-save-me…” Brother Stair suddenly stood, a lock of oil-slicked hair dangling between his bushy eyebrows. “I’m gonna dismiss this service now,” he said, “Whoever wants to, can leave. But we’re gonna stay right here and pray with this young girl, ever how long it takes, until she’s saved.” As I heard the church doors opening, shuffling footsteps and murmuring voices of people leaving the church, I wanted to jump up and run out with them. I considered telling them I was saved, but I was afraid the Lord would strike me dead for lying, so I sat quietly as the men again took turns praying. Miss Ola Ashworth read several Bible verses, and she, Maw Maw and Brother Stair explained them to me. As they started praying again, I sat frozen to my seat. My mind was still out of my body, off to the side, observing the knot of people clustered around the humped-shouldered sinner. Suddenly, Miss Ola got up. “You can be saved anywhere,” Brenda,” she said, “Even at home.” I didn’t want to tell her I had already tried and it hadn’t worked, so I didn’t say anything. She stood for a minute, gazing down at me, and then she departed, the scent of talcum powder lingering. The men were still praying, so I started again: “Please-save-me, pleasesave-me, please-save-me…” My eyes were squeezed shut, but I recognized the praying voices: my greatuncles, Doc Wilson and Arthur Bishop prayed; Alvin Ashworth and Clovis Terry prayed, followed by J. C. Webb and Ed Jennings. The song leader prayed, followed by voices I didn’t recognize. I was tired, my heart was hardened, and there was no hope for me. I had to face it; I would be spending eternity in the pits of hell along with Mr. Jim Sullivan and Joe Dale Dobbs.
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I heard footsteps, hushed voices and the sound of the big church doors opening and closing as more people departed. Outside, car doors opened and closed, engines revved up, and tires slowly crunched over the gravel of the parking lot as they drove away. Suddenly, I realized no one was praying and everything was quiet. When I opened my eyes, I saw that Brother Stair, Maw Maw and I were the only ones left in the church. They moved away from me, whispering, and then Maw Maw gently took my hand. I had been sitting on the mourners’ bench so long that my legs were stiff and one of my feet had gone to sleep. But I was relieved to be led out of the church. The night air felt fresh and pure as we stepped outside. The Katydids had stopped chanting, and I could hear the trees rustling as a soft breeze swept across the church yard, reminding me of home, where Mother listened to my prayers and I went to sleep each night to the sounds of croaking frogs, the night birds’ song, the flutter of the leaves in the big Cottonwood trees just outside my bedroom window. I always felt God’s presence there; a kind and loving God who watched over us and kept us from harm. Not a mean, vicious God who pitched us into hell and watched with glee as we burned forever. I got into the car, took a deep breath and dropped my head back on the soft car seat, watching the church lights go out one by one. As Maw Maw started up the Chevrolet, Brother Stair came out of the church, locked the door behind him and got into his Buick. I watched his headlights through the rear-view mirror as he followed us out of the parking lot.
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the dead in christ
I’ve had red bumps on my legs above my knees for months now. The rough patches feel disgusting when I run my hand over them. “It’s only eczema,” Aunt Lettie says. “Put some lotion on it.” But when I put lotion on it, the bumps don’t go away. Today is December 15th. On this day, eight years ago, Mama and Daddy were killed in a car accident on their way home from church. I was only four then, and I was sick with the flu, so I’d stayed home with Aunt Lettie. My life was spared. “Your mama’s last words to you were, ‘my poor sweet sick baby,’” Aunt Lettie told me this morning at breakfast, when I pointed to the calendar hanging above the dishwasher. “Why didn’t she stay home with me then?” I’d asked. But I already knew the answer. Daddy was a deacon, and Mama directed the choir, and they almost never missed church. I rub my bumps again and pick up the big blue photo album that’s lying on my bed. I balance it on my legs, open the cover and stare at a picture of Mama and Daddy standing in front of our church. Mama has a gray purse slung over one shoulder, and Daddy is holding his Bible next to his heart. His arm is around Mama. I squinch my eyes shut and try to picture my parents alive in my head. But all I can see is the photo I’ve been staring at. My parents, glued to the page, stare back at me. Maybe there’s a reason for these bumps on my legs, just like there’s a reason I got the flu when I was four. Aunt Lettie says that God must have a special purpose for my life. The only reason I can figure God would want me to have
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these bumps is so I’ll never be tempted to dress in short skirts, which Aunt Lettie says attracts the wrong kind of boys. Or let a boy get close enough to touch my legs. My cousin Grace said she heard her mom talking about a girl who let a boy get under her skirt and it ruined her life. I wonder what God’s plan for my life is. Maybe I’ll marry a missionary, or be a preacher’s wife, or a school teacher. We had an argument at school today – the Pentacostals against the Baptists. Our school is a Baptist school, but there are some Pentacostal kids who come there too, because the Pentacostal church in our town has shrunk so much in numbers that it has to meet in Jack Fuller’s parent’s basement. It’s much too small to have its own school. Our school building was once the Pentacostal church, but when they closed down, the Baptists bought it. There are three Baptist churches in town, and all of us still have our own buildings. Our school is a lot smaller than the public school, but at least we don’t have worldly influences. We were all in the Big Classroom for study hall when the argument started. All the middle and high school students have their desks in the back of the Big Classroom in a row against the wall, one long table with dividers made of pressboard in between us to keep us from talking so much. When I sit at my desk, it feels like I am in a box. The dividers are painted red, white and blue, for the colors in the American flag and also in the Christian flag, which is mostly white, but has a blue background in the corner with a red cross on it. I have a red divider on my right side where Jack Fuller sits and a blue divider on the left where Nathan Manheimer sits. Mr. Collins is the teacher of the middle and high school and also the principal of the whole school, since the school isn’t big enough to have a separate principal who just does that for a job. Today the phone rang, and Mr. Collins hurried out of the Big Classroom to answer it in his office. No sooner had he left the room than Nathan Manheimer lobbed his eraser over my head at Jack Fuller. Jack is a serious kid, and the other kids like to tease him. He didn’t laugh at the eraser thing. He just leaned out around my chair and stared at Nathan. He said, “You’d better watch how you behave in study hall or you’ll go to Hell.” “I can’t go to Hell, I’m born again,” Nathan said. Then everybody started to argue about whether or not Nathan could go to Hell. Jon and Rob, two of the Pentacostal kids, said he could go to Hell if he lost his salvation, but my cousin Grace said that once you’re born again, you’re always born again. She pointed her finger down the row at Jack Fuller. “Why would God give up His own child after he rescued it from Hell? Jack just glared at her and said, “Don’t let the Devil catch you unaware.”
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I wanted to be on Grace’s side, but I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I just sat there, craning my head first around the red divider, then around the blue divider, to make sure I didn’t miss any of the conversation. Rob’s head popped up over the top of his divider. “See, here’s how it is. God doesn’t want to give any of His children away, right? But He can’t help it if they decide to run away. I mean, He could, but He doesn’t. They get to choose. And anybody who wants to choose Hell can do that.” Grace was up on her knees on her folding chair. “You’re wrong, Rob. You’re wrong. Good for you that God will take you to Heaven anyway even though you’re dead wrong.” Mr. Collins stomped out of his office. He said, “Hey! Stop arguing and get some work done! Can’t I even take one phone call? Do I need to start giving out demerits?” He rolled his eyes and sat down at his desk in the Big Classroom. I turned around quick and started working on my math assignment. Nobody talked then, and we all did our work or at least pretended to. Pretty soon Mr. Collins stood up and said he wanted to talk to us about the argument. We turned around in our chairs. He said we aren’t supposed to be talking in study hall, but the bigger issue is that we need to have unity in Christ and to respect each other’s differences. “Mr. Collins is probably afraid that somebody’s parents will get mad if a Pentacostal kid gets a Baptist kid to change their mind about losing their salvation,” Grace said as we rode home together in the carpool. “A lot of parents weren’t happy when he let Jon and Rob and Jack come to the school this year. My dad said since it’s Mr. Collins’ first year in charge, he’ll have to learn the hard way about letting Pentecostals in.” I just nodded. I didn’t like to hear Grace talk that way about Mr. Collins. I wanted to say something back, like “He’s probably right that it’s okay to let the Pentecostals in,” but I didn’t. Mr. Collins is the best teacher I’ve ever had. He laughs a lot, and he always asks us what we think instead of just telling us how things are going to be, like all the other adults do. I hope he stays at our school for a long time, and I don’t want him to have to learn anything the hard way. Besides, Aunt Lettie thinks it’s okay for me to go to school with Pentecostals, as long as I don’t start compromising my beliefs as a Baptist. After school, Deacon Howard from our church came over to bring Aunt Lettie some edifying literature. They sat in the living room and talked about the End Times, while I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the kitchen. “This book took the scales from my eyes,” Deacon Howard was saying, “look at this, look at these bar codes—each one adds up to… six…six…six….the number of man, like the book of Revelations says, the Mark of the Beast…”
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“It’s all happening then, isn’t it?” Aunt Lettie’s voice gets high when she’s excited. “Just like it was prophesied.” Both Deacon Howard and Aunt Lettie read a lot of books about the End Times and how the Anti-Christ will take over the world. I finished my sandwich. I licked my fingers, and then I licked the peanut butter knife. It’s always scared me to hear about the Anti-Christ. At least, I thought, by the time of his Reign I wouldn’t be on Earth anymore because of the Rapture, which I was pretty much guaranteed. Then I thought again about what Jack and Rob had said about losing your salvation. I don’t really think you can lose your salvation, but I do wonder if I did it right when I got saved, like if I said the prayer right the first time. Aunt Lettie says that I said the prayer with Daddy before he died, but I can’t remember saying it. I decided I’d better say the salvation prayer again, just to be on the safe side. I do this every day, but I don’t tell Aunt Lettie. She would probably say that my faith needed strengthening. I put my plate and knife in the sink and swiped the table with the dishcloth, mostly wiping the bread crumbs onto the floor. I went into the bathroom, because it was closer than my bedroom. I didn’t want to waste any time going upstairs in case the Rapture came before I got there. I closed the door and knelt down by the bathtub. I put my head down on the cold, smooth edge of the tub and did the ABC version of the salvation prayer – A, admit you’re a sinner, B, believe in Christ, and C, confess your sins and ask for salvation. I said, “Dear Jesus, I know I’ve sinned, I’m sorry and I believe in you, I confess I want you to save me from sin. Amen.” Then I breathed a sigh of relief. Because I’ve heard Deacon Howard talking to Aunt Lettie about how the Anti-Christ will persecute Christians. The followers of the Beast will ask everyone if they’re a Christian, and true Christians have to say ‘yes,’ because if they don’t, it shows they never did belong to Jesus in the first place. But as soon as someone says ‘Yes, I’m a Christian,’ they’ll be thrown into prison and tortured. People who say “No, I’m not a Christian,” will receive the Mark of the Beast. Everybody has to have it; you can’t even buy groceries without it. It goes right under your skin so you can never get rid of it. And if you get the Mark, you have no chance of ever being saved. You’ll be eternally damned and go to Hell and burn in fire forever. “Those will be dark times,” Deacon Howard says, “without the light of the Lord.” ***
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This morning at school in chapel, I had a silent prayer request again. We were sitting in the front of the Big Classroom, where there are still some church pews left over from the Pentecostals, near the stage. The pews are slick dark wood with red velvety cushions. They’re really comfortable. Today I sat between Mary and Grace. After Mr. Collins led us in the opening hymn of praise, Grace looked down at my arm and whispered, “Wow, you have a lot of hair on your arms!” I tried to slick it down after that by wetting my fingers with my tongue, but I decided to wait until everybody closed their eyes to pray. I think my arms are more hairy than most girls’. It’s bad enough to have bumps on my legs, let alone to have my arms look like boy arms. During prayer request time, everybody says what they want to pray for, like requesting prayer for sick family members, or asking for God’s help with a math test, or telling Him to watch over somebody who’s traveling. But if you don’t want to say what you want to pray for out loud, Mr. Collins says you can just ask for a “Silent Prayer Request” because God knows all the desires of your heart already. My silent prayer request was for my grandpa because he’s dying of cancer. I couldn’t tell the kids at school because Grandma doesn’t want anybody to know, except our family. She’s a very private person. Jon asked prayer for his uncle who is driving to their house today, and Nathan had a silent prayer request, and then Jack Fuller asked us to pray for his cousin who had a very, very bad case of the stomach flu and had been vomiting every hour for two days and had violent diarrhea. Mr. Collins said, “That’s more detail than we, or even God, probably needs, Jack. Let’s bow our heads.” Then he prayed, “Dear God our Father, we know that You hear every request, and that You know us better than we know ourselves…” I looked around to make sure everybody had their eyes shut and then I worked on slicking down the hairs on my arms. When I finished, I kept my eyes open and watched the way Mr. Collins’ mouth moved while he prayed. When he talks, his lips push out, like the words are trying to come fast, and he puts his tongue between his teeth a lot, which makes his t’s and s’s sharp. It feels like he has something important to say all the time. I looked at his hands too, sticking out of his pants’ pockets. The hairs on the back of his hands were a lot darker than my arm hairs. *** Today was Saturday, and I went with Aunt Lettie to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Grandpa is in bed all the time now. Mostly just Aunt Lettie and Grandma go in to see him because he sleeps so much, but today I went in too. He was lying in the bed with a sheet up to his waist, his head resting still against the pillow and his eyes closed. His skin was so white that all the
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gray hairs showed up against his chest, like a black and white pencil drawing. The blades of his shoulders stuck out. He didn’t say anything or open his eyes. Aunt Lettie says it’s the morphine that keeps him sleeping, because otherwise he would be in a lot of pain. I stood and watched while Aunt Lettie washed his face with a cool washcloth, then his neck and his hands and arms. She talked to him the whole the time, murmuring, almost cooing, the way you talk to a baby. “Go on now, honey, I’ve got to finish his bath.” I tiptoed out of the room, pulling the door closed behind me. In the kitchen, Grandma patted me and gave me a kiss on my cheek. “Hi honey.” She smiled at me, but her eyes were sad. She offered me chocolate chip cookies from a tin, and I took two of them. When Grandpa first started to get thin, he would still get up and see me when Aunt Lettie and I came over. But even then it was weird because he had stopped wearing shirts under his overalls. I never saw him without shirts before he got sick. *** Early this morning, Grandpa died. Aunt Lettie woke me up while it was still dark and told me she was going to help Grandma. I wanted to go too but she said it wouldn’t be a good idea, that I should try to get some rest. But I couldn’t sleep. I got up and put on my bathrobe and slippers and sat in the recliner chair, reading Little Women. I know Grandpa’s in heaven now, with Mama and Daddy, but it doesn’t seem like he’s gone. It seems like I will wake up tomorrow, and this will all be a dream, and I will go to his house and he will say, “Want to go out in the rowboat?” And we will row out together on the moss covered pond and watch the giant bullfrogs jump off rocks and disappear under the murky green moss. But really, by tomorrow, his body will be ashes. Grandma is having him cremated. That was their plan, that they would both be cremated. Aunt Lettie doesn’t want that, she said that it’s better to leave the body all together for the Rapture, so that when “the dead in Christ rise first,” Grandpa’s body can just rise up out of the grave and fly to Heaven to be with Jesus. I said, “Yes, but can’t Jesus just put the ashes back together to make his body again?” She sighed and said, “I suppose so. I suppose He’ll have to.” *** I raised my hand in morning chapel to say that my silent prayer request had been answered. That’s because Grandpa’s in Heaven and he isn’t suf-
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fering. It isn’t a secret anymore because he’s gone now. Aunt Lettie said it was okay to tell, but I haven’t yet. I just wanted everybody to know that my silent prayer request had been answered because they’ve been praying for it for so long. After chapel, Mr. Collins said, “Wait a minute” and put his hand on my shoulder. I stood there until everyone else left the pew area and just me and Mr. Collins were left. Then he said, “Sit down” and we sat down together on the first pew. I rubbed the red plush with my fingers. “Was your silent prayer request for your grandpa?” I shook my head ‘yes.’ Aunt Lettie must have told him. I looked up at him. His eyes were all soft, and it made mine get watery and I had to look away. He squeezed my shoulder with one hand and didn’t say anything else. Grandpa’s eyes were very light blue – almost clear, but Mr. Collins’ eyes are a warm kind of brown. Later when Mr. Collins called us up to the math table for class, I was the last one there, because I was trying to finish the last paragraph of Little Women. He gave me a frown as I put my books on the table, but he didn’t seem too mad. Mr. Collins said, “Turn to page eighty-three,” and I watched his fingers flip through the pages in the math book. I noticed that the dark hairs on the back of his hands didn’t blend in gradually to his palms. Instead, the hairs made a neat line along the side of his hand. It was freezing cold outside today. Mr. Collins stood by the basketball court at morning recess, wearing his tan winter coat, all bundled up with the hood on. From the side, all I could see of him was his nose and the rim of his glasses. I wished I could go and talk to him, maybe more about Grandpa, but I didn’t want the other kids to think I was a teacher’s pet. So I stood by Grace and Charity and Mary and we watched the boys play basketball. Pretty soon Mr. Collins came over and said, “Why don’t you girls ever play basketball instead of just standing there watching?” “Basketball is a boys’ game,” Grace said. “No, it’s not. Girls can play basketball. We’ll start a girls’ team next year. But you ought to get some practice first.” Then he tossed me a ball and said, “Go, shoot.” So I did, and then Mary and Grace and Charity joined me. None of my shots went in. “Here.” Mr. Collins grabbed the ball, which had bounced off the post at Mary’s last shot, and placed it in my hands. He put both his hands over mine on the ball and said, “Hold it like this. Now, shoot.” I shot. The ball didn’t go in, but it hit the rim.
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“That’s right!” He grinned at me. “Now keep doing that.” On the way in from recess Grace said, “I heard your Grandpa’s in heaven now.” I just nodded. It still seems really weird that Grandpa is dead. I feel like I will go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house on Saturday and walk into the kitchen, and Grandpa will stroll in whistling, stop when he sees me and say, “Hello, Sunshine.” When I was little, Grandpa used to pick me up by the elbows and lift me up until my head touched the ceiling. I used to stand by his chair and pull the hairs up off his arms and measure them against my arm hairs. Grandpa had a lot of hair on his hands too, but it wasn’t dark like Mr. Collins’. After recess we had social studies and Bible class, and then it was lunchtime. We didn’t go outside at lunch because everybody was tired of the cold. We sat at our desks in the Big Classroom for study hall, each in our boxes. I started to work on my math, but then I raised my hand to say I needed to use the bathroom. Mr. Collins frowned, because after all, we’d just had lunch, and why didn’t I go then? But he didn’t say that, he just said, “Okay.” I hurried down the hall, toward the bathrooms, but I didn’t go into the girls’ bathroom. Instead, I tiptoed into Mr. Collins’ office, which is right next to the bathrooms. Mr. Collins was still out in the Big Classroom, grading papers, where he could keep an eye on everybody and prevent any arguments. I stepped into his office. His office door has two halves, because it used to be a church nursery. I had to push hard on the bottom of the door, which was caught on the plush carpet. I looked up over Mr. Collins’ black metal desk, toward the glass window that the nursery workers used to watch the preacher’s sermon while they were keeping track of the kids in the nursery. The window looks right out onto the Big Classroom now, and Mr. Collins uses it to spy on us sometimes when we don’t think he’s watching. I stood just inside the door, so nobody could see me through the other side of the window. I reached my hand out along the wall by the door, toward the hook where Mr. Collins keeps his coat. I lifted it off its hook. It smelled just like Mr. Collins, especially around the neck, like a kind of men’s cologne that I don’t know the name for. At the elbows, the jacket sleeves were bent into the shape of Mr. Collins’ arms. I lifted the coat up over my shoulders and slid my arms into the slick tan lining. My hands didn’t reach the end of the sleeves. I pulled the coat around me and held it with my sleeved hands. I stood there, the coat hanging down to my knees, wrapped all around by
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Mr. Collins, by the shape of him and by the smell. I checked the clock on the wood paneled wall, listened to it tick its way around to twelve again—one, two, three times. After the clock hands had been around three times, I let my arms go down to my sides and wiggled the coat off my shoulders. Mr. Collins says that under normal circumstances, two minutes, maybe three, is all the time it should take to go to the bathroom. Mostly he says that to Nathan Manheimer, who asks to go the bathroom a million times a day. I hung Mr. Collins’ coat back on its hook. I walked back to the Big Classroom, stepping lightly so my shoes wouldn’t make clunking noises on the tile floor. I sat down at my desk, where my math book was already open to Chapter 6, Decimal-Fraction Equivalents. I held my pencil in my hand, but I didn’t write. Instead, I thought about what Grandpa might be doing in Heaven right now. Maybe he was with Mama and Daddy, walking down the golden streets in front of the mansions. That gold is so pure, Deacon Howard says, that you can see right through it. I tried to picture that clear gold, tried to look down through it, underneath Mama and Daddy and Grandpa’s feet as they all walked by, far above my head. I wondered, will they will ever look down? And if they do, will they be able to see through all that blue sky? I laid my head on my arm, chewed on my pencil eraser and thought about that, until Mr. Collins rang the bell.
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Peel back my skin, remove my mammary glands, take out my ovaries. The curve of my pelvis, the shape of my skull, will whisper the facts my skin told you. But before keep your knees together & that time of the month & velvet dresses with training heels I remember Grandpa’s blue shorts. After a day’s work, he’d smell of sweat & newsprint as he did the crossword in bed wearing nothing but his blue shorts. We’d built the porch together, dug up the septic tank, & I had blue shorts too. But when I crawled up next to him to puzzle out what made the funnies funny it became put on a shirt, then put on a bra, girls can’t play skins,
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even my bones know it doesnâ€™t matter if you have shorts under that.
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I observed a white Girl masturbating against a tree With a Bedouin male. I turned Away horny
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I met a boy Wonderfully smart And small too Yet it doesn’t matter He’s doing me now
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Erum Ahmed is a writer from Karachi, Pakistan. She has studied in Pakistan, the United States and Europe. She has also published school books, articles on assorted subjects, poetry, and short stories in Pakistan, the United States, and Canada. Her writing history may be accessed at http:// erumahmed.wordpress.com Lis Anna is a 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee, a five time WorldFest winner, a Wurlitzer Grant recipient, a New Century Writers winner, Second Place Winner of the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Award and the Hint Fiction Contest, First Place winner of the 11thAnnual Poet Hunt Award, a four time Accolade Film Competition winner, a finalist in the Nicholl Fellowships, the Doris Betts Fiction Award, Chesterfield Film Project, and the William Faulkner Competition. She is the 2011 Readers Choice Award recipient from Fiction Fix. Her fiction has been published in Word Riot, The Blotter, Petigru Review, Hot Metal Press, The Smoking Poet, Eclectic Flash, Paper Skin Glass Bones, 491 Magazine, Fiction Fix, Flash Fiction Offensive, The Monarch Review, and many others. www.lisannafilms.com www.lisanna.net Allie Marini Batts is an MFA student in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. She is a 2012 nominee for the Sundress Publications â€œBest of the Netâ€? award in poetry and creative non-fiction. She lives in Tallahassee, FL.
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Shay Belisle graduated from Mills College in 2012 with an MFA in Creative Writing and returned home to Maui where she works as the Development Manager for The Merwin Conservancy. Her writing and art has been published in various literary journals and can be viewed at http://shaybelisle.wordpress.com/published-work. Wendy Taylor Carlisle lives in the Arkansas Ozarks. She is the author of two books, Reading Berryman to the Dog and Discount Fireworks and two chapbooks. Her work has been anthologized and is widely available online. Find some more at www.wendytaylorcarlisle.com. Otha “Vakseen” Davis III has showcased his art at the Noho Art Gallery, The Key Club, Media Temple Studios, The Alexandria Hotel, The Holding Co. Studios, Opulen Studios and the Rochester Art House, the Emerging Art Scene Gallery in Atlanta, GA, and others. To view more of his work, visit www.Vakseen.com. Matthew Falk is a writing teacher, editor, grad student, and musician who lives in Baltimore. His poems have appeared in dozens of online and print publications, most recently including Magic Octopus, Little Patuxent Review, Artichoke Haircut, and Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore! He maintains a rather sporadic internet presence at www.mephistofalafel.com. Merlin Flower is an independent artist and writer. Heather Foster lives on a farm in the Tennessee hills with her husband, kids, and Ozzy the heavy metal rooster. She loves bringing poetry to rural communities. Her poems and stories are featured or forthcoming in PANK, Monkeybicycle, Anderbo, The Lumberyard, RHINO, and Mead: The Magazine of Literature & Libations. Grant Garland was born raised in the Midwest. He recently graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign where his fiction earned several awards, including the Senior Quinn Award, the undergraduate program’s highest honor. Garland is an avid sports fan, musician, and budding coffee enthusiast. Abby Higgs received her MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from The University of Baltimore. Within a decade, Abby hopes to have a couple of novel-length memoirs published and a wheelchair ramp installed in her row house. She wishes to thank Lauren Reamer, Jay Mund, and Kendra Kopelke for the summer of 2012 and beyond.
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John Fenlon Hogan works in financial services. He is the former poetry editor of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Barn Owl Review, The Summerset Review, InDigest, Washington Square, The Colorado Review, and elsewhere. Ruth Holzer is the author of two chapbooks, The First Hundred Years and The Solitude of Cities (Finishing Line Press). Her poems have appeared in journals such as Southern Poetry Review, Sow’s Ear, Slant, Thema and California Quarterly. She works as a freelance editor and translator. Lauren Kelly is a writer in the Washington, DC area, originally from central New Jersey. Her previous publications include fiction and nonfiction essays in Cynic Magazine and Calliope Literary Journal. www.LaurenKellyWrites.com Erin Kilian is a Ph.D. student in English Studies at Illinois State University, specializing in creative writing. She received her M.F.A. at the University of Arizona, where she also served as Fiction Editor of Sonora Review. She is originally from Carlisle, Massachusetts. Hunter Liguore earned a BA in History and a MFA in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, Mason Road, The MacGuffin, Strange Horizons, Steampunk Tales, SLAB Literary, Rio Grande Review, r.kv.r.y Quarterly and more. Her short story collection, Red Barn People, is now available. http://skytalewriter.com/index.php Christopher Lowe is the author of Those Like Us: Stories (SFASU Press, 2011.) His fiction and essays have appeared widely in journals including Third Coast, Splinter Generation, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He lives with his wife and daughter in Lake Charles, LA, where he teaches at McNeese State University. Alex Miller recently moved to Hawaii after growing up around Nashville. He spent his young life avoiding country music. Lately, he kind of misses it. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in New Wave Vomit, Dogzplot, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. He tweets @mannerism77.
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Lindsay Miller studied creative writing at the University of Arizona and is a Founding Mama of the Tucson Poetry Slam. She received her MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University. Her poetry has appeared in The Nervous Breakdown, decomP, and Bombay Gin, and more. She is a reporter for EDGE Media, a book reviewer for Muzzle, and she writes the advice column “Ask A Queer Chick” for The Hairpin. Rafael Miguel Montes, born in Santiago de Cuba, is a Cultural Studies professor at St. Thomas University. His poetry has appeared in The Caribbean Writer, The New York Quarterly, Prole (UK) and a number of other academic and literary journals. He is married to the Cuban-American poet, Celia Lisset Alvarez. Carrie Osborne was born and raised in Kailua, Hawaii. She earned an MFA in poetry from Saint Mary’s College in 2012. Her poems have appeared in Spillway, OccuPoetry, and SpeCt!. She lives in Oakland, California. Kate Partridge lives in Fairfax, VA, where she is a student in the MFA program at George Mason University. She is the Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in MAYDAY, BLOOM, Weave Magazine, and damselfly, among others. Josh Peterson is an MFA student at the University of Arkansas. His work has appeared in the New Ohio Review, the Mississippi Review, Permafrost, The Fiddleback and elsewhere. He is a contributing editor for Bull: Men’s Fiction. Tera Vale Ragan received the Virginia Middleton and the Undergraduate Creative Writing Award for poetry at USC. She recently earned her MFA from San Francisco State where she was Poetry Editor for Fourteen Hills and winner of the Mark Linenthal Award. Publications include Rattle, Transfer, Eclipse, Hot Metal Bridge. Doug Ramspeck is the author of four poetry collections. His most recent book, Mechanical Fireflies (2011), received the Barrow Street Press Book Prize. His first book, Black Tupelo Country (2008), received the John Ciardi Prize. He directs the Writing Center and teaches creative writing at The Ohio State University at Lima.
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R. Flowers Rivera is a Mississippi native with an M.A. from Hollins University and a Ph.D. in African American literature and creative writing from Binghamton University. Her work has been published in American Poets & Poetry, The Amherst Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and The Southern Review. Her first poetry collection, Troubling Accents, is forthcoming from Xavier Review Press. View more of her work by visiting http://www.promethea.com. AJ Roberts is an intellectual property lawyer and law professor. Her poems have appeared in nibble, OVS Magazine, and Emerge Literary Journal, and her essay about law and poetry was recently published in the Texas Law Review. Cynthia Sampson is a Master’s student in the Southland, studying football culture and 18th century theatre. She is the 2011 recipient of the Francis W. Kerr Writing Award for Poetry. Frank Scozzari lives in Nipomo, California. He is an avid traveler and once climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, his short stories have previously appeared in numerous literary journals and have been featured in literary theatre. Virginia Shank earned an MFA at the University of Idaho and a PhD from Binghamton University. She currently teaches poetry and composition at Irvine Valley College in California, where she rides her velomobile daily. Her work has appeared in several online and print journals. Radford Skudrna served as Assistant Poetry Editor and Assistant Managaing Editor of roger, an art & literary magazine. He earned his BFA in Creative Writing and BA in Anthropology/Sociology from Roger Williams University. Currently, he works at the National Foreign Language Center and is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Maryland, College Park Emily Strauss is usually a poet, but on this occasion she snapped a shot of the Pacific off the shore at Monterey on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. This came after a fairly disastrous weekend with Mother who refused to walk 50 yards to the beach to enjoy the show. Emily is retired from teaching and has other photos online at Straight Forward and Subliminal Interiors.
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L.E. Sullivan hails from Louisiana, but studies in the MFA program of NAU in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her work has appeared in journals such as Northwind Literary Magazine, Dark Matter Literary Magazine, The Southern Poetry Anthology, The Flagler Review, and more. Sanchari Sur is a photographer by accident and occasion, and uses her lens to portray the deviations, the misfits, the “other,” in the obvious. Her photography has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Fox Literary Review, Penduline Press, The Misfit Quarterly, Specter Magazine and elsewhere. Find her at http://sursanchari.wordpress.com. Phil Tabakow received a Ph.D. (with distinction) in English and Creative Writing from the University of Denver in 1991. He taught creative writing, composition, and literature at James Madison University, Bridgewater State University, the University of Bahrain, and Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Oman. He is currently Associate Professor of English at American University in Dubai. Phil Tabakow is the author of The Mechanics of Submission (DC Books, 2004) and has published poems in many journals and magazines. Emily Threlkeld grew up a small girl in a big city in Texas, moved to a college town in North Carolina, fell in love with a Kenyan, and married him in Louisiana. She’s currently writing, traveling, photographing things like mad, and getting ready to move to Tennessee. Karrie Waarala’s work has appeared in journals such as Iron Horse Literary Review, PANK, The Collagist, and Vinyl. Winner of the 2012 Pocataligo Poetry Prize, Karrie has also received critical acclaim for her one-woman show, LONG GONE: A Poetry Sideshow, which is based on her collection of circus poems. Leah Waller is currently attending the Graduate Writing Program at Northern Arizona University where she is Assistant Managing Editor for Thin Air Magazine. Before moving to Arizona, Leah published poems through 1st World Publishing, in Four Ties Lit Review and The Daily Pallet of University of Iowa. Adrienne S. Wallner is a photographer, poet, and hula-hooper from Wisconsin. Her photography has been feature in the Gathering Waters: Nature Conservancy Land Conservation, The Texas Mushroom Festival, Wisconsin Trails, TimeSlips, and Straight Forward – A Poetry Journal. You can join her photographic journeys at http://inkinthebranches.wordpress.com/.
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William Walsh’s books include Speak So I Shall Know Thee: Interviews with Southern Writers, The Ordinary Life of a Sculptor, The Conscience of My Other Being, Under the Rock Umbrella: Contemporary American Poets from 1951-1977, and David Bottoms: Critical Essays and Interviews. His work has appeared in Five Points, Flannery O’Connor Review, James Dickey Review, The Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, North American Review, Rattle, Shenandoah, and Valparaiso Review. Brenda Wilson Wooley’s work has appeared in more than forty publications, including Kentucky Monthly Magazine, The Birmingham Arts Journal, and Looking Back Magazine. She grew up on a farm in Kentucky in a family of storytellers. She lives in Paducah, Kentucky and is working on a novel.
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Unharvested (Back Cover, Photograph)
In my photography, I strive to capture the intimacy of nature. Singular moments that show residents of the wild world uncovered, exposed, and discovered. I try to create portraits of the present. What is happening on the forest floor right now? How long is the five o’clock shadow cast by that oak tree? How many drops of last night’s rain still cling to the petals of this sunflower? I enjoy the familiarity earned by working in macro. It allows me the ability to get as close to my subject as I can, and experience its most meticulous details and personal characteristics.
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Writers Erum Ahmed, Carly Alaimo, Lis Anna, Allie Marini Batts, Wendy Carlisle, R y d e r C o l l i n s , M a t t e w F a l k , H e a t h e r F os t e r , G r a n t G a r l a n d , R e b e k a h G o e m aa t , A b i g a i l H i g g s , J o h n F e n l o n H o g a n , R u t h H o l z e r , H u n t e r L i g uo r e , D o m i n i q u e T r a v e r s e L o c k e , C h r i s t o p h e r L o w e , L au r e n K e l l y , E r i n K i l i a n , A l e x M i l l e r , L i n d sa y M i l l e r , R afa e l M i g u e l M o n t e s , C a r r i e O s b o r n e , K a t e P a r t r i d g e , J os h P e t e r so n , T e r a V a l e R a g a n , D ou g R a m s p e c k , W h i t n e y R a y , J o e l l e R e n s t r o m , R. F l o w e r s R i v e r a , A J R o b e r t s , C y n t h i a S a m p so n , F r a n k S c o z z a r i , V i r g i n i a S h a n k , R a d fo r d S k u d r n a , L. E. S u l l i v a n , P h i l T a b a k o w , K a r r i e W aa r a l a , L e a h W a l l e r , W i l l i a m W a l s h , B r e n d a W i l so n W oo l e y
Artists A d r i e n n e W a l l n e r , M e r l i n F l o w e r , O t h a “ V a k s e e n ” D a v i s III, S a n c h a r i S u r , E m i l y S t r auss , E m i l y T h r e l k e l d , K e l l y N u l t y , S h a y B e l i s l e
Old Dominion University's Barely South Review. A Journal of Literature and Art.